The Real Africa

After a fantastic two weeks in The Gambia, myself and a team of volunteers from the project arrived at a rather damp Birmingham airport yesterday evening. It is fair to say that as we trudged into the arrivals lounge it was a far cry from what we had experienced over the previous fortnight. Over the next few days we’ll be publishing a series blogs from the trip. Here’s my first, describing a superb first week.

Week one 7-14 January, 2014

When you travel inland in The Gambia you feel like you are in the real Africa. After arriving on Tuesday morning we travelled almost 300km inland to Janjanbureh, stopping at Tendaba for the night en route.

Gambia

Travelling east through mile upon mile of savannah woodland there are two things you notice. First is the fact that it gets hotter, and second are the birds of prey. On Wednesday – our first full day of travelling – we saw 20 species of raptors as we drove from Tendaba to Janjanbureh. Grasshopper Buzzards, Dark-chanting Goshawks and White-backed Vultures all became more frequent the further east we travelled. By mid-afternoon, with the mercury topping 30 degrees, the skies were full of eagles and vultures. Bee-eaters were conspicuous too, with the brilliantly-coloured Red-throated undoubtedly the most striking. Huge Marabou Storks soared effortlessly over the savannah too.

Ironically the one raptor noticeable for its absence as we travelled inland, was the Osprey. Although very common on the coast, they become far more scare further inland. On a five-hour boat trip on the River Gambia from Janjanbureh on Thursday we saw 15 different African Fish Eagles, but not a single Osprey. In fact the only Osprey we saw on our first three days was an adult female that was perched beside a tranquil freshwater pool a few kilometres east of Tendaba. Despite the fact that the river is over half a kilometre wide just to the west of Janjanbureh, fishing in the murky water is probably difficult for Ospreys – meaning those that spend their winter this far inland often prefer the freshwater lakes that are dotted through the Savannah.

Dawn over the River Gambia

Dawn over the River Gambia

It may not be favoured by many wintering Ospreys, but the River Gambia supports a diverse array of other birdlife. As we meandered along the calm waters on an open-topped boat it really did feel like we were in the real Africa. Blue-breasted Kingfishers zipped back and forth, a majestic Tawny Eagle starred down at us from a riverside tree and an elusive Finfoot appeared briefly at the foot of the mangroves. There were plenty of reminders that this part of Africa is vitally important for many European migrant birds too. Large flocks of Ruff and Spotted Redshanks were taking advantage of the rich foraging in riverside rice fields and the high-pitched calls of Wood Sandpipers filled the air as Collared Pratincoles hawked insects overhead. It is remarkable to think that many of these waders will be breeding close to the Arctic Circle in a few months’ time. Raptors were again apparent with a majestic immature Martial Eagle the highlight as we headed back to Janjanbureh.

The River Gambia close to Janjanbureh

The River Gambia close to Janjanbureh

For birders visiting the Gambia a must-see bird is the Egyptian Plover. This strikingly beautiful wader becomes more difficult to track-down at this time of year, but with a bit of perseverance we were eventually treated to superb views of one near Panchang on Friday morning. A few hours earlier we had seen our second Osprey of the trip – a colour-ringed juvenile female from Germany that was fishing a lily-covered lake. Meanwhile, the sight of a Common Sandpiper alighting on the lily flowers was another reminder of home.

Most freshwater pools support at least one wintering Osprey

Most freshwater pools support at least one wintering Osprey

Later in the day we had a welcome opportunity to admire more Red-throated Bee-eaters when we visited a nesting colony. By mid-afternoon over 100 birds were chattering overhead or perched on trees surrounding the quarry where they breed and roost. Several Exclamatory Paradise Whydas – with their ludicrously long tails – provided an excellent supporting cast, and two stunning Carmine Bee-eaters made a brief visit too. More worrying was a group of local children who seemed to have visited the Bee-eater colony for altogether different reasons to us. These sort of incidents serve as an important reminder as to just how important education can be. We hope that the work we are doing with local schools as part of the Osprey Flyways Project will make local young people value their local wildlife more. At present there are very few resources to help young people to see the value of protecting wildlife, but we are working to change that (we’ll have more on that later in the week).

After three days at Janjanbureh we headed back to Tendaba. We arrived at low tide and enjoyed a couple of hours sitting beside the river which at this point is over 2km wide. At least three Ospreys caught fish, although each was too distant to see if it was ringed. Next morning we headed into the mangroves and were rewarded with close but frustratingly brief views of a Smooth-clawed Otter and three different species of kingfisher.

On Monday afternoon, after a week inland, we headed back to the coast and straight to Tanji Marsh where we hoped that 2012 Rutland female Osprey 5F was still present. Even with a cooling sea breeze the temperature had reached the mid-30s; but when you’ve got a Rutland Osprey to try and find even the searing early afternoon sun wasn’t going to stop us. As we walked down to the water’s edge at the site we first visited in January 2011 an unringed adult female flew over our heads, no doubt heading out to sea to fish. We crept through the mangroves to find six Ospreys resting either on the ground or on low perches. We checked each for a blue ring. But nothing; as it turned out the only colour-ringed bird that was present was white/black UR, a Scottish bird that we had first seen in 2011. Sadly for the four members of the group who were heading home next day, this was their one and only chance to see 5F. She hadn’t obliged, but those of us staying on for a second week would be back later in the week to try again.

Junkung Jadama searching for a Rutland Osprey at Tanji Marsh

Junkung Jadama searching for a Rutland Osprey at Tanji Marsh