The search for a Rutland Osprey in Africa

After a week inland with only a handful of Ospreys, we knew that our second week would be different. We would be spending a week on the Gambian coast, based at the Sandele Eco-Retreat near Kartong.

After an excellent morning at Kartong Bird Observatory on Wednesday – with a pair of Black-crowned Cranes the highlight – we headed to the River Allahein for an afternoon boat trip. The river here forms the southern border between Gambia and Senegal and is an excellent place to see Ospreys. And there is one Osprey that stands out in particular – a bird ringed by Rolf Wahl at a nest in Orleans Forest in central France in 2004. After identifying it close to the mouth of the Allahein in January 2011, we saw it on every subsequent visit. Sadly though, we knew that wasn’t going to be the case this time around.  I was saddened to learn from Rolf in September, that the bird had disappeared mid-way through the breeding season, almost certainly illegally killed at a fishing lake close to its nest. Sadly, as in the UK, raptor persecution is still a real problem in France.

The River Allahein is a great place to see wintering Ospreys

The River Allahein is a great place to see wintering Ospreys

Although the French Osprey was notable for its absence, we did see another familiar Osprey. 0IR is a German-ringed bird that we first saw at the Allahein in January 2011. We saw it again last year and, as we slowly meandered our way inland this time, the bird was perched on a riverside mangrove just as it had been twelve months previously. We know that adult Ospreys remain faithful to the same wintering site each year, but it is always great to see a bird from previous trips.

As it turned out, 0IR was the only ringed Osprey that we saw from the boat. However, a mighty African Fish Eagle perched beside the river and flocks of brilliantly-coloured Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters that zipped back and forth over the boat made up for it. Earlier in the day we had also enjoyed close views of a stunning Carmine Bee-eater – a rare bird at the coast.

Thursday wasn’t really supposed to be an Osprey day, and as we expected, we only saw a single bird. However, we actually visited the spot where a Rutland Osprey had been seen just a few weeks previously. Just before the trip Roy Dennis – who had flown out to join us this week – had received an e-mail from Dick Forsman, the world-renowned raptor expert. Dick had photographed a blue-ringed juvenile Osprey close to the village of Marakissa in the headwaters of the River Allahein on 4th December and Roy was able to identify it as blue/white 2K – a male bird which fledged from the Site N last summer. Of course it was highly unlikely that we would see the bird itself – as a juvenile it will be exploring over a vast area and may well now be further south in Guinea or perhaps even the Ivory Coast – but it was great to know that the young male had survived its first migration.

Juvenile male, 2K(13), photographed by Dick Forsman at Marikissa on December 4th

Juvenile male, 2K(13), photographed by Dick Forsman at Marikissa on December 4th

Close-up of 2K's colour ring

Close-up of 2K’s colour ring

As expected, we didn’t see 2K, and instead bird – or should that be birds – of the day was not an Osprey but a pair of White-breasted Cuckoo Shrikes. This inconspicuous, but striking bird is uncommon in The Gambia and so we were delighted to get great views.

On Friday and Saturday thoughts turned to another Rutland Osprey. On 8th December, and then again a week later, project volunteer Chris Wood photographed 5F(12) at Tanji Marsh. Tanji is a site that we have visited many times on previous trips and so we were particularly excited at the prospect of seeing her there. On Friday evening, and then again on Saturday morning, we visited the marsh in the hope of catching up with a Rutland Osprey for the first time during our West African trips. Unlike 2K, there was every chance that 5F would still be at Tanji. By their second winter, most young Ospreys will have settled at a particular site and so every time a female Osprey came into view excitement rose. Over the course of the two days we identified several of the Ospreys we had seen on previous trips – two German and two Scottish birds – and also a new German juvenile. 5F, though, did not show up. What’s more we didn’t see her when we visited again at first light on Sunday morning. During the course of four hours at the marsh we saw at least fifteen different Ospreys, but not the one we wanted. Close views of another Carmine Bee-eater helped to avert the disappointment, but we began to wonder whether 5F had moved on.

A typical view of an Osprey at Tanji Marsh. This adult male is unringed.

A typical view of an Osprey at Tanji Marsh. This adult male is unringed.

On Monday we headed out to Bijoli Island. This idyllic sandy island lies a few kilometres off the coast at Tanji and is a superb place to watch Ospreys fishing. Many of the birds that we see at Tanji Marsh will also spend time on Bijoli Island and so there was a chance that 5F may have been there. By midday with the tide receding, 9 Ospreys were perched on the southern part of the island. Frustratingly though, that part of the island was cut off by the sea, making it impossible to check the birds for colour rings. We did, however, identify a German adult female (black/white 4OS) that appeared over our heads and then caught a fish nearby. A superb mixed flock of gulls, terns and waders provided a real spectacle too; and another example of how important this part of the West African coast is for a range of European migrant birds. A group of 100 or so Little Terns may have included birds from the UK. Other sea birds passing to the west of the island included a single Leach’s Petrel, an immature Pomarine Skua and numerous Arctic Skuas. In fact, the only bird missing was 5F!

Bijoli Island is situated a couple of kilometres off the Gambian coast at Tanji

Bijoli Island is situated a couple of kilometres off the Gambian coast at Tanji

After three hours on the island, we headed back to Tanji knowing that our last real chance of seeing 5F had gone. So where was she? Perhaps we had just been unlucky? However after a combined total of more than 15 hours, we would have expected to have seen her if she was still at Tanji. We identified five colour-ringed birds at the marsh and saw several of them on more than one occasion. So perhaps 5F has moved on? She may not have gone far, but without the aid of a satellite transmitter, looking for her is the proverbial needle in a hay stack. Chris Wood is returning to Gambia in February, so with a bit of luck she might be back at Tanji by then.

We may not have seen a Rutland Osprey but by the time we boarded the plane on Tuesday afternoon, we had identified eight colour ringed birds over the course of our week on the coast. Six (three Scottish and three German) were birds we had seen on previous trips, but it was good to identify two new German birds.

John Wright, Paul Stammers and Cat Barlow are now the only members of the team left in West Africa. They’re traveling north through Senegal with Junkung Jadama and I’ll keep you updated with their progress. With a bit of luck they will see our satellite-tagged Osprey, 30(05), next week.

In the meantime, watch out for another blog tomorrow, when I’ll bring you up to date with our work with Gambian schools. The project has taken a big step forward over the past fortnight, so there is much to report.