A hot north east wind blasted off the African desert interior towards the Gambian coast, carrying fine dust and fragments of vegetation out towards the Atlantic. This is the “harmattan”, and occurs towards the end of the dry season in Gambia and Senegal, when the breeding ospreys begin their migration north from West Africa to the British Isles. Luckily the high winds marked the end of our visit to The Gambia, and where we totted up around 200 bird species in just 10 days.
This was my first visit to The Gambia, although many of the “Rutland Osprey Team” have been to this area in January or February spanning a period of 9 years.
First light is at around 7am with a dawn chorus of a call to prayer, braying donkeys, and numerous cockerels .Soon the overnight temperatures in the 20’s rapidly rise to over 35oC by the middle of the day so the best bird watching tends to be early in the morning and later in the afternoon, making the most of the cooler parts of the day and the periods when the birds are most active.
We stayed at Farakunku Lodge, a small shady “oasis” off the highway south from Tanji. This was an excellent base for daily excursions out into a variety of woodland, field, coastal and wetland habitats.
Tanji is the main fishing port on the Southern Gambian coast. Here the large wooden fishing boats are beached on the sandy beach between forays into the coastal waters, (Figure 1) where the huge shoals of butter fish and lady fish are found. Along the coast the shallow bays and inlets as well as the river margins are the winter residence of the breeding ospreys, and the place where juveniles will spend three or four years before their first migrations north into Europe.
Figure 1: Beautiful fishing boats around Tanji
The ospreys have an excellent food supply and overwinter perched on their favourite trees, (Figure 2) with an occasional flight around their “patch” or short fishing excursion before returning to their roosting place. Lazy days.
Figure 2: An unringed Osprey perched in a tree
A day down to the wetlands on the margin of the Allahein River and a boat trip down to the ocean proved to be a real osprey fest. We had seen numerous ospreys in flight during the week, and occasionally perched in the trees along the river or coastal sites we visited.
Beyond Kartong we left the main road and headed off into the tidal margins of the river.
This is an excellent site for waders, and a low tide meant there was plenty of activity from familiar species as well as my first sight of some of the African wetland birds.
In one bay we saw eight roosting ospreys, and a couple more flying overhead. Of course we were looking for the blue ringed Rutland birds, but only one black ringed osprey (German) was the best we could do.
In the late afternoon we boarded a small boat with an outboard motor and set off towards the coast down Allahein River which marks the southern border of Gambia with Senegal.
Caspian, Sandwich and more common Royal terns roosted on the mud banks facing into the strong breeze, (Figure 3) with occasional groups of Pelicans. Figure 3: Royal Terns in a roost down on the mud bank
At the estuary the sea was quite rough and we turned around past more sandbanks go past our starting point, travel through a corridor of fishing boats at anchor, and enter a much more sheltered convoluted area of bays fringed with mangroves. Some large motionless crocodiles basked on a mud bank, and above us a African Fish Eagle, (Figure 3) perched in a large leafless tree, watched us go by.
We counted fifty one ospreys on our boat journey, but only one of them was ringed, black BOH2 , a German bird.
Our day ended and it was time to return for our final night at the Farakunku Lodge. All too soon it was time to go to the airport for our 6 hour return flight to the UK. The migrating ospreys were going to find it difficult this year flying north into the face of the hot dusty harmattan with the challenge of a four or five day crossing of the waterless desert terrain below (figure 4).
Figure 4: Dust from the Harmattan and a grey Kestrel in the midst!
However it would only be a matter of days after our return before the first migrating ospreys were seen back in the UK.