Over the course of three visits to West Africa, myself and the Rutland Ospreys team have been treated to some truly memorable days. Our first trip to Ile d’Oisseaux in the Sine-Saloum delta where we saw 14 Ospreys perched within a few metres of each other will stick long in the memory, as will the three days we spent at Djoudj National Park, watching Ospreys – including one from the Lake District – alongside tens of thousands of Garganey. We might just have bettered all that, though, last Friday at the Somone Lagoon in northern Senegal.
The drive from Banjul to Somone along dusty roads riddled with deep and unforgiving pot holes is a long one. As we made slow progress north, I hoped the hot and arduous journey would be worth it. Having spoken to Roy Dennis and Lucy Smith who visited the Somone Lagoon – a shallow tidal lagoon situated about 70km south of Dakar – last year for BBC Autumnwatch when they successfully tracked down Einion from the Dyfi Osprey Project, I knew there would be plenty of Ospreys, but with only two full days, would we have enough time to see it at its best?
We arrived tired but excited on Friday evening and, after dropping our bags off, we made the short walk down to the northern part of the lagoon. Early signs were encouraging. We could see three Ospreys fishing the lagoon, and after finding a clearing in the mangroves we managed to get quite close to them. The problem, though, was that the birds kept disappearing behind the mangroves and out of view. Not much good when you are trying to check them for colour rings. Perhaps we needed a plan B? That, though, would have to wait until the morning; with the tide coming in quickly we didn’t want to get stranded – quite literally – in deep water . All was not lost , though – as we made our way back to the hotel we came across a colour-ringed Osprey sitting on the mud. It was blue FW – a visitor from Scotland.
Next morning, as we ate our breakfast we thought we had temporarily been teleported back to Rutland. It had nothing to do with what we were eating, but rather, what we could hear. There, as dawn was breaking over the lagoon, was the unmistakable high-pitched display call of an Osprey! But, hang on, Ospreys only display on the breeding grounds. Don’t they? What was going on? We rushed out to have a look. Sure enough, there was an adult female Osprey displaying no more than one hundred feet above our heads. We weren’t the object of her attentions though – she was displaying to another Osprey, that looked like a female too. This wasn’t a half-hearted affair, this was full on display – legs dangling and rising a falling like an aerial roller coaster. Although we have seen plenty of aggression between adult Ospreys on the wintering grounds, we have never seen them displaying. I guess though, that it must happen now and again. We have noted at many of the sites we have visited that hierarchies exist between the birds – and we were clearly witnessing one such hierarchical battle. It was fascinating.
After breakfast we decided that our best bet was to head to the mouth of the river. Here a narrow channel of water links the lagoon to the sea; and it looked perfect for fishing Ospreys. Crucially, the narrow channel would also mean the birds would pass quite close – exactly what we needed if we were to identify any colour-ringed birds.
Although the tide was still too high for many birds to be fishing, there was a juvenile female sitting on a sandy island in the middle of the channel. We could see she had a metal ring on her right and, after twenty minutes or so, she shuffled on the sand revealing an orange ring on her left leg with the inscription 5.V. It was a youngster from Orleans Forest in France. A great start.
After a quick look out to sea, where numerous Pomarine Skuas were passing just offshore, we decided that, given the state of the tide, we would be better to return later in the afternoon.
By early afternoon the tide was beginning to fall and, as it did, the Ospreys began to appear. We got settled in next to the channel and waited. And we didn’t have to wait long. Within a few minutes of arriving 5.V appeared overhead, circled the channel a couple of times and then plunged into the water, no more than 30 metres away. The crash as she hit the water was so loud that it sounded like a person, not an Osprey, had dived into the water! The young female emerged without a fish but, if it was a sign of things to come, we were in for a treat.
Within a few minutes another Osprey – this time an adult female – appeared overhead. She too was ringed, but with just a metal clip ring on her left leg. Perhaps she spent her summers in Sweden where fewer Ospreys are colour-ringed? The views were so good that through binoculars it was possible to count almost every streak on her beautifully-marked underside. We had certainly picked a good spot.
No sooner had the metal-ringed female disappeared, than another two Ospreys arrived from our seaward side. One was ringed – and thanks to John Wright’s smart camera work, we immediately identified it as a German-ringed adult male (black 3HE). Neither bird dived, but the views were incredible. And the Ospreys just kept on coming. Over the course of the next ninety minutes, we identified at least twenty individuals, some ringed, some not. At times it was no exaggeration to say we really didn’t know where to look with up to five birds fishing just a few metres in front of us. Several birds caught fish in the channel, including 5.V who dived very close to us for a second time; this time pulling out a good-sized fish. I even managed to capture it on camera (see video below). It was especially pleasing that several of the birds were ringed and by the end of the afternoon we had identified another six colour-ringed birds, all thanks to John’s camera. It had been a truly spectacular few hours.
Next day we returned to the same spot and, although the Osprey activity didn’t quite live up to the previous day, we still managed to increase our colour-ring tally for the site to nine. The only thing missing was a Rutland Osprey. But I suppose that gives us a good excuse to go back again soon!
Once back in the Gambia, we just had time to check out some of our favoured haunts around the Tanji area, before catching our flight home on Tuesday. A morning on Tanji beach increased our colour ring tally for the trip to 21 but it was noticeable that there were fewer Ospreys fishing that part of the coast this year. All reports suggest that the last rainy season was a particularly wet one and we have certainly noticed more standing freshwater than usual this year. Perhaps this has resulted in some of the juveniles who would normally have been forced to head further south, to have remained in northern Senegal for longer?
And so on Tuesday afternoon we headed to the airport and said our goodbyes to our friend and guide JJ who, once again, has led our trip wonderfully well. Before we left we discussed how we plan to expand our wildlife education programme in Gambian schools over the coming months. Thanks to money we have raised over the past year we will be extending the project to five different schools. We plan to provide each with at least two computers and internet access to allow the students to follow the progress of Ospreys at Rutland Water and elsewhere via webcams and satellite tracking. In addition JJ and colleagues will take the students out on field trips to help them enjoy the diverse array of wildlife around them; and in doing so emphasise the need to protect it. It is through such links that the future of our migratory birds can be safeguarded and a new generation of African conservationists and bird guides be inspired. If that is one of the legacies of our trips to West Africa then it is a very good one. It seems apt, therefore, to finish with a poem about Ospreys read by a student at St Martins School in Kartong – one of the first schools to be involved in the project.