A West African Diary

Myself, John and Paul have now been in West Africa for three weeks. For the past seven days we have been joined by a second group of project volunteers. Here’s an update on what has been a brilliant ten days since my last diary entry.

Wednesday 18th January

Swallow-tailed Kites must be one of the most graceful raptors in the world. This morning we were treated to the sight of several hunting in an area of acacia on the road between Toubacouta and Kaolack. Not much bigger than a Common Kestrel, they are almost completely white – bar some black in the wings – and have a deeply-forked tail which gives them their name. They hunt by hovering over the savannah and one bird in particular put on a great show as it searched for small mammals and insects. Aside from the kites, numerous Short-toed Eagles, a Ruppel’s Vulture, a few White-backed Vultures, a couple of Marsh Harriers and several Montagu’s Harriers, made it another excellent morning for raptors.

Smaller passerines were numerous too.  A large mixed flock at a watering hole included Northern Red Bishops, Red-cheeked Cordon-Bleus, Red-billed Firefinches, Red-billed Quellas, Cut-throat Finches, Black-crowned Sparrow Larks and African Silverbills. Close-by numerous palearctic migrants flitting through the acacia included Chiffchaffs, a single Melodius Warbler, Olivaceous Warblers and several Wheatears. A couple of Rufous scrub Robins and several Chestnut-bellied Starlings were notable too.  A few waders, including a group of Little Stints and a single Marsh Sandpiper were dotted around a larger area of water and a stunning male Rufous-crowned Roller, its crimson and blue underparts sparkling in the morning light, displayed overhead.

Just as we were getting ready to leave a flock of 125 White Pelicans circled above us, joined by three Black Storks and a Marabou Stork.

Once again it was stifling hot in the middle of the day, but once it had begun to cool down in the early evening we headed to a small lake just a few kilometres north of Toubacouta. A couple of juvenile Ospreys, both unringed, were present when we arrived. It is hard to imagine an established adult adult bird allowing another to share its lake, but the two youngsters seemed relaxed in each other’s company. I wonder if at least one of them will make this their future winter home?

Last year, when we visited the lake we had brilliant views of a pair of Verraux’s Eagle Owls. We hoped we would see them again this year and, sure enough, Paul found one perched surprisingly inconspicuously for such a large bird, in the top of a palm tree.

The lake itself was teeming with a wealth of wildlife; a Crocodile lying quietly beside the reeds, Chestnut-breasted and Wire-tailed Swallows hawking insects, Purple Herons lurking in the shallows and an elusive Black Crake. A pair of Hadada Ibis flew over and then, just as were about to leave, JJ found a Pear-spotted Owlet sitting a few feet away.

Thursday 19th January

An early start saw us leave Toubacouta after breakfast and head back to Tanji. As ever the border crossing and Barra-Banjul ferry took some time, but we arrived at the Paradise Inn in time for a walk up to the marsh. There we found several Ospreys, including blue/white KL – an adult Scottish bird we had seen last year.

Friday 20th January

This morning myself and the team made a return visit to Tanji Lower Basic School – the school that we first visited in January last year. Since that first visit a year ago we have developed a plan and raised money for wildlife education across Gambian schools and initiated links between schools along the migration flyway between the UK and West Africa. We were visiting Tanji today to talk about migration and to give the children letters written by pupils from Whissendine and Cottesmore Primary schools in Rutland. During my talk I told the story of a young Osprey’s migration from Rutland to West Africa, using John’s illustrations from our children’s book Ozzie’s Migration. Having explained how the Osprey had passed through Europe and across the Sahara I showed a slide of it flying over a Gambia fishing boat. As I did, I noticed that one of the girls in the class broke into a smile; it was a sight that I guess she was very familiar with and perhaps seeing it helped her to better understand the journey the Ospreys make each autumn. For me that smile personified exactly what we are trying to achieve; to help children in places like Tanji – that are incredibly important for thousands of migratory birds from Europe – to understand more about wildlife and, hopefully, to value it more. By the end of the talk the children seemed very enthusiastic. Perhaps next time they are on Tanji beach they will look out for the Ospreys? As part of the education programme, JJ, our friend and guide, will be taking the children to the beach to look for them. It would be great to think that there may be one or two future JJs with him that day.

The visit to Tanji was part of a busy final day in Gambia for the first group of project volunteers. Having returned to Paradise Inn at Tanji last night, we wanted to make the most of their final day and so, at first light, we headed for the beach. Sadly, it was too windy to stay there for very long and so, instead, we had a walk around Tanji Bird Reserve. This area of scrub and coastline rarely disappoints and true to form, we had an excellent couple of hours. Highlights were very close views of a Black-shouldered Kite, several singing Nightingales, three Lanner Falcons – including brilliant views of an adult – at least three White-fronted Plovers and an immature Pomarine Skua. There were Ospreys too, but none with colour rings.

After lunch we drove to the airport, waved goodbye to the volunteers and Project Information Officer, Michelle Househam and then had a couple of hours at Tanji Marsh. Like last night we saw one of the colour-ringed adult birds we had seen last year – this time the adult female F93 who we also saw on Bijoli Island last week.

Saturday 21st January

For the third morning in a row we woke to a strong wind and so we scrapped our plan to walk down to Tanji beach, and instead headed for the marsh. It was a good decision because we identified another colour-ringed Osprey while we were there – OIX – a German adult female. Other highlights included a female Painted Snipe sitting quietly on the edge of the mangroves and stunning views of a Malachite Kingfisher – it’s turquoise-blue head dazzling in the morning sun. Continuing on that theme, a single flowering tree had three species of Sunbird feeding in it as we walked back to the Paradise Inn – Splendid, Beautiful and Variable.

After a break in the middle of the day to allow us to watch Norwich play Chelsea at the sports club in Tanji, we headed back to the marsh in the evening. There were five adult Ospreys on the mud when we arrived, including F93. As usual they were all adults. Another adult bird was sitting in the area usually frequented by juveniles and as it flew past us we could see a blue ring on its left leg. John’s photos showed that it was blue/white ED – one from Scotland. It is interesting that juveniles always look much more uneasy than adults when they are at the marsh. The adult birds obviously feel comfortable in each other’s company, whereas the juveniles seem much more wary about the fact that they may be perched somewhere they are not welcome. This was true of a colour-ringed juvenile that was perched close to ED. It looked very nervous as it sat on the mud, and it was no surprise when it flew off before we had a chance to read the ring.

The great thing about watching the same site regularly is that you notice the birds’ daily routines. Each night the adult Ospreys roost in the mangroves. Next morning they head off fishing – usually at Tanji beach – soon after first light. Once they have caught a fish they bring it back inland and eat it on the mud at Tanji marsh. They’ll then remain there until it is time for the evening fishing trip. Then by 7 o’clock they head off to their roost sites in the safety of nearby trees.

Of course it wasn’t just Ospreys we saw this evening. The other highlight was a pair of displaying Red-faced Falcons which performed the most incredible aerobatics right in front of us – each bird rising and falling like a yoyo. The female of the pair then suddenly dived and caught a hirundine, before bringing it to a tree very close to where we were watching. She was joined by her mate, and we hardly dared to move while we admired them from very close range – the chestnut-red head markings contrasting with the beautifully barred underparts.

As we walked back to Paradise Inn egrets were streaming into their night time roost – the tree resembling a Christmas decoration!

Sunday 22nd January

The wind relented sufficiently this morning for us to venture onto Tanji beach for the first time. Tanji is the most important fishing village in Gambia and the beach is always a hub of activity as the boats bring in their catch. Walk half a kilometre north though and you can get away from the hustle and bustle. That’s exactly what we did and we had an excellent couple of hours watching at least eight different Ospreys – four adults and four juveniles – fishing where the creek that runs from Tanji marsh enters the sea. Although the wind had dropped compared to previous mornings, it was still gusty enough to make fishing difficult. We watched a German adult male – 3GM – fishing for a about an hour before he finally caught. Amazingly as he rose up from the water we could see he had caught two fish and was carrying one in each talon. He dropped one of them but carried the other off inland. John managed to get a photo of her with the two fish – I don’t suppose there are many other photos like it!

It was interesting that three of the juveniles waited for the adults to depart before they made a concerted effort to catch. This is another example of how life is difficult for juvenile birds during their first few months in West Africa. A definite hierarchy exists at most sites we have visited and, as usual, we watched adult birds chasing off juveniles on numerous occasions this morning. Just before we left one of the juvenile finally made a successful dive.

As usual there was a good mix of other birds on the beach including at least three Kelp Gulls and a few Slender-billed Gulls.

In the afternoon we walked down to the marsh to see if we could finally identify the juvenile which has eluded us on just about every visit. We spent all evening waiting at the southern end of the marsh where the juvenile birds tend to congregate. Typically, the one we wanted to see did not appear, and, in fact, we did not see any other colour ringed birds. We did however enjoy watching an African Harrier Hawk hunting on the mud. These strange raptors are about the same size as an Osprey but with broader wings and very long legs. They use their legs to dig out crabs from areas of mud flats like Tanji marsh. We watched one individual for about half an hour as it searched for food. Every so often it would peer down into a hole in the mud and then attempt to dig out whatever it saw with its specially adapted feet. We didn’t actually see it eat anything but it certainly made for entertaining viewing!

Monday 23rd January

A quieter day saw us spend some time watching Little Bee-eaters, Yellow-billed Shrikes and Sunbirds at the Paradise Inn before a nice couple of hours at Tanji Marsh in the evening. A white-ringed adult (presumably from Scotland) and the German juvenile male both flew over us, but the only colour ring we could read was F93 who was eating a fish in her usual spot. Great views of the resident pair of Red-necked Falcons was the undoubted highlight.

Tuesday 24th January

The marsh at Tanji has undoubtedly been the best place to read colour rings so far, and so this morning we headed down there shortly after first light. The juvenile male who has been eluding us was again present, perched on a tree at the eastern end. We approached through the scrub and managed to get to a spot where we would be able to read his ring. Typically we could only see the bird’s right leg and then a group of Pied Crows landed in the tree and flushed him! As he flew off we could see that the ring which we had thought was black, was in fact blue and that the metal ring was a standard BTO ring, not a German clip ring. So, although we hadn’t read it, we could at least confirm that the bird was Scottish. Hopefully we’ll have another chance to read his ring before we head home on 3rd February.

During the course of the next few hours, seven adult Ospreys returned to the marsh, one with a very long Needle Fish. 3GM, the male bird we had seen catch two fish on Saturday morning, and F93 were the only colour-ringed birds.

Various locals came up to us while we were watching the Ospreys and one of them, an elderly man, told us how he had once seen a local kill an Osprey on the marsh. He had told him never to do it again, because Ospreys and other migratory birds flew to Gambia from Europe and that they needed protecting. I hope that the education work we are carrying out in the local communities will help to reinforce the words of that wise man.

After lunch we headed to the airport to collect the second group of volunteers. It was great to see them. By the time we got back to the Paradise Inn Lodge there was just time for a quick bit of birding around the grounds and we were rewarded with fantastic views of two Violet Turacos.

Wednesday 25th January

A couple of weeks ago, when we went out to Bijoli Island for the first time, it was low tide and the birds were scattered around the island. Today we wanted to try something a little different and so we made the short boat ride out to the island shortly after 8am to coincide with high tide. That turned out to be a really good decision. As we arrived, we found that the birds were concentrated on the central part of the island; an area that only gets covered in the worst storms. As usual the Caspian Terns and Grey-headed Gulls were there in excellent numbers. Slender-billed Gulls, looking resplendent in the early morning sunlight, were dotted in amongst them and numerous Sanderlings, Ringed Plovers and Turnstones dashed around in front of us. At the southern end of the island a large group of Audouin’s Gulls were roosting and they were joined by one or two Little Terns, Bar-tailed Godwits and Grey Plovers. Several Ospreys were scattered around the island, sitting happily in amongst all the terns and gulls. We checked each one for colour rings and soon located 3PV, a German male who we had seen on the island with the first group. Numerous Ospreys were coming and going, some fishing just off the island and others resting on the sand.  An adult male landed with the group of Audouin’s Gulls and we immediately saw that it had a blue colour ring on its left leg. John and I inched our way forward and soon read the ring – blue/white CT. I sent a text to Roy and within minutes he had replied saying that it was a bird that had been ringed as a chick at a nest on the Black Isle in 2009. Great stuff!

After a couple of hours on the island, we headed back to the mainland and reflected on a great morning. In the evening we walked up to Tanji Marsh from Paradise Inn where we saw the usual selection of birds, including at least half a dozen Ospreys.

 Thursday 26th January

The trip for the second group of volunteers is following the same itinerary as the first and so today we headed to Kartong and then the River Allahein.

The marsh at Kartong provided the group with the usual good views of a range of wetland species, most notably Little Crake and Painted Snipe. It was also nice to see several Ospreys; last week we had failed to see any, but this morning we enjoyed close views of at least four different individuals. One of them, an adult female, had a German colour ring, but it was just too distant to read. The marsh is less than a kilometre inland and, in addition to the Ospreys we had overhead, we could see at least six fishing off the coast at one point. We checked all of them for satellite transmitters – bird number 12 from the Lake District has spent the last fifteen months on the coast here, and we hoped we might see it.  Sadly, it never appeared, but as we waited by a shallow pool, a dark-phase Montagu’s Harrier flew past .

After a few hours at Kartong we returned the local secondary school and the group of teenagers we had first spoken to two weeks ago. During that visit we had asked the group to write letters about their life in Kartong for us to take back to the UK, and the visit gave us an opportunity to collect them. We also talked about the migration of 09 and AW from Rutland Water. I was really pleased when a girl came up to me after the talk to say she had seen an Osprey fishing off the beach shortly after our first visit – it was nice to know that she had obviously taken an interest in what we had been talking about. We were joined at the school by Geri, owner of Sandele Eco-Lodge which is situated just up the coast from Kartong. Geri already does a great deal of very valuable work with the local community and she talked to the group about the importance of conserving this beautiful section of coastline for future generations. Eco-tourism is extremely valuable to Gambia and as JJ and I have been pointing out during our school talks, it is in the local community’s best interest to conserve the wildlife that their country has become famous for.

After lunch beside the River Allahein, we enjoyed another good boat trip on the river, catching up with Rolf Wahl’s French colour-ringed Osprey for the fourth time and also a German female, S79, that we had seen last year.

Friday  27th January

We were on the road just after 8am for the drive inland to Tendaba. Like two weeks ago, we stopped for lunch beside a tributary of the River Gambia. An Osprey was fishing in the river when we arrived and at least three Wahlburg’s Eagles flew over during the course of our stop.

After settling in at Tendaba we had an evening walk at Tendaba airfield, adding Brubru – a small shrike – to the trip list. We also had great views of a pair of Mosque Swallow – a big rusty-orange hirundine.

After dinner, we were visited by eleven pupils from Tendaba Primary School. They are the third school to be involved in our education project and have particular significance because Tendaba is where JJ grew up. Like at Tanji, JJ and I talked through Ozzie’s Migration; a really good way to explain the concept of migration to the children.

Saturday 28th January

As boat trips go, it is fair to say that this morning’s was fairly eventful. All was calm as we headed across the Gambia River just after first light. The pod of Bottle-nosed Dolphins performed well and at least one Osprey was already out fishing. As we headed into the mangroves on the north shore of the river, we enjoyed great views of a displaying Blue-breasted Kingfisher. Before long we had added Malachite Kingfisher and White-backed Night Heron to the day’s list too.

Despite the fact we are 50 miles inland, the creek is tidal and as we wound our way through the mangroves, the water got shallower and shallower. Eventually, just as we were admiring a Martial Eagle, the boat ground to a halt. We were beached! One of the boat crew had to risk the crocodile-infested waters to pull us along. As he did a male Montagu’s Harrier flew low over the boat and a pair of male Pygmy Sunbirds, looking resplendent in the morning light competed for the attention of a female. Before long we were back in the main channel and all seemed OK. The boat’s propeller though had obviously taken a battering against the creek bed and the engine completely gave up; sending out clouds of smoke and resulting in us becoming lodged against the bank! Fortunately the tide was now in our favour and, once we had managed to manoeuvre the boat round, we slowly began drifting in the right direction. By the time another boat arrived to give us a tow we had had brilliant views of a White-throated Bee-eater; and with no whirling engine noise to disturb the silence. As we headed back to the camp, another two Montagu’s Harriers proved a good way to end a very eventful morning.

In the evening a Western banded Snake Eagle, perched near Tendaba airfield and a Greater Honeyguide, which the whole group could admire through the scopes, was just the prelude to a brilliant hour or so. At around 6pm we drove to the Nightjar spot and went for a walk through the scrub. JJ knew this was a reliable site for Verreaux’s Eagle Owl and we scanned the tall trees for the huge owl. Suddenly one appeared out of the trees and flew a few hundred metres across the scrub. It perched in almost full view, allowing us all to admire its fantastic ear tufts, pink eyelids and huge bill. Then John turned round and found another one, perched just above our heads! Some local children were just as excited as us at the brilliant views we had through the scopes.

As dusk arrived we walked back to the road, hoping a Standard-winged Nightjar would appear. Sure enough at about 7:15 a male flew low over the road, showing off its incredible wing streamers in the failing light. It was a great way to end the day.

Sunday 29th January

An early start saw us arrived at Kiang West National Park at first light. The park is one of the few areas in West Africa where Leopards and other large mammals remain. Leopard was never going to be a possibility but a huge male Warthog made for an impressive sight as it strode across the Savannah. Soon afterwards a loud bark signalled that the local troop of Baboons had woken. One of them came and checked us out before returning to the main group, who slowly made their way across an area of open grasslands. There must have been as many as thirty individuals, including several large males and mothers with babies on their backs. A group of Colobus monkeys meant it had been a good morning for primates.

As we drove out of Kiang, we checked out the area where we had seen Ground Hornbills last week. Sadly we couldn’t find them, but an adult and juvenile Beaudouin’s Eagles circling overhead more than made up for it. A pair of displaying Rufous-crowned Rollers made for a great sight and a few Wheatears flitted around in front of us.

Later on in the afternoon we headed back across the River Gambia for another boat trip. It was now high tide and that would ensure there was no repeat of yesterday’s fun and games. Bird-wise, things were fairly quiet, but despite this the trip turned out to be one of the highlights of our time in West Africa. At high tide many of the crocodiles which inhabit the mangroves lie beside the creek, and like our trip with the first group, we enjoyed some really good viewsof several before they slipped off into the water. One individual, in particular, was very confiding and allowed us to get almost a little too close for comfort! If that was good, then what came next was almost unbelievable. As we rounded a corner, John shouted Otter. Initially I couldn’t see anything and I thought I had missed it – they are normally such elusive creatures. I needn’t have worried though. It appeared again a few seconds later from between some mangrove roots and JJ started squeaking, like you would to try and temp a Stoat or Weasel out in to the open. The Otter was clearly very interested in what it was hearing and came out into full view on the bank. Clawless Otters are much bigger and heavier than their European counterparts and the sheer bulk of this animal, particularly its very broad tail, was apparent as soon as it was out of the water. Amazingly, for the next ten minutes, with JJ continuing to squeak, the Otter followed the boat, running along the bank beside us, and even rearing up on to its hind legs to try and work out what was making the noise. It was truly incredible. I managed to get some good video footage, and will post it on the site with the rest of this week’s video diaries  early next week once we’re back in the UK.

As if that wasn’t enough, as we headed back across the Gambia, the pod of Bottle-nosed Dolphins came and joined us, with several swimming right alongside the boat – so close that we could have touched them. It had been an unforgettable evening.

Monday 30th January

It is great to know where satellite-tagged Ospreys are spending the winter, but even better to actually have the chance of seeing them on their wintering grounds. And that’s exactly what we did today. In 2009 Roy Dennis fitted a satellite transmitter to a young male Osprey at a nest on the Rothiemurchus Estate in northern Scotland. Little did he know at the time that the bird – which he called Rothiemurchus – would provide us with such a wealth of information about young Ospreys. After wandering around West Africa – and visiting Djoudj National Park among other places – Rothiemurchus finally settled on a tributary of the River Gambia, just over the border in rural Senegal. He remained there until last May, when he flew north to the UK for the first time. During the course of the summer he wandered over a huge part of northern Britain, visiting his natal nest only briefly and exploring from as far afield as Cumbria and Sutherland. It provided us with a great deal of new information on the movements of young Ospreys when they first return to the UK.

In September, Rothiemurchus headed south again and a few weeks later was back at his regular wintering site. Like all adult Ospreys he has remained in a relatively small area since then, and so, seeing as we would be passing very close by on our way from Tendaba to the Sine-Saloum Delta, we thought we’d have a look for him.

Turning off the main North Bank road shortly after Kerewan, we followed dirt tracks north for seven or eight kilometres, the rutted road taking us through several villages where we received one or two quizzical looks from the locals. Using Google Earth on my laptop as a guide we stopped as close as possible to the area Rothiemurchus has been favouring and walked across extremely arid ground to the edge of what on Google Earth looks like a nice open channel. The reality is something a little different; the channel is covered by dense, impenetrable mangroves. Although we could see some dead trees, if Rothiemurchus was perching on a low stump or on the ground next to the river, we stood no chance of seeing him.

Unperturbed, we waited. Eventually an Osprey appeared. This had to be him. We all looked the tell-tale transmitter on the bird’s back. But there wasn’t one;  despite waiting more than two hours in exactly the right spot, the Osprey that appeared wasn’t the one we wanted!

Eventually we decided to call it a day and we all trudged rather forlornly back to the bus. I say forlornly, but we had actually had an excellent couple of hours. In one scan of the mangroves John had counted 14 Montague’s Harriers and there were also Collared Praticoles hawking insects overhead.

As we drove away Alagie, our brilliant driver, who had surpassed even his own high standards on these very difficult roads, suggested we try one more spot by the river. It was a very good job we did. We walked down to the water’s edge and virtually as we did, an Osprey appeared from out of the mangroves. As it came closer we could see the transmitter. At last, it was Rothiemurchus! He circled overhead and then began fishing in the river in front of us. That was a mistake though, because no sooner had he started fishing, than a second Osprey appeared – an adult female – and chased him off! Interestingly, where we were watching the two birds was right on the edge of Rothiemurchus’s usual range; and the behaviour of this second bird helped explain why he usually doesn’t venture much further downriver. Having been chased away, Rothiemurchus disappeared back down into the mangroves, presumably to his favourite perch. We got back on the bus and I rang Roy to give him the good news. At last our patience had been rewarded.

Tuesday 31st January

From an Osprey point of view, the Sine-Saloum Delta has been the highlight of the trip and so as we got on the boat at Missirah before first light this morning, everyone was very excited. The first twenty minutes of the boat ride out to Ile d’Oisseaux was in total darkness. By the time we reached the mouth of the delta the sun was just rising above the eastern horizon and as it did, it illuminated a spectacular scene; groups of Great White and Pink-backed Pelicans, a single Greater Flamingo, countless Slender-billed Gulls and numerous Sandwich and Caspian Terns fishing all around the boat. By getting out so early we were literally surrounded by birds. Several Ospreys were already out fishing too.

Once on Ille d’Oisseaux, Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters were hawking around our heads, the calls of Crested Larks filled the air, and a pod of Porpoises were just offshore. Several Ospreys were perched on the island, but none of them were ringed. Surprisingly, in fact, we didn’t see a single colour-ringed Osprey all morning. Several birds caught fish near the island, but they were all unringed. It had, nevertheless, been a great few hours. To cap it off, we passed close by an African Fish Eagle on our way back to Missirah.


One response to “A West African Diary”

  1. Mike Simmonds

    Tim, Another fantastic report. Look forward to the videos etc when you get home. Safe journey. MikeS.