A West African Diary

We’re now a week into our trip to West Africa, and what a great week it has been. Here is a diary of our first eight days.

Tuesday 10th January

As you fly into Banjul it is not hard to see why this part of Africa is so good for Ospreys. Just across the Gambia River lies the vast Sine-Saloum delta, a huge area of shallow tidal water and mangrove swamps. From the air you can really get a sense of the scale of the place; a myriad of river channels winding their way through dense mangroves before finally reaching the sea and a series of small sandy islands. In a few days we’d be in a boat heading out to those islands, but for now it was great to get an appreciation of just how big an area it is. For the past three hours we had flown over the Sahara and then the arid interior of northern Senegal; this though, was completely different and just what you are looking for if you are a young Osprey arriving in West Africa for the first time.

Talking of which, it didn’t take long to see our first Osprey. Having arrived at Banjul and met our good friend and guide, JJ, we headed to the Paradise Inn Lodge at Tanji. The Paradise Inn would be our base for the next few nights and we were looking forward to meeting up with the staff who had been so friendly during our last stay here twelve months ago. As we were unloading the bags an adult female Osprey suddenly appeared overhead. It seemed a very fitting way to arrive; and, hopefully, a sign of things to come.

Wednesday 11th January

As we brushed our way through the last of the mangroves, it felt like we had never been away. Eleven months previously, on 8th February 2011, John, Paul and I had spent a wonderful last few hours at Tanji marsh – enjoying  really close views of several Ospreys, including a German-ringed male, 3PV,– before our flight back to the UK.  Now here we were again, this time accompanied by nine other members of the Rutland Osprey team and Janine Pannett from the Dyfi project. It was really exciting to be back.

As we scanned the tidal lagoon we soon picked up Ospreys in all the favoured spots; one perched on an island, another tucked away in the mangroves and a third male bird sitting on a dead branch in the middle of the lagoon. This latter bird took us straight back to that morning at Tanji in early February. John had managed to get some brilliant digi-scoped shots of a bird with what he described as a having a ‘dopy’ expression. One look down the scope now and he recognised this as the same individual; its prominent female-like breast-band clinching the identification. Like the two other adult birds at the marsh, it gave the distinctive chip call whenever another Osprey flew over-head. This kind of territorial behaviour is very typical of Ospreys on their wintering grounds and it often results in clear hierarchies at the best sites. This is very evident at Tanji. The adult birds tend to congregate on the larger, north section of the marsh, while the juveniles are relegated to the less-favourable south end.

It was great to be seeing Ospreys again, but there was lots more to see too. A large flock of Palm Swifts circled overhead, a male Shikra displayed to a female and Blue-bellied Rollers were dotted around all over the place. We soon added Pied Hornbill, Bearded Barbet and Yellow-billed Shrike to the list too. It wasn’t all African birds though; there were numerous migrants that reminded us of home – a nice flock of Curlew Sandpipers, Whimbrels giving their characteristic bubbling call, and Yellow Wagtails flying overhead. They all served to remind us that it is not just Ospreys who make the epic journey to sub-Saharan Africa each year. One thing that definitely didn’t resemble Rutland in January was the heat. By 11am the temperature was already topping 30 degrees Celsius and the sun was absolutely unrelenting. Time for a spot of lunch we decided.

After lunch we headed out to Bijoli Island; a small sandy island off the coast of Tanji. The shallow water surrounding the island provides a rich hunting ground for Ospreys and, as we approached the island cross the crystal blue sea, we could see numerous Ospreys perched along a sand bar at the northern end. One, a male, was colour-ringed and John and I inched our way closer in order to read the ring. Eventually we were close enough to make out 3PV through the heat haze. Like the bird at Tanji earlier in the day, this was one we had seen on our last morning in the Gambia last year.

We spent an excellent couple of hours on Bijoli, adding another fifteen or so Ospreys to our day’s total. That included another German bird, F83, that we had seen last year. This latter bird treated us to spectacular views as it fished just offshore- hitting the water several times very close in.  Surprisingly given the number of fish we saw jumping out of the water, the bird failed to catch and eventually landed on the shoreline to rest up. Nearby a large mixed flock of Audoin’s Gulls, Caspian Terns and Royal Terns provided a fitting end to a brilliant first day back in Gambia.

Thursday 12th January

An early start saw us leave the Paradise Inn soon after first light and drive half an hour south to Kartong. The early morning mist – not something you usually associate with West Africa – was a surprise and gave the morning a strangely English feel. The sun and more searing temperatures soon saw to that though!

At Kartong we met Colin Cross who runs the Kartong Bird Observatory and he joined us for a walk on the neighbouring reserve. Unlike last year there were no Ospreys, but a great selection of other wetland birds, including two Little Crakes – a rare bird for Gambia – and several Painted Snipe. Purple Herons lurkied stealthily in the shallows and several  Wood Sandpipers darted up and down the shore. Two Marsh Harriers quartered the reecbeds and other familiar migrants from Europe – Tree Pipits, Chiffchaffs, Sedge Warblers and Sub-alpine Warblers- flitted around scrub bordering the ponds.

As we enjoyed a well-earned drink back at Colin’s house we were treated to excellent views of perhaps the rarest bird of the morning, an Allen’s Gallinule.

From Colin’s we headed into Kartong to meet up with some grade 9 teenagers who are part of our schools link. Over the past year we have raised more than £5000 for our education work in the Gambia and this trip is giving us a chance to get the project off the ground. JJ and I told the students about our work at Rutland Water and the Osprey’s migration. The importance of education was emphasised by the fact that even some of the teachers took some persuading that birds like Ospreys migrate from the UK to Africa. John Wright’s brilliant illustrations in the children’s book ‘Ozzie’s Migration’ we have produced with our West Africa work in mind, really helped to explain the story. After a couple of interviews with two students about their life at Kartong – something we’ll show to the English pupils – we were shown round the school’s vegetable garden which is tendered to by the pupils themselves.  It was a really good visit.

After lunch we set out on a boat trip along the River Allahein, which forms the southern border between Gambia and Senegal. As we prepared to board the boat a German-ringed Osprey, O18, crashed into the water less than a couple of hundred metres downstream and pulled out a huge fish. Another Osprey appeared as we headed towards the river mouth and it turned out to be an old friend. Last year Rolf Wahl, who monitors the Ospreys in Orleans Forest in central France, was delighted that we managed to find one of his regular breeding birds wintering on the Allahein. We had hoped to see him again this year and, sure enough, John quickly confirmed that the bird flying towards us had an orange ring on his right leg; it was Rolf’s Osprey. We wondered if the bottle of Champagne he had promised us last year for finding one of his favourite birds, had now become two?  We enjoyed several really close views of the bird before it disappeared off into the mangroves.

During the course of the two hours in the boat we saw numerous other Ospreys, but not in the same numbers as last year. Yellow-billed Storks, several Sacred Ibis and a lovely group of Slender-billed Gulls ensured that there was always something to look at though. We were even treated to a brief scuffle between an Osprey and an African Fish Eagle. Finally a Nightingale in full song was another reminder that it is not just Ospreys who make the long flight to West Africa from the UK each winter.

Friday 13th January

A visit to Gambia wouldn’t be complete without a trip upriver and so today we drove inland to Tendaba on the south shore of the Gambia River. We broke up the four-hour drive with some birding en route, stopping in a nice area of forest just east of Banjul where we added White-crowned Robin Chat to the bird list and enjoyed some great views of Collobus monkeys. Back on the road we continued east along the south bank of the river, passing through arid scrub and forest. As we got further inland we began to encounter increasing numbers of birds of prey. Up until now we had only seen Hooded Vutures but they were now joined joined by White-backed and Ruppel’s. Yellow-billed Kites were as numerous as ever, and recorded several other raptor species from the bus – including a couple of Lanner Falcons, Dark-chanting Goshawk and Lizard Buzzard.

After a stop for lunch – where we saw an Osprey fishing in a tributary of the Gambia – we arrived at Tendaba. The temperature was now in the high 30s and there was nothing for it but to relax for the afternoon. The camp at Tendaba has a nice seating area on the shore of the river – which even at this point, some 75 miles inland, is still about a mile wide – the perfect place to while away a few hours as we waited for the temperature to become a bit more bearable. Almost as soon as we sat down an Osprey came into view and over the course of the next couple of hours we watched two others fishing.

By 5pm the temperature had dropped by no more than a few degrees, but unperturbed we had a nice evening walk from the camp. Undoubted highlight was a White-crested Helmet Shrike, a striking black and white shrike with a bright yellow eye and spectacular crest.

Saturday 14th January

An early start saw us cross the Gambia by boat at dawn. We were heading to the creeks on the north shore of the river where the mangroves are home to a wide array of river species. The sun appeared over the eastern horizon as we crossed the river and, right on cue, two fishing Ospreys appeared straight away. One made a successful dive within minutes.

As we entered one of the creeks, JJ caught sight of a Finfoot, undoubtedly one of the most mysterious and shy birds we were likely to see this morning. True to form it slinked off into the mangroves before any of the rest of us had a chance to see it. For the next two hours we snaked our way through the mangroves. Highlights included a very close view of the diminutive Malachite Kingfisher, a pair of displaying Blue-breasted Kingfishers, an immature White-backed Night Heron, skulking deep in the mangroves and a lovely group of White-throated Bee-eaters. Four Wooly-necked Storks were the first of the trip as was a female Montagu’s Harrier which circled over the boat, allowing everyone on board to get really good views. And it wasn’t just birds; we found two huge Monitor Lizards resting on mangroves beside the creek.

As we headed back across the main river an Osprey skimmed the water to wash its talons – a fitting end to an excellent few hours.

After a break during the middle of the day, we headed to an area are of scrub and open grassland known as Tendaba airfield. It turned out to be a brilliant few hours. At this time of year, in the heart of the dry season, finding water gets increasingly difficult. Freshwater watering holes become a magnet to birds and waiting by one proved very successful. We saw our first Grasshopper Buzzard – with beautiful chestnut-coloured wings –  coming down to drink. A Long-crested Eagle was the next raptor to draw admiring looks from the group, particularly one individual which perched within 150 metres of us. As we watched it, a group of Swalow-tailed Bee-eaters appeared too. This though was all just an appetiser for what was to come. JJ found a Matial Eagle perched on a dead tree close to the path we had just walked down. This magnificent eagle was a first for everyone in the group and we spent a long while admiring it down the scopes. With a six-a-half foot wingspan, it is not the largest eagle, but it certainly looks the most powerful , its long legs and sleek body giving it a ferociously powerful appearance. This individual had obviously just enjoyed a good meal judging by its bulging crop which appeared to be not far off the size of a tennis ball. Eventually the bird headed off, its vast wingspan giving it the appearance of a flying barn door!

We continued our way through the savannah, adding several more raptors, including a Dark-chanting Goshawk and a couple of Marsh Harriers to the day’s list. A large group of Avocets feeding on an area of open water at the southern end of the airfield provided a reminder of home and just as the sun was setting three Warthogs ran across the open grassland.

We weren’t finished there though. JJ knew a spot just down the road where we stood a good chance of Nightjars. We arrived just after dark and waited. We knew there was a chance of seeing Standard-winged Nightjar, but nothing really prepared us for seeing this remarkable bird. Not long after we arrived, one suddenly appeared. There can be few more graceful birds in the world – the two trailing feathers on each wing giving males the most incredible appearance. We enjoyed several close views of one or two males as well as a couple of Red-necked Nightjars thrown in for good measure. It was a truly memorable end to the day.

Sunday 15th January

Although West Africa doesn’t hold the same number of large mammals as East Africa, there are still one or two that we really hoped to see. With that in mind, this morning we headed to Kiang West National Park, just a few kilometres from Tendaba. The park is dominated by savannah woodland with freshwater watering holes here and there. The watering holes are important to a range of species and, sure enough, we came across a large family party of Baboons at the second area of freshwater that we visited. They were joined by three Warthogs – apparently the two species often move around together. Nearby, an African Hobby –  with a much more buffy breast than their Eurasian counterparts – was hawking insects and a Grasshopper Buzzard slinked off through the woodland as we approached.

Later on we stopped in an area of open grassland and were rewarded with great views of a pair of Abyssinian Ground Hornbills. These huge birds cut an unmistakable figure in the savannah as they lumber slowly around. Nearby we flushed a Temminck’s Courser whilst Wheatears, Hoopoes and Tree Pipits reminded us just how important West Africa is for migrant birds from Europe.

Finally, as we headed back to the camp for lunch we had fantastic views of another Martial Eagle; undoubtedly the most powerful-looking eagle any of us had seen.

At 4pm we headed back out across the river to the creeks on the north shore. A group of six or seven Bottle-nosed Dolphins was an unexpected but nonetheless very welcome surprise as we headed across. Unlike yesterday it was almost high tide as we made our way slowly through the mangroves. The tide meant that the various Kingfisher species weren’t as active, but we did manage to find both White-backed and Black-crowned Night Herons hidden amongst dense vegetation and an even more well-camouflaged African Scops Owl.  A young male Montague’s Harrier put on a good show as it displayed to another pair and we had great views of a six foot Crocodile that was resting on the side of the creek. After a few minutes it slid quietly and ominously back into the water.

By the time we got back to the main river, the sun was getting low in the sky and the river had become completely flat calm.  An adult female Osprey appeared with a fish and then a juvenile male hit the water close to the boat. It missed first time, but wasted little time diving again, this time successfully. John’s photos later confirmed that the female was unringed and the young male had a metal ring on its left leg. What was really significant though was how easily the juvenile bird had caught a fish. On flat calm evenings like tonight, the fishing at places such as Tendaba is very easy for the birds and if you are a young Osprey this makes it a very good place to spend the winter.

Monday 16th January

Since we arrived in West Africa last week, we have been checking the Dyfi birds satellite data in the hope that we might be able to tweak our itinerary in order to try and see one of them. Einion is still at the Simone Lagoon just south of Dakar in Senegal, but as we left Tendaba this morning, we thought we might have a chance with Dulas. He has spent most of the winter on the upper reaches of the Gambia River and in recent days has been perched very close to the North Bank main road, close to the village of Panchang. It was too good an opportunity to miss.

We knew from Emyr Evans (Manager of the Dyfi Osprey Project) that Dulas had spent much of the previous afternoon perched less than 200 metres from the main road about a kilometre outside Panchang, on the edge of an expansive wetland. We arrived there just after 11am and got out of the bus expectantly. I think that both myself and Janine shared the naïve belief that we would step off the bus and see  Dulas straight away. Sadly, that wasn’t the case! For the next two hours we walked in searing heat through the grassland bordering the eastern part of the swamp. With fourteen pairs of eyes on the look-out, we hoped that someone would find him, but sadly, there was no sign. We weren’t helped by a gusty southerly wind which probably meant Dulas was sheltering somewhere out of sight. The problem was exacerbated by the fact that, although there were open areas in the swamp, the reeds growing in the shallow water were seven or eight foot in height – making scanning all the low perched just about impossible. Unperturbed we carried on, and must have covered about four miles before we finally gave up for lunch, with absolutely no Ospreys to show for it.   We had however come across a nice selection of other birds, including several juvenile Beaundouin Snake Eagles, a species recently split from the European Short-toed Eagle.

We had lunch beside an area of water used by the locals for washing and probably by Dulas for fishing. Unlike many of the water bodies in the area, apparently this one never dries out – making it good for humans and Ospreys alike. This means that should Dulas decide to spend the rest of his year here, he should have plenty of food.

After lunch we just had time to check the western end of the swamp. Despite another hour’s worth of searching we still had no luck and, frustratingly, we had to give up at around 2:30pm.Several stunning Red-throated Bee-eaters,  a melanistic Gabbar Goshawk and a Black Crake helped to ease the disappointment, but nevertheless, it was a real shame that we hadn’t managed to find him. The trip however had at least given Janine the chance to see Dulas’s wintering site and the fact that we now know it is a good one where there is little competition from other Ospreys for food – we didn’t see any others during the four hours – raises hoped that the young male will survive the summer in Africa. Let’s hope so.

Once back on the bus we headed back west towards Senegal and the Sine-Saloum delta. The road took us through typical savannah grassland where Brown Snake Eagles and especially Montague’s Harriers were numerous. We finally arrived at Toubacouta, on the edge of the delta at 7:30pm, with one or two sun burnt faces to show for it.

Tuesday 16th January

One of the highlights of last year’s month in West Africa was our visit to Ile d’Oiseaux – a sandy island on the edge of the Sine-Saloum delta – and so it was with a great delta of excitement that we boarded a boat at the fishing village of Missirah just after first light this morning for a return trip.

As we headed towards the mouth of the delta we passed several Ospreys perched in the mangroves as well as three African Fish Eagles and a couple of Goliath Herons. Several flocks of Slender-billed Gulls looked even more pink than usual in the early morning sun and Sandwich, Caspian, Royal and Little Terns fished near the boat.

After an hour-and-a-half we reached Ile d’Oiseaux. On the face of it the island doesn’t look particularly noteworthy, but look a bit closer and you begin to appreciate what a special place it is. A small flock of Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters were hawking insects, several Crested Larks flitted though the vegetation and Pallid Swifts were feeding above our heads. At the northern end of the island a sandy spit runs out into the sea and as we approached the island we could see ten Ospreys dotted along it. Once on dry land we checked them for colour rings. A German bird flew off before we had a chance to read its ring, but a white-ringed Scottish female (white/black KL) turned out to be one we had seen in exactly the same place last year. This wasn’t surprising – adult Ospreys always return to the same place each year – but it was still great to see a returning bird. And what a great place to spend the winter!  The rest of the birds that we could see were unringed. One of them, an adult male, dived and caught a fish just a few metres in front of us. For the adult birds fishing here is obviously very easy. This also makes it a great place for juveniles to practice fishing; and judging by an unsuccessful dive a juvenile made shortly afterwards, many of them need the practice.

A couple of hundred metres from the island the low tide had revealed another sand bar, and a quick scan revealed thirteen Ospreys sitting on the sand, some with fish and some without. Like last year there was a noticeable lack of any aggression – presumably because food is so plentiful. Beyond the Ospreys a large flock of Pelicans included both Pink-backed a White and it made for a spectacular sight.

Sadly heat haze meant there was no way we could check any of these birds for rings, but it was just great to be there.

On the way back to Missirah we passed several more perched Ospreys, meaning that we had probably seen around 40 birds during the course of the morning; significantly more than the population of England and Wales combined!


8 responses to “A West African Diary”

  1. barry potter

    great to hear the trip is going well and myself like many others back here in cold and wet wales look forward to Ospreys returning in late March

  2. Sue Jones

    Thanks so much for a wonderful report of your trip to West Africa. We visited the Gambia 27 years ago on holiday with two small boys, mad perhaps, but magical it is a place you never forget. The bird life blew us away as well as the people, sounds, smells etc.
    We must return soon!

  3. Nan Kirk

    Thanks so much for your account of your first week in Gambia. It makes very exciting reading and you have seen so many birds. It must be wonderful to see so many osprey in close proximity and to know what a good area this is for the birds, both adult and juvenile.

  4. Steph

    Wow. What a fabulous report and pictures. Felt like I was there but without the sunstroke!

  5. Linda Jones

    Brilliant write up, Tim. An amazing number of different birds and, of course, Ospreys. Looking forward to joining you next week.

  6. Valerie

    Thank you so much for taking the time and trouble to do a really wonderful blog . It painted the picture so well , sorry you didnt find Dulas but at least we all know he is well and the area he is in is a good one . Hope you have a great 2nd week and looking forward to reading the next blog . Love to everyone and take care .

  7. Mike Simmonds

    Tim, what a fantastic report.Keep up the good work. Mike S.

  8. Mike Davis

    So good to see the trip going so well. Looking forward to using all the new material with the YR7s later in year.