Day 3 : Thursday 16th January :
7.10am : Someone is knocking on my door and calling me. I’ve slept through the alarm and we’re due to leave in twenty minutes. I’m thrashing about trying to find the join in the mosquito netting and call out to Tim that I’m fine, just running a little late this morning! I arrive at breakfast just in time to grab some bread and an egg and gulp down some coffee, and then we’re on the bus heading for a trip to Marakissa, where we are to have a walk through the forest and cultivated gardens. I step off the bus just as a very dark bird of prey alights in a nearby tree, and I soon have it in my binoculars. JW has already spotted it and the message is relayed along a watching line : Gabar Goshawk, melanistic form. I take a long look, fixing identification features in my mind, but there is no time to linger as we are off, following narrow paths through fairly dense woodland. JJ and JW are at the front, Paul in the middle, Tim and Chris at the back. With that sort of guidance and expertise, we do not miss much, and one species after another is identified and viewed. I especially admire the Rollers (two species), Sunbirds and Flycatchers, while overhead there are Turacos and Plantain-eaters regularly crossing from one grove to another. At one point I set up the ‘scope to watch a Grey Kestrel resting in a tree. We have to step aside off the track on occasions, to allow small groups of gaudily dressed women to pass us on their way to work in the gardens. They carry enormous burdens on their heads – cooking implements, pots of vegetables, rolls of materials – but still retain an elegant posture and a dignified gait. The older women are reserved with us, but the younger ones call out greetings and respond to our replies with the widest of smiles and infectious laughter.
Eventually we reach a pond and cross over to the other side via a narrow bridge made of planks on a muddy bank. Here, a Grey Woodpecker and a Fork-tailed Drongo compete with Hornbills and Yellow Wagtails for our attention, while a huge Turtle (or was it a Terrapin?) heaves itself out of the water onto a muddy patch, its long neck and beady eye giving it the appearance of a small version of something from ‘Jurassic Park.’ A man, perhaps a watchman for the nearby building work, comes out and addresses those closest to him, but I have to admit that I do not understand a single word : perhaps a good thing. While he is droning on, I note down all the species I can remember from our walk so far – Mannikins, Crombecs, Weaver Birds, Shrikes – roll-call tonight is going to be very exciting again!
We walk back the same way, and very soon a frisson of excitement passes down the line : something unusual has been found. Well, they are ALL unusual to me, but this is special – JJ has not seen one for five years, and it’s a new bird for all the other staff members. I set up the ‘scope and follow directions into a tree just a few metres off the track. At first I can see nothing, but with patience I see what it is that is causing so much interest : an attractive grey and white bird, about blackbird size or a little larger, moving about on the branches of the tree, sometimes partially obscured, but often very clear. Wait a minute….there’s another one! A pair of White-breasted Cuckooshrikes! Shutters are whirring as the photographers aim for the perfect shot. I am content to observe and savour my brief time with this African wanderer. As most people move on, I linger with Chris and John, and the birds provide us with excellent views. Finally both birds fly from the tree, the slightly paler female following her mate. Fifteen superb minutes watching two ‘once in a lifetime’ birds : stored in the memory bank for ever.
Lunch today is at the Marakissa Rivercamp, a lodge just off the road, set in shady glades, with channels of water and dense mangroves all around. As we arrive, Yellow-billed and Black Kites are swooping down and taking tossed-out scraps from the water, and the amazing Purple Glossy Starlings bustle around in small groups. I go to a pavilion in the woods, from where it is possible simply to sit and wait for the birds to come down to the water or lumps of melon which have been put out for them. Magpie-like Piapiacs, more Purple Glossy Starlings, together with the spectacular Long-tailed Glossy Starlings, vie with one another for my attention, but it is the aptly named Beautiful Sunbird which is the star here. The male glistens in his shining green plumage, with red and yellow patches on his chest, and long tail streamers almost doubling his overall length. The female is a neat little bird, in understated olive and primrose tones. Wherever she goes, the male will not be far behind. ‘He’s keeping an eye on her,’ says John.
After lunch, a few of us make a short trip to a nearby school. JJ has been here before and has taken some of the students out on a trip to see the Ospreys and other birds. He has talked to them about the value of their wildlife, and begun to teach them about looking after it. Today we meet the Principal in his office. He tells us he has 260 children, who attend in two shifts – one from 8.30 – 1.00. and the other 1.30 – 6.00. There are 16 teachers, 14 men and just 2 women.
Then we visit a classroom, where Class 9 (aged 13/14) are waiting for us. One girl comes to sit next to me and introduces herself. Tim and JJ use a large map to show them where the Ospreys come from, and Tim says what a privilege it is to come to such a beautiful country where the wildlife is so diverse and wonderful. How lucky they all are to live in such a place! JJ reminds them how he read to them from the little book ‘Ozzie’s Migration’ and holds a copy up. I have a couple of copies with me, and start to look at them with the girl sitting next to me. She can read it well, with understanding and interest. Linda is doing the same with another girl next to her, and I take a quick shot of them reading together.
We have to go. I leave ‘Ozzie’ with my new friend, and contact details too. I wonder if I shall ever hear from her?
We pick up the rest of our party from the Rivercamp and head off to our last stop of the day : the Dasilammeh Wetlands. The track becomes more and more difficult, but all the way along children stop to wave and call out. I just about manage to see a large raptor in the top of a tree as JJ shouts out from the front : ‘Lizard Buzzard, Lizard Buzzard.’ At last the bus lurches to a halt on a rut-filled uneven track, with water on both sides as far as the eye can see, and belts of trees, bushes and muddy banks all around us. A birdwatcher’s paradise! We get out and start to take it all in. Immediately a sturdy, dark lump in a distant tree is transformed into a Western Banded Snake Eagle with the help of a powerful lens. Senegal Thick-knees and African Wattled Lapwings are on the muddy banks, while a pair of resplendent Giant Kingfishers sit on a bough. Two Long-crested Eagles are spotted at about the same time, on different sides of the road. The one I am watching keeps turning its head from side to side, and as it does so the breeze catches its long, loose crest, which blows in the wind before flopping down again. Three sleeping pale waders on a bank attract our attention. All are on one leg, heads tucked under wings, all facing the same direction. One, the largest one, is a Greenshank. But the other two……? Marsh Sandpipers!! Very rare in Western Europe now, these two are in winter quarters and will possibly be heading back to the steppe or taiga regions later in the spring to breed. Just as we are discussing the mysteries of migration, they both raise their heads to reveal the needle-thin bill and neat cap over the eye. Another lesson in bird recognition and habits.
‘There ought to be Ospreys here’, says someone. No sooner said than one is spotted heading over towards us, eyes down, in fishing mode. We watch it closely all the way. Its departure is our cue to leave too, but Alhagie has to perform a daring driving manoeuvre first in order to get the bus across some of the deepest and muddiest water-filled ruts that we have encountered so far. We are all prepared to go to his rescue if he should become stuck, but he lurches his bus strongly forward, and despite some alarming listing to one side at one point, the vehicle emerges dripping but triumphant on the other side! Alhajie climbs on the roof and gives us a victory salute and shout as we hurry to catch him up and climb aboard! Maybe he would like to enter the next Paris – Dakar Rally.
Back at Sandele, 6.30pm. Still an hour of daylight, so I wander down to the beach, and look out to sea. Soon it will be sunset. There is a cool breeze now. Tim, John and a few others are here too, but not much is being said. The sea, the setting sun, the memories of the day……that’s all we need. There is nothing between us and the Caribbean……..
But there are Ospreys! At 6.52, one appears from the South, flies through the setting sun, and continues North. At 7.05, one comes in from the North-west, carrying a large fish to an inland perch. And at 7.22, the last one of the day is flying North along the shore in the gathering dusk. A fitting end to another brilliant and varied day. Just time for a quick shower and change before dinner at 8.00, followed by roll-call and bed. Tonight I have TWO alarm clocks just in case I miss the first one again.
The bed, with its shroud pulled tight, is very welcoming. I try to read for a while……….but I…. don’t seem to be able to conce……..