When a juvenile Osprey leaves Rutland Water on its first migration, many threats await. Long crossings of the Bay of Biscay and the vast and unforgiving Sahara are two natural hazards that must be overcome, but fishing nets and hunters are very real dangers too. Over the years satellite tracking and ringing studies have shown that both environmental and anthropogenic factors have resulted in the death of young Ospreys on migration. Getting to the fish-rich waters of West Africa is a long and demanding journey, but arriving there safely is only part of the story. Recent research shows that surviving for 18 months in West Africa can be just as challenging.
Since 2001 more than 30% of young Ospreys that have fledged from nests in the Rutland Water area have made it back to the UK, but what happens to the 60-70% of birds who fail to make it home? In most cases we simply don’t know. However, there is always a glimmer of hope that we will discover the fate of lost birds, because all of the juveniles in the Rutland population are ringed. The first recovery of a Rutland-ringed bird was made by a farmer in Guinea in 1998. He found the bird, which had been released at Rutland Water the previous year, dying in the corner of a field. Later that evening, as he was preparing the bird for the pot he noticed the rings on its legs, and in his words, ‘knew it to be on a mission’. He eventually managed to get news of his find to the British Embassy who passed the details on to the BTO.
More recently, satellite tracking studies have shown that many young Ospreys die during their first year in West Africa. Many young birds are chased away from the best wintering sites by experienced adult birds defending their patch, and as such, often get pushed into poorer quality areas where they are more likely to come to grief. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that wintering Ospreys are often very approachable. Not only do they perch in prominent places, but they will often tolerate a close approach. This is perfectly exemplified by the most recent ring recovery of a Rutland bird.
A few weeks ago, we received notification that 4J(13), a female that fledged from the Site B nest in 2013, has been hunted and killed over 5000km away in the Ivory Coast. The BTO recovery had contact details of the person who had submitted the report and so I sent an e-mail to try and find out more.
Over the weekend I received a reply from Koffi Roger Yeboue. He explained that the bird was killed by a hunter in an area of forest beside the ABI lagoon in the Adiaké region of south-east Ivory Coast. The hunter who killed the bird gave the following explanation:
“Not far from my field, in the forest area, there is a big tree. During the month of December 2014 I noticed that this bird comes at the end of the day to sleep in that tree. Always the same tree. So in the last weekend of December 2014, I decided to kill it. This day, I waited it for a long time. It was around 18:30 UT when it came. I killed it. Then I noticed he was wearing two rings: a metal ring and a plastic ring. I was scared because I had never seen a bird with rings!!! I got the rings but I could not eat this bird. People have told me that other birds wearing rings were killed in the area. It seems that these birds go fishing in the lagoon all the day and come to sleep in the forest .I am so confused. If I had seen the rings, I would never killed this bird. It is necessary to find another ring system visible by hunters.”
By December 2014, 4J would have been in West Africa for over a year, but the hunter’s description suggests that it may have only just started using this particular roosting site. The fact that it returned there each night is exactly what we have learned to expect of wintering Ospreys; but in this case, it sealed the bird’s fate. Like the farmer in Guinea, when the hunter noticed the rings, he realised the significance of the bird; and it was then that he enlisted the help of Koffi to try and track down where it was from.
The death of 4J mirrors that of AW, the satellite-tagged bird that we lost in the Ivory Coast in February 2012. Although we were never able to prove it, we suspected at the time that the bird had been killed by a hunter. Improved satellite imagery of this area now shows that the bird’s last location was a small village.
The killing of 4J is a fate that probably befalls many wintering Ospreys in West Africa. In some areas the hunters are merely very poor people trying to survive, but in other areas this is not the case. The sentiments of the hunter; that he would not have killed the bird if he had known where it was from echo what local people have told me in Gambia and Senegal. If local people understood the remarkable journeys that migratory birds make, they would not kill them. That is why the education work we are undertaking in West Africa is so important. The Osprey Flyways Project aims to encourage communities to value and, thus, protect, migratory birds. A second email that I received from Koffi sums this up perfectly:
“I am very happy to read you again. It is a pleasure for me to note that through a death ringed bird, a bridge is thrown between continents and between people. 4J is dead, but 4J is still in our hearts. Since this story, my vision on birds has changed. These animals are messengers travelling from one country to another without visa, flight ticket or passport .What a fabulous destiny.
My next challenge will be to convince people to stop killing birds in the region and find the rings of dead birds.”
We wish Koffi well in his important mission and send our sincere thanks for taking the time to contact the BTO and then to reply to my e-mails. Another friendship created by the journey of an Osprey.