Saturday, 29 January 2011

Northern Senegal

It is a long way from Tanji to St Louis. It took us fourteen hours to drive the 450 or so kilometres from south of the Gambia River to within touching distance of Mauritania. After waving goodbye to the second group of project volunteers at Banjul airport on Tuesday afternoon, John, Paul and myself had just one more evening in Tanji before setting out on the long drive to northern Senegal, well before dawn on Wednesday morning. I say drive, a good proportion of the journey was actually spent waiting, for what seemed like an eternity, for the Banjul-Barra ferry and then engulfed in bureaucracy at the Gambia-Senegal border crossing. However, once in Senegal our progress was much quicker, and the journey, fantastic. Rather than driving up the west coast of Senegal, we crossed through the arid centre of the country, passing through Kaolack, Touba and Diorbel; all towns well off the usual tourist trail. lappet-faced vultures and chestnut-bellied starlings served to improve the journey yet further.

We eventually arrive at St Louis shortly before 7pm. We’re staying in Bango a small village on the shores of the Lampsar river with Frederic Bacuez, a French birdwatcher who has been living in the St Louis area for the past six years. Frederic knows the northern part of Senegal very well and even has a pair of ospreys that catch fish within sight of his house every day.

Having seen so many ospreys in Gambia and the Sine-Saloum delta we were not really sure what to expect of northern Senegal. Yes, ospreys winter in this region, but surely they wouldn’t be present in the same densities as further south? Our osprey tally for the first two weeks was well into three figures, but more significantly, we had managed to read twelve colour rings. How many more could we expect in the north? Well, if the first full day birdwatching is anything to go by, we aren’t going to struggle to see more.

Yesterday we spent an unforgettable day at Djoudj National Park. Djoudj is the most northerly national park in Senegal and extends over some 40,000 acres. The park was created in 1971 and designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site ten years later. It’s not hard to see why; the shallow water and marsh make it a Mecca for migrating birds. As many as three million palearctic migrants either pass through or winter here each year. Among them are, of course, Ospreys.

One of the real highlights of the trip thus far for me, has been seeing so many of the UK’s summer visitors in a very different context. It is one thing to see yellow wagtails feeding amongst dexter cattle at Rutland Water, but quite another to see them flitting past warthogs and crocodiles. That though, it exactly what we saw at Djoudj. And it wasn’t just crocodile and warthogs. Numerous jackels roam the park, white-faced whistling ducks congregate in their thousands and more than 5000 pairs of pelicans breed. Everywhere we looked we were met by a real spectacle, whether it be a huge flock of garganey or groups of white-winged black and whiskered terns following our boat. As the day progressed I began to run out of superlatives.

And amongst all of this lot, there were ospreys. Over the course of the day we saw between 15 and 20 different individuals. Nearly all were unringed, but we did manage to read two more German colour rings. One of them, an adult female, went a long way to disproving an observation I made in my last blog post. All through the trip we have seen adult ospreys stamping their authority on the latest influx of juveniles. Some established adults will have been returning to the same wintering site for a decade or more. As such they have little time for a juvenile who is looking to pinch their fish. I just presumed that most juveniles take the hint and move on elsewhere in search of a site they can call their winter home. At Djoudj however we saw quite the opposite. For more than an hour on Friday evening we watched a juvenile male chase and harry the German female. Whenever she landed, the youngster gave chase, pursuing her above the flocks of feeding spoobills and egrets as if he owned the place. I guess some juvenile’s are just more up for a fight than others.

We have another six days in northern Senegal. If they are as good as our first, we are in for a treat. Look out for my next blog update same time next week. Also, don't forget to check out video diaries from the trip on youtube. Just search for ‘Rutland Ospreys’ on You might also like to have a look at Frederic's blog

Tim Mackrill