Sunday, 16 January 2011

West Africa week 1

When you spend all summer watching Ospreys every day, the prospect of seeing them on their wintering grounds in tropical West Africa is incredibly exciting. The thought of doing so for four weeks is even better. Imagine our excitement therefore, when myself John Wright, Paul Stammers and 11 Osprey Project volunteers boarded a plane for Banjul on Tuesday. John, Paul and I are spending a month in Gambia and Senegal, and the volunteer group are with us for our first week. The trip has two main aims; firstly to establish links with people in West Africa, and secondly, to look for colour-ringed Ospreys. Of course the chances of us finding a Rutland Water Osprey in West Africa are pretty remote; the proverbial needle in a haystack. However, the coast of Gambia and Senegal is an incredibly important wintering area for Ospreys from Sweden, Germany, France, and of course, the UK, so there is no doubt that we stand a good chance of finding a good number of colour-ringed birds. If we found one from Rutland Water it would just be the (admittedly very good) icing on the cake.

Our week started with two days in southern Gambia; off the usual tourist trail between Tanji and the southern border with Senegal. This stretch of coastline is everything that you would imagine tropical West Africa to be – seemingly never ending stretches of beautiful sandy beaches bordered by palm trees and interspersed with bustling fishing villages, Tanji foremost among them. It is also a very welcoming place. If there is one word to describe the people of Gambia, it is friendly. Most of the people we encountered along this coastline live in extremely basic conditions, but this does not stop them greeting you with a smile.

Of the thirty or so Ospreys we saw on the first three days of the trip, at least six were colour ringed. Happily we succeeded in reading one of them; a German ring - black 5GZ. I have emailed Daniel Schmidt to find out where this (adult male) bird, who we came across at a small wetland on the edge of Banjul, heralds from. Three of the remaining birds also had black rings; two of which John photographed in flight and the third, a female, flew off before we were close enough to read the ring. Frustratingly, an orange-ringed bird (probably French) also took flight as we approached it by boat through mangroves bordering the River Allahein. Had we been on dry land I would have been able to read the ring, but a rocking boat made looking through my scope not only difficult, but quite sickly! Fortunately we are returning to the sites where we saw these latter two birds, next week; perhaps we will get another chance to identify them? Most Ospreys remain faithful to the same wintering site all winter, so there is a good chance we’ll see these two individuals again. Hopefully the same will be true of a blue-ringed bird we found just north of Kartong.

One Osprey we sadly didn’t see is the Lake District juvenile who is wintering in the southern part of the Gambia. Pete Davies from the Lake District project kindly sent me the latest GPS positions of the bird earlier in the week. We visited the area it has been frequenting; a beautiful unspoilt section of coast between Gunjur and Kartong on Wednesday morning. During a walk along the beach we saw at least three different adult Ospreys (one of them a black-ringed – probably German – female), but sadly, not number 12. We will however upload a short video clip of the site onto the Rutland Ospreys youtube channel. To say it would be a pleasant area to spend the winter, would be an understatement! Watch out for the video to see what I mean – hopefully it will be on youtube by the end of next week.

After two full days on the Gambian coast we drove north and crossed the Gambia River by car ferry from Banjul. That in itself was an unforgettable experience – chaotic, but at the same time full of all the vibrancy Gambia is famous for. We then continued north into Senegal, to spend three days at one of the most important wetland sites in West Africa, the immense Sine-Saloum delta. This vast area of mangrove swamp and river delta is home to a vast array of bird life, including somewhere in the region of 500 Ospreys each winter.

On Saturday morning we were up well before dawn in order to get to the village of Missirah as soon after first light as possible. JJ, our guide, had chartered a fishing boat to take us out to the mouth of the Saloum delta. Here we expected to see fishing Ospreys. Nothing though could have prepared us for what was an unforgettable few hours. After slowly meandering our way through the mangroves we arrived at the mouth of the river. Here the shallow water and abundant fish stocks clearly provide a rich fishing grounds for hungry Ospreys. And when I say Ospreys, I really do mean Ospreys. On one particular sand bar we counted 11 different birds, all perched within a few hundred metres of each other; four of them on the same branch. To say I was overawed would be an understatement. It was truly unforgettable experience. During the course of the morning we think we saw in the region of 35-40 different Ospreys – several of which caught fish within sight of the boat. Excitingly one of them was Scottish-ringed juvenile, blue/white SL. Roy Dennis sent a text today to say that this Osprey fledged from a nest in central Scotland last summer.

Of course we have also seen a selection of the vast array of other birds Gambia and Senegal are famous for – and we’ll post a few of John and Chris Ditchburn’s photos on the blog as soon as possible.

Tomorrow we’re heading back to Gambia. I wonder if a Rutland Osprey will be waiting to greet us?

Watch out for another blog update same time next week.