Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Northern Senegal and back to Tanji

If you have ever been lucky enough to watch a huge flock of birds – perhaps massed ranks of waders at high tide, or a starling roost in winter – then you’ll know it can be an impressive sight. When the flock includes tens of thousands of what is a relatively scarce breeding species in Britain, it is even more special. On Tuesday last week we visited Grand Lac at Djoudj National Park. Djoudj is an incredibly important wintering site for Garganey. It is estimated that a staggering 150,000 migrate here from Europe each winter. At Djoudj they take advantage of rich foraging alongside thousands of other wildfowl, including more than 200,000 Pintail and 100,000 White-faced Whistling Ducks. Grand Lac is the largest area of open water in the park and, consequently, is where a big proportion of the wintering ducks congregate. In some parts of the lake it is hard to see the water for the birds. Tens of thousands of Whistling Ducks, Garganey, Pintail and Shoveler come together in huge groups either to roost or feed. That is an incredibly impressive sight in its own right, but should an African Fish Eagle happen to fly over, then it just gets better. Almost without warning the sky can be filled with up to 100,000 ducks, all grouped together in huge swirling masses.

As you have probably guessed, our stay in northern Senegal just got better and better. We had three full days in Djoudj, just enough time to begin to appreciate how special a place it is. Aside from the wildfowl, we saw countless Jackels, Warthogs, Montague’s Harriers, Collared Praticoles, Kittlitz’s Plovers and numerous European migrants. It goes without saying that we also saw plenty of Ospreys. One of our most memorable Osprey sightings, perhaps of the entire trip, came during our second morning in Djoudj. As we drove through the southern part of the park we came across an unringed adult male Osprey eating a fish on one of the vast open plains, typical of the sahel. As the bird tucked into his meal, a sandstorm suddenly whipped up, and huge clouds of sand engulfed the bird. For a few minutes it was as if we and the Osprey had been transported to the middle of the Sahara. As we struggled to see through the sand, the bird seemed totally unconcerned. Having crossed the desert a few months ago, this would not have been the first time that this bird had experienced such a sandstorm. For us though it was a reminder of the epic journey that the birds must make twice a year.

By the middle of our final week we had identified Ospreys from at least four different countries, with German birds by far the most numerous. Having identified two German colour-ringed Ospreys on our first visit to Djoudj, we doubled our tally second time around. One of the birds, a juvenile female, came and ate a fish very close to one of the hides where we were admiring the wildfowl. I wonder if she will now adopt Djoudj as her winter home and return and eat her fish alongside the Garganey each winter? With all due respect to the Germans though, by far the most significant colour-ring sighting of the entire trip came during our final afternoon in Djoudj. We had spent much of the day at Lac De Gainth, sheltering from a strong easterly wind that was blowing sand direct from the Sahara. Chiffchaffs and Sedge Warblers were busy searching the marginal vegetation for food, a four metre Crocodile was basking on the shoreline and two African Fish Eagles sat quietly beside the lake. And suddenly an adult female Osprey came into view. She was so close that through binoculars it was possible to see white ring on her right leg. This told us that she was English. John managed to take a few photos of her before she disappeared over our heads and out of sight. Our hearts were in our mouths as he zoomed in on the photo. Could it be an Osprey from Rutland Water? We could see a ‘Y’ on the first photo. So far, so good. Then on the second photo we could make out the second digit. It was a ‘U’. So the bird was white/black YU. Not one from Rutland Water, but a female ringed by Pete Davies at the Bassenthwaite nest in the Lake District in 2007. Of course we were disappointed that it wasn’t a Rutland Water bird, but we were elated that, having travelled more than 3000 miles from the UK, we had found an English Osprey. This was confirmed when I received a text message from Pete an hour later to confirm it was one of the Lake District birds. Fantastic!       

Whilst Djoudj was the undoubted highlight of our time in northern Senegal, we visited numerous other sites within the Senegal delta. On Sunday, Frederic Bacuez, our very knowledgeable guide, kindly organised a seven hour boat trip along the vast Senegal River from his home in Bango to Diama, where a huge dam was constructed across the river in the 1980s. The river forms the border between Senegal and Mauritania, so of the thirty or so Ospreys we saw along this particular fifteen kilometre stretch, at least half were in Mauritania. By early afternoon the tide was dropping and we were treated to some great views of fishing Ospreys (and an African Fish Eagle) very close to the boat. In tidal areas such as this, the birds usually save their fishing for low tide, when seeing and catching fish is easier. The birds were so numerous that at various times during the afternoon it seemed that everywhere we looked, there were Ospreys. Before travelling up to the north of Senegal, I had wondered if the birds would be as common as they are in Gambia and southern Senegal. Our ten days with Frederic proved, that in the Senegal delta at least, they most certainly are. 

After almost two weeks in northern Senegal we made the eight hour journey back to Banjul on Sunday morning. I say eight hours, but it actually took much longer. That though is too long a story to go into now. The main thing was, we made it back to Gambia and to the Paradise Inn Lodge in Tanji. Tanji was where we saw our first West African Osprey and so it seemed fitting that we finished our trip here.

We rose early on Monday, our last full day, and headed straight down to Tanji beach, arriving just as the sun appeared over the horizon behind us. As if on queue, Ospreys began arriving immediately. We had close views of at least four different birds, one of them yet another colour-ringed German female. She made several unsuccessful fishing trips along a channel that runs out to the see a few hundred metres from Tanji village. After each fishing foray she returned to a tree just back from the main road. The tree provides a clear view of the channel and is obviously a favoured perch. If another Osprey dared to even look at ‘her’ fish, the female wasted little time in chasing the impostor away. It is interesting that some Ospreys we have encountered during the past month become very possessive of a certain fishing spot whilst others seem content to let other birds do as they please. This German female certainly fits into the former category.

One of the birds she chased away was a juvenile female, who having been given her marching orders flew a little to the east and began fishing beside the beach where every morning, fishermen return with their catch. Tanji is the foremost fishing village in the Gambia and each morning the beach is a hive of activity with literally hundreds of people jostling for position on the sea front waiting for the boats to return, laden with fish. The young Osprey seemed totally oblivious to the activity taking place below her and crashed into the water between fishing boats, just a few metres from the beach. Although her dive was unsuccessful, seeing this young Osprey fishing so close to people, served to highlight the delicate balance that exists between people and wildlife. The fishing community of Tanji relies heavily on income generated from fishing. At the same time, the seas provide a rich hunting ground for Ospreys and other fish-eating birds. I hope that the work we plan to do with schools in the Gambia will, in its own small way, encourage the next generation of Gambians to take an interest in the natural world and, in doing so, help to protect and conserve the wonderful array of birds that their country has become famous for.  

After one last visit to Tanji marsh at first light on Tuesday morning, we said goodbye to the staff at the Paradise Inn Lodge who had been so helpful and friendly, and made our way to the airport. Sitting there we had time to reflect on an unforgettable trip. We’d seen hundreds of Ospreys, over 270 other bird species and identified 22 different colour-ringed Ospreys, all within a few kilometres of this beautiful coastline. Of the colour-ringed Ospreys, 13 were German, seven Scottish, one French and one English. We have lots of exciting plans for future work in Gambia and we’ll be reporting on them on the website soon. In the meantime I would like to thank JJ and Frederick, our two guides, who have enhanced the trip enormously. Be sure to check out their respective websites and Finally, watch out for the final video diaries on our youtube channel      

Tim Mackrill
Project Officer

Friday, 4 February 2011

Brief Senegal news & photos from week one

Just heard from Tim. The internet connection has gone down so news of the second week in Senegal may not be posted until Wednesday when Tim, John and Paul are back in the UK. There is one bit of news though, the team today found one of the 2007 Lake District birds at Djoudj with a white/black ring YU. So close to being one of our Rutland birds.

Here are a great selection of photos from week one courtesy of Osprey volunteer Lorna Burger.

Osprey from Tanji Beach

Caspian Tern on Bijoli Island

Grey Headed Gull on Bijoli Island

Caspian Terns on Bijoli Island

White-Faced Scops Owl

Lesser Blue-Eared Glossy Starling

Little Bee-Eater

Hooded Vulture

Pearl-Spotted Owlet

Crested Eagle

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Lynda's African Diary - Back to week 2...

On Thursday morning we headed south towards Gunjur and Kartong. Paul Stammers had been asked by a friend to look up Colin Cross, who now runs the Kartong Bird Observatory. They made contact during Week 1 and JJ realised that it was an excellent place for birdwatching. Group 1 carried on with their original itinerary, but it was decided that Group 2 would visit this reserve – good decision. Colin met us along with his two dogs and we started out on our tour. We saw so many different species of birds including White-faced Whistling Ducks, Black Crake, African Hobby, Rufus Crowned Roller and Liz Jameson’s favourite of the trip, an African Harrier-Hawk with an amazing fluorescent bubble-gum pink face. It almost goes without saying that we saw Ospreys too! One juvenile came to bathe very close to our left (photo) whilst to our right we watched in awe of a crocodile – mouth wide open showing his teeth. As we wandered on, Colin showed us where he had found a crocodile’s nest (!) and then on the fence, not a metre away, an Olive Sand Snake watched us walk by (see photo). We arrived back at Colin’s house and gathered on the veranda where he explained about a charity which he has set up. Colin is a retired schoolteacher and moved out to The Gambia a year ago. He gives money to parents of sick children to pay for visits to a doctor. If medicine is required, he gives them money upon receipt of the prescription and asks to see the drugs as proof. It was the 20th January and he had already received over 100 requests this year; we were all happy to make a donation.

We carried on to Kartong beach (Week 2 Video Diary Kartong Beach) and watched Ospreys fishing. We were really hoping to spot the Lake District juvenile, No.12, who fledged last summer and is satellite-tagged. Sadly, we didn’t catch up with him but I’m sure the photos that Tim will be sending to Pete Davies of that Project, illustrating where he is fishing regularly, will cheer them up, especially after the loss earlier this month of his sibling, No.11, in Northern Senegal. As Tim has mentioned, quite a few ringed Ospreys have been identified by our team; mainly German birds but also a French one and several Scottish ones. They must all be pleased to learn that their birds are alive, I know Roy Dennis has confirmed that some of the Scottish birds spotted were ringed by him, comforting news for him to receive.
On Monday we returned from Senegal on the Barra-Banjul ferry; I had read that these ferry crossings were not for the faint-hearted, they were not wrong. Once we were off the ferry we took an hour to look around Banjul market, busy, bustling and full of smiling faces as ever. As a keen cook, I asked JJ if he would show me the Fish Market. Whilst he was deciding which direction to take, we were approached by a lovely Gambian lady who offered to show around. The fish were amazing and it was interesting to see the Butter fish and Lady fish which we had been eating regularly. We also saw Needle fish which we hadn’t eaten, but on the last morning on Tanji Beach an Osprey caught one and flew right over our heads with it. We ate very well throughout the week and one memorable lunch after we had visited Colin was a national dish – Domoda – Gambian Ground Peanut Stew – definitely will be trying that at home. The lady who showed us around the market eventually led us back to her own stall. It actually turned out that she used to live in Hackney and had friends in Leicester – what a small world. She had a beautiful baby daughter just two weeks old and only weighing 1.5kg at birth. Whilst she was helping Paul to decide on a colourful shirt, I cradled the baby (family photo).
On day one we had seen 3 Ospreys from the bus on the short journey to The Paradise Inn. On arrival there, I immediately left my bags in my ‘hut’ and wandered a mere 30 yards to the creek. There, with Vikki and Liz, an Osprey carrying a fish, flew right over our heads. That was the beginning of a wonderful week – an abundance of Ospreys every day including our last morning. I made an interesting discovery on that last morning – I discovered how John manages to stay one step ahead of the rest of us to obtain the best photos (see above photo). We are all really looking forward to seeing his photos and to hear their tales of Northern Senegal. It was an amazing trip and I long to return.

Lynda Berry
Osprey Observer