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