African Adventure

Standing in a reed bed, knee deep in water, gazing up at a starry sky while setting a long line of mist nets. Wading across flooded pools, past lily pads with startling white flowers while keeping a wary eye out for crocodiles and deep wells. Waiting for sunrise and the bats to disappear to roost, with whistling ducks calling in long skeins over head. Setting nets through spiky bushes and finding the gaps between thorny Acacia trees. Sitting on a hot beach, a blue green sea twinkling beyond the white sand, gulls flying overhead and the constant melee of a busy fishing village, waiting for a canon net to fire. Treading carefully through the dark, scanning with a torch looking out for the reflected glint of light in a nightjar’s eye. Waiting hidden in the cool shade, watching vultures land on bait, then running, a quick dash over shifting sand to stop any bird escaping from the net fired over the top of them. This is ringing, Gambian style.

White-faced Whistling Ducks

Twelve wonderful, hot, sunny, tiring, hard working days of ringing at the Kartong Bird Observatory, The Gambia.

In the reeds and across the pools, we caught waders from Senegal thicknees, to snipe, African jacanas to spur wing plovers. Pied kingfishers, while occasionally teasing us and perching on top of the poles, were also caught in good numbers. Great reed warbler, painted snipe, malachite kingfishers, black faced quailfinch to name but a few of the colourful birds Africa had to offer. In the spiky scrub a whole different suite of birds, from northern red and yellow fronted bishops, red billed quelea and oriole warblers to lavender waxbills and red cheeked cordon bleus. Bold and brash, red crowed gonaleks let everyone know of their presence, while black crowned tchagra (a kind of shrike) garnered a high level of respect so as to avoid that hooked bill! Grey, cardinal and golden tailed woodpeckers provide an extra treat, while more unusual birds (in terms of catching) include lesser and greater honeyguide, Diedrick and Klaas’s cuckoo.

Yellow-crowned Gonalek

And everywhere and anywhere; weavers. Bitey, scatchy and all looking similar they are some ringers nightmare. And while yes they can prove a challenge, not only in identifying but in managing a catch of them – very often you can approach a single net with 50-60 weavers in it – they are also pretty cool in this ringers opinion. Village, yellow backed and Heuglins masked weaver formed the bulk of the catches. But a few little weavers and stunning (even in non breeding plumage) black-necked weavers also added to the mix. 

Black-necked Weavers –
far left adult female, middle juvenile, far right adult male

Then on the beach, the smell of smoking fish strong in the air, the sound of hundreds of local people bringing in the wooden fishing boats, transferring and gutting fish, fixing nets and building new boats. Amongst it all a bang that either brings them over or at least makes them look up from their work. A canon net, fired over a group of grey headed gulls. Surrounded by a crowd of interest the birds are gathered and ringed. While on team works through the gulls, another is catching red chested swallows that are swooping in and out of the buildings. More locals look on rather bemused, or come over to see what we are doing. Flick netting, a simple technique of basically a mobile mist net, carried by two people and hoisted up in different locations as the bird passes by. Simple, yet effective for species like swallows.

Grey-headed Gull

Then, and not for those with a sensitive disposition, there are the vultures. Thinking about what vultures eat it is not surprising or hard to imagine what they smell like! In a word – disgusting. Yet it is worth the effort. Vultures worldwide are experiencing dramatic declines. Here in Gambia the numbers of hooded vultures seems pretty good, but there is loads we can learn about them through ringing and tagging. For this species in addition to the metal ring, we added a large colour ring to the leg and a tag on the wing. This means re-sightings data can be more easily obtained without having to capture these smelly birds again. 

Ringing and tagging Hooded Vultures

And so to the stealth of catching a nightjar…. The beam of a torch light slices through the pitch black, illuminating bushes, rocks and dusty roads. Under a bush or out in the open, the reflective glint of two eyes shines back. Slowly, carefully, quietly we approach, net at the ready. It takes team work to approach close enough and to then to catch the bird. It is worth it; here we are gaining exceptional data on long-tailed nightjar moult and aging.

Long-tailed Nightjar

And this is all just the African species… part of the focus of the ringing out here is to catch Western Palearctic (i.e. Europe, North Africa and parts of the Arabian peninsula) species that migrate to and from central and southern Africa. Well that’s a whole other story…..

But before that…more pretty pictures!


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