From Saint-Louis, a crumbling French colonial outpost that was the capital of Senegal until 1957, we took a day-trip north to the Parc National des Oiseaux du Djoudj. Birds come by the millions each winter to nest and feast in the park's wetlands along the Senegal river. Our Senegalese guide, Djibi, helped us identify some of the 400-plus bird species that have been spotted here. A sign above the dock where we hired a pirogue (a small motorized boat) said, “Bienvenue l’Embarcadère du Djoudj, ou le Pelican est Roi.” Welcome to the Pier of Djoudj, where the Pelican is King.
Our pirogue driver cruised us along a wide river through the pelicans’ 40,000-acre kingdom. An alert kingfisher with crisp black and white wings and a dagger of a beak stood guard near the dock. A few white pelicans floated nearby, looking confident with their wings lifted just a little bit, like swans. Another flock zoomed above us in an elegant arrow.
Further along, a group of white-breasted cormorants, in charcoal-colored coats with creamy cravats, rested in a dead tree. And in the water, hundreds of cormorants swam with just their long necks sticking above the surface. They would dive down together in a wave and a few would come back up holding a wriggling meal. We also saw anhingas with serpentine necks, bright green bee-eaters, and osprey soaring high above. A fish eagle in a white hood with a brown body, similar to a bald eagle, overlooked it all. As we picked up speed, I looked back and watched as about a dozen terns flew right behind us, fishing for minnows churned up in our wake.
After about a half hour, we reached the pelicans’ palace. It was an artificial island, created by park employees as a predator-free sanctuary for the birds. On it sat thousands of pelicans, wing to wing, a squawking sea of giant beaks and white feathers. The smell was overwhelming. Our guide, Djibi, told us that the birds were nesting. They arrive around November and leave around April with hundreds of offspring. The pirogue driver turned off the engine, and we sat and listened to this royal family's raucous music.