The project

Our knowledge of ecology of migrants in their wintering grounds is extremely poor and severely hampers our ability to explain these declines and conserve this group of species. We lack even basic information about when birds arrive, the habitats they use and how they move around Africa.

The aim is to understand how Palearctic-African migrants use and move around the different vegetation zones found in West Africa, ranging from the semi-desert Sahelian region in Burkina Faso to the lush tropical rainforest in southern Ghana, and whether habitat change may impact them on their wintering grounds.

During the temperate winter of 2009/2010, using point count methodology and mist-netting, we recorded migrants along a degradation gradient at five different stations on a north-south transect. In 2010/2011 we plan to re-visit these sites as well as roving further afield to get a broader picture of migrant habitat use.

27 - 28 February: Last ringing session

The last ringing session for the group in Nsoatre. It was with sadness and trepidation that we arrived at the ringing site to check how the nets had fared (furled) in the storm. Despite the gale force winds everything was fine (all credit to the ringing kit!) making the last session a pleasant one.

We had our last Nightingale of the trip, four Reed Warblers and a Melodious Warbler. The final bird ringed was a fetching African Pygmy Kingfisher. The trip total for Palearctic migrants were as follows: 28 Nightingales, including three geolocators recovered and three other retraps from previous years, 48 Reed warblers, including one Dutch-ringed bird and four retraps from previous years, 49 Garden Warblers, including one Dutch-ringed bird and five retraps from previous years, 9 Melodious Warblers, 9 Whinchats, 8 Pied Flycatchers, 5 Grasshopper Warblers, 5 Willow Warblers, 4 Great Reed Warblers, 1 Spotted Flycatcher, 1 Wryneck and 1 Red-necked Nightjar, 168 migrants ringed in total.

Nightingale number 28 (Vicky Gilson)

After packing up the kit, we rushed back to pack more stuff at the guesthouse and were on the road in record time. A few hours down the road we were smugly sitting in the car watching Ghana fly past the window when the taxi we were following started to emit a foul burning smell. After overtaking, however, the smell continued and it became it clear as it got worse it was our car. Eric sensibly pulled over after there was a clatter when part of the car became detached. Under-bonnet investigations revealed a broken idler pulley and shredded fan belt. Three hours later after a spell amongst a whole village of mechanics we continued our journey a little oilier and hungrier than before. We finally arrived in time for a much needed dinner with the RSPB team, and met Derek, RSPB’s new driver and chef.

The following morning before heading to the airport to return home, gluttons for punishment, we had an early start to try to catch a glimpse of Standard-winged Nightjar. The bird failed to show although Long-tailed Nightjars were very evident, but the group had a pleasant ringing session nonetheless in a much changed Alice’s Triangle, the remnant rain forest we visited last year changed to a more open area dominated by cassava and plantain cultivation.

Thanks to the RSPB team Chris O, Roger, Japheth and Derek for their hospitality and good company! After some exchange of equipment the BTO team then headed off to the airport back to the UK. The team helped to achieve the objectives of the trip in retrieving Nightingale geolocators, the data held within them to be analysed back at BTO HQ to reveal the secrets of the Nightingales’ Journeys across Africa to their European breeding grounds, and hopefully their movements during the winter as well. The ringing project, through retraps and the analysis of samples, will help provide yet more information on Palearctic bird distributions in Ghana, and their movements from the country, as one Garden Warbler did, captured several times over-wintering in Ghana then recaught in the breeding season in the UK in Kent and then this year Ghana again within metres of its original capture location.

It is hoped funding can be found to support the next few years of the BTO side of the project which has so far provided much information on migrant birds in Africa, and which is helping to inform their conservation.

The hard-working BTO and RSPB teams Chris, Nick, John, Mark, Eric, Roger and Japheth (Vicky Gilson)

26 February: Stormy weather

The team made a massive last effort for the penultimate ringing session today. After sitting/squelching rather unpleasantly for the car journey to the trap site (a reminder of how sodden we were following the previous night’s torrential rain) we caught three Garden Warblers (including a retrap from last year and one from the 7th of February this year), one new Nightingale, one new Great Reed Warbler (the first for more than two weeks) and a Spotted Flycatcher (a first for this trip and a retrap from last winter). All the nets were then taken down from the north and set up on the south east for a last-gasp attempt to catch where nets had not yet covered, and in the hope another Red-necked Nightjar would be caught (and perhaps a Nightingale or two).

The afternoon session we were amazed to catch three more Nightingales (two new and one from earlier in February), and a new Reed Warbler. The weather again was hot and humid, storm clouds still looming as we happily furled the nets, another good evening’s work done. After dinner the satisfied team settled in for the night, until the storm broke and started to leak in to join us, so followed a fitful night’s sleep for everyone, the strength of the nails holding the roof down providing something to contemplate whilst sleep evaded us.

Local Ghanaians walking next to a north side net ride. Guys had to be high to allow people and their loads to pass (Vicky Gilson)

24- 25 February: Until next time?

A day of rest- seemingly for birds as well as people - this Sunday has been our first no-migrant day this trip. Red-faced Cisticolas and Grey-backed Cameropteras started a continuing trend of Afro-trops, with the highlights being a Little Grey Greenbul, two Senegal Coucals and two Brown-crowned Tchagras. We think the southerly wind, and moonlit night may have encouraged movement of migrants, and certainly made our nets easier to see. Some Afro-trops, rather frustratingly for us and them, seem to be quite trap-happy such as Little Greenbuls and Red-faced Cisticolas. They also have an annoying habit of resembling, for hopeful eyes when viewed at a distance from behind, Nightingales and European Reed Warblers respectively!

After the dull Sunday at the ringing table, Monday proved to be more exciting for more reasons than one. The team put up some additional nets on the north side in the hope of increasing the chances of catching passage birds. Migrants caught during morning and evening session were two new Nightingales, one Garden Warbler, one Reed Warbler and a Whinchat, and for Afro-trops- White-throated Bee-eater, Marsh Tchagra and a very impressive Double-toothed Barbet.

Double-toothed Barbet (John Black)

As the last of the afternoon session’s birds were ringed the group suddenly clocked the dark mountainous storm clouds on the horizon speeding towards us, a sudden strong wind warning us of its approach. Everyone rushed to get the nets furled before the rain hit.

Nick noticing the storm clouds (Vicky Gilson)

We had issues with the winds blowing our nets into the vegetation, and some nets had to be furled with vegetation still tangled in them as lightening now joined the thunderous horizontal rainfall and gales. As torrents of water cascaded down the previously dusty tracks, the team rescued a local man who needed a lift and gratefully jumped into the car, the heater was set on ‘hot’ for possibly the first time in its life as we shivered in the seats driving back to the guesthouse.

13th – 24th Feb: The (almost) 12 days of transects

A pretty gruelling trip of roving this time around!  Started off very well with a stop-over at the BTO team’s place (no time to visit the study site itself or help with fieldwork sadly, but great to see everyone) in Nsoatre.  An absolutely mind-blowing creation of various dishes was unveiled by Eric for our dinner.  Never eaten so well in Ghana – thanks Eric!

The next 11 mornings took in a loop from Asukese/Bia Tano and  Ayum forest reserves in SW Brong Ahafo Region, through Western Region’s Krokosua, Dadiaso, Boin River, Fure River and (slight hiccup in the loop here, with a puncture and a missing bridge meaning we couldn’t reach our intended destination of Samremboi, and had to divert some distance and do Fure River first, and then went on to…) Tano Nimiri.
Oppong & Japheth sort out a slight problem with the tyre....

....and find a solution to the missing bridge!

The usual pattern continued with, generally speaking, more wood warblers outside the forests than inside, although the farmland sampled at Krokosua was “thungya” plantain plantation inside the forest, where several wood warblers were located.  This “thungya” system is where plots within a forest can be farmed, provided all of the trees above a certain height are left in place.  In completely ruins the habitat for true forest specialists, as there is no natural understorey, and no mid-level canopy.  However, if sufficient trees of the right species mix are left to thrive then it would seem that wood warblers can be supported in reasonable numbers, just like any reasonably well-wooded farmland outside the forest.
There was mixed success when locating 1km transects at 5, 7 & 10km from the nearest forest, although we were surprisingly lucky in many instances to find good roads leading to good farm tracks that were within exactly the right distance band.  The presence/absence of wood warblers did not always follow the expected pattern however!  Some of the closer-to-forest transects held none, whilst one transect that we reached, at a full 15km from the nearest forest at the Dadieso site, did have a bird.  At this site we also had a bird at 7km, but none at 10km or 5km.  We hope that overall some patterns will emerge!  All of the ground covered is going to greatly improve the model for predicting wood warbler presence and absence in Ghana, ground-truthing for which was a large part of last season’s work.

As if the puncture and search for new tyre weren’t enough, though, a major car crisis emerged on day 7, when all sorts of horrid noises were coming from the clutch.  After a visit to a local garage and a few phone calls to the experts made by Japheth, and the prognosis was not going to be good if we continued to drive the car.  Thus it was decided that Oppong and I would take it gently to the garage at Tarkwa, whilst Roger and Japheth continued with the fieldwork without the car – but with taxis instead!

2 days in Tarkwa for two of us, then, during which a pricey car-job is undertaken. Once sorted, we head north again to meet the other two.  In the meantime, Rog and Japheth have managed to do a taxi-recce from Asenkagrua into the forest at Totua Shelterebelt, taxi to survey their chosen spot the next day, taxi on to Diaso, find accommodation, recce the farmed forest at Upper Wassaw, survey that the next morning, and taxi to and get accommodation at Bibiani.  Such a dedicated team we have that, despite the car being off the road, there’s been no break in the programme of fieldwork (and taxis much cheaper than car-hire too!) Absolutely sterling work chaps!

The final 2 mornings take in Asenanyo and Tano Offin forests in Ashanti Region.  Wood warblers are still present in all areas, but at the latter, a particularly degraded patch of forest, we get more of them inside the forest than outside.  The numbers are pretty small here though, so difficult to draw any conclusions, and the final 10km distance transect, getting pretty close now to Ghana's second city of Kumasi, finds no wood warblers at all.
A solitary Ceiba tree, occupied by a lone wood warbler

With lots of ground covered and little time to spare over the past 11 days, in 11 towns and 11 different guest houses and twice as many chop-bars, we’re looking forward to getting back to base at the study site get some data entered, count “our” birds, and get stuck into the radio-tracking once again. (oh, and wash some clothes!!!)
Prestea, and one of the nicer guest houses visited

Roger on one of the many rickety bridges crossed

Japheth, Roger & Oppong, in perhaps the smallest restaurant in Ghana!

Heading back to Pepease, we are only too aware of the change that is afoot over the next few days. Oppong, our driver, cook and companion over the last 2 seasons, is leaving us for pastures new. Soon after our arrival back at base, his good friend and replacement Derek arrives, to learn the ropes from Oppong before he departs on the 27th. Fingers crossed Derek can cook at least as well as Oppong!!

18 -23 February: Three is the magic number

The wind on week three has become stronger, making it more difficult to catch the birds, and we are getting up earlier with the increasing day length to make sure the first couple of net rounds are as productive as possible. Early starts are meaning early nights, and a 9.00pm bed time is becoming the norm now. Monday on the south side was quiet but had two afro-trop rarities for this ringing site –African Moustached Warbler and Greater Honeyguide plus a Garden Warbler originally ringed in Holland.

The weather this week is exceptionally hot and humid, fifteen minutes after a cold shower you feel like having another. In the shade of the plantains the group had a good day on Tuesday for migrants with ten new birds, including a new Nightingale and three retraps, and a more moderate Wednesday session with four new Reed Warblers, a Pied Flycatcher and a retrap Garden Warbler. Local birds included two retrap Common Wattle-eyes, one from October 2011 and one from earlier in our trip. The slower session allowed us to pack up the south east nets and put up the the north east nets again, speedily in time for Mark’s birthday celebrations. Vicky had planned some birthday surprises with the expert help of Eric – (now a mixologist as well as a chef) who made home-made pina-colada with fresh pineapple and coconut, mixed, of course with some rum as a present, a homemade card and traditional spice bowl and grinder. Many happy returns Mark!

Celebrating Marks birthday (Vicky Gilson)

The next day brought a new Lizard Buzzard and our success with catching migrants continued with two Pied Flycatchers, Reed Warblers and Garden Warblers.

Lizard Buzzard and Vicky (John Black)

In the afternoon amidst oppressive conditions and under mountainous clouds the south nets were taken down and placed back on the north west side as more Nightingales were singing there. With the temperature and humidity rising we were very relieved when rain fell later, albeit very briefly the clouds soon rolling away as if nothing had ever happened, and had a magic effect on the humidity so we were able to get some proper sleep for the first time in several nights. Friday was a brilliant bird day for variety with Garden, Reed, and Grasshopper Warblers, Wryneck, and a retrap of a Nightingale ringed by us in the first week here, showing it is a resident bird. African Pygmy Kingfishers and a Yellow-crowned Gonolek which had not been caught before at this site added a splash of colour to the otherwise brown/grey bird day.

Grasshopper Warbler and Wryneck (Mark Hulme)
African Pygmy Kingfishers (Vicky Gilson)

Yellow-crowned Gonolek (Mark Hulme)

Amazingly in the morning John extracted a control Reed Warbler from the north west nets, our second control, and from Holland again! Obviously on a winning streak having extracted both the controls we are hoping John will make it third time lucky for us with another.

Above Garden and European Reed Warbler controls from Holland

A Lizard Buzzard rounded off the day, when chatting at the table during a blank net round a Lizard Buzzard came hurtling from the sky, and hit the ground with a thud next to our ringing base. Concerned it had been shot at first John leapt up to see what it was, the inanimate bird suddenly got up and flew off, a lucky agama lizard scurrying into the bushes just having escaped its talons. We are learning to always expect the unexpected here! Wildlife is even following us indoors, praying mantis attracted to the light, giant wasps looking for places to nest, large and intimidating flat spiders lurking in between the gaps of the skirting boards, and recently discovered colony of termites currently eating Vicky’s bedroom door.

Following the usual raucous Nsoatre Friday night from the energetic locals (for we are now fast becoming grumpy stop-ins owing to the early mornings) a sleepy team again assembled for ringing on the north side. There was a horrible smell by the north east ride which was later discovered by John to be small mongoose that had died at some point after being caught around its arm and head in a spring loaded snare. These cruel traps are widely used throughout the local area and indiscriminately used for hunting bush meat, we have seen snakes and ground squirrels trapped in them also. We all hope that the use of these inhumane devices is stopped.

On a more positive note, our efforts were rewarded with 17 migrant birds captured, including five Nightingales. Three of these were new birds without rings, and one of the retraps was a bird that had been fitted with a tail mounted radio tag in January 2012 (the tag has long since dropped off) and to our delight the remaining retrap provided our third Geolocator recovery! This bird is suspected to have already been on passage when the device was fitted in 2012 and was carrying the most fat of any Nightingale trapped this month, indicating the journey northward is underway. We are looking forward to discovering if the data from this individual tells a different story to the two devices already recovered from Nightingales that were known to over-winter locally.

John, Vicky and Mark with two Nightingales, the one on the right is the third caught with a geolocator (Nick Aduse-Gyan)

Feathers parted to reveal the geolocator device in-situ (Mark Hulme)

11 -17 February: A second bird with a geolocator!

Week two had a slower start with the catch from the northern nets dropping, so the group changed the set-up, adding nets to the eastern fork of the north site, and another line of nets further towards Nsoatre village to the north east to target three Nightingales fitted with geolocators in 2012. Three Nightingales were caught, but all new birds.

The habitat around all of the sites has changed due to agricultural practises, but the north east is very rapidly being turned into farmland, with just a narrow band of scrub now. The locations of the caught Nightingales are being recorded to help us target new birds, and provide information on winter territories to inform future work at the site. If the amount of available scrub habitat is decreasing it will be interesting to see whether the Nightingales will simply choose to live in denser populations or move elsewhere. Radio tracking and recording the birds precisely will help to monitor this. It is also relevant with regards to looking for the geolocator-tagged birds, our only choice is to spread the nets over as wide an area as possible covering the areas birds were previously caught in. If only there was a geolocator magnet!

Over the 11-16, the long standing north nets had proved disappointing, and the targeted Nightingales stayed put - no doubt laughing to themselves. The ringed Nightingales seem to be harder to catch than unringed birds. Perhaps they have learnt the net locations. A few afro-trop species have kept it interesting with both African and Red-bellied Paradise Flycatchers and Tambourine Doves.

The location of the other geolocator birds is still unknown however, despite listening for calls, there seem to be fewer birds than in previous years. We are aiming to target all Nightingales we detect at the trap sites if possible. Although all the birds are understood to return to the same location each winter and therefore should be able to be caught at that same location, the dynamic nature of the habitat, combined with human influence such as agriculture and intra-specific competition with other Nightingales may mean they may have moved to other locations. Determined to get a better result on the Nightingale front, the group targeted another bird on the central northern track on the 13th February near where a geolocator bird had been tagged in 2012. This resulted in a last minute flurry of birds at dusk including a new Nightingale, three Garden Warblers, a Reed Warbler and Melodious Warbler. The last-minute rush, although welcome, made us late for dinner (typical as we were planning to finish early), finally meeting the RSPB Wood Warbler team, Chris O, Roger, Japheth and Oppong at the guesthouse just over an hour later than planned. Eric laid on a fantastic buffet of Ghanaian food for us. Having eaten only very basic food the look of disbelief on their faces was priceless, convinced they were now in heaven!

Clockwise from left: John, Roger, Vicky, Japheth, Nick, Chris O and Oppong. Out-of-shot: Eric slaving away in the kitchen (Mark Hulme)

After a lovely evening of catch up, good food, beer and football it was back to business.

A few moderate ringing sessions followed on the north side consisting mainly of afro-tropicals such as Little and Baumann’s Greenbuls, and a few Palearctics. With a waning catch it was decided it would be more productive to move the nets completely and try again on the north side later after a break, to coincide trapping with the time of year the birds were caught last year and to allow the birds to get used to moving freely across the tracks again.

Afro-trops included- Tawny-flanked Prinia, female Red-shouldered Cuckooshrike, White-throated Bee-eater and a new Snowy-crowned Robin-chat. The ‘bush’ Nightingale on the main northern net ride was proving to be a slippery character, so a small net was erected between its favourite singing-post inside a bush, and with a bit of persistence, the Nightingale was caught on the 15th and found to be another new bird.

With quite a lot effort in the heat and high humidity, all the northern nets were taken down that day and new net rides set up on the south side of the Ivory Coast road, to rest the north side and attempt to catch the southern site Nightingales with geolocators. To avoid the intense heat the group, rather romantically, have set up camp amidst the plantains where there is some shade for processing birds. The new nets performed particularly well on the first catches on the 16th with 14 new Palearctic migrants. Two retrap Reed Warblers, one from the same week and the other ringed in March 2011, a new Reed Warbler, one retrap Garden Warbler from March 2011 (more about which later!) and three new Garden Warblers, one Whinchat, one retrap Melodious from November 2011, one Red-necked Nightjar (potentially a wintering range extension and an unusual species to record), 2 new Nightingales and 2 retraps, one with a geolocator! The second so far! They were originally ringed in October 2011 and mid February 2012 respectively.

Second Nightingale with geolocator caught in 2013 (John Black)

Red-necked Nightjar (Vicky Gilson)

One of the Garden Warblers, quite amazingly, was the same bird that had been ringed at Nsoatre in March 2011 by Mark, retrapped and fitted with colour rings in February 2012 by Roger, a committed volunteer of the BTO and RSPB projects (and in the presence of Nick) at the same site, and then controlled twice in Kent in June and July 2012 by John and Vicky at their Nightingale Retrapping Adults for Survival (RAS) project site before finally being processed again in Ghana by Mark and John. John, quite understandably was ‘over the moon’ at seeing P007049 again. Read about John and Vicky’s discovery in Kent at the Demog Blog.

Mark and John with Garden Warbler (Vicky Gilson)

The 17th was rather windy preventing a catch like the previous day, although ten migrants were caught thanks to three additional nets placed for Nightingales, thankfully these included one new Nightingale.

Luckily a Yellow-browed Cameroptera, Common Fiscal, and Red-winged Warbler made a quiet session exciting none-the-less. As it was a Sunday the team had a much needed afternoon off from field work, catching up with data inputting, and enjoying much needed cooling beers.

Looking back at previous ringing data the group have processed 104 migrants, 16 of which were Nightingales, of which 4 are retraps. Afro-trop retraps have also proved to be interesting, and will help inform survival studies. A few records from previous years include: a Yellow-browed Cameroptera ringed in February 2012 and a Green-headed sunbird from March 2011.

9th – 12th Feb Record count on study site

An excellent couple of days on the study site with the big team, including an amazing tally of over 60 birds over three mornings of transect. With the department heads seeing the site for the first time all sorts of ideas are discussed as to the future directions and requirements for the project.  I think a few new “lifers” were had by one or two as well!  The highlight it seems was the reliably “resident” standard-winged nightjar that performed brilliantly in the gloom pre-dawn on the 10th.

Surveying Pepease study site. Front to rear: John, Juliet, Danaƫ, David, Roger & Japheth

Newly-cleared understorey of denser forest block on Pepease study site
Once DanaĆ« et al departed to investigate sites for roseate terns, the usual team of 4 prepared for a further 12 days of forest roving, but this was soon delayed by one day for a quickie service in Accra for the car.  Here’s hoping the car holds out for the rest of the season...
In the meantime, whilst waiting for the car, Roger goes birding around the farmland near to our lodgings, and amazingly stumbles accross the nest of a greyish eagle owl. What a find!

Back end of greyish eagle owl brooding chicks

Greyish eagle owl chick  - check later post for update!