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.

Burkina Faso: 1st December. An update from the last two weeks at Oursi

Chris Orsman writes: Since the last update all of the pre-Christmas transects and ringing have been completed at Oursi (we have two more visits after Christmas). Whereas last time we reported that there were fewer Whitethroats than in late October, we have since found them hiding 13km to the north of la Mare, in habitat that was chosen for the study as there were large areas of bare ground, degraded by livestock and wood removal. However this is interwoven by ribbons of at-times dense forest (although with a low canopy), formed where there are almost indiscernible shallow valleys where rainfall collects after running off the otherwise unyielding soils. A ringing site set up here in conjunction with the transects also trapped numbers of Whitethroats that had been absent elsewhere. Seems as though this is their preferred habitat at the moment, and some of them have been sub-singing quite vociferously, but it remains to be seen if this is maintained once the deciduous species have shed their leaves. This is also the best area we’ve found for Rufous Scrub Robin!Lately too Wheatears have become more in evidence, and although primarily Northern Wheatear, have most recently included our first Black-eared Wheatear, and, dare I say, it a “possible” Isabelline Wheatear! Rosemary thinks so! Happy to agree but not 100% from my views of it!!

Subalpine Warblers still present and occasionally singing but mainly around the lake or with a km or so. Bonelli’s warbler numbers continue to surprise, with birds calling and singing, sometimes from isolated shrubs in very open habitats. Even right up to the end of our 16 days at Oursi, there was an Olivaceous Warbler singing in the tree nearest to the camp at Oursi, but very few were pinned down on the transects themselves. The camp individual was at one point joined by a Subalpine Warbler, a Bonelli's Warbler and a Redstart, all in the same tree.

There are still good numbers of Turtle Doves exploding from lakeside scrub early morning, but not the 100's that were around a month ago. Woodchat Shrikes continue to be present in some numbers, whilst Southern Grey Shrike numbers seem to have increased, perhaps with the more local movement of birds from the Saharan zone. Hoopoes are more numerous than in October although numbers may have dwindled slightly since mid-Nov. We are all still struggling to determine the race of these (both African and European Hoopoe occur here), so sadly not all records will be of European birds.

Perhaps surprisingly, there are still not many hirundines! The ringing summary however should indicate that there were enough Yellow Wagtails around to attempt a roost catch with a tape, with moderate success. Lack of experience of larger pipits means that only 2 of 3 seen on transects could be identified with certainty. Wish I’d had a nice long lens on the camera for the third!

Other regional migrants have largely disappeared, such as the White-cheeked Bee-eater, whose numbers were increasing at our last visit late October, but are largely absent now. In early November we had begun to see them at Nazinga, so perhaps larger numbers are to be found there in the next couple of weeks. Highlights from the Mare itself include mostly things I didn’t see (!), including apparently 1000's of Collared Pratincoles (before our return to Oursi), Caspian Tern and Osprey. Numbers of Garganey are slowly rising, and many more Ringed and Kittlitz’s Plovers are making the most of the ever-larger expanses of grazed lake margin as the water recedes and the dung piles up! Marsh Harriers have been almost daily.

Ghana: 20 November. Transects looking better!

After struggling to see a migrant on the transect counts in the previous round in October, Chris Hewson says the mood of the team is looking up. He emails "Things looking up on the migrant front here - 5 Melodious and 4 Willow Warblers, 1 Whinchat, 1 Tree Pipit seen on 1st transect - 2 Willow, 1 Melodious and 1 Whinchat actually on points which makes a pleasant change!"

A note from Chris Orsman in Burkina Faso says they were struggling to find Melodious Warblers further north, whereas they were the commonest migrant in October. Melodious Warblers were in the last stages of moulting their feathers in the Sahel when the team arrived in October. Now they have finished they are filtering down further south. We suspected this might happen but it is great to actually observe these patterns - Phil Atkinson

Ghana: 20 November. Ringing at Damongo

Text message received from Ian Dillon reads: Pretty good catch of migrants this morning during the CES session - caught 13 Willow Warblers, 3 Melodious Warblers, 1 Garden Warbler, 1 Whinchat, 1 Pied Flycatcher and 5 resident African species.

Ghana: 15-18 November. Accra, goodbye to Mick, hello to Ian!

Danaë Sheehan writes: The team is back in Accra for a couple of nights before heading back to Damongo. The last few days have been tough going - Nat having been in hospital with a bout of malaria (a real problem in these parts), and both Emmanuel and Mick with malarial symptoms. Having worked extremely hard for the last month, Mick has now come to the end of his stint and flies back to the UK, to a comfortable bed and a well earned rest! In his place is Ian Dillon, who has taken a break from his usual work at the RSPB for a months sabbatical to work with the team. As with Mick's arrival, Ian only gets a few hours rest from his flight before the team again heads north for the second round of counts.

Burkina Faso: 17 November. Start of the second visit to Oursi

Chris Orsman writes: We've managed to find the only cyber pc in Gorom-Gorom, the nearest town to our camp! Briefly, we've completed day 3 of our second visit to Oursi, and with Rosemary's help have managed to put up more nets, at least at site 1 (east of the Le Mare d'Oursi). On day one they caught 103 birds, but there were a lot of Quelea amongst those. Site two hasn't been expanded as there is less scope to do so, but this morning they still managed to catch 54 birds. There aren't huge numbers of migrants in the catches, but there are lots of unidentifiable juvenile weaver types which are having to be released "sans bague". Migrants present at the moment include plenty of Olivaceous, Subalpine and Bonelli's Warblers, more Orphean Warblers and Yellow Wagtails than before, but fewer Redstarts than last month, and no Whitethroats or Melodious Warblers (that we know of!). The transects are producing very few Wheatears in the more open plains than was hoped for, in fact they're rather barren of birds at all now that most of the resident species appear to have finished breeding. No hirundines have yet been seen on any of the transects this time round, although we have seen a few about otherwise. The crops are now largely in and the grass is now being grazed heavily since the livestock are more free to roam. This also means that the ringing team have to take extra vigilance at the nets as there are no warning signs that livestock are approaching as there was before!

Sleeping arrangements are much as before - a mozzie net on a wooden platform is all that is needed!

Ghana: 26 October. News from the field team at Damongo

Nat Annorbah writes: We saw three Pied Flycatchers on the transect yesterday. Perhaps surprisingly, all were either in, or in close proximity to a teak plantation which had a stream nearby. Today I went ringing with Mick and we saw two Pied Flycatchers near the ringing area, again at the edge of a teak plantation, and again near a stream. It seems as if they are perhaps the same individuals defending territories around that area, because they had been seen around the same area, and using the same trees the previous day. It's already getting interesting, and hopefully things will get even better in the coming weeks.

Ghana: 20 October. Fieldwork update from Damongo

Nat Annorbah writes: It's all going OK for now. We're on schedule and very optimistic. No migrants captured yet as at close of day today, but Mick and I heard and saw a Willow Warbler near the nets close to the lake. We also heard another one near the other set of nets near the lake and had a Eurasian Marsh Harrier fly above us.
Species captured today included Common Bulbul, White Helmet-Shrike, Little Weaver, African Moustached Warbler, Black-winged Bishop, and Lizard Buzzard. Unfortunately (and frustratingly for Mick) we didn't have the appropriate ring size for the Lizzard Buzzard and so couldn't ring it!

Ghana: 17 October. Accra and arrival of the first volunteer

Dr Danaë Sheehan writes: With the project set up complete we headed back to the civilisation of Accra. The vehicle was booked in for a service, the team needed supplies, and we had to pick up our first volunteer ringer from the airport. I was leaving the team here in Chris' capable hands and heading back to the UK. So, the evening flight into Accra saw the arrival of Mick Townsend to join the team, and after a brief hello to him at the airport, my departure. In just a few hours time, the team would set off on the long drive back to the north to begin the field work in earnest with the first round of counts and ringing at Damongo.

Ghana: 14-16 October. Kakum

Dr Danaë Sheehan writes: From Kogyae we moved down towards our southernmost site to set up camp on the edge of Kakum National Park. The reserve manager had very kindly allowed us to camp next to the park administrative offices, so we set up our tents on the covered balcony of one of the buildings there. The additional comfort offered by way of being able to pitch a tent on a wooden covered platform was not lost on us, and allowed us to do away with the hot and stuffy covering of the flysheets.

The first morning saw us heading straight up to the canopy walkway at first light, with access at this hour being specially arranged. We bird-watched from here until mid-morning, with some excellent views of forest specialists, particularly hornbills, of which we saw 6 species – Black Dwarf, African Pied, Brown-cheeked, Yellow-casqued and White-crested. However, despite the walkway being an excellent vantage point, no migrants were seen. In May, Phil and I had seen Wood Warbler foraging about 100m up in the highest tree here – a bird that we would certainly not have seen from the forest floor. One of our transects will include a couple of points on this walkway, allowing us a unique opportunity to sample the canopy as well as the understory. As at Damongo and Kogyae, we established transect locations in many of the surrounding habitats as well, much of it being farmed with cocoa and oil palm, as well as a CES site on the forest edge in an overgrown fallow farm plot.

Burkina Faso: 13 October: Fieldwork starts!

Phil Atkinson writes: Today we did the first transect – 4km from the lake northwards out through millet crops to open grassland in the dunes. Despite having high expectations it was actually fairly routine with the usual warbler species and Turtle Doves being recorded in areas around the lake and the typical open country species like Woodchat Shrike and Wheatear in the more open, grassier areas further north.
This is my (Phil Atkinson) last day in the field and I return to the UK tomorrow. Chris and Judit together with Alie and Omar will carry on the fieldwork…

Ghana: 10-13 October. Kogyae

Dr Danaë Sheehan writes: In central Ghana the team will be based near the Kogyae Strict Nature Reserve, which lies in the Ashanti Region of Ghana and is surrounded by a fairly wide expanse of flat arable land. The geographical location of the area places it in the transitional zone, separating the southern forest from the northern savanna regions. The strict nature reserve status is designed to allow absolute protection from logging, farming and any other form of access, so the reserve represented undegraded habitat at the pristine end of our scale. With support from the Wildlife Division, we set up our tents in the small settlement where the park staff live, right on the edge of the reserve.

Our first CES site was established in the reserve in the habitat surrounding one of the small dams that had been built to provide water for wildlife. This was not without it's difficulties, for with the ground still being so waterlogged from all the recent rainfall, we managed to get the truck well and truly bogged in the mud. It took us a good three hours to dig it out using machetes as spades and gathering sticks and stones to try and give the tyres more grip. Barefooted Nat had a scorpion run across his foot at one point, a sobering moment and one that saw us all buying wellington boots the next day!

Thankfully, the second CES sites was easier to set up, and being within walking distance from the camp, the truck was safe. Although the reserve is well protected and has suffered from very little habitat degradation, the surrounding areas have seen a great deal of tree clearance (this is a major charcoal production area) and arable farming. These contrasts in habitat degradation allowed us to set up a good set of transects, sampling along a degradation gradient without going too far from our camp.

12 October - Subalpine day

Phil Atkinson writes: Like migration sites worldwide, number of birds have been changing daily at Oursi. We had been expecting to find Subalpine Warblers here but had not seen any over the past 10 days or so. Today we caught 2 and saw another in the field. The situation here is fluid and Nightingales seem to have disappeared further south – hopefully The Ghanaian team will be picking them up.

9 - 12 October: Garde-boeufs

Phil Atkinson writes: The task of finding suitable ringing and transect sites continue. Oursi continues to offer surprises – an evening visit to the northern side of the lake produces a roosting Caspian Tern, the second record for the site, the first being in 1997. Also new species included Montagu's Harrier, Purple Heron, Little Egret and a closer look at the ducks reveal a number of migrant Garganey and Shoveler in amongst the masses of Whistling Ducks. These will be joined later by masses more migrant ducks from further north as the Niger Delta dries out and birds there are forced south.
The number of Cattle Egrets (Garde-boeufs in French) at roost is impressive and we counted 1500+ in the air at any one time. The continuous fly past of birds to roost continued for 30-40 minutes so 10,000+ is a conservative estimate of the number of birds roosting in the lake.

9 October: Foxpro

Phil Atkinson writes: Back at Oursi, we had managed to load up the Foxpro with migrant sounds. The Foxpro is marketed as a 'game caller', essentially marketed to the hunting fraternity in the USA. It stores up to 99 audio files and repeatedly plays them over and over again = perfect for ringing. We practice in the camp and tried out a few of the supplied sounds – the lion roars and hyena sounds caused some consternation amongst the resident goats and cattle but not a stampede as we possibly feared! The fact that a game caller had lion and other big Africa game sounds got us thinking about what it could be used for and the image was not pretty.

Electricity is a real issue here – there is no mains electricity so people in the camp rely on solar power to charge mobile phones etc. Unfortunately Chris’s RSPB computer is of the brick variety and so does not charge up. However, the SSG have a generator and are able to charge our mobiles, GPS, computers, batteries etc overnight and we had enough power to load the Foxpro with approx 12 songs of Palaearctic migrants (the Oursi 'mix') the day before. The results were definitely worth the trouble to get it working…

Most days we catch 20-30 birds in 3-5 nets. Although many UK ringers may think this is not a great catch rate, this is ideal for us. Judit is training Alie in ringing and both he and Omar are fantastic students but it takes time to explain how to use the moult of each bird to work out its age. Palearctic migrants are relatively easy (we know what to expect!) but the Afro-tropical species are very much an unknown quantity. Ageing and sexing is a nightmare in thee species – there can be up to 3 generations of feathers in some weaver species and you just have to record it, throw up our hands and just hope it becomes clear at some later date!

Back to the Foxpro, today we caught 15 migrants in c200 feet of netting (4 nets) which was our best yet. If we had more trained ringers we could operate many more nets. The 2 Wrynecks were a complete surprise (Omar and Alie had never seen these in the field) as was the Long-tailed Nightjar that Chris flushed as he was walking around the nets. The Foxpro brought in a variety of species including 1 Nightingale, 3 Bonelli's Warblers, Melodious Warbler and 5 Redstarts and really proved its worth. We took feather samples from every migrant caught as well as feathers from resident African Warblers. The aim is to look at the stable isotopes in the feathers to look at where birds are coming from in Europe.

Ghana: 4-9 October. Setting up at Damongo

Dr Danaë Sheehan writes: On arriving in the small town of Damongo we checked into the Home Touch Guesthouse, which the team will be using as a base whilst working in the area. Emmanuel Koduah had joined us from GWS in Accra to become the fifth and final member of the team in Ghana. Eric (a qualified and experienced chef as well as the driver), quickly set up a kitchen on the veranda, from where he produced his culinary specialities. After settling in at the guesthouse (which included evicting a small Monitor Lizzard from Nat's shower), our task here was to locate the ransects for point counts and set up two constant effort sites (CES) for mist-netting.

Phil and I had identified a few suitable areas back in May, which Chris, Nat, Emmanuel and I used as starting points. Our first CES site and the start of one of the transects was set up in the Damongo Scarp Forest Reserve, the boundary of which starts about 8 km before Damongo, with the reserve lying to the north of the road. The reserve continues along the northern side of the road, the far boundary being only 1 km from Damongo town. The reserve has a distinct feel of an English woodland with a good density of medium height trees, although bird density is surprisingly low. Despite being a reserve, there is evidence of timber extraction for charcoal, and also quite a number of planted non-native teak trees.

We located our second CES site among some remnant patches of acacia woodland with fairly dense undergrowth nearby to the main dam on the edge of town Here, much of the shore is farmed by local market gardeners, although further away from the shore there is quite extensive maize planting, and of course the ever present (and highly mobile) livestock grazing.
We then moved on to another forest reserve (KeniKeni) about half an hours drive from Damongo and contiguous with Mole NP. Being further from a settlement, Kenikeni FR represents a good example of a more pristine Guinea savannah woodland. With pristine habitat well represented, we also set up transects in the surrounding farmed areas so that we could look at how birds use a range of habitats along a degradation gradient.

Burkina Faso: 8 October: Back to the species rich woodland

Phil Atkinson writes: Morning broke at 5.30 and the familiar routine of getting out of camp went a bit quicker than normal. A trip back to Gorom-gorom, the nearest town, had revealed 3 other holes in the spare tyre’s inner tube so with fully-inflated tyres, we set off north again. Not a stork in sight this time and we got to the sites with no trouble at all. It was a revelation – as the picture below shows, the habitat here was totally different to that near Oursi – many more species, no browse line and lots of migrants! Luckily, Acacias are generally good for migrant passerines but this habitat was stuffed full of Pied and Spotted Flycatchers, Melodious Warblers, Willow Warblers, Redstarts, Bonelli’s Warblers. It tended to be very linear in nature and occur in the bottom of the dune slacks although the slopes were very gentle so that it was difficult to work out that was low lying dune slacks and what was a ridge. It brought it home to me that the Sahel in Burkina at least is full of gently undulating slopes with fairly hard impenetrable soils so that when it rains water flows along the surface to congregate in the lower areas, making it suitable for woodland to develop.
After the revelation about non-degraded habitat, we move further north still to some very degraded habitat (above) and the contrast with other areas we had seen became clear. Large areas had been completely cleared and all that was left were stumps. We now had areas where we could put transects to make sure we covered different habitats as well as sample across a degradation gradient…

The satellite image below (courtesy Googlemaps) shows just how complex the vegetation is in this region. The dunes can be seen running east-west and the areas of species rich woodland can be seen at the bottom running along lines marking where water collects and runs off when it rains. Sampling this is not going to be easy!

7 October part 2: Storks and frustration!

Phil Atkinson writes: Going north, we drove over “dunes mort” or dead dunes - sand dunes that had stabilised with a layer of vegetation. This habitat stretches over vast areas and is a series of undulating dune ridges and slacks. Going to the north we came across flocks of White Storks, probably 200+ were seen but they stretched along the tops of the dune ridges as far as the eye could see. I had never seen such flocks before and even Georges was impressed when we told him about this at a later date. They were wary of us and did not allow us to approach to closer than 150-200m. Unfortunately we had to leave them behind; we all would have liked to spend some time with them checking for colour rings but we had to carry on.
Punctures are an occupational hazard when you travel off road in the bush and today luck was not with us. We got to the non-degraded area and got out expecting to go out into the bush but it became apparent that one of the types was soft. Not a problem normally but when the spare is totally flat (the puncture repair the day before hadn’t fixed the problem) we had to immediately jump back in and get back to the village as soon as possible as it would have been a long walk back if the type had gone completely flat! This was really really frustrating!

7 October: Degraded or non degraded?

Phil Atkinson writes: It all became clear today! Alie and Omar had told us the day before that ‘les vieux’, the elders in the village, talked about how habitats have changed in living memory. My original impression of degradation just being fewer, smaller trees was simplistic. Although there are not many species of woody vegetation in the Sahel, the areas around the lake and village have a very limited species list – lots of one or two species of Acacia and a few Balanites, succulent spiny bush. In fact spines, some 1-2 inches long and pin sharp, was the common feature amongst the majority of trees we had seen. Alie and Omar explained that 40 years ago there had been many trees present “sans pins”, ie many non-spiny trees had been present but because they were good for making poles (used in construction), firewood and making prayer boards the additional pressure of thousands of goats preferentially eating the non spiny vegetation had caused it all to disappear leaving the spiny trees alone in the landscape.

We set off to an area 15km to the north where there was a large area of non-degraded vegetation. Feeling we were about to crack this problem, we set off at 6am to the north.

4- 6 October: Searching for sites

Phil Atkinson writes: One of the main issues facing both people and birds in the Sahel is the issue of habitat degradation. At each of the five study areas in Ghana and Burkina, we aim to sample birds in all major habitat types but also across a degradation gradient from ‘pristine’ to very degraded habitat. In Ghana the situation is quite simple; there are forest reserves which are as near pristine as you get and then there is a gradient of an increasing amount of farmland with consequent tree loss to very intensive farming, or plantations of species like oil palm where the is very little semi natural vegetation or tall trees. Cocoa plantations are in between – the practice of using tall native or introduced trees to shade the cocoa forms a forest-like structure that is probably quite good for some migrant species.

In the Sahel, working out what is degraded is more difficult. Use of trees for fuelwood, overgrazing by livestock (goats mostly) and clearance for agriculture are the greatest causes of degradation. During these days we have been exploring areas surrounding the lake and Alie and Omar were probably getting fed up with Chris and myself incessantly asking ‘Is this very degraded or moderately degraded…’ More often than not we had totally misread the habitat and were told it was natural...! I was really scratching my head when they told us that some of the what I thought were nice, fairly natural, thick acacia bushes was actually moderately degraded habitat. By this time, I was totally confused and finally asked the question we should have asked at the beginning – is there any non-degraded habitat near Oursi!

3 October, part two: First ringing

The fieldwork for this winter consists of daily counts on transects (essentially a 4 km hike, counting every 200m) and ringing. Judit Mateos, a ringer from Catalonia, volunteered to join the field team for the three months from October to March. Alie (right in picture) and Omar (left) were extremely keen to start ringing as well so we set up some nets in Acacia bushes around the camp. Whilst we were putting up the nets we caught our first bird – a Vinaceous Dove. This was soon followed by our first migrant, a Melodious Warbler and then followed by a species I wasn't really expecting – a stunning male Orphean Warbler! Success was ensured with several Redstarts and more Melodious and in our first morning with only 4 nets we felt that ringing would be really valuable not only in picking up species that we did not see in the field (we never saw another Orphean Warbler in the field for instance) but also be a useful way of measuring abundance.

3 October: A blitz of migrants

Phil Atkinson writes: A morning walk on the north side of the lake in the Acacia bushes and then out into cropping land and grassland brought a whole load of new migrant species. Wood, Green, and Common Sandpipers, Ruff, Black-winged Stilt, Little Stints and Ringed and Little Ringed Plovers were all present. Moving away from the lake brought Woodchat Shrikes, Pied and Spotted Flycatchers, Northern Wheatears in the bare bits, Barn Swallows, a solitary Whitethroat, House Martins, Yellow Wagtails as well as the ever present Melodious and Olivaceous Warblers. Melodious Warblers, which I have tended to think of as birds that winter further south were the commonest migrant and were singing vigorously at the top of seemingly every bush.

Moving through the Acacia we came across a plantation of Prosopis, an introduced shrub that for some reason the goats and sheep do not seem to graze. The Ghana team had had a Nightingale singing in this the day before and sure enough 2 birds were doing a quiet subsong that was unmistakeably Nightingale-like. Having spent so much time looking at the ecology of this species in the UK and collaborating on a major European project to track these birds using dataloggers, it was great to see them in the field. Chris H thought is was very similar to habitats Nightingales occurred in the UK – large bushes which came down to the ground and had a fairly open interior. Migrants selecting similar habitats in summer and winter was a theme we would come back to later on in the trip.

2 October 2009: Oursi and first migrants!

Phil Atkinson writes: We were able to leave Ouaga at 8am on day to to go into the field, less than 12 hours after arriving – quite amazing. A five hour trip to the Mare d’Oursi in the north of Burkina brought me back to a site that 5 months previously was a totally dry dustbowl with 8,000 cattle, sheep, goats, horses, camels, and donkeys scratching around in the middle of the dry lake trying to find remnants of water to drink. Now it was an oasis in comparison, being totally full of water. I had expected open water but it was a mass of grasses, lilies and open water – perfect for the thousands of waterbirds the site holds in winter. Stepping out of the car we met up with the Ghana team (Danae Sheehan (RSPB), Chris Hewson (BTO) and Nat) as well as Georges Oueda who is the Director of Conservation at Naturama. It was good to see them and they were full of what they had seen at Oursi the past day. We also met Alie and Omar, two members of the Site Support Group. The group is made up of locals who are concerned about the Ramsar site and effectively play a guardian role to safeguard the site. The SSG were very keen on the project and the aim is that their members take over the bird monitoring that is done at this site.

Arriving in the middle of the day meant we couldn’t do much because of the heat so we sought shade in the Campement Aounaf which is where we were staying and caught up with the others over cups of bitter Tuareg tea. The first cup is astringent but subsequent cups become more palatable as the the leaves lose their strength.
By 3pm is was cool enough to venture out and a walk around the camp to the lake immediately brought a Spotted Flycatcher and in the Acacia bushes, several Redstarts, Melodious Warblers and an Olivacaous Warbler. As it got dark, large numbers of Turtle Doves came into roost in the Acacias. These roosts are poorly known but some have been recorded in excess of 10,000 birds. This was nowhere near that number (maybe hundreds) but still it was the first time I had seen this phenomenon. I realised that this was actually a year tick – a sad indictment of the very large declines seen in the UK over recent years.

1 October 2009: Arrival in Ouaga

Phil Atkinson writes: Apart from having to leave Norwich at 2am the trip to Ouaga went smoothly. Despite having a huge luggage allowance the addition of a printer sent us over the requisite number of bags and we had to pay £132 in excess baggage. I considered pleading to Air France's better nature but the office staff weren’t having any of it!

Stepping off the air conditioned plane in Ouagadougou, the familiar wall of heat and humidity hit us. There is a very definite smell associated with African soils and the parched smell of baked earth was a comforting one - it held the promise of some exciting times ahead. Arrival at airports in Africa is often chaotic but despite a possible hiccup in customs (“Just what are these 130 metre-long metal tubes for and where’s the receipt…”) the mere mention of the name Naturama brought smiles and the ever present ‘Bon…’ and we were waved through.

Mohammed from Naturama met us and after changing money and shopping we met up with Judit Herreros, our volunteer ringer from Spain and settled in for the night at the Catholic Aids mission - the cheap accommodation of choice in Ouaga!

Ghana: 1-4 October. In Burkina Faso

Danaë Sheehan writes: The best thing about arriving somewhere in the dark is that your surrounding are kept as a surprise for the dawn. We made the most of the cooler (although it's all relative...) air of the morning and spent sometime looking for migrants along the shore of the Mare d'Oursi and in the surrounding acacia thickets. Before too much time was up we had managed quite a list, including Nightingale (singing from the thickest areas of bush), Melodious, Olivaceous, Subalpine, Bonelli's and Willow Warblers, Redstart, Spotted and Pied Flycatcher, Northern Wheatear, European Turtle Dove, Eurasian Marsh Harrier and Great Spotted Cuckoo. Needless to say there were also plenty of quite wonderfully coloured resident species, including Beautiful Sunbird, Abyssinian Roller and Woodland Kingfisher. The muddy, shallow lake shore held a good selection of waders, including migrant Ringed and Little Ringed Plovers, Common, Green, Wood and Marsh Sandpipers and both Little and Temminck's Stints. By the time Phil, Chris Orsman (the RSPB lead of the fieldwork team in Burkina Faso) and Judit arrived from Ouagadougou on 2nd October, all we could talk about was the potential of the area and what we had seen. Sadly we had to leave them the next day and headed once again southwards back into Ghana and to our first field site at Damongo.

Ghana: 28-30 September. Heading north

Danaë Sheehan writes: Chris Hewson (BTO lead of the fieldwork team in Ghana until the end of December) arrived in Accra late Monday night to join me in the final stages of the project set up. Having been met at the airport by Eric and myself, we whisked him off to the guest house, only to find that there was no power, everywhere was dark and that the room he had been allocated was immediately adjacent to the emergency generator! Never mind, I said, we only have 6 hours anyway before we need to set off to the north! Chris described his first night in Ghana as something akin to trying to sleep in a warm oven next to a lorry with it's engine running. I think he was quite glad when Eric picked us up at 4.30am....

We then spent the best part of the next 48 hours sat in the Hilux whilst the West African countryside whizzed quickly by, punctuated only briefly by a few hours sleep in Bolgatanga and a border crossing at Paga. We needed to head up to the northernmost site in Burkina Faso to meet up with the other field team and drop off some field kit for them before the start of fieldwork. We had been joined for this trip by Nat Annorbah, who would be the GWS lead on the project and would work with the field team in Ghana. Whilst it's never nice being sat in a fast moving car for hours on end, it nevertheless gave both Chris and Nat a chance to see how dramatically the habitat changes as you follow a northwards transect from the moist forests in the south, right through to the Sahel in the north. Our schedule was so tight that it was frustrating not being able to stop and look at any birds, although we did manage a Whinchat during one of our 'comfort' breaks......

Having picked up Georges Oueda (the Director of Conservation at Naturama) in Ouagadougou, we finally arrived at Oursi in the dark, passing through both torrential rain and a dust storm along the worst section of road. The surface water was so widespread that at times it had seemed like we were driving across the surface of a lake. Recent unseasonal flooding had been a problem across huge swathes of West Africa only a month earlier, and despite the fact that we were now supposed to be in the 'dry' season, the region clearly hadn't seen the last of the rains. However, it was dry by the time we neared Oursi, and we were lucky enough to see several Nightjars on the road, though unable to see what species they were. On arriving at the camp in Oursi, we dined outside before retiring to bamboo sleeping platforms under the stars. Thankfully these were blessed with mosquito nets as the creatures were relentless and very, very abundant!

Ghana: 26-27 September. Atewa and Kakum

Danaë Sheehan writes: Augustus and myself head out of Accra before first light to reach the Atewa Range Forest Reserve which lie just west of the main Accra-Kumasi road. We had come here to have a look at an area that we had hoped to include in the project, but for which there was now a few concerns. It had transpired that there was a great deal of illegal logging in the area, and because of this it would be difficult to guarantee that either the fieldworkers, or their camp, would be safe. After a few hours looking around the area and walking into the forest at a few points, it was clear that our concerns had been justified, and so with regret, we left the area and headed off to search for an alternative. We had decided that the area around Kakum National Park would provide the best options, and headed down in that direction. Kakum National Park is less than an hour north of Cape Coast – west of Accra. It protects some of the most extensive rainforest habitat in Ghana, being predominantly moist semi-deciduous forest – with lots of rainfall! Having spent a good few hours exploring possibilities for transects, ringing sites and camp sites, we were confident that it would make a great team base for our southern-most Ghanaian site. An area of coastal scrub just west of Cape Coast added to the diversity in the general area, meaning that the team would also fairly easily be able to gather data from this interesting and important habitat too.

Ghana: 24-25 September. Equipment, meetings, meetings, equipment...

Danaë Sheehan writes: Plenty to organise and several meetings to attend – a busy two days. Aside from the huger amount of equipment that we had sent out already, and that I had brought with me on the plane, there is still lots of bits and pieces to buy locally. First however, I am introduced to the brand new project field vehicle – a lovely shiny Toyota Hilux (it won't stay so clean for long...). I am introduced to Eric Kudjoe, the driver who is going to be working with the field team in Ghana – he is obviously very proud to have such a lovely new truck! We fix the project partner logos to the vehicle doors and head out into Accra to source the last few bits of field equipment – primarily camping gear that the team working in Ghana will need when they work in the forests. We also have a hard top fitted to the back of the truck so that the equipment is well covered (and secure!), protecting it from all the dusty roads. A power cut considerably delays this process, but the resourceful mechanics persevere with the help of a hacksaw and finally manage to fit it just before it gets dark. All this frenetic activity is interspersed with meetings with GWS, Legon University, the Ghana Ringing Scheme and the Wildlife Division, sorting out staff and budgeting issues, bird rings, and Government Research permissions. More and more loose ends getting tied up and the project really coming together.

Ghana: 23 September. Back in West Africa

Danaë Sheehan (RSPB project lead) writes: After months of project planning, the time is finally here and I find myself once again in Ghana, this time to finalise all the ground arrangements in readiness for the field teams arrival at the beginning of October. I am met at the airport by a smiling Emmanuel – always good to see a friendly face when arriving at a busy West African airport at night! Along with Augustus Asamoah, Emmanuel had accompanied Phil Atkinson (BTO project lead) and myself when we visited in May for a project scoping visit - both work for the Ghana Wildlife Society (GWS). He helps me with the 3 enormous bags of equipment that I have with me and we head in the dark to the GWS head office to drop them off before I finally retire for the night. It's been a long day, but only the start of many.....

Welcome to our new blog! Here we will keep you informed about the latest developments and news from the projects in Africa as we investigate the possible causes of decline of summer migrants.

The decline in numbers of many birds migrating between Europe and Africa has been extremely rapid. Species like the Wood Warbler and Pied Flycatcher have undergone declines of 60% in the past 15 years.

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 fieldwork in Africa is a joint partnership between BTO and RSPB in the UK, the Ghana Wildlife Society and Naturama in Burkina Faso. During the winter of 2009/2010, migrants will be monitored at five different stations in a line from the north of Burkina Faso southwards to the coast in Ghana. The aim of this wide-ranging project is to understand how Palearctic-African migrants use and move around the different vegetation zones found in West Africa from the semi-desert Sahelian region to the lush tropical rainforest in southern Ghana. At each station 7-10 transects will be placed in habitat along a degradation gradient so we will be able to look at how habitat change can impact densities of birds.