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.

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.