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 25 January: First impressions...

Mark Hulme writes: Over the course of the first four transects I regularly picked up migrants on or between points, mostly Pied Flycatchers in the open, burnt woodland and Willow Warblers in the canopies. The Pied Flycatchers seem to like the open woodland with burnt understory, perhaps the burning makes the habitat more suitable for them? There were also a handful of Whinchats in maize fields and other open areas. There were a number of Whinchats in the same field last year as I saw two in this year, I know from Nigeria that they can be quite site-specific and often stick to the same territory the whole winter, they certainly like the large stubble-fields. Daniel, who usually works on smaller taxa, is a very good worker and tirelessly helpful.

Paul had a quiet first two days numbers-wise but two Pied Flycatchers on the last net round of the first day made up for it and getting to grips with an entirely new set of species has kept him busy. Seems pie-flies are certainly around in higher numbers here than last year. The one days ringing at the dam ringing site did not produce any migrants, though there were Pied Flycatchers and Willow Warblers around, the sparcity of lower vegetation seems to make trapping the birds quite difficult.

I am still delighted on my transects by views of White Helmet-shrikes and the mechanical song of the Fork-tailed Drongo. Long may that last. Paul tried out an area search method to see if it is more efficient than the points and transect used for surveying so far, this is a pilot year after all and we want to try out the possibilities, and records similar numbers of migrants as I discovered in the same areas. It may need a bit of tweaking but certainly has potential, we will see if it is adopted in subsequent years.

I am currently looking forward to starting work in Mole National Park, an area which has not escaped the bush burning we’ve witnessed throughout the whole area, and neither has the campsite! There is virtually no shade for the tents and cooking area so the decision was made to stay in Damongo and drive to the park every day. This morning we did a game drive with Zack, a park ranger who will be helping us with fieldwork and who, wonderfully, knows his birds! The heat was intense but we managed good views of Elephants and a variety of antelope species. It’s a pity large carnivores are so rare in West Africa, the smart money is on the resident Lion population having died out but there’s still a chance some might survive. Our ringing site is a bit exposed to both tourists and animals, and it also burnt, so we will scope out an alternative site tomorrow. Oh yes, and Ghana won again – into the semis!

All in all a good start and I feel like we are gathering some very interesting data on migrant movements and habitat requirements which will be very useful in working out the reasons for the declines in so many migrant populations witnessed in Europe, thank you to all of you who have contributed to the Out of Africa appeal!

Ghana 17 January 2010: Fieldwork starts again

Mark Hulme writes: left Thetford in anticipation at 4:15am on the 17th of January to get the slow bus to Gatwick and meet Paul Watts, the volunteer ringer, in the departure lounge. The flight was delayed by one and a half hours and then a long wait at Tripoli airport but we eventually arrive in Accra around 11:30pm, are met by Nat and Eric and taken to our hotel. Hot and humid but could be much worse, only 30 degrees hotter than snowy England! Met by Nat and Eric again the next morning, Nat having got very little sleep after an earthquake scare spread around Ghana leading to people sleeping outside their homes, it turned out to be a hoax involving rays from Mars, apparently…’s good to be back in Africa! My first impressions of Ghana are all in comparison to my experience of Nigeria, where I did fieldwork for my PhD and enjoyed myself immensely, so far it seems a rather cleaner and less hectic version of the same country. Liking it very much.

Left at 5am on the 19th for the long drive to Damongo, joined this time by Daniel, a Masters student from Accra who is helping out for a couple of weeks. It is always fascinating to travel along a line of latitude in West Africa – it’s such a relatively consistent zone of habitats from the wet, forested south to the dry northern savannas and we experience it all today. Thank goodness for air-conditioning is all I will say….

Arrived at the guest house in time for Ghana vs. Burkina Faso in the African Cup of Nations. Ghana win 1–0 so progress to the quarter finals. I bet Chris Orsman (leader of the field team in Burkina Faso) is gutted! After a comfortable nights sleep in our guest house I headed off with Daniel to start the first transect of point counts along the side of the dam whilst Paul and Nat scoped out the forest edge ringing site, deciding the site is so burnt the previous net positions were not viable and set up nets by the remaining areas of vegetation nearby, returning covered in ash. I got my first experience of the Ghanaian savanna, with plenty of bird species familiar from Nigeria, and am pleasantly surprised with the number of migrants including four Willow Warblers, four Pied Flycatchers and two Olivaceous Warblers on the walk back to the guest house. There has been plenty of burning going on. After an excellent lunch (Eric’s meals are consistently superb!) we checked out the dam ringing site to find it also burnt but, with lower vegetation, perhaps more suitable for continuing with the constant effort net positions.

13th January: Back to Africa

Mark Hulme from BTO will be flying out to Ghana in a few days to resume fieldwork with our colleagues from GWS and Paul Watts, our new ringing volunteer. We are all waiting with interest, news on the numbers of migrants that the team finds – and hoping that they are more abundant than two months previously when the team last visited each of the sites.

18th December: Back from Ghana

The Ghana team finished fieldwork on 16th December after more than 12 weeks continuous fieldwork and travel up and down the country. Tales of bad weather in England began to filter through and Ian Dillon arrived home on Friday 18th to find a carpet of snow. I was not so lucky though and was sent home from the airport that evening and told they would ‘try again tomorrow’ to get my flight to Heathrow underway…. It was not long though before I arrived back in the UK to a carpet of snow and a heavily pregnant girlfriend, in sharp contrast to the balmy conditions of September that I had left behind!

Despite illness and other assorted challenges our team managed to carry out all of the surveys and ringing activities that we had hoped to during the pre-Christmas period. Although most migrants were still thin on the ground in the south, we had witnessed the arrival of good numbers of Willow Warblers from the north during the month or so since the rains had stopped. Prior to this African migrants (such as White-throated Bee-eaters and Shikras) had moved south with the rains, emphasising to us how migration was a truly pervasive phenomenon and not just restricted to birds coming from Europe. Good numbers of Pied Flycatchers had been present in the two northern sites since October although Spotted Flycatchers, seen in the two most southern sites, seemed to decline after November. The southern-most site, in the area around Kakum National Park, looked good for Wood Warblers as well as the likes of Garden Warblers and Nightingales in the surrounding farmland but was still drenched in rain and mist when we left and the only migrant noted was a single Tree Pipit. The drier scrub on the coast nearby held good numbers of Garden Warblers and Nightingales, though, suggesting that the moister areas inland might become more suitable once the rains had finally stopped there.