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: 27th February - From Kakum back to Damongo - What's changed?

Mark Hulme writes: The fourth visit has started in earnest now, we’ve just finished Damongo and preparing for the journey to Kogyae again. After finishing off Brenu Beach earlier in the month, with no more migrants seen on the second transect there and just one garden warbler re-trapped from the previous morning, we said goodbye to the beach, for now, and started in Kakum. Kakum National Park consists of semi-deciduous forest and hosts a wide variety of forest bird species plus, hopefully, the odd migrant or two.

The transects were markedly different to those I’d conducted previously, with lush vegetation and much degraded forest amongst palm oil and cocoa plantations and subsistance farmland. Many forest understory and second-growth species such as green crombec, western nicator, grey-headed bristlebill, brown illadopsis and red-bellied paradise flycatcher can be seen (or, in many cases, more often heard) outside the park but migrants were pretty low on the ground, with just two spotted flycatchers seen foraging after a thunderstorm. In the air, however, it was a slightly different story, with one honey buzzard flying overhead, 30 barn swallows seen over a number of different transects and 15 common swifts, with some more also spotted walking between transects. Not huge numbers but an indication of the geographic variation in the swallow and swift wintering ranges at this time of the year in Ghana as these were not recorded on transects elsewhere on this visit. A small number of points on the canopy walkway within the park was where a number of the common swift were viewed and also provided some excellent birding with species such as blue-headed wood dove, red-billed helmet shrike, forest woodhoopoe and Ussher’s flycatcher readily visible. Being in the canopy of a rainforest in the early morning must be one of the best experiences for anyone interested in wildlife.

The continued lack of wood warblers was a little disapointing, indicating that either they are wintering elsewhere, are at very low densities or that they are just not being detected in the dense forest habitat. This has certainly been the most challenging part of the trip so far from a migrant-detection point of view. The lack of wood warblers, or other migrants, during the ringing sessions would, however, seem to add weight to the theory that there just aren’t that many around. Kemp’s longbill, yellow-browed cameroptera and speckled tinkerbird partly made up for it this time around.

A point on the canopy walkway, Kakum National Park

Palm oil plantation, Brenu

After picking up Steve Dodd and Rachel Taylor, the new ringing volunteers, from Accra airport we headed north again to Damongo, unfortunately without two of their bags but they made it on the next flight and joined us three days later! As noted in Chris’s blog from Nazinga further north in Burkina Faso the vegetation in the savanna zone has been recovering from the lack of water and burning, with some low green grass sprouting, a few more leaves on the trees and some low saplings around with dense foliage which was not present before. The birds may have moved around a little with pied flycatchers and willow warblers more numerous on some transects than before and absent on some transects where they had been common previously. It is difficult to say, at this stage, whether there is a pattern here, but one transect which passed through some of the densest canopy open woodland contained 8 pied flycatchers compared to five last time, though only two were on points, and one transect in Mole National Park did not yield a single pied flycatcher whereas six were seen or heard in January. In Mole it seemed as if the vegetation had not grown as much as outside the park and may even have become drier that in January, so perhaps prey species were suffering. Willow warblers were singing a lot more than last time, unsurprising, perhaps, seeing as in a few weeks they will be returning to their breeding grounds to establish territories. Three whinchats were also observed, one woodchat shrike and three melodious warblers, one singing, behaviour which had not been observed on the last visit. A nice male common redstart with a marsh harrier flying overhead brightened up one point and a few house martins also seem to have appeared.

A bit greener than last time - a point on transect 1, Damongo

Whinchat in degraded savanna, Damongo

The ringing effort has been increased with two ringers present. Outside the constant effort sites more nets have been opened and targeted for certain species, which has enabled decent catches of migrants, with 14 in total over six days ringing, including two pied flycatchers, six willow warblers, five melodious warblers (including one recaptured having been ringed in October at the same ringing site) and a nightingale. One little bittern was also caught, though we have yet to confirm if this is the migratory or resident sub-species. Of the more exciting African resident species caught a gabar goshawk and a red-necked buzzard were two highlights and four stunning blue-breasted kingfishers in one morning in Mole just seems a bit greedy to me! After taking down the nets this morning we all went round the corner to see the elephants go for a swim in the nearby lake, with more than a hint of envy in our eyes.

Kogyae awaits for us now, where we hear there has been rain, it will be interesting to see if this precipitates (sorry) another change in migrant numbers. Until next time….

Tina and Rachel ringing a red-billed firefinch in Mole National Park

Willow warbler, Mole National Park

Northern puffback male, Mole National Park

Burkina Faso: Ringing Report from Nazinga 6 – 17 February

Tim Walker writes: The Burkina Team are now back in the capital, Ouagadougou, for 2 nights, before travelling north again to Oursi for our final stint there this trip.

Picture of me sporting traditional Tuareg headgear....just the thing for the sun (although notice how I've found a nice patch of shade....!)

So we are halfway through the programme and already there are stark differences between the 2 sites. From a ringing perspective, operations at the Ranch de Gibier de Nazinga revealed a more than significant drop in captures as compared to Oursi. With an identical 11 netting sessions of comparable time span, the total numbers caught were 337 new and 20 retraps. This gives a combined running total of 1223 new and 86 retraps, making 1289 captures.

Of this 1289 total, 27.7% has come from Nazinga and 72.3% from Oursi. The most revealing fact about the Nazinga catch is that it only contains 1 Palaearctic migrant, a solitary first winter male Redstart! And that, despite tape luring on alternative mornings using a variety of species calls, though concentrating on phylloscopus warblers and Pied Flycatcher.

Whilst at Nazinga we continued to catch small numbers of African warblers such as Grey-backed Camaroptera, Tawny-flanked Prinia, and Senegal Eremomela. Perhaps the most challenging to extract were a small party of 3 Bearded Barbets that seemed to be attracted to the mixed phylloscopus tape! They are hideously beautiful with massive vice-like bills and clenched feet that make Starlings a breeze to extract by comparison. Nor for the faint hearted, let alone raw trainees!

As a first time visitor to this part of the world the window of new birds revealed to me is staggering. Too many to list here, but some of the most dramatic include White Helmet Shrike, Bruce’s Green Pigeon, Grey-headed Bush Shrike, Red-throated Bee-eater, Giant Kingfisher, Pied-winged Swallow, Green Wood-hoopoe, Lavender Waxbill, African White-backed Vulture, Yellow-billed Shrike, both Lesser and Greater Honeyguide, Pearly Spotted Owlet, Banded Martin, Yellow-fronted Tinkerbird, Blue-breasted Kingfisher, Black-crowned Tchagra, Striped Kingfisher, 3 species of sunbird, Yellow Penduline Tit, White-rumped Swift, White-shouldered Black Tit, Yellow-mantled Widowbird, Grey-headed Kingfisher, Little Bee-eater, Greater Painted Snipe, African Fish Eagle and Yellow-fronted Canary.

A Red-throated Bee-eater - a truly stunning bird.

The other notable difference between the 2 sites is that at Nazinga there are no domesticated goats, sheep, cattle, or donkeys. There are mammals, but they tend to be of the wild variety. Hence we are enraptured by Elephants daily, Anubis baboons, Green Monkey, Warthog, Roan Antelope, Waterbuck, Bushbuck, Oribi and Buffon’s Kob. Nile crocodiles are viewed from a safe distance in the lakes!

At Oursi nets are set at height to allow all but cattle to pass underneath. At Nazinga its fingers crossed as anything larger than a monkey or warthog will trash your net if contact is made! So far so good at that site.....

Burkina Faso: Nazinga 05/02/10 – 18/02/10

Chris Orsman writes: Back in December, our last spell in Nazinga, much of the landscape was charred following the burning of the savannas. What has changed is that so many of the once sorry looking trees and shrubs are now bright with new growth, and whilst many taller species are fruiting, yet more are now in flower.

Much more obvious than last time are the Scarlet-chested, Pygmy and Beautiful Sunbirds, busy about the flowering shrubs and very vocal defending territories. Alongside these, the local warblers are out in force. Tawny-flanked Prinias seem to be everywhere, as are the Grey-backed Camaropteras, and more than one large cisticola (Croaking or Winding – I’m still not too sure!) but most noticeable are the Senegal Eremomelas, like the sunbirds, now highly vocal and territorial. Something about the habitat has improved post-fires.

The first of the few migrants encountered was a sole Northern Wheatear, on our first transect outside of the ranch on nearby farmland. During all the 3 “farmland” transects, the dry weedy stubbles didn’t appear to be supporting as much as on previous visits - perhaps supplies are exhausted – but the lack of Whinchats and just one Tree Pipit was made up for by a scattering of Woodchat Shrikes, a couple of Emin’s Shrikes, and at least two breeding pairs of Hueglin’s Wheatears.

Our first transect back within the ranch transect has altered beyond recognition, as it passes through a research zone that is not supposed to be burnt. A fire broke out here in January, and at this late stage the grasses are that much drier than early December. As it was accidental, no one was on hand at first to control it, and it spread like, well, you-know-what! It also drastically changed one of our ringing sites, so much so that all the net rides were very open, and we considered moving to a new spot. Walking through this habitat promised little, but amazingly, it is now alive with even more Hueglin’s Wheatears than the farmland. This late burn of old grassland clearly favours them, as they weren’t recorded in any of the other earlier-burnt areas.
On the first woodland transect, the first Pied Flycatchers were seen, albeit just 3! We did elsewhere see least 3 other individuals, but not one more on any other transects. Even our “whole area search”, which centred on some very promising habitat, failed to uncover any others. Compensating for this was the now more visible Swamp Flycatchers, Pale Flycatchers and Senegal Batis.

As for the mystery of the Willow Warblers, almost entirely absent in December, they remained non-existent at Nazinga, until our 9th day. Early on two successive mornings, a handful of individuals either called or sang, but very briefly. In November, they were abundant and singing almost all morning, behaving as leaf warblers should, foraging in the fine extremities of tall, birch-like trees in full leaf (will endeavour to find out the species for next time!). By December, the leaves had browned or fallen. These trees remain largely bare in early February. However, a close examination of a few specimens shows that these are producing new growth, and that this in turn is already supporting invertebrates. Could the first few Willow Warblers be the vanguards of some hoards which will arrive in time for a full canopy in early March?
Green and Common Sandpipers have been seen about lake shores almost daily, and occasional “flava” wagtails, Barn Swallows and a few Sand Martins. A single Black Stork was also recorded.Onwards to the Sahel once more, where temperatures we hear are soaring! How will the birds cope? Will our nets survive the livestock? And most curiously, will Tim eventually turn into a chicken after eating nothing but poulet for 2 months?

Ghana 7th February - From Mole to Kogyae to Brenu

Mark Hulme writes: Mole National Park proved to be another good site for pied flycatchers, with six seen along one transect, once again in the open woodland, although the busy ringing site only yielded a tree pipit and a green sandpiper as the token migrants amongst over 100 birds caught. Despite willow warblers and pied flycatchers being present and the net positions at the new site seeming to be promising they refused to be caught. At least there were no problems with large mammals, with the elephants prefering to wallow in the dam next to the old site and the kob, bushbuck and waterbuck watering elsewhere.

Daniel, Paul, Nat and Zack having just opened the nets at the Mole ringing site

Daniel checks fat on a yellow-crowned gonolek

Paul with a green sandpiper

Grey-headed kingfisher

Lavender waxbill

On the way to the next site, Kogyae, Daniel left us to attend his lectures in Accra and we were joined by Ernestina, a graduate who will be with us for the rest of the fieldwork. Kogyae, in the central-belt of Ghana, is savanna but rather less dry and more vegetated than around Damongo. Seven transects revealed good numbers of willow warblers in the trees around the farmland, fewer pied flycatchers than further north, though some did frequent the farmland as well as the patchy teak and cashew plantations with open understories, and a few more melodious warblers in the woodland than in Damongo. Two spotted flycatchers were seen foraging in the farmland and whinchats were numerous in certain areas of open farmland, both stubble fields and burnt areas, which presumably still maintain some prey for them. Although the cohort of migrant species is similar to further north early indications suggest that there seem to be some interesting latitudinal differences in numbers of birds and the habitats they use. The ringing sites were quiet and produced two melodious warblers and a spotted flycatcher in the challenging woodland habitat.

Tina next to a tree that hosted two willow warblers in farmland near Kogyae

Mark and Tina after battling through some particularly burnt scrub

and the scrub in question...

Kogyae is a beautiful place and the reserve guards are very helpful and knowledgeable but the sun was unyielding and we were all quite relieved to see the lush vegetation and a few clouds in the sky as we approached Brenu Beach to work the coastal scrub for three days. It was amazing to see the the 500 year old colonial castles silhoueted against the Atlantic Ocean and the scale of this project becomes aparent when you think of the work being conducted all the way from here to the sahel in Burkina Faso. My first transect here displayed the difficulties of surveying for cryptic species in thick vegetation with two singing nightingales detected in the scrub between points to add to the handful of whinchats, three greenshank and one ringed plover seen along the coastal lagoon. The importance of the ringing activity was thus confirmed when the first day threw up four garden warblers, all part-way though their winter moult. It is at times like this, as I write this blog on a tropical beach with nightingales and garden warblers 50 metres away, that battling through the various challenges we have faced to collect this data all seems worth it! So one more day at Brenu Beach and onwards and upwards to Kakum and the completion of the third round of site visits. I’m not so keen to talk about the football this time…Ghana so nearly won the Africa Cup of Nations – Egypt just scraped past them in the final.

A garden warbler caught at Brenu Beach

Paul rings a laughing dove, Brenu Beach

Nat ringing a pied flycatcher in Damongo

Daniel collecting habitat data on a point count in Damongo

Burkina Faso 4 February 2010: Team back in action

Chris Orsman writes: We arrived back in Oursi on the 20th January, to find we had lots of new neighbours next to our camp near the lake. As the dry season continues, the smaller surrounding lakes and watering holes disappear, and with all the crops well and truly finished many people from the surrounding countryside up-sticks and settle nearer to what remains of le Mare d’Oursi. The lake is dwindling, but water is still relatively plentiful and the local livestock numbers are growing.

On our first day we met up with our marvellous local colleagues Aly and Omar, to show Tim Walker (the team's new volunteer ringer) around some of the ringing sites, and we were immediately struck by the presence of sizeable mixed flocks of finches, weavers, queleas and, most abundant, Sudan Golden Sparrows. Their numbers have swollen dramatically, as Tim can testify in his ringing update...

The first forays into the hinterland of the lake uncovered former savannas now reduced to sands and loose chaff of grass and crops, but still managing to attract decent numbers of Woodchat and Southern Grey Shrikes. Despite the lack of any apparent live ground cover, there are clearly some invertebrates to be found. Amazingly here, as at the lake shore, many more goats and cattle can be found searching for meagre pickings amongst the dust.

The transects began promisingly, with right at the start our first and only Sedge Warbler at Oursi! Aslo, more Subalpine Warblers and Olivaceous Warbler seen on transect 1 than throughout the whole batch of ten transects at the end of November. Bonelli’s Warblers are still numerous, including 20 on one transect. During a 1 hour whole-area search of 500mx500m near to one of our ringing sites, we counted 25 Bonelli’s Warblers, and may well have missed a few more! Also seen during this search were 2 each of Common Redstarts, Olivaceous Warblers and Orphean Warblers. Common Whitethroats have become less discerning and have been recorded on more transects than last visit, but their numbers are still greatest in the more mixed woodland/scrub to the north. Also up north we saw the only Common Chiffchaff of the whole visit. There are more Hoopoes around, the African race boosted by more European birds – I think I’m finally getting to grips with separating them!

Northern Wheatears remain visible on most habitats, but more so on more stable soils, and again the few Black-eared Wheatears were seen in what appears to be the more degraded, but therefore more open habitats.

Aside from the greater number of Turtle Doves being seen again, the lake and it’s environs appear to be pulling in their relatives, with it seems many more Namaqua Doves and African Collared Doves. The latter can be seen by the lake shore early morning stocking up on water before heading back to forage “inland”.

Also of some note has been the apparent increase in the number of local warblers recorded, amongst them the Senegal Eremomela, Grey-backed Camaroptera and Northern Crombec. The latter have been more easily noted as they seem to be readily singing everywhere, but all three have been pretty vocal. Is this a genuine increase, or are they just more obvious? More news will follow our next stint at Nazinga. Not sure what that will bring, but elephants are guaranteed!

Burkina Faso: Ringing update from Oursi 22 Jan-2 Feb 2010

Tim Walker writes: The first sessions of two at Oursi are complete. Following the same net plans as used in 2009; we completed the required 8 daily sessions between the 4 sub-sites. We also managed an extra session at Oursi East and an additional 2 sessions at a new site labelled Oursi Lake (between Oursi Camp and Oursi East) that used fewer nets in order to reduce catch size. The reason being to enable more time given over to training local ringers (difficult when catching many birds and priority is speed of processing).

The total of 11 sessions yielded 932 captures of which 866 were new and 66 were retraps. Within these figures, Western Palearctic migrants account for 88 new and 29 retraps. The most prolific of these were Western Bonelli’s Warbler (25 + 2 retraps); Common Whitethroat (17 + 7 retraps); Western Olivaceous Warbler (10 + 2 retraps); Orphean Warbler (pictured below, 7 + 3 retraps); Common Redstart (3 + 7 retraps); Subalpine Warbler 7; and Chiffchaff 5.

Smaller numbers of Hoopoe (both European and African races); Woodchat Shrike; Wryneck; Northern Wheatear; Black-eared Wheatear; and Turtle Dove were trapped and ringed, often revealing interesting moult sequences. None of the afore-mentioned species showed any significant fat scores. We were surprised not to catch any Blackcap, Garden Warbler, Willow Warbler, Wood Warbler, Flycatchers, or Tree Pipit.

Of immediate interest are the retraps for Common Redstart and Common Whitethroat, most of which were ringed at their respective sites pre Christmas 2009. This indicates winter site fidelity for at least these two species.

Of course we also trapped and ringed substantial numbers of Afro tropical species (including the striking Yellow-crowned Gonolek, pictured below). The most numerous of these by far were the delightful Sudan Golden Sparrows, the males of which remind me of a miniature version of male Yellowhammers. Our first session at Oursi North caught a wealth of these, as we had not accounted for an overnight mixed roost of this species and Red-billed Queleas in the surrounding vegetation. The roost exit was dramatic as wave after wave headed off SE, probably in excess of 5000 birds. Inevitably we had to furl whilst we processed this first round catch! We have seemingly ringed 474 Sudan Golden Sparrows, which leaves a balance of 304 for other Afro species.

However, I have to say, that the prize so far goes to the Greater Blue-eared Glossy Starling that I processed. I can honestly say this is the most stunning bird I have ever handled, check it out on the internet. A close second was an immaculate adult Gabar Goshawk, pictured here with Aly.

We now head for the southern site at Nazinga...