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.

At Tono Dam and the irrigation project sites, Ghana 24th to 29th October 2010

Tina Mensah-Pebi writes: Seeking permission from the traditional authority of Navro-Pio and permission from the Irrigation Company of Upper Region (ICOUR) Management, the project team were offered use of the dam area and a camping space at the Tono Guest house. On the first day of arrival the team visited the dam, noting that the habitat around the area looked promising for migrants. Three days of time species counts were carried out in the early mornings for about four hours. Day one recorded one Willow Warbler and a Reed Warbler, day two another Willow Warbler and a Common Sandpiper and day three a Spotted Flycatcher and a Willow Warbler. Among the surrounding reeds were Tawny-flanked Prinias always calling and Eurasian Marsh Harrier in flight. Willow Warblers were found foraging in fresh looking Madrax Thorns, both with and without flowers. The Reed Warbler’s call was heard in the reeds at the bank of the dam. The Common Sandpiper was seen at the fishpond area located in the Southwest of Tono. One silent Spotted Flycatcher was spotted between two trees of about 11m tall with a great cover of forbs underneath. A Levaillant’s Cuckoo was also seen on the 27th during the timed species count. On 28th, the search was carried out on a semi-natural agricultural area and migrants encountered were a Willow Warbler, a Yellow Wagtail (calling in flight), and the Eurasian Marsh Harrier. Unfortunately the numbers of migrants found in the good looking and promising area of Tono was not encouraging and so no ringing was undertaken.
Photos - 1) surveying from the top of Tono Dam, 2) the agricultural mosaic near the dam and 3) a rather bird-poor plantation near Tono

At the airstrip, Kulbia, Ghana 20th to 24th October 2010

Tina Mensah-Pebi writes: Searching in a range of habitats the Ghana team started roving fieldwork, beginning in the northern parts of Ghana, and then heading southwards, with the purpose of getting some idea about how migrant occurrence varies away from the sites that were studied last year. Habitats that we will be looking at include areas such as stream courses, forest edges, patches of semi-natural habitat in agricultural lands, forest edges, open areas, patches of dense herbage and grasses as well as fruiting and flowering plants which are appealing areas for birds (as well as man!) to spend their time.

Grassland habitat near Navrongo

Driving between Navrongo and Bolgatanga in the Upper East region we headed to a disused airstrip, which served as the first camping area for the Ghana team (with permission from the local chief and elders of the nearby village of Kulbia).

The airstrip campsite near Kulbia (above) and meeting the local chief (below)

After four days stay, four migrants were recorded including three Willow Warblers, one Pied Flycatcher and one Hoopoe. This area covered a broad vegetation of Grassland and Opened woodland. Willow Warblers were found on a flowering tree along a stream on 22nd October during a time species count.

One of the Willow Warblers (above) and Tina extracting a captured bird (below)

One Pied Flycatcher was recorded out of 29 birds ringed at one site. The terrible experience on the airstrip was the inaccessibility to portable water, intensive hot temperature and insect bites.

Activities at Ouagadougou from 15th to 20th October 2010

Tina Mensah-Pebi writes: Muhammed from Naturama, and Oumar and Ali from the Oursi Site Support Group joined the group from Accra on a five-day activity in Burkina Faso which included meetings on fieldwork methodology for the second phase of the migrant project, birding and two days of ringing. The lowest number so far captured in one mornings fieldwork was recorded at Gonse, with three birds; a Red-cheeked Cordon Bleu, a Black-rumped Waxbill and a Long-tailed Glossy Starling from five mist nets in an opened wooded savannah on the 16th of October. A good looking vegetation still looked promising for a second trial of ringing at the same site on the second day and two birds; Grey-backed Camaroptera and a Common Redstart were trapped. Juliet left Burkina Faso for London shortly afterwards with her enthusiastic and encouraging effort.

The Nature Park at Ouagadougou housed interesting, melodious, chanting, diverse bird species such as the Yellow-crowned Gonolek, Western Grey Plantain-eater, Vinaceous Dove, Laughing Dove, Village Indigo Bird, Little Bee-eater, White-billed Buffalo Weaver, Yellow-billed Shrike, Red-cheeked Cordon Bleu, Red-billed Firefinch, Yellow-fronted Tinkerbird, Common Bulbul, Double-spurred Francolin, African Paradise Flycatcher, Pied Kingfisher, Senegal Coucal, Hamerkop, Rose-ringed Parakeet, Northern Puffback and numerous species of sunbirds and weavers. Walking through the tumultuous path of birds, an attentive ear heard the calls of the Common Nightingale and the Western Bonelli’s Warbler.

The field team - Chris, Aly, Tina, Oumar, Mohammed and Abraham

Thanks to technology, Chris kept to his explicit leadership role and soon got both teams set for work in their respective places in Burkina Faso (Aly and Oumar) and Ghana (Chris, Tina, Mohammed and Abraham) by Wednesday the 20th of October.

The new field season has started!

Juliet Vickery writes: Field season two for the Migrants in Africa team is underway – though 80% of the first 5 days was either in a car or an office. I am joining the team for the first week to help with setting things up, before heading back to the UK.

12 October 2010 - Chris Orsman (the RSPB field team leader) and I spend all day with our colleagues at the Ghana Wildlife Society, agreeing contracts , sorting insurance and licensing for the vehicle and driver to cross the border into Burkina Faso and arranging permits for the team to work in Forest Reserves and National Parks. We also had the task of inspecting equipment that had been stored in Accra since it was last used back in March – some sleeping bags were in serious need of airing!

13 October 2010 - The team leaves Accra before dawn to avoid the traffic, setting off on a 12-hour drive north to Tamale - a distance of almost 800km. Although good progress can be made on some roads, with surprisingly good tarmac, others needed more care with depressingly bad pot holes being very common. It's one way to see a lot of Ghana - albeit in a very narrow strip! The ‘team’ comprises Tina (who was with the team last years) and the driver Abraham who will be with Chris for the first month of roving field work (along with a Naturama field worker who we will pick up in Burkina Faso)

14 October 2010 – Crossing the border between Ghana and Burkina Faso at Paga. Having spent 12 hours in the caryesterday, we mae sure we made a few stops during the journey today, particularly as we crossed water bodies. We saw our first Palearctic migrants - a male Pied Flycatcher at Nasia and a few kilometres further north a group of juvenile Barn Swallows at Kukubila. A quick stop at Paga (minutes from the border) for rice and beans - a bargain at 2 cedis (just under £1). Paga is relatively famous for its pools of 'sacred crocodiles' - you can buy a sacrificial chicken to feed to them - this will apparently bring you good fortune. Perhaps more good fortune for the chicken salesmen than the chicken! It was all we could do to concentrate on our rice and beans - forget scrounging dogs and cats, we ate lunch with a large crocodile (ca 4 metres long) sitting motionless with a gaping jaw and a fixed stare just yards from our table.

Crossing the border was an expensive and rather protracted battle, with recent changes in visa charges meaning we faced a cost of 94,000 CFAs per visa (rather than the expected 10,000). With the alternative being to drive back to Accra and buy one cheaper there, we swallowed our frustration and delved into our pockets for the extra cash. This is where you are hit with the double whammy - the money changers at the border have an absolutely captive audience - stranded in no mans land between Ghana and Burkina, the nearest bank or cash point 200km away – they can set their price. We finally entered Burkina 3 hours later and ca £280.00 worse off! From here onwards the savannah landscape becomes more open and dusty - Acacias scattered across bare ground with farmed patches of millet and sorghum before reaching the outskirts of Ouagadougou (Ouaga for short) and being hit by the flood and buzz of a multitude of mopeds and bicycles. The end of another 12 hour journey.

15 October 2010 - Another day of negotiating contracts, this time with Naturama, our partner in Burkina Faso. Also, more equipment sorting, with the able help of Mohammed (our Naturama team member), Omar and Aly (members of the Oursi Site Support Group - the northern most site we worked at last winter). Sadly, and following FCO advice, our site at Oursi is now out of bounds to our UK project staff as there are risks from terrorist activity in Mali and Niger spilling over the border. In order to continue the work there, we are employing Aly and Omar to undertake a full schedule of ringing and point counts at Oursi, allowing the project to continue to collect data from the site. Through there work with Naturama and others in the past, and having worked and trained with the project team last winter, they are both highly competent and we are extremely thankful to have them on the team again.

16 October 2010 - An early start to set up a few nets in farmland at Gonsa, ca 15km west of Ouaga. Almost 80m of net and 3 hours of ringing yielded only 3 birds - the first bird of the 2010/2011 field season being a Red-cheeked Cordon Bleu, closely followed by a Black-rumped Waxbill and a magnificent Long-tailed Glossy Starling. Late in the evening Chris and the team drop me off at the airport - I must say goodbye here and return to the UK. It's been a hectic few days...

17 October 2010 – Sitting at Casablanca airport waiting for my flight connection and I receive a text from Chris Orsman - the first bird of the day in the net - a Common Redstart!

13th October 2010: starting the season - a team members perspective

Tina Mensah-Pebi writes: The second phase of the study of Palaearctic migrants over-wintering Africa; Burkina Faso and Ghana with partners from RSPB and BTO commenced on the early morning of Wednesday, 13th of October, 2010. Driving on an even and alternating jagged road from Accra, a team of four including the driver (Chris Orsman; Juliet Vickery, both RSPB and Ernestina Mensah-Pebi ; Abraham Dotche, both Ghana Wildlife Society) travelled 700 kilometres and passed the night in Tamale. The journey to Burkina Faso continued the following morning till the team decided to stop for birding upon the sight of a busy vegetation cover around the Nasia Bridge on the Sisim River. The first migrant bird for the season was spotted on a tree at the bank of the river close to the bridge – a Pied Flycatcher. Soon the team arrived at Ouagadougou and at NATURAMA office and we were warmly welcomed by the staff and management Dr. George Oueda and Mr. Idrissa Zeba.
Naturama head office in Ouagadougou
Initial meeting of the season