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.

14th November - 26th November

The evening of 14th November saw my (Chris Hewson, BTO team co-leader) arrival from the UK for a month’s fieldwork before Christmas. This coincided precisely with the remnants of the existing team (Chris O, Tina and driver Abraham with Mohamed having returned north to Burkina) arriving back in Accra to regroup and have the car repaired before returning to the field. Unfortunately the latter turned into something of a saga – when we took the car to the Toyota dealership on Monday morning we were told that fixing the source of the leaking oil was not a simple task and that although work would begin later that day, the following day was a public holiday so we shouldn’t expect it to be finished until the end of Wednesday. A Thursday morning start didn’t seem too bad a proposition but Wednesday afternoon became Thursday and Thursday became Friday morning before we were told the car was ready for collection. Our patience was tested to the limit upon arriving at Toyota on the morning of Friday 19th to be told that in fact the car wasn’t ready and not only that, its completion required a part that the dealership didn’t have! To cut a long story short, we were promised the car would be ready if we came back after the weekend and Monday afternoon was agreed.

Taking pity on our plight, GWS kindly loaned the team a car for the weekend so we could at last get some fieldwork done and we headed down to Brenu Beach, west of Cape Coast, where we had arranged to meet Justus Deikumah, a PhD candidate from University of Cape Coast, so that he could train us in blood sampling techniques as part of a project looking at chronic stress in birds in forest fragments. Upon arrival the whole area appeared much greener than at even a month earlier the previous year. Despite being rained off on two of the three mornings we tried to ring here, we did catch an array of Afrotropical species as well as two migrants – a Garden Warbler and a Nightingale. A quick look around the hill immediately behind our accommodation produced 3 Nightingales calling, 3 Spotted Flycatchers and about 8 Yellow Wagtails. Other birds in the area included Slender-billed and Orange Weavers (two species restricted to the coastal zone in West Africa - an active colony of the latter with nests hanging from mangroves over a nearby lagoon providing pleasant distraction), Brown-headed Tchagra and a Snowy-crowned Robin-chat seen repeatedly chasing a Spotted Flycatcher from one particular woodland edge – the territorial behaviour of the intra-African migrant has previously been well documented but we were surprised to witness a Spot Fly rather than the expected Nightingale being on the receiving end!

Above: Tina (GWS) juggling yams on our way to Bia NP.

The team returned to Accra and finally collected the car late on the afternoon of Monday 22nd. With tyre changing / balancing / wheel alignment still to come, as well as packing our equipment and doing our food shopping, it wasn’t until Tuesday late-morning that we left Accra behind and were off on the next phase of our field mission. We made good progress along the coast but wouldn’t make our destination that day. However, after refuelling and resting overnight in Takoradi, on Wednesday morning the team headed on to the Bia NP with only one thing on their minds: Phylloscopus sibilitrix.
Given that the Wood Warbler has declined by 61% on the last 13 years alone in Britain and by 26% in 17 years in Europe, it was with hope rather than expectation of finding this species that the team set up camp at New Debiso, at the northern end of Bia NP. The winter habits of this species are not well-known and although they had been reported as fairly common at this site 5-6 years ago, they had not been found by the same team last winter. Our first morning excursion in the forest on 25th reminded us why we knew we would do well to find any, even if they were around: birds of any species are not easy to spot, let alone identify, in the forest canopy. Armed with the knowledge that we were most likely to find Wood Warblers around flowering trees (where like other species they feed on insects attracted to the flowers) we set off looking for clearings from which we could view the canopy. We didn’t find any sign of Wood Warblers at all but did record a good selection of forest-zone birds including Usher’s Flycatcher, Blue Cuckoo-shrike, African Emerald Cuckoo and African Goshawk. Whether Wood Warblers were present and we failed to find them, whether we were too early in the winter or whether they don’t occur in Bia in significant any numbers any more we just didn’t know….

6th - 14th November 2010 - roving fieldwork continues. From Wechiau to Bui

6th November - Chris Orsman writes: After 24 hrs more rest than was planned at the Catholic Guesthouse in Wa (one team member a little under the weather, i.e me), at mid-day we headed off towards Wechiau Hippo Sanctuary in our continuing hunt for migrants. The town of Wechiau is itself just over 40 km from Wa, and here is where one finds the information centre for the sanctuary. Upon arrival, the place looked decidedly closed, but a man soon came bounding along to open up to tell us all about the reservation, and the fees to stay. After explaining the purpose of our visit (and of our hopes to get a discount) he called in the manager. A few minutes later he arrived, agreed on a small reduction in the price, and arranged for a guide to accompany us to the accommodation. By the time we were back in the car, our guide had sailed past on his bicycle, pedalling his way the 18km further to reach the sanctuary boundary.
The sanctuary lodgings were just on the fringes of a scattered array of buildings, making up Talawna, the last settlement before the reserve, and set in very open but largely un-grazed short grassland. With the tents set up, Abraham and Tina cooked and we all ate with the lodge caretaker, Yusuf, and our guide, Joshua.
The sanctuary is a community based project, protecting about 40km of the Black Volta along Ghana’s western border with Burkina Faso. Although there are about 50 hippos here, we didn’t have our hopes up of seeing any. Water levels were so high after exceptional rains, so the hippos had plenty of places to hide out. Besides, we were there for the birds!

Wechiau grasslands

7th November - Chris Orsman writes: For our first timed species count, Joshua took us from the lodge, down to the river, and aiming for a walk along the riverside, assuming any riparian forest, like Gbele, would perhaps have the best habitat for migrants. On the walk to the start we had Tree Pipit, a couple of Sun Larks, and some other typical Northern savannah sp, such as Vinaceous Doves, Black-billed Wood Doves, Pale Flycatcher and Bush Petronia (all very familiar to me from working in Burkina Faso’s Nazinga Ranch last winter). 20 minutes later we reached the boundary of the “protected” zone, a 1km buffer along the riverbank, within which no human activity, save fishing, takes place. We decided to start the count here. The walk through this open wooded savannah produced just 1 Willow Warbler and a Pied Flycatcher on the migrant front, but amongst the local residents, we spotted a colour-ringed Red-cheeked Cordon-bleu. No metal ring, but yellow left leg, green right, should anyone be missing one from their caged collection!! A half hour later, and we were into the riparian woodland. Heading south with the river, amongst the Violet Turacos, African Thrushes, Grey-backed Camaropteras and single Red-shouldered Cuckoo-shrike, we came across a further 10 Pied Flycatchers, 4 Willow Warblers, and a single Melodious Warbler in song. Joshua then led us through the dense grass away from the river, to find a footpath and a shortcut back to the camp.
At lunch we were entertained by a Zitting Cisticola, which was clearly holding territory in the grass next to the camp. Every few minutes it was up and overhead, quite high but also so small that you could barely see it against the bright blue mid-day sky. A short rest later, and Tina, Mohammed and I set off to check on other possible areas for survey the next day. Following a track through otherwise un-promising grassland, we encountered 3 Whinchats all within 100m or so of each other. Information on a board within the sanctuary does mention that it is an important area for them. This, combined with our eventual discovery of a wooded stream (maybe good for Willow and Melodious Warblers?), led us to conclude that this route would be worth pursuing the following day.

River Volta at Wechiau
Where a Melodious Warbler was singing at Wechiau

8th November - Chris Orsman writes: No Whinchats! Maybe we were just a little too early to find them in the same grassland as yesterday, as there was a slight mist which left everything cool and damp. This did eventually burn off but by then we were heading into slightly more wooded savannah areas. Here the grass was home to Northern Red Bishops, Yellow-mantled Widowbirds, Orange-cheeked Waxbills and Bronze Mannikins. We did hear in the distance a Willow Warbler singing, and a further 3 were seen before arriving at the stream. Full of hope we diverted off the track to follow the stream. It’s sparse ribbon of short trees and shrubs yielded but 1 Pied Flycatcher. Perhaps not surprisingly another 3 were seen in the last half hour of the survey, by which time the stream had arrived at the main river, and the associated open forest habitat was more suitable.
That evening we went in search of yet more options for surveying. Joshua took us some 7 km further along the morning’s track, south along the reserve boundary, to the next but one village. Although Joshua didn’t know the area well himself, he told us that another of the guides (sadly absent on a computing course in Accra) was a real local bird expert, and that he would take groups to this area for birding. I volunteered to drive, as Abraham was busy preparing the evening meal. My first bit of “off-roading” in Ghana! The drive along the tram-lined track was fine to begin with, but in places it was a pretty rough and overgrown, so much so that I barely noticed when we began to cut through someone’s maize field! Assured by the farmer (who came to give us directions) that we were still on the track, we continued on, with further occasional stops for confirmation from passers-by that we were on the right road. It came to an end where a group of folk were sat under a large baobab. After exchanging pleasantries, our mission was explained, and the local chief was summoned (for a change! Normally we’d be summoned to him!). It turned out he was the sanctuary ranger for that stretch of the river, and wanted to guide us along the path to it. So off we went, on a short hike that took us through a few crops and eventually the 1km buffer to the river’s edge. Some of what we saw habitat-wise looked promising, and we thought it would be worth going straight in to this section of the river with a point count transect, perhaps after point counts at the first river section (visited yesterday). A walk back in the half light to the baobab (tip-toing at speed along a 15m stretch of path covered in small but very bitey ants), our thanks were given to the ranger, and of course hi-fives to the local kids, then headed back (in the near-dark on that same track!) for a another delicious meal from Abraham, this time boiled yam and a fish & tomato sauce.
9th & 10th November - Chris Orsman writes: Having already spent 2 mornings at Wechiau, we were fairly confident that we were unlikely to encounter any other migrant species, and that we weren’t missing any skulkers that could be found by setting up nets for a morning’s ringing. We might have been wrong of course, but the next 2 days of point count transects further confirmed that the area was being used by Willow Warblers, Melodious Warblers and Pied Flycatchers (plus the Whinchats of course) and probably not much else on the migrant front – at least not at this time of year. Also, there was no obvious place to put the nets within the buffer zone without the need for a lot of vegetation clearance, likely to be a big no-no. On the plus side, on the point counts, including the “new” section we explored on the 8th, were new species - for me at least - such as Oriole Warbler, Yellow-breasted Apalis and Sulphur-breasted Bush-shrike.
With one eye on the time that was left before having to return to Accra, we packed up camp on the 10th, and after our goodbyes to Joshua and Yusuf, we headed back to Wechiau town itself in order to pay our bill at the visitor centre. An unusally quick exchange of cash and receipt, and we were back on board the 4x4 and heading for Wa. The journey, as always, took longer than expected.
The latest tip from the ever-helpful Augustus for somewhere to check for migrants was the shrublands on the banks of Lake Volta in the vicinity of Buipe, on the border of Northern and Brong-Ahafo regions. We didn’t expect to get quite that far, and as it was we could only manage to get as far as Damongo. We stopped at the same guest house as last year’s team, when they were in the area for a week each month for transects and ringing. After some difficulty finding a place to eat (to give Abraham a night off the catering duties!) we settled on Palace View restaurant - perfectly reasonable – and then back to what by now, under fluorescent lights, were our bug-infested lodgings.

11th November - Chris Orsman writes: This morning I tried in vain to get my own computer working. It is what I’ve been mostly using for data entry and email, and Tina has been using the other. However, for some reason my own blew a fuse with the car charger, and now I can’t even charge by the mains. Need to get this sorted in Accra. Having established it’s un-useable, I gave Juliet a quick call for an update on everything else, and spoke to Chris H just ahead of his arrival in Accra on the 14th. So it was after mid-day by the time we set off towards Buipe. Upon arrival, we set about investigating the suitability of the habitat on the lake shore for our work, but when crossing the bridge south from Buipe to take a look, we soon realised that the water levels were extremely high. Many of the lakeside buildings had been completely swamped, with just the rooftops visible. Uncertain as to whether it would be practical to survey the flooded scrublands, we next paid a visit to the District Coordinator’s office, where we had been told we could find out what permission was needed to work on the lake shore. Speaking to the coordinator’s deputy, it transpired that there is a dispute between local chiefs as to the ownership of land, and after a phone-call to the DC himself, he suggested that in his absence we best forego any work until such time as he could be around to fix things for us.
Thus with time marching on, we decided to cut our losses and instead make for Bui National Park, which meant a trip south from Buipe to find a place to overnight en route. Kintampo looked like a sensible spot, and we reached it just before dusk, in time to have a quick look round for a cheap hotel (and spot my first African Pied Wagtail!), a quick bite, and an early bed with a view to setting off early the following day.

Buipe floods...

12th November - Chris Orsman writes: Set off this morning from the Life Hotel in Kintampo at 5am. For a full morning’s fieldwork an earlier start might have been in order, but we realised that we still had to get permission to do any work from the Wildlife Office at the park itself. Driving what appeared on the map to be poor roads, we were pleased to find that the journey took just under 2 hours. The second half of the road as far as Bui town itself was very good, and we guessed this was new due to a new dam being built at the southern end of the park. I did in fact wonder whether we’d be allowed to do any research here at all, as although protected, the park is clearly not protected enough if a dam can be built which will swamp all of the riparian forest. Would our research be treated with suspicion? I was gearing up to underplay our significance (not easy!!) when explaining our work to the Wildlife Office. I needn’t have worried.
Beyond Bui town we rolled up to the community which surrounds the park admin centre, a small collection of large wooden huts, some homes, some noisy classrooms, and some offices, stopping at the latter to find someone to ask for permission for our work. We first met a young woman, who wasn’t quite sure what to suggest. Then a young chap rode by on his bike and thought he knew who to ask, so we jumped back in the car and followed him a short distance to the other side of the “camp”, where an elderly gentleman greeted us and seemed happy to see us. He then vanished, and returned with a young chap dressed in park ranger gear. He too welcomed us, but it still wasn’t clear how we were to get permission. Eventually, we were taken to the home of the park manager, who agreed quite cheerily to meet us back at the first office to discuss our plans. At our meeting, Paul, the said manager, was absolutely delighted that we had come, in particular to study birds. It turns out that he spent some time birdwatching during his training and absolutely loved the experience, only wishing that he could do more. So we were staying! Next, Paul called upon Peter, who had a pretty good knowledge of local birds, to be our guide. We ventured on in the 4WD to reach the edge of the park (another 2km or so on some pretty rough track) with a view to trying at least part of a survey that morning. What we weren’t expecting was to find the track passed right through a last small community at the park boundary. Following another friendly greeting from a few of the locals, I wondered whether in this idyllic setting it would be possible to pitch our tents, and save the rather rocky road back and forth to the camp. Yet again we were surprised when we were guided through the heart of the village, and invited to set up camp right in the middle of someone’s front yard! Delighted with this location, but hesitant because of the apparent imposition, we politely accepted, adn in order to make the most of the rest of the morning, we left Abraham to set the tents whilst Peter took us into the park.
The route from the village took us once again through wooded grasslands, but on the whole with more trees and shrubs than was evident at Wechiau. Crossing into the park immediately you were in denser savannah woodland, and denser still as we dropped down towards the Black Volta. As we walked we had to duck frequently to avoid spider webs which were invariably at face height, and home to some particularly ferocious looking beasts! En route were a few new species, including Blue-spotted Wood Dove, Green-headed Sunbird and Green Turaco. Also we disturbed a Pearl Spotted Owlet, the first that I’d seen, even though I heard them almost daily during our visits to Nazinga last year. Despite the late start, we still encountered a Willow Warbler and a total of 5 Pied Flycatchers.
Returning to camp we found the tents set and our lunch ready, and looking on were the some of the village children, wondering who we were and what we were up to. Tina soon had the children entranced, with her story-telling, singing and games, but was quite firm when it was time for us to eat, and the kids obligingly vanished. After our early start, and in the heat of the afternoon, some rest was in order, before a walk late afternoon to look for another route for the next day. On this stroll a White-breasted Cuckoo-shrike was a new find.
Later that evening even more children turned up to be entertained (by Tina), and remained until well past the team’s bedtime! Once again they had to be sent packing. It was a Friday night so they were in no hurry to get to bed with no school the next day. We chatted for a while with one of the community leaders, Maxwell, Peter’s brother. He is a lonely voice in the community (and even in the group of communities) that will be displaced when the Bui Dam is constructed and the valley flooded. In spite of the impending displacement, Maxwell’s deepest concerns are for the hippo population in the Volta, and he fears that the flooding will render useless the habitat for the hippos, and feels he hasn’t had sufficient reassurances that they will be relocated to safe and suitable ares downstream Without this, he believes they will either perish locally, or become bush meat as they wander in search of better habitat up-river in Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire and Burkina Faso.

Bui parkOne of the Bui spiders!....

The local youth at Bui
13th November - Chris Orsman writes: A full morning search in the Bui forest yielded Blue-bellied Roller, Splendid Sunbird and Tropical Boubou in a list of just 29 species, and disappointing numbers of migrants – just 4 Pied Flycatchers. Piping Hornbill was new. Our final afternoon in the field before heading to Accra was spent catching up on all our notes for the previous few days. A rather sad handover from Mohammed of the bits of equipment he’d been using preceded his departure for Burkina the next day.

14th November - Chris Orsman writes: Following a quick breakfast and to the cheery waves of what appeared to be the whole village, we left Bui on the Sunday morning, and made for Terchiman and the bus station for Mohammed’s return north. A large, loud and rude man barked nonsense at us about how long the bus would take, so I wasn’t that confident in the service we were paying for, but fortuneately French-speaking Mohammed found another Burkinabe to sit with for the journey, and he promised that he’d get to Ouagadougou!! Waving farewll once more, Tina, Abraham and I hit the road to Accra. We dropped Tina at bus station on the outskirts so she could get home west of Accra, whilst Abraham and I went on to the GWS office to unload, and prepare the car for its service the next day. Returned to the Pink Hostel and Abraham headed home, and later Augustus kindly dropped me at the airport to meet up with Chris Hewson. Chris appeared through arrivals at 22:20, and both a little wiped out we retired, agreeing to wait til the next day to discuss the next phase!

The Gbele Resource Reserve, Ghana 29th October to 3rd November 2010

Tina Mensah-Pebi writes: The Gbele Resource Reserve is located at Walembele in the Sisala district of the Upper East region of Ghana. It is under the protection of the Wildlife Division of the Forestry Commission and has two base camps, one in the north and a second in the south. The research team settled at the Wahabu Rangers’ camp.

River and riparian forest at Gbele

The early morning of Saturday, 30th October looked promising for Gbele reserve to accommodate large numbers of migrants, with the team recording about 10 Willow Warblers and 4 Pied Flycatchers. The Kawlpaw River that runs through the reserve served as an important place for diverse birds in the reserve. Taking a walk in the afternoon across the bridge in the reserve revealed splendid numbers of Willow Warblers and Pied Flycatchers happily moving from one plant to another - we even saw the amazing sight of five Willow Warblers on one small shrub in the middle of the river and two Pied Flycatchers moving-to-and-fro on a fruiting tree on the bank of the river close to the bridge.
Five Willow Warblers in one bush!
A second day’s search for Palaearctic migrants in the reserve still proved promising for both Willow Warblers and Pied Flycatchers, with a count of 16 and 11 respectively during one timed species count.
Mohammed and Tina habitat recording at Gbele

The team carried out point count transcets at Gbele on 1st November 2010. Out of the ten points counted, 7 Willow Warblers and 5 Pied Flycatchers were recorded.

Another point count transect was undertaken the following day (five minutes of counting every 200 metres). This recorded 4 Willow Warblers and 12 Pied Flycatchers on the points, with a further 5 Willow Warblers and 7 Pied Flycatchers between points.

Ringing followed early morning of Wednesday 3rd November 2010 and the first and only (for this site) Pied Flycatcher was caught on the first round of net inspection after opening at 6:00 prompt. A total of 63 birds were ringed, with a total of 10 Willow Warblers amongst a good number of Afro-tropical species, including the Snowy-crowned Robin Chat, Northern Puff-back, African Thrush, African Pygmy Kingfisher, Malachite Kingfisher, Black-necked Weaver, Village Weaver, Common Wattle-eye, Red-cheeked Cordon-bleu, Red-billed Firefinch, Bar-breasted Firefinch, Yellow White-eye, Northern Grey-headed Sparrow, Blackcap Babbler, Orange-cheeked Waxbill and Black-winged (red) Bishop.
African Pygmy Kingfisher (above) and Common Wattle-eye (below)
We can thoroughly recommend the Gbele reserve to birders who visit Ghana - you will see an incredible diversity of species here, such as violet turaco, western grey plantain-eater, African golden oriole, giant kingfisher, pied kingfisher, lead coloured flycatcher, northern black flycatcher, yellow fronted tinkerbird, Senegal eremomela, African paradise flycatcher, wire-tailed swallow, vieillot’s barbet, brown babbler, red throated bee-eater, pin-tailed whydah, exclamatory paradise whydah, pygmy and scarlet-chested sunbirds, grey wood pecker, red shouldered cuckoo-shrike, lavender waxbill, common sandpiper, white-headed lapwing, green-backed heron, many egret species, Senegal coucal, Senegal parrot, Abyssinian roller, rose-ringed parakeet, bruce’s green pigeon, yellow-crowned gonolek, laughing, vinaceous and red-eyed doves, black-billed wood doves, black-headed tchagra, common bulbul, red-billed and African-grey horn bills, long-tailed, greater blue-eared and purple glossy starlings, cinnamon-rock bunting, bush petronia, red-winged pytilia, grey-backed camaroptera, Bataleur, village indigo bird, bronze manikin, northern red bishop, klaas’s cuckoo, double-spurred francolin, yellow-billed shrike, fork-tailed drongo,, and many more.