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.

26th November - mid December

After work in Bia NP on the morning of 26th November, the team moved north and set up camp in the zone where grassy savanna gives way to forest. It very quickly became apparent that this area of thickets and scattered trees within an agricultural landscape was excellent for Nightingales (about 40 located within 2km of the camp) and Melodious Warblers in particular, with reasonable numbers of Spotted Flycatchers and Whinchats too as well as some Pied Flycatchers and Willow Warblers. Only numbers of Garden Warblers were a little disappointing but we managed to tape lure two on our final morning of ringing here. We visited the site where a British-ringed Whinchat was recovered (with a catapult….) a few years ago, discovering a large maize field – with 2-3 Whinchats foraging within it!

Above: Tina (GWS) surveys migrants at the site where a British-ringed Whinchat was recently recovered.

Our next stop, on 4th December in the hills north of Kumasi that form a relatively sharp boundary between the forest to the south and west and the savannas in their rain shadow to the north-east, was intended primarily as a search for sites where the likes of Garden Warbler were more apparent. Garden Warblers were certainly easier to find than to the west – they could often be found feeding around the flowers of the towering leafless Bombax trees, in the company of sunbirds and bulbuls. On one occasion, a single tree held a party of six.
Our next mission was a dash north to check out the Whinchat population of the Daka floodplain, close to the old merchant town of Salaga. This entailed a trip across the Volta in a ferry that had no timetable or guaranteed sailings, a frustrating state of affairs that lead to an overnight stay in the port of Yeji waiting for a chance to cross. When we did reach Salaga we found a slightly strange and run-down place with a cheery sign saying ‘Welcome to Salaga Slave Market!’ next to the baobab tree that slaves were once tied to before being sold on to coastal traders, and a guesthouse called ‘Prison’ – we, however, opted for the alternative ‘Home At Last’. At the floodplain we counted about 50 Whinchats from the road that crosses it. There were also good numbers of waders, especially Wood Sandpipers but also some Common Snipe, Greenshank and one Painted Snipe. We were mesmerised by the brilliant Carmine Bee-eaters that roamed in flocks and lined bushes, trees and overhead cables and enthralled by the diverse avifauna of the surrounding savanna woodlands that provided such treats as White-shouldered Black Tit, African Hobby, African Blue Flycatcher and African Darter.

Time, however, was running short and it was soon time to head south again, our plans to colour-ring Whinchats having been thwarted by a lack of bait for our spring traps. Despite arriving in what should have been plenty of time, we arrived at the port of Makanga on the north side of the Volta to see the ferry leaving the quay on its way back to Yeji! Horrified but wishing to be free of its erratic sailings, we turned straight round and began to the long drive round to Kumasi via Tamale and arrived at our next destination around the middle of the next day (12th December). Here we found an excellent mix of migrants by surveying both forest remnants amongst the farmland and more open habitats and recorded totals of 11 Nightingales, 8 Garden Warblers, 7 Willow Warblers, 5 Melodious Warblers, 5 Spotted Flycatchers, 4 Whinchats and1 Pied Flycatcher in a morning’s surveying.

Keen to make best use of our last four remaining days we then headed to the southern end of the Mampongtin Range to check out a relatively small area that had produced no less than 5 recoveries of BTO-ringed Garden Warblers over the years. The area had high human population density and correspondingly small amounts of semi-natural habitat remnants in the landscape so we were not surprised that the area proved a little disappointing over all but were amazed at the migrants that were sometimes crammed into the tiny patches that remained. The sight of 6 Willow Warblers that could be found throughout an entire morning in a single medium-sized flowering tree was quite enthralling, especially as the birds seemed to be having such a productive time there, hanging from flower clusters, clinging to the bark of the trunk and giving occasional bursts of song.

Moving west towards the forest zone we surveyed both the lowlands and the hill forests before heading to Winneba on the coast for our final morning of work before the Christmas break. A quick look at the lagoon, a RAMSAR site designated for its tern accumulations, in the evening produced good numbers of waders (especially Greenshanks) and terns, the highlight being a Terek Sandpiper – a very scarce visitor to Ghana and West Africa. The team headed back to Accra on 16th December after finding some Nightingales, Whinchats and Melodious Warblers in the scrub and grasslands behind the lagoon next morning and began preparations for our return home.

Above: The ‘Magic Tree’ that held six Willow Warblers and a Spotted Flycatcher.

Above: One of the Bombax trees that towered above the forest im places, covered in reddish flowers but without leaves. These attracted Garden Warblers and Willow Warblers amongst the sunbirds and bulbuls.