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.

2011 Fieldwork begins: 9-19th January

Chris Orsman writes:

09 Jan
Arrived in Accra late this evening with no delays. We headed for the taxi rank and discovered that the fares had gone up quite a lot since last time (only in December!), from 15 cedis to 20 to get to the city centre. The guy explained that fuel prices had gone up. It turned out to be the first of many price hikes as a direct result of a 30% rise in fuel prices nationwide. We arrived close to midnight at the hotel, where more fun was to be had waking the staff to let us in, and then trying keys in several doors until finally the chap found us rooms that weren’t already occupied! Luckily no-one was actually IN their room when we burst in!

10 Jan
Today was a day for sorting equipment, replenishing or just buying anything we felt was needed, and for Mark to get his visa for Burkina. With the Burkina embassy walking distance from the hotel this was amazingly straightforward. A form to fill in plus 145 cedis (for multiple entry 3 months this is cheaper than getting in the UK), a return later in the afternoon, and all done. Abraham came to pick us up from the hotel after the embassy, and headed to the GWS office and met up with Tina and Nat. The rest of the day was spent running around to get a “green card” for the car (to get it through the border with Burkina), but after being given the run-around, we ended up without one and having to head for Burkina card-less. Well, we survived the border crossing last time without it, so... Less time spent sorting through equipment but we ascertain that all is in order.

The plan for the team this first few weeks is to revisit all of the transects we covered last winter, starting with Nazinga in Burkina (the Oursi transects are being capably re-done once a month right through the winter by Aly and Oumar), and then back down to Ghana to Mole, Kogyae and Kakum/Brenu.

Photo Above: Nat, Tina and Mark surveying from Nasia Bridge

12 Jan
After our early morning departure from Accra yesterday, we got to Tamale last night and stopped at a new (but indifferent) guest house outside of town. Post-breakfast we headed north, stopping on the way at the same spot, over the river at Nasia, as with Juliet in October. The area is a whole lot drier now, and the less interesting for it, although one Willow Warbler was spotted in the bank-side shrubs. Ploughing on, we by-passed the last-time lunch spot at Paga, believing that we needed to head to the border sharpish in case of any delays. This time we had no problems, seeing as we already had our visas, and the lack of a green card for the car didn’t matter either. Thus we were heading into the Burkina Faso border town of Po soon after mid-day. A quick lunch stop here, and with a text from Aly, Oumar and Mohammed that they’d just departed Ouaga on the bus, we headed westwards towards Nazinga.

With no space in the car, we needed to get to the camp, drop off, then back to Po to get the other three, AND then back to camp before dark! No elephant encounters on the way in, then upon arrival our rooms allocated (only just though, after an apparently very tardy booking!), and soon Abraham and I headed the 50km back to Po. Needless to say it was later than we expected by the time we got there, but a quick shop for last minute provisions, and with Aly, Oumar and Mohammed on board, back to camp we went. A little after dark when we got in, but just in time to join Tina, Nat and Mark at the restaurant, and a reminder, to me at least, of the “special” Nazinga restaurant experience, i.e the usual “riz et poulet sauté”!

Whilst there, we heard from our friends and regular guides, Mama and Sakaro, with whom we hoped to set out on the first transects in the morning. Turns out their boss did not know we were coming, and also the Director of the ranch needs to be informed! A bit of a spanner in the works, but what we decided was simply to postpone transects until the 14th with no great loss of time. All felt that a day of familiarisation of the terrain and of the birds would be beneficial before work started anyway. This was all dependent on the director allowing us to go ahead!

13 Jan
This first morning at Nazinga we endeavoured to track down the Director of the camp. We arrived at his office at 0700, as instructed, but as he wasn’t there his deputy set out to find him. A short while later he drove up, and a brief meeting convened, during which the now properly informed man-in-charge gave authorisation for us to continue, happily including the assistance of Mama and Sakaro.

Above: The team at Nazinga Camp Observatory

Above: ...and the view from the Observatory!

Not surprisingly, the ranch was looking a little sorry for itself. Much had been recently burnt, later in the season than previously (as there had been more rain than usual, so grasses staying greener later). Still, this also meant that the lakes and “barrages” held more water than even in December of 2009, making birding pretty fruitful. As usual, lots of Bush Petronias were just about everywhere, and it seemed there were more Pygmy Sunbirds around than previously (almost as many as Scarlet Chested). Long-tailed Glossy, Purple Glossy and Lesser Blue-eared Starlings were noisily abundant near the water, and Orange-cheeked Waxbills, Red-billed Fire-finches and Yellow-fronted Canaries hopped busily on any open ground.

Above: The team looking for migrants from one of the barrages at Nazinga

Above: Black-headed Plover, Nazinga

Above: Aly taking notes at Nazinga

Pied Kingfishers piped overhead, as Squacco, Grey and Green-backed Herons lurked on the lake shore. Here too were several Swamp Flycatchers, sallying from shrubby overhangs. Larger trees held Bearded Barbet, Grey Woodpecker and Northern Puffback, with distant Fork-tailed Drongo and Northern Black Flycatcher providing a bit of a test of identification skills (the translated French name for the latter is, I believe, Drongo Flycatcher!). In the drier patches of wood, especially of Anogeissus, Pied Flycatchers were readily spotted and heard. It felt as if these trees were in fact greener than at the same time last winter, so would we see more Pied Flycatchers on the transects?

We were to do two transects per morning, so they would be done in half the time, with Mark recording the birds for one “team”, me the other. Over the five days, Aly, Mohammed, Nat, Oumar and Tina sorted out all the habitat and vegetation recording across the two groups, with Mama and Sakaro providing the trusty security.

Above: The team at the picnic site at Nazinga, a site that held Pied Flycatchers
14 Jan
Breakfast was a head-torched gathering in the pre-dawn gloom, round at Tina’s, then all in the car for the short drive into the village zone outside the ranch. As expected all the crops were already harvested, with the usual scattering of low-intensity stubbles of millet, maize, sorghum, ground nut, sesame and cotton. Usual suspects ,too, on the bird front. Senegal Eremomelas twittering occasionally, a Brubru “wheezing” here and there, and seemingly plenty of wing-clapping Flappet Larks. Not always the usual migrants, however. A few Whinchats, 2 Woodchat Shrikes and a Northern Wheatear were not such a surprise, but the flushing of 3 Eurasian Wrynecks was, as we’d not seen any at Nazinga before.

15 Jan-18 Jan
Four further days of surveys this time sampling the mix of habitats to be found within the ranch. With the extent of the burning, I was most surprised at the lack of Hueglin’s Wheatears. Last season they appeared to enjoy the very worst-burnt zones. Maybe this year we were a little too early? Bush Petronias everywhere, of course, Pale Flycatchers and White-winged Black Tits seen now and then in the wooded savannah, the occasional Bateleur overhead, and on one transect along a river, a couple of Woolly-necked Storks took flight from a tree along with 3 Grey Herons, 2 Hadada Ibis, and a Hamerkop. Migrant-wise, however, a Black Stork was pretty good too, and also a few Green, Common and Wood Sandpipers were noted near water. The few migrant passerines noted over the 4 days included just 2 Pied Flycatchers, a Whinchat, a solitary, but singing, Willow Warbler, Yellow Wagtails and Barn Swallows.


Above: A male Bataleur soars above Transect 6

Although it seemed at first the field teams were a bit on the large side, with four or five at a time, it worked brilliantly and efficiently, and everyone gained from the shared experience and exchange of ideas.

19th Jan Our final morning at Nazinga, and a day to test and train those bird-ringing skills. Having prepared the site and set the nets last night, the full team (of 10!) arrived at about 06:30 to open up. This was the same site that Tim Walker, Aly and Mohammed (with Sakaro and Daniel) ringed at last year, on the very last day of the work programme in March. That day they were very busy with 130 birds, almost all in the first net-round (mostly sunbirds!). This time would be different, wouldn’t it? 6 nets opened, and another 2 put up on arrival. The team did amazingly with over 150 birds caught – 70 of them Scarlet-chested Sunbirds, with a few Beautiful and Pygmy Sunbirds too. Also caught were Red-billed, Bar-breasted and Black-faced Firefinches, Northern Red Bishops and Yellow-mantled Widowbirds, a few Brown Babblers, and the recapture of two Red-throated Bee-eaters from last year. The highlight perhaps was the sole migrant caught – Western Olivaceous Warbler. The first I had seen at Nazinga (at least, confirmed. I thought I saw one very late on during the March spell last year). An excellent morning of team-work – very well done to all. Thanks especially to non-ringers Abraham, Mama and Sakaro for the extra pairs of hands!

Above: Mohammed takes down the data during the Nazinga ringing session

Above: Olivaceous Warbler - the only migrant caught at Nazinga
With the sun getting too strong to continue, we packed up at 10:30 and made our may back to camp to prepare to leave Nazinga after lunch.

Before parting company, Aly and Oumar first handed over their data from Oursi so far (3 visits to 8 transects, and multiple ringing sessions). A sterling job by them, in particular in their modification of the ringing sites (so much water at Oursi meant 3 of last year’s 4 ringing sites were under water!), and in their determination to reach the most distant ringing site several kilometres over the dunes to the North. With a very few nets they have caught 561 birds to the end of December, including 118 migrants. These have been mostly Common Redstarts, Whitethroats and Chiffchaffs, Western Olivaceous, Western Bonelli’s, Melodious and Subalpine Warblers, and also a few Garden Warblers in early November. New birds to be caught have included Tree Pipit, Sedge Warbler and Blackcap. Also interestingly they have retrapped a few Whitethroats from last winter, all of them at the “Oursi North” site.

Above: One of the Oursi ringing sites - under water

Above: Oursi captures: Grey-headed Kingfisher...

Above: ... and female Blackcap

A check of the transect data sheets and everything looked immaculately presented. A few queries ironed out and the Oursi guys were all set to get the next round under way upon their return home. Some quick goodbyes in English, French and a mix of the two, and the three Burkinabes piled into the car, with Abraham chauffeuring them back to their Ouagadougou-bound bus at Po.

3 hours later Abraham returned, then more goodbyes to the ranch staff followed by our hasty escape, in an effort to get out and south across the border before its alledged closure at 1800hrs. We arrive at 17:30, and are through into Ghana at 18:00 exactly! We return to the CEDEC guesthouse at Navrongo, ready to revisit the Tono Dam area the following day.