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 – 23rd Feb 2011

Report from Chris Orsman:
After the final repeat transect visits at Brenu on 9th, it was time to head back to Accra for a “mid-term” rest, and a quick once-over for the project vehicle. There were thankfully no issues to be addressed on the car, so we had it back the following day. A weekend in Accra followed, for all to take a well-earned break (and to catch up on paperwork and blog-writing!).

Whilst in Accra, we supplied the UK HQ’s with all the GPS coordinates for recent migrant sightings here in Ghana. The wizards back at base used some clever GIS mapping to find other parts of Ghana with potentially suitable habitats for these birds. They were able to produce a map of “hotspots” of potential areas to explore for each species which we used as a guide to plan our next couple of weeks in the field.

A refreshed squad re-convened early on Monday 14th, and headed inland and north-east into the Volta Region, bordering Togo, and home to Ghana’s highest peak and a scattered ridge of hills along its length northwards. The “hot-spot” map indicated the possibility of suitable habitats here, but aside from this, Volta Region had not previously been explored by the team. Arriving late afternoon we found ourselves a place to camp in the grounds of a mountain lodge, pitching our tents in the ample shade of mature mango trees. A view from the hilltop overlooked some good looking forest habitat for our first forays the next morning.

Above: The hills of the Volta region

15th Feb An awful but mercifully brief “inconvenience” meant that I wasn’t able to help the team with surveys on our first morning in the Avatime Hills. Apparently the culprit was my lunch yesterday. All I will say is that okra stew is not recommended: I hear (somewhat belatedly!) that even Ghanaians can have problems with it. Leave well alone!!

Mark, Tina and Nat covered some 5 or more kilometres along the hill road to the south, and returned near mid-day having had little luck on the migrant front, save for 3 Willow Warblers after the survey proper had finished, all in Albizia trees. Later in the day Mark explored the road to the north and returned having seen a Spotted Flycatcher.

16th Feb Back to full (?) strength, I set out north this morning with Tina, as Mark and Nat explored the wooded hillsides still further south. We came across 3 Spotted Flycatchers, and a Pied Flycatcher was glimpsed deep in the shadows of a cashew plantation up the hillside to our left. African Harrier Hawk and a Long-tailed Hawk were overhead highlights as we finished off the last hour of the timed species count. No further migrants, though, and sadly none from Mark and Nat.

In the afternoon we headed out even further north to discover whether any good looking habitat was to be found where the hot-spot map indicated. This was around a narrow and not-too-high ridge running north-south. With distinct possibilities evident on the eastern side, we selected our areas for work the next day.

17th Feb Mark and Tina covered an area at the foot of the ridge, where there was a fair amount of disturbance and hence tree-removal. Nat and I walked along the dirt road a little further south where it cut through a much more wooded area. There was still a lot of disturbance here though, but in the shape of mainly cocoa and banana plantations beneath the trees. We still had hopes for a few migrants. Unfortunately it wasn’t to be. After seeing plenty of Naked-faced Barbets, Green Hylias and Grey-headed Negrofinches, we met up again with Mark and Tina, who had had better luck, with Melodious Warbler, Willow Warbler and Spotted Flycatcher.  

Above: Mark and Tina return from fieldwork in the hills of the Volta region

A final afternoon’s look around a scramble of a path in the valley below the camp-site produced no further migrants, but at the head of the group, Mark was lucky enough to spot a White-crested Hornbill in the dense canopy. With the tents packed late afternoon we headed for a night in a guesthouse before trying another potential site just west of there in the morning.

18th Feb With a flask of hot water supplied by the guest-house, we set out to explore the aforementioned site, a low ridge with what looked like reasonable “green” patches, on the satellite images at least. Once there just after dawn, we supped a quick breakfast before fieldwork. Habitat-wise, here we had to “make do” with what appeared to be the best bet for migrant exploration, the least-disturbed portions of the higher parts of the ridge.  

Above: View east from the ridge
It was a largely modified arable landscape, with the promise of more wooded patches in the near distance. Tina and I had a few Tree Pipits, and three Nightingales in what few uncultivated corners we passed.
En route a Violet-backed Starling sang from a tall but solitary and leafless tree. On the way to the higher woods, though, we got rather stuck, hitting a veritable brick wall of dried grass and a tangle of weeds.

Above: Tina working in the dense, scrubby farmland

With no path to follow, we had to turn back, and hope that Mark and Nat had more luck in the other direction. They’d managed to get a little further than we, but it seems that every promised “purple patch” was in fact fairly heavily modified, and that the very best looking parts were totally inaccessible (probably on slopes too steep to farm). They still managed to locate several Willow Warblers, Tree Pipits, Melodious Warblers and a Nightingale. Bird of the morning, though, must have been a Purple-throated Cuckoo-shrike, seen by Mark and Nat.

Cutting our losses, we decided to head for our next target, to re-visit and further explore a part of the Mampongtin Range that we’d looked at last December.

Sadly we had to say goodbye to Nat, for the time-being at least, as he had other pressing business to attend to in Accra. We dropped him off at the tro-tro stop and continued on towards Koforidua. A quick lunch in a cafe, and a brief shop for food supplies, and then the heavens opened. We headed through the lashing rain to set up camp. Still raining, and with less than a warm welcome, the site was a sea of mud and looked like a building site. Learning that there were no facilities on site at all, we turned our tail and went back to town. Another (cheap!) guest house, and a view to revisiting a December site in the morning.

19th Feb What an interesting morning! Between us, Mark, Tina and I revisited the same patches of woodland/farm mosaic as in mid December, and amazingly the exact same migrants were present. A Spotted Flycatcher was in the same tree-felled clearing, Nightingales were in the same thickets and Melodious Warblers sang from the same cover. Were these the same birds as in December? This was all pretty heartening. Galvanized after this first success of the day, and lunch at the Linda Dor Rest Stop on the main Accra-Kumasu road, we called in at the Bunso Arboretum, as mentioned in the guide book, in the hope of setting camp. We were given a fine welcome, and guided to where we could stay, perhaps a little riskily in the shade of some very large monkey pot trees. It’s no palm, but these trees produce a very large seed husk, akin to a coconut in size. Thankfully, though, most had already dropped.
Above: Our camp in the Bunso Arboretum

Over dinner we planned our assault on the unsuspecting farmlands and forests over the next few days.

20th – 23rd Feb Mixed fortunes with most migrant species. Hard to come by in the more forested hills, most were near cultivation, or the scrubbier parts of this. Tree Pipits on the plateau, with Nightingales and Melodious Warblers and a few Spotted Flycatchers here, with fewer seen at lower elevations nearer the camp. And just where are all those Garden Warblers?!  

Above: Surveying in the forested hills

Above: Highly degraded hillside habitat….

Above: …and habitat degradation in progress

After 9 days straight of fieldwork, some catch up time was in order, somewhere near the next target area. We bade a fond farewell to the guys at the arboretum, and left for one good site from last December and some exploration of some new spots both in the hills and the plains below.

It was a spectacular climb up a windy road from Nkawkaw, through it would seem some protected forest (there was the hint by way of a sign by the roadside!). No National Parks here, but as with the rest of Ghana there are numerous forest zones where timber extraction is limited and controlled. Perhaps this could be worth a visit? On our travels we spotted the Forestry Division’s regional offices, so we decided we should pay them a visit the next day in our search for advice about patches of good forest, and possible access to these.

In the evening we visited a hotel right next door to our guest-house - a night off from cooking for Abraham and a well earned rest for our most excellent chef and chauffeur! In the knowledge that Thursday would mean a “lie-in” (what’s one of those?!), there were tired smiles all round as we strolled back to our lodgings.

Ghana repeat transects (plus a little roving...) Jan 21 to Feb 9

Mark Hulme writes: After a week of bateleurs, bishops, buntings and bubale (hartebeast) in Burkina we headed back into Ghana, my passport heavier with the weight of a new stamp. Before starting the transects we paid a return visit to the area around Tono dam near the Burkina border. Some pleasant birding was, never-the-less, not exceptional for migrants, with a brace of Wryneck, a handful of Melodious Warblers and Willow Warblers, a couple of Booted Eagles, a few House Martins and a Common Whitethroat in some thorny scrub being seen over a morning of timed species counts. Leaving our lodgings in Navrongo we set up camp at our regular guest house in Damongo and started transects on the 22 February. Once again Willow Warblers, Melodious Warblers and Pied Flycatchers were pretty common in the woodland/farmland mosaic around the town, a few more Tree Pipits also being seen this time around. The area was dry considering the particularly wet rainy season that had just passed with much burning having already taken place, in short very similar to this time last year except for a few more leaves on the trees.

Above: Nat recording vegetation in Damongo

Our two transects in and around Mole National Park were fairly quiet bird-wise, surprisingly dry again, although our ever-helpful guard Zach calling in a Black Wood-hoopoe was a highlight, and a male elephant wandering around camp made for a bit of excitement, as did the unexpectedly prompt service when we ordered our lunch!

A dry-season bloom in Mole National Park

We decided to take the opportunity to re-visit the Daka floodplain and see if the Whinchat density was similar to our visit in the first half of December. There were still plenty of Whinchats, though we detected slightly fewer than last time, and I was impressed by my first visit to this area – a small group of Blue Quails was great to see, to add to the one I saw at Kogyae last year, a gigantic Denham’s Bustard flying in the distance and my first Beaudouin’s Snake Eagle, an excellent view of a female, made for a nice morning’s transect.
After some well-needed rest and office work in Tamale we stopped off at Buipe on the Volta river, the waters having receded a little since the floods last year, and did some timed species counts which produced particularly high numbers of Willow Warblers along the edge of the waterlogged woodland as well as some Wood and Green Sandpipers, a Ruff and a Painted Snipe. A pair of roosting nocturnal Bronze-winged Coursers were flushed by Chris Orsman and Tina, but not by Nat and myself, it’s alright for some, I’ve been looking for that bird for years! It could be an interesting site to keep an eye on in the future.

Educating the Buipe youngsters in birdwatching: Nat, Chris and Tina

Between the 28 January and 1 February Kogyae camp, Kogyae Strict Nature Reserve in central Ghana, welcomed us warmly, as ever, and the fruit bats decided to be a bit quieter this time around, enabling us to get a bit more sleep than usual, until the last night that is.... There had been less burning than at this time last year, perhaps due to the increased rains, and the grass was very tough to walk through, some of it up to two and a half times higher than Tina......Melodious Warblers were perhaps the most common migrant amongst a small number of Willow Warblers and Pied Flycatchers, fewer Whinchats were seen than last year. I detected a Great Reed Warbler close to some burnt grass in which I’d heard one at the same time last year, which was interesting, but overall rather disappointing from a migrant point of view. On the plus side I managed to ride out a rather ominous illness but the elements had their revenge by unleashing a tropical storm on the last night which, whilst it put out a nearby bush fire, uprooted our tents (OK, uprooted my tent, that will teach me not to guy it properly), left Nat and Abraham wondering what was going on when their tents collapsed on them (Aha! So I wasn’t the only one) and had us running around like headless francolins trying to ensure things stayed dry whilst having what seemed like several swimming-pools poured over us all at once. Thankfully no damage was done and we managed to reach Kumasi the next day in one collective piece, and even managed to dry the tents in the morning sun. Tropical sun has its uses.

Buying provisions in Techiman prior to Kogyae

Grass in Kogyae 2.5 times taller than a Tina

From Kumasi, Ghana’s second biggest city and old capital of the powerful Ashanti kingdoms, we decided to investigate some areas on the way to our next transect site, Kakum. Lake Bosomtwi, formed in an ancient meteorite impact crater, is surrounded by rather lush hills which looked promising but we managed only a Melodious Warbler in a short walk along the road so we carried on to Obuasi, the heart of Ghana’s gold-mining industry, not blessed with decent habitat itself but a base to explore nearby hills the following morning. Once again the odd Melodious Warbler and a few Barn Swallows were seen, and we got a refresher in forest birds in anticipation of Kakum, but otherwise not of much of interest to us.

February 4 to the 7 at Kakum was, as always, very interesting in terms of the forest habitat and the different variety of Afro-tropical species on offer. A pair of Tit-hylias were nesting above our tents in some hanging vegetation, and we caught a glimpse of some Mona Monkeys from the canopy walkway this time, indicating that the disturbance caused by it’s presence and the tourists using it wasn’t completely putting off the larger animals from using the area. We also bumped into Justus, who was doing some work on his project looking at stress in birds at the edge of forest fragments, who had re trapped some of the birds we had ringed earlier in the project, mostly Yellow-whiskered Greenbuls. As for migrants, Barn Swallows were fairly common but little else was detected so we headed for Brenu hoping that Nightingales and Garden Warblers were still present.

Above: A Yellow-whiskered Greenbul re trapped at Kakum from last year.

A Velvet-mantled Drongo seen from the canopy walkway, Kakum.

At Brenu, between February 7-9, we had a refresher course from Justus in blood-sampling and detected a small number of Nightingales and a Garden Warbler in the scrub. The degradation of this habitat was even more marked than on my last visit here with developments springing up all over the place. The grassland held a few Whinchats but no Spotted Flycatchers were seen, fitting in with observations from last year suggesting that most leave this area in mid-winter.
So, with the transects successfully repeated we headed back to Accra to re-group, refresh and study the spatial data on likely habitats for Nightingales and Wood Warblers in order to plan our next few week’s roving. We should be in for some exciting times!