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.

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