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.

Monday 31/10/2011 Last ringing before Mpraeso

Birgitta writes: Shortly after 4 am to put up some more nets before it got light. Our six nets caught us the following:
2 Village Weaver
1 Black-necked Weaver
1 Red-headed Quelea
1 Nightingale
1 Little Greenbul
2 Blue-billed Firefinch
2 Veillot‟s Black Weaver
2 Simple Leaflove
2 Red-faced Cisticola
2 Common Wattle-eye
2 Grey-backed Cameroptera
2 Garden Warbler

Above photo: Nicholas extracting a blue-billed firefinch

Above photo: Male blue-billed firefinch

Above photo: Vieillot's black weaver (male)

Above photo: Male and female common wattle-eye

Above photo: Red-faced cisticola

Above photo: A pair of garden warblers

Japheth, Bee and Nicholas at the ringing station

I was just processing the nightingale as a local farmer on a bicycle came past. He stopped and asked what I was doing. I told him about the migrants and why we ring them. He was very interested and amazed at what such little birds can achieve. It was a very nice encounter with a local, especially as he was at ease with us being there. Earlier on a lady had wanted to walk to her field past our car. Unfortunately she mistook one of our net poles for a gun, which of course scared her somewhat. She called out and her friends came running. Moments later we returned and of course apologized profusely, showed her some birds and how we ring them and in the end she was happy again and even asked to have her picture taken.

Above photo: The farmer gets over her shock of seeing our "gun"

Chris Orsman writes: This quick netting session produced the one nightingale in the thick of the hotspot where we had most of them last season. We chose not to use playback but we did for garden warbler, and pulled in two.
Over all then this visit felt a lot quieter for nightingales than from late November last year – well, it was, with 5 encounters over 4 transects, whereas by December we had up to 17 on just one route alone! Still no melodious warblers have appeared.

Birgitta writes: At around 10 am it got quite hot and the bird catch slowed down so it was time for us to pack up. We had a long journey ahead of us: we wanted to reach Odwenanoma Mountain before nightfall.
However, we did not get there before dark. It took us over two hours just to get through Kumasi. The traffic was awful. We tried to do our best to keep up our spirit by singing to the radio and having some ice cream from one of the many vendors that weave themselves through the standing traffic. Not the healthiest job I assume!

Buying ice-creams from the car

Sunday 30/10/2011 Butterfly bonanza but few migrants

Birgitta writes: Last transect in Nsoatre for this visit. Best observation was a Lizard Buzzard sitting on a tree and of course all those incredible butterflies!

Migrants-wise, just a single spotted flycatcher, one pied flycatcher, and a lone nightingale croaking from the old roadside.

Saturday 29/10/2011 A change of scene

Birgitta writes: Today we drove further north to do a transect at Fentanta and I saw lots more birds for my Ghana bird list:

Yellow-fronted Canary
Common Wattle-eye
Tropical Boubou
Blue-bellied Roller
Splendid Glossy Starling
Klaas' Cuckoo
Copper Sunbird
Olive-bellied Sunbird
Red-headed Quelea

Above photo: Chris and Nick at Fentanta

Chris Orsman writes: Out at Fentanta, a "control" site some distance west of Nsoatre, we got off to a promising start with a whinchat at point count 1. A little further on we had a pied and a spotted flycatcher from the same spot, a further spotted flycatcher 10m up a Bombax tree, and later again a third was joined in a smaller tree by 2 yellow wagtails. Our only nightingale was hanging out in the same fallow patch as the common wattle-eye, tropical boubou and a brown-crowned tchagra. Towards the end a point count from a small mound in a mixed arable plot gave good views of another two yellow wagtails in some sparse stunted chilli plants, and a second whinchat surveyed us from a nearby perch on the edge of some cassava.

Friday 28/10/2011 First migrant catch

Birgitta writes: "Yippee a net full of yellow weavers!

Wow, are they nice!

Ouch, they bite...and they claw...

PLEASE let go of the net!

I don't think I like weavers!!..."

No honestly, they are wonderful and I love them just like I love Blue tits and Great tits. We had a fabulous morning and were able to ring:

3 Veillot‟s Black Weaver
10 Black-necked Weaver
1 Grey-backed Camaroptera
1 Olive Sunbird
1 Green-headed Sunbird
1 Little Greenbul
1 Blue-billed Firefinch
1 Green Crombec
1 Whistling Cisticola

And most exciting of all:
1 Garden Warbler
1 Common Nightingale

Green-headed Sunbird ♂ (which is definitely not green-headed!)

In the afternoon, we went for a walk to explore some other part of Nsoatre. Although we saw a good number of bird species, we encountered no migrants. None the less, I had a great time with four lifers:

Pin-tailed Whydah
Cardinal Woodpecker
Green Wood Hoopoe
Broad-billed Roller

Above photo: Male Pin-tailed Whydah

Back at the hostel we found our chef busy cooking; the bar was playing Ghanaian Hi-life and Hip-life music, with the occasional Rap song or Daddy Lumba tune thrown in. No matter whether you want to or not, within minutes you will find yourself tapping the beat with your foot or nodding your head to the rhythm. All day long, the bar (which has never seen any other customers than us) is playing music from enormous loudspeakers and as it was Friday night, we decided to have a little dance. Everyone joined in and we all had a great time, Oppong is now known as "snake hips"!

Above photo: Oppong lets his hair down

Thursday 27/10/2011 A day for flycatchers

Chris Orsman writes: Today's transect takes in a start of mature fallow scrub, then active arable plots, patchy teak, plantain and cocoa plantation, on through part of the local cemetery, and finally more arable and wetter valley-bottom scrub near the southern edge of the town. 4 spotted, 2 pied, and one red-bellied paradise flycatcher are recorded, and with the last 2 spotted flycatchers a willow warbler sang and foraged in the same tree. No nightingales this morning – we might have expected 3 or 4 on this route at times last season. Still a little early. And no sign of any melodious warblers at all, pretty common and vocal here on all visits last year.

Wednesday 26/10/2011 Bug-hunting and chief-chasing

Birgitta writes: I really like hot weather and I really like hiking and I love birds so doing a point count survey in Ghana should be just my cup of tea and yes I did enjoy my first morning's work but it was everything else than easy. First of all, there is the wet grass. At 6 am it is relatively cool and pleasant, only downside is the wet grass. Within the first few meters, wading through it, you are soaked from top to bottom, your wet clothes sticking to your skin. Then there is the rest of the vegetation. It is so tall and dense that you have to fight your way through it with the result that once again you are soaked, this time with sweat. Seeds stick to your sweaty throat and make you itch, thorns scratch your legs, pollen makes you sneeze and some tiny insect in the back of your throat is putting up a fight, trying not to be swallowed.

Above photo: transect through Nsoatre countryside

No but seriously, all of this hardship is easily endurable due to the wonderful wildlife you see. If I was out here by myself, I would not make much progress, as there are termites to investigate and butterflies to photograph. Over there the ants are going on patrol, and over here some beetles are having some fun. Not to mention the birds: Western-Grey Plantain-eater, Klaas' and Didric Cuckoo as well as Lanner Falcon were just few of the new ones for me.

Above photo: Bold butterflies

Above photo: Colourful coleoptera

Above photo: Unorthodox orthoptera

Above photo: Ant super-highway

Chris Orsman writes: Our first team transect with Bee, and migrants-wise not too bad at all. Having failed to hear any nightingales yesterday, we picked up on a first, single "croaker" today, some 35m or so from our 3rd point of the morning. Another whinchat made an appearance in a bare tree above a cassava field, then a second nightingale croaked from point 4. This patch last year seemed to have a high density of nightingales. With just 2 recorded today it would seem that they have yet to arrive en masse. We squeeze a third in towards the end of our morning's walk, and also 2 pied flycatchers are recorded on the edge of more mature fallow with taller trees adjacent to arable plots.

Birgitta writes: After a successful survey we went back to our hostel to have some really nice food which our five star chef (and driver, although I much prefer his cooking!) Oppong had prepared for us. Today it was Jollof rice (rice cooked in spicy tomato sauce and red palm oil) and pineapple as dessert, yummy! Full of new energy, showered and dressed neatly we then went in search of the Chief of Nsoatre to introduce ourselves and explain the work we wanted to do. The day before we already had heard that there was no current Chief as the old one had died and the new one hadn‟t been elected yet. We feared the worst case scenario would be having to meet all the candidates, which would probably take all day.

First, we went to an assembly member who was going to take us to the acting Chief's place. As there was not enough room in the car, he jumped onto his bike and cycled up the road leading the way. Then we were all invited into the Chief's house where a group of people sat in a circle. We shook hands with everyone and then were asked to take a seat. As soon as we had sat down everybody else got up and walked past us shaking our hands in return. After that Nick explained why we had come which resulted in a longish discussion between him and the royals. In the end, we were told that the Chief was not present and that we could find him at the Development Chief's house. Hence, our faithful assembly member got onto his bike once more and cycled back down the road to the Development Chief's house with us in tow in the air-conditioned car. Unbelievably, at the DC's house the scene from before repeated itself: two rounds of hand shaking, explanation of our mission and the answer that the Chief wasn't around but back at his place. So our guide got back onto his bike, we got back into the car and... Well to cut a long story short: we did not meet the Chief because by the time we got to his house, he had already left again and neither did we meet him the next day, as he wasn't in either. In the end, the exhausted assembly member on his bike and the rest of the royal family decided that we had tried hard enough and didn't have to meet the Chief after all.

In the evening Oppong rewarded us for our exhausting afternoon of chasing the Chief, cutting net rides and putting up nets by serving fried yam with palava sauce. The sauce is made from cocoyam leaves and looks rather disgusting (it is deep green) but it tasted really nice.
Above photo: Nick and Japheth cutting net rides

Tuesday 25/10/2011 Bee's first fieldwork

Above photo: White-throated Bee-eater

Birgitta Büche writes: After a day in Accra and another day in the car to Nsoatre (dodging potholes easily big enough for me to sit in, and along bone-shaking bumpy dirt tracks) we, that is Chris, Japheth, Nick and I (Birgitta or simply Bee), went out into the field to explore the area. I was thrilled and overwhelmed; the variety of exotic birds is just mind blowing. I did not know where to look first. Everywhere there were bursts of colour and song and it seemed to me a miracle that Chris was keeping on top of things. Some of my favourites are definitely the White-throated Bee-eaters and the African Grey Hornbills and of course our migrants. In between all the new birds I got so confused that I asked Chris what that bird was that looked a bit like a Whinchat. "Whinchat" replied embarrassing! No but honestly, seeing "our" birds is awe-inspiring. I imagine them doing the same journey I did in an airplane all by themselves without any help, weighing less than the safety card in the seat pocket of my chair.

Above photo: African Grey Hornbill

Saturday 22/10/2011 Birgitta gets to Ghana

Birgitta Büche writes: Akwaaba (welcome) it said on the poster in the customs hall and a wave of humid hot air hit my face. The signs were unmistakable, I had really arrived at Accra airport – and that was exactly were I stayed for the next one and a half hours. The queue at the passport control was endless and moved painfully slowly forwards. Then finally, I walked out into the hall where I hoped to spot Chris who I had never met before. Does he still look like the pictures on the RSPB homepage I asked myself? However, when I finally saw him, there was no mistaking. Chris gave me big hug, as if we were old friends and welcomed me to Ghana. What a wonderful arrival in a foreign country.

Saturday 22nd Oct 2011 - Headed back to Accra

Chris Orsman writes: Another disturbed night – this time our neighbour’s ignored alarm rang every few minutes from around half past two! Yawn!!
We open the nets at first light, around 05:45. First out of the nets is a western bearded greenbul, followed by quite a brutish red-tailed bristlebill, although the latter lacking the bare blue skin above the eye as indicated in our field guide. Is this lost by non-breeders, or not apparent in females? Or were we looking at an immature individual? Another 2 caught later, and a second red-tailed greenbul - the first on Wednesday - also lack this bare blue skin. The latter 2 red-tailed bristlebills clearly differ in size, so perhaps a male and a female. The smaller has signs of a late (or early?) brood patch.
Photo above: Japheth with a western bearded greenbul
Photo above: A hard stare from a red-tailed bristlebill
A western nicator, a Finsch’s flycatcher thrush and a Kemp’s longbill are all new species, and the longbill a totally new species that I’d never seen before.
Photo above: Nicholas measuring a little greenbul's wing
Photo above: Finsch's flycatcher thrush
We tried the mp3 playback of spotted flycatcher next to one of the nets, and as a result caught an olive-green camaroptera! Swapping the call for that of pied flycatcher, having heard one calling nearby, was even less productive. We have to try these things!! So alas no migrants caught in Ghana so far, but in a few days we’ll be at our next study area, and with November approaching surely there we’ll have more luck...
Back to camp after taking down the nets and poles, we then pack away all our gear and tents, settle our bill with caretakers Raphael and Ebenezer, and set off for Accra. Tonight our new team member Birgitta arrives, and tomorrow is a day of rest for the team, before our nightingale hunt begins in Brong Ahafo next week.

Friday 21/10/2011 Eve of Birgitta's Arrival

Birgitta Büche writes: Nervously I watched the postal worker walk from the right side of the post office to the left and back again before disappearing behind endless rows of parcels. I held my breath and waited, my heart beating rapidly. Then finally (after what felt like a lifetime but probably was no more than two minutes) he emerged and in his hand, he held the envelope I had so desperately waited for: My passport with my Ghanaian Visa in it! My flight left the next morning at 9am and the passport was the very last thing I had been waiting for to pack. Good thing it arrived on time!

Friday 21st Oct 2011 - Migrants still in Burkina Faso?

Chris Orsman writes: I wake grumpier than I usually am. The other guys suffered a bit too I think - they’re quite used to background noise but without earplugs even they found that loud! After bread, jam, bananas and tea for breakfast, we then aim for Pepease to investigate the forest.
The walk down from the Director of Education’s residence yields some familiar species: pied crows, common bulbuls, northern grey-headed sparrow, tawny-flanked prinias, Senegal coucal. Above us a grey kestrel glides and sits steadily into the wind, and as we drop further and more forest approaches, grey longbill and grey-headed negrofinch are heard. 3 pied flycatchers in all are heard but just one of them seen, olive sunbirds are regular, and a first pair of buff-throated sunbirds forages beneath the “canopy” of a cassava crop. As we walk the farmland margin, Ahanta francolins call from deep within the forest. Sadly, though, no wood warblers, nor any further migrants detected by mid-morning, so we retrace our steps back to the car, and move on to investigate the real nightingale and melodious warbler hotspot that we discovered last season.
This rocky un-cultivated plateau is largely shrubby grassland, cattle-grazed, but otherwise un-managed save for the usual seasonal burning come January. Even post-fires last time out the remaining shrubs were still home to migrants found there in December. This early, however, there was no sign. 2 spotted flycatchers were seen in the more open areas, but this early on there was no croak or song of a nightingale, and no melodious warbling. We can expect both these species to be still in Burkina, so it will be interesting to see when exactly they arrive here for the larger part of the “winter”.
On our return to camp we ask the caretaker if we can set some nets in some ready-made rides alongside some footpaths. The benefit compared to the track-side spot we used on the 19th is that the paths are completely in the shade. On Wednesday the sun struck the nets rather early so the catch dropped off from 08:00. Later we put up 2 short lines of just 5 nets, with a view to using playback of one or other of the migrant flycatchers, depending what’s around in the morning.

Thursday 20th Oct 2011 - A good day and a stormy night

Chris Orsman writes: Today’s point-count transect traversed the farmland patchwork east of Pepease. A fly-past of 2 “red-rumped-type” swallows kicked us off – probably mosque swallows, a yellow-browed camaroptera, and our first red-eyed dove of no doubt many. On our third point a spotted flycatcher foraged from a tree above a cassava crop. A single pied flycatcher was heard some distance from our route, and soon after our first Ghana garden warbler was heard in sub-song within some dense cover. Up a slope away from the wooded farmland valley, into more open shrubland, and whistling cisticolas sang from either side of the track. I find I’m beginning to pick up the different calls of sunbirds again! We hear collared, olive-bellied and splendid sunbirds on the survey. What I think are 2 barn swallows zip overhead, and a second garden warbler and spotted flycatcher appear by the trackside, with a pied flycatcher on the final point-count as we drop back into the wooded valley. An excellent morning, but appears to confirm that here too, as on the mountain, the wood warblers have yet to arrive. Neither have we heard any nightingales or melodious warblers, both of which were reasonably readily encountered from December to March last season.
Back on the mountain top I take some time this afternoon to go through data entry with Japheth and Nicholas, and set about writing this!! Soon after dinner and after dark, the distant sky starts to flicker silently suggesting a storm is brewing. Just as we’re about to turn in for the night, the storm truly arrives! Japheth makes it to his tent, but Nicholas and I hide out in the hired “chalet” with George. The power goes off and with a head torch I try to peek out of the front door. Taking the full brunt of the wind and rain, the covered front porch is soon flooded and the wind is blowing the door open, and once I’ve wrestled it closed the wind continues to force water under the door. Without lights, outside is more often lit than dark, as the sky strobes and the rain pours for over an hour. Once it eases, we tentatively inspect our tents. After quite a battering they – and Japheth – remain intact! And amazingly inside only the smallest drop of water has found its way in. Post-storm our hill-top retreat seems even more peaceful than before – aside from the blaring radio from our new neighbour in the only other room in the chalet. I pop in the earplugs and hope that he turns it off soon...
Awake at midnight, earplugs in, radio still loud! Have words with a sleepy neighbour, who apologises and turns it off.

Wednesday 19th Oct 2011 - Meeting the Queen Mother

Chris Orsman writes: Nicholas rustled up a great dinner last night; plain rice and a rich and spicy fish-and-tomato sauce. His title is now officially Top Chef, as coined by Japheth.
So, head torches on we’re up and out at 04:30, setting a line of 6 nets in the same ready-made ride as we used last season (still this year of course – back in March).
Photo above: Our nets mid-morning, catching a little too much sun and not enough birds
Not having seen any wood warblers yet, we’re not too hopeful of any success with our mp3 playback, as we had in Burkina. And we were right - not a sign! However 19 birds caught, including retraps of a little greenbul, green hylia, and a brown-chested alethe. New birds were 7 little greenbuls (mostly juveniles), 2 olive-green sunbirds, 2 white-tailed alethes, and singles of red-bellied paradise flycatcher, Sharpe’s apalis, collared sunbird, another brown-chested alethe, and a red-tailed greenbul – though this was the green-tailed race!
Photo above: Green-tailed variety of red-tailed greenbul
After lunch Japheth, Nicholas and I head to Pepease and on towards the spot we hope to find wood warblers this season. This is a mosaic of scattered arable and plantation, shrubland and remnant forest. We speak to the villagers who’s property lies closest to the transect, and then on to the next, larger town to speak the local authorities. There we meet 2 local assembly members, and are led to the local chief’s palace, but as he is out we have a meeting with the Queen Mother. In some places a ceremonial position, the Queen Mother is sometimes known as the King Maker, as she decides who will become chief when the time arises. The chief holds the power once in position, but here the Queen Mother is able to make decisions in his absence. The meeting is traditional yet cheerful, with now three younger members of the local assembly, and a very jolly elderly gentleman who is the palace official interpreter or messenger. We are all sat in an arc in the shade within the palace courtyard. After shaking hands with everyone twice, and an official welcome from one of the assembly members, Japheth speaks for the group to explain our hopes to work in the surrounding farmland and hinterland. His message is relayed to the Queen Mother (not translated as such – one just doesn’t address the Queen Mother or the Chief directly) by the messenger. He tells us that he Queen welcomes us and says that she finds our mission agreeable – that our desire to care for the environment is to be commended and supported. Of course for the meeting to conclude there is more shaking of hands, and a rather embarrassed request from the interpreter for a gift to the palace and the community. As is tradition, we should have come armed with some local homebrew, and failing that, a cash alternative. Patting my pockets I realise that I may not have enough cash for such a gift. Japheth, Nicholas and I excuse ourselves from the palace and rather protractedly discuss how much we should give. Once decided what would be affordable without being insulting, we re-enter the palace to hand over our gift in an “envelope” hastily prepared from a sheet of notepaper. The Queen Mother assures us that by the time we arrive to start our work tomorrow, the community will have been made aware who we are, should they see us out and about on the farmland. More shaking of hands and well-wishes from the dignitaries, and we are on our way.
With an hour to spare, we stop off in Pepease to seek access to the forest that Jonathan in Mpraeso spoke about. Finding the Director of Education’s residence (as Jonathan suggested) we asked nearby about the forest. It appears that this forest is in fact right next to some of the mixed habitats that we have already been looking at close by. Our new-found local guide shows us the path that leads down from the hilltop towards the forest, and to us it appears that with the number of trees and shrubs on this rocky un-farmable slope, that it will be well worth coming back for a morning’s search for migrants.

Tuesday 18th Oct 2011 - Fieldwork starts

Chris Orsman writes: At last some fieldwork at Mpraeso. George drops us off at the bottom of the mountain, and we start our first repeat transect. Black-necked weavers, a splendid sunbird and a few common bulbuls get us off the ground, in the mixed rural residential and agricultural mosaic, with a few palm, plantain and mango trees here and there. A hairy-breasted barbet and some orange-cheeked waxbills further on into more contiguous plantation, and then on the forest edge our first grey-headed negrofinch. African emerald, Klass’s, Didric and black cuckoos all call en route to the summit, and eventually single pied flycatchers are heard and spotted at point counts 11, 12 and 15. Lots of little greenbuls noted, along with slender-billed and honeyguide greenbuls, and a fly-by white-crested hornbill on the last point of the morning.
George is waiting at the summit to ferry us back down. A great start to the Ghana field season, especially with a couple of migrant species having already arrived. Not yet though, it seems, any wood warblers.
After exiting the hotel, and a final lunch (it seems like we’re holding off the inevitable!) at the resto, we head back up the hill, and set about some tent assembly. An hour or so later and back down the hill to shop for groceries for tonight’s dinner! The market is of course colourful, cramped and pungent, and we home in on a one-stop shop for fresh veg and tinned meats. I’m not surprised to learn that the tins are as expensive as, if not more than, in the UK, but the fresh veg is not quite as cheap as one might have thought. Still, can’t beat the fresh stuff, and am sure the home-cooked fare will be much more satisfying!
Lastly today we check with the caretakers to see if we can set some nets for a spot of ringing tomorrow. With darkness looming we aim for an early start to set the nets just before dawn.

Monday 17th Oct 2011 - Accra to Mpraeso

Chris Orsman writes: After a weekend of improved breakfasts, the wrong rugby results – well, half of them at least for a Welshman like me – and getting on top of finances, and it seems no-one has seen or heard from Abraham since last Thursday. We have to head out today, the date having hinged on Abraham’s availability. Experienced driver George is on hand, at least for this first week, but he assures us that he can’t cook! As luck would have it, we have an extra fieldworker joining us to be shown the project ropes – zoology graduate Nicholas. Apart from being a very welcome new addition to the team, he expresses an interest in cooking too. Nice one Nicholas! We’ll all muck in of course.
Five hours later and we arrive at Mpraeso, via famous Linda Dor’s rest-stop on the Accra-Kumasi road. At our destination we check into the hotel we used last time out, and then pop by the local forestry offices to announce our intentions, and to see if we can camp atop Mt Odwenanoma once again. A great welcome awaited, and aside from granting us all the permission we needed, director Jonathan gave us directions to an area of forest that we’d not visited before, the Northern Ridge East. Well, it sounded new....
We popped up the mountain to check with the local caretakers of the “visitor centre”, arranged to hire one room, and to pitch 3 tents. And all for the bargain same price as one room at the “cheap” hotel. Whilst we were chatting, a spotted flycatcher made an appearance in a small mossy-branched tree next to the caretakers’ house.
Photo above: View of Nkawkaw from Odwenanoma Mountain
Japheth, Nicholas and I took a wander down the hill with George ahead waiting in the car. A useful exercise to tune in to some of the calls we expect to hear tomorrow morning. Sharpe’s apalis, olive-green camaroptera, grey longbill, Sabine’s puffback and green hylia just a few of the calls heard, and on a telephone line strung beside the track another spotted flycatcher is seen hunting the same flying beasties as a nearby little grey flycatcher.
Then a last supper (I hope not!) at a resto before we endeavour to cater for ourselves over the next few days.

Thursday-Friday 13th -14th Oct 2011 - paperwork & equipment

Chris Orsman writes: Spend pretty much all Thursday trying to get our permit to work in Ghana sorted out. It’s primarily for working within the national parks and forest reserves, and we may need to visit some of these during the season. Also, as an official document from the Wildlife Division of the Forestry Department, it could help open doors when discussing permissions with local chiefs to work on their land.
Called Abraham, our driver/chef from last season – he’s set and ready to head out into the field on Monday. Great!
Start trying to make sense of all the equipment left at the offices after last season. All seems to be in order, although will probably need extras of this and that when later in the season we will be operating as two teams. Most important is that we get an extra set of ringing gear. End the day compiling a simple spreadsheet of all rings used over the last two seasons, and accounting for all the mist nets too – essential to keep on top of this as a licensed bird-ringer!! Add to this a list of bits and bobs for the next “waves” from the UK to bring over the next few weeks.
In the end all equipment is checked and ready to go on Monday. But are we...?

Wednesday 12th Oct 2011 - Nightingale habitat near the Volta?

Chris Orsman writes: Collected early from the hotel, driver George, Augustus, Tina, Japheth and I head north towards Atimpoku, where we cross the Volta near its dam. Incredible just how much scrub there is in the area. Apparently these hillsides would once have been forest of sorts, but most of the timber has been removed. What’s left is rocky terrain that is next to useless for agriculture. There are small pockets where some effort is being made to farm the land, but on the whole, the biggest threat to this expansive scrub is from property development. This part of Ghana is a popular tourist destination, and bit by bit is being sold off to build exclusive residences and holiday accommodation.
We stop at various points along the road, and venture into the scrub via various paths and tracks. A piping hornbill, green turacos and a yellowbill grace one or two of the remnant trees, a grosbeak weaver (new for me!), a western bluebill, and sunbirds and cisticolas (struggle to remember my calls at this stage!) flit and call here and there. No sight or sound of any migrants, but on the whole I think this place has so much promise we should consider revisiting when we know that nightingales have descended this far south.

Photo above: Augustus surveying part-farmed hillside scrub

Tuesday 11th Oct 2011 - Ghana Wildlife Society, Accra

Chris Orsman writes: So disappointed with the breakfast this morning! The hotel price includes it, and a boiled egg and 2 slices of bread will not suffice! I made sure I got at least part of my money’s worth by drinking far too much tea. Words will be had...
First trip to the office today, and great to see Augustus and Tina again. Had a long chat with Tina about the forthcoming season, and us working together again, but then eventually she confessed that she couldn’t join us this year. I was so disappointed! How will we cope? Especially as Nat too is otherwise engaged, now back in the UK for his studies. Well, we will just have to soldier on somehow.
Augustus told me about a place near the Volta dam which he thinks may be worth considering for migrants, particularly nightingales. It’s not far from a spot we passed through last February, and I remember thinking just how potentially good it looked. Many gentle-sloped hillsides are blanketed with this 3-5m high scrub, much like the ever-more fragmented coastal scrub where the team have ringed at Brenu, and have had some success with nightingales, garden warblers and spotted flycatchers. We resolve to head out there tomorrow.
Augustus also introduced one of Tina and Nat’s replacements, Japheth, who I met last year. He’s keen to get stuck in, and also has quite a lot of ringing experience, which will be helpful if we’re going to put in some extra effort this year to catch some of our target migrants.

Monday 10th Oct 2011 - Ouagadougou to Accra

Chris Orsman writes: Early rise for a last breakfast at La Source du Sahel, and then whisked off to the airport by Daniel with Aly & Oumar in tow. After being waved off and checking in, I reflected on how lucky we are to have such a team in Burkina. I cannot wait (and nor can they!) to see what they might encounter on the transects and at the ringing sites this season. Having last season caught a few returning migrants from season 1, will they this time find any ready-ringed from Europe?!
A short hop from Ouagadougou to Accra, and a different climate felt when stepping off the plane. Already mid-day, but coastal Accra felt quite cool compared to Ouaga. Off to the usual hostelry, and another afternoon of sorting and playing catch-up with data and emails.

Sunday 9th Oct 2011 - Ouagadougou Forest Park

Chris Orsman writes: An early Sunday morning’s birding at Ouagadougou Forest Park, rewarded first by a couple of pied flycatchers, a smattering of nightingales, and an eventual tally of 13 wood warblers. The largest group was of 6 and these seemed to be associating with (or followed by?) a small group of Red-billed Firefinches. We heard a little bit of feeble winter pewing, but also 1 or 2 moments of winter “twittering” too. This further boosted the confidence re catching later on, although not sure whether they’ll have arrived as far south as our possible study areas in Ghana just yet. A few fruit bats were also spotted huddled together in a tree high above the footpath. I think they were a few of the remaining straw-coloured fruit bats that apparently amass here in August, in trees alongside the busy road at the West entrance to the park. By November they will have gone, and regroup further south in places such as central Accra.

Photo above: Straw-coloured fruit bats in Ouagadougou Forest Park

A late breakfast at a new place for me – un-named, so when asked what we should call it when writing out a breakfast receipt, the proprietor suggested “le Coin des Amis”. I hope it sticks!
The rest of the final day in Burkina is ensuring Aly & Oumar are completely au fait with the laptops, data entry and saving, and emailing. I try and fail to install any software to go with their GPS’s, but no great shakes for the moment.

Saturday 8th Oct 2011 - Wood warblers and nightingales, Ouagadougou

Chris Orsman writes - Next day back at the monastery, we tried a recorded playback of the full breeding-ground “pew” of a wood warbler. With no luck early on, we then switched to full song, and in the next net round caught 1 right next to the source. Oddly enough no other birds in thatround of 6 nets, except for a nightingale! Very nice indeed.

Photo above: Aly and Oumar with wood warbler and nightingale

Photo above: Nightingale and wood warbler

Next round no wood warblers, but the third and fourth produced 1 each, both in the exact same spot by the mp3 player. Are they easier to catch now on passage when they are vocal, than later on when they seemed, last season at least, to be quieter? Moved the mp3 player to a spot with a nightingale croaking nearby, and subsequently caught a second of these. Another garden warbler was also caught, so not a bad morning for migrants.
Following news of Wales’s win over Ireland in the rugby, a “relaxed” afternoon of catching up on expenditure, and a few pointers to Aly regarding data entry. Not that he needed it – he was well under way with putting ringing data in before I got involved. Good man!

Friday 7th Oct 2011 - Ringing at the monastery

Chris Orsman writes - Our first ringing session this Friday morning resulted in 63 birds caught, so a good training session, and included 1 garden warbler. There were evidently plenty of nightingales around, and thought early on that I heard something resembling wood warbler “winter pewing”. I was later near convinced, with a clearer more typical breeding-ground call heard, and ultimately saw one bird. Definitely more than one call heard though.

Photo: Busy at the nets at the monastery

This afternoon the Oursi guys had their laptops seen to, getting a French version of the operating system installed. Plus they had all the relevant other software in French too, so nothing lost.

Thursday 6th Oct 2011, Ouagadougou - meetings and monasteries

Chris Orsman writes - Meetings throughout much of the morning, for various members of the team at different times, but eventually we’ve sorted out much of what little things need sorting for this year’s work to go ahead. Not my favourite activity, discussing budgets and contractual agreements! Some more installing of various spreadsheets for the guys to use on their laptops, but then I hear that tomorrow the Naturama computer technician will be around, and able to change their operating system to French. Great news, but it will mean that all I’ve installed will be lost and will need re-installing post-update!
After getting the go-ahead from the Father Abbot on the phone this morning, he wanted to meet us when we arrived at the monastery to set our nets ready for the following morning. He was delighted to be of assistance. With minimal modification to create net rides (we had one ready-made – a ride cut for putting up telegraph poles: ideal), we put up 6 nets; plenty for a morning’s training. Would we catch more than we did last October though? Only 3 birds each morning then! This site does look promising, with loads of shrubby cover. It seems that the grounds of the monastery are fenced off so that livestock cannot wander in, encouraging plenty of scrubby growth and rank grass. Nets set and furled just before dark, we head back to town.
Back to La Source du Sahel, for spaghetti and tomato sauce, with a baguette of fried minced beef and onions. Same as last night, and would prove to be the same every night! Who needs variety when it’s so tasty and excellent value?

Wednesday 5th Oct 2011, Ouagadougou

Chris Orsman writes - Breakfast today was at possibly my favourite local eatery, and the only one in the area that’s open twenty-four-seven, La Source du Sahel. Had the “usual”, of a café au lait (a generous teaspoon of instant coffee on top of a large dollop of sweet condensed milk in a glass bowl, hot water added from a well-used flask – to be slurped from a spoon until the bowl has cooled enough to pick it up!), and a delicious Ouaga baguette stuffed with an oily omelette. All served in the shade from the 7am sun, next to the Rue de Charles de Gaul, one of Ouaga’s busiest commuter routes into the city centre.
Handing -over of equipment today, much relief for me as was a considerable bulk! 2 old laptops included, donated to the project for the Burkina team to be able to input all of their data as they go along, and email it to us at opportune stages during the season. Then to the office, to find that Idrissa and Georges are not around, but no matter, as there’s plenty to do. Meet up with Mohamed, who tells us that our hopes for some ringing training in Ougadougou Forest Park may not be possible. It seems a bit of a blow, but apparently they couldn’t accommodate only because the park staff are preparing for a visit of pan-African conservation dignitaries on the 8th, otherwise they were very keen. That’s great news, for next time at least. However, Georges has already armed Mohamed with an alternative to investigate, a monastery some 25km south of the city. Some introductions to the laptops first, and it’s clear early on that the software in English is not going to be easy for Aly & Oumar. Why didn’t we think of that before?!
Lunch next to the office, boiled rice with delicious sauce arachid, or groundnut sauce, seasoned with dried fish. We then head off to pay a visit to the monastery, arriving mid-prayers, so we seek some shade next to a nearby barrage. Despite the heat of mid-afternoon, there’s loads of bird activity, mostly rainy-season breeders, such as weavers, bishops and resident finches, all in and out of the long grasses at the lake shore. From the same grasses the calls of tawny-flanked prinias, and in the middle distance a dead tree in the lake is home to a dozen or more long-tailed cormorants.
Back at the monastery we ring a gong to announce our presence, and one of the elders agrees to see us. Not foreseeing any problems, he does suggest we should speak with the Father Abbot, and in his absence we are given his number to call him first thing the next day.

Tuesday, 4th Oct , London - Ouagadougou

Chris Orsman writes - Today we know that the season really is underway when I’m woken at 3 ready for my 4am taxi to the airport. Some last minute packing to do of course. Rather a lot of luggage it has to be said. The early flight leaves on time to Brussels, followed by an onward delay, and then a diversion to Cotonou in Benin, before at last I arrive 6 hours late in Ouagadougou. Although it’s been hot in London lately, the 29C greeting me at 2100hrs as I leave the plane for the steps down to the tarmac, well, still a bit of a shock, even after a few trips here now. Through the usual checks, including being beckoned by the surly-looking customs guys who wanted to see in my luggage, and at some rather odd looking equipment within! Just as before, when I said it was for our work with Naturama, our project partners here in Burkina, smiles of recognition arrived and then a quick wave of the hand to usher me through. The familiar faces of Aly, Oumar and Daniel are there to greet me, and a welcome sight too! Lots of catching up to do, and a chat well towards midnight discussing what was to come this season, and, more immediately, during my week in Ouagadougou.