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.

Wednesday 30/11/11 Accommodation upgrade!

Above photo: dawn over the study site

We have another go at catching this morning, this time with two nets and mp3 players, set over 100m apart. We get a response near one net pretty quickly, but sadly the bird does not choose to descend into the net. Whilst waiting for a catch we take a short walk away from the net site and I spot 4 wood warblers foraging high up in a leguminous tree, so we decide to try here with the net tomorrow.

Above photo: Chris and Japheth tracking wood warbler 3

Perhaps it’s a good job we didn’t catch any more, as bird 3 gives us a bit of a run-around. It appears to have settled in a seemingly impenetrable patch of forest, so we spend a good while circling this patch and getting as many fixes as we can to pinpoint its whereabouts. We do catch up with bird 2, and thankfully we manage to see bird 1 in the valley once more, and in the same tree as yesterday.

Above photo: unidentified arachnid

After a good morning, we decide that it’s time to move into our new, and it has to be said a lot nicer, accommodation. Not a bad pad – and a nice view to boot!!

Above photo: our living room
Above photo: the view from the house

Bee and Chas have continued success at the nightingale study site, with all ten tagged birds still detectable, and catching efforts have even resulted in retrapping one of them, along with some more amazing African species.
Above photo: female green-headed sunbird

Above photo: the retrapping of a tagged nightingale

Above photo: Levaillant's cuckoo

Tuesday 29/11/11 Third wood warbler caught

Above photo: sunrise, and Emmanuel and Japheth are ready at the car for our next wood warbler

With Japheth back and our confidence with tracking increasing, we put a net up in a spot where yesterday we saw an unringed wood warbler. And bingo! After a half-hour of playback a bird is caught, and a few minutes later our third radio-tagged wood warbler is released. Brilliant!

On top of this capture success, we manage to see both other birds this morning – bird 1 for the first time!! This was foraging with an un-ringed bird in a bug-filled flowering tree by the river. Not identified it yet, but I think it might be a Berlinia species.

We manage to track and get fixes on bird 3 this evening. Hopeful to actually see it tomorrow!

Above photo: the GWS field vehicle, about to take us home...

Monday 28/11/2011 Checking out yet more new accommodation

It’s definitely beginning to look like the best system for a day’s tracking is to invest as much time as can be allowed to actually find each bird and get a waypoint for its location, and record some detail of behaviour, habitat, and tree species, and any association with other birds. Having said that, still not actually seen bird 1 yet – but we’re getting close!

Aside from tracking today, we have a meeting with the owner of some wholly decent accommodation on the edge of town. Essentially a holiday home/ weekend retreat for himself, he has built some chalets nearby and rents these out to local professionals. He says that sadly there is no free chalet at present, but explains that for our last two weeks we can move into 3 rooms in his own house! Deal done!!

The grounds of our prospective new accomodation

On our way back from fieldwork this evening we were treated to some pretty good views of long-tailed nightjars resting on the track ahead of us. This meant that poor Japheth had to wait a short while in town for us to pick him up. Sorry Japheth!

Above photo: long-tailed nightjar

The nightingale tracking continues anabated. The team now have a full complement of 10 radio-tagged birds, which has become quite a handful to track twice and even three times a day! Bee and Chas have also undertaken some more habitat mapping of the site, and during the course of fieldwork came across this rather confiding African crake:

Above photo: African crake

Sunday 27/11/2011 Moving from the mountain

Above photo: dawn over the valley

A second morning seeking out the birds, and we head straight for down into the valley where bird 1 was yesterday. We get a good signal from the word go. We find that the valley is in fact quite grassy and scrubby, demonstrating that we are at the very northern edge of the forest zone, and the southern edge of the savannah. Plenty of farmland at the bottom too, readily irrigated from the river continuing north towards the Volta, from the waterfall we passed yesterday. Wondering whether the bird will be accessible in the dense forest at the head of the valley, we’re pleasantly surprised to find that it appears to be hanging out at the farmland/forest edge. No matter how hard we try, however, we cannot see the bird, but feel we must be within 50m of it. A few decent fixes, and we’re pretty pleased with this so head for bird 2. Little problem finding this one, and we see it in a mixed canopy some 70m away from yesterday’s spot.

Above photo: early morning tracking

Considering our success so far, we decide to up-sticks from the mountain-top and head for the closer accommodation, so we head straight back to camp and start packing. We say our farewells to the caretakers, grab some lunch in Mpraeso, and head for the new guest house.

The afternoon foray into the field is spent in the valley, chasing after bird 1. It appears to have moved within some particularly troublesome shrubby terrain, and we take 2 hours to get 2 fixes, and as a consequence we end up with no time to search for bird 2. We decide that our pm fieldwork in future should start with bird 2, and then get as good fixes as possible on bird 1 from vantage points on the ridge above the valley.

Saturday 26/11/2011 First time wood warbler tracking

0600 sharp and Emmanuel and I are back at the ringing site. Headphones at the ready, we tune our tracking receiver into bird 1.


Not a peep from the receiver. A walk up the road and 100m in every direction, and still nothing. Wondering if the bird has moved on already, we decide to switch to bird 2, hoping for some reassurance that at least the equipment is working! Straight away we get a beep in the headphones. Very quickly we home in on the direction of the strongest signal, and make our way towards the bird.

Amazingly after about 45 minutes we not only pin-point the location of bird 2 about 160m from the ringing site, but we actually spot it, replete with colour rings, foraging a few metres above us in a path-side tree. What an amazing feeling! Yesterday we attached the tag wondering if we’d even get a signal from the birds today, and here were are actually watching one of them!! Brilliant.

Next task was to try again for bird 1. Understanding that the range of the tag is about 500m, up to 1km in the best conditions, we resolved to walk 500m in every direction from the ringing site. Should this fail, we’d expand the search to 1km, and then further if necessary. For the first foray off the main East-West track we head south, listening all the while for any signal from bird 1. An occasional switch to bird 2 shows that we can still detect it from up to 650m away, but 500m S of the ringing site, still no bird 1.

A short walk west along the main track we arrive at the village, and ask for a path northwards. We are pointed in the direction of the river, but are told we need a guide. A quick explanation that the Queen Mother has given us permission, and we’re waved on. About 150m after leaving the village, and bingo, I start to get the faintest signal from bird 1. Continuing on past the river, where it disappears underground and emerges at a sacred waterfall, we’re crossing a grassy, rocky plateau – quite unsuitable for wood warblers it would seem. The valley below is wooded however, and this appears to be where the signal is coming from. We find a path down towards the valley, through some farmland, and then further down to scrub on the edge of the forest. At this point the path runs out, so we take a waypoint and a compass bearing towards the strongest signal. We back-track and seek out other vantage points to take bearings, but back on the plateau we find that we’re heading further away from the signal as it gets weaker, and there seems no other way down to the valley. We decide to head back to the village, and from the road we can “circle” round to the other side of the valley, and maybe get bearings from the opposite ridge.

Above photo: underground river emerging into forested valley

The road runs south-north along the west side of the valley, and the slopes down are farmed and passable via many paths. We find one which takes us to a vantage point overlooking the valley, but still some 500m from where we were on the other side. A good signal from here, and we finally get a good picture from 2 more bearings. Happy with these “fixes”, and with the sun now high in the sky, we head back to our camp on the mountain.

En route through Abetifi we discover a fantastic little canteen in the grounds of the University, amazing value and service, probably cheaper in fact than catering for ourselves! We resolve to take our lunches here, and self-cater for breakfast and our evenings from now on.

After a long morning, we decide that we must move to Pepease tomorrow. This commute is just too long! It will be much more practical for tracking the birds twice daily.

Whilst out tracking the nightingales, Bee and Chas continue to engage with the locals, and the wildlife pin-badges are going down well.

Above photo: Bee with some local kids on their way to help on the farm

Friday 25/11/2011 Our first tagged wood warbler!

As planned we arrive at 0545, set the net and light the blue touch paper (i.e. start the mp3!)

Instantly we get a response. First one bird, then another, calling, but not seen, from over the net area. Then a couple of minutes later another two arrive in that first main tree from yesterday. These two drop down towards the net, and the pewing continues. Just a few minutes later, two reappear in the tree, then a third, fourth and fifth are spotted. None are now calling and all are foraging and moving steadily further away from the source of the song. None is calling, however. Not even those that were very vocal at the start. We need to check the net.

Craning a neck around the corner into the net ride, we spot our first trapped wood warbler, and there next to it is a second! Bowled over by this success, we hurriedly extract the birds from the net and return to the car to prep for ringing and tagging.

Above photo: Japheth at the ringing table

Above photo: ringing the wood warbler

Above photo: measuring the tarsus

Above photo: checking age and for any moult

Above photo: our first radio-tagged wood warbler

Thankfully even with two birds to process the job is done smoothly and efficiently, and before long we’re re-checking that the tags are working. The birds are released with their new mini-transmitters, and they promptly disappear. Moments later we check the frequencies again, and still receiving them there’s a great sense of relief and satisfaction all round. Job well done! Just hope we can find them again later....

With Japheth off for an overdue weekend off, we take him to Nkawkaw to catch his bus. It will be down to me and Emmanuel to hunt those birds down tomorrow. Not knowing how much time this will take, we decide to put off attempting to catch more until we get a good sense of the work involved tracking just the two birds.
Above photo: Nkawkaw traffic

Back west Bee, Chas and Oppong take time out from a hectic fieldwork schedule to explore the local market and search for some bargains!
Above photo: vegetable stall at Nsoatre market

Above photo: villagers sorting through clothes at Nsoatre market

Thursday 24/11/2011 Finding our first “farmland” wood warbler

Full of the aforementioned tea, bread and bananas, we head out at 5am in search of wood warblers – for the 4th time of trying! Will they have arrived?

The start of the transect route suggests not. Today’s mission is not to carry out a complete point count survey, but to determine, including with the aid of playback, whether or not any wood warblers are here at all. Remembering the locations (including the same trees) of the wood warblers from last year, we cover as much ground as possible, using short bursts of song and call from the mp3 player. From 0600 until 0930 we see and hear nothing wood warbler like and are more than a little disappointed, until at last at 0945 we hear a faint “pew” from behind. Turning back, we locate our first study-site wood warbler, in a broad-leaved tree next to the roadside and a cassava field. It moved off a short hop to a different tree, so to get a closer look we find a newly cut path through some scrub on the edge of the field. Quite ironically, the path leads to a felled tree, creating a small clearing in the scrub. With nothing to lose, and considering December is looming and tagging time running out, we decide to attempt to catch this first bird at this first opportunity. The perfect though somewhat regrettable ready-made net ride serves a purpose, comfortably accommodating a 9 metre long net.

Above photo: felled tree creating a perfect net ride

With the mp3 on we retrace our steps to the car, and watch. Sure enough, the bird responds as before, pewing continually, and seemingly getting closer and closer. It then dropped down towards the net! Its call, however, continued, so we guessed it unlikely that it was in the net. Finally it resurfaced back up into te tree where we first saw it, still calling, but now just foraging and no longer attracted towards the net. At this point we decide to close up and turn off the tape, and resolve to come back to the same spot at first light the next day.

Before going back to camp, we stop in Pepease to see if there are any guest houses at all. We are directed towards one, which looks ok, so depending on our success/ failure rates over the next day or so, we at least have some lodgings closer to the study area that we can move to.

Meanwhile, Bee and Chas are continuing in their efforts to catch further nightingales for tagging. As a result they managed to get hold of this fine individual!

Above photo: sulphur-breasted bush-shrike

Wednesday 23/11/2011 Splitting the team

Chris Orsman writes: Last night we finally plucked up the courage to split the team in two. In the last few days I’ve managed to convince myself that I’ve heard wood warblers calling on a couple of occasions, so we need to go and check our site in the Mampongtin Hills. And with 7 nightingales tagged, Bee and Chas have plenty to be getting on with, even if they don’t catch more! Leaving them in Oppong’s capable catering hands, Japheth and I head for Mpraeso with driver Emmanuel promising to cook when required...

After a trouble-free trip, our camp to start the visit is back on the wonderful Odwenanoma Mountain. We plan to make the most of any time here, as certainly we will need to find a camp or lodgings much closer to the expected study site should we catch any wood warblers and therefore need to track them twice or more daily. On this first night we collect some tea, bread and bananas, get the local canteen to boil water for our flask, and hey presto we have a breakfast ready for the morning.

Tuesdays 16-22/11/2011 The nightingale week

Chris Orsman writes: Once back amongst the nightingales the first thing to be determined was what, exactly, might have happened to our first tagged bird. With no signal received at two attempts just before our departure on the 12th it was thought the tag had failed – mainly because the weight of the bird suggested that it couldn’t have suddenly headed off any great distance overnight.

It wasn’t long before a signal was received, and the bird re-discovered some 250m or so from the capture site. Not all that far, but with these birds rather hugging the ground the signal can be easily lost. Later tracking forays showed that the bird was moving gradually further away again, and eventually appeared to settle about 600m from where it was originally caught.

Meanwhile the race was on to catch more, with just 3 so far and 7 more tags to use. We weren’t short of birds, as every now and again a new voice would appear, and fill in a gap amongst the thicket. An awful lot of effort by the team went into selecting suitable sites to place the nets to maximise our chances, such that our particular target bird would at some point catch itself without recourse to any tape-lures! By necessity this meant we were catching a lot of other birds, including a whole host of other migrants using the same habitat, such as garden warblers, melodious warblers, reed warblers, whinchat, spotted and pied flycatchers. All of these were providing us with invaluable information about timing of arrival, condition and moult, but also give some clues as to the overall value of this region and its habitats for a wide range of migrant passerines.
Above photo: Pied flycatcher

Above photo: Whinchat
Above photo: moulting wing of melodious warbler

Whilst attempting to tag more nightingales the tracking continued, and with the number of tagged birds gradually rising, of course the tracking became a longer job! Most interestingly though aside from some slight “jostling” most of the birds seemed to be settling into their own particular patch. The winter territories are being well and truly established! And amidst all of this Chas and Chris managed to train me in how to fix the tag to the tail. Important to get this right here, but also essential before I attempt the same with a smaller tag on a wood warbler later on. Should we catch any of course...

Above photo: placing tag on nightingale tail
Above photo: tagged nightingale (you can just see the antenna)
Above photo: Bee tracking and taking GPS coordinates

There have been other distractions this past week. Aside from some splendid resident birds caught...

Above photo: female marsh tchagra

...others less splendid have proved quite tricky to identify!

Above photo: black-winged red bishops and red-headed quelea

Some spectacular invertebrates have dazzled and distracted...

Above photo: large moth - any ideas?
Above photo: enormous beetle

...and suggesting perhaps that some may not be working hard enough an impromptu Ghana V England football match took place in the front yard of the guest house. Needless to say England were trounced!

Above photo: Ghana v England football match

Sadly the 8 strong team was reduced to 5 on the 18th when Chris H needed to return to Accra for his flight back to the UK. With Nicholas’s exams looming he too departed for some serious studying. Chauffeured by Emmanuel, unfortunately the car decided to fall part just as they approached Accra. Chris managed to get his flight, but the car was impounded for repairs until able to return on the 21st.

Tuesday 15/11/2011 No luck catching

Chris Orsman writes: Again this morning is foggy, and our start is delayed a little as although it’s post-dawn, things are still a touch dark. We open the same hill-top net, and Chris H stays in attendance as the playback is initiated. Meanwhile, the rest of us head down the hill to the successful spot from March 23rd earlier this year, and right amongst the encounters from yesterday. If it’s going to work, a single net will suffice, provided one or more birds respond to the recording. They should, in theory, head straight for the mp3 player placed beneath the middle of the net.
In almost 3 hours, we see two birds, and up at the top Chris sees one. At one point there was a faint wood warbler voice calling from the high canopy, but our two birds merely continued to happily forage high, and oblivious to the recording. A bit demoralising, but not entirely unexpected.
Considering our failure to catch, and even more so the lack of birds on the lowland site, we resolve to head back to the nightingales. The main concern is that I have not put a radio tag on a bird yet – a skill I need to master before I can do it without Chas and Chris, so our best chance, we feel, is to catch more Luscinias, and come back to the wood warblers in a few days when perhaps they will have arrived at our preferred study areas.

Monday 14/11/2011 Wood warbler-free "farmland"

Chris O: After yesterday’s brilliant count of at least 11 wood warblers, we had an earlier start to get to the “farmland” site and much hope of some more of the same. A poor start did not bode well. 6 pairs of eyes and ears failed to pick up on any wood warblers in the very best spots of last year, even with the song and call playback. We checked every (well, pretty much!) tree-top, but in 4 hours got nothing. All was falling silent by mid-morning, so we headed back to camp, via a possible new campsite in the nearest town. If the birds do return, this place would make much more sense as a base than the hilltop some 50 minutes away.

A single net was erected near the camp this afternoon, after 2 birds were again seen nearby. Having elicited a “pew” from the playback yesterday, would they be actually attracted to it? With no other option at this stage – the birds are so high and mobile – we start the tape and stand back.In an hour of trying, we did see the two birds again, but only very high up, looking briefly slightly interested but not really responding particularly positively. With no birds as yet on the preferred farmland site (thought to be better for tracking any birds caught) we decide to at least try a more concerted effort on the hillside the next day. At least we know the birds are here, and we may get an idea of some movements and tracking limitations with one or two birds caught.

Sunday 13/11/2011 The wood warblers have landed

Chris Orsman writes: Back on the mountain, and what a morning! Oppong dropped us at the bottom of the hill for us to walk back up. The hill top was shrouded in mist as usual, but even down the slope the trees were heavy with cloud. We bided our time, all of us being challenged by a new call or three, until eventually some colours emerged as the skies gradually cleared. On reaching the very-hot-spot on the transects from last season, and having craned our necks looking up at the canopy amongst the finest twigs and foliage for almost 2 hours, we spotted our very first wood warbler of the Ghana 'winter'! This was in a partly leafless bi-pinnate tree, fruiting with long leguminous pods. As it readily foraged in the crown, we walked on expectantly. A few yards later, and another was seen, and this time there were two. With the aid of the mp3 playback (not used on transects or surveys last year) we managed to elicit a feeble pewing from these birds. Perhaps this would help us locate more? Maybe even catch one or two later on? Sure enough, a little later a quick “blast” of the song got a pewing response, and in this instance 5 birds were seen together. Again these birds were pretty high up in the smaller-leaved canopy. Still further along and for the rest of the walk back to the camp at the hill-top, no more wood warblers were seen. A very encouraging start, however.

Above photo: clouds lift, and that podded tree top left

Above photo: the team craning to spot wood warblers

In the afternoon, a flowering tree right next to our camp was a-buzz with insect life, and drew our attention with various sunbirds and common bulbuls attracted to it. Whilst watching, a wood warbler appeared here too, and also a willow warbler popped up. Perhaps a net even by the camp would be productive, we thought. Later a stroll around the hill-top produced 2 more, and also 2 garden warblers. And for good measure, a breeding pair of violet-throated cuckoo-shrikes put in a most welcome appearance.

Saturday-Saturday 05-12/11/2011 Nightingale tracking starts

Chris Orsman writes: Multiple excursions into the bush over this period began with mapping all the possible routes that can be walked, and all of the locations of nightingales, whether seen or singing, croaking or “heeting”. Compared to our last time here a week ago, the numbers have risen quite markedly. We’ve covered a smaller area than did the transects, but have “in-filled” this smaller patch and found a few more good pockets of nightingale activity. More than 45 have been encountered. On the non-migrant front, the best find was confirmation of a red-collared widowbird which we saw on the 25th October. Only glimpsed briefly last time, on this occasion the male was in display flight over the arable mosaic. Our field guide indicates that it is pretty scarce in Ghana, but that this area may be one of the better spots for finding them. Good views were had by all, although I wish I’d had my longer lens with me at the time!

Above photo: Adult male red-collared widowbird (although no red collar on this race!)

Above photo: Male black-winged red bishop flies over red-collared widowbird

The next few days were spent at one of the very-hot-spots to catch as many nightingales as possible. Various configurations of nets were tried, and the first two mornings produced one bird each. Chris H and Chas demonstrated the application of the radio-tags onto the nightingales, and subsequently the methods for using the tracking equipment. Also caught was a single male blackcap, the first to be ringed in Ghana – by this project at least!! Not a common visitor this far south.
Above photo: The project's first Ghana-caught blackcap

The radio-tracking proved to be more difficult than expected, due to the birds moving around a fair bit, and also possibly the density of the vegetation, and probable dips and troughs where the birds could lie undetected

Above photo: Chas and Japheth tracking down some radio-tagged nightingales

On the last two days the first bird in fact disappeared altogether, and we wondered whether it had moved on further south. Surely this couldn’t have happened? When caught it was very light, carrying no fat reserves. In order to move on it would have needed far longer to fatten and strengthen to cover any great distance. Reluctantly we surmised that it could have perished or that the tag could have failed. With time short on the afternoon of the 12th we took Chris and Chas to the wood warbler zone, once again with our fingers crossed.

Bee writes: Despite our hard work we did have fun too. Every day something amusing happened: either it was Chris H telling another one of his stories, or it was the frog in the toilet, or Chris O’s MP3 Player (which should have played nightingale) suddenly blasting an 80’s power ballad over the fields, or the people we met. One morning we came upon a woman farming her plantain plantation. She was very friendly and not shy at all and as soon as she had greeted us she called all of her children to come and have a look. Obviously, she had not told them what was awaiting them. It was so funny to watch their little faces when they spotted us “obruni” standing in the middle of their plantain field. They looked as if they had seen Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny at the same time.

Above photo: Bee and Chris meet the farming family

Oh yes and then there was the day I became a proper Ghanaian, the day I made and even ate (!!!) Fufu with Groundnut sauce. To be fair, Oppong and Emanuel did most of the pounding and everybody else tried the Fufu as well, and Chas even liked it like me. I don’t think I will miss Fufu terribly when I am back at home but it is definitely not as horrible as all the obruni make it out to be. Yes it is rather gooey and you do eat it with your fingers but I quite enjoyed the unusual sensation.
Above photo: Cassava + plantain = fufu

Above photo: Oppong and Emmanuel pounding the mixture

Above photo: Bee lends a hand

Above photo: the finished product

Thursday & Friday 03-04/11/2011 Chris Hewson and Chas Holt arrive

Chris Orsman writes: With unlucky Chas arriving without his luggage on Wednesday night, Thursday was spent pondering where it could have ended up. A call to the airline back in the UK confirmed that it hadn’t yet left Heathrow airport, and that it would be on the next flight. Meanwhile we shopped for extra cutlery etc for the newly expanded team, and planned our re-deployment to the field for the next day (via the airport for lost luggage of course!).

Bee writes: Friday morning and Chris O and I went to get some Ethanol for preserving any faecal samples we might collect from any migrant birds caught, whilst Chas and Chris H were chasing up the lost bag. It had arrived! By 10 am all of us had fulfilled their missions successfully so we were ready to leave Accra.
The trip was somewhat long yet uneventful, so I kept myself amused by photographing funny advertisements and signs.

Above photo: One of many heavenly businesses seen on our travels