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 14/12/2011 Accra and mid-season summary

Chris Orsman writes:
Today it’s my turn to return to the UK. A brief visit to the GWS office to wrap a few things up, and before long I’m heading to the airport. 10 weeks have flown by but an awful lot has been achieved and learnt. The two study sites have been well and truly established, a total of 13 target birds tagged, and hundreds of tracking fixes have been taken. Habitat has been mapped and some tree species have even been identified! Dozens of other migrants have been caught, weighed and measured, and many more have been mapped on their “territories” at each study site. It’s been a great start to this new phase of the project, thanks in no small part to the brilliant team. To Japheth and Nick for their excellent fieldwork, Oppong for his amazing food and Emmanuel for his help. And of course big thanks to our volunteer Bee, who with Ed is still tracking nightingales for a few more days yet!

Meanwhile as I return for Christmas, Aly and Oumar continue to gather valuable migrant data from the Sahel zone in the north of Burkina Faso. They have completed 3 monthly transect and ringing visits, and will be undertaking round 4 when many of us will be taking our seasonal break.

Plans are to return in January to the nightingales and the wood warblers, so watch this space for the latest in the New Year!

Tuesday 13/12/2011 Final day with the Wood Warblers

It’s the final morning of wood warbler fieldwork before departing for Accra, and the air is still hanging with a dusty smog. It’s not reducing visibility too much, but again it prevents the sun from really breaking through, even well into the morning. We’re just tracking today, but even so we manage to locate 10 unringed wood warblers. 5 of these are in the “new” spot where bird 4 was caught, so they're not on part of yesterday's survey route. Although no sign of bird 4 itself, both tagged birds 2 and 3 are still traceable, the tags having thus far lasted 18 and 14 days respectively, so both better than tag 1.

Above photo: Japheth tracking bird #3 in middle of forest patch

Above photo: typical view of canopy frequented by wood warblers

There is again a sense today that there are more birds around than previously. Maybe I shouldn’t be heading back to the UK just yet! It’s certainly something we need to note for seasons to come. It could be that a new wave of wood warblers, such as it appears, would be catchable and taggable. Then again all of these birds may be moulting just as bird 4 was and therefore not taggable, but it would be interesting to find out nonetheless.
Unfortunately however the flights are already booked, and besides of course we are looking forward to seeing our friends and families again in Accra and beyond. Back at the house we’re soon packed and tidied up after our 2 week stay. After a quick call to the landlord we hand things over to the caretakers Christie and Grace, and wish them well for the Christmas season before bidding them au revoir until the New Year

Above photo: final look at the hazy view from the house before departure

Monday 12/12/2011 The harmattan blows in

Above photo: harmattan "smog"

There’s a definite change in the air this morning. Driving down to the site as the night-time gloom lifts it becomes obvious that the visibility is not what it should be. We attempt to track the two birds and carry out a site survey. Shortly into the survey, and a single wood warbler (unringed) is spotted. A half hour later, and we hear the call of the first willow warbler for this site this winter, and a little later another wood warbler calls from the near distance. Further on still and a 30m Ceiba tree is host to single spotted and pied flycatchers, single melodious and willow warblers, plus 3 wood warblers – an extraordinary tally. The feeling already is that there are (suddenly?) more birds around than a week ago.

Above photo: 30m+ Ceiba tree, home to lots of migrants

A further 6 individual unringed wood warblers are seen, so 11 in total, plus we manage to trace our tagged birds 2 and 3, still a strong signal from both. 2 nightingales, a spotted flycatcher and a melodious are also detected later on. Throughout the morning, though, the sun fails to break through the haze, a dry, dusty and smoky suspension brought in by the arrival proper of the harmattan winds. Could it be that some of the migrants have also arrived with, or just ahead of, these winds?

Of interest whilst doing the rounds was finding a couple of trees who's bark had been slashed, apparently to harvest the medicinal sap. Plenty of ants and a few other bugs were making the most of the oozing resin.

Above photo: ants profiting from medicine harvest

Communication from Bee at Nsoatre; they arrived back in good time last night to track the nightingales. It seems – not surprisingly – that their bird 1 has vanished. We think that most likely here is that the tag has finally failed, as this was caught around the 10th of November. The other birds are present, but one or two others’ tags may be showing signs of weakening.

Sunday 11/12/2011 The Nightingale team departs

Our very last attempt to catch today, before Bee, Ed and Nick head off to the nightingales, and what do you know, no luck! However, for the second time, the non-tagged bird 4 is found, in a different tree but almost the same spot as on the 9th.

After our trapping effort we have to say our goodbyes to Bee and Ed as they head off to look for bird 1 (just on the off-chance that it might be findable without a radio-tag) with a view to being collected by Oppong at the other side of the valley before heading for the nightingales. Japheth, Nick and I go on to search for birds 2 & 3.

Above photo: typical plantation/forest edge mozaic near birds 2 & 3

Above photo: hairy-breasted barbet

A short while later Nick is collected by Oppong, and the wood warbler field team once again becomes just the two of us! Oppong, Bee, Ed and Nick head off to Nsoatre to hopefully get some nightingale tracking in this evening.

Whilst tracking I decide at long last to take a sample of vegetation to take back to the house - it's a leafy twig from one of the trees used an awful lot by the wood warblers. Fingers crossed for my being able to identify it!

Sat 10/12/2011 Ed’s arrival

No trapping this morning, straight into the tracking, and only the two birds to find. Despite “losing” bird 1 yesterday (still no sign last evening) bird 2 could also be untraceable today, as they were tagged together. No need to worry however. Both remaining birds have tags with a good signal.
Above photo: enormous spider seen daily when tracking bird 3

The rest of the morning is spent mapping some habitat, and quite interesting too to discover just how the land is carved up between the farmland, scrubby fallow and the remnant forest. There seems to be more of the latter than I would have previously guessed, with the open arable fields making up less than one third of the land area. Much of the scrubby fallow, however, is impenetrable without a machete, due to the dense Chromolaena stands, so the exact acreage of this we can’t yet measure without more work from January.
News filters through during the morning that Emmanuel and Ed have met up at the airport and are on their way, and sure enough at midday they arrive at the local canteen. Despite being undoubtedly tired, Ed is keen to help out in the field and joins us tracking in the afternoon.
Above photo: a somewhat out-of-place leaf-mantis

Friday 09/12/2011 No sign of #1, but #4 is found

Friday morning and one last effort to catch, at least before Ed arrives – we’ll have another go on the 11th, but probably only to colour ring I think. No luck today anyway, so we get on with the tracking. After successfully catching up with birds 2 and 3, Bee and Nick set off from the village to seek out bird 1 in the valley. Japheth and I decide to have a look for bird 4 despite the fact that it wasn’t radio-tagged. We feel that as it is colour-ringed, and so long as it hasn’t moved too far, we have a fighting chance of spotting it. Within a short while we manage to find it, along with 2 others and also 3 garden warblers, foraging at times quite low down to about 2-3m. This is a great result without any radio tag, but then again it had barely moved any distance at all from where it was caught. Like the 3 others, this bird was in a rather poor condition when trapped, so if it does “intend” moving on any great distance it will need to put on weight first.

Above photo: site of capture and resighting of bird #4

We meet Bee and Nick back at the other side of the valley, and they bring news that there was no signal to be heard from bird 1. In this case we feel that it may well be possible that it has moved on. It is also perfectly possible for the tag to have finally expired, however, some 14 days since it was switched on.

Above photo: colourful bugs in valley forest

News from poor Ed is that his onward flight from Rome is delayed, so he expects to get to Accra well after midnight. It could be worse though. And it gets worse! Later in the evening Bee learns that his flight is delayed until the early morning, so he is now due in Accra when Emmanuel is due to leave at about 8am – so he’s going to get picked up from the airport and straight into the field tomorrow.

Thurs 08/12/2011 An un-taggable tail

Above photo: the team can't resist snapping the sunrise

On Thursday we pop the nets up at the latest new spot. We get a response from the playback straight away, and after about 45 minutes (including changing the playback from song to just call!) we ensnare our fourth wood warbler. But, there’s a problem! Close inspection reveals that it has no central tail feathers. These are vital for us to be able to attach a radio tag, so after all that effort we cannot put the radio tag on! One positive from this is that if the bird was close to moulting these feathers, had they been present and we’d attached the tag, it may have been dropped within a day or so anyway. Also, with time running out for this phase before the Christmas break, we’re also running out of opportunities to get much data from a newly placed tag.

Above photo: wood warbler wing showing extent of moult

Weds 07/12/2011 Nick returns

No luck catching on today, and after tracing birds 2 & 3, I drop Bee and Japheth off to look for bird 1 in the valley. Meanwhile I take a walk along a “new” path to explore a little further beyond the normal areas where we survey, and come across 2 wood warblers along with garden warblers, melodious warblers and spotted flycatchers. It clearly looks worth a punt at catching here. Nick gets back to us later in the afternoon, so we’re now back up to a field-team of 4.

Tuesday 06/12/2011 Chas’s last day

Chas’s last morning, so of course we all set out catch a wood warbler for him (and us!) Operating two nets as before, and ever hopeful, we do manage a catch. Well, a single African thrush anyway! No wood warblers though, despite one responding to the playback, calling away in the nearby trees. The tracking of the 3 others is a success though, so thankfully Chas got to see one of our wood warblers post-tagging.
Above photo: Chris and Japheth tracking bird 1 from a clearing

So after lunch at the university canteen in Abetifi, Emmanuel took Chas back to Accra, with his flight back to the UK later this evening. Sad to go I expect, especially with tagged nightingales still roving around at Nsoatre! However, when Emmanuel comes back on Saturday, Bee will then head back to the nightingales for one last week of tracking, along with boyfriend Ed who’s arriving on the 9th. Meanwhile were all looking forward to seeing Nicholas again, who we hope will be joining us in Pepease tomorrow now that he's fininshed his exams.
Above photo: Japheth and Bee tracking bird 1 from the ridge in the evening

Above photo: fieldwork is taking it's toll on the team!!

Monday 05/12/2011 Visa extension and team expansion!

We set two nets with playback in the most promising spot from Sunday’s survey, but after almost an hour and a half we had caught no further birds. Things are beginning to look a lot trickier for catching now. Not sure why this should be, seeing as we had so much luck with our first two attempts.
We pack up from the field and head back to camp, as with 60 days on my visa running out soon, I need to get an extension stamp from the nearest immigration office, which is in Koforidua. And with the nightingale team packing up today and heading to join us, we need to be back sharpish. Meanwhile our landlord Ola is heading off back to Accra, but has very kindly agreed to all 6 of us staying in his house for the night, which is fantastic.

Arriving in Koforidua at the immigration office just after midday, we are told that the officer in charge is absent until 2pm, so we file the paperwork, head for lunch, and return (with fingers crossed - especially seeing as I have handed in my passport!) Back at 2, and thankfully by 3pm all the paperwork is in order, so we head back home. There we meet up with Bee, Chas and Oppong who have already arrived - fantastic to see them all again!

We phone ahead to the local hotel to make sure of our evening meal order, but then as seems to happen every night from about 1830 to 2200hrs, the power goes off. The local hotel has a back-up generator, but they actually call to say this is not working either! We won’t be eating at the hotel, then. Instead we head to Abetifi and have rice and beans by torchlight at Club Afrik. Cheap and not too cheerful! Still, it’s a meal, and I hope a memorable final dinner in Ghana for Chas.

Thursday-Sunday 01-04/12/11 Now failing to catch....

Above photo: fog blankets the study site

Over the next few days we attempt to catch each morning, and after an hour of trying on each occasion we remain on 3 tagged wood warblers – not one more bird caught. We follow this with the tracking of the first 3 birds, and on the Sunday we also undertake a full survey along the usual transect route.
Above photo: misty morning

Above photo: centre of study site with the mist lifting

Above photo: pied hornbill calling

Above photo: late morning, Japheth tracking bird 1 in the valley bottom

Above photo: in denser vegetation making things more difficult

What was interesting from the survey was the lack of wood warblers seen aside from those that we already knew about and had tagged! In fact, bird 3 was spotted 300m from it’s usual spot without resorting to tracking. We did encounter a total of 5 others, in just 2spots. With 4 of these in one place, the Monday morning netting attempt was going to be right next to this spot.

Meanwhile on Sunday we're invited to take lunch with Ola our landlord - a fabulous mix of all sorts of traditional Ghanaian dishes, served up al fresco in the shade of the large gazebo in the grounds. We really shouldn't get used to this!!

Above photo: taking some lunch with the landlord

Above photo: yam, kenkey, rice balls, tilapia and bush-meat, followed by strawberries and icecream!

Bee, Chas and Oppong have begun to wind things up over at the nightingale site, completing the habitat mapping. Amazingly, Chas got to spot a grasshopper warbler during fieldwork, according to the field guide a species not normally found this far south, in fact very rarely encountered in Ghana at all.

The final full site survey was carried out after some particularly damp weather conditions, which totally drenched the vegetation, and made the fieldwork a rather wet job!!

Above photo: no not rain, but the vegetation was soaking wet!

Still more incredible creatures have been to visit the Nsoatre team...

Above photo: an amazing butterfly

Above chameleon - now you see me... you don't