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.

1st - 12th December - Final push to catch more birds

These last two weeks have flown by!   After expressing a wish to catch more wood warblers in our last post, on the 2nd December the team managed to get a third, and was named Cocoa.  Unfortunately with one of our two radio receivers out of action, it did mean that we had to leave it at 3 birds to track - enough to keep the team busy with 3 tracks per bird per day.  This only lasted until the 6th, however, as by then Roger and Japheth were having problems with Black Star. The problem was solved when they found its tag on the ground, attached to a moulted tail feather.  This is about the time when they should be starting their moult, and so it came as no great surprise.

With Black Star now out of the picture, so to speak, and just 2 trackable wood warblers remaining, we wondered whether it was wise to try and tag another bird with just a few days left, when a tag can last up to 3 weeks.  We decided against it after carrying out a site survey on the 7th.  When using playback to illicit a response from birds otherwise not seen, both Asante and Cocoa were detected, their colour rings clearly visible.  Also, a much greater number of birds appeared to be around, compared to our earlier counts on the 16th & 17th November, and, it seemed, more than were around even since Cocoa was caught.  Therefore some more trapping effort was embarked upon to just colour-ring as many as possible.  Having learnt last season that we can resight November & December-caught birds even in late March, the more colour-ringed birds around, the better. 

Asante's tag eventually failed on the 9th, which allowed Roger and Japheth even more time to try catching and colour-ringing.  In the last few days in the field, in between tracking, R & J colour-ringed another 8 wood warblers - a testament to their great effort, but also perhaps to the genuine increase in overall numbers now present.  We now have 10 colour-ringed birds on the main site, plus Black Star a few hundred metres outside.  Should provide us with some extra home-range info if we get any resightings from January.

We wrapped up on the study site on the 12th, with Japheth and Oppong returning to Accra, hopefully for a good rest!  Now back in the UK, Roger and I will re-group with and expanded team on the 6th of Jan, and will hopefully be back in the field on the 8th.

For the time being, have a Merry Christmas and best wishes for 2013!

21st-30th November Tracking gets tricky, and more birds are required!

Lately things have been proving difficult.  On the evening of Asante’s capture on the 20th  the signal from his transmitter disappeared altogether, and we were worried that he may have fled the study site.  However, on the 21st some extensive searching picked up on a signal, some 500m from where he was caught, and eventually led us to a spot a full 1km from the catch site.  Over the next couple of days he was fairly mobile, but eventually he settled down, roosting and feeding in one area, and spending much of the day in a wooded area some 300m away.  Meanwhile, a second bird was caught on the 22nd.  Named Black Star, after the star on the Ghana flag and the name of the national football team, he proved to be even more difficult to pin down upon release.  In this case he moved 1km away to the west, way beyond the bounds of the study area defined last year.  Moving into more difficult terrain for us trackers, we could only estimate his position for a few days, if indeed we could get a signal for him at all.  On the 27th the signal was strong enough for us to discern more readily which direction to head for through the forest. In uncharted territory, we finally spotted him in an Albizia some 850m from his release site, so a fair bit closer than our earlier estimates (we’re pretty sure he’s moved closer than he was on earlier dates).  Since then he’s been spotted once each day (the time and effort it takes to get to where he’s hanging out precludes any more frequent search attempts, with Asante trackable 3 times per day).  With one team tracking, the other (and occasionally Oppong helping out too!) has been attempting to catch more wood warblers for tagging, but with no luck after many hours of effort.  The 2 tagged birds are giving us some great data, but it would be nice to get at least another 1 if not 2 to keep us busy with tracking until we leave on the 12th of December.

15th – 20th November Return to Pepease, and first bird tagged.

Our brief stay in Accra was a most welcome change, staying as we did at a new and cheaper hostel to the default and with a commanding view over the city from the somewhat under-patronised “Starview” roof-terrace bar!  Batteries recharged, we set off for Pepease, and after 4 hours we reach our old digs and are met by our ever-welcoming landlord Ola.  Ola’s garden is looking particularly green compared to how we left it last March, and it transpires that the rains this year arrived quite late and have continued on into November.  It suggests that our study site will also have changed considerably, and may well be more overgrown than this time last year.  Things could prove a bit tricky when trying to track any birds we catch!
Our first two mornings are spent assessing if, and how many, wood warblers are on site, by surveying the usual transect route.  After what we’ve encountered in the Volta Region, it’s no great surprise that we find a wood warbler here on the 16th (there were a handful detected on the nearby mountain Odwenanoma this time last year); but having found none here on the 14th November 2011, I am a little surprised that we come across as many as we do.  Still, they’re not yet at the levels that we had by mid-December last season.
Of course encouraged by our findings, and some seven days ahead of our first efforts last year, on the 18th we have our first go at catching, but without any success.  Still no luck on the 19th, but on the 20th we catch our first Ghana wood warbler of the season, and in the same spot as our third bird last season, on the easternmost edge of the study site.  Inspired by the BTO's cuckoo tracking project, this year we've decided to give the birds names - and in alphabetical order.  So our first-caught bird is now known as Asante - the name of the most famous tribe and kingdom of Ghana.  We await the next few days to see just were Asante settles, if indeed he stays around at all!

13th November Approaching Togo, then to Accra

Of course one’s inklings or gut feelings sometimes turn out to be true, other times not.  Today was one of the latter!  At our first stop en route to the proven wintering ground for at least one wood warbler in Feb last season, in some degraded forest/farmland, what do you know, we find a wood warbler.   Yesterday’s assumption that we may be ahead of the birds is quite wrong!  Point disproven, we aim for an area of protected forest abutting the Togo border, at the Wli Falls community project.  Upon arriving at the village we are greeted by a local guide to take us through the forest towards the falls, and at regular intervals along the forest path we switch on the wood warbler song and call and await a response for some moments after.  The exercise proves fruitless in terms of wood warblers, sadly, but really quite worthwhile as regards the scene that unfolded at the end of our walk.  Yes, there was a pretty spectacular waterfall, but also, hanging from the rock-face right next to the falls, was a host of straw-coloured fruit bats, apparently enjoying the noise from the tumbling water. If I eventually get a better link to the internet, I’ll post a picture!   Having essentially achieved our goal, i.e. finding a wood warbler at the same northernmost latitude in the east as we’d explored for them last year, we set off for Accra; a quick service for the car is required, and some respite for the team before we settle back into catching and tracking mode at Pepease from the 15th.

11th-12th November Tamale to Volta Region

As expected, the drive east is across some very flat, treeless zones, some partially flooded though and therefore with a few interesting birds (pair of aerial-displaying giant kingfishers was pretty good, swamp flycatcher and marsh harrier also excellent).  Largely, though, it’s not much good for wood warbler hunting, and a final hope of tree-lined river vanishes on our approach to the crossing of the Oti at Domanko. A look at our rather poor tourist map of Ghana should have told us that here is the uppermost reach of Eastern arm of Lake Volta, hence a waterscape with few trees, and even fewer birds.  Not entirely sure why we see so few birds on Ghana’s fresh water lakes – are birds so hunted that none remain or stay?  The least-disturbed vegetated margins have plenty of African jacanas, squacco herons, and no doubt plenty of unseen rails and crakes, but the open waters, to our eyes at least, hold very little. We continue on after lunch to find our destination town of Nkwatia, a bed for the night, and time for a look round for suitable areas to search the next day. With plenty of time before dark, Rog and Japheth bravely strode across river to continue a route started near the road and heading into wooded farmland.  An hour of searching here found no target birds, so finally we headed back to find the Kyabobo National Park entrance to enquire about a visit the next morning.  “Come back at 07:30” they said.  A bit late to be starting a first survey of the day we think, so we decide to try elsewhere from 06:00, and then progress to the park for the appointed time.
The next day, first transect we choose is along the “main road”, a fairly quiet dirt road with promising wooded farmland on either side.  Savannah tree species are still present here, such as Shea, but we also have the first specimens this season of the Albizia tree species that we typically find many wood warblers using on the study site at Pepease.  A pioneer species of secondary forest growth, it is not generally found in the savannah zone, so we feel we’re about to enter the southern forest zone proper now.  I’m sure a better knowledge and grounding in forest tree identification would confirm it – I will be seeking more help with this!  Japheth is doing a sterling job on this front.  As we’ve travelled around Burkina and Ghana, he’s been collecting and labelling leaf samples from unidentified tree species that we find the wood warblers using.  Although mainly savannah and gallery forest species so far, this grounding will certainly help us later on.  No wood warblers in this first hour in the field, but a very good prolonged look at a “spotted”-type flycatcher and a few snippets of call confirms its identity as a Gambaga flycatcher – a bird we’d like to have seen up at the escarpment 2 days ago!
Back at the park entrance and the reception area, we discover that not only is there no-one there to be our guide to set off straight away, but also that it is at least another 3 km walk to get to the edge of the protected forest.  With the cost involved (park entrance and guide fees) plus the available time, we regretfully depart to seek our own forest patches more cheaply along the road out of town.  A first stop (after our usual bush breakfast) takes us through promising forest with no wood warblers but plenty of white helmet shrikes, then up onto a wooded savannah hillside, with fewer birds of note.  The next stop is on a diversion well off the main road to seek a wooded valley seen on the “satellite” image, and approaching the higher elevations of a forested ridge.  Sadly no sign of any forest close to the driveable track – it’s pretty much all farmed, with the ridge a good couple of kilometres away to the west.  That valley though does hold some forest remnants, and just a couple of points of playback garner a response from a lone wood warbler.  At the northern edge of the forest zone (albeit degraded), this bird could by now be here for the winter, but at this relatively early stage, could it still be on passage?
A few more stops en route south give us no joy, which to us, initially at least, suggests that few if any wood warblers have made it this far south by this date. We plan a revisit tomorrow to one of the areas near Hohoe where last February we confirmed that wood warblers were wintering. If no luck there, then perhaps we are arriving a little ahead of the birds.

8th – 10th November Tono, Navrongo & eastwards

The early part of this spell was spent taking care of poor Oppong.  Apparently feeling slightly 'malarial' when at Nazinga, he did what any local would do, and sought medication from a pharmacy.  The result was that he became very unwell, requiring a hospital trip, which ended up in a negative malaria test and much scratching of heads.  Quite what had been wrong with him in the first instance, we don’t know. Once he’d got over the effects of the anti-malarial drugs, he was right as rain.  Apparently, routine testing for malaria once early symptoms are felt is not something made widely available.  If it were, perhaps such scenarios where folk self-diagnose and take some seriously debilitating medicine could be avoided?
In the meantime Rog and Japheth had a rather fruitless wood warbler search in the environs of Tono dam and the irrigation zone. Some small wooded patches offered up no more than Neem, Balanites, Acacia and Teak, and the odd pied flycatcher, common redstart and melodious warbler was the reward for a full day’s effort.  Day 2 over at the disused airstrip between Navrongo and Bolga saw them go further into the bush than the team ventured in 2010, finding a near-dry stream-bed with attendant patchy riparian tree species.  Here they managed to find 3 woodies in some small Annogeissus stands, thus far the most northerly recorded wood warblers on the Ghana side of the Migrants in Africa project!
Flushed with success and with Oppong back on his feet, we followed this up with a journey east, to take us into longitudes not yet explored just over the border in Burkina.  Again, riparian forest patches, accessible from the road, were targeted, the first just 40km east of Bolga.  Interestingly this was the same river traversed in Burkina (there known as the Nazinon), where we found wood warblers on our way south to Nazinga, so we were expecting great things.  No such luck this time though.  Early days, but maybe they haven’t come this far south and east just yet?  From here we continued east and the south to the Gambaga escarpment, and the forest along the east-west flowing White Volta at the confluence with the Red Volta from the north (otherwise known as the Nakambe River as it passes through Burkina).  This was perhaps an even greater disappointment, not least because the forest that we found looked on the whole less than suitable.  That said there were good stands of Annogeissus which elsewhere would easily have been home to a wood warbler or two, if not then at least a willow!  Again, no such luck.  Having to back track (the road ran out at the river crossing!) we decided to try again at the first stop, but on the other side of the river which looked quite wood warbler-friendly. This time, we did get a response to playback, but coming from across the river where we had passed a few hours earlier!  So they are around, just maybe not in any great numbers at this point on the river.
Back, then, to Bolga, and south towards Tamale, with a fruitless stop at a now non-existent wooded valley.  Well, the valley was perhaps never there, just a slight depression in a rather flat landscape, but what trees were there on our aerial photo are now gone, so not much time spent here.  Arriving in Tamale towards dark, and finding our reserved rooms have been given to someone else, a thankfully brief panic-search for four cheap rooms on a Saturday night ends in success.  As well as holding our rooms after we called to reserve them, and after we arrived later than promised (with 6 young men pleading with the receptionist to give them rooms) The Las Hotel (I know we don’t normally, but it needs a mention) also had the most attentive restaurant staff, and the most amazing Chinese food that I’ve had anywhere in Ghana.
Next phase then is to skim through some less-than-promising landscapes east towards Yendi, and then head south east into the Volta Region, to find out whether or not any wood warblers have arrived in their most northerly wintering areas in Ghana.

1st – 7th Nov. Roving south and west

For his past week we’ve been roving around in the south and west of Burkina, covering a transect from Ouaga to Bobo Dioulasso and Banfora, and then returning to Ouaga via the road east to Leo.  On the main road west, we found wood warblers at a few interesting-looking forest patches, but only to around about the half-way mark to Bobo.  After that, despite trying a couple of good-looking areas, we saw no more.  A further 2 days of searching in the best looking forest areas and marginal forest/farmland in the south-west were unsuccessful. 
On the way back east to Leo on the 4th we began to encounter them again. It was here that we decided to head back to Ouaga before we finally head into Ghana, a last chance to visit the Monastery and the park to see if there we still birds there, and if so, were there as many as before.  Already the Monastery forest felt a lot drier, but there were birds here, and crucially we spotted the colour-rings of a formerly tagged bird.  This bird was last tracked on the 27th Oct, but having been caught on the 11th of October we could safely say that by the 6th of November it had spent at least 27 days at the one site!  In the park we were amazed to find that on the 6th there were at least as many birds in the best wet spot as there were 12 days ago.
The final spot we headed for was Nazinga, and en route south we encountered birds in forested river valleys which traversed the main road.  A brief visit to potential hot-spots in the Nazinga ranch did yield a few birds (even without the help of playback!) but there were certainly more willow warblers around than woodies.  Although I failed to see any wood warblers here in 10 days of early November 2009, the ringing team did catch one so we knew they could be here. (Ideally we wanted to repeat a couple of transects to get a measure of willow warbler numbers compared to 2009, but unfortunately we didn’t have the correct paperwork for research  – still, we got the wood warbler affirmation that we needed).  Headed Back to Po on the 7th and crossed into Ghana in order to explore around Tono for a couple of days.

29th – 31st Oct. New sites around Ouaga

The first part of our “roving” actually consisted of staying in Ouaga, seeking any other patches in the wider area that might support wood warblers.  The best looking sites from the available satellite images were the wooded valleys in the Gonsee Forest Reserve to the east of the capital, with the wooded savannahs in between appearing rather sparsely forested and, at the time of the picture being taken, burnt.  Two mornings here were quite a surprise, with several wood warblers appearing after mp3 playback even in the scrubbed over wooded savannah, and 8 in one spot nearer to a wooded valley, and also one in very marginal land fringing a large maize crop.  The other sites selected from the aerial shots appeared to the un-trained eye to be stands of trees that may not have been “forest” as such, and indeed they weren’t.  Nevertheless, a Eucalyptus plantation was still worth surveying, as the tagged birds in the monastery were not averse to using small Eucalyptus trees in otherwise quite open areas.  In the end no birds were sighted here, and nor were they found in 2 other ”forest” patches which were in fact largely scrub, Eucalyptus and mango.  I believe negative data is just as good as positive for the presence/absence model!

Onwards then to sites further afield, as we spend a last week in Burkina before heading back through Ghana to get to Pepease by Nov 15th.

19th – 28th Oct Final week of tracking

The tracking team continued with the regular check-ups on the whereabouts of the tagged birds in the Monastery. Some interesting patterns are again emerging, just like on the study site in Ghana, and we’re gaining an interesting early picture of the home ranges of the birds in this area, along with some measure of how long they spend here.  The final tagged bird was still emitting a signal on the 27th, but with only a projected 2 or 3 days left to run, we decided that a team of 4 would be better occupied surveying new areas for wood warbler presence.  Over the next few days we will explore any areas that look suitable (or even wooded/partially-wooded areas that don’t look suitable!) to see if there are any birds around.
In other news for the period, Aly returned from Tanzania with a view to returning to Oursi with a soon-to-arrive mini-freezer.  Said freezer took another 2 days to land in the country and we had to wrest it from customs so that Aly could speed his way north in time for the Tabaski festival.  I’m pleased to report he made it!  He has subsequently said that the freezer works brilliantly, powered by the battery that’s charged by the newly installed solar panels.  They’re all set to go with the dove Trichomonas parasite sampling.
Another visit to the forest park in Ouaga on the 25th yielded some quite extraordinary figures.  With 52 wood warblers seen last week, a different, wetter section held 79 birds, with a group of 20+ in just one spot.  Truly remarkable!

Thursday 18th Oct. City park visit

We take a long-planned break from tracking this morning.  Aware from previous experience that disturbance can be a bit of an issue on Thursdays with noisy children around the ringing site, we leave for Ouaga forest park early  to check on presence of wood warblers there.
After a quiet start, with a flock of lesser blue-eared starlings overhead and later foraging for berries in some low shrubs, we hear a first nightingale, soon followed by another, and then a couple of melodious warblers.  A willow warbler is seen, but for a while no wood warblers respond to the mp3 playback.  Things pick up a little as the sun rises and mixed Estrilda finches flit around low on and near the path.  At about 0630, we hear our fist wood warbler call.
A stroll around a fair section of the park over the next 3 hours yields an amazing 54 wood warblers, including at one spot over 15 birds – we actually lost count as they kept arriving in response to the playback!  To me this is a truly amazing tally, especially when one considers the total lack of records from Burkina in our first year of surveys – the park was clearly the place to be back then, if perhaps only during October!  It seems hard to believe these birds will remain here once the site begins to dry out, and one would expect them to head south to more-humid zones as the days pass.
After a quick shop for breakfast things and a visit to the office, we head back to attempt tracking again after the difficulties of last night.  We have absolutely no problem whatsoever!  All 3 birds are easily located, so our worries about a hastened departure are assuaged for now.
We’re invited to dinner with Henri this evening.  A very un-African sausage and mash!

Wednesday 17th Oct. Decoy wood warbler works wonders!

Following last night’s rather stormy weather, we manage to find the tagged birds quite easily; bird “10” is in a surprisingly low bush, happily preening away, and the other two are also quickly located.  We wonder whether the lost tag from the 14th/15th may have made its way down from its suspected lodgings in that tree.  Using the radio receiver, it is very quickly pin-pointed on the ground – once again still attached to a pair of moulted tail feathers.  It does seem odd that these birds should drop their feathers quite so readily.  The Ghana birds, which didn’t arrive on site until well after mid-November last year, retained their tags until we left the site on the 13th of December, which was actually just after the start of moult witnessed in other birds in the area.
Our trapping effort with the mp3 playback is yielding very little, so we decide to try our wood warbler decoy one more time.  Oppong deftly straps it to a “branch” of a small “tree” (a fallen piece of brushwood) and then sticks this vertically in the ground right next to the net with the mp3 song playing.  Not really expecting much, after all the song alone is not working and the decoy has not appeared to work before, we are therefore surprised when 20 minutes alter Japheth returns from a net round with 3 wood warblers.  I’m not even sure I’ve seen 3 wood warblers in a net before – in fact, definitely not!  We colour-ring and fully process these birds, but we won’t be tagging any more birds for now.  We need to move on to other potential wood warbler sites in southern Burkina within the next week.  Ideally we’d like to get some gauge of the importance of the region as a staging post before the birds head further south to the more humid forest zones, in Ghana and beyond.
This evening Roger and Japheth report that one bird has apparently completely disappeared, and the other 2 are getting tricky to find!  Well, this rather brings our potential departure date forward!  The “vanished” bird’s tag was due to last well into next week.  If this is the case, then more exploration for potential wood warbler sites will begin over the weekend – but where should we go?  Time to consult some satellite images, and our colleagues at Naturama!

Tuesday 16th Oct. A storm strikes

A poor morning of ringing, with only 3 birds caught, and no migrants.
Oppong and I head into town this afternoon for a few sundry items, including a dongle to attempt to get some sort of internet connection.  Whilst in the city centre, we notice several market stall holders packing things away somewhat early, and looking skywards.  Is the rain coming, I ask?  No, the wind, they reply.  Sure enough, some seconds later the wind picks up and the visibility drops, as a dust storm hits the city.  With our chores done, Oppong drives us back out of town, struggling to manage the steering at times with the strong gusts swirling around.  Folk on bicycles with large loads are having the worst of it.  We make it back to let Japheth and Roger go tracking, but then as darkness falls and they return – having got a soaking in the field – so the heavens open over Koubri. The high winds and heavy rain are short lived, but enough to cause concern over the survival chances of the tagged birds overnight.
Oppong rustles up another fine batch of red-red,  this time at a reduced cost, seeing as we did get the beans and plantain ourselves!  After those rains though, the temperature has plummeted at Denise’s cafe, and for once, I wish I were wearing another layer – most unusual for this time of year.

Monday 15th Oct. One tag found, another up a tree?

This morning at the monastery we find a third bird has indeed shed its tag by moulting its tail. It happens to be the one of last Thursday’s birds, and the same tag that was dropped after just one day by the bird caught on the 7th.  We also confirm that, after Roger and Japheth’s suspicions yesterday, a fourth tag has fallen, but for some reason we cannot find it.  We were not expecting to find the other dropped tags quite so easily, but seeing as we did, here we begin to think that something is up – and indeed, it is. It appears to be stuck up a tree!  A good shake of those branches that we can reach changes nothing, so for the time being we concede defeat.
Quite by fortune whilst tracking one bird later in the morning, I spot the colour rings of another, and it’s the bird that has shed the tag in the tree, so at least we know it’s still around.
As a solution to our culinary woes, Oppong takes over at his new friend Denise’s Koubri services to rustle up some fried yam, chicken and his tomato salsa.  Very much appreciated, although it appears that we end up paying twice – once for the ingredients, and then again for the finished meal.  We can’t have that happening too often!

Sunday 14th Oct. More radio-tag issues...

Up and out without any hesitation this morning!  Pack my bags and leave the cell that was my room last night, and we’re off into the field by 0500.
Having set a net with a mixed warbler tape playing, the first bird caught (before I’ve even had time to finish opening the net) is a pearl-spotted owlet, right above the mp3 player!  What a cracking bird.

Later we manage just the one migrant, a most welcome first willow warbler of the season.
An extraordinary spectacle during the course of the morning was the procession of people on foot, on bicycles and on motos, heading for the monastery.  A very grand service was clearly about to take place.  After about 2 hours of worship, several of the congregation came to watch our work, or so it appeared, but then we soon realised that we were being ousted from our ringing shelter – another round of songs of praise was about to take place here too!  Not wanting to get in the way, we quickly wrapped up the mornings affairs and left the choir behind.
The evening’s tracking session indicates that there may be a problem with one or two of the 4 tagged birds.  One is static near a shea tree, on two consecutive search attempts, the other is proving difficult to find on the second effort.  We’ll have to have a good scour for any dropped tags tomorrow.
The evening’s meal is at a maquis nearer the lake in Koubri, the same place as one of the accommodation options yesterday.  Despite being quite busy, and with perhaps more atmosphere than the Koubri services, the food is disappointingly poor.  We must seek out some alternatives!
Glad to settle in to the nicer rooms back at Henri’s place tonight.  Much more comfortable!

Saturday 13th Oct. Moving on

Whilst tracking this morning, we hear from Oumar that they’ve arrived in Dori by 0700, and subsequently at 1430 that they’re back in Oursi and that Daniel has passed by Dori, already on his return.  Good going!  We get a message, too, from Danaë, to say that the airline has once again lost her luggage en route to Tanzania. How unlucky can you be?!  Whilst Roger and Japheth continue with tracking, Oppong and I head out to look for new digs.  We can no longer justify commuting from Ouaga to the monastery every day!  Some pokey straw-roofed concrete huts don’t cut the mustard, an alternative in Kombissiri seems too far away and expensive, and the Hotel Bouganvilliea looks a little tired, expensive and even further into the bush than the monastery.  Still, our visit here did yield cracking views of a barn owl.
The final choice of accommodation is at the residence of NGO worker Henri from France.   It’s a lovely spot just outside Koubri, and a few hundred metres from the road, so very peaceful.  This will definitely do.
We clear out of the Ouagadougou hotel somewhat late, and after changing some cash at the airport, we head back to the study site for the evening of tracking.  Having found all the birds without difficulty, and with the light fading, we hear the calls of pearl-spotted owlet, white-faced scops owl, African scops owl AND Greyish eagle owl: a very good day for owls all round!
On arriving at Henri’s place we find that there’s been some confusion, and not all our rooms are available.  Rog and I are going to rough it in two tiny rooms for tonight.  Henri appears with a welcome beer for those that want, then we head out for our first evening meal in Koubri.  A delightful spot in the corner of a garage forecourt, now dubbed Koubri services!  Back at the lodgings, it’s time to put up my mosquito net  - as much as anything to keep the cockroaches from crawling into bed with me!  In the process, the bedstead collapses under my weight, the bed light falls off the wall and shorts the entire electricity supply.  Roger helps with a torch whilst I put the rest of the net up, then attempt to sleep in a baking hut with 2 fans, but neither working!  Will be glad to only have one night here...

Friday 12th Oct. The team departs

Carlo left at 4am this morning, back to Washington DC.  The rest of us have a later-than-usual breakfast before heading to the office.  Thandie and Danaë have a final meeting with Idrissa, Nana and team.  After a quick lesson in, erm,  how to cut up polystyrene boxes (!) for the Oursi chaps (to pack frozen samples in for dispatch to the UK) I head back to the hotel to complete some paperwork before Danaë leaves later.
The afternoon consists of various comings and goings, with Thandie heading back to Accra ahead of the PAO congress in Tanzania, Toby & Roger Jr off to the UK, and Danaë also leaving for Tanzania.  We hear from Oumar that chauffeur Daniel’s paperwork is still not in order, so they will have to stay another night to leave early tomorrow.
Rain begins to fall at about 1730, and just as Roger, Oppong and Japheth arrive from the field, the heavens truly open.  Plans for al fresco dining at the Source du Sahel, a favourite cafe near the Foyer guest house, look truly in jeopardy!  Rain stops by 1900, so we head out for that final meal with the Oursi squad.  Another busy day in Ouaga rounded off nicely.  With all the training done and dusted, it’s now time for those that remain, Roger, Japheth, Oppong and me, to focus on the wood warbler fieldwork.

Thursday 11th Oct. Final day’s filming and training

The tracking and film crews leave early this morning, the latter hoping to get one last shot at a Burkina sunrise out in the bush.  The rest turn up a little later, and Aly and Oumar lead the training whereby the Mauritanian guys themselves undertake the bird count and habitat recording.  This goes extremely well, and the four trainees seem well prepared to take these new skills back home to apply to point-count transects at their local sites.
Roger and Japheth continue a cracking job of plotting the tagged wood warbler locations, taking the odd leaf sample from any unidentified trees.  If properly pressed these should be identifiable later, but with the help of an expert botanist methinks!  With one net up this morning, we manage to catch a further 2 wood warblers, and tag these with the transmitters that have been previously used on other birds, and dropped with the tail moult. One of these should last at least another 7 days, whilst the other was only active for a day before being picked up, so with any luck it should continue transmitting until around the 23rd or 24th Oct.  At the ringing station, though, there’s more attention from the local youth (Thursday again!)
For the afternoon, it’s one final foray in to the bush for Toby and Roger Jr, in search for Fulani herdsmen and their communities, and one final sunset too!
Once Carlo has finished arranging for his feather samples to be shipped back to the US, we head out for the final group meal, at a favourite of ours from previous visits, Dany Ice.  Despite a tiny quibble over the bill (my mistake - apologies to the staff!) the evening was enjoyed by all.

Wednesday 10th Oct. Tag found, habitat training, and Japheth arrives

Roger continues with tracking with Oppong, and having gained access to that walled enclosure, they manage to collect the tag dropped earlier in the week.  In both instances the tags are stopped from emitting a signal with a tiny magnet taped to the outside, to turn off the internal micro switch. These tags can be used again, if we catch any more wood warblers that is.  Only one African paradise flycatcher caught this morning. Meanwhile, the Mauritanian team also head out to the monastery, to learn about habitat recording for the point counts.  Aly and Oumar help out (they’ve done more of this recently than anyone!) but then Aly is whisked off to town to search for his passport, hopefully now ready ahead of his trip on Saturday.  A great session, with lots of interesting points raised about the methods, and all seemed to be happy with the protocol, and confident about doing it themselves on the final day tomorrow.
Japheth finally arrives in Ouaga after a 24 hour bus trip!  We all take lunch at the office, but despite his gruelling journey, Japheth is keen to get out tracking some wood warblers this afternoon.  Whilst Danaë and Thandie chair some more presentations and training in the Naturama meeting room, Bara and I escort Toby and Roger II on some more filming excursions. This includes a spot by the roadside, when suddenly from nowhere distant sirens and flashing lights far down the road announce the arrival at speed of the entire government of Burkina Faso, en route to a military function down south in Pô.  A convoy of at least 100 vehicles, including a military helicopter escort!  Impressive, if a little OTT!
Much more peaceful scenes were to be had off road where a mother and baby collected some water from a communal borehole, and nearby some grand-looking baobabs cut an impressive silhouette in the early evening light.

Tuesday 9th Oct Solar power and point-counts

Now that their ringing training has finished, Pierre and Soumilah manage to head back to Sourou and Higa IBAs this morning, whilst all of the Oursi team remain until we manage to get all the equipment that they need.  Aly is staying in Ouagadougou anyway, as he will be going to the Pan-African Ornithological Congress in Tanzania on Saturday.  Danaë will be giving a presentation based on much of the data that they have been gathering from Oursi these past 3 seasons.
Following their arrival yesterday, the Mauritanian team begin their training at the Naturama office, with an introduction to the programme from Thandie and Danaë.  Over the next few days they will learn the field techniques for undertaking point counts of the birds in the various, often degraded, savannah habitats around the wetlands back at their homes in Mauritania.
Some great news from Ghana!  We hear from Japheth that he has set off by bus from Accra, due to arrive tomorrow mid-day in Ouagadougou.
Following another trip into town this afternoon, we collect all the solar power kit, and a few other sundry items for the storage of the samples that will be taken from the doves caught in north Burkina.  Following an internet search, we find what looks like a great option for a battery-powered deep freezer, for sale in the UK and elsewhere.  Back at the Lodge in Sandy, Jo looks into options for getting one such fridge shipped from the UK.
In the late afternoon a large group including the Mauritanian team head out to do some point count exercises in the grounds of the monastery.  Not quite typical of the habitat back home in Mauritania, but if anything trickier as the vegetation is a bit more complex here.  They soon get the hang of it!

Monday 8th Oct Transition day

Today the Burkina guys are due to go back home (but in fact are needed for meetings at the office), and the Mauritanian team arrive.  Bara, Aly and I join Toby and Roger Jr for some more filming of rural scenes, including some tree planting.  We find a spot next to main road that looks appropriate, and we get some assistance from a chap who appears on his bicycle.  [We subsequently discover that he is now guardian of said tree, watering it and protecting it from livestock. We’ll check on it later to see if it’s surviving!]
Meanwhile, Roger S discovers that of the four tagged wood warblers, one has dropped its tail with the tag attached, and it’s the one that we tagged only yesterday!  Surely they’re not starting their winter moult already?  Those birds seen in Ghana last year didn’t start moulting until early December.  Could these earlier arrivals a bit further north be getting a head start?  Roger also has his doubts about another tag.  It appears to have remained in the same spot for a few consecutive fixes now, about 15m away within an inaccessible walled enclosure.  We need permission to get into said enclosure to see if it can be found.
Birds of note on site include pearl-spotted owlet, 4 long-tailed nightjars, Senegal eremomelas, chestnut bellied starling and gabar goshawk
A group of us head to town this pm, to price up the kit needed for solar power supply for the Oursi incubator etc, and look too for a gas freezer.  The latter turns out to be prohibitively expensive, so we will have to have a rethink!

Danaë and the film crew are trying to find suitable action to film around town, and the Mauritanian team arrive in Ouagadougou.

Sunday 7th Oct. Last morning of ringing training

A  4th wood warbler tagged!  This is proving a little too easy.  With Roger’s continued tracking we’re building up a great picture of the species of trees selected by the birds.  In time we’ll get a good idea of the “home range” of each bird, ie the area within which a bird roams around during the course of the 2 weeks or so that the tag lasts. Also caught today were 1 pied flycatcher and 1 common redstart.  Danaë and Carlo consider methods for sampling the invertebrates that are in the various trees being used by the wood warblers.

Aly does a great job with his interview for the film crew, painting a vivid picture of life in Oursi and his hopes for the future of nature conservation back home and across the whole of Burkina.
The p.m. is split between preparing all the gear to be taken by the Oursi team, and a trip into town for some filming of the market. Sadly, there’s not much going on as it’s a Sunday, so the crew resolve to try again when things will inevitably be a lot busier during the week!

Saturday 6th Oct. Path-lab training!

Whilst the rest of the crew stay at the monastery this morning, Bara and I go with Toby and Roger Jr to get footage of various rural scenes, including the activities at the shore of a nearby lake.
A couple of Levaillant’s cuckoos and a grey-headed bush-shrike caught this morning, but no further migrants.
This afternoon we spent a good few hours going carefully through the protocol of the treatment of the swabs that the Oursi team will be collecting.  After 7 days of rest in an incubator, each swab sample then goes through various treatments, before a final sample of the Trichomonas parasite can be labelled and then frozen until dispatch to the UK.  This was all fairly straightforward, but we’d rather overlooked the difficulty of power supply in Oursi, for both the small incubator and a centrifuge, and furthermore the low chances of finding any local freezer space!  A mission to check the viability of solar power was discussed, and deemed possible by those in the know.
Whilst the team headed out to a pizzeria in town, Thandie from BirdLife was on a flight in from Accra, arriving to coordinate the training of a team of four from Mauretania, themselves arriving on Monday.

Friday 5th Oct. Alphonse's farm

Take nets down and put in Alphonse’s patch near the farm.  Doesn’t look great for migrants but we do manage another laughing dove for Aly and Oumar to learn again how to take an oral swab.  A great catch too is a menacing-looking bearded barbet.

With things generally more peaceful here than yesterday (although with a few more birds) the trainee ringers get some good practice at handling and processing one or two birds themselves, under the brilliant tutorship of Aly and Oumar.
En route back to the hotel, Toby and Roger Jr film some of the views of the sprawling suburbs of Ouagadougou, highlighting the degradation of the landscape as the wooded savannahs are replaced by breeze-block and mud-brick buildings with a very few trees allowed to remain for shade, fruit or timber.
The afternoon is spent at the hotel sorting out ring stocks for both the Burkina and Ghana teams, with the Oursi lot having their first read through of the protocol for the various pathological samples that they will need to take.  A full training session for this will take place tomorrow.
Oppong treats us to a meal of “red-red” this evening – a Ghanaian favourite but a first for us in Burkina!

Thursday 4th Oct. A change of ringing site

The 5th and 6th wood warblers caught this morning, and this time both tagged.  This turns out to be the only real highlight of the morning.  The nets otherwise yield very little, and this must be in some large part down to the scores of children that are hanging around the ringing site.  It transpires that as it’s market day, they have no school, and many of them are left to seemingly run amok around the monastery!  We decide to take the nets down with a view to placing them in a new spot later ready for tomorrow’s ringing.  Danaë suggests a great looking patch of forest straddling a stream near to the monastery dairy farm.  A quick call to Alphonse and we get permission to put some nets here in the afternoon.
Arriving at 1530 we set about choosing good net rides, and with minimal clearing of vegetation we manage to put up 5 before we get the sudden command to stop.  It would appear that tomorrow morning a training group from the farm will be here to learn about farming practices, and the group leader, who wasn’t informed of our mission, has taken great umbrage at our large and efficient team busily setting up nets.  No amount of persuasion from Alphonse can change his mind, so the nets must come down.  Instead, Alphonse shows us a nearby fallow arable enclosure of his own, that he kindly allows us to use for the next day’s netting.  Now in the dark, the furled nets will have to stay where they are until the morning.

The Burkina team in some new field kit

Wednesday, 3rd Oct. First morning's ringing

A great start to the training with a few Estrilda finches caught first thing. These are small birds, and a tricky start for the new recruits, so Aly and Oumar ably demonstrate the main techniques used during the ringing programme before the others are later allowed to try handling their first birds.
The ringing team

Meanwhile, Carlo, who’s PhD is centred around identifying birds by using only feathers, begins his fieldwork by carefully removing a single feather from the tail of some of the birds that we catch.  Carlo hopes to use the DNA found in the cells at the base of the feather to formulate techniques and create a database that will enable him to identify otherwise “unseen” birds just from a single feather.  By asking hunters in the Sahel to donate a feather from each bird they catch, he hopes to gain a picture of the impact of this subsistence hunting on the various species that depend on the Sahel, both residents and migrants.

Carlo labelling feather samples
A great start too for the new programme that will trace the fortunes of European turtle doves in the Sahel.  As part of this new project, Aly and Oumar are going to target these birds for ringing, the main reason being to test them for a highly contagious (to doves!) disease which may be affecting their condition and therefore their survival year on year.  To do this, they need to learn some new techniques for taking the samples, and they need to see this demonstrated on doves.  Luckily, a laughing dove obliges this morning (no turtle doves this far south in Burkina) and Danaë carefully shows the team what to do.  The sample is safely stored and will later be placed in an incubator for 7 days – just the start of the protocol that the Oursi boys will have to learn before heading back up north!
And what about the wood warblers?  By 0800hrs we’ve heard the faint “pew” of a bird or two in nearby trees, so we pop a recording on.  Over the next hour we catch four, and we attach a radio-tag to the last one.  Radio-tracking of Burkinabe wood warblers has begun!  With a tag lasting maybe 13 days or more, the GB/Ghana wood warbler team are now committed to staying near Koubri for at least another two weeks.  No hardship that!
In the evening we go back out to Koubri to catch 2 black-capped and 2 brown babbler.  The wood warbler is tracked and is found foraging low in a short mimosa very close to the ringing station.
As a change from the hotel restaurant, and as it's Carlo's birthday, this evening Oppong cooks us a great meal of fried yam, chicken and tomato salsa.   

Tuesday, 2nd Oct. First day of training

After a gentle start with a team breakfast at the lean-to cafe next to the office – omelette in baguette as usual – we have a meeting at Naturama ahead of the start of the programme.  Whilst Danaë rescues our luggage in the afternoon, and meets film crew Toby and Roger (henceforth Roger Jr!) from their flight, others set off to the Monastery at Koubri, scene of last year’s triumphs of wood warbler catching.  We’re given the go-ahead by senior monk Alphonse to set our nets as we did before, and Aly and Oumar take the lead with the net site selection and installation. With nets furled, we’re ready to start early tomorrow.

Monday, 1st Oct, London – Ouagadougou

Just like last year, I am once again woken at 3am for my trip to Heathrow at 4, and, hard to believe, even more luggage than before.  This time we have so many more bits and pieces of essential equipment, to hand over to the team in Burkina for a new phase of our work in the Sahel.  Danaë is at the airport ahead of me having lodged at the Terminal 4 hotel overnight.  A fairly smooth check-in and a relaxed saunter to the departure gate, and it transpires that we’re actually booked in on different flights!  Only a half our apart, we were to meet in Paris and get the same onward flight from there.  With both flights slightly delayed, it was a close call for my later flight to make the connection, but with the latter also delayed we both made it in good time.  6 hours later we get to Ouagadougou via a short stop in Niger’s capital city Niamey, only to find that 5 out of our 7 pieces of luggage are missing!  A little further delay to fill out lost luggage forms, and we spot Aly and Bara waiting to greet us the other side of the glass doors at arrivals.  Before long we’re heading off to the Foyer guest house where some of the team are staying, and there we meet up with Oumar, Idrissa and Hussein, the rest of the Oursi crew.  We also meet Pierre and Soumilah, from Sourou and Higa IBAs, here to learn for the first time about the ringing that takes place at Oursi.  This is truly the start of a Burkina Faso ringing programme, with Aly and Oumar the trainers, Idrissa and Hussein the trainees, and new recruits Pierre and Soumilah. It is great to see the team, especially one so keen to get on with some more training at the start of the new season.  Danaë and I then head on to the Naturama office where we find Oppong and Roger after their marathon road trip north from Accra.  For Roger, a well seasoned traveller and volunteer all over Africa, this is his first visit to Burkina Faso.  Oppong’s first visit too, and with neither of them speaking French they did very well to make it!  After catching up with all in the Naturama office, we head to the hotel to settle in, grab some dinner and a short rest before heading back to the airport to meet PhD scientist Carlo, due in at midnight. We eventually turn in at 01:30.  Quite a long first day!

Thursday 27th Sept - Burkina fieldwork begins

Whilst Danaë and I amass equipment ahead of the start of our season, the crew in Burkina Faso are already well under way.  They had their first ringing session on the 17th of this month, and first bird caught was a garden warbler, closely followed by a common nightingale.  On Oumar’s birthday on the 22nd they managed just the one common whitethroat. Then, ringing on 25th and 26th at the lakeside “garden” produced 2 common chiffchaffs, 7 common nightingales, 1 common redstart, 4 common whitethroats, 6 western olivaceous warblers, 8 garden warblers and 19 melodious warblers.

Thursday, 10th May – last news of season 3 from Oursi

Having now finished the fieldwork programme for 2011-12, Aly and Oumar have sent in the final data sets.  Ahead of any analysis, of great note are the large numbers of sedge warblers that they have caught this year.  This is largely down to the heavy rain in the previous two wet seasons, and reduced pressure of grazing on the lake shore, leaving a lot more marginal vegetation to survive well into the dry season. With no sedge warblers caught (and only one seen) in season 1, and 3 caught in season 2, this third year they’ve managed 262, and all from January to May.  Of these, one was a control from (i.e. originally caught and ringed in) Germany, and another from Italy.  Also, of 33 European reed warblers in late winter/spring, one was caught, just a couple of days ago, from Spain.  A great way to round things off!

Thursday 5th April: Final reunion, and final thanks!

Met up with Roger today back in the UK, after his return on the 3rd. Brilliant to catch up first hand with how things went for the last week. Thoughts now turn to sifting through all the data, and already preparing for next season!

Have to say a very big thank you to Roger for his amazing dedication these past 11 weeks or so. You can come again! Also to Japheth and Nick for their unerring commitment and great company (since last October!), to Oppong and Emmanuel for their company and (mostly) great cooking, Augustus for all the trouble-shooting from Accra, Vicky and John for their fantastic efforts helping Ian and Chris with the nightingales, and of course to Bee for working tirelessly for over 3 months on the project, and brilliant company to boot. Very many thanks one and all.

Let's not forget that Aly and Oumar, and new recruits Idrissa and le Député continue until the end of this month with their ringing and survey work in the sahel of Burkina Faso. Another incredible season of work from the Oursi team, and with a recovery of a German-ringed sedge warbler the first foreign-ringed bird that has turned up in the Oursi nets since the start of the project!  Well done and thank you guys - here's to more of the same next season...

Saturday-Saturday 24th-31st March: The season ends, and the birds disperse?

The very last period of tracking of the season, and Rog and Japheth kept up with our wood warblers for much of the period. They did report however that the birds’ movements were becoming more erratic, seemingly roving over a wider area. Eventually, one by one from around the 28th to 30th the tags failed, or the birds disappeared – at this late stage we may never know which! Certainly there’s no time left available to cold-search for any colour-ringed birds. Roger tells me he felt that on the 31st, as they were finishing off some habitat surveys, they encountered far fewer wood warblers than we might have expected at the peak. Do fewer vocalisations mean they have just gone quiet, or have they genuinely moved on? Roger says he’s erring on the side of the latter!

Friday 23rd March: Landing in the UK

This morning I arrived back at Heathrow, and as regards the biological samples and all of that paperwork, in Accra no-one wanted to see anything, and in London, there wasn’t even anyone at the airport to declare anything to!

Meanwhile back in Ghana, Oppong has driven Japheth and Roger back to the study site to continue with tracking our three birds. The latest news is that the three birds have been tracked down once more – fabulous work guys!

Thursday 22nd March: Preparing to leave

Returned to Accra last night, and with my flight back to the UK this evening today has been the usual last-minute panic of making sure all lose ends are tied up – although this time I’m leaving Japheth and Roger to continue tracking until the 31st, as we think the tags will last until then. The main worry has been getting the paperwork sorted for the export from Ghana and then import to the UK of our biological samples (a few feathers etc). Japheth patiently spent hours at the Wildlife Division offices waiting for a simple signature on the export permit. Even 2 hrs before the airport check in, back at the hotel Roger and I were labelling the samples appropriately for transit, according to the terms of the import licence! Eventually job done, and I can now relax when I get to the airport!!

Monday-Wednesday 19th-21st March: My final days in the field

Much of this time spent in the “office” sadly! Japheth returned to Accra on the Monday and so Roger and Nick teamed up for the last few tracking sessions. I tried to make sense of all the tracking data so far, and catalogued as far as possible the rapidly growing library of canopy and leaf pictures. We hope at some stage to identify most of the commoner tree species either used by, or closely associated with the wood warblers (and indeed those species not being used that we record at the control habitat spots).

Saturday-Sunday 17th-18th March: The wood warblers grouping together

No tracking problems over the weekend, and exciting news is that at one point bird 7 and bird 3 were seen with bird 9, and even bird 10 was close to the same spot. It looks like the birds are coalescing a bit more, compared to their apparent solitary existence whilst moulting for much of the winter.

Friday 16th March: Finding the 3 new birds

Whilst Nick and I headed off to get stuck into some habitat mapping, Roger and Japheth set about tracking the 3 new birds. Unfortunately, Nick’s bird, number 8, proved very difficult. The signal was there but the bird seemed very mobile, so was not seen after early morning and mid-day attempts. Not such a problem with birds 9 and 10, and in fact a big bonus was spotting recently-lost bird 7 with bird 9. Perhaps even better still was that Roger and Japheth caught up with bird 5, for the first time since it was ringed on the 15th Jan!! A pretty good morning all told. In the evening Nick and I had a go looking for “his” bird #8, and we found it within about 10 minutes, teaching Japheth and Roger a lesson in tracking! (Just kidding guys! We got lucky, and the tag frequency had changed a bit).

Thursday 15th March: Some unexpected but welcome good fortune!

With just one bird left to track, and its traceable days numbered, and also nearing the end of the habitat mapping, it was beginning to look like we’d have to bring Roger’s flight forward substantially from the 12th April, as there’d be little possible fieldwork left for him to do! Well we needn’t have worried.

This morning, it was Japheth’s turn to decide where we should set the net for catching, and he and Roger put up two net’s on “bird 3 path”. Meanwhile Nick and I went after bird 7, but not a peep was heard from the bird’s tag. That was it then, the last of the tagged birds was off the radar. After over an hour of searching, a call came through from Roger – at last, they’d caught another wood warbler! Bird number 8 was due to be ringed by Nick, so we marched back in time to find the ringing station set up by Japheth. Nick was smiling from ear to ear as he processed “his” bird. With all measurements recorded, colour-rings added, and various samples taken, we attached the 6th radio tag of the season. With a predicted radio-tag life-span of 13 days, this bird will need to be tracked well after my 22nd March departure, and will give Roger some quality data to record once I’m gone!

Roger volunteered to take the wood warbler back to the area around the net where it had been caught, and to check the nets again. A few minutes later, and quite incredibly he returned with a second wood warbler. The London bus theory instantly sprang to mind – no wood warblers for weeks, then 2 come along at once.

This time Roger processed the bird, and chose the colours of Newcastle United FC for its colour-rings, black on the left, white on the right. Once done, I attached the tag with Nick’s help, whilst Roger and Japheth went to turn off the tapes and close the nets. Moments later they returned with a third wood warbler, and our 10th of the season. It was at this point that we really knew that the team would be very busy for the next couple of weeks (and confirmed the London bus thing too!!). An amazing morning, with 3 newly tagged wood warblers!! Another quick attempt to track bird 7, and another fail, but we’re not down-hearted with 3 birds to look forward to tracking tomorrow...

Monday-Wednesday 12th – 14th March: A missing radio-tag antenna

It seems that (thankfully) bird 7 is fairly settled, otherwise the faint signal would have made it tricky to find. It turns out that after the storm, for whatever reason, the antenna of the tag must have snapped off. Japheth noticed from a good close up view of the bird that the antenna wasn’t visible beyond the end of the tail. In the meantime, bird 6 is no longer traceable. After 15 full days the tag has finally failed over Sunday night, so on Monday morning there was no sign, even in its favoured tree.

A final full survey of the site on Monday was reasonably productive, although there weren’t quite the larger numbers of vocal and detectable individuals that I’d expected.

Monday- Sunday 5th – 11th March: The wood warblers start to sing

On their return from the field on Saturday, Roger and Japheth reported that during their trapping efforts the playback induced the first snippets of song from a couple of wood warblers, but unfortunately the birds just didn’t want to play ball, and avoided dropping close to the net. Whilst heading out to track bird 7 on the morning of the 6th, the first bird encountered was in fact bird 3, seen for the first time since 13th December, and in a small tree right next to where it was caught back on the 29th November.

Over the next few days we continued with the tracking of our two tagged birds and a short spell each morning with unsuccessful netting efforts. The rest of the time we embarked on the mammoth task of mapping the habitat of the study site, walking the boundaries of all fields and blocks of fallow, scrub and forest, and noted the alarming extent to which new fields were being cleared in readiness for the rainy season. Some of these plots are formerly-farmed fallow, but others have been untouched for years judging by the age of the trees being felled. We hope to discover the exact extent of newly-active farmland in relation to forest and wooded fallow when the habitat map is complete.

Tracking was rendered a little difficult on a couple of occasions due to a string of late afternoon downpours, with Nick, Japheth and Roger having to abandon one session in order to save the tracking equipment, and to avoid the obvious hazards of carrying a metal radio antenna in a thunderstorm. The guys got a good drenching but we otherwise fine! After some torrential rain on the evening of the 9th, we thought that bird 7’s tag had failed. On the morning of the 10th there was no signal from it from well within range of where the bird had been. Eventually a very faint “blip” in the headphones indicated that the tag was still active, but it transpired that we were directly below the bird. Somehow the signal had dropped right off, and we thought that the tag probably wouldn’t last much longer. However, the signal was clear enough for us to find it again twice that same day, and 3 times the next.

Sat 3rd March: From the "office"

Currently compiling all the data from the point-count transects done during the last few weeks, so that the team back in the UK can refine the presence-absence model. Also, am sifting through GPS data for last year’s tracked birds 1-3, as we need to revisit these spots to get the same habitat data as for the new birds. And we need to do it soon, as the villagers are starting to head to their farms en masse now that the first rains have arrived. Bit by bit, shrubby fallows are being cleared, and larger wood warbler-friendly trees are felled for timber, firewood and charcoal, and to create new arable spaces.

Having claimed since January (and I still do!) that the birds will be easier to entice to the net once they finish their moult and start vocalising, I recently started to doubt my memory of when the calling and singing started last spring. I thought last year we were hearing the first faint “pews” from around the 21st February, but this year as yet, the birds here (or indeed last week in the Volta region) have remained silent. A quick check of the data, and our records show that at every site where we saw wood warblers from the 23rd February, there were birds (though not all) calling or singing. Now almost 10 days later than that, the birds are still silent. Add to this the fact that we know some birds are still finishing moult, could it be that last year they finished sooner? Did they arrive on the final wintering grounds later this year than last? Certainly the numbers seen in the Sudan savannahs of Burkina well into October may hint that wetter than normal (and perhaps therefore more favourable?) conditions to the North could have held the birds for longer than last year. With no comparative arrival-date information, we can but guess for the moment. Next season we will have a better idea, but for now I remain confident that they will call and sing, and we will catch the 3 more that we have radio-tags for. Oh dear, famous last words!

Sat 25th Feb - Fri 2nd March: More resightings than ever

Our newly tagged bird has proved delightfully easy to find each time of asking. We started with two attempts per day on Saturday and Sunday (whilst of course continuing to try to catch more). It seemed to have settled in one of two trees, making refinding the next time quite simple, so from Monday we tried 3 tracking efforts. Still remaining easy to find, the bird did on 3 occasions during the week end up some 300m away, but each time on the next relocation it was back in its favourite patch. Very curious behaviour! Lots of data is being collected on the habitat choice when we do manage to find the bird, and also on some randomly selected patches where the bird isn’t being seen.

Meanwhile, Tuesday late morning, whilst Nick and I were walking towards bird 6 to track it for the second time that day, we spotted colour-ringed bird 4, some 350m from where it was caught and last seen, 83 days now known to be on site. A new record – for now!

Brilliant news on Wednesday morning, as the crew managed to catch a 7th bird. Roger had set the nets along “Bird 2 path” (an area frequently used by bird 2 last December), and within the hour witnessed the new bird throw itself at the net. This time yet to complete its tail moult, it nonetheless had new central feathers to which we could fix a tag. Japheth expertly carried out the process, and again the bird was soon transmitting its location from the treetops. It has since proved a little trickier to find than bird 6, but it has still been seen 6 times over Thursday and Friday. Not quite so tree-faithful, it is hanging around the zone where birds 2 and 3 from December overlapped their home-ranges. In fact, quite amazingly, on Thursday pm, it was easily relocated, but not before bird 2 was spotted in the same tree! This means that bird 2 has now been on site for 97 days, longer than many wood warblers remain in their breeding woodlands in Europe!!

Friday 24th February: Expert help arrives

Having returned to Pepease to meet up with Chris and the nightingale team, on their way to Accra, it seemed only right that we take them into the field on their final morning; to show them how difficult it is to catch a wood warbler. We put up a handful of nets, and set the playback at just one end of a net ride. After a buff-spotted woodpecker and a Kemp’s longbill to keep them happy, Chris and John went off to check the nets. Lo and behold, there, in the bottom panel of the net next to the mp3 player, sat a Phylloscopus sibilatrix. Of course Chris and John then joked that catching wood warblers is easy (well, if it were me then I would have said the same!) Not wishing to get too excited, I checked that the bird had completed its tail moult, vital if we were to be able to radio-tag it. Sure enough, all the tail feathers were new, and even the primaries were finished. Just a few of the body contour feathers were still being replaced.

With the bird tagged, and all other measurements taken, we released it back into the trees, and immediately set about seeing if the radio receiver could still pick up the signal! No problems there, and so bird 6 (or tagged bird 4) was already starting to reveal its secrets.

After lunch we swapped a few bits and pieces of equipment, and then Chris and John headed back to Accra, taking our driver-chef Emmanuel with them, and leaving Oppong and Nick to join us for the final month on wood warbler duty.

Monday-Thursday 20th - 23rd Feb: East to the Volta region

Would you believe it, but our best efforts were yet again unsuccessful. We used two nets, two play-backs, and moved the nets around to exactly where the birds have been hanging out. With little sign of any change in the overall behaviour of the wood warblers (suggesting we’re not going to catch one any time soon), we headed off in the afternoon for some more ground-truthing of the aforementioned model. We headed Eastwards this time, and into the Volta region. We arrived late into Hohoe, found some great digs at the Taste Lodge, and planned our assault on the wood warbler sites.

Through Tuesday to Thursday, we covered 6 sites and again these largely followed the pattern of predicted presence and absence. Quite a variety of habitats were encountered, from some seemingly unspoilt forested hillsides on the Togo border, to burnt wooded savannahs in the floodplains near the Kalakpa game reserve, and some heavily managed farmlands closer to the shores of the Volta. Seeing so many savannah species this far south was a good indicator that we were in the Dahome gap – an area of relatively low rainfall, dividing the wetter forests in western GThana from those of Ghana’s neighbours to the East. Lots of very feisty Senegal eremomelas here, twittering and chasing each other all over the place,and amongst the white helmetshrikes, a female which most confidingly sat tight on its nest.

After a final heavy-rain-interrupted survey on the Thursday pm, we headed back to Eastern region to meet up with the nightingale team who had wrapped up at Nsoatre, in the end racking up 12 “data-logged” birds. After a summer spent somewhere in Europe, these birds should hopefully be site-faithful enough to return to the same scrub next winter. When the birds are recaptured, the data loggers will reveal a wealth of information about where the birds have been to breed, including which route they took to get there! Very exciting stuff.

Monday- Saturday 13th – 18th Feb: Brong Ahafo surveys

After the sad departure of Bee and Vicky back to the UK, we continued with a couple of mornings carrying out a full site survey, the first hour or so of each morning spent once more trying to catch a woodie again, but with no luck. During the survey, however, we spotted one of our previously-ringed birds, now in its 80th day since capture on November 25th. On the Tuesday pm we headed Northwest to join the nightingale team to leave them with a few extra nets, as the nightingales were proving almost as tricky to catch as the wood warblers, and with less time available. Meanwhile the wood warbler crew set about surveying more potential wood warblers sites in the Brong Ahafo region. We surveyed a total of 9 sites over the 4 days, and most of those followed the model of predicted presence or absence.

We returned to Pepease with renewed hope that come the Monday morning we’d have a better chance of catching a wood warbler. Surely the birds must be approaching the end of their moult? Also, it was about this time last year that we started hearing the wood warblers calling, and very soon after they were singing. I’m of the opinion that more vocalisation equals greater likelihood of capture!

12th Feb: A sad farewell as we return home

Last ringing session before Bee and I head off today. It turned out to be one of the most varied sessions for species with lots of Afro-trops: Green Twinspot, Purple-throated Cuckooshrike, Hairy-breasted Barbet, Sharpe’s Apalis, Wester Nicator, Fraser’s Forest Flycatcher, Finch’s Flycatcher Thrush and Grey Longbill.
Chris saw a local boy using a catapult to shoot birds for bushmeat. We invited him over to see what we were doing at the ringing table in the hope that perhaps we could change some of his views. He helped us write down measurements and had a go at releasing the birds we had processed. We told him why we have come all the way to Africa from UK to study the birds, and why they are important. I hope maybe he will have seen something today that will change his thoughts on wildlife.

Off the Odwenanoma Mountain we had our last lunch and a swift pack and goodbye to Japheth before driving off the bus station at Nkawkaw. We said our farewell to Chris and Emmanuel in the busy bus station. It was otherwise an uneventful journey excepet for the large rock that presumably reshaped the underside of the bus as we crunched over it, and a marriage proposal for both Bee and I as we bartered for our taxi. After a dinner reflecting on the fantastic experience of wildlife in an amazing county, we said our sad goodbyes.

Above: Green Twinspot

Posted on behalf of Vicky