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.

29th - 31st Jan: habitat studies and a little astrology

Nightingale Team: Two new Nightingales recently, bringing our total in the last two weeks to nine. With one Robin-chat too we have 10 birds to track in all. Among the other migrants, three new Whitethroats were still a bit of a surprise but Garden, Reed, Melodious, and the occasional Great Reed Warbler make up the bulk, in that order.On Monday we had a break from ringing to complete the weekly survey of Nightingales and their song output. The most visibly obvious migrants were Tree Pipits, Whinchats and the odd Woodchat Shrike. The Tree Pipits aggregate under the cassava plants in small groups of three to five birds. The Whinchats are individually dispersed across the open habitats, especially old (fallow) maize fields, harvested maize fields and open scrub/crop edge. Most of their foraging is done by flycatching, with just rare forays to the ground. Occasionally the Whinchats will also use the canopy of tall, quite dense scrub and it is interesting that they utilise a broader range of habitats than we are used to them doing in the UK. Intriguing to observe species in a different context and discover a little bit more about the way they ‘work’.

Two Violet Turacos were a nice surprise one evening. Good news that they can tolerate what is a heavily modified mosaic of agriculture and semi natural habitats.

Finally put my telescope to good use showing Oppong the craters on the moon and Jupiter’s moons, which he’d never seen before.

Posted on behalf of Ian

27th Jan: Quality if not quantity

Nightingale Team: Ringing south of the road this morning, strangely virtually no birds except for another Nightingale, two Great Reed Warblers (impressive in the hand) and a Whinchat. Quality if not quantity. Our eighth Nightingale in 11 days.
The Whinchat is of special interest to me since starting a BTO Whinchat project on Salisbury Plain two years ago. This is the first time I have had a chance to observe this species in ‘ winter’ habitats to think about the behaviour and ecology of the species here. Also nice to study the plumage characteristics of this individual at this point in time mid-way through the winter. This species can be tricky to age (and sex in some individuals), though this particular female still retained juvenile wing coverts.

More on the Whinchats later.

Just time to say: hats off to our two volunteers, Bee and Vicky. Both great each day with a seemingly inexhaustible sense of purpose. Their skill and dedication to tasks is invaluable to the project and we are privileged to have them on board. Thank you both!

Posted on behalf on Ian

Friday 27/01/12: The world's worst road

This morning we set off a little earlier, considering the greater distance needed to travel to get to our next-nearest site, where the model predicts wood warblers should be absent. We head north-east-ish, towards the southern shore of Lake Volta, and the road is good right down to the small settlement from where the vehicle ferry departs. We’re not taking the ferry, though, and we drive on past the village and onto the start of quite the worst road that I’ve ever experienced. Progress slows to a snail’s pace at times, and it seems we’de be better off walking. We’re encouraged to continue, however, when we see regular taxis and heavily-laden tro-tros coming the other way. We’re confident that our 4x4 will be up to the job, and it is.

Our first stop is close to an area, supposedly wooded, that is not predicted to have wood warblers. The transect takes us south from the road and lake shore, across fields of pepper shrubs, heading as close as we can get to the highlighted zone some 2km away. Strangely this landscape reminds me of a mix of the sahel of Oursi, with the lake shore on one side and its sandy soils, and some of the rockier parts of the north of Ghana savannahs. No thorny Acacia species here – most of the trees are Neem, and being actively harvested for firewood on our visit. First migrants noted are a total of 6 whinchats on the first point or two, but the arable peters out to fallow and larger burnt grass areas. Only a good flock of house martins (150) and 2 barn swallows add to the migrant list. Otherwise some savannah specialists are in evidence such as Senegal eremomela and Togo paradise whydah, black-rumped waxbill and yellow-winged pytilia. We finish just short of the circled block, and there’s no sign of any forest on the horizon, so we accept that what we’ve traversed is representative of the wider habitat. No wood warblers recorded after the optimum 15 point counts to prove presence, this site is therefore “proven” unoccupied.

On to the next spot further along the lake shore, and as at previous sites we realise that we’re not going to get to the highlighted zone on our predictive map from the UK. There’s arable down to the shore from the road, then inland towards our site there’s dense neem plantation for just a few hundred metres, before the land rises to some steep slopes, which on another day I would have considered climbable. Today, however, one is conscious of one’s own and the team’s welfare – it’s getting pretty hot to be sending anyone up these slopes. We decide to survey the neem “forest” in front of us. Aside from a couple of pied flycatchers and a few willow warblers, there are no wood warblers to be seen here, despite a patch of Albezia along a dry stream.

Continuing on we appear to have passed the worst sections of the road, and eventually we find a tarred road which takes us inland to site 3. We’re led off this main road to enquire at a village for some guidance to some nearby forest. As we’re just about to set off, we spot a wood warbler in a mimosa by the settlement – a proven presence, so we can tick this site off the list. With the afternoon passing, we decide to head back along the main Begoro-Nkawkaw road, to get back before things get too risky on Ghana’s night-time roads.

Thursday 26/01/12 Further afield and more forest

Had some success with the web last night and early this morning before departure. It meant getting up at 03:00 though! Have managed to discern decent enough roads or tracks to take us – hopefully – to two more sites after we have re-done yesterday’s. Arriving in good time at 0700 at our target, we again split and take two separate transects. Some good looking forest here, but again in “ribbons” near dried watercourses, and rather large areas of tree-cleared and burnt grassland and shrubland. After an hour Nick and I think we’ve heard a wood warbler, but it was faint and distant so we’re not 100% convinced, and so we continue. Soon after though we get a call from Roger and Japheth – they’re heading back to the car, as they’ve seen one, and then on the walk back they see another two. In all at this site we had 5 melodious, 4 willow and 1 garden warbler, one each of spotted and pied flycatchers, 1 nightingale and 1 whinchat, plus support from a few brown-necked parrots (new for me!), and hundreds of mostly village weavers and orange-cheeked waxbills in the most recently and severely burnt (formerly) grassy areas. Job done, a quick march back to meet up at the car and we’re soon heading off to the next site.

Now, the internet appeared to show a track leading well off this “main” road and towards another highlighted area for us to check. Well, the track did exist, but came to an abrupt end at a village, some 5km from where we wanted to be. We’re assured by a villager that we can continue on foot, but we have no real way of telling if we’ll end up where we need to be, so we opt to head for another site where we are a little more confident that the road passes close by. I hope!

It’s almost 11am by the time we approach the next area, again predicted to hold wood warblers. It’s an area of cocoa production, and the crops are mixed under a canopy of some seriously big trees. We feel that wood warblers should be here, but will we spot them high up in these trees? Taking a track off the road that weaves through some plantations, it soon deteriorates to impassable so we park up and set off from here to start the point counts. Japheth and Roger go on up the bad track, whilst Nick and I walk back to the wooded plantain plantation, aiming to take our transect along the road. At our first point we spot rufous-crowned eremomelas, a collared sunbird and a little grey flycatcher, and then the survey comes to an abrupt end when a wood warbler appears in the same tree. Once again – job done! Having come this far we can’t resist the opportunity to “bird” a little more, and we all take Roger and Japheth’s route away from the road. We walk for just 30 minutes but get to see another 2 wood warblers way up in a 40m+ tree beside the track. It's otherwise quiet this late in the morning, but we have clearly entered a patch of pretty decent forest, with no sign of a cocoa plantation anywhere. If only this place, with this excellent track access, was a little nearer to our base! Some curious small creatures seen on the walk back, I’ll try to post some pics as soon as the internet lets me!

We pass through the town of Begoro and stop off for a bite, (Emma's groundnut soup can keep until we get back later), and then press on to our third site of the day. A site where wood warblers are predicted to occur, the plan is not to survey this late in the day, but to check for access. It’s at the base of the Atewa ridge, a forest reserve very well known to most birders on a visit to Ghana. We ourselves passed by here last season, sampling the east side and a route over the top from the town of Kibi. Today we’re at Kwabeng, and drive through the town several times until we get decent directions off the main road to reach the edge of town at the foot of the hills. Parking the car at the last house, the first part of the path which we then followed cut through farmland, but the remaining trees look familiar, and potentially wood warbler friendly. Soon the path enters denser forest, and begins to thin and look less well-worn. A few small streams are crossed with freshly cut hardwood planks, and at one such bridge we meet a team of men coming the other way in the late afternoon. Greeting us warmly, they do not stop, and so we continue on. Not much further though, and we discover what they were most likely up to in this part of the forest. A small clearing next to a muddy and diverted stream, tubs of chemicals, and the ground all over riddled with very deep man-sized holes, it becomes clear that we’ve stumbled upon the workplace and "mineshafts" of gold prospectors. Unsure of the safety of continuing to explore, when some of the holes are seriously deep, others with not very pleasant looking water at the bottom, and as some of this activity may not even be legal, we retrace our steps and resolve to walk a different route when we return to survey. However, on our return we just happen to spot a wood warbler at the forest edge. Presence, then, is confirmed. Relieved that we need not come back to any potential danger, a shame though as this site too looks as though the birding would be great!!

An even later return home, but just in time to unfortunately see Burkina Faso get beaten, and therefore knocked out of the Africa Cup of Nations. Commiserations to our colleagues north of the Ghana border!

Chris O

26th Jan: A tot up

Nightingale Team: Our third morning in succession, ringing in the eastern patch produced yet another Nightingale. So a nice cluster of four new birds to radio track from now on in this area. One Snowy-crowned Robin Chat was a new bird for the totals. As a resident and potential competitor to the Nightingales (work by Peter Jones has previously suggested that Nightingales are interspecifically territorial and move south within West Africa at the same rate during the dry season) this individual was radio-tagged too, to provide information about its movements relative to the neighbouring Nightingales.

A low overall catch grave me a chance to do what ringers do and tot up the migrant score in the 10 days since my arrival on the 16th Jan, so here goes: Garden Warbler (40), Reed Warbler (10), Nightingale (7), Melodious Warbler (5), Willow Warbler (4) and one each of Grasshopper Warbler, Blackcap, Common Whitethroat and Great Reed Warbler; 70 individual migrants in all; 57% Garden Warblers. According to the field guide, several of these species are well out of range here close to Berekum, especially Grasshopper Warbler! The Melodious Warblers are among the personal favourites for Vicky and I since this is not a species we bump into every day in the UK

The Afro-tropical species number 49 from 10 species, plus one or two released immediately when we are pressed for time, so perhaps 50:50 ‘residents’ to migrants? Whatever, the ‘volume’ of migrants is an interesting reminder that here too the composition of the bird fauna is dramatically altered by their arrival or departure, in manner we are entirely used to in Europe in summer.

Posted on behalf of Ian

Wednesday 25/01/12 Our first search beyond the study site

We set off at our usual time this morning, east towards the nearest of the highlighted areas for us to survey, a cluster of 1km squares where wood warblers should occur. We drive through our study site along the dirt track to the next town, and according to the internet there’s a road east of here which will take us close to the spot in question.

The road isn’t the best, and progress is slower than hoped. It soon transpires that the road also skirts some distance around the preferred spot. As we appear to be driving further away, and the morning too is slipping by, we decide to stop and survey a 1km² which according to our GIS map has the same level of probability for wood warbler presence as the target area. Splitting into two teams to maximise coverage, we set off from the roadside into the bush. It’s a fairly similar farmland mosaic to our study area, although perhaps with larger areas which have been cleared of trees. However the pockets where trees remain look promising.

In total we encounter 5 nightingales, 5 willow, 5 garden and 4 melodious warblers, 3 spotted flycatchers and the same number of whinchats, as well as non-migrants such as yellowbill, African cuckoo hawk, lead-coloured flycatcher and red-shouldered cuckooshrike.

After almost 2 hours, we spot a wood warbler, in the usual species of tree where we tend to find them back at base. This record means that the site scores a confirmed “presence”, and as such we can move on to the next site. However, it is already after 10am, so we decide to do a “recce” on the next site so that were’ better prepared for the next morning.

Continuing east along worsening roads we keep a look out for any potential track that will lead us up to the next site, but none appears. Also, the road as described by Google is quite wrong anyway! Seeing as things aren’t going too well so far, we decide to head back to re-evaluate these methods of attack. On the way, we take a different route back west, and discover that this route passes right through the site we were aiming for in the first place this morning. As this is the nearest site to our base, we simply have to do this site properly if we know we can get to it! We will return tomorrow.

Despite a lack of any real legwork this morning, we’re all shattered after so many slow hours on bad roads, and after a very late lunch there’s very little else to do but sleep! Besides, the planning for tomorrow is best sorted when the internet works properly much later on.

Chris O

25th Jan: Watch your fingers

Nightingale Team: Repositioned the nets from yesterday into some adjacent new habitat.  More Afro-tropical species today, including a magnificent though seemingly incandescent Double-toothed Barbet.  This species has the weaponry to do permanent finger damage and so was handled with great respect by both Bee and Vicky!  To cap it all, one more new Nightingale made up for low numbers of migrants overall and sent us home very pleased, and somewhat relieved, with the progress so far.

Posted on behalf of Ian

Saturday 21/01/12 – Tuesday 24/01/12 Reassessing priorities

Over the past few days, we have 3 more catching attempts, each revisiting places where we’ve tried and failed this year, but where we had success last year. Still no luck, and precious little else caught either, a garden warbler the only migrant, again when the playback was switched to garden warbler song!

It’s time to reassess some priorities. After all the effort made to catch wood warblers, and all the failures, we think we’re unlikely to catch any so long as they’re continuing to moult. This may go on for at least another 2 weeks for even the earliest finishers. Another major job for us to consider then is to visit several other sites, both nearby and scattered through the southern part of the country, in a further search for our target birds, but for different ends.

Back in the UK our colleagues have been taking all of the GIS information available to produce a map of predicted occupied and unoccupied areas for wood warblers, based on all the GPS waypoints for observed presence and absence so far. What we need to do now to help strengthen this model is to visit as many as yet un-chartered (by us!) areas of predicted presence and absence as possible. We have a map of all the possible highlighted areas, but unfortunately our road map leaves a lot to be desired. In our efforts to find the best routes to these targets, we’re back to relying on Google etc. In places the aerial photographs aren’t too bad, but in others no roads or tracks can be discerned at all. Add to this the fact that we can barely use the internet except at times of low internet traffic in the early hours of the morning, and it’s not the most straightforward of tasks!

More pressing for some of our team is the small matter of a certain football match tonight. Ghana’s first group match in the Africa Cup of Nations, ending Botswana 0 Ghana 1, so spirits should be high tomorrow!

Chris O

24 Jan: Two new Nightingales

Nightingale Team: A rewarding morning for us all, ringing just east of the core area in new habitat, though still within the patchy mosaic of scrub, crops and areas of plantation.  A small catch overall, mainly comprising European migrants, but with two new Nightingales included.  We’re puzzled by the lack of activity among the ‘residents’ but perhaps the very dry weather we are experiencing at present is playing a part; quite a few Afro-trops are in full moult, with little evidence of breeding activity at this point in time, among the cisticolas, crombecs and greenbuls.  Overall, Garden Warblers outnumber all the other migrant species put together. All of the Garden Warblers are moulting heavily and currently look rather dishevelled, with fat scores predictably low.

Posted on behalf of Ian

22 Jan: No Nightingales today

Nightingale Team: An extra 15 minutes in bed for everyone today as it’s dark at 6am still we wanted to avoid catching bats instead of birds - nice as they are. We soon had plenty of migrants to keep us busy with Common Whitethroat, Willow Warbler, a Blackcap (two others caught previously last year 9th and 24th November) and Melodious Warbler.

The bird of the day was a Great Reed Warbler, which looked like a highly-magnified Reed Warbler. An Olive Sunbird put in an appearance - complete with pectoral “tufts” that looked a bit like it hadn’t shaved its underarms. The weather was very sunny and breezy so not ideal for ringing. The wind soon got up so Ian and I took down the nets as Bee radio-tracked the two tagged Nightingales. Oppong and Ian went out after lunch for petrol and a cutlass to trim net rides and came back with a coconut each too. Delicious and full to the top of coconut milk. We had a front row seat on how to open a coconut using a cutlass and I’m surprised so many Ghanaians still have a full compliment of fingers!

Little Bee-eaters and a two Lanners also flew over the hostel in the afternoon. No Nightingales (boo) today but as it still seems to be quite breezy we’ll do the non playback Nightingale transects tomorrow instead of ringing. Internet is very temperamental and intermittent at best so apologies updates are slow......

Posted on behalf of Vicky

21 Jan: Nightingales 8 and 11

Nightingale Team: After a moist and noisy night it took a good slug of caffeine to bring me into the world of the living. We set off to the usual Nsuatre trap site to radio track Nightingale 8 which we duly found, and he’d/she’d swapped sides to make it interesting for us. The long walk over the north side survey took around 3 hours. We saw on our travels: Tropical Boubou, Viellot’s Black Weaver (complete with nests), Village Weaver, Palm Swift, a Cuckoo Hawk, a noisy African Thrush and Grey Kestrel. We also saw a Willow Warbler and a Tree Pipit.

Bee said there were some usual spots where they tended to hear them each time. We checked for Nightingale 11 with the radio receiver and it had stayed put. Radio tracking the transmitters on the birds is not as simple as it seems, it needs good deal of focus and determination (and a good pair of ears) to find the birds. Nightingales behaviour also means that they stay low in the vegetation so you don’t get the satisfying visual confirmation like you do with more arboreal species for instance, and the transmitters signal can go weak if the bird moves down near the ground. It’s going to mean tracking taking longer for us every time we tag a Nightingale. Hope they appreciate it!

After a lunch of an Oppong special chicken recipe we relaxed for a bit and I stalked a few lizards with my camera. The plan was to ring tomorrow so we put up 8x18m mist nets on the south side, Bee and I radio tracked while Ian introduced himself to the local Whinchats and watched them fly-catching. We might try to catch some with spring traps. Hopefully tomorrow we’ll get some more Nightingales and make a lot more work for ourselves.

Above: Vicky and Ian

Posted on behalf of Vicky

Friday 20/01/12 Wood warbler “triangle”, and re-finding another colour-ringed bird

We head off with our hopes high that today we will get our first wood warbler tagged. The wood warbler hot-spot from Wednesday – dubbed wood warbler triangle – sees its first ever mist-netting. Things look hopeful with two birds pewing close by one net before we even start any playback. The hope soon fades though! An African paradise flycatcher is the sole bird caught, until I decide to change the playback towards the end. In order to keep the interest levels up, I change one tape to melodious warbler. At least we can get some comparable data from a species that the team at Nsoatre are catching, and one is singing near the net. Straight away it’s caught. If only the wood warblers were so obliging!

Late morning we head off to find bird 3, flushed with our success so far with birds 2 and 4. Over an hour of effort in its favoured areas finds a couple of unringed birds, but not our target. We’ll try again, but in the draining midday heat we head off for another rethink on the general fieldwork front.

It has to be said that Emma’s cooking has continued to surprise. After such indifference and reluctance last year, we appear to have a seriously capable chef on the team. Is he as good as Oppong? Not sure about that just yet, but keep it up Emma!

With some office catch up for me this afternoon, Emma drives Japheth, Nick and Roger out to delve into “death valley” in search of bird 1, the site so-called last year because the climb back out in the late morning was always a bit of a struggle with the sun on your back. Sadly though, despite all that effort, they return without any sightings. They’re not put off, however, and actually suggest trying again tomorrow. If you like, guys!

Chris O

20 Jan: Tricky tracking

Nightingale Team: The noisiest night yet so there were a few sleepyheads this morning. We took the car to the trap site and started radio-tracking the two Nightingales we tagged yesterday as it was still quite overcast and too dark for the playback surveys. Bee has used the radio transmitter and receiver before on Capercaillie and whilst in Ghana so showed us the ropes. 
We tracked down one that was sitting in its usual habitat patch - amazingly close to other Nightingales. At 6.20am it was light so we kicked off the survey, first playing Nightingale call and croaks and then listening for a response. We repeated the survey approx every 25m.The transects took us through areas of scrub, maize, cassava, papaya, teak, plantain and bananas, and their responses always came where there was scrub. We had a count of 20 Nightingales in 2hrs 20mins.
We had just enough time to find the other Nightingale, which had settled nearby to where we’d originally caught it. A quick dash and pack after an early lunch, we just had time to freshen up. Bee came back from her wash looking rather flushed, after having opened the shower room door to find a Ghanaian chap having a good scrub! After Bee and I composed ourselves we moved back to Gladys’s in Nsuatre. We also discovered various beasties had also moved in - a few flat spiders, ants in the bed rooms and a skink in the loo. I hope that they will be quieter neighbours than at the last place!  We put up some nets to see if we could catch any, but succeeded only to catch thin air (usually quiet in the afternoons), but did have a good view of some Cattle Egrets and amused ourselves annoying mimosas (sensitive plants). We also did a repeat radio track of the Nightingales. The tracking is trickier than it looks - especially as the birds are at close range. Tomorrow we will do a play back survey of the north side - It’s nice to be busy!

Posted on behalf of Vicky

Thursday 19/01/12 Re-visiting the mountain

Considering our poor catch rates thus far, this morning we have a change of scene. Up on the well-forested Odwenanoma Mountain, where we used to reside when in the area, we had early success in spotting wood warblers this season, before any were located on the study site. As we’ve established a transect route here, it was thought that some “validation” was in order. In other words, survey the route, and if lots of wood warblers are seen/heard, then perhaps we really do need to consider searching for a true forest study site.

7 wood warblers are registered in all, but 3 of these are unseen, “pewing” birds only detected after the mp3 playback. Compared with previous visits, this is not an exceptional total. It is some affirmation that the study site is the better for both numbers of birds, or at least our ability to detect them, and for overall access.

Back at the site in the afternoon, and heartened by our finding bird 4 yesterday, we start a search for one of the others. Bird 2 is considered the most likely, based on its movements last year when tracked. Within an hour 4 birds are spotted/heard, and then Roger spies a pewing bird in the high crown of a maple-leafed tree (subsequently identified as a Cola species). Sure enough, it has a red over a pale blue ring on its left leg, white over metal ring on the right. This bird has now been around for at least 54 days. Will bird 3 prove traceable? And what about bird 1? We failed to find this one again after the supposed tag failure back in December.

Chris O

19 Jan: A Happy Birthday and the first Nightingale of the year

Nightingale Team: Today was my birthday so the pressure was on the gods of ringing to send us a Nightingale. The weather today was damp, with mist hanging the air, but it didn’t seem to put the birds off as we caught our first Nightingale of the year (that’s Palearctic migrant no.96). We also caught a retrap which Bee had originally ringed on the 24th November (No. 8). Both very nice presents! We tagged both Nightingales with radio transmitters as the retrap’s original transmitter had now run out of battery life. We’ll be tracking the birds ideally twice a day now so where ever they go we will have to follow to find them!

To make the day even better we also had our warbler count topped up with a flurry of Garden Warblers, Reed Warblers, Melodious Warblers (one new and a retrap), and a Willow Warbler. For Afro-tropical species, we caught a Black-and-White Mannikin, Common Waxbill, Blue-billed Firefinch, Copper Sunbird, Olive-bellied Sunbird, Collared Sunbird, Grey-backed Cameroptera, Red-faced Cisticola, Little Greenbul, Green Crombec and a Senegal Coucal who’s red eyes rivalled that of a demented Blue Tit’s.

A lunch of cheese, bread and salad washed down with coffee and condensed milk provided us with energy for an afternoon of productive loafing. Ian got to know the GPS better, Bee sorted emails and ringing records and I sought assistance for the broken light bulb in my bedroom that was becoming a sore point after a few stubbed toes... Kestrel, Common Wattle-eye and Common Bulbul were observed around the hostel. We also celebrated my birthday with a nice spaghetti dinner, and toasted marshmallows to a chorus of bats chattering as they hoovered up the flying termites that had emerged with the increased moisture in the air. Oppong made us laugh at the table as when his phone went beep at the table. The question “Is that your wife?” was quickly answered with “No, it is my phone”. Oppong surprised me with a bottle of sparkling apple juice and a cake. Thanks to everyone for a great day and Happy Birthday to my twin sister at home too! Plan is for playback survey work tomorrow, and then we go back to Gladys’s hostel in Nsuatre.

Posted on behalf of Vicky

Wednesday 18/01/12 Exploring new ground, and finding one of our birds!

We try another leap-frogging netting session this morning, where we have seen birds recently and where we tried with Chas and co in December. Zilch. Well, one little greenbul and a grey-backed camaroptera. It’s really beginning to look like we’re going to struggle. On top of the failures to catch wood warblers, it has to be said that most of the birds we’re seeing are in various stages of tail moult, not a good sign for the tagging. A few more attempts I think before our time will undoubtedly be better spent considering a different aspect of the fieldwork. More of that later on I suspect.

Meanwhile, after giving up on the netting we head of to explore in the direction of the “best-looking” area of habitat as indicated on the satellite image. It seems the image is at least in part correct. There are progressively more trees, and taller, as we move into the hinterland. There are also more mature palm plantations – are these possibly not differentiated on the image? We walk a 1.5km route, and encounter 13 birds, all of them within a 700m stretch of the path. Pretty good “densities” I reckon. We will definitely be back here to attempt to catch. After some deliberation with the UK crew, we resolve to stretch the present study block of 2kmx2km to encompass another 4km² in this direction.

In the afternoon we explore yet more paths in the new patch, mapping them with the gps as we go. The route brings us to the spot where bird 4 was caught last month. Japheth spots a wood warbler here and Roger immediately adds that it’s colour-ringed. It’s only bird 4! No more than 15m from where the net was placed to catch it, some 40 days ago. It appears that the tail is still in moult, but with just the outer-most one or two pairs still growing. It’s quite amazing to see it again. We decide to spend more time looking for the other 3 birds from last year.

Chris O

18 Jan: Melodious and gropper

After a rather noisy night- (every night is party night in a Ghana), we got up at 5 to a healthy pineapple and bread breakfast. The first net round saw a rush of Palearctic migrants with 5 Garden Warblers, 2 Reeds Warblers, 1 Grasshopper Warbler and 1 Melodious Warbler. From the guide book recently published on Ghanaian birds ‘groppers’ shouldn’t be here so it’s an interesting species to catch, Bee says there has been one seen before Christmas too- so not just a fluke! I’d not seen a melodious before so it was great to have the chance to ring it (thanks Ian). They look superficially like an Icterine, but smaller and quite yellowy green whereas Ickies tend to have a buffy tinge and a thinner looking bill. Also I find Icterines tend to shout at you in the net, and this little bird stayed very quiet.
We colour ringed all the migrants and took, feather, faecal and blood samples for analysis in the lab later, as well as fat and muscle scores. None seem to carry a lot of fat, the Garden Warblers were carrying some - up to score 3. Afrotrops caught were a Greenbul, Bronze Mannikin, and Red-headed Quelea. We also saw some European Bee Eaters fly over. After all the birds were ringed we packed up shop and had a civilised lunch at the dining table. Bee and I did our impression of two washer women as Ian sorted out charging flat batteries and action man Oppong helped me put up an ad hoc washing line. Nets will go up later today and hopefully it will be a good day.#

Above: Grasshopper Warbler

Above: Melodious Warbler

Posted on behalf of Vicky

Tuesday 17/01/12 Still no success at catching wood warblers

This morning’s efforts involve a netting attempt where bird 3 was caught last year. Total catch: 1 olive-bellied sunbird. Not very good, frankly. We’re doing all we feel we can – 2 nets, 2 playback systems, and then moving the nets further into the wooded farmland after each hour of failure. We do get some responses in terms of pewing when the playback is started, but not a sniff of a bird coming to the net. Ok, maybe not wholly surprising as they aren’t normally very vocal at this time of year, perhaps due to the moult factor, but I would have expected one or two by now? Obviously I’ve forgotten how much effort it was to catch 4 last month! After almost 4 hours of mobile netting, we go on the hunt for bird 3. Even if the radio-tag has stopped working, it will still be colour-ringed. We’re out of luck, but in the process we spot a honey buzzard floating overhead.

After an Abetifi fast-food lunch once again (different stall, and wache this time), Emma sets of for his first big grocery shop. As we’re without the vehicle, the rest of us take a walk into the valley below the house – the route we investigated with a timed species count last October, on the day we first clapped eyes on our fabulous new digs. A great circular walk through various wooded farmland habitats, with some forest edge, fallow scrub and more open fields, and back via the partly cultivated rocky plateau grasslands. Although no wood warblers were here back in October, I was hopeful of several this time around – the habitat looks pretty good. Just the one seen though, so again it seems we’ve made the right choice of study site further from town. It feels like a decent patch for some local birding, though, should we get any time off!!

It’s Emmanuel’s first meal this evening, and I’m quite astonished actually. A simple tomato based stew with some rice, which is very tasty indeed. Hope this continues!!

Chris O

17 Jan: Hornbills and ground squirrels

Nightingale Team: Today we had a lie in, followed by a maize porridge and condensed milk to start the day. All tummies in good working order too which is always a bonus. An introduction to the ringing sites was due so Bee showed us the transect routes for the Palearctic migrants survey and we recorded a few en route.
Whinchat, Nightingale, Tree Pipit and Woodchat Shrike all made an appearance, as did a Grey Hornbill, Common Bulbuls, African Paradise Flycatcher, Vieillot’s Black Weaver and a handsome Lizard Buzzard. We found a nice snake skin lying on the path, spotted some mammal footprints in the dust and some cheeky lizards scampering always out of reach of the camera lens. Bee also saw a nice Abyssinian Roller en route to get lunch at the Runners restaurant in town where Ian and I were treated to our first ever foufou and goat stew. Despite the weird texture it was pretty tasty and better still, its etiquette to eat it with your hands. The Occra stew was avoided- we’re learning to follow Oppong’s lead when it comes to food. Back to the guest house, and a quick pack up as the guest house owner had somehow double booked us with a regular, and we needed to move to a new place.
An hour later we were in the new digs, and although a few door handles short, some do it yourself electrics, and a longer drive to the trap site, it’s otherwise a nice clean place to stay. After settling in we set the nets at the north entrance near Barnabus’ patch ready for the first ringing session of the trip for Ian and I. The nets went up quickly and hopefully will catch at least one Nightingale, which was croaking and jibing us from right next to one of the rides. 7 nets up and furled, we saw several ground squirrels as we finished. A dinner of yam, tomato sauce and sardines washed down with a malt drink or beer rounded off the day nicely. Not a bad day at all!

Posted on behalf of Vicky

Monday 16/01/12 pm. Meeting up with Ian,Vicky and Oppong

After a call from Augustus, we get the first draft of the satellite image of the study site emailed from the remote sensing centre at Legon. It looks useful, and should be a good guide as to which directions we need to explore to find the probable best habitat beyond the present borders of the study area.

Earlier on we heard from Nick, who has remained back in Accra, that Ian and Vicky had arrived safe and sound, and at mid-morning Ian called to say that they’re on their way to meet us. After an amazing late lunch with our awesome landlord, we head over to Nkawkaw to link up. After a brief meet and greet, we swap vehicles and drivers, and Bee swaps with Nick to head over to the nightingale site with Ian, Vicky and Oppong. This leaves Japheth, Nick, Roger and me with driver Emmanuel. With a food shop needed, there’s no cooking for Emmanuel tonight, so we grab some fried rice from a fast food stall at Abetifi. Not the best meal ever. I won’t survive long on this kind of diet, so I hope Emma is up for the catering challenge this time around. Only time will tell...

Chris O

Monday 16/01/12 am. Some success, but a familiar problem

We have another go at netting, near the spot where bird 2 spent a lot of time last December. Quite ironically the first bird we caught was a nightingale! Full biometrics were taken but no tag put on this bird – saving the tags for the nightingale study site. After over an hour of trying, however, we actually caught a wood warbler. We were not getting too excited however, as a quick check of the tail showed that there was no way we were going to be able to tag it. Those feathers present were all at various stages of growth, but the central pair was missing altogether. The state of moult in the wing suggested that perhaps it was about half-way through, at about 3 or 4 weeks to go before completion. If all the wood warblers are like this, then will we be able to tag any at all? We put colour-rings on it in any case, as we did the 4th bird in December, seeing as with the latter we were able to relocate it a couple of times without a tag. Perhaps we can do it with this new one.

We spend the rest of the morning surveying the remainder of the site for wood warblers. Not as good as yesterday, with just 5 encountered, but still more than on this same section last December. A particular highlight was the first woodchat shrike that I’ve seen on the study site.

Chris O

16 Jan: Looooooooooong journey

After a pleasant, albeit small, breakfast of sausage, egg and beans (got beaten to it by hungry students), the Yellow-billed Kite circling overhead the hotel patio helped introduce us a new friend, Iben from the Denmark Ornithological Society (DOF). She had overheard some bird talk at the table and was also working on a project with the GWS on a ringing project. Just enough time to twitch the Western Grey Plantain Eater and a few Cattle Egrets before we shared the car to GWS office -  it was sad to leave our new found acquaintance so quickly with so much to talk about.
Emmanuel (our driver) and Nick (co pilot and prince of part of Berekum!) accompanied us on the day long journey  through Accra, to Kumasi where we were to meet Bee, Chris and Roger. A few African Grey Hornbills, Hooded Vultures and Pied Crows wafted overhead as we motored by never ending stalls selling fresh fruit, tiger nuts, chilli boiled eggs and other groceries.  Finally we stopped to meet our new team mates, receiving a warm welcome before Ian and me, plus Bee and Oppong (our chef and driver) set off. Chris, Roger and Emmanuel went the opposite direction to the Wood Warbler site.

Our guest house, some 3 hours later, was fine with comfy beds and after some acrobatics, string and impressive use of a kitchen knife, my mozzie net was erected by Oppong. A quick fast-food dinner of fried rice and chicken in town and bed after a long tiring day. Roll on birds!!
Posted on behalf of Vicky

Sunday 15/01/12 Surveying, but not catching

First morning in the field, and to start we have a go at catching. We set the net where we caught our first two last November. We give it an hour but after no response from any wood warblers, we pack away and set off to survey the site.

A whinchat is present at the start, and by the end of the route (half of the usual transect) we encounter a total of 11 wood warblers. Some of these are only registered as a result of playback after the end of the standard 5 minute count. Elsewhere we record 10 willow warblers, 4 melodious warblers, 3 pied flycatchers, 2 spotted flycatchers, and 1 garden warbler. Wood warbler numbers are up on this section of the site since last December’s final survey, and so too willow warblers.

No news from the UK (as it is the weekend after all!), but we assume that Ian and Vicky are on their way and hopefully arriving in Accra tonight!

Chris O

15 Jan: Two more ringers

Ian and I arrived late today in Accra , to join the team on Monday. Ian as Senior Research Ecologist for BTO and I as a keen volunteer BTO ringer from Kent. First a good rest was needed after a long plane journey, so after possibly the world’s most expensive taxi, the Pink Hostel welcomed us to our first Ghanaian bed for the night. Rooms had all the mod cons, just a quaint take the lid off the cistern and flush by hand loo to keep the problem solving part of the brain working.  Ghana Wildlife Society will pick us up tomorrow to get the car to that will take us up to Berekum.
Posted on behalf of Vicky

Saturday 14/01/12 Leaving for the field

All goes to plan and we leave Accra by 0900, and after a shop in Mpraeso for groceries we make it to our digs mid afternoon.

Straight out into the field to show Roger the lay of the land. The whole place seems a whole lot drier, not surprising considering the desiccating effects of the harmattan winds, and large parts of fallow have been burned. There’s a strange arid, dusty stillness about the place, and scarcely a bird to be seen or heard. I hope things improve tomorrow.

Chris O

Friday 13/01/12 Back with Bee

Arriving for breakfast we spot Bee sitting outside with a cuppa. It was brilliant to catch up with Bee again, and to hear all about her past month, finishing off the nightingale tracking, and touring around Ghana with Ed. And to cap it all, a decent breakfast too! Seems there’s been a change of management – thank goodness!
A morning at the office to sort through the gear, meeting up with Japheth, Nick and Oppong once more, and then a trip to Legon Uni in the afternoon to discuss the possibilities of a supply of satellite images for the wood warbler study site. A few sundry purchases at the nearby Accra Mall (it could be any-mall in any-town) and we’re ready for the off tomorrow.

Chris O

Thursday 12/01/12 Leaving the cold behind

After a pretty mild spell of weather in the UK over the Christmas break, it looks like there may be a rather cold snap on the way. Just about the right time then to be heading back to West Africa! A meeting on Tuesday ahead of departure was attended by new volunteer Roger, a very experienced fieldworker and ringer in Africa, having spent several years in both Cameroon and Uganda. Whilst I head for Heathrow for a leisurely afternoon flight, Roger is already in the air from Norwich to Accra via Amsterdam. Fingers crossed we can find each other at the other end!

With everything going smoothly up to arrival, a few nervous moments as the crowd thins at my carousel – has my luggage made it? Roger arrives very soon after my flight, and he finds his bag straight away. Mine must have been at the bottom of the pile on the plane, as thankfully it eventually appears! A blast of heat on leaving the airport – is it supposed to be this hot at this time of year? 29°C seems excessive at 10pm! (Despite escaping the UK cold, I admit I was grateful for the a/c at the hotel later on) A short cab ride to the hotel, followed by the inevitable mix-up with the booking, now all that remains is to find Bee in the morning.

Chris Orsman