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.

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.

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