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 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

11th Feb: A brush up on Honeyguide ID

Penultimate ringing session for Bee and I. We set the nets at Brukruwa near Alices Triangle site. Another smokey session and a busy one for local’s walking past as they tended their crops. Willow Warbler, Garden Warbler, Green Hylia, Buff Spotted Woodpecker, Superb Sunbird and White-throated Bee-eater all made appearances. A Honeyguide that didn’t seem to match any of the illustrations in the bird guide came late in the session. Another wildlife encounter of the day included a small (dead) scorpion in my room that wasn’t in the room the day before. We capped off a good day with a tasty meal at a restaurant in good spirits.

Above: Honeyguide sp.

Posted on behalf on Vicky

10th Feb: Pepease Wood Warbler Site

Has a good hour’s drive down through Mpraeso to determine presence of Wood Warbler through point count surveys, the site chosen through a predictive model which determines the areas likely to support Wood Warbler. Sure enough after some impressive off road driving on some rough tracks, and over a few rickety wooden bridges, Chris spotted one.

The plan was to check out another site afterwards but unfortunately the car broke down, but no matter –this is Africa, a local man with a woolly bobble hat saw our difficulties and mended the car right there at the roadside. Once fixed the journey down the rough track continued (gingerly) but it was too late to do a second survey so we contented ourselves with trying to catch some of the Nightjars that sit on the sandy tracks near the guesthouse. Unfortunately they were just a bit too twitchy on the windy moonlit night. 

Above: The car being fixed

9th February Mannikins and Ant-lions

Vicky writes:

Ringing at Pepease at the Alice’s Tringle sub site today. After an invigorating dose of classical music in the car on the way to the ringing site we arrived to find the air was thick with smoke. It was hard to breathe when walking in denser areas of vegetation. As the day progressed the smoke cleared somewhat and we had a modest catch of 3 species of Greenbuls: Little, Cameroon Sombre and Little Grey. Other birds included another 2 African Pygmy Kingfishers, a flock of Black-and-white Mannekins, a Speckled Tinkerbird, a pair of Chestnut-breasted Negrofinches and a scruffy Common Bulbul. Chris introduced us to an ant lion which catches its victims in a similar method to how the cavernous open drains in the towns work: it digs a hole and waits as its only a matter of time before an unsuspecting visitor falls in!

5th-8th February A change of team, and now hunting wood warblers!

Vicky writes:

Over the 5th we ringed at Odwenanoma at were lucky enough to catch an African Goshawk, and five Red-bellied Paradise fly-catchers.

In time for lunch Chris H (BTO), and new volunteer ringer and good friend of mine John arrived with Japheth from GWS. After eating we had a hand over to smooth the transition between field teams before “the boys” (Chris H, John, Nick, Roger, and Oppong) departed for Nsoatre to continue to Nightingale work and replace radio transmitters with geolocators. Good luck chaps!

The work here in Pepease over the next week will be as usual- chasing after the wood warblers both ringing (hopefully) and tracking through point count transects. Our backs and arms strong from carrying the radio kit around with us at Nsoatre it is now a case of strengthening the neck muscles as we peer upward through binoculars into trees for sightings of Palearctic migrants. We spend a good deal of time staring up at birds bottoms as they flit overhead in the branches of trees we try to gather as many visual clues as we can to establish the species. We are having frequent sightings of Willow Warblers, and less frequently Melodious and the target species- Wood Warbler. Other Palearctic Migrants sighted regularly are Pied Flycatcher, Woodchat Shrike and Spotted Flycatcher. Sighted species the last few days include: Red-Shouldered Cuckooshrike, Splendid Sunbird, Kemp’s longbill, Tawney-flanked Prinia, and I was afforded a particularly indulgent view of a yellow billed kite as it landed in a tree by the guest house.

We were also visited on the 7th by Phil Atkinson from BTO who popped up to see how the joint project was progressing. He had time to join us for a walk around one of the Point Transect areas and a ringing session. Some Yellow White-eyes, Brown-crowned Tchagra, African Pygmy Kingfisher, Western Nicator, Spotted Flycatcher and a Melodious Warbler were ringed and other sighted birds included a Hairy Breasted Barbet, Hooded Vulture and African Cuckoo Hawk.

In the afternoon, the mood was a little deflated after Ghana lost the semi final against Zambia and non-natural bush fires ripped through the valley below the Cottage making the air thick with smoke. I hope that they will not be too severe, but at least they burn the plastic rubbish eh Bee?!

3rd-4th February New site, new birds?

Vicky writes:

Bee, Ian and I bade a farewell to Nsoatre as we drove to pepease, pitstop for some fried rice, and a miscommunication resulting in “oriental” plain rice with “vegetarian” fish sauce for Bee we took in the street scenes of the hustle and bustle of Ghanaian life as Black Spinetails and Barn Swallows ushered us along the road southwards.

At Pepease, Chris O, Roger, Nick and Emmanuel welcomed us to our new and more salubrious home up on a hill with stunning view across a forested valley. They had kindly organised guide so that we could walk to see a Yellow-headed Picathartes in the evening, but unfortunately, after a good 3 hours of walking a no show from the bird meant we had to call it a night. We were disappointed but with Long-tailed Nightjar, African Pied Hornbill, Green Turaco and Little Bee Eater we certainly couldn’t grumble

It was with renewed hope then that we arranged to try again the following morning. We discovered with tired legs it might have been a better idea to pick a local guide who wasn’t quite so fit, as he frequently early left us for dust as we clambered and he skipped over boulders in the dry river bed that lead to where the Picathartes drink. Those in front saw a Gennet type animal and sharp eyed Roger and Nick spotted several nice birds on the way including a Velvet Mantled Drongo, and Bristle-nosed Barbet. Down by the river bed we saw some incredible butterflies, but alas again no Picathartes. Unfortunately, they are now very rare due to their forest home being harvested unsustainably. The buzz of nearby chainsaws of illegal loggers brought the reality of threat home.

Ian headed off his flight home after lunch. We will miss him, it was a great experience to ring together. In the afternoon Bee, Roger and I checked at the survey point for any wood warblers with colour rings, and saw Grey-headed Negro finch, Crested and Red-headed Malimbe and Rufous-crowned Eremomela, Buff-spotted Woodpecker and African Green Pigeon.

1st February-2nd Feb Leaving Nsoatre

Vicky writes:

Over the last couple of days Bee, Ian and I have been gearing up for the last couple of days we shall spend based in Nsoatre as we will be driving to Pepease to work with Chris Orsman at the Wood warbler site. A team of ringers will be coming to carry on the work in a few days after we leave. We have been busy packing, and catalogued the field samples we had collected of the Palearctic migrants that will be analysed later in the lab. We also came to the rescue of a chick at the hostel that had decided to belly flop into a pan of oily red tomato sauce waiting to be washed up outside. A lather with soap, and some wet wipes later newly dubbed “tomato” was back with mum and his brood mates, disaster averted, and all in a days work for a fieldworker.

The 2nd was our last day of ringing at Nsoatre before heading off to Pepease, and we wanted to catch another Nightingale to fulfil the objective of 10 birds which would provide a good sample size. On the transect Nightingale “17” had been rather isolated, being a good few hundred metres away from the nearest “11”, so we targeted this patch to close this gap. As if sensing our impending departure the first bird caught was nightingale number “19”, and after the subsequent net rounds, the last bird we caught was also a nightingale “20” a perfect result! The next team will have their hands full tracking the 12 birds, which will take around 2.5-3hours to track, twice a day. It will be fascinating to see how these birds will behave over the next few weeks of the project, and as the tags last approx 18 days there will be a good data set.