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.

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.