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.

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.

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