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.

27 - 28 February: Last ringing session

The last ringing session for the group in Nsoatre. It was with sadness and trepidation that we arrived at the ringing site to check how the nets had fared (furled) in the storm. Despite the gale force winds everything was fine (all credit to the ringing kit!) making the last session a pleasant one.

We had our last Nightingale of the trip, four Reed Warblers and a Melodious Warbler. The final bird ringed was a fetching African Pygmy Kingfisher. The trip total for Palearctic migrants were as follows: 28 Nightingales, including three geolocators recovered and three other retraps from previous years, 48 Reed warblers, including one Dutch-ringed bird and four retraps from previous years, 49 Garden Warblers, including one Dutch-ringed bird and five retraps from previous years, 9 Melodious Warblers, 9 Whinchats, 8 Pied Flycatchers, 5 Grasshopper Warblers, 5 Willow Warblers, 4 Great Reed Warblers, 1 Spotted Flycatcher, 1 Wryneck and 1 Red-necked Nightjar, 168 migrants ringed in total.

Nightingale number 28 (Vicky Gilson)

After packing up the kit, we rushed back to pack more stuff at the guesthouse and were on the road in record time. A few hours down the road we were smugly sitting in the car watching Ghana fly past the window when the taxi we were following started to emit a foul burning smell. After overtaking, however, the smell continued and it became it clear as it got worse it was our car. Eric sensibly pulled over after there was a clatter when part of the car became detached. Under-bonnet investigations revealed a broken idler pulley and shredded fan belt. Three hours later after a spell amongst a whole village of mechanics we continued our journey a little oilier and hungrier than before. We finally arrived in time for a much needed dinner with the RSPB team, and met Derek, RSPB’s new driver and chef.

The following morning before heading to the airport to return home, gluttons for punishment, we had an early start to try to catch a glimpse of Standard-winged Nightjar. The bird failed to show although Long-tailed Nightjars were very evident, but the group had a pleasant ringing session nonetheless in a much changed Alice’s Triangle, the remnant rain forest we visited last year changed to a more open area dominated by cassava and plantain cultivation.

Thanks to the RSPB team Chris O, Roger, Japheth and Derek for their hospitality and good company! After some exchange of equipment the BTO team then headed off to the airport back to the UK. The team helped to achieve the objectives of the trip in retrieving Nightingale geolocators, the data held within them to be analysed back at BTO HQ to reveal the secrets of the Nightingales’ Journeys across Africa to their European breeding grounds, and hopefully their movements during the winter as well. The ringing project, through retraps and the analysis of samples, will help provide yet more information on Palearctic bird distributions in Ghana, and their movements from the country, as one Garden Warbler did, captured several times over-wintering in Ghana then recaught in the breeding season in the UK in Kent and then this year Ghana again within metres of its original capture location.

It is hoped funding can be found to support the next few years of the BTO side of the project which has so far provided much information on migrant birds in Africa, and which is helping to inform their conservation.

The hard-working BTO and RSPB teams Chris, Nick, John, Mark, Eric, Roger and Japheth (Vicky Gilson)

26 February: Stormy weather

The team made a massive last effort for the penultimate ringing session today. After sitting/squelching rather unpleasantly for the car journey to the trap site (a reminder of how sodden we were following the previous night’s torrential rain) we caught three Garden Warblers (including a retrap from last year and one from the 7th of February this year), one new Nightingale, one new Great Reed Warbler (the first for more than two weeks) and a Spotted Flycatcher (a first for this trip and a retrap from last winter). All the nets were then taken down from the north and set up on the south east for a last-gasp attempt to catch where nets had not yet covered, and in the hope another Red-necked Nightjar would be caught (and perhaps a Nightingale or two).

The afternoon session we were amazed to catch three more Nightingales (two new and one from earlier in February), and a new Reed Warbler. The weather again was hot and humid, storm clouds still looming as we happily furled the nets, another good evening’s work done. After dinner the satisfied team settled in for the night, until the storm broke and started to leak in to join us, so followed a fitful night’s sleep for everyone, the strength of the nails holding the roof down providing something to contemplate whilst sleep evaded us.

Local Ghanaians walking next to a north side net ride. Guys had to be high to allow people and their loads to pass (Vicky Gilson)

24- 25 February: Until next time?

A day of rest- seemingly for birds as well as people - this Sunday has been our first no-migrant day this trip. Red-faced Cisticolas and Grey-backed Cameropteras started a continuing trend of Afro-trops, with the highlights being a Little Grey Greenbul, two Senegal Coucals and two Brown-crowned Tchagras. We think the southerly wind, and moonlit night may have encouraged movement of migrants, and certainly made our nets easier to see. Some Afro-trops, rather frustratingly for us and them, seem to be quite trap-happy such as Little Greenbuls and Red-faced Cisticolas. They also have an annoying habit of resembling, for hopeful eyes when viewed at a distance from behind, Nightingales and European Reed Warblers respectively!

After the dull Sunday at the ringing table, Monday proved to be more exciting for more reasons than one. The team put up some additional nets on the north side in the hope of increasing the chances of catching passage birds. Migrants caught during morning and evening session were two new Nightingales, one Garden Warbler, one Reed Warbler and a Whinchat, and for Afro-trops- White-throated Bee-eater, Marsh Tchagra and a very impressive Double-toothed Barbet.

Double-toothed Barbet (John Black)

As the last of the afternoon session’s birds were ringed the group suddenly clocked the dark mountainous storm clouds on the horizon speeding towards us, a sudden strong wind warning us of its approach. Everyone rushed to get the nets furled before the rain hit.

Nick noticing the storm clouds (Vicky Gilson)

We had issues with the winds blowing our nets into the vegetation, and some nets had to be furled with vegetation still tangled in them as lightening now joined the thunderous horizontal rainfall and gales. As torrents of water cascaded down the previously dusty tracks, the team rescued a local man who needed a lift and gratefully jumped into the car, the heater was set on ‘hot’ for possibly the first time in its life as we shivered in the seats driving back to the guesthouse.

13th – 24th Feb: The (almost) 12 days of transects

A pretty gruelling trip of roving this time around!  Started off very well with a stop-over at the BTO team’s place (no time to visit the study site itself or help with fieldwork sadly, but great to see everyone) in Nsoatre.  An absolutely mind-blowing creation of various dishes was unveiled by Eric for our dinner.  Never eaten so well in Ghana – thanks Eric!

The next 11 mornings took in a loop from Asukese/Bia Tano and  Ayum forest reserves in SW Brong Ahafo Region, through Western Region’s Krokosua, Dadiaso, Boin River, Fure River and (slight hiccup in the loop here, with a puncture and a missing bridge meaning we couldn’t reach our intended destination of Samremboi, and had to divert some distance and do Fure River first, and then went on to…) Tano Nimiri.
Oppong & Japheth sort out a slight problem with the tyre....

....and find a solution to the missing bridge!

The usual pattern continued with, generally speaking, more wood warblers outside the forests than inside, although the farmland sampled at Krokosua was “thungya” plantain plantation inside the forest, where several wood warblers were located.  This “thungya” system is where plots within a forest can be farmed, provided all of the trees above a certain height are left in place.  In completely ruins the habitat for true forest specialists, as there is no natural understorey, and no mid-level canopy.  However, if sufficient trees of the right species mix are left to thrive then it would seem that wood warblers can be supported in reasonable numbers, just like any reasonably well-wooded farmland outside the forest.
There was mixed success when locating 1km transects at 5, 7 & 10km from the nearest forest, although we were surprisingly lucky in many instances to find good roads leading to good farm tracks that were within exactly the right distance band.  The presence/absence of wood warblers did not always follow the expected pattern however!  Some of the closer-to-forest transects held none, whilst one transect that we reached, at a full 15km from the nearest forest at the Dadieso site, did have a bird.  At this site we also had a bird at 7km, but none at 10km or 5km.  We hope that overall some patterns will emerge!  All of the ground covered is going to greatly improve the model for predicting wood warbler presence and absence in Ghana, ground-truthing for which was a large part of last season’s work.

As if the puncture and search for new tyre weren’t enough, though, a major car crisis emerged on day 7, when all sorts of horrid noises were coming from the clutch.  After a visit to a local garage and a few phone calls to the experts made by Japheth, and the prognosis was not going to be good if we continued to drive the car.  Thus it was decided that Oppong and I would take it gently to the garage at Tarkwa, whilst Roger and Japheth continued with the fieldwork without the car – but with taxis instead!

2 days in Tarkwa for two of us, then, during which a pricey car-job is undertaken. Once sorted, we head north again to meet the other two.  In the meantime, Rog and Japheth have managed to do a taxi-recce from Asenkagrua into the forest at Totua Shelterebelt, taxi to survey their chosen spot the next day, taxi on to Diaso, find accommodation, recce the farmed forest at Upper Wassaw, survey that the next morning, and taxi to and get accommodation at Bibiani.  Such a dedicated team we have that, despite the car being off the road, there’s been no break in the programme of fieldwork (and taxis much cheaper than car-hire too!) Absolutely sterling work chaps!

The final 2 mornings take in Asenanyo and Tano Offin forests in Ashanti Region.  Wood warblers are still present in all areas, but at the latter, a particularly degraded patch of forest, we get more of them inside the forest than outside.  The numbers are pretty small here though, so difficult to draw any conclusions, and the final 10km distance transect, getting pretty close now to Ghana's second city of Kumasi, finds no wood warblers at all.
A solitary Ceiba tree, occupied by a lone wood warbler

With lots of ground covered and little time to spare over the past 11 days, in 11 towns and 11 different guest houses and twice as many chop-bars, we’re looking forward to getting back to base at the study site get some data entered, count “our” birds, and get stuck into the radio-tracking once again. (oh, and wash some clothes!!!)
Prestea, and one of the nicer guest houses visited

Roger on one of the many rickety bridges crossed

Japheth, Roger & Oppong, in perhaps the smallest restaurant in Ghana!

Heading back to Pepease, we are only too aware of the change that is afoot over the next few days. Oppong, our driver, cook and companion over the last 2 seasons, is leaving us for pastures new. Soon after our arrival back at base, his good friend and replacement Derek arrives, to learn the ropes from Oppong before he departs on the 27th. Fingers crossed Derek can cook at least as well as Oppong!!

18 -23 February: Three is the magic number

The wind on week three has become stronger, making it more difficult to catch the birds, and we are getting up earlier with the increasing day length to make sure the first couple of net rounds are as productive as possible. Early starts are meaning early nights, and a 9.00pm bed time is becoming the norm now. Monday on the south side was quiet but had two afro-trop rarities for this ringing site –African Moustached Warbler and Greater Honeyguide plus a Garden Warbler originally ringed in Holland.

The weather this week is exceptionally hot and humid, fifteen minutes after a cold shower you feel like having another. In the shade of the plantains the group had a good day on Tuesday for migrants with ten new birds, including a new Nightingale and three retraps, and a more moderate Wednesday session with four new Reed Warblers, a Pied Flycatcher and a retrap Garden Warbler. Local birds included two retrap Common Wattle-eyes, one from October 2011 and one from earlier in our trip. The slower session allowed us to pack up the south east nets and put up the the north east nets again, speedily in time for Mark’s birthday celebrations. Vicky had planned some birthday surprises with the expert help of Eric – (now a mixologist as well as a chef) who made home-made pina-colada with fresh pineapple and coconut, mixed, of course with some rum as a present, a homemade card and traditional spice bowl and grinder. Many happy returns Mark!

Celebrating Marks birthday (Vicky Gilson)

The next day brought a new Lizard Buzzard and our success with catching migrants continued with two Pied Flycatchers, Reed Warblers and Garden Warblers.

Lizard Buzzard and Vicky (John Black)

In the afternoon amidst oppressive conditions and under mountainous clouds the south nets were taken down and placed back on the north west side as more Nightingales were singing there. With the temperature and humidity rising we were very relieved when rain fell later, albeit very briefly the clouds soon rolling away as if nothing had ever happened, and had a magic effect on the humidity so we were able to get some proper sleep for the first time in several nights. Friday was a brilliant bird day for variety with Garden, Reed, and Grasshopper Warblers, Wryneck, and a retrap of a Nightingale ringed by us in the first week here, showing it is a resident bird. African Pygmy Kingfishers and a Yellow-crowned Gonolek which had not been caught before at this site added a splash of colour to the otherwise brown/grey bird day.

Grasshopper Warbler and Wryneck (Mark Hulme)
African Pygmy Kingfishers (Vicky Gilson)

Yellow-crowned Gonolek (Mark Hulme)

Amazingly in the morning John extracted a control Reed Warbler from the north west nets, our second control, and from Holland again! Obviously on a winning streak having extracted both the controls we are hoping John will make it third time lucky for us with another.

Above Garden and European Reed Warbler controls from Holland

A Lizard Buzzard rounded off the day, when chatting at the table during a blank net round a Lizard Buzzard came hurtling from the sky, and hit the ground with a thud next to our ringing base. Concerned it had been shot at first John leapt up to see what it was, the inanimate bird suddenly got up and flew off, a lucky agama lizard scurrying into the bushes just having escaped its talons. We are learning to always expect the unexpected here! Wildlife is even following us indoors, praying mantis attracted to the light, giant wasps looking for places to nest, large and intimidating flat spiders lurking in between the gaps of the skirting boards, and recently discovered colony of termites currently eating Vicky’s bedroom door.

Following the usual raucous Nsoatre Friday night from the energetic locals (for we are now fast becoming grumpy stop-ins owing to the early mornings) a sleepy team again assembled for ringing on the north side. There was a horrible smell by the north east ride which was later discovered by John to be small mongoose that had died at some point after being caught around its arm and head in a spring loaded snare. These cruel traps are widely used throughout the local area and indiscriminately used for hunting bush meat, we have seen snakes and ground squirrels trapped in them also. We all hope that the use of these inhumane devices is stopped.

On a more positive note, our efforts were rewarded with 17 migrant birds captured, including five Nightingales. Three of these were new birds without rings, and one of the retraps was a bird that had been fitted with a tail mounted radio tag in January 2012 (the tag has long since dropped off) and to our delight the remaining retrap provided our third Geolocator recovery! This bird is suspected to have already been on passage when the device was fitted in 2012 and was carrying the most fat of any Nightingale trapped this month, indicating the journey northward is underway. We are looking forward to discovering if the data from this individual tells a different story to the two devices already recovered from Nightingales that were known to over-winter locally.

John, Vicky and Mark with two Nightingales, the one on the right is the third caught with a geolocator (Nick Aduse-Gyan)

Feathers parted to reveal the geolocator device in-situ (Mark Hulme)

11 -17 February: A second bird with a geolocator!

Week two had a slower start with the catch from the northern nets dropping, so the group changed the set-up, adding nets to the eastern fork of the north site, and another line of nets further towards Nsoatre village to the north east to target three Nightingales fitted with geolocators in 2012. Three Nightingales were caught, but all new birds.

The habitat around all of the sites has changed due to agricultural practises, but the north east is very rapidly being turned into farmland, with just a narrow band of scrub now. The locations of the caught Nightingales are being recorded to help us target new birds, and provide information on winter territories to inform future work at the site. If the amount of available scrub habitat is decreasing it will be interesting to see whether the Nightingales will simply choose to live in denser populations or move elsewhere. Radio tracking and recording the birds precisely will help to monitor this. It is also relevant with regards to looking for the geolocator-tagged birds, our only choice is to spread the nets over as wide an area as possible covering the areas birds were previously caught in. If only there was a geolocator magnet!

Over the 11-16, the long standing north nets had proved disappointing, and the targeted Nightingales stayed put - no doubt laughing to themselves. The ringed Nightingales seem to be harder to catch than unringed birds. Perhaps they have learnt the net locations. A few afro-trop species have kept it interesting with both African and Red-bellied Paradise Flycatchers and Tambourine Doves.

The location of the other geolocator birds is still unknown however, despite listening for calls, there seem to be fewer birds than in previous years. We are aiming to target all Nightingales we detect at the trap sites if possible. Although all the birds are understood to return to the same location each winter and therefore should be able to be caught at that same location, the dynamic nature of the habitat, combined with human influence such as agriculture and intra-specific competition with other Nightingales may mean they may have moved to other locations. Determined to get a better result on the Nightingale front, the group targeted another bird on the central northern track on the 13th February near where a geolocator bird had been tagged in 2012. This resulted in a last minute flurry of birds at dusk including a new Nightingale, three Garden Warblers, a Reed Warbler and Melodious Warbler. The last-minute rush, although welcome, made us late for dinner (typical as we were planning to finish early), finally meeting the RSPB Wood Warbler team, Chris O, Roger, Japheth and Oppong at the guesthouse just over an hour later than planned. Eric laid on a fantastic buffet of Ghanaian food for us. Having eaten only very basic food the look of disbelief on their faces was priceless, convinced they were now in heaven!

Clockwise from left: John, Roger, Vicky, Japheth, Nick, Chris O and Oppong. Out-of-shot: Eric slaving away in the kitchen (Mark Hulme)

After a lovely evening of catch up, good food, beer and football it was back to business.

A few moderate ringing sessions followed on the north side consisting mainly of afro-tropicals such as Little and Baumann’s Greenbuls, and a few Palearctics. With a waning catch it was decided it would be more productive to move the nets completely and try again on the north side later after a break, to coincide trapping with the time of year the birds were caught last year and to allow the birds to get used to moving freely across the tracks again.

Afro-trops included- Tawny-flanked Prinia, female Red-shouldered Cuckooshrike, White-throated Bee-eater and a new Snowy-crowned Robin-chat. The ‘bush’ Nightingale on the main northern net ride was proving to be a slippery character, so a small net was erected between its favourite singing-post inside a bush, and with a bit of persistence, the Nightingale was caught on the 15th and found to be another new bird.

With quite a lot effort in the heat and high humidity, all the northern nets were taken down that day and new net rides set up on the south side of the Ivory Coast road, to rest the north side and attempt to catch the southern site Nightingales with geolocators. To avoid the intense heat the group, rather romantically, have set up camp amidst the plantains where there is some shade for processing birds. The new nets performed particularly well on the first catches on the 16th with 14 new Palearctic migrants. Two retrap Reed Warblers, one from the same week and the other ringed in March 2011, a new Reed Warbler, one retrap Garden Warbler from March 2011 (more about which later!) and three new Garden Warblers, one Whinchat, one retrap Melodious from November 2011, one Red-necked Nightjar (potentially a wintering range extension and an unusual species to record), 2 new Nightingales and 2 retraps, one with a geolocator! The second so far! They were originally ringed in October 2011 and mid February 2012 respectively.

Second Nightingale with geolocator caught in 2013 (John Black)

Red-necked Nightjar (Vicky Gilson)

One of the Garden Warblers, quite amazingly, was the same bird that had been ringed at Nsoatre in March 2011 by Mark, retrapped and fitted with colour rings in February 2012 by Roger, a committed volunteer of the BTO and RSPB projects (and in the presence of Nick) at the same site, and then controlled twice in Kent in June and July 2012 by John and Vicky at their Nightingale Retrapping Adults for Survival (RAS) project site before finally being processed again in Ghana by Mark and John. John, quite understandably was ‘over the moon’ at seeing P007049 again. Read about John and Vicky’s discovery in Kent at the Demog Blog.

Mark and John with Garden Warbler (Vicky Gilson)

The 17th was rather windy preventing a catch like the previous day, although ten migrants were caught thanks to three additional nets placed for Nightingales, thankfully these included one new Nightingale.

Luckily a Yellow-browed Cameroptera, Common Fiscal, and Red-winged Warbler made a quiet session exciting none-the-less. As it was a Sunday the team had a much needed afternoon off from field work, catching up with data inputting, and enjoying much needed cooling beers.

Looking back at previous ringing data the group have processed 104 migrants, 16 of which were Nightingales, of which 4 are retraps. Afro-trop retraps have also proved to be interesting, and will help inform survival studies. A few records from previous years include: a Yellow-browed Cameroptera ringed in February 2012 and a Green-headed sunbird from March 2011.

9th – 12th Feb Record count on study site

An excellent couple of days on the study site with the big team, including an amazing tally of over 60 birds over three mornings of transect. With the department heads seeing the site for the first time all sorts of ideas are discussed as to the future directions and requirements for the project.  I think a few new “lifers” were had by one or two as well!  The highlight it seems was the reliably “resident” standard-winged nightjar that performed brilliantly in the gloom pre-dawn on the 10th.

Surveying Pepease study site. Front to rear: John, Juliet, Danaë, David, Roger & Japheth

Newly-cleared understorey of denser forest block on Pepease study site
Once Danaë et al departed to investigate sites for roseate terns, the usual team of 4 prepared for a further 12 days of forest roving, but this was soon delayed by one day for a quickie service in Accra for the car.  Here’s hoping the car holds out for the rest of the season...
In the meantime, whilst waiting for the car, Roger goes birding around the farmland near to our lodgings, and amazingly stumbles accross the nest of a greyish eagle owl. What a find!

Back end of greyish eagle owl brooding chicks

Greyish eagle owl chick  - check later post for update!

8th-10th February: Quiet on the migrant front

In the swing of it now the team is operating smoothly, so four extra nets have been put up to try to catch the Nightingales down the ‘old road’ site which runs parallel to the ‘new’ Ivory Coast road. The last few days’ ringing has been windy making the nets more visible and therefore the catch has dropped off, plus the birds may now realise the nets are there.

The occasional blank net round has still been interesting, however, an acrobatic skink climbing the tree above the ringing table providing entertainment as did a long line of very large and aggressive black ants, which paraded through the table legs to raid a termites nest just beyond, and then returning back triumphantly again.

Saturday was very busy with many villagers out tending to their crops beyond the net rides, motorbikes, and bicycles occasionally passed, fortunately bypassing the nets.

Unfortunately very few migrants have been captured however Palearctics have included: Melodious Warbler, one Nightingale and Whinchat. Afro-trops have included: Orange-cheeked Waxbill, Common Wattle-eye, Snowy-crowned Robin-chat, Marsh Tchagra, Brown-crowned Tchagra, Shikra, Yellowbill, Red-bellied Paradise Flycatcher, Black necked, Vieillot’s Black, and Village Weavers and two species which have yet to have their tentative identification confirmed. One of these resembled a Great Reed Warbler but was nowhere near as massive, its size intermediate between reed and great reed. Based on plumage characteristics and process of elimination using available information on wing formula for similar species it was identified, and later confirmed by those in-the-know, as Greater Swamp Warbler.

Greater Swamp Warbler

A francolin was also caught, though not ringed due to the spur on the leg which may cause the bird discomfort if ringed, and it was confirmed as a juvenile Double Spurred Francolin. The team had the afternoon off on Sunday, catching the final between Bukina Faso and the eventually victorious Nigeria, which pleased Mark who did his PhD in Nigeria.

By Vicky Gilson

29th Jan – 8th Feb A massive team on the move!

The wood warbler team heads out once again to the forest zone to recce the area in the very south west of Ghana, around Ankasa national park.  With a team of 8, and for 2 nights 11, we need to be sure we can secure reasonable accommodation along an appropriate transect of sites from Ankasa northwards to Dunkwa, so the first couple of days are spent on this task alone!

Ethiopian Swallows roost at Dunkwa guest house

A Dunkwa eaterie - not the best advertisment for it!

With this achieved, we carry out our first survey at Cape Three Points, and next morning Ankasa, and in all this wonderful forest, we find no wood warblers.  The team of experts cannot arrive too soon!

Bamboo grove within Cape Three Points forest

The team surveying a clearing for power lines in Ankasa

Roger scanning a forest pond in Ankasa: "Is that a white-breasted kingfisher?!"
On the 3rd of Feb we are joined by driver Duncan, Dr Danaë Sheehan and Dr John Mallord from the RSPB, and Professor Tomasz Wesolowski from the University of Wrocslav in Poland. John has been the project leader on the RSPB’s UK wood warbler project since 2009, and Tomasz has been studying the wood warblers of the Bialowieza Forest in Poland for quite a bit longer than that!!  We return to Ankasa on their first morning, and lo-and-behold, we hear no wood warblers in a transect that starts about 300 metres in from the park entrance.
Tomasz, Roger, Japheth & John trying hard for wood warblers in Ankasa

Upon completion some 3 kilometres later, we head back to the exit  to try a few points of playback in the farmland immediately outside.  Whilst part of the team undertake the count, the keen-eyed Dr Mallord spots his first Ghana wood warbler in a flowering Ricinodendron, next to the river, right outside the park entrance. 
Farmland left, forest right, and (L) the solitary Ricinodendron home of our first Ankasa wood warbler

The recorders, not having seen the bird, then detect this individual themselves once they use the playback, when sure enough the wood warbler responds.  One further bird is found after 5 points in the farmland, and that’s after none across 30 points in 2 mornings inside the forest.

As we move north we are joined for a couple of nights in by Kasper Thorup and Anders Tottrup from the University of Copenhagen, and their driver and our old friend Emmanuel from GWS. With this enlarged team we split into two and cover twice the ground the next morning, in forest near to Tarkwa. Amazingly, the greater number of wood warblers is encountered in a large patch of plantain within one of the two forest blocks that we visit.

Roger & Japheth in farmland within "protected" forest - but it seems good for wood warblers
With this and our Ankasa experience in mind, we decide to change tactics the next morning.  After waving off Kasper an Anders as they head back to Accra, we set off for Nkonto Ben forest reserve near to Bogoso, again with two teams.  This time one team follows a logging track, and the other explores nearby farmland outside the reserve, so we can hopefully do more farmland points in one morning than we’ve managed before.  Although the forest team find 2 wood warblers during 4 hours and 3km of transect, the farmland team, walking along a road through very degraded looking habitat, manage 6!  Seeing as the  farmland is adjacent to forest, thoughts arise as to whether there may be a preference for this forest edge habitat.  We decide with our future transects to include “controls” away from the forest edge, at 5 and 10km distances.

On to Dunkwa once more (Whilst Danaë and John head back to Accra to meet with David Gibbons and Juliet Vickery, the rest of the team spend the next two mornings at Opon Mansi and Subin Shelterbelt forests respectively.  At the first site the team of Roger, Japheth and Tomasz find just 1 wood warbler in the forest (on the edge) and a few more in the farmland.  They also encounter a stretch which passes the awful mess created by illegal small-scale gold mining.  On our travels we come accross many of these eyesores, not only removing chunks of the forest, but polluting the waterways, and with scant regard for safety endangering the lives of those employed there.

Illegal open-cast gold mining

Meanwhile Oppong and I drive to and then walk Ikm transects at minimum distances of 5km, 7km and 10km from the nearest point of forest.  At none of these do we find any wood warblers.  Some of the habitat traversed is pretty intensive palm plantation, but there are still stands of trees here which one might think would support a wood warbler or two.  For example, in one spot there were 4 flowering Ricinodendron, the same species as was being used for foraging by the first Ankasa bird.  At Subin the roads are so bad that we cannot afford to drop of the team and then race around to the controls at 5, 7 & 10km, and then return to pick them up, so the team stays together to do 10 points in the forest then 5 in the farmland.  Again, the 5 farmland points yield more wood warblers than twice the length of transect inside the forest.  Once done, and now en route to Obuasi, we stop off at the 10km mark from nearest forest, and along 1km in quite badly degraded farmland we get no response from any wood warblers.

One of the many non-migrant highlights: dwarf bittern

Woodland kingfisher

Last leg back to Pepease, and we hear that Danaë, David, John and Juliet are already there.  Most amazingly, whilst waiting outside the accommodation for us to arrive, they are treated to good views of a wood warbler in one of the garden’s trees.  We near-residents haven’t even seen that!! There has been a melodious warbler around here a lot recently though……

6th- 7th: A flying start

First few days in the field at Nsoatre for the group have gone well. After the excellent breakfasts setting the group up for the day courtesy of Eric, our cook and driver (five star culinary inventions cooked over a basic 2 hob gas bottle stove and a do-it yourself barbecue), the group have been preparing the ringing sites and putting up the mist nets on the north side and south sides of the Ivory Coast road to maximise the possibility of retrapping the Nightingales with geolocators.

As before the group are prioritising Palearctic migrants, taking biometrics, moult, age, feather, faecal and blood samples. The Palearctic are being colour ringed with light plastic rings of various colour combinations to increase resighting opportunities in the field. The Afro-tropical species are being ringed if possible and biometrics taken provided there is time, the data collected providing information on many species which have been seldom studied before.

Before ringing at the south side a few logistical matters became apparent when the nets could not be erected there due to lack of anchor points such as trees and vegetation to tie the net guys to. A quick raid of the hotels grounds for carpark edging blocks solved the problem, allowing a clear passage past the nets.

The last few days’ ringing efforts have resulted in Palearctics: Garden Warbler, Reed Warbler, Great Reed Warbler, Melodious Warbler, Willow Warbler, Pied Flycatcher, and Whinchat. The most unexpected capture was Grasshopper Warbler, which is a species not thought to over-winter in this part of Ghana but was also recorded by the team in 2012.

Two new Nightingales and two retraps from previously years were also caught, one much to our astonishment and delight complete with a geolocator! Amazingly this Nightingale was originally ringed by Mark on 21/03/2011, retrapped by John 09/02/2012 when the geolocator was fitted, then finally processed by Vicky on the 07/02/13. The tiny device should be able to improve our knowledge of Nightingale migratory behaviour and identify the summer breeding grounds of this individual. The device was removed from the bird and the data will be retrieved on return to UK. There are eleven more geolocators out there so the group will continue to target the birds at Nsoatre throughout February.

Nightingale retrapped with geolocator

The Geolocator

Other interesting retraps on the 7th included: another Nightingale, originally ringed 31st October 2011, retrapped 17th November 2011, a Reed Warbler originally ringed on the 31st January 2012 and retrapped 23rd February 2012, a Great Reed Warbler from 23rd February 2012 and finally a Melodious Warbler from 18th January 2012.

Some Afro-tropical species also captured included Grey-backed Cameroptera, Red-faced Cisticola, Yellow- white Eye, Senegal Coucal, a variety of sunbirds including Splendid, Collared, Olive-bellied, Olive and Copper. The team celebrated with a few beers watching the Ghana v Bukina Faso match, the occasional power cuts adding to the suspense, a few shocking penalties lost Ghana the match but the Nightingale geolocator ensured the team went to bed feeling happy.

By Vicky Gilson

3rd-5th February: Welcome back to Ghana

A new expedition for the BTO nightingale out of Africa project. This year the experienced team, Dr Mark Hulme BTO research ecologist (Ghana 2010 and 2011), Vicky Gilson and John Black BTO volunteer bird ringers (Ghana 2012), Nick Aduse-Gyan an intern from Ghana Wildlife Society (Ghana 2011, and 2012), and Eric Cudjoe our chef and driver (Ghana 2010) have a new goal: Return to Nsoatre study site and retrap as many of the 12 Nightingales that were fitted with geolocators by the team in 2012 as possible.

The first couple of days after having arriving in Ghana involved preparing for the field, picking up essential supplies, organising permits and acclimatising to the heat and new surroundings. Following the mostly hassle-free acquisition of the research permit and picking up the ringing kit held at Ghana Wildlife Society offices, the group drove to Nsoatre, stopping en route for such culinary delights as red red beans with plantain, the sometimes feared by those with delicate tummies-okra stew with banku, and picking up delicious plantain crisps from the toll station sellers who crowd the queuing cars making it hard to resist these tasty treats. Whilst not distracted by food the group spotted a few birds as the car headed north west of Accra towards Ivory Coast: Shikra, Laughing Dove, Western Grey Plantain-eater, Hooded Vulture, Senegal Coucal, Common Fiscal, Pied Crow, Palm Swift, Yellow-billed Kite, Woodland Kingfisher and also of enjoyed a lot of very large Straw Coloured Fruit Bats putting on an aerobatic display for us during daylight in Accra.

Once arrived the team decided on a plan to catch the 12 Nightingales. It is hoped they are all resident overwintering birds, which return each year to the same spot, and remain in that area until spring migration, however, it is also possible that they were caught when they were just passage migrants passing through on their way to other areas, in which case the chance of catching those Nightingales would be slim as the routes may change, and their stay at Nsoatre may only be brief. The team has decided to target the north west and south west sides of the Ivory Coast road first to target eight Nightingales that had geolocators put on them at those areas last year in the hope that they are creatures of habit.

By Vicky Gilson  

15th-27th Jan: Into the forest zone....

After an unavoidable 2 nights in Accra to obtain our permit to work in the forest reserves, we head west along the Cape Coast road. The first bout of roving takes in Kakum national park and adjacent forest and farmland, and 4 other forest blocks in a transect south to north. We have moderate success finding wood warblers in degraded forest edges, but in the closed canopy within Kakum for example, we find none.  Without the playback this would come as no great surprise perhaps, but the output from the playback device is pretty powerful, and we’re fairly sure that we should have had some response if the birds were up there. Do they really not like the forest interior?

Further north near to Lake Bosumtwe we barely touch proper forest, our path taking us through farms within the forest reserve, and timber plantations that are perfectly normal practice in these reserves of resource, rather than those of biodiversity such as the national parks.  Here we detect double figures of wood warblers, with a minimum of 6 calling from within the rather regimented plantation. Again, more questions are raised as to the preferred habitat of wood warblers in Ghana!

Roger & Japheth listen out for wood warblers in plantation within Bowumtwi forest reserve

We return to the study site in Kwahu for a site survey, producing similar numbers of birds to our previous count 2 weeks ago, and also reminding us of just how good the wooded farmland is here with higher densities than all of the 6 sites we traversed in the previous week. With an up-coming visit from Dr Danaë Sheehan and several other luminaries from the UK, Denmark and Poland, we can expect plenty of discussion as to how to progress and answer many of the questions that we are left pondering.

Sunday 6th –Mon 14th Jan 2013 Back to Ghana, and a visit from the experts!

The New Year is underway, and the Ghana wood warbler team is augmented by the arrival from the UK of project manager Danaë Sheehan and head of species recovery Norbert Schaffer from the RSPB’s International department, and Franz Bairlein, from the Institute of Avian Research in Germany and one of the world’s foremost bird migration experts, all here to visit the study site and formulate a programme of fieldwork for the remainder of this season and for those to come.

After a brief visit to Ghana Wildlife Society HQ, we set off for the study site, the old team feeling a little anxious as to what first impressions the ‘new’ members will get from the wooded farmland at Pepease.  For our first morning in the field we walk the usual transect route that we follow to do the regular wood warbler survey.  Our own first impressions are that the vegetation has not dried out anything near as much as it had done by January of last year.  The air is dry, suggesting the harmattan may be just starting, but very little burning has taken place.  Thankfully we’re able to find a few wood warblers for the visitors, but here in the eastern section of the site, where no wood warblers were ringed last month, no colour ringed birds are spotted.  The following morning we head for the western side, where last month we caught and colour-ringed 11 birds.  This time we spot 4 of these, and a decent number of unringed individuals too.  Of note was the number of birds that could be seen with incomplete tails, demonstrating nicely that they are well into their winter moult.  All in all a great introduction to the site, and aside from the field visits some very interesting discussions about the future directions for the fieldwork were had.

Danaë, Norbert and Franz continued their Ghana visit with a trip to the lowland forest zone, whilst over the next 3 days we undertook a full site survey, with additional waypoints through a site extension encompassing the area inhabited by Black Star, our second tagged bird from last November. We then tackled the issue of some habitat recording for the areas occupied by the three tagged birds from November and December, and also spent time dissecting some of the whole-site habitat survey from the end of last season, before we embark on mapping any changes in late March.  Throughout this period we note that after the dry air of the 7th and 8th of January, the humidity levels have risen again.  There really is no sign of the harmattan yet....

Our study-site tasks completed, we then planned our own foray into the forest zone.  With the local wood warblers in moult rendering them near un-taggable, and after our experience last season of failing to catch any in January and early February (save the one tail-less individual!), our next job is to visit as many of the forest blocks in the south as possible. The aim is as last season – to prove or otherwise the presence of wood warblers in the forests that we have not yet visited, to improve the model that will help to predict the presence or absence of wood warblers elsewhere.  On top of this, we will attempt to measure wood warbler densities in the varying forest types and qualities, and where time permits, the adjacent farmland.  Should prove pretty interesting!!