Today the RSPB’s  team studying ‘our’ birds in Africa head back out to Ghana to resume their field work after a brief spell in the UK over Christmas.  I thought it would be good moment to provide an update on what we're up to away from the UK and to give you a personal insight into the life of an international research scientist.

This is the third winter of work that is attempting to understand the extent to which dramatic declines in some of our best loved migrants are being drive by changes in their wintering grounds in Sub Saharan Africa – species like turtle dove  and spotted flycatcher (both down by over 80% in the last 40 years) and cuckoo (down by over 60%).

The field  team is led by RSPB scientist, Chris Orsman,  now in his  third ‘Africa winter’, joined by two experienced ringers Birgitta Bűche and Roger Skeen whose skills will be invaluable in the next phase of this work. These three will work alongside a scientist from the British Trust for Ornithology and, together, they will provide hands on training for fellow-team members from the Ghana Wildlife Society – the Birdlife (NGO) partner in Ghana.

Having spent two winters surveying migrant and resident birds as far north as the dry Sahelian savannahs of Burkina Faso, south to lowland humid rainforests in Ghana , the team have taken up temporary residence in an area of Central Ghana.  Here, where forest meets savannah, two key species – wood warbler and nightingale - are present in relatively high numbers and the team will continue where they left off in December, catching and radio tracking these species on their wintering grounds. This intensive study of individual birds has proved incredibly effective in understanding a bird's use of habitats and food resources on the breeding grounds – we hope it will provide equally valuable for wintering birds and provide clues about the vital habitats to conserve. 

And if you want to know what life is like for a scientist working in the field, here is a typical day in the life of Chris Orsman...

"Up before dawn (ca  4:30), breakfast of a cuppa and local tea-bread then netting or survey work until 11:00 when hot weather cancels play 30-35°C and superstrong overhead sun. Lunch of rice and  groundnut soup or “red-red”, sliced plantain and beans fried in red palm oil.  A spot of post lunch data entry, then back to the field once more until dusk.

My most memorable moment was being able to track down the first of the radio-tagged wood warblers (see Mike Langham's image below).  Waving our antenna overhead, and clearly getting closer and closer, eventually the receiver was telling us to look up – and there it was with colour-rings gleaming, foraging away in the canopy, and quite oblivious to us it’s captors standing there below .  Fieldwork gold!!

It’s at times difficult and dusty, or hot and humid, or maybe slow and bone-shakingly frustrating (eg urban traffic on pot-holed roads!). But it’s (almost!) always fun with a great team from the UK and Ghana, studying a fantastic bird in an amazing (and frost free!)country.  Overall, not bad!!"

Chris - there are one or two of us who are just a little bit jealous.  Good luck to the team and I look forward to reporting positive results in due course. 

  • Sooy - you are right.  And we will continue to do all we can, especially in Malta and in Cyprus where it is estimated that one third of a million birds were killed in the first half of September when the shooting season starts.

  • Yes we have a lot to thank the RSPB for,hope they find the reason for decline in Turtle Doves as although the shooting of them over places like Cyprus must do serious damage there must be other factors.When we think we need to stay in Europe for the rules on wildlife etc it seems disgusting that many country's completely allow shooting of migrating birds taking no notice of the laws.

  • Another example of the brillant work done by the RSPB and BTO.