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Ecology of European migrant birds in Africa

Spotted flycatcher on perch

Spotted flycatcher - Now a
scarce UK summer visitor

Recent figures suggest that populations of nearly half of all Afro-Palearctic migrants have declined in the last three decades. Alarmingly, one in ten of Europe's migratory species is now considered to be of global conservation priority.

The last decade has seen declines of between 37 - 66% in the UK breeding populations of the cuckoo, spotted flycatcher, turtle dove, nightingale and wood warbler. Recent analyses by RSPB researchers have shown that similar patterns of decline are apparent in migratory species across Europe.

While the problems faced by migrant birds on their European breeding grounds are relatively well known, these species effectively disappear off the conservation radar for much of the year. Sub-Saharan habitats in West Africa, ranging from deserts in the north to lush tropical forest in the south, harbour a wealth of resident and migrant birds.

However, there is very little information on the requirements and distribution of migrant birds using these habitats. This information is vital if conservationists are to understand the problems these birds face on their wintering grounds and so develop conservation strategies and action at local, national and international level to halt or reverse them.

Project objectives

  • To understand the distribution and resource use of priority Afro-Palearctic landbird migrants (turtle dove; wood warbler; whinchat; ring ouzel; pied flycatcher; spotted flycatcher, yellow wagtail, cuckoo, swift, tree pipit, grasshopper warbler) outside of the breeding season, at stopover sites and on their wintering grounds.
  • In parallel, to assess the scale of habitat change in sub-Saharan habitats in West Africa and identify the drivers of land use change.

Progress so far

  • Spatio-temporal distribution of migrants in West Africa: To study the distribution of migrant birds along a latitudinal gradient, 7-10 point count transects were established at each of five sites between the Sahel region in the north of Burkina Faso to the Guinea forest zone in southern Ghana.
  • Stopover and wintering ecology of wood warblers: Detailed field studies have been conducted at a study site in southern central Ghana, near the village of Pepease since winter 2011/12.
  • Broad-scale wintering distribution of wood warblers: During winters 2010/11 - 2012/13, surveys of forest blocks and adjacent wooded farmland in southern Ghana have been surveyed for Wood Warblers using 'playback'.
  • Living on the Edge: Living on the Edge is a BirdLife partnership project involving the RSPB and VBN (Birdlife Netherlands) and BirdLife Partners in Nigeria, Burkina Faso and Mauritania, and focuses on the shared interests of birds and people in the Sahel, promoting sustainable land use and enhanced livelihoods while restoring and protecting important habitats used by birds.
  • Patterns and drivers of land use change: The Sahel region is a key habitat for Palaearctic-African migrants and the majority depend on it at some stage in their life cycle (for example, spring / autumn staging posts or wintering areas).

Work planned or underway

Stopover and wintering ecology and distribution of wood warblers: Our third field season in southern Ghana is currently underway; work will include further radio tracking, site surveys and habitat mapping at the regular study site at Pepease, and further surveys of forest blocks and adjacent wooded farmland in SW Ghana.

Identification of migration routes, stopover sites and wintering grounds of European turtle doves: Turtle doves have undergone the steepest decline of any migrant bird in the UK, and although there is evidence that there are problems on the breeding grounds, this does not preclude there also being issues on their wintering grounds or on migration. However, their migration routes and the location of their stopover sites and wintering areas are unknown. Therefore, in summer 2012, satellite tags were fitted to five turtle doves at breeding sites in East Anglia.

Unfortunately, none of the birds survived long enough to provide the information we were hoping for: one bird was predated while still on the breeding grounds, the signals from three were lost over southern Europe, and one in Mauretania. Trialing of new harness design for the fitting of satellite tags will be carried out in winter 2013-14 with aim of fitting them to turtle doves in summer 2014. 


Analyses are continuing.


Who to contact

John Mallord
Senior Conservation Scientist


British Trust for Ornithology (BTO)

Ghana Wildlife Society

Ghana Ringing Scheme


Vogelbescherming Nederland

Dansk Ornitologisk Forening

University of Cambridge

University of Oxford


Sussex Ornithological Society

The Wetland Trust & Porzana Ltd

Cambridge Conservation Initiative