Current Research Programmes

Intra-African bird migration

Migrant birds are at greater risk of extinction globally than are resident species. To date, the emphasis has been on long-distance, inter-continental migrants. We are employing a broad-scale spatial approach to addressing questions of phylogeography, movement ecology, phenotypic variation and potential speciation in focal intra-African migrant birds that have seasonal breeding ranges across western, eastern and southern Africa. Since mid-2015, we have visited study sites in Nigeria and Ghana for western, Uganda for eastern and South Africa for southern Africa.

Little is known about the migratory routes, timing, drivers, connectivity and environmental prescriptions of intra-continental migrant birds in Africa compared to inter-continental migrants. This project investigates migratory patterns of focal intra-African migrant birds, including Woodland Kingfisher Halcyon senegalensis, African Pygmy Kingfisher Ispidina picta, Diederik Cuckoo Chrysococcyx caprius and Klaas’s Cuckoo C. klaas.

An array of methods is being used to better understand these migrants. We are analysing single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) and mitochondrial DNA sequences to explore genetic differentiation across each species’ range. We are using ringing data, stable isotope analysis of flight feathers and telemetry data from geolocators deployed on suitable species to investigate their movement patterns. Phenotypic variation in vocalisations is being explored across the range and between genetically distinct populations. Linking these datasets to environmental data with statistical models should help to identify environmental drivers of migration, direct conservation action and possibly indicate anthropogenic-drivers of speciation.

Activities in 2017

  • The second southern African field season was completed (Nov 2016 – Jan 2017). The same three study areas from the 2016 season were visited in the Limpopo Province. Samples were collected from 15 Woodland Kingfishers, five African Pygmy Kingfishers, 16 Diederik Cuckoos and three Red-chested Cuckoos Cuculus solitarius.
  • The second western African field season was completed (May-Jun 2017). Fieldwork was again conducted at the A.P. Leventis Ornithological Research Institute (APLORI) in Nigeria and at several sites around Accra and Damongo in Ghana. Samples collected include five African Pygmy Kingfishers, four Diederik Cuckoos, one Klaas’s Cuckoo and one African Cuckoo Cuculus gularis. We are still trying to identify breeding sites of the nominate Woodland Kingfisher subspecies.
  • The second eastern African field season was completed (July 2017). Several study sites around Entebbe and Jinja were visited in Uganda, where samples were collected from three Woodland Kingfishers, four African Pygmy Kingfishers and three Diederik Cuckoos. A reconnaissance visit was made to northern Uganda to explore areas of overlap between Halcyon senegalensis senegalensis and H. s. cyanoleuca. This search will be expanded in 2018. Eight multi-sensor geolocators donated by Vogelwarte (Swiss Ornithological Institute) for use on breeding Woodland Kingfishers were deployed during the second southern African field season. Two of these eight geolocators deployed were retrieved.


  • Postdoctoral fellow Dayo Osinubi presented a talk at the 11th conference of the European Ornithologists’ Union (EOU) in Turku, Finland (August 2017), which outlined the objectives and achievements of the intra-African bird migration project, and made a request for new collaborations.
  • Dr Lisa Nupen, a research associate of the FIAO, and Dr Dieter Oschadleus, coordinator of the South African Bird Ringing Scheme (SAFRING) joined the expedition to Uganda for the second eastern African field season.
  • Abigail Ramudzuli joined the South African fieldwork at the end of 2017. She will be joining the team as a MSc student at the FIAO in 2018, exploring moult patterns and location in the Woodland Kingfisher from moult scores and the analysis of stable isotopes.
  • An African Bird Club (ABC) Expedition Award was granted to support the second eastern and the third southern African field seasons.
  • A British Ecological Society (BES) Ecologist in Africa grant was awarded to support the third western and eastern, and fourth southern African field seasons.
  • A Schifferli Scholarship was awarded to Dayo Osinubi by Vogelwarte for him to visit Switzerland in September 2018 to learn how to analyse multi-sensor geolocator data.
  • Vogelwarte further supported the project with the donation of 15 more geolocators for use on Woodland Kingfishers breeding in southern Africa. During the third southern African field season eleven of the new geolocators were successfully deployed.

Impact of the project

This project addresses some of the research, conservation and policy gaps concerning intra-African migrant birds. It also facilitates a research network that links research institutions across Africa, providing a near-regional operating base for other students and researchers to utilise in answering diverse questions about intra-African migrant birds. This network serves to support the objectives of the UNEP/CMS African-Eurasian Migratory Land-birds Action Plan (AEMLAP) and the Migrant Landbird Study Group (MLSG).

Key co-sponsors

DST-NRF CoE grant; National Zoological Gardens of South Africa (NZG); International Foundation for Science; BirdLife West Africa Sub-Regional office; A.P. Leventis Ornithological Research Institute; Swiss Ornithological Institute (Vogelwarte), African Bird Club, British Ecological Society.

Research team

Dr Samuel Temidayo Osinubi (FIAO, UCT)
Prof. Desire Dalton (NZG)
Dr Phoebe Barnard (FIAO, UCT)
Prof. Peter Ryan (FIAO, UCT)

Research Assistant: Abigail Ramudzuli.