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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 sampled migrants at study sites in western, eastern and southern Africa, and tracked Woodland Kingfishers from South 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.

Activities in 2018

  • The third southern African field season was completed from November to December 2017. The same three study areas from the 2016 season were visited in Limpopo Province, and samples collected from 12 Woodland Kingfishers, two African Pygmy Kingfishers, 15 Diederik Cuckoos and one Klaas’s Cuckoo. Of the eight multi-sensor geolocators donated by Vogelwarte (Swiss Ornithological Institute) deployed on breeding Woodland Kingfishers in the previous season, two were retrieved and two were confirmed as lost, and an additional 11 geolocators were deployed.
  • The third western African field season was completed from June to July 2018. Fieldwork was again conducted at several sites around Accra and Damongo in Ghana, as well as a first field visit to Cape Coast where we made our first western African breeding record for the Woodland Kingfisher, but only seven Woodland Kingfisher and one Diederik Cuckoo was sampled. We also recorded a solitary Woodland Kingfisher in the Damongo area in northern Ghana, which is supposed to be within the breeding area of the migratory Halcyon senegalensis. However, the behaviour of this individual strongly suggested that breeding was not taking place at that time.
  • The third eastern African field season was completed from July to August 2018, with a focus on sites around Entebbe, Uganda. Samples were collected from six Woodland Kingfishers, one African Pygmy Kingfisher and one Red-chested Cuckoo Cuculus solitarius. A second reconnaissance visit was made to northern Uganda to explore possible areas of overlap between Halcyon s. senegalensis and H. s. cyanoleuca. This year’s survey was more extensive than the one in 2017, and ranged from Gulu to Atiak. We recorded a solitary Woodland Kingfisher near the Unyama River, but similar to the lone individual encountered in northern Ghana, its behaviour strongly suggested that breeding was not taking place. Some of the locals around the Achewa River said they had seen the Woodland Kingfisher or 'Labane' as it is locally called. A local name does suggest an historic presence of the bird and human interaction with the species in the area. However, there were conflicting reports of the time of the year when the Woodland Kingfisher is present.
  • The fourth southern African field season was completed from November 2018 to January 2019. Two of the three regular study sites were visited, collecting samples from 13 Woodland Kingfishers, three African Pygmy Kingfisher, four Diederik Cuckoos and two Red-chested Cuckoos. Two more geolocators were recovered from Woodland Kingfishers and another 11 were deployed.

Highlights

  • Postdoctoral fellow Dayo Osinubi presented a poster at the 27th International Ornithological Congress (IOC) in Vancouver, Canada (August 2018), which outlined the objectives and achievements of the intra-African bird migration project to date.
  • Abigail Ramudzuli joined the project as an MSc student in 2018. She is exploring moult patterns and stable isotope variations in the flight feathers of the Woodland Kingfisher, with a view to checking whether stable isotopes can indicate where migratory birds spend the non-breeding season. For the laboratory analysis of the carbon, nitrogen and hydrogen elements in these feathers, Abigail worked with the iThemba LABS in Johannesburg.
  • Abigail presented a talk at the 9th Annual Research Symposium of the National Zoological Gardens in Pretoria, South Africa (November 2018), during which she discussed her preliminary results and received valuable feedback.
  • Under the Schifferli Scholarship, Dayo visited Vogelwarte in Semach, Switzerland in September 2018. Data were successfully downloaded from the two geolocators retrieved from Woodland Kingfishers during the third southern African field season. The analysis of the data indicates the migratory route and stop-over sites, and the process for publishing this information is underway.
  • Vogelwarte further supported the project with a third donation of multi-sensor geolocators (15 new geolocators) for use on Woodland Kingfishers breeding in southern Africa. During the fourth southern African field season, another two geolocators were retrieved, bringing to total number of retrieved geolocators to four. The total number of geolocators confirmed as lost is three. Eleven of the new 15 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 supporters

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; iThemba LABS.

Research team

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

Student: Abigail Ramudzuli (MSc, UCT)