Spatial behaviour and density of three species of long-distance migrants wintering in a disturbed and non-disturbed woodland in northern Ghana

Changes in land-use and climate are threatening migratory animals worldwide. In birds, declines have been widely documented in long-distance migrants. However, reasons remain poorly understood due to a lack of basic information regarding migratory birds' ecology in their non-breeding areas and the effects of current environmental pressures there. We studied bird densities, spatial and territorial behaviour and habitat preference in two different habitat types in northern Ghana, West Africa. We study three common Eurasian-African songbirds (Willow Warbler Phylloscopus trochilus, Melodious Warbler Hippolais polyglotta and Pied Flycatcher Ficedula hypoleuca) in a forested site, heavily disturbed by agricultural activities, and a forest reserve with no agriculture. The three species differed in non-breeding spatial strategies, with Willow Warblers having larger home ranges and being non-territorial. Home ranges (kernel density) of the three species were on average 1.5-4 times larger in the disturbed site than in the undisturbed site. Much of the birds' tree species selection was explained by their preference for tall trees, but all species favoured trees of the genus Acacia. The overall larger home ranges in the disturbed site were presumably caused by the lower density of tall trees. Density of Pied Flycatchers was 24% lower in disturbed habitat (not significantly different from undisturbed) but Willow Warbler density in the disturbed habitat was more than 2.5 times the density in undisturbed. This suggests that the disturbed habitat was less suitable for Pied Flycatcher but not for Willow Warbler. This difference is possibly related to differences in tree species preferences and suggests that at least for some species, presence of preferred tree species is more important than overall tree abundance. Such information is crucial for predicting consequences of habitat changes on larger scales and population levels, as well as for planning potentially migrant-friendly farming practices.