The Western P’s

The Western Palaearctic, part of the Palaearctic ecozone, one of eight zones that divide this planet’s surface. The Western Palaearctic encompasses Europe, North Africa, the northern and central parts of the Arabian Peninsula and a small part of Asia to the Ural Mountains. Here many birds are resident, sticking year round in the same place or undertaking short distance movements in search of food or to escape inclement weather. Some undertake migrations of reasonable distances, in Britain our winter landscape often becomes dominated with thrushes like redwings and fieldfares that head over from Scandinavia. Even common birds we think of as being here year round, blackbirds and starlings for example are bolstered by continental counterparts.

The Western Palaearctic – Wikipedia

Then there are birds that migrate long distances, not just heading for the Mediterranean but continuing down into Africa, crossing one of the largest and hottest deserts in the world to reach central Africa and beyond. It is truly incredible to think that such tiny, seemingly delicate birds such as the willow warbler, chiffchaff, whitethroat and barn swallow are making such treacherous journeys.

There are other birds also, that you may not automatically think of as migrants, waders including turnstone, sanderling, bar-tailed godwits, whimbrels, common sandpipers… all birds we associate perhaps with winter in Britain but all birds that have populations that will also migrate further to Africa. Not to mention the terns and other seabirds which breed around our coast and then migrate and winter off the coast of Africa.

Many of the migrant birds that call the Western Palaearctic home for at least some of the year are declining. The reasons are numerous and complex, an interaction of events and habits both on their breeding grounds, winter grounds and anywhere in between. We are now realising we need to find out where these birds are going and what is happening to them when they leave our temperate shores.

Where do these birds go exactly to winter? Do they return to the same places year after year? Which routes do they take when they migrate? Do different populations go to different places or the same? Do they move around when on their wintering grounds? What kind of threats do they face while there?
Just one of the ways these questions are being answered is by ringing in Africa, and this is one of the key objectives of the Kartong Bird Observatory in The Gambia.

So while out there our team targeted as much habitat for Western Palaearctic birds, including reed beds and scrub, as well as attempts for terns and waders. The effort of slogging through knee deep water, cutting rides through reed beds, getting scratched by Acacia trees quickly paid off; 280 Western P’s as we affectionately called them were caught and processed. Some had already been ringed before; including a reed warbler with a Spanish ring on it.

Intrepid ways of getting nets into reed beds – using a boat!

From species we know from home like sedge and reed warblers to whitethroats, to those that maybe more unusual in Britain but are common throughout the Mediterranean including Bonnelli’s and Melodious warblers. Waders like common and wood sandpipers, and snipe, lots and lots of snipe.

But certainly the stars of the Western P show were the blue-cheeked bee-eaters. When you think of Western P’s you don’t automatically think of these, but they do in fact breed along the north coast of Africa and parts of the Middle East, before migrating south to central and southern Africa.

The usual view of blue-cheeked bee-eaters

In The Gambia we watch them from the middle of the morning to mid-afternoon, swooping and circling in large flocks. We see them sit on the branches of trees before taking off with a flick of the wings, soaring again through a brilliant blue sky. In the past we watched with wonder, these are not the type of bird to blunder into most nets as they keep to the skies and tops of trees. They the emblem of the Kartong Bird Observatory, and it was an emotional day when in 2011 we caught the very first one. Since then the odd one has been caught on the odd occasion.

That was until one hot day in January 2014. As the morning progressed a huge flock of 400 bee-eaters began circling overhead, dipping down to take insects off the glittering surface. And here we spotted an opportunity. Until now the birds had not responded to a tape playing their calls, but with so many birds calling to each other, and the presence of food this time it just might work. So with two nets open and a tape playing between we sat back to watch and wait. Minutes later the crackled message came back over the radio at base. Bee-eaters in the net, not one or two, but loads. It had worked!

Collecting blue-cheeked bee-eaters from the net

And so like a well-oiled machine, the team worked together to remove birds from the net, ferry them back to base and to ring and process them. In total 70 birds were caught giving us an opportunity to get some good data on moult and aging with some many birds to compare. And with the technique for catching them seemingly sussed who knows how many more we may catch in future and what we may learn….

For now lets stick with piccies of Western P’s from The Gambia 2014:


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