Burning questions

by Wender Bil – All along the dark road there was grass. Old dried out stems up to more than two meters, blocking our view and making it appear as if we where driving through a reed bed. Then suddenly there were lights in the distance. I wondered what it could be, since to my knowledge we did not passed the last crossing before the station yet. While driving closer to the source of the light my thoughts went from: “Did they put up a camp site here?”, to “Wow: this camp really resembles the field station!” followed by the realization “Oh.. It is the actual field station”.

The arrival at the Comoé field station felt a bit odd since the place appeared completely different from how I remembered it. The next day this impression was confirmed when we explored the area during daylight. The space between the trees which was mainly open with only low green vegetation in spring was now completely filled with dense yellow grass. Luckily I could still use certain characteristic trees which I recognized to navigate through the area.

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In the following days I was kind of adapting to the new situation, actually finding myself avoiding the discomfort of walking though the grass -a strategy which intensified after a close encountered with a Puff adder-. Probably the flycatchers figured out a similar strategy, since we only occasionally encountered them out on the savanna during this period. This situation lasted for quite a while, until the burning changed everything.

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Puff adder hiding under the grass

The signs of nearby fires were already there since the beginning of our stay. It started with groups of kites and grasshopper buzzards circling above our heads and small pieces of burned vegetation falling from the sky. A few days later we could see dark clouds rising on the horizon, and eventually one evening the sky south of the camp was glowing bright red, indicating that the fire reached the borders of our study area. That night I woke up a few times by the crackling of the approaching fire, but still it lasted until the next afternoon before it actually arrived at the station.

In anticipation of the burning the staff had created a firebreak by clear-cutting a strip of vegetation around the camp, preventing the fire from reaching the buildings. Standing on the safe side of this line I could see loads of insects driven forward by the flames: mainly stick insects and grasshoppers jumping and crawling in an attempt to escape the burning. To make it even harder for them there where large numbers of black kites and grasshopper buzzards preying upon these refugees that dared to try and escape by flight. It seemed that only the lucky ones close to the firebreak had a chance of escaping their fate of ending up in ashes or a raptor’s stomach.

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The other day we went out for fieldwork again. It was truly fascinating to see how the savanna once again went through a complete metamorphosis. The whole grass-layer had turned into black litter -that again turned into dust when you walked across it- and some logs and trees where still burning. Occasionally there were loud cracks of such trees collapsing to the ground. Altogether it seemed like a kind of post-apocalyptic scenery, making it hard to imagine that this area would be anything different than of no interest for flycatchers in the coming period.

At first glance it seemed that most of the flycatchers had indeed abandoned the savanna and seeked refuge in the unburned forest patches. Especially this first morning it was really quiet out on the savanna. A small group of weavers that were busy chattering and flying around with nesting material –I wondered if their breeding strategy was directly related to the fire- were about the only birds I encountered out there.

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However, already later that morning I heard the first bit-calls and in the following days it seemed that the flycatchers gradually returned to the burned savanna. At a certain point I even gained the impression that there was more activity going on than in the period prior to the burning. Still I deemed the place uninteresting for a flycatcher; I encountered almost no insects, and only scarcely saw birds actually foraging out there. The flycatchers also seemed to be just flying around between trees while vocally stating their presence. All new kinds of questions started to arise, like: do they increase territorial activity within already established borders because of poorer conditions –i.e. kicking out food competitors that were formerly tolerated-?, or do they maybe conquer new grounds that are –or will become- more interesting now?, and so on.

One thing I find fascinating about my return now is finding out how specific my view of the system actually was. Although I did not even come close to thinking I understood the wintering behavior of flycatchers –and even then I believe that usually ‘understanding’ is just a subjective state where common sense, as deceitful as it can be, obscures the need for further explanations- I somehow thought that at least I had a feeling of the general conditions they faced within the area. Now it turned out that even my image of the visible surroundings was deficient, with way bigger contrasts then expected. At the same time it feels like I can add another piece to the puzzle in my head, which however seems to be growing with every piece gained. But hey, what kind of pleasure is there to be found in a solved puzzle anyway?