from Thursday, June 26, 2008 Day 2 of Course
(Happy Birthday to Mom!)
Met for breakfast at 7 am. On the equator, there are nearly 12 hours of daylight and 12 hours of night. It gets light around 6:30 am, and dark by 7 pm. There was a moment when I felt like staying in bed - Kenya is 7 hours ahead of EST (8 during daylight savings time), which is pretty disorienting. But then the sounds of Kenyan morning birds jerked me to life and I jumped out of bed to check out the morning birds.
We spent nearly the whole morning out on a game drive in Mpala. I would like to brag here and say that I found the leopard! While in Irby's car cruising the old airstrip (a grassy area atop a hill), I saw the silhouette of a cat under an Acacia tree. I thought it looked like a lion at first, or maybe a leopard. Eventually we (incorrectly) decided it was a cheetah, for various reasons. I'll admit that I wasn't completely convinced, but jumped on the bandwagon (only to feel foolish later).Acacia trees near the river that ran through camp. Then we went for another game drive; this time I was in Dustin's van. On the airstrip I made sure to look at that tree again - and the cat was there! It was very clearly the same animal, and this time we could tell it was very clearly a leopard. Even more exciting is the fact that it was on a kill - a fresh Grant's gazelle!
Friday, June 27, 2008 Day 3
In the morning, we collected data for our study on elephant damage to Acacias. It was very hot, and we took frequent water breaks. After lunch, we visited the Mpala Research Centre for the first time. We stayed in a camp along a river downhill from the Centre. We lived in canvas-style permanent tents, which were rather cushy - each tent had 2 cots, some shelves, and a night table. The Research Centre, in comparison, was a hotel. There is a small library of journal articles, a dining hall, various offices, a wet lab and a dry lab, a staff village, and much more, although we spent most of our time there in the classroom. In the classroom, we set up a mess of power converters and power strips, where we fought to plug in our laptops and camera battery chargers.
We returned to camp before dinner in time to take showers. The camp staff would heat up river water in a huge bowl over a fire. Then, they would pour the warm (smoky) water into the shower bags - sealed canvas bags with shower spouts on them. Not a bad system, once you get used to smelling of smoke. After dinner we went for a night drive. On a night drive, someone scans all around the van with a super bright flashlight powered by the cigarette lighter, to search for the eyeshine of animals in the dark. Then someone yells "eyes!" and you hope that maybe it's a predator, and hopefully not "just a dikdik." Dikdiks are very small antelopes which are very common in the bush. On this night drive, we watched five hyenas eating the dead giraffe. We had seen the giraffe earlier; it had been dead for a week and was pretty rancid, but this didn't seem to phase the hyenas. We also saw many elephants, some buffalo, a hippo, a Genet, many bat-eared foxes, and a bushbaby.
Day 4This morning, we went out driving to search for zebras and gazelles to pilot our second study, on ungulate foraging behavior. It was tough to come up with a good method to study their behavior, and we frequently disagreed on what was the best way. Our frustration was tempered by sightings of kori bustards (the world's heaviest flying birds), an ostrich, and warthogs.
After lunch we worked on writing up our reports at the Research Centre. In the evening, Lawrence, a charismatic researcher who has been more or less living in Africa for 40 years, came to talk to us around the campfire. He mostly studies predators; currently he focuses on lions and conservation of animals, but in the past he has done a lot of work on spotted hyenas. It was interesting to hear him talk about ways in which people, especially cattle ranchers, might possibly learn to live in proximity with lions without losing cattle or human lives.
Near the end of the discussion, the abundance and variety of animal sounds started to increase. I learned that some of the noises I had been hearing frequently at night and had hoped were maybe some strange birds were in fact made by spotted hyenas. They make an interesting woo-OOP long-distance call to communicate with each other. Other night-sounds we heard include brush crunching, low pitch rumbles (usually from elephants), hippo grunts, baboon screams, and some indescribable zebra noises. Toward the end of the campfire session, Harry Greene and I had been hearing rustling and crunching somewhere behind us, toward the river. The sounds gradually got closer, and we kept checking with our headlamps. Suddenly, I turned around and saw two big eyes flash in the light - hippo! Harry and I yelled "hippo!" and I ran to the other side of the fire ring. Everyone else, not really understanding how close it was I guess, ran toward it! Luckily, the hippo retreated to the river when it saw 15 people running toward it with headlamps. With all the animals around that night, I thought about how far away the latrine was, and started rethinking my decision to rehydrate by drinking a ton of water with dinner...