Friday, July 25, 2008

The Most Beautiful Animals, and an Incredible Opportunity

from Sunday, June 29, 2008
Day 5
Breakfast at 6:30 am as usual (this would get progressively later by the end of the trip, when we were more tired...). After eating our fill of fresh mangoes and burnt toast (and the daily morning fight for the butter...I stuck with the peanut butter), we went out to study the time ungulates spend foraging versus being vigilant. On the way out, we once again saw hyenas getting some last scraps of dead giraffe. One hyena ran off into the bush carrying the entire giraffe head in its jaws...that was the last we saw of the skull.

We used two different methods, each one in each vehicle. However, due to some severe lack of foresight, we realized just a little too late that we had never completely agreed on methods. As a result, the students in each van conducted the study in a slightly different manner. We would later have a very, um, fun time combining data! Despite our issues, it was pretty exciting to study the behavior of such distinctly African mammals.

vigilant gazelles

After dinner we went out for another night drive. I was nervous on the way out, as we had seen many elephants along the road to camp earlier. I forgot about the elephants though, when we spotted the leopard on the airstrip again! We actually had two leopard sightings this night, but some thought the first one looked a lot smaller, maybe another individual. We saw hyenas still tearing away at the giraffe carcass.

However, the highlight of the night was seeing an AARDVARK! These animals are tough to see; my Kingdon Pocket Guide to African Mammals says, "The Aardvark is a shy nocturnal animal and rarely seen." To be more exact, I should say this was the highlight for those of us in Dustin's van. Irby's van did not see the aardvark, to Irby's great dismay. The aardvark would henceforth be called the "damn aardvark."

from Monday, June 30, 2008
Day 6
Went on a bird walk around camp in the morning. It was already 7am though, and was getting to be a little to late for some birds so we didn't see a whole lot. Saw a black crake, which is a cool little wading bird, and some brown babblers. Next we did a marathon paper discussion, getting through four or so of our reading topics in a row before lunch. After lunch, it was time for more work writing and revising our project papers.

Dinner consisted of delicious chapatis (testimony to the Indian influence on East Africa). After dinner, we ate s'mores by the campfire ring and learned Swahili from some of the camp staff, Simon and Grace (Kenya students), and Callistus, our guide. I talked to Collistus for a while about the smallest Kenyan tribe, who come from the village of El Molo. They once lived on an island in Lake Turkana, until the British bombed it. They eat mostly fish and drink water from the lake, which causes them to develop health problems such as blindness. I found some nice photography here.

Funny highlight of the day: Jamie (Irby's son) wore his clothes backwards, ALL DAY, and often walked backwards. It must have greatly confused the camp staff...

Also, right near my tent I saw saw a little pair of eyes that turned out to belong to a Genet, a small feline-like carnivore.

from Tuesday, July 1, 2008
Day 7
July! Hard to believe how fast time passes sometimes. Gita and I noticed how out of touch we felt with the outside world. Some people were discussing the presidential campaign today, and we realized how little we'd thought about it. In contrast, every Kenyan is following every twist in the campaign. Because his father is Kenyan, Barack Obama has an intense national following. In hindsight, I think if we had brought some Vote for Obama! paraphernalia, we could have bought many more souvenirs than with Kenyan shillings alone. It was pretty humbling to realize how much the Kenyans knew and cared about our political system and the candidates. As Americans, (and I speak only in general terms), we tend to not care as much as we should about our government. Grace told me how tense it had been in the final Hillary vs Obama moments.

In the morning, we drove around on some black cotton soil, which is a specific ecosystem that forms on patches of the volcanic, dark blackish, ashy soil. The environment looks much different from surrounding areas, as there is very low plant diversity - just some tall grass and Acacia drepanolobium trees. These little trees are unique, as they form swollen thorns to house a few species of Acacia ants. These ants are the reason Ben came back to Kenya; he is collecting them in order to study their social structure.

It is dry and cracked here, but black cotton soil turns into quicksand when it rains.

Acacia ants (here, Crematogaster mimosae; its abbreviated name: red-red-black, or RRB) on a swollen thorn.

There are also many glades, which are open areas where there are no trees and short grass. These glades form from abandoned cattle bomas. A boma is type of temporary corral for livestock which the Maasai people have used for thousands of years. Ranchers build bomas out of thick walls made from spiny Acacia tree branches. During the day, they herd cattle across the landscape to graze. At night, they direct the cattle into the boma so they will be safe from predators. Manure gets concentrated in the bomas, as all the nitrogen and phosporus from surrounding areas gets dumped in one spot. Herdsman move the bomas every several months to a year. In the years after they abandon a boma, nutritious short grass colonizes the area. Small gazelles and other vulnerable species like to gather in such glades to forage and to find protection from predators, as the short grass makes it difficult for predators to sneak up on them.

Giraffe among Acacia drepanolobium trees

After lunch, we were sitting in the classroom writing papers and sulking, when Dustin walked in and declared that we could "sit in here and work on reports until dinner, or we could go look at a pack of wild dogs and their pups!" I don't think we could have moved any faster, even if there had been an elephant charging straight at us. We all ran to the door expecting them to be right outside. Turned out there was no rush; a woman studying the African wild dogs had directed Dustin to their den. We got in the vans with some radio tracking equipment, just in case we couldn't find them (a couple of the dogs had radio collars). The den was a short drive away from the Centre, just up the hill from our camp. It felt a little bit like cheating to have someone tell us where to see the animals, but it was still amazing to see them. Before arriving in Kenya, I had decided the two animals which I most wanted to see were: 1. cheetah, 2. wild dog. Check off number two!

What stunning animals. I was surprised to see how dark the dogs were; apparently in the Laikipia region in East Africa they tend to have darker coloration than the dogs most often photographed in South Africa. They were still wonderfully splotchy. I think their scientific name is beautiful and fitting: Lycaon pictus, or painted wolf. They are only distantly related to actual dogs.

The dogs were spooked at first, but then calmed down and went back to their afternoon snooze. We stayed and watched them from the vans for a long time, maybe an hour. Collectively, we may have shot a thousand pictures. We were supposed to give the best side shots to the researcher, who will use them to help identify the unique coat patterns of each individual. It was neat to watch them behave similar to pet dogs - they rolled around, curled up to sleep, and licked each other. They do not bark though, but do make some high pitched noises and yelps.

notice the radio collar on this one...

We were all pretty speechless afterwards. It was definitely a unique experience to have the opportunity to observe such an endangered animal in its natural habitat.

Nothing else seemed too exciting for the rest of the night; I was still riding high from seeing the dogs. However, the one thing that jeopardized my happiness is when I thought I was going to get eaten on the way to the latrine. I heard an animal jump out of the bushes behind me and I froze, only to whip my head around and find out it was just a stupid hare. What a wimp!

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Leopard spotting

(More photos soon...)

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).
Plains zebra

reticulated giraffe

After lunch, we started our first project: A study of elephant damage on 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!


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.
dead giraffe (on first day of trip)

Saturday, June 28, 2008
Day 4
This 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...

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The Adventure Begins

Wednesday, June 25, 2008
Our adventures in Kenya began at Nairobi's Jomo Kenyatta airport. As Shawn Billerman and I landed, we felt like little kids, peeking out the window and trying to believe that we were finally actually in Africa! I actually bit my tongue to make sure that I was awake. Inside the airport, while waiting to retrieve our luggage, we were greeted by a nice big sign that said "Smile. You're in Kenya." So we did!

A few of us started searching for wildlife right at the airport, while waiting for everyone to arrive on their respective flights. Some superb starlings and pied crows came to feed on our muffin crumbs. We would later find out that these birds were dirt common, but we couldn't help but be excited initially.
suberb starling (Lamprotornis superbus)

We eventually managed to leave the airport, after some delayed flights, lost luggage, and getting a new van (one broke down!). On the way out of Nairobi, we passed through jua kali areas. Here, hundreds of poor workers live, make, and sell goods ranging from chickens and animal products, to wooden furniture, to tires (spelled 'tyres' - British influence?). The word literally means "hot sun."
on the road

We drove for a few hours, passing from grassy shrub to the wetter valley where many crops such such as (Del Monte) pineapple, coffee, and tea grow. We stopped for lunch at a very unique restaurant called the Trout Tree; a hidden tropical oasis along a river, surrounded by dessicated bush land. Just about everything on the menu includes trout, which is farmed in the ponds behind the restaurant. The black-and-white colobus monkeys enjoyed trying to take our food. We watched one man's toast get snatched.

After the Trout Tree, we drove on through Nanyuki and finally reached the Mpala Ranch. At last, we saw some "charismatic megafauna:" plains zebra, giraffes, dikdiks, Thomson's gazelles, impala, Grant's gazelles, duiker, elephants, mongoose, olive baboons, vervet monkeys, and maybe more - all on our first day! Not to mention the numerous bird species, a task which I will leave to Shawn the expert (and keeper of the bird list). I don't know what time I actually fell asleep, but it was not late at all. I actually passed out so solidly that I did not hear a single animal noise in the night...

Friday, July 18, 2008

Back in Ithaca

I am currently back in Ithaca, working once again in the lab. We all arrived back in the U.S. on Friday (July 11) after traveling for very many hours.

I have to apologize for the lack of posts while in Kenya, which was the point of this blog! Unfortunately, we had some problems with the proxy server, the site not recognizing a Kenyan IP address, and so on. Furthermore, it turned out that we students had very little spare time, and it would have been difficult to get on the internet at all.

I would love to tell everyone about the trip, because it was simply amazing. Therefore, I am going to post a summary and some highlights of the trip here in the next few days (with some nice photos) so check again soon!