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Vulture Catcher

What a day!

What a day! Let me start from the beginning. I woke up this morning at 5 AM. It was day two of trapping. Day one had been less than successful and I was beginning to wonder if I had been crazy to think that I could trap vultures during the low season. You see when the wildebeest come to Masai Mara in July so do the vultures. For three months, the park is overflowing with carcasses and scavengers. Trapping is made easy during this time, at least trapping African white-backed and Ruppell’s vultures, which are exceedingly common with upwards of sixty birds at each wildebeest carcass. But trapping Lappet-faced vultures is tricky. Only a few birds come to each carcass, they come late which means they are less likely to get trapped (since you have to put the trap down at the beginning and can’t go back and add it to a carcass without scaring all the birds), and they just tend to be a bit more cautious. So I had the brilliant idea that the low season would be the ideal time to trap Lappet-faced vultures with fewer African white-backs and Ruppell’s around. But after yesterday I was starting to worry if I could trap anything this time of year. Nonetheless I awoke with a feeling of mixed panic and hope and set out to trap.

My first stop was at Wilson’s house. Wilson, who helped trap last year and has helped throughout the project was obviously coming, but we had also recruited his brother (who also seemed to doubt our methods after yesterday), since you really need three people for stress-free trapping. I noticed a strange sound on the drive over, but didn’t really think much of it. Whatever it was it would be easier to fix it once I arrived than to stand around in the dark staring at the engine by myself. By the time I had reached Wilson’s house the sound was pretty loud and he raced over to see what was wrong with the car. I had a puncture, but by the time I had reached the house the puncture had turned into a nice rip through the entire tire, plus a totally torn up tube. The spare was flat. So much for trapping I thought. But Wilson would not be deterred so easily. One of his brothers who is a tour guide at another camp, happened to have his car by the house and he had a spare. So we put that on (even though it was a bit big) and were on our way. We had big plans for the morning and a nice spot picked out from the previous evening, but that wasn’t going to be possible now. It was after 6. So we opted for a closer though seemingly less desirable area. When bad things happen, I always try to hope that they are just the beginning of good things. On our drive out Wilson told me that since we had gotten a puncture, we would probably catch a bird this morning. Wilson was right.

Within an hour wasted on tire troubles we had to change plans. We could no longer go to our ideal spot and would have to try somewhere closer. Fortunately with all the carcass observations we have done we know where the best spots are and had a new trapping zone picked out in minutes. Off we went. We put out the carcass – a head, organs, and 1 kg of meat. We put most of the nooses around the head knowing that was where the Lappets would be most likely to feed. The birds came down fast and we soon had 33 African white-backes, 2 Marabou storks, 2 Hooded vultures, and a White-headed vulture, but no Lappets. All the birds were hesitant looking suspiciously at the strange loops that surrounded the carcass. But they were hungry. One bird finally went in and pulled the organs away from the nooses. The others quickly joined in and a feeding frenzy ensued. In the chaos, two Lappet-faced vultures landed and stole a piece. As the number of birds around the food increased a African white-backed vulture managed to ensnare himself. Just as we started the engine to race over, he pulled loose. Now only the sheep head remained and one of the nooses was turned obviously upwards. It seemed unlikely that any of the birds would approach again, but than a juvenile Lappet-faced landed. She started pulling at the head, ripping off pieces with her massive beak. Then she noticed something around her ankle, so did I. Through the binoculars, it was clear that she had stepped into our trap, but she wasn’t stuck yet. She reached carefully down with her beak and tried to remove the black loop. She looked like she just might be able to free herself when a pair of adult Lappet-faced vultures landed on top of her. She suddenly switched into attack mode, spreading her wings and lifting her tail feathers. As the adult came in fast, she jumped backwards forgetting completely about her new bracelet. With her violent action to escape her conspecifics, she had inadvertently pulled the noose shut. We drove in quickly. Within moments, the bird was in our arms and got a free ride as we moved her into the shade. After securing the GSM-GPS unit, we took a bit of blood to find out the gender (I just like to think she is a girl) and then we put on a wind tag. Weighing her was a bit tricky but we soon discovered that she was nearly 6.5 kg (not bad for a young bird). Then we set down the bag we had used to weigh her and let the bird out of the bag. She leaped out with great excitement as if this were her last chance for escape and then she was off. Interestingly she decided to go right back to where her trouble began and landed next to the head. Put after a few minutes she decided not to try her luck again. She took off. We named the bird Lolly after one of the most devoted administrators at Princeton University (some of you will know who I mean).

As Lolly the young Lappet-faced vulture flew away I looked on with some sadness. Though I had just seen the bird closer than I would many of my study subjects, this might also be the last time I would see her. With their huge ranges we often don’t see the same bird twice. From now on, Lolly would be a blinking blue dot on a map. I would watch her devotedly and with great fascination but also from a great distance. For a moment I wished I had spent more time with her. More time really taking in this magnificent creature – looking at her strange black “beard” of whisker-like feathers, admiring the soft juvenile fuss upon her head, feeling the fluffly downy feathers that would cover even her adult chest, or marveling at the long curved though surprisingly dull talons that had scrapped but not scratched me as we took some blood. But in the mad frenzy to get everything done and to get her back in the air as soon as possible, I had hardly bothered to look at her. Nonetheless this bird would now teach us so much about her species – where Lappet-faced vultures spend most of the year, how long they spend outside of protected areas, how far and how fast they do this and if we are unlucky how frequently vultures get poisoned. Lolly will give us a vital first hand, up-close-and-personal look at where Lappet-faced vultures go and what they need to survive.

After catching two Lappet-faced vultures in one day, I was exhausted but thrilled. The most difficult vulture to trap (at least of the three species I am putting GSM-GPS units) and we had gotten two in one day! In the evening we celebrated by dealing with the forgotten disaster of the morning – the tire. Then we dropped off the tire that had made it all possible with Wilson’s brother. Near his home a group of young boys gathered around. They had just started to celebrate their coming of age and decided to give us a show. Jumping and singing, they gave one of the cutest Masai performances I have ever seen with boys colliding and laughing, spitting and grunting in their miniature version of Masai warrior dancing.

Back in my tent, literally as I sat writing this, a genet poked its head through the tent door – just a small unzipped patch at the bottom. I watched amazed that it could somehow not see me despite being so close and in the glow my lamp light. Slowly the entire spotted body and long tail were inside the tent with me and it wasn’t until I said, “Hello” that the cat noticed me. Then panic struck, the genet raced back and forth, back and forth as if forgetting how it had gotten it. It clawed at the walls and I was just about to get up to open the door when it once again found its hole. Out it crawled in a mad dash back to the wild night. What a day indeed!

Elephants, hippos, and spiders, oh my

Isn't she cute?
Isn't she cute?

Today an elephant charged us. Usually this would be an event of great concern, but today it was just cute. The elephant was a baby, pretty little guy. We could see him coming from a while off as he started his great stompy rush towards the road. By the time we were perpendicular to him he was coming fast, trunk up and trumpeting with all his little might. You could almost see the older elephants rolling their eyes at this foolishness. No one followed him or even acknowledged his distress. Everyone else stood ripping off pieces of grass and shoving them in their mouths as the little elephant came chasing after us. We stopped near him and he kept coming and coming – like a mini game of chicken. This probably felt safer on the driver’s side, where Wilson sat securely. The elephant was only a few feet from my door when it came to a stop. “What are you doing?” I chided him. His trumpeting stopped and he stood still a bit afraid and somewhat fascinated. I kept talking to him and he continued to stare at me curiously. I find talking to elephants always calms them or at least changes the mood – I often talk at charging elephants and it seems to change the identity of the vehicle in their eyes – no longer a hurdling mass but a sweet-talking entity. (This technique does not work on rhinos though). When no one had come to his rescue, the little elephant finally high tailed it back to mom, quite literally with his bushy little tail swung high in the air.

Today we also got a closer look at two of my other favorite animals – a hippo and a jumping spider. The shy hippo was wandering through the tall grass, munching as it went. A huge scar was visible along one of his bulky sides and blood sweat – the strange red liquid (though not actually blood) that acts as sweat, insect repellent, sun screen, and antiseptic – streamed from his pores, covering the wound. We didn’t get a much closer look than that as he kept his distance from the car, but it was just nice to see one out of the water for once. Then after lunch I found a gorgeous gold, red, and black jumping spider hanging out on our car. The two front legs were massive like a gorillas and they gave the spider’s robotic movements an almost crab-like feel. I gently positioned the spider with a bit of grass as I took a few photos. Every few moments the spider would swivel her head up to take a better look at me with her two great big eyes (she actually has more, but these were the only ones clearly visible). Jumping spiders actually see in color and have incredibly good vision. I wonder if she was as fascinated with my red hair as I was with her red tiny face. The golden markings looked painted and gave the spider an almost regal look. Before we left I bumped her off the car so she wouldn’t risk injury during transport.

Unusual sightings

Other fun and unique sightings for the week included a rare close-up with a small group of bat-eared foxes. Usually these little carnivores head right for their burrows when you drive near, but this group sat calmly and itchily as we approached. The whole group went through an immense scratching session as we watched with each individual using this back leg to scratch its giant ears (just like a dog) and then proceeded to groom its companions.

We also had a nice moment with a group of Ground Hornbills, a gentle and clumsy bird that I know well from my time at the Houston Zoo. One of the long eye-lashed males came up by the road and posed for some photos, while his companion grabbed a huge grasshopper, which she carried around with her for a while afterwards – proud of her insect trophy.

Ground Hornbill
Ground Hornbill

Then we ended the week with a rhino charge. A young black rhino came right at us, chasing the car for a few hundred meters before stopping and crossing the road behind us. It seemed unusual for such a young animal to be on its own. Then we had a male Kori bustard displaying (they try to hard, inflating their necks and raising their tails) and actually saw a female with an adorable chick. Like a miniaturized version of the adult but with soft feathers and well-camouflaged colors of yellow and brown the chick wiggled along after the female, as the two birds cooed and squeaked at each other to stay together even in the tall grass.

Bat-eared fox - so cute!
Bat-eared fox - so cute!

Lions, lions, and more lions

It has been a week of lions. Everywhere we turned we saw one or the other. Unlike last week’s scrawny injured lioness, the big cats we have seen the last few days have been healthy and well-fed. A 12-member pride with two adult males, a juvenile male, and a female that resembles “Scar” from The Lion King (thanks to a warthog tusk that nearly removed her eye) sat happily with a buffalo kill. Then we saw a lioness with three large cubs – two girls and a boy. We stopped to watch them as they slept along the road. The male cub decided to cross right behind the car and I had a moment of panic as I absorbed the fact that I was only a few feet from such an impressively large animal with the windows open. He stopped just to the right of the car and lied down in the road. With the roof popped open, I stood staring into his deep yellow eyes while snapping a few shots. He yawned – big and I got a nice look at his teeth. When he finally went to join the girls on the other side of the road, his affectionate head rub was welcomed with a snarl from one of the other cubs as he collapsed onto his side for a further nap.

Little cub, big yawn
Little cub, big yawn

But the most exciting sighting of the week was not the lions. It was in fact a rare and endangered bird that I had yet to see in the Mara and which is believed to be effectively extinct in this area. An Egyptian vulture! A beautiful adult sat with some hooded vultures not too far from the buffalo kill. Made famous for their egg-cracking talents (these birds actually use rocks to break open ostrich eggs), this adult sat calmly, totally unaware of the star-struck field biologist that was oogling him. I just couldn’t believe that after five months of fieldwork here, this is the first Egyptian vulture I have seen. I would have loved to have known where this individual had flown in from, but I suppose I will just have to be content with the sighting itself.

The elusive Egyptian vulture
The elusive Egyptian vulture

Granola Thief

When I got back to my tent this afternoon, I noticed that my toothpaste was on the floor. This seemed a bit odd, but I didn’t really think much of it until I noticed the tooth marks. Someone had chewed on my toothpaste. It then dawned on me that I had seen a Ziploc bag outside my tent. A bit of random trash, nothing to worry about. But then where had it come from? What did I have in a Ziploc bag? I walked over to look at it and found granola wrappers scattered throughout the bushes. My granola bars – my last remnants of chocolate and processed food! Gone! I have been saving them for most of the trip but had started leaving the Ziploc bag of them out since I was often eating them before my little jogs. Now I would have to subsist on fruit and fried chicken alone. But who had eaten them and how had they gotten in . . . and out? I went back and searched the tent. A few books had been knocked over but nothing else was missing. Given the tooth marks which were tiny, I assumed it was either a mongoose or more likely vervet monkeys. A quick discussion with some of the staff at the lodge and the vervet monkey suspicion was confirmed. Those little monekys had run amok in my tent and finished off the last of my savory snack food.

Hidden treasures

I’m sitting on the veranda by the dining tent, looking out at the Mara. The rolling hills of green can be seen in the distance merging with the golden yellow of the tall grass plains below. The Talek river babbles slowly beneath me, the rains have slowed, though not quite stopped and the river still manages to flow around the rocks. It is cool and calm this morning, though the sun is up and soon its warm rays will warm the earth.

This week the Mara has shared with me many of its hidden treasures, even as I zip around almost ignoring the wildlife to see the vultures (sort of like missing the forest through the trees, I guess). On Friday, a leopard crept out into the road in front of our car. There was no one else around and big male seemed startled to be found. He moved quickly into the bushes and growled as I tried for a photo. Then as two tourist vehicles joined us he made a break for it, leaping effortlessly across a small stream and vanishing into the dense vegetation – probably not to be seen for several more weeks even with hundreds of people looking for him. On Saturday, we stopped for a chameleon who was crossing the road. In yellow and green he wiggled back and forth before each step trying to keep the fascade of being a leaf (blowing in the wind) going even as I stood next to him. When I bent down it was a different story. He hauled it to the nearest bushes, black spots appearing across his body as he flashed his rage in color. Then slowly he returned to a dark green as he entered the bushes. On Sunday, we saw one appears to be one of the last small groups of White storks. These migratory birds, which had overrun the place for the last month, are finally moving on. (It has been amazing to see the “other” migration, not of wildebeest, but of all the migratory birds that travel through Masai Mara this time of year). After having seen flocks in the hundreds blacked the sky in synchronized motion, this group of twenty seemed pitiful. Then one bird leaped in excitement its yellow beak flashing as it lifted a three-foot snake into the air. It flew with it trying to escape its hungry neighbors and stood for a while as if unsure how to consume its unusual prey. On Monday, we would see a similar display but perhaps from a less ackward predator, as a Tawny eagle ripped a small snake into pieces along the side of the road. On Tuesday, I saw the female lioness, who I have come to know so well. She stood wobbling next to the road. It wasn’t just her paw that was injured anymore. That injury had cost her dearly and the once healthy lioness that I had seen so many times as deteriorated into a skeleton of cat, ribs jutting against her skin and hips exposed and sagging. Her pain seemed to have extended as she was not only limping now, but also staggering, perhaps stiff from all her lying around. I wondered how long it will be before the predator falls prey to the scavengers and the vultures return her to the ground.

Rumble in the Jungle

Large carcasses are scarce this time of year. With the tall grass, the herbivores have plenty to eat and the big cats and hyenas have a hard time catching their prey, who have freedom to roam wherever they please. The cheetahs seem to be the only ones having any great success, perhaps because they rely more on speed than stealth. There also aren’t a lot of animals dying this time of year, precisely because there is so much lush food and water to go around. There are still calves being born, some of whom won’t make it and the occasional diseased or injured animal that might keel over. Needless to say, the vultures have to work hard to find their food and when they do discover something, they work even harder to ensure they get a bit.
Yesterday we came across a large carcass – we of course followed the vultures to find it. The dead animal was covered in birds with only the black tufts of fur around the ankles exposed enough for me to id the unfortunate individual as an impala. A few Tawny eagles, a pair of White-headed vultures, and a small squadron of Lappet-faced vultures lied the outer rim of feasting African white-backed vultures. From my studies, I imagine these early arrivers had each had a go at the carcass before the mass of small struggling white-backs took over. Perhaps the Tawny eagles had found it and enjoyed a piece of liver in the nearby tree after the Lappet-faced vultures had quickly opened up the animal. The White-headed vultures might have gotten a few bites from the limbs as the Lappets pulled away at the skin. Now these birds would have to wait – the African white-backed vultures had arrived. Like rugby players before a match, these relatively small vultures huddled together in a circle, shouldered wing to shouldered wing, crowding out their opponents. Unlike the rugby players, even the center of the circle was filled as new birds landed in the middle often stepping on their neighbors bloodied heads to get to the center of the carcass. In less than ten minutes, over hundred white-backed vultures had come and gone. In all the struggle only a few had eaten their fill, but those that were full now beared the weight of a huge crop, which sagged below their necks. As the number of white-backed vultures died off, the larger Lappet-faced vultures reclaimed dominance of the carcass fighting and jumping on the smaller vultures until they moved off. The Lappets now grappled with the tough bits of meat left behind – the ligaments on the legs, the head (minus the eyes of course which are usually first to go when the white-backs arrive, a sort of delicacy in the vulture world), and the skin. Hooded vultures and a Marabou stork gathered around grabbing whatever small pieces they could – a scrap of stomach lining or a vertebrae, which the Marabou storks can swallow whole, that had been ripped off in the fray. With the hoard of white-backed vultures gone, the other species tried to glean whatever small pieces they could, but with so little left none of them would leave with a full crop sagging, like some of the white-backs had. Amazingly no hyenas or jackals found the carcass. Perhaps because of the dense vegetation that surrounded it, which would have impeded our drive to see the birds had it not been near an old road. No this natural mortality, which never required the tooth and claw of a predator was the prize of the birds alone.

A Bad Day to be a Topi

When we arrived they were already attached. All three of them, the brothers were back in action. I couldn’t believe it at first, how could cheetahs be hunting topi. You have to understand a topi is a large animal – similar size to a wildebeest or a small horse – it is the kind of animal I would expect a lion pride or hyena clan to bring down, but not cheetahs. Yet there I was watching it for real. Each cheetah had grabbed a leg and they were doing everything they could to bring down the topi. The cheetahs gnawed and clawed as they fought to stay attached. I wasn’t sure how they were going to actually kill the animal. Cheetahs generally have to strangle their prey. On a small gazelle that isn’t so complicated, but none of these boys were even near the windpipe. Then one went for it. With a lunge it wrapped itself around the neck and grabbed on. Horns near its delicate limbs, the cheetah scrambled to twist the topi and finally toppled it over. After the fall, the two brothers moved their chewing from the legs up to the soft belly. They were starting to eat before the animal had even expired. They had made a nice whole in the topi’s belly, just above the hindlimbs as the topi gave its last spasms of life. Its head came up in one last attempt at an escape, but it was no use. As the cheetah tightened its grip around the throat, the topi finally died. Then all three cheetahs sat momentarily in exhaustion, blood dripping from their furry lips.

As the cheetahs used their sharp teeth to further the incision into the carcass, a group of African white-backed vultures began to form. Nearly fifty as its peak, the birds sat eagerly along side their fellow scavengers the jackal and Marabou stork and waited patiently. Since it was already late afternoon, we decided to join them. Would the vultures really get to feed at this predator kill? When a hyena approached, I thought the vultures might have a chance. Rather than attack the rather defenseless cheetahs, the hyena decided to take a nap near by (and a few hours later after ran off and made a kill of its own with some fellow clan members). I guess three versus one isn’t great odds even when you are matching some of the strongest carnivore jaws (those of the hyena) with some of the weakest. As the sun sunk in the sky, it was time to go. The cheetahs had eaten nearly two-thirds of the topi and lay exhausted with bellies the size of basketballs. The vultures, whose numbers had dwindled throughout the afternoon, sat hungry – all their waiting for nothing.

The Mara

The last week has been filled with carcasses, vultures, dogs, and more car troubles (though just a puncture, which would be nothing if it weren’t for the mechanics in Talek). It has been one of those weeks where I get absorbed in my work and suddenly the African savannah fades away and I find myself obsessing over the data and falling into the routine of observing and counting.

I’ve reached the point where I really know the Mara. Everyday we drive through different areas and I look for the elephant herd with the little calf or the warthog family with the six piglets that have somehow made it through the last two months. Each geographical entity – each river crossing, fig tree, and termite mound – has significance – that was where I saw the cheetah kill a few weeks ago or there is the tree where I trapped my first Lappet-faced vulture (I couldn’t stop smiling as I held the soft, feathery beast). I know all the landmarks and the hiding places of each little herd or creature.

As we drive I look ahead, able to guess what we will see next as we round each bend. I know which dirt mound is likely to have a topi standing on it. These strange patchwork antelope with their twisted horns really seem to enjoy moving to higher ground for a better view. Then we pass the tree with the African white-backed vulture nest and I dutifully check for the bird – one of the first to start nesting this year, she has been on the nest each time we pass. Then I look carefully in the branches below the towering pile of sticks that make up the vulture nest for the Verraux’s Eagle Owl – a beautiful tufted ear bird with pink eyelids. Not their today, but perhaps this afternoon they will return. We drive through the smelliest river crossing and I listen for that unusual and enchanting sound – the murmur of slumbering hippos. I recount the time we saw the hippos mating here last year and Wilson nods in acknowledgement. As we continue onward I search for the group of tourist vehicles that will indicate that the cheetah boys are still near the hill. And on our drive home, I look in the concrete tubes that line an unfinished drainage area to the side of the road. “Is she there today?” I ask and Wilson slows so we can look through the tubes, like the lens of a camera, for the injured lioness. She seems to enjoy the shade and safety of these areas as her pride abandons her, with her wounded foot she isn’t able to keep up. “There she is,” Wilson motions and like the lion in the MGM symbol before a movie, the head pops up framed in the round cement tube.

Sometimes I think I know what to expect, but nature has a way of tricking you and offering new discoveries. What I thought was another tunnel-web spider hole turned out to the domain of some large cricket-like insect. As I fished inside the hole with a blade of grass the strong mandibles clamped down on the green instrument and pulled. The force surprised me as did the dark mass that began to emerge. At first I almost worried that it was a snake, but then I could just make out the antennae. The little creature came out just past its first set of legs – enough for me to see and be amazed, but not enough for any identification. Perhaps there are still things to be learned about the Mara afterall.

Insect of the underground
Insect of the underground

Spotted predators

Very full martial eagle
Very full martial eagle

When people come to Africa they come to see the Big Five. I’ve always found it a bit odd how the five most important species for hunting have somehow transferred their significance to the camera-wielding tourist crowd of present day. Most people aren’t even sure what the Big Five are, they just know they want to see them. Masai Mara has amble populations of all of the big five and occasionally people will see a rhino, buffalo, elephant, lion, and leopard all in the same day. Leopards are usually the hardest to find and although I have been fortunate enough to see one this trip in over a month that is exactly how many I have seen – one. But the leopard hasn’t been the only spotted carnivore avoiding me. I’ve seen surprisingly few Martial Eagles this season. Martials are your quintessential majestic eagle with deep yellow eyes, huge talons and a small grey crest at the back of their regal heads. They are mostly grey with a creamy white chest that is speckled with grey spots. Over the summer, I saw quite a few and one had even taken up residence in the nearby group ranch area of Koyiaki. On my drive back from Nairobi a few weeks ago I saw a Martial eagle like never before.
The huge eagle was sitting on a small shrub less than a foot from the road. Her crop was full – a bulging white sack at the base of her neck, showing that she had eaten recently. Even her beak was stained with red from her recent kill. She sat calmly as tourists stopped to admire the unexpected predator. I moved out of the way to watch her for a while. As she yawned and gulped, I noticed the kill. There wasn’t enough left to tell what it was, but the brown furry hide of some sort of antelope lay in the tall grass next to the eagle. Watching her capture and perhaps travel with that prey would have been something. Now she was all but ready for a nap. As the sun went down, I took one last look into her yellow eyes, wondering what small detail she might be staring at with her keen vision. Then it was time to go back to camp.