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!