When something miraculous happens you don’t really expect it to happen again, so when we found another bird with a backpack that had given up the ghost I didn’t really think we could trap it. In fact it seemed fool-harden to even try, but the Ruppell’s vulture in question was already panting from its fights at the carcass and was very very full. The backpack in question had also slipped into a rather uncomfortable position and so I felt anxious to trap the bird not just to release it from the weight, but also from the discomfort of the unit. Plus catching it would mean one more unit that could be refurbished and thus a bit more information that we could gain about these amazing birds. So with no further adieu we were off and chasing the bird. It didn’t take long until I found myself outside the car running alongside it as it turned its snake-like neck in my direction. Ruppell’s vultures are considerably more aggressive than Lappet-faced and I gave it some distance before finally throwing the blanket over its head. I pulled out my Swiss army knife and with four swift snips the backpack was off and the bird was on its way.
Unit in hand I could now read the number and figure out which bird this was exactly (it didn’t have a wing tag like the other one). I had caught this bird in August last year in the Mara of course only to have its unit appear to stop working in December. It wouldn’t be until March that I got signal from the bird again since it made the longest journey of any of our study birds. This bird had gone all the way to Ethiopia and crossed into Sudan where it had spent nearly three months. Now a full year later it had returned to feed on the wildebeest in Kenya’s Mara and (unexpectedly for the bird) to suffer the same fate of being trapped again, though this time to have a little weight removed rather than added. I really couldn’t believe it – I had just touched a bird that had been to two countries that I have never seen, a bird that had travelled thousands of kilometers to be here again; a bird that had truly taught us something with the unit and would now gift us a little more information with its unit back in my hand.
It is always an adventure to go to the Triangle. It is also rather far away. So we started off early and travelled to the two hours to the entrance along the Mara Bridge. There is only one bridge to cross the Mara and this is it (unless you dare to travel the long rocky roads to the north of the park which will take you out and around the mighty river). On our way to the bridge, we came across a carcass and we drove off the road to get a closer look. As we neared the rowdy flock of vultures, we heard a small bleating shriek, the noise of an animal making one last plea for life. Oh God, I thought, we ran it over. We looked left to see a reedbuck doe leaping from the brush and with eyes squinted closed in disgust, I looked right to see the inevitable – the calf we had run over. The brown fuzzy mass was more adorable than I could have imagined and lay flat tucked into a small sedge behind us. We reversed for a closer look. With a deep breath of despair, I looked at the small creature but there was no blood and no sign of a track mark. Was it dead? Suddenly the ears wiggled and I assumed the worst – we had injured it severely but not killed it. A friend joining us for the day stepped from the car and lay a hand slowly and gently on the animal’s back. The same mournful bleat emerged from its body and it pushed itself up on the wobbly legs of an infant designed for hiding and promptly, decisively, ran away. We hadn’t killed it after all. We had run over it, but hadn’t actually hit it, just covered it with the car for a few frightening moments. My feeling of relief quickly returned us to the task at hand and the observations at the carcass began.
An hour later we were back on the road heading towards the bridge was more. We arrived to find the stench of drown wildebeest and the sound of fighting vultures though the primary bird was actually the Marabou stork. These partially immersed and immensely rotten carcasses were perfect for their long wading legs and beak and they wandered around poking and proding each carcass with glee. After the usual negotiation with the rangers at the gate we made our way into the triangle. Just a few kms in we came across a group of feasting lions with vehicles a bit too close for comfort. One was following the lions closely as they moved away from their kill and stopped with a lionness’ head just beyond the driver’s reach out the front window. A second lion moved to the back of the car and actually went under the car for a closer look. The lion seemed to be rummaging around under there and the driver drove forward in an effort to escape this unexpected attack. As he neared the road it was clear something was wrong. We had stopped along the road to watch a Hooded vulture and Tawny eagle who had arrived at the carcass and the tour guide now drove up to us looking for help. The lions had chewed through his fuel pipe he explained as he questioned whether we had anything he could repair it with. I gave him the dirtiest look I could muster for driving too close in the first place and then handed him a roll of duct tape.
We continued on the main road until we came across another odd sight – two tourists out of the car, grabbing some glistening creature with their bare hands. I was confused, but mildly impressed. What brave ladies to go after a snake like that, but what were they doing. As we neared we could see the slimy bodies lying in the ditch along a large pool of water. Catfish had haplessly followed the stream to their dooms and these women were trying to save them. A rather sad, though valiant, effort that was unlikely to result in any real savior given the catfish would likely repeat their folly, but I grabbed a bucket and joined them (partially as Wilson had said he had seen a lungfish which would have been an exciting first for me). As a team we herded the fish into the bucket and I flung them back in the pond one by one. Satisfied that we had saved them all, the ladies returned to their vehicle and I refilled the bucket with our vulture trapping supplies before we continued on. It wouldn’t be until four hours later, when we passed the pond again, that I would realize that a hippo had been hiding there all along. How fortunate we were that the disturbance of tossing catfish had scared rather than annoyed it.
Carcasses are not just for vultures. In fact, a huge number of animals eat carcasses. Hyenas and jackals are regular connoisseurs but lions and mongoose will also partake. Warthogs often show a lot of interest in carcasses and even baboons will get in on the meat when they can. On one particular interesting occasion, I watched a hippo play with a drown wildebeest, grabbing it by the tail and flinging it around in an unsuccessful effort to break it apart. Today’s carcass consumer takes the cake. This morning we came across a large herd of giraffe right up near the main entrance and walking along briskly. The giraffes were bending down occasionally in the awkward way that they must with front legs spread so that their head can touch the ground. Their heads leaned close to a small black object and I assumed they were getting a drink from the many rain puddles that have formed in this surpringly rainy dry season. As we neared the huge animals, it became clear that they were doing something else. They were licking an old wildebeest carcass. Two male giraffe stood next to each other taking turns bending over to lick the carcass. Upon lifting their heads, they would phlem (a behavior usually reserved for trying to decode female giraffe urine and assess whether or not the female would be receptive) as if processing this new food source. The carcass they had chosen was quite dry and withered – a mere peel of what had once been a thriving animal. One giraffe began grabbing the carcass, pulling it along the ground with its monstrous head. Then in a seemingly effortless act (and act I was particularly impressed with given the giraffe only have a bottom set of front teeth), the giraffe grasped the carcass (more in its lips than its mouth really) and lifted it the full 16 feet to its erect height. The giraffe stood with the wildebeest carcass in its mouth. The carcass hung a few feet down from the giraffes’ jaws, horns hanging to one side and ribs extended beyond the skin. Then the giraffe dropped the carcass and it fell to the ground, only to be lifted once more. Three or four giraffes gathered around two different carcasses, licking and lifting the dried bits of meat. I’ve heard of giraffes sucking on bones to get the calcium, but actually lifting the carcass seemed particularly unusual. Perhaps the dead wildebeest were the latest source of salt for giraffes, but that still didn’t really explain why they would go so far as to lift them up. Nonetheless it was a truly interesting sighting and definitely a new carcass consumer.
Carcasses are interesting because you never quite know who will show up. This morning I found a nearly finished carcass with a few jackals gnawing away at the bones and some vultures waiting nearby. The jackals looked full and I knew that soon it would be the vultures turn to eat. In the distance (and seemingly unrelated) were a small group of banded mongoose. The loose knit group of mongoose were wandering and foraging as one often sees them doing and appeared to be unaware of the birds just ahead of them. Martial eagles and other raptors will happily feed on mongoose and typically the “sentinel” mongoose who is keeping watch is quick to sound the alarm is such dangerous predators are seen nearby. But can mongoose tell the difference between an eagle and a vulture? Certainly Lappet-faced vultures are of comparable size to Martial and somewhat similar in coloration and shape. I was about to find out.
As the mongoose neared the carcass, several large adults stood upright and the previously dispersed group began to come together into a tight circle. What had previously been thirty or so individual foragers was now a large mass of wiggling bodies all working as one. The mass approached the carcass at speed and the jackals moved off. The Lappet-faced vulture flew off and the White-backed hopped away. The Marabou seemed more intrigued and when it took a snap at the family of mongoose, it soon realized it was outnumbered. The mongoose rushed at the attacking stork and quickly chased it away as well. Like a swarm of bees, they then surrounded the carcass and few of the larger animals appeared to be feeding. Within a few seconds, they had lost interest in the meat and quickly scurried away, finally allowing the vultures to feed.
The focus in the Mara is generally on the carnivores (and in my case the vultures), but there are so many other fascinating little creatures to behold in this amazing savannah. Banded and dwarf mongoose are common and I often stop to watch the antics of these social little creatures. Most recently I even saw a small group of banded mongoose at the crossing, darting among the vultures and Marabou storks in search of some wildebeest meat. Then while over in Musiara marsh I had some great views of this dwarf mongoose. The tiny creature wandered around in search of its small insect prey only to find a nice hollow tree to scavenge through.
Yesterday I spotted this grey kestrel right along the road. It was waiting patiently along a termite mound as flighted new queens erupted from the ground, preparing to search for a new place to start a colony as the smell of rain blessed the air. The kestrel got a few termites before being chased off by a rather aggressive White-bellied bustard who wanted to claim the mound for his own use.
At lunch I had an exciting run-in with another small creature. As I took my seat on the ground looking across the plains for my picnic lunch, my guide scared an Agama lizard that had been hiding a few feet away. Startled, the lizard booked it towards the nearest tree, which happened to me in my general direction. I barely caught sight of it as it raced into me and then up into the safety of the tree.
As I watched the squabbling vultures at a nearly finished wildebeest carcass, I noticed a Marabou stork behaving strangely. It jerked from side to side and leaned close to the ground as if about to pick something up, only to jump back again wings spread. I focused my binoculars on the bird to get a look at what was happening. Lying in front of the cunning Marabou lay a long slim green snake, head raised in attack as the bird reached for it again. The snake lunged but the Marabou still got in a nice bite to the back and easily avoided the fangs. Again and again the snake lunged and the Marabou ducked until finally the Marabou grabbed the snake by the head. By this time another stork and an inquisitive African white-backed vulture had come to see what their friend might have. Given that sharing such a meal was unlikely, the disappointed birds walked way, shrugging their shoulders (as vultures always do) as they raced back to the carcass.
Snake in beak the Marabou shook its prey and the snake writhed, coiling its mass with little way of escaping. Within minutes the battle was over but the war was not yet won. The Marabou now held in its mouth a three foot snake that hung limply, but how to swallow such a beast would be a bit of a challenge. The first attempt the Marabou managed to get the snake about two feet down its throat before spitting it up again to try a new position. The second attempt went much smoother and like a magician pulling a long colorful line of scarves from his sleeve, the snake disappeared into the gullet of the stork.
Vultures aren’t generally known for their affection, but on rare occasions you do see acts of kindness. Merely the fact that vultures spend so much time at the carcass long after they are full is perhaps a sign of how much they enjoy each other’s company. Allopreening, when one animal cleans another, is surprisingly common and I have know seen it between members of the same species for all five species present in the Mara. Lappet-faced vulture pairs will lovingly comb through the feathers of their mate and juvenile White-backed vultures will preen each other as they stand on a mound near a carcass waiting their turn to feed. Today was the first time I had seen “preening” between species. A full juvenile Lappet-faced vulture stood next some other successful birds of the White-backed variety. She tilted her head and eyed them carefully as if this was perhaps her first close glance at one. She inspected the neighboring bird with interest. Then she reached towards it, gently, not in the typical aggressive style of feeding birds, but simply so that she might touch the other bird with her beak. The White-back stood by calmly, closing its eyes during the tender embrace. But then the inspection got a bit too personal. Perhaps enticed by the red (carcass-like) patches on the White-backs shoulders, the young Lappet went in for a nibble, testing to see if these “pieces of meat” might come off. In offense, the White-backed scooted back just out of reach of the next love bite.
Carnivores have it easier in the Mara, especially this time of year when the park is filled with wildebeest. As I drive around searching for carcasses, the number of lion, leopard, and cheetah kills has been staggering (though the number of vultures at these carcasses is usually minimal). Thus it shouldn’t be too surprising that some carnivore moms are atypically successful. For no animal could this be more true than the cheetah I saw today. We drove up to see just one cheetah sitting in the short grass under the shade of a small Orange Leaf Blossom bush. She didn’t have a kill and I was just about to head out when I realized there were many more spots in the bushes. In the fact, the spots of not one but seven cheetahs were clearly visible. Although cheetahs can often have large litters it is unusual for more than two or three of the cubs to survive. Yet lying in a heap of freckles were six healthy nearly full grown cheetah cubs. Super Mom had made it happen. Having had a short rest, Super Mom was back to business and got up with a large stretch and a yawn before ducking low to get a closer look at some nearby Thomson gazelles. The cubs took interest too getting up one by one to see if it was time to hunt. Mom had decided they better wait and returned to a bush near the cubs for another much deserved nap.
It is a cool morning in the Masai Mara. I wait patiently almost 100m from the carcass. The skies are empty and I know it will be another hour before the air warms and the birds take flight. In the meantime, I watch the wildebeest as they pass one by one in some sort of strange procession. They walk with such determination and purpose, following the rains and the grass as they continue their long migration. Finally the first bird arrives. He weaves left and right, left and right, circling once, twice, before finally landing. The Bateleur positions himself close to the carcass and is just about to start feeding when the next bird arrives. I can hear the screeches of plovers before I even see the brown mass hurdle itself to the ground. The Tawny Eagle lands right next to the Bateleur. A long stare and a short jump and possession of the carcass has already shifted. The Tawny begins gorging itself as the Bateleur takes to the skies once more. After several beak fulls, the Tawny notices a small loose piece and just in time. As she reaches her talons around the meat, the next scavenger arrives. I know the White-headed vulture is female because of the white secondaries that fan her body. Her size isn’t enough to intimidate the Tawny, but with a piece of food in her talons, the eagle soon takes off and lands in a nearby tree to finish its food alone. This suits the White-headed female just fine and she rips off a piece of flesh with great vigor. Who says all vultures are ugly? Looking at the White-headed vulture I am reminded of the Geishas of Japan – beak unnaturally red, powdered white face, and just a touch of blue and purple to vitalize the face. Even the manners are cool and controlled and the female pauses occasionally to glance around.
Unfortunately her meal is also short-lived as a pair of Lappet-faced vultures come rushing in, their feet hanging beneath them as they hop into their landing. The red-headed pair seem to have an agreement and one Lappet-faced vulture begins feeding as the other tilts its head, eye-looking up and to the sides checking for intruders. Wings positioned to the side, the Lappets move towards the White-headed vulture, pushing her aside with ease. The White-headed vulture backs away peacefully though not without one gentle bite in the direction of the Lappets. As one member of the Lappet pair rips into the carcass, the other occasionally lowers its head hoping for a bite. Then the marital dispute begins and the feeding bird gently bites its mate on the neck, releasing to look her in the eye, beaks touching as they lift their heads in unison. Battle resolved the first bird goes back to feeding.
The first African White-backed vulture seems to have come from nowhere and yet a quick glance to the sky reveals nearly twenty African White-backs and Ruppell’s vultures that have recently found the carcass. After the initial landing, these Gyps vultures seem to pour in one after another. Soon the carcass has vanished beneath a pile of squirming, fighting, and screeching birds. The vultures let out hisses and squeaks as they squabble for position and in the end only about half the group feeds. By this point a pair of Hooded vultures and a single Marabou Stork are hanging around the periphery of the carcass. The Hoodeds grab small pieces that seem to go unnoticed by their comrades and the Marabou steps into the steal the larger pieces of meat as they are dislodged from the carcass by the African White-backed vultures.
We caught our fifth Ruppells this morning and were able to attach a GSM-GPS unit. The data from the other birds has been amazing so far. We have a Lappet-faced vulture who nests outside the park, but comes into feed and who has been clocked at 87 km/hr then there is a Ruppells Vulture that travelled 130 km in a single day. In any case, we had to chase down the bird and then were able to get blood, attach a wing tag, and strap on the backpack with the unit. The whole procedure usually takes 30 minutes and most of the vultures remain fairly calm during the whole procedure. This bird was tired when we got it and remained still as I looped the straps of the backpack around its wings and tied on the unit. Then as we tilted it slightly to make sure everything was in order, Wilson, my field assistant who was holding the bird, lost control. Despite having the bird’s head and feet still in his hand, he was unable to stop it from rising and coming at me. Wings spread – the bird came at me. I tried to rise from my bent legs and move away, but I was too slow. His yellow beak reached my leg, right along the inner thigh, and sunk in. With jaws and bill that are designed to rip hunks of meat off a dead animal, the bite stung and left quite a mark. I rose and could feel blood oozing from the wound, but a handle on the bird regained we went back to work collecting blood and putting on the wing tag.
The rest of the day was spent looking for nests, but we found more than that along the way. Three cheetah lay resting under the small shade of an Acacia tree. One yawned and stretched only to lie back down – about as much energy as it could muster in the heat of the day. Then on the way to another vulture nest we passed a lion – huge male with a pink and black patched nose and the dark mane of a healthy adult. He was breathing heavily and from the looks of it was completely stuffed (most likely from a recent meal of wildebeest). His body heaved with each breath and he looked absolutely exhausted. Then past a small mound we noticed the ears of a cat. It turned out to be the elusive leopard. Relaxing on the tiny hill, he stared at us and then decided to search for food, slinking away stealthily. But it wasn’t just cats that we saw, we also passed a bat-eared fox, who initially decided to hide in a small hole and then sprinted off into the distance.