Today was one of those days that makes me want to stay here forever and at the same time leave right away because it isn’t going to get any better than this. We started with our usual sheep head observation. A slow morning we started with a juvenile Bateleur and a Tawny eagle. But it wasn’t long before a White-back, a pair of Lappets, and a pair of White-headed vultures were circling overhead.
At the same time, I noticed a pair of secretary birds wandering around nearby. Known for eating snakes, I didn’t imagine they would show too much interest in the carcass, but I managed to glace over at them once in a while just in case. Not long after the first Tawny had flown away with its monstrous share of the meat, I noticed three bat- eared foxes scampering along in the tall grass. The secretary birds also took an interest and were soon chasing down the foxes and scaring them away. With the foxes gone, the gangly looking birds turned their attention to the juvenile Bateleur who had finally gotten a chance to eat with the Tawny eagle gone. No longer, soon the secretary birds were upon him, flying down at him as he spread his wings in defense. Soon he had no choice but to leave and the secretarys stood over the sheep head, claiming victory. I sat patiently wondering how exactly they planned to eat this cumbersome hunk of meat with such small beaks. But they showed no interest in the food and just stood nearby waiting for the next unsuspecting subject. Who happened to be my favorite, the White-headed vulture.
The male of the pair had decided to try his wing at the food, but was quickly pounced upon by the secretary birds and had to fly off as well. It wasn’t until a hyena noticed all the commotion that the sheep head was finally finished and the secretary birds decided to move on. After this totally unheard of all out assault from the
secretary birds, I figured the exciting part of the day was over.
Given the hyena’s assistance, the observations had ended early and we headed off for the afternoon transect.
We stopped next to a small tree and discovered eleven lions snoozing.
Four females, two males (one which I have since named scar due to the large black slash under his eye), and five cubs of varying age, it was quite a sight. Luxuriously relaxed one of the females rolled onto her back and the cub pounced upon the ripe swollen nipples. She quickly flipped back over and surprisingly they moved to the next lioness and got a drink there. “They share,” Wilson announced in awe.
As each female slowly changed position to hide her goods, the cubs got restless and decided to climb the tree that was providing shade for the whole pride. One after another, they clumsily pawed their way up to a low-lying branch and then fought to get comfortable and rest among the tree’s limbs, their paws and tails hanging down above the others’ heads.
After an hour of lions, I figured we should get back to work and we noticed a long line of cars. Could it be a carcass? Like the vultures that we are, we drove over to see what the others were looking at. A leopard was hiding in the tall grass. Like a spy on a mission, it hunkered down and crept towards a small herd of gazelle. At one point it reached an open patch and like some Austin Powers movie, it felt a need to roll (not somersaulting like an assassin), but on to it back and then back on to its bent limbs before continuing the march forward. It got within five feet of the herd, just close enough that I was desperately aiming my camera, not daring to miss such a shot.
Even as the leopard moved out of our view, the gazelles were not left unaware and soon spotted the spotted cat and took off. Not quite the end result I had hoped for, but predators are rarely successful and it is unusual for a leopard to hunt so early in the day, so it wasn’t too surprising. Perhaps better luck next time.
I would like to tell you that the first sound I ever heard a hippo make was the magical one that I am listening to right now. A strange combination of whale and horny cow (or at least that’s how the Masai describe my impression of it), the call of the hippo has always seemed almost mystical to me and is what got me first interested in these much understudied animals. As I stood before the cavernous riverbank of the Mara, I imagine the wildebeest crossing in the hundreds and the crocodiles lying up along the bank. I also picture the long line of tourist vehicles that will soon squat along the edge watching the action. Today it is just me and Wilson and I listened, enchanted once more, to the deep reverberating whistle of the hippo as it echoes off the river’s walls and filled my chest.
Like I said, I would like to tell you it was this magical tune that initially warmed my heart to the hippo. But I would be lying. In fact, the first noise I ever heard that was produced by a hippo was a metallic clang, clang, clang, ping, ping, ping, ping. This is the sound that comes from the other end of a hippo. In this case a hippo at Busch Gardens in Tampa Bay. Many years ago, I went to an overnight camp held at the zoo and worked with the hippos (so yes, I paid to pick up shit). My first day behind the scenes with the hippos and the big female, Cleo (the oldest hippo in captivity – nearly 40 at the time) was defecating along the metal wall of her indoor tank. As she flickered her tail, equipped with special bristles like a toothbrush for maximum effect, her dung flew left, right, and four feet into the air whacking every solid object around her. It wasn’t until after she finished this terrific show of hippo tail dexterity that she made the sweet call that would captivate me for years to come and cost me two years of my life.
Back on the river’s edge, I put the camera back in the car, having captured enough hippo “yawns” for the day (hippos like to show off their teeth and can spread their massive jaws almost 180 degrees). I returned to the bank to say good-bye to my previous and currently neglected love. I was saluted with the usual hippo dung-fling and took that as a sign that it was time to get back to my current endeavor – the birds.
However, if I thought I was done seeing hippos for the day I was surely mistaken. On the drive home a huge male hippo with a nice red gash under his throat blocked our path. As the car descended into a small river crossing, the hippo turned to face us and then trotted away, its buttocks shaking in defeat. Given the hour (only about 4:30
PM) he was probably a young male, who had been kicked out of the river for some unacceptable escapades. The gash was a mark that he had lost his first battle of the day and wasn’t interested in any further clashes.
On the way to the Mara Triangle Conservancy, a separately managed area on the far west of the reserve, we passed the largest elephant I have ever seen. We were traveling at speed since the drive to the triangle from Talek is almost two hours and we were aiming to start our work by 8:30. The elephant had its back turned but was quite close to the road. As the car whizzed past, it whirled around swinging its trunk in the air and showing off two tusks that were easily longer than my entire body. Dust burst in the air at the movement of his bulk, but soon all that could be seen was the dust from our vehicle.
The Triangle is staggeringly beautiful and nearly empty of tourists.
It is a bit marshier than other parts of the park and we actually saw an otter! I know, I wasn’t even sure if otters lived in Africa, but I checked and they do and it was definitely an otter. It leaped from a small pond on one side of the road to the marsh on the other, its slick black fur making it unmistakable.
We also discovered that the Triangle has more Tsetse flies than other parts of the park – something that the two gaping holes in my shoulder can attest to. Generally known for caring the plague of sleeping sickness and thus preventing cattle from living in various parts of Africa before their extermination, the Tsetse fly also has a rather painful bite and a habit of being attracted to dark colors.
Unfortunately I happened to be wearing a black shirt (one of their favorite colors as it resembles the buffalo) and got nailed twice in the shoulder before we finally grabbed the little bugger and tossed it from the window. After the bite, I now understand why there was near hysteria in Ghana when one such fly got into the car.
Giraffes are one of those rare spectacles of the savannah. At 17 feet tall, their heads rise above all the nearby trees and you often only see the horns as you drive past. I always marvel at the seemingly slow-motion movements of the giraffe as they change gait patterns and run away from passing vehicles. Suddenly all four feet seem to be moving at once and yet despite their great height they don’t seem to go anywhere.
One thing I have noticed recently is that giraffe babies often come in threes. Giraffes, like most large mammals, are more or less incapable of having twins, so I know each baby must come from a different mother. Yet so often one finds three baby giraffes together with only one or two adults nearby. It seems like a nursery for the smallest of the tallest, but for some reason only three children are allowed. The three little ones usually stick together following each other around as “danger” nears, whatever they perceive that to be. They are almost never appear to be feeding and must still be dependent on mother’s milk.
Today was a little different. Rather than the usual sheep’s head and transect routine, we spent the whole day at a lion kill. On past safaris, I have often wondered what happens after those 15 minutes that you spend watching – are there epic battles among the lions, who else comes to visit the kill, will the hyenas turn up before night falls as the kitties sleep? Well today was my chance to find out. It was also an important set of observations for the vulture work. There is a little debate among scientists about the importance of predator kills for scavengers like vultures. As you might know, hyenas used to get a lot of bad rap for just stealing from the lions, but now we know better and studies have shown that the stealing is often in the opposite direction with lions not only stealing from but also killing hyena cubs. With vultures, the debate is over whether they use and obtain a substantial amount of their meat from predator kills (and are thus reliant on them) or whether they are simply using their incredible eyesight to find sick and dying animals that the predators never even notice. The vulture scientists and minimal existing literature say predator kills mean squat to vultures. To complicate things they admits that vultures do go to predator kills, but that they don’t get much food there. All the reliable data on this comes from some studies by a guy named Houston in the 1970s and most were done in the Serengeti. So people argue it was just a fluke of the Serengeti vultures. Being in the Mara, I am looking at the same vultures (more or less), yet still people contend that they rely on predator kills here. So in any case, today would represent data point two (I also saw a cheetah kill) on the predator kill debate.
When we arrived at the dead buffalo scene, there were marabous, vultures, jackals, and of course some circling Tawny Eagles everywhere. The lions were mainly sleeping, but a few were still eating keeping all the scavengers at bay. We waited for the scavenger wars to begin, but the lions just kept on eating. They took turns ripping pieces of meat off and fighting about it. Eventually a young male with a burgeoning mane (like those first few hairs on a teenage boy) wandered over and had his fill. Finally the big male came out and along with two females dragged the huge carcass with considerable effort closer to the trees. Then they fought over the shade. As the day waned on, the majestic animals went to use the royal john, squatting in anguish to rid themselves of a small fraction of the buffalo that had just consumed. Before long, 1 PM had rolled around and all the scavengers had given up. After some sunning, the vultures had finally taken off and the jackals were nowhere to be found. Then finally, two hooded vultures came on the scene. Because the lions had dragged the carcass over several feet, there were a few scraps several feet away from the pride of 11. In their typical nonchalant manner, the hooded vultures began picking through the dirt where the carcass had previously been. They even went so far as to sort through the stomach contents (which are generally avoided by everyone except the dung beetles) for the last few remaining scraps. By 4 PM, that had been the extent of the vulture action and I felt greater belief in the standing vulture expert dogma that predator kills just aren’t that important for the birds.
Today I witnessed the softer side of vultures. At one of my carcasses, two Lappet-faced vultures arrived and scared off everyone else. They are huge birds with 2m wingspans, weighing in at about 8kg, so it was no wonder the others leave them alone. I think of the Lappet-faced vultures as the bodyguards of the savannah. After they land they will race at other birds with a hunched posture and the black feathers of their body framing their mass as the white feathers of their chest puff out. Once they were left to themselves, the two Lappet-faced vultures took turns feeding. Every once in a while, they would stop and look at each other and press their beaks together, as if for reassurance. While one ate, the other would remain vigilant, probably looking for other Lappets or hyenas that might be sneaking up on them. They weren’t without their quarrels though and occasionally one bird would try to feed while the other was taking a momentary breather. The feeding bird would immediately nip the other, lightly on the neck and holding on for only a few seconds. It was clearly just a love bite as those beaks are capable of ripping the tendons out of a buffalo’s knee or pulling apart the jaws of a Thomson gazelle, but hardly even evoked a response from the partner bird and certainly didn’t leave a mark.
I also saw my first Lappet-faced vulture chick today – so adorable (though admittedly a face only a mother could love). The little chick’s head was the exact replica of the adult, naked and pink with a dark black beak and round beady eyes. Yet the chick’s body unlike the adult was missing all the feathers.
Early morning is the best time to see cats and this morning was no exception. There, sneaking and slinking through the tall golden grass, was the largest cat in Africa. Smooth yellow fur lined the lioness and her muscles could be seen as she lifted each arm. Surprisingly it appeared that she was alone and so were we – the lone vehicle to witness her silent wanderings.
Elephants can be seen anytime of day and usually don’t require too much searching. Large grey blobs they speckle the landscape on many hillsides and plains throughout the Mara. Each herd has its treasured newborn – the tiny elephant whose head barely reaches over the long grass. Elephant calves are always fascinating to watch. Just like young children who stare curiously at their own hands as they absent-mindedly scratch themselves, it takes elephant babies a while to learn how to use their trunks. I once watched a young calf struggle again and again to pick up a single strand of grass. Someone once told me that elephants have more muscles in their trunk than we do in our entire bodies. This gives them both incredibly power and dexterity and an adult elephant can easily pick up both huge fallen logs and a tiny piece of hair. But this baby couldn’t figured out how to do either. Again and again he looped his long nose around the grass and then as he lifted his trunk would slowly loose grip and end up with nothing. After many attempts, he knelt down on his front legs like a warthog and tried to pry the grass from the ground using his teeth. Again the trunk thwarted him, preventing his mouth from reaching the base of the grass. Despite his determination, the little elephant had failed to remove a single piece of food and he finally went over to his mother for some reassurance and milk.
At first it looked like a huge rock with two humps and a smooth muddy surface. As we approached, we could see more definition and I knew this was no rock. It was a huge black rhino! Tattered ears and oxpeckers sitting along its back, the rhino seemed rather uneasy. It flicked its head from side to side trying to dislodge the birds that will usually just feed on insects living on large mammals, but will occasionally pick at sore spots as well. Finally the rhino lay down, lifting its huge head up as its rear came down. I got one glimpse of its spectacular face and thin lip, the distinguishing feature of the black rhino. As it lay in the tall grass, all that could be seen was the pointy tip of its horn, which lifted up and down occasionally, like some huge dancing snake.
Not long after seeing the rhino, I found myself actually looking at a snake – a big snake in fact. Sitting right in the middle of the road was a six-foot cobra. It was peacefully sunning and had its hood flared, giving it a look as if it might strike at any moment. It was in fact totally unconcerned with our presence. We stopped the car and waited. Slowly the black snake seemed to notice that it was in the way and decided to retract its hood (making it much less threatening looking) and slithered away.
June 7, 2009
A day at camp
After conducting 9 straight days of transects and behavioral observations (all of which are going great), I finally feel comfortable taking a break and have decided to spend the day at the lodge Ilkeliani. After sleeping in, I awoke to the sounds of birds and the rustling of the wind. I opened my tent to discover a pair of banded mongoose standing on the doormat. Both they and I seemed unsure of what to do next. I wanted to grab my camera, but knew they weren’t going to wait around for that. So I just watched as they tip-toed off to the river’s edge. After breakfast, I went to get something from my car, only to find a gorgeous green and yellow sunbird admiring himself in the side mirror. He fluttered back into a tree and I watched him get some nectar out of the nearby flowers. Later in the afternoon, I rested on the couch outside my tent, stretched out and enjoying the breeze. Just as I was starting to get engrossed in a good book, I looked up to find some swallows constructing a nest in the bars holding up the canvas above the tent. The bird looked to be building up some spit, so that he could moisten the mud nest that it was working on. Otherwise I have just been happy to enjoy the blue sky and rushing water as I work on some data entry.
At night everything changes in the Mara. The nocturnal animals awaken. In the dining hall, a genet cat might sneak in to look for scraps. The temperature drops, often the rains come, and the world becomes dark. With almost no ambient light, the stars and moon are always spectacular. As one shifts from the visual world to the auditory, you become aware of all the sounds of the Mara as well. Not a night has gone by at Ilkeliani, where I haven’t heard the cries of the hyena. More recently I have been able to hear the deep, rib-cage shaking roar of the lions. I always find my skin prickles as I imagine these massive cats wandering the plains and taking down the huge buffaloes. Sometimes I even hear the unusual call of the hippo, moving through Talek river right next to camp. Hippo’s skin is very sensitive to the sun, so they are often sequestered to the water during the day. It is only at night that they are able to feed tromping through the riverside vegetation for their evening meal of grass.