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.
Nearly 600 wildebeest have drown in the last week. It isn’t so much that the water is high as the fact that the wildebeest are stupid. After watching the crossing, it really is the only impression one is left with. Why, why do they cross that way? You sit as the herds approach, anticipation building as they near the beckoning water, filled with crocodiles and completed with a cliff. The wildebeest have reached the edge and take a drink before beginning what will likely be the hardest part of their journey. You look across the river and it seems clear. The current is strong, so the wildebeest will need to start a bit upstream to aim for the least steep part of the opposite bank; only then will they be able to get out safely. The zebras seem to agree with the observers and though they don’t give themselves much leeway they make it to the safest part of the bank and go up the steady incline. Not only do the wildebeest not aim upstream to make the crossable area, they aim farther downstream directly into a rocky bank that is completed with a five foot cliff that none will be able to pass. In a gentler world, the wildebeest would turn back once they realize their error, but when crossing in the hundreds one doesn’t have such options. The animals soon find themselves packed against the banks with a few struggling to go up but many trapped in the river and squished into the banks. As more animals pour into the river, the few in the middle slowly slip beneath the water, unable to swim any longer. They will appear downstream in a few days as the rotting corpses on which the vultures will gorge. Blotted and rotten the dead wildebeest pile together creating great island on which the Ruppell’s and African white-backed vultures will walk and fight.
For a few of the stronger swimmers there awaits another fate. Some wildebeest are able to break free of the herd and turn around. They doggy-paddle their way back to the other shore in great effort and exhaustion, but they don’t go unwatched. Lurking in the distance, a crocodile enters the scene. Ancient, hard, and build for the water, they have waited all year for this special moment. The crocodile enters the herds and waits a few meters back. As the stragglers turn around and try to get back to the original bank, they drift right up to the crocodile who holds himself in place with his powerful tail. A splash and a crunch and the wildebeest vanishes beneath the waters. Strong enough not to drown, but not strong enough to escape such a magnificent killing machine. Gluttons after months of famine, the crocodiles move in again and again – killing three wildebeest in less than an hour and storing them along the riverbank for later consumption.
I’m back in the Mara and what a spectacular field season it is looking to be. The wildebeest have returned in great numbers and have been crossing the Mara river every few days. Lions are looking healthier than ever and several mating pairs have been seen. On my first day back, I managed to see a beautiful Black rhino mom and baby relaxing peacefully in the shade. In the afternoon, we came upon one of my favorite small cats – the serval. Sleek and slim it was sneaking through the grass in search of some unsuspecting songbird. Elephants have been plentiful with some adorable small babies witnessing their first wildebeest migration. I suspect the little ellies are also amazed by the number of odd-looking new neighbors that have moved in. Huge buffalo, topi, and eland herds have also graced the plains as well as the zebra who dutifully follow the wildebeest. So I had nearly seen all the big five in just the first few days, the only one missing was one of my favorite cats.
We came upons a small pride of lions resting under a tree in the marshy area not too far from Musiara Gate. The lions were sleeping so I was ready to go when we noticed that there was more going on here then had initially met the eye. The tree the lions were sleeping under wasn’t empty. In fact way at the highest branch (which was particularly high, perhaps 20 meters, on this tall Wahlbergia) lay a nervous mother leopard. Though we would later be told that two small cubs had accompanied her in this desperate escape up the tree, we only saw the mother. She was in a real pickle as there would be no way for her to go down with those lions below. One could only hope that the larger cats would take mercy on her and give her some room.