Meet Lucy, Lucifer, and Linneaus

Trapping Lappet-faced vultures is never easy. Yet this time it was. We caught three birds in just four days and I have never been so happy or relieved in all my life. In the past we have trapped several Lappets, but because two of them were poisioned in the first few months and three of them had GSM-GPS units that happened to fail in the first month, we still know very little about their movement. It is certainly less than that of the African white-backed or Ruppell’s vultures, but just as variable with some birds leaving the Mara to spend a month in Ngorogoro Conservation Area, some hanging out in Athi River, and others just sticking close to home in the Mara through almost the entire year. Unfortunately almost all the Lappets we have trapped in the past seem to spend an enormous amount of time in the areas bordering the park – the exact areas where so much of the poisoning seems to take place. I guess it is no surprise that of four Lappet-faced vultures tagged our first year, we lost 50% to poisoning.
As always when trapping the birds we found that each bird was wonderful and unique. Our first bird, a juvenile Lappet-faced vulture was sweet and calm as Lappets so often are once you have them in hand. After we trapped her she lay perfectly still. It was as if we were her parents, doing something to her that only we understood, but which as a patient child she accepted that we knew best. We took blood and attached the backpack and she was soon on her way. I have seen little Miss Lucy as we named her almost five times since her release. She is still frequenting a nest, though her real parents have long since stopped caring for her. We have also found her at a few carcasses acting as juvenile birds usually do – rather confused and unsure of how to get past all the other vultures to the food and always highly offended when a competitor nibbles her to move her away.
The second bird was not so gentle. Lucifer, the second Lappet-faced vulture, managed to grab my finger as I was reaching around his shoulders to attach the backpack. As I realized my finger was in his enormous beak, part of a head that I couldn’t even fit my hand around, I wondered if I was about to lose this important digit. Fortunately he only crunched down for a moment and then released. My finger bled but with bird in hand there was no time to worry about it. I finished securing the backpack and released the bird before I finally took a good look at what happened. Considering the things I have seen Lappet-faced vultures do to a carcass, I felt very lucky that my injury was minimal. A simple love slice on each side of my left hand’s middle finger – it was tender for a few days but healed quickly.
The final bird was my favorite and alluded capture a few times only to find itself in our hands. Linneaus was a gorgeous adult with the strange soft downy feathers of the Lappets covering his chest. When we released him we left him covered in the blanket since it has started to rain. His head was out and the blanket was only loosely wrapped around him but he still didn’t move. I was beginning to worry that something was wrong but when we approached again it was clear that he had decided this blanket was his nest. I wanted to make sure that he really was alright though, so we gently removed the blanket to which he chirped angrily and then was off. He too appears to have a nest and we have seen him with his mate a few times in a tree not too far from where we first caught him.
All three birds are doing great and I wait intently to see where they will go this year.

A Bird’s Eye View

How does a vulture see the world? So much of my research involves the belief that I have some understanding of this, yet how could an animal that spends its entire life on the ground, possibly understand the perceptions of one that spends its entirety in the air. Others have recognized the err in trying to study vultures from the savannah floor and have taken to the air. In fact so much so that when I first decided to study vultures one of the first things my previous advisor said to me was “just promise not to use an ultralight.” Several brilliant and dedicated field researchers have lost their lives in airplanes. Even one of the people with whom I work who has used planes to study vultures has been in several crashes of his own, so its no wonder the concern. Still while studying the foraging behavior, habitat use, and movement of vultures has worked quite well from the seat of my car, I am still curious as to what the landscape must look like from the air. So when I got the chance to fly up in a two-seater plane I was very excited.
The plane I would be taking was going over Athi River area just some 50 km from Nairobi. The Athi-Kapiti plains have proved important for vultures with one of my tagged Lappets spending nearly a month there feasting on the afterbirth and sick calves of Athi’s own migratory wildebeest herds (that move from there to Nairobi National Park). As I sat down in the tiny blue aircraft and smiled at the pilot, I hoped that my usual airsickness wouldn’t ruin the journey. I then buckled my seatbelt – always a good idea when the plane has no doors – and put on my helmet.
“See the ball at the end of your armrest,” said the pilot. “That’s the throttle, so try not to pull it.”
I looked towards my feet. “And see the peddles, those control the steering so try not to press them.” As I wondered how I would curl into a ball in this tiny plane so as not to press anything accidently, the pilot checked the fuel gauge and promptly took off.
I’ve seen savannahs from the air before but never with vultures so strongly in mind. No wonder they can find carcasses so quickly. You could see for kms on the ground below flying just a few hundred meters up and the sky around was so clear. I could easily imagine watching my fellow vultures drop from the clouds and quickly soaring over to follow them down to the food. The wildebeest and zebras below took no notice of us and we could simply scan the ground for food. Everything looked like a toy model – with trees sticking up like toothpicks and the height of the grass almost unperceivable. It was simply stunning and I was sad, though relieved, when it was time to land. What a gift it must be to see the world this way everyday as a vulture does!

The Red Park: Adventures in Tsavo

If I’ve learned anything from following the movements of GPS-tagged vultures, it is that vultures get around. Masai Mara is clearly a very important area for them, but when the wildebeest aren’t here many of the vultures try out some new locations. One area that about a third of the tagged individuals have used over the years is Tsavo. Tsavo actually consists two parks – two of the largest in the country – divided by the main highway leading from Mombasa to Nairobi.
In past years I have focused all my research on Masai Mara and the surrounding environment, but this year it seemed that it would be important to visit some of the other areas that the tagged birds had been doing. Not so much to see the actual tagged birds (though that would have been very exciting), but more to get a feel for the different habitats that the vultures are using in an effort to explain their movement choices. So last week, I set off on a five day journey through Tsavo West, Tsavo East, and the sanctuaries and cities in between. Along for the ride was photographer extraordinaire Karim (who was no novice to adventures in vulture research having joined Munir and I for the somewhat complicated trip to Kwenia last year).
Tsavo was different from the Mara – fewer tourists, fewer animals, huge red clay-stained elephants with tusks that I would have thought no longer existed, and trees and bushes galore. Camping in Tsavo the stars were beautiful and the sounds were novel with the trumpets of elephants and growls of lions added to the cattle bells and hyena moans of the Mara. The soil was red but the land was green and with so much brush the visibility was low.
Each day we found a unique treasure of Tsavo. The first night it was a waterhole with elephants. The second day it was the famed Mzima Springs – an area famous for its clear waters and hippos that I had long promised myself I would go to. The water was crystal clear – unlike any river or lake I had yet seen in Africa. You could literally see the fish beneath the surface and there was even a tiny viewing platform built into the water where you could look through glass to see the fishes (like an aquarium of wild fish). The hippos weren’t quite as close as I had hoped but we did see a freshwater eel – its immense body of at least four feet wrapped around a sunken log. The third day we visited Lugards Falls in Tsavo East, an expanse of canyons smoothed and shaped by the rushing rapids though with no real “falls” in sight. A crocodile had managed to wedge its way down the rapids into a small pool where it seemed to be struggling to stay afloat, though still fishing. A brief walk downstream and it was clear the animal was going to be in trouble with no clear way out of its little pool. The fourth day we drove through Taita Hills Sanctuary, a surprising gem just in between the two parks (and an area where vultures seem to spend considerable amounts of their time). The last day, through misfortune and luck (the gate we had entered didn’t have a “smartcard” machine so we had to drive to another entrance to pay meaning a rather large detour), we stumbled upon the lovely Lake Jipe, which borders Tanzania. The lake was teaming with wildlife, including several hippo pods and immeasurable number of pelicans, herons, and geese. Though seemingly undiscovered, the lake was visited by a large group of ex-militia Brits who had come to follow the trails of some of East Africa’s wars. Camping along the lake shores we fell asleep to the snorts of hippos and awoke to the trumpets of elephants (which were only about 50 m away from our tents).
The drive out of Tsavo was perhaps the most exciting of all since we got lost for nearly three hours and then had to drive back to Nairobi in the dark, but all in all the trip went on without a hitch.

The Ultimate Kill

All the tourists had been seeing leopards but with my focus on vultures and their nesting trees I hadn’t had many opportunities to enjoy the cats and I was beginning to get jealous. Today we came upon a beautiful, though small, leopard non-chalantly cleaning itself on a small mound in broad daylight. After a good wash, it was time for a good meal and the leopard immediately went into stalking posture as it moved through the tall grass around the vehicles. As it crossed the road it did a full roll (as I had seen another leopard do last year) and continued the hunt. Moving into the tall grass, it found a comfortable spot and decided to wait. Prey options abounded with a small ground of topi lying down in the distance, a small family of waterbuck walking past near by, and a young giraffe stumbling around about 200 meters from its unconcerned mother. The leopard just waited though, recognizing that with the road nearby something would pass on its own. And so it did. Two topi walked along the open path and were totally unaware until they got within about 50 meters of the leopard. When one of them spotted the spotted cat it began leaping and huffing and the two antelope raced off at speed.
So the leopard changed its strategy, crossing the road once more and returning to the small wooded waterway where it had been sunning previously. As it crept into the dense brush, I noticed a group of warthogs hanging out on the other side so we crossed over for closer inspection. Though the leopard had vanished in the brush, the intentions had been clear and I tensed as the mother warthog made the ill-advised choice to take her three youngsters into the woods. With no warning, the leopard leapt for a pig and the three survivors raced off in a cloud of dust, tails and hair raised in alarm.
Now that the hunt was over we rushed forward to see the action more closely. The leopard lay perfectly still, warthog clenched in her jaws and paws wrapped around her prey. The warthog twitched hopelessly in the final spasms of life. When the warthog stopped moving, the leopard started dragging it. The warthog, though not full grown, was still nearly two-thirds the size of the leopard. She struggled to get her feet around the hefty body as she moved her prey to safety back into the dense brush. When it seemed secure, she lay down for a good nap, panting deeply from the exertion.
We left her to eat in peace but returned several hours later to find the warthog carcass carefully stashed in a crevice along the waterway with the leopard still sitting by eating the intestines.

Jack of Cubs

Every lion pride seems to have at least five cubs and some have closer to ten. Cubs bring out the kitten in a lion with their playful antics. The cubs spend much of the day crouching behind clumps of grass so they can pounce on their siblings or being kicked by an unwilling mother as they attempt to suckle. Tourists stare in amazement as the cubs move from mother to mother trying to find a willing victim from whom they can get some attention or milk. When the pride makes a kill, the cubs find that they are not alone. As the adults lay down for a nap, the cubs chew on the remaining shoulder bone of a topi as scavengers gather. I watched as jackals tried to sneak up to the cubs only to find themselves chased by a lion only slightly bigger than themselves. Despite their small size, a lion cub could still give quite a whack and the jackals remain wary rushing in and away as the cubs come after them. The lioness paid no attention but for the cubs the chasing jackals appeared to be a fun game though they were cautious not to get too far from the pride.

Lion cub getting ready for the chase
Lion cub getting ready for the chase

The Grass Seed and the Spider

My fascination with arachnids continued as we sat in the grass having lunch. I noticed a small animal float before me and suddenly wiggle its way onto a grass stalk. Intrigued I took a closer look and discovered my first Kenyan crab spider. Crab spiders are amazing. They use very little silk and instead rely on their stealth to catch insects. Usually they can be found on flowers, waiting for an unsuspecting pollinator, such as a fly or a bee, to come to the flower. Some crab spiders can even change colors to blend in with the flower of their choosing. These small spiders get their names from the way they hold the two pairs of front legs, spread wide and ever ready to give some insect prey an unwelcome hug. This particular spider was camouflaging so well that it took me nearly touching it for my field assistant to see it. Initially it had been climbing around the grass stalk unaware, but when it noticed the attention it was receiving it went into hiding mode. It looked just like a part of the grass stalk with its legs stretched out like tiny seeds.

Crab spider
Crab spider

Endurance Training Part 2: The Test

I usually dread the long drive from Nairobi to the Mara – six hours at least two of which are usually on bumpy roads and the constant prospect of getting lost given that I tend to travel alone is not my cup of tea. This year it was different. Having driven an average of eight hours a day for four days in a row I was ready. So I finished up my supply shopping and final meeting and headed to the Mara with no hesitation. I would like to say the ride went on without a glitch, but in Kenya this is rarely possible. After surviving the traffic in Nairobi, it was at a gas station in Narok that I hit my first speed bump. Backing away from a pump a gas station attendant stood motioning me onwards. Between two spare tires, camping gear, vulture trapping equipment, and my clothes the back window of the car was barely visible. I used the mirrors and the waving of the clerk to ensure that it was safe to continue backing up. Then came a loud honk, but when no crash followed and waving continued I just kept backing up. With the second honk I stopped anxiously noticing a small car had pulled in behind me. As I went to pull forward an angry man came rushing to my window.

“You must be thick,” he bellowed.

I continued pulling forward to escape the harassment only to have the man step in front of the car.

“You can’t leave the scene of the crime,” he yelled. I parked and got out the gas station attendant still standing calmly alongside.

“You scratched my car,” came the man. I walked backward to inspect the glistening Subaru that had snuck in behind my dusty Toyota. He pointed but there was little more than a line along the bumper (perhaps from a fingernail) and certainly no clear mark on either car.

“I don’t see anything and I didn’t hit you,” I said. The gas station attendant nodded in agreement.

“Liar,” came the man again. It all seemed totally absurd. I hadn’t hit the car, the “scratch” was hardly detectable, and three witnessed had gathered agreeing with me that no harm had been done. Nonetheless the man stood yelling and blocking my car saying that we must call the police to inspect the accident. This really did seem a bit much and I said so but the yelling continued. After 20 minutes of this nonsense had continued, I asked the guy what he really wanted. By this time a small crowd had gathered and a tour guide had come over his two tourists alarmed at the situation. They assured me that I hadn’t hit the vehicle and that this was all a rouse to take advantage of me while their guide talked to the disgruntled driver. Using my Kiswahili to its full extent (which has sadly declined considerably over the last six months), I took in the discussion and chimed in occasionally. Still furious the man demanded an apology.

“I’m so sorry,” I said with as much sincerity as I could muster hoping this meant I would be able to leave soon. He seemed satisfied as if this was all the justice he deserved. I thought about asking for an apology myself but thought better of it. I was just glad to get out of there. I still don’t fully understand what happened and couldn’t find a scratch or dent on my bumper. On with the adventure I thought as I pulled away rather disgruntled myself.

Entering the Mara I felt immediately relieved. Finally away from the bustle of Nairobi and the rows of settlements I had reached an area saved just for wildlife. Zebras and gazelles abounded and in the hour long drive to get from one gate to another I had seen more scavenging raptors than on the four day trek through the North. With recent rains the Mara was looking green and lush – with long grass covering much of the plains. As I pulled into the driveway of Ilkeliani the magic of the Mara swept over me as the sun dipped mercifully beneath the horizon. I was home.

The Unexpected Carcass

Feral dog chasing a Hooded vulture at a zebra carcass
Feral dog chasing a Hooded vulture at a zebra carcass

It is the wet season (although we haven’t actually had any rain yet) so I wasn’t really expecting to find many carcasses – and I haven’t. But what I have found has been particularly interesting. A zebra carcass with three dogs and a handful of vultures, a hyena carcass with eight Lappet-faced vultures, two lion kills in a day (both of which got eaten by lions, not vultures), and the mutilated mass of a cow that was partially eaten by hyenas, then slaughtered for human consumption, and finally nibbled on by the birds.

With all of these it has been reassuring to find that my observations and my predictions are coming closer together. First, vultures are much more afraid of dogs than jackals, so the implications of having more dogs or dogs in certain areas are very different than more natural predators. Second, vultures will eat anything including hyenas. I have to say watching them eat the hyena did make me a little nervous as you never know how such an animal has been killed. Given the proximity to the villages, though it was in the park, I was a bit concerned the hyena could have been poisoned. But none of the vultures dropped dead and upon closer inspection once the hyena researchers arrived (they gather the heads of hyenas to study the jaws, so I gave them a call when I realized what the carcass was; bit of a conflict of interest since we had to chase the vultures off to salvage the hyena, but seemed like it was going to be more valuable data for them than me) we found that the hyena had huge claw marks around its neck and was likely killed by lions. Third, vultures get very little food from predator kills, especially this time of year when food is so valuable. A large pride of lions (with eight females and seven cubs) killed a zebra and a topi in the same day. They totally abandoned the topi so they could all work together to finish the zebra. Despite this both animals were entirely consumed by the lions by morning meaning that the patiently waiting Hooded vultures got very little to eat. Finally, certain species of vultures are more likely to avoid feeding in settlement areas than others. The cow had been killed just outside the park, right next to my camp (in fact on land owned by Ilkeliani). Herders were thus passing it frequently throughout the day and actually took most of the meat for their own consumption. As a result the carcass was mainly consumed by the less shy species – Hooded vultures, Tawny eagles, and Marabou storks. A few white-backs landed but they hardly ate anything with all the disturbance and Lappet-faced vultures and even a pair of the rare White-headed vulture passed over but were unwilling to land in such uncertain territory. Interesting indeed!

Otherwise the Mara has been its usual impressive self with tons of lions, a lovely leopard climbing out a tree as we bumped down a hill, and all the vultures one could hope for.

Endurance Training

@font-face { font-family: “Cambria”; }p.MsoNormal, li.MsoNormal, div.MsoNormal { margin: 0in 0in 0.0001pt; font-size: 12pt; font-family: “Times New Roman”; }div.Section1 { page: Section1; }

1000 km. Two drivers. Four observers. Just under 300 raptors.

As of last year, The Peregrine Fund has been conducting country-wide surveys throughout Kenya to better monitor the raptor populations. The surveys consist of a Southern Route thru both Tsavo National Parks and a Northern Route through Laikipia plus the data from my on-going surveys in Masai Mara National Reserve. This year I was able to join the Northern Route team for an adventure in camping, counting, and ultimately driving. The long trek through the North would take four days and involved traveling nearly 1000 km over some of the less friendly roads of Kenya.

Northern Kenya is known to be a bit less safe than Southern with theft and car-jacking a potential issue for the unwary traveler. Despite the reputation I was surprised to see herders – your typical young boys usually equipped with little more than a machete – were carrying guns as they walked along the edge of the streets with their cows. Clearly you can’t be too cautious.

I’ve spent so much time in the Mara that I sometimes forget what the rest of the country looks like. Laikipia and Samburu are dry and bushy and less densely populated by humans and wildlife alike. Our first day we drove north from Nairobi and stayed just outside the border of Samburu National Park. In over 300 km we saw almost no wildlife and it wasn’t until we reached the community conservancy that housed our campsite that we finally came upon some zebras. Our first campsite was lovely set along a dry river bed with the sound of snorting zebra and after we played some recordings of our own, the noisy hoot of a Pearl Spotted Owl. Usually sleeping in a real tent (not the luxury ones at Ilkeliani with beds and a warm shower) is a bit of a struggle, but after the long drive falling asleep was no issue. Our second day we headed into three neighboring protected areas – Samburu, Buffalo Springs, and Shaba. All three areas have been used by at least one of the tagged vultures from Masai Mara during both years of study, so I was excited to see a few vultures hovering over a cliff in Shaba. I wondered if they would beat me back to the Mara despite the 500+ km flight it would take to get back there. The wildlife was sparse in all three parks but we did manage to see a small herd of elephants munching on some palm fronds. The crisp palms splintered in the elephants’ mouths with a loud crunch of someone eating potato chips. The elephants here were calm and didn’t even get disturbed when a baby crossed the road and became momentarily separated from its mother as a tourist vehicle drove between them. The baby went racing off towards the rest of the herd only to trip over its own feet landing in a tiny pile of dust. The mother seemed unbothered and just popped another potato chip frond into her mouth.

Though we had planned to stay in Maralel the second night we ended up in Wamba instead since the drive through the reserves had taken considerably longer than expected – stopping to try and tell the difference between a common and lesser kestrel can really slow you down. Wamba, which didn’t look like much on the map, turned out to be a reasonable sized town with two gas stations, a row of shops, and its fair share of drunks, who of course walked over to greet us. The city councilmen set us up on a small campsite that doubled as a bar/picnic area during the day. It was fenced to protect us from elephants (and more likely robbers) but teemed with vervet monkeys who no doubt took advantage of the occasional leftovers.

The third day was a race to Mpala Research Center, an area I know well since it is where my advisor works and where my car stays when I’m back in the states. What I had expected might be a shorter day turned into a ten-hour drive with a 6:30 AM start. Once again outside the borders of the parks our counts were considerably lower. I never would have known I could drive so long but we made it there without incident and stayed at the river campsite that I had visited on my last trip to Mpala. Along the way we stopped at a beautiful cliffside with great views of the landscape below. Along the edge of the road there was a cobbled stone fence almost like a scenic viewpoint area you might see on the side of a highway. When we got out to get photos, we found out this was a view with a fee. The fence had been set up so that two guards could charge people that tried to take photos and then offer then a chance to go through the gate to the other side of the fence where there stood a tiny toilet adjacent to a huge cliff. Supposedly you had to pay a fee for entry to this “conservancy.” Only in Kenya.

The final day was a leisurely drive back to Nairobi with raptor counts continuing up to Nanyuki. At the end of the surveys we had seen nearly 300 raptors, only a handful of which were scavengers. I wondered how much of the low density could be attributed to declines and how much was just related to the generally low abundance of wildlife and more highly wooded habitat which would most certainly restrict a vultures’ view of the food below.

Home and Back

@font-face { font-family: “Cambria”; }p.MsoNormal, li.MsoNormal, div.MsoNormal { margin: 0in 0in 0.0001pt; font-size: 12pt; font-family: “Times New Roman”; }div.Section1 { page: Section1; }

Ruppell's vulture flight to Hell's Gate
Ruppell's vulture flight to Hell's Gate

Ruppell’s vultures travel almost as much as I do. These enormous birds nest in cliffs rather than trees. Cliffs are great from the standpoint of the chick – they are well protected from predators and the elements. But they make for a lot of extra work for the parents. Most cliffs in Kenya are very far from protected areas and other places of high wildlife density where the vultures will find most of their food. As a result, Ruppell’s vultures have to travel from their feeding grounds and back to the nest every few days. These can be distances of over 100 km (70 miles) so it is a good thing that vultures use a special method of flying called soaring that allows them to travel great distances while using very little energy.

Before we started putting GSM-GPS units on vultures, we knew a little bit about where they nested. In particular three important cliff-nesting sites in close proximity to Masai Mara National Reserve (where we trapped the vultures) had been identified – these included Hell’s Gate cliffs, cliffs near Lake Kwenia not too far from Nairobi, and the huge cliff faces along Gol mountains just across the border in Tanzania. The costs of travel would be different depending on which of these nests a given bird was using and so one might expect birds from different cliff sites to use different foraging grounds and have varied travel paths. By trapping the birds in Mara, we would get a haphazard sampling, which I had hoped would include birds from each of these cliff sites. In the first year we got birds from Lake Kwenia and the Gol Mountains, but given that only a few individuals use the cliffs at Hell’s Gate we didn’t trap a bird using these cliffs. A few days ago, we got some exciting data suggesting that we actually caught a Hell’s Gate bird this year – just take a look at the map of this bird’s movement. He dropped off right in Hell’s Gate, just in time for the evening’s rest.