The day finally arrived a bit too early for my liking. Wake-up call outside the tent at 5 AM and then we were off. May is the low season here, so it means the Mara is wonderfully empty of tourists and not so wonderfully lacking in wildebeest (and thus other animals like vultures). I have therefore been determined to accept the fact that I just might not catch anything until July when the beests arrive in hoards, bringing their scavengers with them.
Nonetheless today marked the first day of fieldwork in the Mara and we weren’t wasting anytime. Driving over the black cotton soil (which is Kenyan for mud and acts like quicksand), we reached a White-headed vulture nest. The most beautiful of the vultures, they are the clowns of the avian scavenger community. Red around their lips, blue and purple circles has been dotted along their otherwise pale face, leaving the illusions of very refined cheekbones. To top it all off they have a little white tuff as if a white wig right on the top of their heads. The birds let us watch them and their nest for a few minutes despite their reputation for shy behavior.
Next we spotted a white-backed vulture also sitting upon its nest. As we approached in the vehicle it took off, but appeared to be struggling to get much height in the cool air and with the wet feathers from last night’s rain. We followed it to the next tree where it again took off, this time Munir followed with a bit more fervor and we were soon watching it sail straight to the ground several hundred meters in front of us. We had thought we lost it in the tall grass when I spotted the characteristic bob of a bouncing vulture. As we got closer, it was clear that the bird had given up on flying for the morning and was instead hoping to avoid us on foot, trying to hide in the long grass. No matter to us, we pulled the car up with in a few feet. Tico (a wildlife photographer who has accompanied us) threw me the blanket and I hoped out the door bursting forward, first with an admittedly unsure toss of the huge sheet and a quick jump form the moving vehicle. My first attempt to cover the bird had failed miserably, meaning I would now need to pick up the blanket before it could be thrown again. I bent towards the vulture and he rushed me wings spread and mouth open with a goose-like hiss. I lifted the blanket more for my protection than anything else and tossed it again. By this time, Munir had joined the foray and quickly thrust the blanket over the vulture with determination. Finally the vulture lay still and I raced through the car getting all the gear ready and grabbing my gloves.
Feet and head secured, I lifted the vulture – not so different from other raptors that I have handled with the one huge exception that the head is the dangerous part (rather than the talons). We thus covered this weapon of bone-crushing strength with a thin Emirates airlines sock (the incredibly long, one-size fits all kind that you get on an overseas flight). I held the head fingers tight around the jaw and lay the bird down on the back hatch of the car as Munir prepared its backpack. Several yards of teflon, some waterproof thread in the form of dental floss, and a few potent drops of Krazy glue later and the bird awaited release (after a quick blood donation for lead and genetic testing).
Considering the bird’s initial attack, I was a bit hesitant to be releasing it. Not only was I supposed to set it on the ground, but Tico would be opposite us waiting to get a good shot of the release. Hakuna matata and the bird scuttled along and took off though still unable to catch any wind it didn’t get too high off the ground.
For all the fuss about their huge size, their ghastly behavior, and their terrible attitude, we had ended up with a wet exhausted African White-backed vulture in hand and two beautiful White-headed vultures in the bush. Not bad for a days work.
The rest of the days work involved watching a cheetah with two small cubs attempt to hunt, photographing the rainbow that formed as the rain finally ended, avoiding running over a 7 foot python, searching for African White-back nests and more trapping opportunities, and buying a sheep head for the next day’s adventure. . .