Category Archives: In the bush

Answer to what is on the sheep

Just when you think you have seen it all, you drive past a sheep with a belt tied right around its waist. Looking a bit more closely, you notice that the belt includes a backward facing plastic board. The possibilities are endless, but considering the sheep is male . . . one conclusion seems most obvious, but only one way to know for sure.

“Wilson, why is that sheep wearing a belt?”
Wilson seems a bit embarrassed, thus confirming your suspicions.
“It is because they don’t want more sheep.”
“Of course, but why not?”
“Gestation is three months for a sheep and the babies would be born during the dry season. So they put those belts on the male sheep for a few months each year.”
“So it’s a chastity belt for sheep. What will the Maasai think of next?” I think.

I have to say I keep picturing some zoo designing these for elephants or something to keep them from breeding. It would be a lot cheaper than birth control medication, though I can’t even begin to imagine what the visitors would think.

Blue Beast to the rescue

Sometimes even the most common animals in the bush can still be interesting to see. For instance, yesterday Wilson and I came upon an unsightly bus that had gotten stuck in the mud. Blue Beast seemed up for the task so we drove closer to see if we could help. Five well-dressed Japanese men stood ankle-deep in the mud next to the bus. Each gentleman seemed to be trying to out-dress the other and they were all in dress pants, one of them even fitting a full suit. Off to the side stood an even nicer dressed woman in a white shirt and long leather boots. She was carrying a shovel and had obviously been the only one of the tourists to help at least try to dig the car out.

Wilson quickly swiveled around behind the bus and we attached my recently purchased tow rope between the two cars. With all her might, Blue Beast tugged on the bus, but it didn’t seem to be budging. Then with a loud pop we broke free and I imagined that our back bumper had been ripped from the car in the force. Fortunately it was just the tow rope (which had ripped apart when the sticks when out) and a steel one was promptly brought over by the second bus driver (also with a bus full of camera-wielding Japanese tourists). Wilson moved our vehicle in front of the bus for a new angle and a second attempt. The Japanese men that had been standing around peacefully were suddenly racing around yelling with some were waving their hands in the air and others were pulling up their pants to try and keep the ends from dipping into the mud. More mud was flipping up everywhere from our car as Wilson revved the engine, but somehow the tourists stayed relatively clean despite the minor panic. The bus finally pulled forward and we moved it on to solid ground. The tourists promptly moved back to the bus, thanking us along the way.

I found the whole incident hilarious, but Wilson didn’t seem to understand what was so funny. I wanted to take a picture of those guys, looking so proper and standing in the Mara muck, but decided against it. Despite having many pictures taken without my permission during my trip to Japan, I wasn’t to sure how they would feel about it.

Back to the Bush

I made it back to the Mara finally. I won’t say it happened without a hitch. After planning to leave at 10 yesterday, I ended up waiting around for car insurance to be delivered until 3. This meant that my first drive to the Mara would not only be in the rain, but also in the dark. I realized half way through the drive that I hadn’t made sure the headlights were working, which made me a bit nervous for later. But the blue beast held her own. By 10PM I had finally arrived, having bad it past the huge escarpment, through several towns, and in and out of a large puddle in the neighboring town of Talek, not to mention through the park gates at night.

Exhausted this morning, but so happy to be in the bush once more, I headed out to look for vulture nests. Accompanying me was my new field assistant chosen by the camp manager. Wilson is a Maasai, same age as me, but knows the roads quite a bit better having lived here for most of his life.

As usual, I have been able to appreciate all the splendors of the bush both big and small. A huge herd of elephants, a dung beetle hanging to the lantern outside my tent, four full female lions, a tarantula crushed on the road being eaten by ants, crowned cranes fighting their reflections sparkling on the water’s edge, a milliped trying to get into my tent, and an augur buzzard soaring low to the grass in a field of cows.

Also getting used to driving on incredibly muddy roads. I did manage to get us stuck this morning. We had to jack the car and throw some rocks under the tires to get going again, but nothing Wilson and I couldn’t handle.

Return of the unit

I also got the unit back today. No hiding it. The unit was cleanly severed from the animal and they even took the time to chop off the wing tag. (By chance, the bird we trapped had previously been wing-tagged by Munir.) The people returning it still claim not to know what happened to the bird, but it is impossible that the wing-tag and unit just fell off with such lovely severings at the ends. People collect vulture feathers – often by killing the bird and it seems pretty clear that was what happened here. Some feathers with the bonus of payment for the unit – what more could you ask for. If the bird had died of natural causes, there shouldn’t have been an issue of giving it to us. I guess a vulture with a bashed in skull would have been a bit tricky to explain.

We have looked at the data and it would appear that the bird made the mistake of leaving the park to forage, adding further explanation to its likely end.

Unfortuante, but on the bright side we have the unit back and we know that the backpack attachment didn’t just fall off.

Unit and wing-tagged; look at the cleanly sliced edges
Unit and wing-tag; look at the cleanly sliced edges

Adventures in Car-land

Finding a car has been a real endurance adventure and it has already been a week and still isn’t over. Along with a mechanic, I went to several car dealerships, searching for a 4WD Manual vehicle that has clearance enough to make it through some serious croc infested rivers (you know the ones where the wildebeest break their ankles trying to get across and then either drown or are eaten). Some dealers weren’t able to find the keys to the cars. Once found, some keys didn’t actually open the door to the car. Some doors had door handles that fell right off. Once you got inside, things really got interesting. Some cars were missing the central console – a mat of wires coming up from the center. Others simply didn’t start. Others required an interesting rig to get them going, since the battery had died (see photo – this guy is actually standing on an active battery while holding some frayed wire next to the car battery to get it going). Talk about a jump! Most cars were just too small, automatic, or otherwise unsuitable for the conditions I would be taking them through. I also met with a few private sellers. One showed me here cute Mitsubishi, which she said was “great for a single gal, bopping around town” – not quite how I would describe my planned activities, though it was fun to test drive.

After three days of getting in and out of cars and walking through dealerships with cars so tightly packed that you would literally have to come back the next day for them to get a car out for you to see and I finally found the magical car. Both the mechanic and I walked away smiling. The engine sounded great. The car is a suitable sized 4WD, manual with working AC no less and I even like the color – all within a budget that would usually get you a compact Suzuki. So I am happy about the car and am planning to call it the Blue Beast once it is mine.

But finding the car was nothing, let me just say that buying a car has been one of the most complicated and unpleasant process I have had to go through in a while. What has been difficult is the issue of logbook, ensuring that duties have been paid, coordinating with three different institutions across two continents and the country to allow for payment through a grant, and making sure it is mechanically sound. There are a lot of stolen cars here, so making sure you have the right paperwork is of the utmost importance. Unfortunately there are also a lot of clerical errors in paperwork to begin with and confusion about what the proper paperwork actually is. Plus about half the time you have to go “tip” some government official at the equivalent of the department of transportation office to make sure the car is legal. Another issue is that NGOs don’t have to pay duty on cars, so when someone else buys the car later they can get landed with all the left over tax. This is an issue because most of the best cars are owned by NGOs (they tend not to rip up the interior of the car and destroy the engine unlike some vehicles that I saw). So finding a good car with tax already paid is difficult, then it is even more difficult to verify that the tax has been paid. I was lucky in that my car is owned by an NGO employee, but not the NGO itself. So the duty has been paid. In any case, I am down to the final stage, the wire transfer. Yet one more slow, painful step. Then I just need to service the car and head to the bush to finally get started on what I actually came here to do.

Start your engines! (by standing on the battery no less)
Start your engines! (by standing on the battery no less)


Lappet-faced vulture right after the jackal rushed it
Lappet-faced vulture right after the jackal rushed it
Robin - I need help identifying, looks like some sort of dung beetle
Robin - I need help identifying, looks like some sort of dung beetle

Big tusker

My Cape Buffalo!
My Cape Buffalo!
Note the oxpecker.
Note the oxpecker.
Cheetah with cubs (I spotted her)
Cheetah with cubs (I spotted her)
My new favorite vulture - the shy clowns (White-headed vulture)
My new favorite vulture - the shy clowns (White-headed vulture)
Rainbows - it is the rainy season afterall
Rainbows - it is the rainy season afterall
Still figuring out the macro lens
Still figuring out the macro lens
Tawny eagle enjoying Steve the sheep head. Little did she know soon she would be sitting in the front seat of a car, having blood drawn
Tawny eagle enjoying Steve the sheep head. Little did she know soon she would be sitting in the front seat of a car, having blood drawn

I’m stuck in Nairobi working on purchasing a car, which is incredibly complex process in Kenya.

In any case, enjoy the photos.

Marial Eagle

Paradise Lost

This post actually applies to today, May 18.

Africa is corrupt. Countless people have told me this and it seems to be one of those strange truisms that everyone knows – like that hippos kill more people in Africa than any other animal. It is a fact that is not necessarily true, but just believed by enough people that it somehow becomes true. Yet in my four “summers in Africa” I have rarely experienced it myself. Or perhaps I just glaze over it as a simply paying  a bit more than you like for something like when you go to an overpriced restaurant. In the last few weeks, I have started to notice its more flagrant flavor in Kenya. Kenya is corrupt.

It started with the road blocks. I have seen and even stopped at road blocks before. Granted in the past I have been in some huge bus or half-asleep on some long journey and paid little attention, but I know I have had to wait long hours at them. In our drive from Nairobi to Masai Mara we passed several road blocks and were pulled over at two. During one pull over, Munir was asked to show his license. This seemed pretty standard. The police officer looked at the driver’s license – a check-sized strip of paper with a photo glued on. “No signature,” he said. “Ohh, it rubbed off a while ago,” Munir replied. We were told to talk to the askari kubwa (the big guard). “No signature,” he agreed. Then they just stood there looking at us, waiting for someone to panic, someone to offer something, but nothing. “So are you going to charge me?” Munir asked. There was a long silence and we were allowed to go.

After rejecting my first $100 bill as too old (it was a 1996 bill, strangely the only one that I had apparently. . . all the other bills that I took out of the bank at the same time were 2003), I received an affiliation with the National Museum of Kenya today.  Unfortunately half the ink from the $100 sheet of paper saying I am affiliated came off on my arm as we drove home with it. In any case, now I just have to get the permit. Unfortunately after leaving the correct payment with someone who was going to take care of the permit for me (who of course required a bit of cash to do so in the first place), I was sent a text message and told that an extra $100 was necessary because I am a PhD student.

The worst of this corruption has come in the form of the loss of the African White-backed vulture that we put a unit on last week. Recently Munir received a call from a Maasai who had “found” the unit on a dead bird. I felt awful and Munir and I started thinking through all the things that one worries about – maybe the unit was too heavy, maybe we stressed the bird out, maybe the backpack design is problematic. Then the next time Munir talked with the Maasai to arrange payment, he asked some more questions about the bird and requested that we collect the bird when we get the unit. Suddenly the story changed, there was no bird; he just found the unit (or “battery” as he called it) next to a carcass. He also would be requiring some payment for this unit. So as my advisor  so delicately put it, it is bad “that the unit attracted attention, probably got the vulture killed, and that it is being held for ransom” as we speak. Munir pointed out that the unit may just have been a bonus for this guy as they sometimes kill the birds for feathers, but one has to wonder what role the unit played in the motivation of the whole thing. In any case, our first unit is no longer on the bird and the status of the bird and cause of the unit falling off remain unknown. Someone will be delivering the unit to us soon (it of course will take a lot of gas to get to and thus we will need to pay someone a bit to get it back since it is in such a remote location); then maybe more of the story will unfold.

Another day of trapping in the Mara

Since I am behind this blog actually relates to experiences on May 15, 2009

We have the lodge to ourselves now as there is no one around. Off at 5 again, we watched some birds hoping to try to the “blanket technique” but with no luck. Then the “Vulture Squad” put out the meat – laid out in a nice order so as to resemble a real carcass and then we wait. We put the bait out without the nooses first in hopes of luring in some birds. Then a intricate web of snares it staked down over the carcass with hope of grabbing a bird’s foot. Unfortunately we seem to lure in a lot of non-vulture scavengers rather than vultures. Today we caught a Tawny Eagle and yesterday we caught a Fish Eagle and a Tawny Eagle. We have also come close to trapping a Bateleur. We did have some very close calls though. A White-headed vulture literally landed on a carcass with nooses attached, but then walked away allowing the Tawny to gorge. So close to handling one of the rarest birds in the world that almost nothing is known about – argh!! Instead we end up with a lovely though more common, Tawny Eagle. Tawnys are your prototypical eagles – brown body, yellow talon and the perfectly simple eagle shape. Beautiful birds, they behave like proper raptors and try to get you with their feet not their beaks (much more civilized than vultures).

While Steve the sheep head did give us lots of joy and many exciting eagle moments, it wasn’t until we saw a real carcass that I felt truly exhilarated. We came upon an impala carcass with probably 50 birds on it. In the tall grass, the only reason we spotted it was the vultures flying off of it, but why were they leaving? As we approached, we very clearly found the culprit of the vultures retreat. An angry jackal – bearing its teeth and charging the remaining Lappet-faced vulture. Though the vulture stood considerably taller, the jackal was able to charge the huge vultures as they leapt into the air to escape. The jackal couldn’t quite get them to leave, but he had them backed far enough away to steal a few bites of the carcasses. From the looks of the vultures in the trees nearby, most of the birds had already had their fill anyway (their crops were hugely swollen).

Aside from all the raptor action, we had some excitement of our own today as the vehicle tire punctured just after Munir spotted (and raced after) the rare African Hawk Eagle. “No worries we have a spare,” Munir assured me. And indeed we did, unfortunately it was even flatter than the punctured tire already on the car. Our ordeal was short-lived however as William, one of the rangers, happened to come upon us and lent us a spare.

Much later in the day, we spotted another vehicle in need. Guess who it was – none other than William, now with a puncture of his own. Fortunately he still had another spare and so didn’t need our assistance.

Otherwise our first and yet to be named African White-backed has delivered a few data points through the cell coverage. After a night of rest on his nest and a morning hanging around home, the bird headed out to forage. He was in fact travelling at 65 km/hr yesterday at an altitude of close to 1000m in the late afternoon. I can’t wait to find out where he was going, but won’t know until he returns to an area with cell network.

A Vulture in the Hand is Worth Two in the Bush (May 13th, On behalf of Corinne)

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. . .