January 11, 2010
The holidays are a busy time for us all – a time of travel, feeding, and visiting family. Perhaps it is not so different for the vultures and wildebeests in Kenya. In fact the month of December appears to have been some of the busiest time for our birds, with vultures making huge movements across Kenya and in to Tanzania. The month of December marks the small rains and the vulture movement comes with a backdrop of great travel for the the wildebeest as well as the migration moves from dry season ranges in Masai Mara back to the wet season area in Serengeti.
The Ruppell’s vultures have had some of the greatest movements during this last month and through the new year. Roger, one of our tagged Ruppell’s travelled nearly 300 km (close to 200 miles) during the month of December. He ventured from the Chyulu Hills near the Kenya-Tanzania border (although distant from Mara-Serengeti) and then moved northwest through Nairobi, Hell’s Gate, Lake Naivasha, and all the way up to Nakuru. Unlike many of the other birds, Roger didn’t spend any extended periods in any of these areas, but seemed to sample the fare in each different location for only a few days at a time. One can only wonder where the new year will take him and what things Roger may have seen on his extended travels thus far.
January 14, 2010
Holiday travels (continued)
While Roger wandered northwest, other birds seemed to stay at home for the hol
idays or took their travels between two of the best parks in Kenya, Masai Mara National Reserve and Tsavo. Homer, one of the first adult African-white backed vultures we tagged, went from Tsavo to Masai Mara and back this last month. Unlike Roger, the Ruppell’s vulture, who spread his movement fairly evenly, Homer tended to travel quickly going from one destination to the other in only three to five days (not bad given that it is nearly 300 km each way). Interestingly he took a different route for the journeys to and from Tsavo, dipping into Tanzania during the return – perhaps the winds were move to his liking near Lake Natron for the return journey.
But no two African white-backs are the same. Blondie, one of the whitest feathered vultures I have ever seen (possibly indicating old age as the feathers usually whitten with sun exposure over the years) chose a rather different adventure, moving from Ngorogoro crater through the homelands of Serengeti and Masai Mara, before skipping town and trying the north with travels through Naivasha, Nakuru, Nanyuki, and beyond.
Quagmire, another African white-backed vulture, was more of a home body, spending the entire month in the Mara-Serengeti area and only venturing outside the protected area for a few days.
But what of the Lappet-faced vultures? Lisa also decided to stay home for the holidays. This elegant Lappet-faced vulture spent the whole month of December near Ngorogoro Crater, hardly spanning 30 miles through the entire month. With the wildebeest headed in her direction, this popular Tanzanian conservation area must be a good place to get a meal.
January 19, 2010
When last we left our intrepid traveling vultures, we had noted the amazing differences between the small, gregarious African white-backed vulture, the cliff-nesting Ruppell’s vulture, and the large and solitary Lappet-faced vulture. During the last two weeks, Homer, our African white-backed vulture has continued his movements from Masai Mara to the Tsavo National Park and even moved east of the large parks towards the border of Tanzania. Roger, the Ruppell’s vulture has returned from the north. Recently, he has stayed dangerously far from the safety of the national parks and other protected areas, choosing to home in on the Athi River and Magadi area, a beautiful place of tall Acacias and flowing streams. Though only an hour outside of Nairobi (by car, not flight), Athi has a much smaller human settlement density and thus might appeal to this sensitive master of the savanna. Lisa, the Lappet-faced vulture, has moved out of Masai Mara and gone south all the way to one of the most famous and beautiful places in Tanzania, Ngorogoro Crater. Though famous for its rich fossils, including the footprints and skeletons from early humans, the Crater is also a great place for wildlife. Interestingly, the one animal you won’t find in Ngorogoro is the giraffe. Due to the steep slopes plummeting down into the crater, the long-legged and tallest land mammal has been unable to make the trip into the crater itself. Fortunately for the vulture, plenty of other wildlife, such as wildebeest, elephant, and Grant’s gazelles abound.
Homer, the African white-backed vulture heads for the coast
Roger, the Ruppell’s vulture, hangs near the big city of Nairobi
Lisa, the Lappet-faced vulture, takes a trip to the Ngorogoro Crater
January 21, 2010
Learning to fly
Lappet-faced vultures nest in trees. For the first several months of their life, the tree, the nest, and their parents are all a Lappet-faced chick knows. Each morning a chick awakes alone as the parents go search for food. From only a few meters off the ground sitting at the top of a bush or tree, often on top of a small hill, the chick might survey the area. Perhaps the chick will see a lion walk by or an acrobatic Bateleur eagle teeter left and right overhead. They will feel the wind and the rain, if there is any, beat down upon their soft white feathers. In the afternoon, the parents will hide the chick from view, spreading their six foot wingspan to shade the chick from the hot African sun. With few feathers and nowhere to go, the chick could burn without the defense of its parent. For the first few months, this is the world of a Lappet-faced chick and yet soon all of this will change.
As the long black flight feathers grow out, the chick has become a fledgling. Soon it must learn to fly. One can imagine leaping from a tree and being expected to take flight would be hard enough, but where would you go. The parents are unlikely to lead the fledgling out. Instead this young bird must discover the savanna on its own. And if it wishes to return to the nest, it must navigate its own path and find its way home.
After putting a tag on a Lappet-faced fledgling, I waited for her to take her first flight. Where would she go? How far would she venture out? What might she see as she began her new independent life – no longer in the trees, but above them?
January 25, 2010
Laila’s first flight
Laila, the Lappet-faced vulture fledgling, finally took her first flight. It was a short trip – she only travelled out about 500 m, but it was a start. She spent a few hours away and then quickly returned to the nest, exhausted for her initial use of her powerful wings. Each day the flights got a little longer, but for a while the direction didn’t change. She had decided to go north and so each day she took her baby flights, slowly moving farther and farther away from the nest. After a week, she had gone as far as two miles from her home, but continued to find her way back to the nest. This seemed to build her confidence and she tried some short movements in a few other directions, going northeast for a few flights and then west for a few trips. Then suddenly, she went north again, this time she pushed her limits, taking her longest day trip yet and traveling out nearly four miles. I wonder if she knows that someday she might travel more than ten times this distance in a single day. (When you look at the map, the nest is at one of the southernmost points where several points are lumped.)
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