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Archive for August, 2010

Cats

Cats, August 28, 2010
By Corinne Kendall, East Africa

It is unusual to see a lion running. So we stopped.

The lioness was on the road with no animals in front of her, so it clearly wasn’t a hunt. So why was she running? Her speed seemed one of urgency and determination, though she would jog along and then slow back to the more typical concerted steps of a lion. Eventually she found herself next to a small bush.

As she approached I noticed that there was a near-lion sized hole in the branches surround the base of the little tree. When the lion arrived she squeezed herself inbetween the limbs and twigs of the plant and through the bramble I could see the yellow fur of another lion – a small one. Within seconds, the lioness had picked something up turned around and emerged from the small hole. In her mouth was a tiny cub. It looked so uncomfortable and unhappy to be in her mouth, but it didn’t make a sound. It just hung limp in her gentle grip with its eyes squinted shut.

The lioness wandered off stopping occasionally to readjust her grip on this tiny treasure. She seemed exhausted for her efforts, struggling to breathe with this ball of fuzz in between her lips. Nonetheless she continued her hurried pace with little jogging spurts in between her walks – all the time with the cub’s body swaying beneath her.

A lion cub was to be the first of the elusive cats for the day – a spotted cat was next, though not the one you think. We drove up to the serval with great excitement and camera ready. I expected this to be short viewing. Servals are known for their shy behavior and rarely are seen in the Mara, yet there she was trotting along in the open haven of the road with the occasional glance into the tall grass. Then the cat headed into the grass though not out of view. Instead it stalked along, creeping gracefully as it eyed the small birds landing ahead of it. No kills were made, but the Serval did give us an exceptional viewing, moving in and out of the grass and even stopping to look at the camera occasionally.

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Excerpts from Vulture Trapping (Part 3), August 25, 2010
By Corinne Kendall, East Africa

It was the last carcass of the day. Our last chance, but also our best chance and this Lappet looked hungry.

We put down the traps and within minutes, I was shouting with joy as we raced towards our second Lappet-faced vulture of the season. The bird was so pre-occupied with feeding and attacking the White-backed vultures surrounding it that it didn’t seem to notice the blue beast sneaking up on it.

The noose was clearly on its leg, so there was no need to wait. When we finally came up on the side of the carcass and jumped out of the car, the Lappet finally reacted. Wings stretched it was only able to move a few feet away, its foot firmly entangled and attached to the dead wildebeest on which it had been feeding.

Twenty minutes later, backpack attached we were ready for release. After a few final sweet chirps, the enormous bird was back in the air. As we took off the nooses, I eyed the carcass and the small pile of vulture “regurge” that now lay along side it. The bird had eaten huge chunks of cartilage right off the bone. You could see the tiny triangular slices taken out of the shoulder blade, like wedges of coconut from the shell.

Lappet-faced vultures are always odd to handle. I’m usually so excited that I can’t stop shaking through the whole process, but do at least take the time to marvel at how such a large aggressive animal can be covered in the feathers most often associated with chicks. Fluffy white down feathers line the entire chest of the Lappet. With a head larger than a baseball, I can’t even fit my hand around the skull and usually end up grabbing them around the neck.

Fortunately Keith seemed to have a great hold of the bird throughout, which was good since I can’t imagine the damage that could be done with a beak that can literally crush gazelle skulls. Generally the Lappets are calmer than their smaller cousins – the white-backs and Ruppell’s vulture, but this particular had had a lot of spunk. Ready to take on not only the other vultures, but its captors as well. Nonetheless it had been released without a hitch and I could now watch its movements online as the text messages came back from the unit one day at a time.

Like our last Lappet, the bird seemed to be frequenting an area some 50 km outside the park border: an area known to be rife with poisoning. I only hoped this bird would fair better than our last tagged Lappet.

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Excerpts from Vulture Trapping (Part 2), August 20, 2010
By Corinne Kendall, East Africa

We awoke early. Today had to be the day.

After so many near misses, I couldn’t imagine going another day without trapping a Lappet-faced vulture. The evening before we had managed to snag an adult Lappet, but with its brute strength (and probably poor snaring), it had been able to pull the noose and get away before we could grab it. With one unit left, at least from our initial delivery of five (10 should arrive later in the week), I really wanted to get this one on this most elusive of vultures.

So we started the day as we had for the last week. I always feel a bit of tension on trapping morning. An early morning carcass could be the best possibility for catching a Lappet as the birds are more likely to be hungry, and therefore, aggressive. But these are also the hardest to find. Birds are likely to fly in low in the early morning and thus be more difficult to detect. So as is so often the case with trapping we were relying on luck.

We got lucky. With the sun just rising over our shoulders we found ourselves at a carcass with two aggressive Lappets and only a handful of the more numerous Gyps vultures (i.e. African white-backed and Ruppell’s). A bit more luck and the traps were set on a rather smelly wildebeest carcass, but the Lappets were still on the ground.

But that was where our luck ended. A few moments later we had caught two juvenile African white-backed vultures. With the Lappet still on the ground, despite its struggling snared comrades, we decided to grab the birds but leave the traps on. So with one bird in Matt’s lap and another in my own, we drove slowly away.

My bird began regurgitating as vultures so often do when stressed and I loosened my grip. Before I started, I had been unsure how I would handle all the vulture vomiting. But with time, I had grown used to it and generally found it more worrisome for the bird (who was now giving up his last meal) than for myself. With one final wiggle of its head, the bird finished its regurgitation and I went to re-tighten my grip only to find that with this final jiggle the bird had freed its head from my hand.

In an instant, the vulture was standing on my lap, searching for the nearest exit. Though I tried desperately to re-grab its head, it was clear my momentary lapse had meant the total loss of control. I can only imagine what the passing tourist vehicle must have thought as our car slowed (with all passengers now a bit panicked as a vulture on the loose is not an ideal guest in a vehicle) and then a small vulture leaped out the window. From inside, I watched, amazed, as the bird tucked in its wings to fit through the small opening and then unfurled them in their full five foot glory to take to the skies.

After taking blood from the other bird, we returned to the traps which remained Lappet-free. Clearly it would have to wait.

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Surfin’ Safari, 17 August 2010
By Keith L. Bildstein, Ph.D., Sarkis Acopian Director of Conservation Science,
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, on his recent visit to East Africa

More than a million wildebeests, together with hundreds of thousands of zebras and gazelles, represent a lot of meat on the hoof.  Indeed, if you work the numbers–and I have–the edible portions of the wildebeests alone add up to almost a billion MacDonald’s Big Macs. 

Not surprisingly ungulate herds of this magnitude attract the attention of lots of scavengers and predators, and I had timed my visit to East Africa earlier this month to coincide with the herd’s passage through the Masai Mara National Reserve of southwestern Kenya.  The idea was to arrive at the peak of vulture numbers in the reserve and help Princeton University graduate student Corinne Kendall place Hawk-Mountain-sponsored tracking devices on a number of them to track their movements inside and outside of the Mara and other protected areas in Kenya and Tanzania. 

I had readied myself by bringing a new trap to help catch the White-backed, Ruppell’s, and Lappet-faced Vultures we were after, and a pair of sturdy leather gloves to handle them safely.  What I was not prepared for was a vulture “Surfin’ Safari” that Corinne took me to almost as soon as I stepped off the plane at the reserve’s airstrip.

But before I talk about the vultures, a bit of ecological geography is in order.

The massive, or as some of my younger friends might say “gi-normous,” migrating herd of ungulates I was searching for traditionally follows a largely circular path that tracks the availability of lush, rainy-season grass across the vast Serengeti ecosystem, the northernmost extension of which is the Masai Mara reserve.  The hoofed stock walks an average 10 kilometers (six miles) a day while feeding its way through the reserve, a migratory journey that includes crossing the crocodile-infested Mara River. 

You probably have seen photos or videos of “the crossing.”  Thousands of fitfully frightened wildebeest, none wanting to be the first to jump into the river, until one of them–pushed by those behind—falls in, and then the mad rush begins, egg-beater-like hooves churning the river’s water into foam as the frightened mass hastens to the other side.  Although a few fall victim to the crocs, most of the animals make it, albeit shaken and bruised, to the other side.  This year, however, conditions were such that more wildebeests drowned at the crossing than were eaten, and a macabre scene of bloated and soon-to-be bloated carcasses greeted me at the river’s edge when Corinne took me to “the crossing” for a look.

YES this bird's head is under water!

Now back to the “surfin safari.”

The vultures of East Africa are built to scavenge carrion on land.  Sometimes they feed alone.  Most often, however, they do so in frenzied groups of dozens of individuals, each aggressively vying for a front row position at the feast.  Floating carcasses, as well as those wedged among the river’s rocky bottom, present a challenge for vultures, whose swimming abilities are limited. 

The first is that most semi-submerged carcasses offer little in the way of points of entry for the birds.  The eyes, mouths, and rear ends, the places that vultures normally use as break-in points, are below the waterline and largely out of reach. 

Let's go surfin now, everybody's learning how...

The second is that the carcasses are wet and slippery, making it difficult for the vultures to gain purchase while attempting to break through the tough hides that are exposed. 

In most cases the exposed parts of the carcasses were only large enough for one or, at best, two vultures to work at a time, with each bird performing a delicate balancing act of trying to avoid falling into the river or being bumped from the carcass by another vulture, while at the same time working feverishly to break through the animal’s hide and get at the food inside.  The accompanying photographs tell the story best. 

...come on a safari with me

The White-backed and Ruppell’s Vultures feeding in the river looked like novice surfers, unable to hang 5 (or 4 in their case), let alone 10, while trying to get a decent meal.  That said, the tantalizing feast was just too good to pass up for

the birds, and on several days Corinne counted well over 100 hungry vultures lining the river’s edge, waiting for their chance at a piece of the action. Although the hundreds of tourists that visited “the crossing” came to see the croc-wildebeest carnage, what many got to see were the antics dozens of resourceful and persistent if largely ill-prepared vultures, trying to go where few avian scavengers had gone before. 

Just when I thought I had seen it all, events like this come along and I realize there is still very much to learn.

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Excerpts from Vulture Trapping (Part 1), August 15, 2010
By Corinne Kendall, East Africa

In any field project, there is nothing more exhilarating, exhausting, and time-consuming than trapping animals. Vultures are no exception. Two and half busy weeks and I am still three vultures short. That said, it has been an amazing time and we have been able to put out 12 GSM-GPS units onto seven Ruppell’s vultures, three African white-backed vultures, and two Lappet-faced vultures. As usual, the Lappet-faced vultures continue to be the trickiest to trap. Not only are there fewer of them, but they prefer smaller carcasses (which are more difficult to trap at), they arrive late (which means you are more likely to catch someone else first), and they are a bit more shy. The key with Lappets is to find some really hungry, aggressive individual, but in and of itself that is rather tricky.

So how does one trap a vulture in the first place? The process is surprisingly simple. Step 1: Find a carcass, preferably with vultures on it. Step 2: Gently move the birds off using the car and put the trap down (the trap is just nooses that are attached to the carcass using parachute cord – it has to be strong after all). Step 3: Drive away and watch closely. Generally if you are going to catch one it will be fast. Usually within a few minutes, the birds are back squabbling over the meat and a few minutes after that and you’ll have one.

Once we get the bird the process is pretty straightforward. The first priority, if the trapped bird is of a species/age that we are looking for, we attach a GSM-GPS unit. These incredible little devices will allow us to follow the bird for up to a year – seeing everywhere it goes, how fast it travels, and even the altitude of its flight. Unlike satellite units, these newer devices use the cell phone coverage to transmit the data back to the user (i.e. me). So effectively I get text messages from all the tagged birds once a day. Next we take blood, primarily because we are interested in their immune system. How can an animal literally stick its head into and consume the rotting flesh of the another (who quite likely died of a disease itself) without every getting sick? This is the conundrum of the vulture and we are hoping that by studying their powerful immune systems we might gain some insights that could help treat or cure bacterial infections like anthrax and staph in the future. Then we release the bird. No drugs are used during the process, so you are dealing with a chirping 15 lb. bird that is fully awake for the fifteen to twenty minutes that it usually takes to get everything done. Fortunately I have had some great help – thanks to the likes of two Peregrine Fund employees (Evan and Matt), Keith Bildstein from Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, my advisor Dan Rubenstein, various other unwitting volunteers, and of course my field assistant Jon.

So this is how it is supposed to work, but when you are working with animals you always have to be prepared for the unexpected. Given that we have now trapped over thirty vultures, there have invariably been some adventures. But I will save those for another blog.

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Hippo to Hippo

Hippo to Hippo, July 26, 2010

Hippos have been one of my favorite animals for quite some time. I only get to see them occasionally since vultures usually aren’t near the water (although with all the drowning wildebeest that has changed). Going from Talek to the main crossing you have to go through “double crossing” which consists of two dips into the river in an odd turn. The first dip is fairly quiet, but the second is called stinky crossing – because of the hippos. Usually there are two sleeping in the water as your car leans sideways to cross the rocky bottom. But today when we reached stinky crossing, there was a car in waiting. Probably just tourists who hadn’t seen hippos yet, I figured.

When we neared the water I could see that two hippos were standing on the rocks about 50 m from the crossing. And they were fighting. One hippo opened its mouth, stretching its jaw to the full 180 degrees that it is capable off, it pressed its head against its contender and uttered a most unusual sound. Genuinely the only thing I know that was similar is the roar of the Tyrannosaurus rex in Jurassic Park. I had never heard a hippo make that noise before. The sound continued as did the jaw opening until the darker and pink spotted male accepted defeat. He turned his back and walked away as the winner sprayed himself and a nearby bush with some dung.

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The Crossing Continues, July 24, 2010
By Corinne Kendall, East Africa

We watched the crossing again today and what a crossing it was. After counting nearly four hundred vultures at the main crossing we headed down to one of the trickier crossings. As before, the shore was lined with dead wildebeest and the vultures were feasting. The wildebeest were stacked into a few rock crevices across the river as if they had been wedged in while trying to reach the other side. Their bodies now ripe from the sun were finally being broken into by the vultures. The stench was overwhelming. Meanwhile, vultures waiting their turn lay wet and cold on the riverbank across the way, probably from earlier attempts to eat the floating corpses. As the sun rose over the valley, the birds stretched out their long wings and absorbed the warmth. The wings spread like beach umbrellas gave the riverside a look not so unlike that of the Jersey shore.

Meanwhile the cars were lining up. The wildebeest though nervous had been eyeing the green grass across the way for a while now. Their strange calls were reaching their peak as they planned their movements. Suddenly the first wildebeest rushed the water. At first it seemed more interested in getting a drink then in crossing, but as hordes of the black beasts lined up behind him, he had no choice. Looking across the way this seemed a rather treacherous place to cross – most of the alternative shore was lined with cliffs and dead bodies. Oddly the bodies seemed to attract the wildebeest rather than acting as a warning and as thousand pushed forward, they stepped onto their fallen comrades in a desperate effort to reach the top. Some struggled and made it, while others crashed down onto the crowd.

As the access points out of the water and the way back to the opposite shore filled, it became clear how so many animals had drown. The river wasn’t particularly deep or wide. Certainly the water rose high enough that the wildebeest had to swim and there was a bit of a current, but I had been having a hard time imagining how anything could drown here. As the wildebeest piled together like sardines in a tin, some were pushed beneath the water. They would struggle to move, but there was nowhere to go – neither forward or backward. Instead they sunk. Their heads slipped below the crowd and these unfortunate animals soon found themselves floating downstream. A few stretched their noses, even lifting their upper lip, in vain efforts to get a bit more air, but exhausted and probably wounded from the stampede, they soon dipped below the surface. You knew an animal had died when its horns rather than its mouth were all you could see.

Fifteen or so wildebeest met this untimely death as the others marched onwards and upwards, gradually clearing the cliffs. A few found an easier crossing upstream, but the majority seemed determined to take the steepest route. One fell and landed on its back among the rocks. It wasn’t until the crossing was nearly over that we noticed it struggling. When simple kicking didn’t work, it took to immense flailing and slammed its head repeatedly into the rock behind it as it tried to lift itself. Whack, whack, whack, but in the end it remained on its back. A few calves also turned out to be stragglers and stood on the rocks beneath the cliff unable to go up and unwilling to go back. This was when the crocodile moved into the water.

The crocodile crept towards three calves who were wedged against the riverbank – standing but still very much in the water. The reptile crept in and soon lay a few feet from the calves. After a brief stare down where the calf looked its killer in the eyes, the crocodile leaped out and grabbed the little guy behind the neck. Under and done for he was in just a few minutes. After drowning his prey, the crocodile moved to the other side and left the carcass. He then returned for one of the remaining calves. This one made a leap for it, but still found its rear leg in the jaws of the predator. The crocodile slowly eased the calf into the water, where it struggled to swim with three legs and a dead-weight. The croc made vague attempts to pull the calf under, but someone the yearling kept its nose above the water. As the crocodile neared its resting spot, where it had left its last victim, the calf struggled and eventually found itself standing on the shore – crocodile still attached. Meanwhile with another great Whack, the adult across the river had finally righted itself and stood unsure whether to proceed forward or return. It was about that time that the crocodile decided it had enough fun for one day and released the calf. The survivor limped onto the shore – “Hyena food” said my field assistant, John.

As the crossing ended, everything reset itself. The crocodile moved back onto shore for another nap, the vultures returned to feeding, and the wildebeest stood noisily undecided besides the tourist vehicles.

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