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Archive for August, 2011

August 30, 2011
By Corinne Kendall
East Africa

             Based on our movement work, we know that vultures from the Mara spend about five percent of their time in the two Tsavo National Parks. For this reason, I decided that it might be worth exploring the area one more time to get a feel for this unique ecosystem during the dry season as well.

If the Mara is the land of plenty, then Tsavo is the world of giants. Huge red-dusted elephants walk silently upon the dry earth and dig incredible holes in their constant search for water. Beautiful baobabs are scattered around, their fuzzy fruits littering the ground as their impressive trunks and finger-like branches cover the landscape. Hyraxes can be seen in the many rocky outcroppings and we were lucky to find one climbing a small branch reaching hopefully for some tiny green berries. Pale chanting goshawks were the bird of plenty here though we saw only a handful of vultures.

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August 25, 2011
By Corinne Kendall

It isn’t often that you get to watch a carcass from start to finish, but I got lucky. We came upon a single lioness finishing off a fresh wildebeest kill. On her own, she was only able to consume perhaps a quarter of the carcass and with vultures, hyenas, and jackals gathering around the lion was beginning to feel the pressure.  So she left.

Two hyenas moved in first feeding for a half hour they ate the bulk of the carcass with the occasional jackal or vulture rushing in to steal a soft piece of organs. Then it was the jackal’s turn. The pair rushed the vultures viciously, leaping and snarling to keep them away. The little dogs fed greedily, but their small stomaches were soon rounded and they slowly moved away.

Down to the last half, the vultures swarmed, forming perhaps the most perfect pile I am yet to have seen. The wriggling brown mass of wings bounced above its prey as all fifty heads vanished into the food. Occassionally a full bird would eject itself from the mass standing on top of its comrades to gain enough leverage to leap away.

Even with the mammals gone, the feeding frenzy of White-backed vultures was soon interrupted by their larger brethren, the Lappet-faced vultures. A pair jumped onto the mass, biting down on the backs of the birds beneath it. Once removed, the damage to the carcass was clear, perhaps only ten percent remained. The Lappet-faced vultures fed slowly and laboriously, ripping and tearing the last few tough pieces of tissue, while Hooded vultures wandered the edges of the carcass finding small treasures in the intestinal remnants. A pair of Tawny eagles made a brief appearance, but could do little more than steal a small piece of organs to fly away with as the vultures so clearly dominated the scene.

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In the Tree

August 21, 2011
By Corinne Kendall

Carcasses can be found almost everywhere. Over the course of the migration, thousands will be found in the river. Lions and hyenas often enjoy dragging their kills into the darkest recesses of the bush but more often then not, carcasses are lying out in the open plains just waiting for the vultures to find them.

On rare occasions, dead animals can get dragged into trees. In my first year, I had the pleasure of watching two White-headed vultures feed on a treed Thompson gazelle carcass before being pushed off by some tourists who seemed more interested in the carcass than the birds.

Today we came across a treed wildbeest, the head dangling from a branch with much of the body consumed. Sitting behind it was the cause – a large female leopard fast asleep after her efforts lay stretched limbs hanging below the branches and head resting on her paw. She was completely at peace – content with today’s efforts and meal.

We sat with her for a while and eventually she decided to get up. Her eyes opened first and were slowly followed by her sitting up, looking rather unsure that she was really ready to leave. She hissed a few times while moving the carcass around, trying to decide it was worth leaving. When she finally leapt down, it was to grab one last piece (part of the spine), which she wandered off with, back into the bush. The carcass was well hidden beneath the branches and although vultures flew overhead I was pretty sure none would land here.

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Love Bite

July 30, 2011
By Corinne Kendall

Vultures aren’t generally known for their affection, but on rare occasions you do see acts of kindness. Merely the fact that vultures spend so much time at the carcass long after they are full is perhaps a sign of how much they enjoy each other’s company.

Allopreening, when one animal cleans another, is surprisingly common and I have seen it between members of the same species for all five species present in the Mara. Lappet-faced vulture pairs will lovingly comb through the feathers of their mate and juvenile White-backed vultures will preen each other as they stand on a mound near a carcass waiting their turn to feed. Today was the first time I had seen “preening” between species. A full juvenile Lappet-faced vulture stood next some other successful birds of the White-backed variety. She tilted her head and eyed them carefully as if this was perhaps her first close glance at one. She inspected the neighboring bird with interest. Then she reached towards it, gently, not in the typical aggressive style of feeding birds, but simply so that she might touch the other bird with her beak. The White-back stood by calmly, closing its eyes during the tender embrace. But then the inspection got a bit too personal. Perhaps enticed by the red (carcass-like) patches on the White-backs shoulders, the young Lappet went in for a nibble, testing to see if these “pieces of meat” might come off. In offense, the White-backed scooted back just out of reach of the next love bite.

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SuperMom

July 25, 2011
By Corinne Kendall 

Carnivores have it easier in the Mara, especially this time of year when the park is filled with wildebeest. As I drive around searching for carcasses, the number of lion, leopard, and cheetah kills has been staggering (though the number of vultures at these carcasses is usually minimal). Thus it shouldn’t be too surprising that some carnivore moms are atypically successful.

For no animal could this be more true than the cheetah I saw today. We drove up to see just one cheetah sitting in the short grass under the shade of a small Orange Leaf Blossom bush. She didn’t have a kill and I was just about to head out when I realized there were many more spots in the bushes. In the fact, the spots of not one but seven cheetahs were clearly visible.

Although cheetahs can often have large litters it is unusual for more than two or three of the cubs to survive. Yet lying in a heap of freckles were six healthy nearly full grown cheetah cubs. Super Mom had made it happen. Having had a short rest, Super Mom was back to business and got up with a large stretch and a yawn before ducking low to get a closer look at some nearby Thomson gazelles. The cubs took interest too getting up one by one to see if it was time to hunt. Mom had decided they better wait and returned to a bush near the cubs for another much deserved nap.

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Anecdotes

August 7, 2011
By Corinne Kendall

The focus in the Mara is generally on the carnivores (and in my case the vultures), but there are so many other fascinating little creatures to behold in this amazing savannah. Banded and dwarf mongoose are common and I often stop to watch the antics of these social little creatures. Most recently I even saw a small group of banded mongoose at the crossing, darting among the vultures and Marabou storks in search of some wildebeest meat. Then while over in Musiara marsh I had some great views of this dwarf mongoose. The tiny creature wandered around in search of its small insect prey only to find a nice hollow tree to scavenge through.

Yesterday I spotted this grey kestrel right along the road. It was waiting patiently along a termite mound as flighted new queens erupted from the ground, preparing to search for a new place to start a colony as the smell of rain blessed the air. The kestrel got a few termites before being chased off by a rather aggressive White-bellied bustard who wanted to claim the mound for his own use.

            At lunch I had an exciting run-in with another small creature. As I took my seat on the ground looking across the plains for my picnic lunch, my guide scared an Agama lizard that had been hiding a few feet away. Startled, the lizard booked it towards the nearest tree, which happened to me in my general direction. I barely caught sight of it as it raced into me and then up into the safety of the tree.

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Snake in the Grass

August 3, 2011
By Corinne Kendall, East Africa

As I watched the squabbling vultures at a nearly finished wildebeest carcass, I noticed a Marabou stork behaving strangely. It jerked from side to side and leaned close to the ground as if about to pick something up, only to jump back again wings spread.

I focused my binoculars on the bird to get a pick at what was happening. Lying in front of the cunning Marabou lay a long slim green snake, head raised in attack as the bird reached for it again. The snake lunged but the Marabou still got in a nice bite to the back and easily avoided the fangs. Again and again the snake lunged and the Marabou ducked until finally the Marabou grabbed the snake by the head.

By this time another stork and an inquisitive African white-backed vulture had come to see what their friend might have. Given that sharing such a meal was unlikely, the disappointed birds walked way, shrugging their shoulders (as vultures always do) as they raced back to the carcass.

Snake in beak the Marabou shook its prey and the snake writhed, coiling its mass with little way of escaping. Within minutes the battle was over but the war was not yet one. The Marabou now held in its mouth a three foot snake that hung limply, but how to swallow such a beast would be a bit of a challenge.

The first attempt the Marabou managed to get the snake about two feet down its throat before spitting it up again to try a new position. The second attempt went much smoother and like a magician pulling a long colorful line of scarves from his sleeve, the snake disappeared into the gullet of the stork.

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July 22, 2011
Corinne Kendall

            Nearly 600 wildebeest have drown in the last week. It isn’t so much that the water is high as the fact that the wildebeest are stupid. After watching the crossing, it really is the only impression one is left with. Why, why do they cross that way? You sit as the herds approach, anticipation building as they near the beckoning water, filled with crocodiles and completed with a cliff. The wildebeest have reached the edge and take a drink before beginning what will likely be the hardest part of their journey.

You look across the river and it seems clear. The current is strong, so the wildebeest will need to start a bit upstream to aim for the least steep part of the opposite bank; only then will they be able to get out safely. The zebras seem to agree with the observers and though they don’t give themselves much leeway they make it to the safest part of the bank and go up the steady incline.

Not only do the wildebeest not aim upstream to make the crossable area, they aim farther downstream directly into a rocky bank that is completed with a five foot cliff that none will be able to pass. In a gentler world, the wildebeest would turn back once they realize their error, but when crossing in the hundreds one doesn’t have such options. The animals soon find themselves packed against the banks with a few struggling to go up but many trapped in the river and squished into the banks.

As more animals pour into the river, the few in the middle slowly slip beneath the water, unable to swim any longer. They will appear downstream in a few days as the rotting corpses on which the vultures will gorge. Blotted and rotten the dead wildebeest pile together creating great island on which the Ruppell’s and African white-backed vultures will walk and fight.

           

For a few of the stronger swimmers there awaits another fate. Some wildebeest are able to break free of the herd and turn around. They doggy-paddle their way back to the other shore in great effort and exhaustion, but they don’t go unwatched. Lurking in the distance, a crocodile enters the scene. Ancient, hard, and build for the water, they have waited all year for this special moment. The crocodile enters the herds and waits a few meters back. As the stragglers turn around and try to get back to the original bank, they drift right up to the crocodile who holds himself in place with his powerful tail. A splash and a crunch and the wildebeest vanishes beneath the waters. Strong enough not to drown, but not strong enough to escape such a magnificent killing machine.

Gluttons after months of famine, the crocodiles move in again and again – killing three wildebeest in less than an hour and storing them along the riverbank for later consumption.

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Cat up a Tree

July 18, 2011
Corinne Kendall

            I’m back in the Mara and what a spectacular field season it is looking to be. The wildebeest have returned in great numbers and have been crossing the Mara river every few days. Lions are looking healthier than ever and several mating pairs have been seen.

On my first day back, I managed to see a beautiful Black rhino mom and baby relaxing peacefully in the shade. In the afternoon, we came upon one of my favorite small cats – the serval. Sleek and slim it was sneaking through the grass in search of some unsuspecting songbird. Elephants have been plentiful with some adorable small babies witnessing their first wildebeest migration.

I suspect the little ellies are also amazed by the number of odd-looking new neighbors that have moved in. Huge buffalo, topi, and eland herds have also graced the plains as well as the zebra who dutifully follow the wildebeest. So I had nearly seen all the big five in just the first few days, the only one missing was one of my favorite cats.

We came upon a small pride of lions resting under a tree in the marshy area not too far from Musiara Gate. The lions were sleeping so I was ready to go when we noticed that there was more going on here then had initially met the eye. The tree the lions were sleeping under wasn’t empty. In fact way at the highest branch (which was particularly high, perhaps 20 meters, on this tall Wahlbergia) lay a nervous mother leopard. Though we would later be told that two small cubs had accompanied her in this desperate escape up the tree, we only saw the mother. She was in a real pickle as there would be no way for her to go down with those lions below.  One could only hope that the larger cats would take mercy on her and give her some room.

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Splendid Isolation

13 August 2011
Stanley, Falkland Islands
By Keith Bildstein, Ph.D.
Sarkis Acopian Director of Conservation Science

I have just returned to the town of Stanley, capital of the Falkland Islands, from a month-long field trip to tiny Saunder’s Island, one the several hundred “off islands” that, together with East and West Falkland, comprise the Falklands archipelago.  About the size of Connecticut, the Falkland Islands are situated 400 kilometers off the coast of southern Argentina in near sub-Antarctic South Atlantic waters.  To say that I have been out-of-touch for the past month is something of an understatement. 

Saunder’s is “off the grid.”  There is no television, and certainly no Internet.  A local radio station provides Falkland’s news, together with world news from the British Forces Radio Network.  It is nice to get away sometimes, especially when you are studying Striated Caracaras or, as they are known locally, Johnny Rooks.  A “Near threatened Species” globally, Johnny Rooks number fewer than 2,500 individuals worldwide, and most them live on the Falklands.

Caracara with blue leg band

Insatiably and indeed, at times, pathologically curious, the birds are more than approachable.  They actually approach you.  Our task was straightforward enough, color band for individual recognition as many of Johnny Rooks as possible, measure them and take blood sample, and begin long-term studies of their movement ecology and social behavior. 

We succeeded on all counts. 

Within a few days of our arrival the Johnnies had learned our routine and, quite literally, were lining up to participate in our studies that included trapping, weighing, and ringing each bird with a lettered and numbered aluminum band.  Two weeks into our work one of the birds snuck up behind me and smacked me on the head while we were conducting a population survey.  I guess he or she wanted to make certain that they weren’t left out.

Our studies are designed to see how the Johnnies survive during winter in the Falklands where temperatures hover near freezing and where short day-lengths pressure the birds to find enough food.  Field work so far indicates that many caracaras are hard-pressed in winter and that some are metabolizing their own muscle tissue to try to stay alive.

When we started the work, the Johnnies were anonymous.  But once we placed rings on most of the population they became recognizable as individuals.  No longer anonymous, their known identities and curious and approaching behavior increasingly made me feel responsible for their safety.  Scientists are not supposed to get “too close” to their subjects, and certainly not name them, but Johnny Rooks have personalities, and the constant squawking of W4 and P7, and the decided limp of H5, made these individuals stand out, as did most of the others.

I am not certain how many of the more than 60 birds we banded will still be alive in November–which is when I plan to catch up with them–but I must admit that I felt more than a little bit guilty leaving them to fend for themselves until then. 

The fact that five individuals, E0, A3, P1, B1, and K6, followed us to the landing strip and circled our plane before we left Saunder’s yesterday, magnified my concern.  I suppose that they were there just in case we might offer some more bait (leg-of-lamb, literally) in a final effort to re-catch and weigh them, but their visiting us at the airstrip only confirmed the strong bond that has developed among us. 

November is a long time off, but I plan to spend at least some of that time raising the funds necessary to continue Hawk Mountain’s studies of this inherently world- threatened species.  Only one species of raptor has become extinct during the past 300 years, and it too was a caracara that lived on an island.  The Guadalupe Caracara became extinct in 1909, before the Sanctuary was founded.  We weren’t around to save that species then, but we are around now, and our goal in the Falklands is simple enough, learn enough about Striated Caracara to make certain that they become increasingly successful and our taken off the Near Threatened List and “upgraded” to a species of Least Concern as soon as possible.

More to follow. 

 

 

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