Friday, January 30, 2009

Closer encounters

Sticking with the subject of close encounters, one fine morning in the summer of 2007, Katy Califf, Sarah Benson-Amram, Kate and I had a very close encounter with some young cheetahs. Kate may have already posted similar photos, but I am going to post a few additional photos in case new blog readers did not see them.

The morning of July 8, 2007 started as any other. We were doing morning observations for the Mara River clan. On our way to begin a prey census we happened upon three young cheetahs. We stopped about 20 meters from them in order to record their location. We keep records of locations of carnivores we see in the park. We stopped to record the location and watched the cheetahs for a few minutes. Then curiosity got the best of the cats and they approached the car.

After chewing on the tires a bit, one decided to investigate my door. It was scratching at the door, nearly sticking its head in my window. The cheetahs then proceeded to the hood of the truck. At one point the third cheetah tried to jump onto the hood, but there was not enough room and it fell back down. They sat contently on the hood for a few minutes, while we in the car were in disbelief this was actually happening.

They then went onto the roof of the truck and began chewing on our tracking equipment. This was not acceptable, so we had to scold them to stop chewing on our stuff. They did not listen well. Eventually they got bored and hopped down. We did not get bored and would probably still be sitting there if they had not decided to move on. Truly a surreal experience.

If you look closely you can read "Michigan State University Hyena Research" on the hood of the truck. Good PR photo for MSU.

Recognize this picture?

My standard photo whenever I need a picture of myself. (Photo by Katy Califf)

Can I eat that thing?

Scanning for prey...on the hood of our truck!

They are not really crying. The black lines running down their face help to absorb sunlight. This is important for animals that hunt during the day. If you look closely at the lion pictures from the previous post you can see they have light colored patches around their eyes. This helps with night vision, which is important because lions do most of their hunting at night.

I have links for video of the cheetahs on our truck on my website. Click the photos link to navigate to them.

Hello to Carolyn Kolar. I hope you stay interested in cheetahs, but don't forget about hyenas!

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Close encounters of the wild kind

On Sunday we were conducting evening observations, driving down a the main road from Talek to Keekorok, when Ben casually said "lion." Not big news, since we see lions regularly. There was something different about this lion. It was about 2 meters away, at our eye level and looking like it was about to pounce on Ben (lucky for me). Maybe it did not want to eat us and simply wanted to take its first ride in a car.

At first I drove a few meters past it, because I was busy scanning for hyenas on the other side of the vehicle. I backed the vehicle up, so Ben was nearly face-to-face with the lion. I was a bit surprised when Ben rolled the window up. I whipped out my camera and took a few shots of Ben with the lion sitting in attack position and peering in the window. The shots were not turning out well because of the glare from the sun on the window, so I coaxed him into rolling the window down.

It was quite close to us

In other news, we were chased by a 1000 kilogram buffalo on Monday. The weight is actually a guess, since we did not get the buffalo on a scale, but it was pretty big. Buffalo are notorious for bad tempers and unpredictability. I have heard this many times, but had never seen a buffalo do anything except sit, stand and/or eat up to this point. Well, this one apparently was in a bad mood for some reason, or maybe he just didn't like the way we were eyeballing him.

Anyway, we were driving around looking for hyenas as we always do and the buffalo was about 100m away when he started ambling towards us. We kept driving thinking it was a mock-charge. It was not a mock charge. He picked up the pace and I could see him closing the gap between himself and mutilated versions of our car and ourselves if he managed to catch us. I looked in the side mirror of the car and it looked like he was about 50 meters away, but then I remember that objects in the mirror are closer than they appear. I did not actually think that at the time, but while I was writing this it reminded me of the scene in Jurassic Park where the Tyrannosaurus is chasing the car. He approached to within about 20 meters before giving up the chase. Lucky for him Ben and I didn't have to throw down on him! (stop laughing Leslie and Katy, we are pretty tough)

This is what a cape buffalo looks like for those of you that have never seen one.

Side note: There are no water buffalo in the Mara. Almost every visitor we have had thinks these buffalo are water buffalo. I have never seen one in water.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Are you talking to me?

In one memorable scene from the movie "Taxi Driver," Travis Bickle, played by Robert De Niro, is in a room by himself looking into a mirror. He says, ""You talkin' to me? You talkin' to me? You talkin' to me? ... Well I'm the only one here..." This spectacled weaver seemed to be having similar issues. I first saw this bird attacking the mirror on our Land Cruiser two days ago. This was not just a quick attack, but a repeated assault, which has now continued over the course of a few days. Many birds are highly territorial and will drive invaders from their territory. This guy takes it to a new level, attempting to drive himself from his own territory. I hope he doesn't break the mirror or his beak!

I don't see anyone else here, so you must be talking to me.

Who do you think you are talking to?

Maybe he is back here...

Sunday, January 25, 2009

A face to put with the name

In October 2008, Ben Kasaine Sankan joined the Hyena Research Project as a research assistant. I have made several references to Ben on the hyena blog, but I don't think there have been any pictures of Ben on the blog yet. I am sure there are many that have been anxiously awaiting a first glimpse.

Ben had previously worked with National Museums of Kenya under ornithology, mammalogy and herpetology sections. He is also a certified Bronze level safari guide and worked with camping safaris both in Kenya and in Southern Sudan. He has completed degrees in Wildlife Management and Wildlife Sanctuary Management at the Kenya Wildlife (KWS) Service Training Institute. Ben immediately showed a knack for identifying hyenas and was a welcome addition to the project.

I will be returning the states in March and Ben will be conducting the day-to-day research by himself. This is no small task, especially for someone that has only been working on the project for 3 months! For most of the past month I have been working 10-15 hours a day. In addition to the work he is already doing, Ben will be taking over most of my current responsibilities.

Ben is quickly moving up the hierarchy, since Sean Dryer is the newest member of the Hyena Research Project, and thus occupies the lowest position. This is not a formal title in any way, it is just how it works in hyena clans, so it is easy for us to think of ourselves as hyenas.

My only complaint about Ben is that his excellent research attire makes me look like a bum, since my clothes are often torn and rarely washed. This is apparent in the pictures the self-titled second lowest ranking hyena researcher.

"The best dressed hyena researcher I have ever seen." - Andy

Ben hard at work processing samples

Friday, January 23, 2009

New Presidents and Ice Cream and Ninja Turtles

A little over a month ago I posted the first pictures of the new cubs named Barack Obama and Ronald Reagan. The mother is Navajo and her lineage is American Presidents. Soon after I got the first and only pictures, the cubs were moved to the communal den. Unfortunately, the communal den for the Talek West clan has been hidden deep in the bushes. Recently the communal den has moved to a place a little more visible and I was able to finally see Barry and Ronny again.

A few weeks ago we also found the den for the Fig Tree clan. There are three new cubs in this den. Fluffy is the mother of one cub and her lineage is Ben and Jerry's Ice Cream flavors. After looking through the flavor list, I decided to name this one Vermonty Python. Tracy is the mother of the other two cubs at the den. This is her first set of cubs, so I got to choose a new theme for her lineage. For over a year now, Leslie and I have wanted to start a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles characters lineage. We can't actually use the ninja turtles names, because the Italian artists lineage took care of those names. However, the names for these two cubs are probably the best names in the history of hyenas in my opinion. Here are the first pictures of Master Splinter and The Shredder. Sorry Kay, the names were absolutely too perfect for a hyena not to use them.

One of the favorite hyenas of many hyena researchers past and present has been sitting on a natal den for about 3 weeks now. We know she is hiding cubs inside the den hole. Despite stopping at the den everyday, we have not yet seen the cubs. The mother is named Gucci and her cubs are named after Italian foods. Tortellini and Ravioli have already been used. We arer open to suggestions if any blog readers have a favorite Italian food.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Those things can come out of nowhere ... #6

The last post in this series had two pictures, one had two leopards going out of sight (oos) in the bushes and the other had three leopards being watched by a group of tourists. Until that lucky morning I had never seen more than one leopard in a day, so seeing three at once was quite a treat. A few days later we saw a leopard in the same area creeping along a stream, sneaking up on a group of impala. We waited to see if it would pounce, but the impala moved away from the stream before the leopard could get close enough to spring its attack.

Here are a few more pictures of the leopards. A friend was bragging they had better leopard pictures than I did, but they had just one leopard. When seen together it is easy to distinguish the three.

The picture below should be pretty easy, but don't be fooled in the dim light. It might not be what you think!

A greener Mara

Most of my friends and family from home has been telling me how cold it has been in the Minnesota and Michigan for the past month. In the Mara we obviously do not have winter, but we do have dry and wet seasons. We are currently in the dry season and it had been over a month since we have had a significant amount of rain. The Mara had become very brown and cows were being herded deep into the National Park in search of grass.

Last night we were trying to get back to camp so that we could watch the Presidential inauguration when the sky broke open. It rained so hard I could barely see the road, which actually looked more like a stream than road. We slipped back to camp just as the rain began to let up.

When I got back I found that James Kerempe, the chef/handyman of camp, had wisely set up a rain catch using an old tarp that he had removed from our kitchen tent earlier in the day. What great timing! In five minutes his rain catch had collected about 200 liters of rain. This water will save us a drive to the river to get water for the people that use the camp shower or possibly to the lodge where we get our drinking water.

The rain stopped as quickly as it started and we walked over to our friends lodge to watch the inauguration. We missed the big speech, but were able to catch some of the later speeches and analysis. Later in the night the thunder and lightning brought down another flood from the sky. The total amount of rain for the night was 48 millimeters (~2 inches).

Not only will we save fuel by not having to drive to get water, but the grass in the area is noticeably greener today. Good for he wildlife, good for the livestock and good for me. It was too wet to due regular observations this morning, so I got to sleep in and read a book for the first time in weeks!

Monday, January 19, 2009

Beard of Bees

A few days ago we had some new visitors in camp. Hanging from the tarp above one of the tents in camp was a mass of hundreds of bees. I have seen very few bees over here and then one day a pile of them are just hanging around camp. They are very calm and will be fun to watch. They are still here as I am writing this, so maybe they will make the tent a semi-permanent home. I am happy it is not my tent.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Those things can come out of nowhere ... #5

The last picture in the series was of "the most dangerous snake in Africa" according to the guidebook we have in camp. It is also know as the puff adder. I have been told that this species kills more people than any other type of snake in Africa. I believe one of the reasons is because it usually moves slowly, thus doesn't get out of the way when you are about to step on it. Another reason is that it seems to be quite bold. I saw a huge black-necked spitting cobra yesterday and the only thing on this snakes mind was to get away from our vehicle. Quite a contrast to the puff adder that needed a little prodding just to move one meter off the path.

I was walking down the path to Kay's tent and nearly stepped on this little fellow. My foot was about ten inches away before I saw it. I immediately pulled my foot back and a crisis was averted. After that it was time to get the camera out and try to resist the urge to capture it like Steve Irwin would have. Since I have never actually caught a snake before, this would obviously be a very, very bad one to start with. I had freshwater ecology teacher a few years ago that enjoyed diving after snakes. He actually knew what he was doing, so I think I will leave it to people with a little more experience.

Here is another photo of this magnificent little snake. Yes, magnificent, even though my mother probably thinks the only good snake is a dead snake.

The pictures below are from a fortunate situation that happened on Tuesday. Just another one of the once in a lifetime experiences I have had in Kenya. You may be able to find a hidden animal quickly, but can you tell how many there are?

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Ben Hur?

I have recently witnessed new mode of transportation in the Talek area. My first reaction was that it looked like chariot racing, but I am going to call it donkey surfing. Ben informed me this mode of transportation is common in the Naivasha area, but it seems to be uncommon in this part of the Mara. Either way, it looks awesome and I would like to try it. Maybe I should first try being the donkey to see if they like it. I bet the donkeys don't break down as often as our Land Cruiser! Of course, they may be more stubborn and will definitely poop a lot more.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

You mess with a warthog, you get the tusks

There are numerous fierce species of animals in the Mara. One species that at first glance may not appear intimidating is the warthog. They are low to the ground, often crawl around on their front knees and look pretty funny when they run around with their tails pointed skyward. However, there are a lot of animals I would rather bump into than a warthog.

For the most part, hyenas do not even attempt to hunt warthogs. Given the chance, they would probably kill a baby warthog, but an adult warthog is usually out of reach. Lions occasionally kill warthogs and for some reason cheetahs will attack warthogs. Cheetahs are pretty feeble compared to the stout hog. I have heard an account of a warthog killing a cheetah. Last summer I even saw a warthog chasing an elephant. I have no idea how this chase started, but when I first saw it the elephant was running and the warthog appeared to be chasing it. After about 10 seconds the warthog veered off the elephant's trail and began chasing an impala.

Recently I was fortunate enough to see my first warthog battle. Eye to eye the warriors pushed back and forth,locked in battle. Their deadly tusks only a few centimeters from the their opponent's face. A quick twist of the head capable of delivering a painful blow or cut.

A few minutes of this back and forth action and the battle appeared to be over. Both combatants were bleeding from the snout. Neither was willing to fully retreat, so they both began grazing, with only a meter of grass separating them. I am not sure who won the fight, but I am guessing it was clear to the fighters, otherwise the fight would probably have raged on. Interestingly, deaths resulting from battles between animals of the same species are many times not from the battle itself. Death comes about later because of infection caused by the wounds inflicted or because an injury sustained prevents the animal from getting enough food, water or avoiding predators.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Those things can come out of nowhere ... #4

The last post in this series was a picture of a deadly Boomslang creeping in the tree. Ben was first alerted to this snake by a bird giving an alarm call. We watched the snake for a few minutes and then it seemed to vanish into the tree right before our eyes. The cryptic coloration of the snake is very effective at making it blend into its surroundings. We have seen a few other green snakes around camp in the past few weeks, but have not been able to identify which species they were. We have had very little rain in the past month and most of the area is brown, rather than green. Most trees have managed to hang onto their green leaves, but if we don't get a significant amount or rain soon, the camouflage of snakes may not be so effective. Here are a few more pictures of the Boomslang.

Since I first arrived in Fisi Camp last year, I have been quite vigilant about searching for animals lurking around camp. When walking down the path, I try to look for things like siafu (biting ants), thorns that poke through my imitation crocs, or snakes in the path. For those of you that found the deadly Boomslang snake in the tree in the last hidden animal puzzle, you can see why I have been looking up at the trees and less at the ground lately. I also have a bad habit of walking at night without a flashlight, so that I can let me eyes adjust to take in the magnificent night sky.

A few days ago, I was reminded that I must not forget to watch where my feet are falling on the path. Shouldn't be too hard to find what I almost stepped on, but it may be more difficult to figure out what species it was.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Mothra vs. Batzilla

When I was a kid I loved to watch the Godzilla movies. A few weeks ago, a huge moth landed on tarp over our dinner table. The moth was about the size of my hand and had two large eyespots on its wings. By far the largest moth I have ever seen. If someone can identify this moth or butterfly, please let me know.

Every night, a bat swoops around our dinner table and clears the area of most of the bugs that flutter around the lights. When it first gets dark at night, the tarp above the table is covered with moths and countless flying arthropods. By the time we get to tent in the morning, our dinner table is usually covered with moth wings and bat droppings. The bat is one of the highlights to the meal, along with the occasional appearance of a bush baby or genet.

On the night the giant moth made its appearance I kept my camera trained on the moth, patiently waiting for the demise of the magnificent moth. The bat made several attempts to get the moth, but for the hour I was watching, the bat was not able to corral the giant moth, that I came to think of as the Mothra of Godzilla movie fame. A couple of Tuskers later, the moth was still clinging to the tarp. It may have been too much for the bat to handle. Who knows what happened when the lights went out?

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Cute and cuddly

Many people do not think of elephants, rhinos and giraffes as cute and cuddly. Most people that know me are aware that I don't usually get too excited about things being cute and cuddly. In fact, I usually cheer for predator when they are chasing a baby gazelle. However, twice in the past few weeks I have been to the Elephant Orphanage in Nairobi, and there are some really cute animals their with some really sad stories. I have also visited the Giraffe Center was slipped the tongue by a 15 foot tall female giraffe.

At the Elephant Orphanage, they have about 10 young elephants, most them orphaned because their mothers were killed by poachers. They also a few rhinos, including one that was only a few days old on my first visit.

In the first picture, my friend Jesse Matter feeds one of the lovely ladies at the Giraffe Center. Jesse and his wife Cheryl, who recently completed her Ph.D. at UCLA, were visiting Kenya for two weeks. Unfortunately, the picture of Jesse kissing the giraffe were only on Cheryl's camera and not on mine. In the second picture is the baby rhino, with unknown kids used for scale. In the third picture, visiting Fish and Wildlife Ph.D. student Emily Johnston is pictured with the baby elephants parading by. The final picture is me with my "adopted" 3 year old blind rhino, named Maxwell. If you are ever in Nairobi make sure to visit the Elephant Orphanage and the Giraffe Center!

Jesse and giraffe

Baby rhino of infinite cuteness

Emily and the elephant parade

Andy and his adopted rhino

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