Tuesday, April 28, 2009

in flight

As an avid amateur photographer my favorite subject is birds, particularly the very difficult: birds in flight. (Click for larger sizes)

Monday, April 20, 2009


Uganda. In a word, in a color: green.

Green like a wave, green like a storm. No calm seas, no lucid pools. A torrent of green, an assault.

Last night, in our private tree house, I wake up to, “Joey!” Not entirely unusual as that is my name. It was one of those yell-whispers where you start out with the intention of being quiet, but end up being louder than if you had just spoken.

“What?!” I yell-whisper back, trying desperately to actually whisper, “I am already awake!” for some reason her not noticing that I had awoken one second before she said my name bothers me at this hour. She doesn’t really need to explain herself as outside the masticating has reached a serious volume.

Our tree house in Kibale Forest, Uganda is about fifty or sixty feet off the ground. Gazeebo like in its simplicity there are two mattresses, two mosquito nets and a three hundred and sixty degree view. It is located perhaps three-quarters of a kilometer from the nearest building, the very expensive Primate Lodge, which is the sole building for several hundred square kilometers of forest.

“We request our visitors to retire to their tree house before 7:30,” the lodge tells us. Send those scum to their tree house! We have a good laugh at this until we do the twenty minute hike to our isolated moss-covered aerial platform. (No one to hear you scream). The sun is just coming down as we arrive and the forest comes alive. Cliché jungle noises abound. So cliché that you realize it’s not cliché, it never has been. It’s very much real. Vines wrap the surrounding canopy in a shaded haze. Monkeys call in the distance. To the west a large clearing filled with long long grass, the sun’s apical tip just visible through the opening’s granted horizon.

The air is a-hum with the insect life just out of sight. What sounds like cicadas. A cricket? It sounds enormous. A bat flies over catching up invisible aerial hexapoda. I wonder more at what we don’t hear than what we don’t see.

The equatorial sun sets in a flash of vibrant color so short it is hard to believe it is real. To paraphrase: you feel like you are losing your mind. In the fog of the tropical forest the air lights up like neon and the colors you thought you knew now throb and pulse with new life. Even the staunchest of scientists will stop and gawk.

Kibale Forest is located in south-western Uganda. It is 776 square kilometers, it has 13 primate species, 325 bird species, 144 butterfly species, and the annual rain fall is… more inane facts like these can be found on the internet. Suffice to say that this forest isn’t lacking in biodiversity. Most important park asset for a visit: wild chimpanzees.

Getting here was no small endeavor as traveling was done entirely by rooster infested matatu. I’m under the impression that the impending Easter weekend had a direct correlation to the mobile rooster population. However, perhaps Uganda always has high ration of roosters to people in its matatus. Despite the copious cocks it took about twenty hours all together to get from Shompole to Kibale. And that’s just the travel time. This doesn’t include mental stress induced by banana eating slobber monster children that insist on groping me while I try and sleep. This also doesn’t include days of down time in Kakamega, Kampala, and Fort Portal while en route.

Green hills of glossy tea leaves roll and roll. We pass the river Nile at around halfway. Non-descript trees with enormous fruits border the roadside. Wait a bit… that fruit is enormous. Like seriously enormous. What the f--?. I soon get a chance to allay my curiosity at the backpacker hostel.

The “Jack Fruit” is both the largest and heaviest fruit in the world. This is evident without anyone telling you it. No Magritte-esque tricks of perception needed here, this fruit is much bigger than your head. The fruit I pull off weighs maybe thirty pounds, it’s ovular, green, and has a strange checkered pattern on the skin. After separating it from its host the “stem” (the point at which I severed this alien cocoon’s life blood) begins to poor out milky white latex… all on its own. This is most unsettling. Contents under pressure. My preliminary examination ends here in disgust and lack of proper surgical instruments.

Wikipedia tells us that the jackfruit was cultivated in India six thousand years ago, I presume as some sort of catapult ammunition. The fruits can reach eighty pounds and three feet in length! Don’t believe me? Look! http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:JackfruitLift.JPG

And for those wondering, it tastes sort of like pineapple when prepared right (or so they tell me).

Meanwhile it’s 3AM and the leaf-crunching is deafening. Luckily it is a full moon and the clearing, the “wallow,” is bright with silver light. An entire herd of forest elephants is foraging in zeal in eleven shades of white and gray. They make no sound as they move excepting the noise of their chewing. Incredible that such a large animal can move so silently and chomp so loud. As the moonlight glistens on my dumbfounded facial expression I realize, this is the closest I have ever been to an elephant. Awesome.

Being the excellent behaviorist and observer that I am I succeeded very well in failing to note any characteristics of the group besides the fact that they were elephants and were eating some sort of plant-like material. I can, however, relate to you some things about forest elephants. Immediate questions include: what makes the forest elephant different than the bush elephant? Why are they considered different?

Most people will tell you the forest elephant is smaller than the bush elephant. They would be right. What is also true is that the forest elephant has slightly more rounded ears, straighter and more downward pointing tusks, and five toenails instead of the usual four on the forefoot. As per usual the genetic evidence shows that the differences in these two species are greater than previously thought… or perhaps the difference is smaller than previously thought? The debate continues, but as far as I know the forest elephant is considered a separate species by most. Personally I was too busy staring to see anything.

The next day they begin the chimp walk with a few warnings: you might not see the chimps, we might have to walk three hours to find them, you might die, etc. I wasn’t really paying attention. Chimpanzees in the wild? Not something easily passed on. We found the group within an hour and a half. They pant-hooted from a half kilometer off and we zeroed in on their location. We examined broken branches, footprints, and other evidence of ape appearance. Just to be sure our guide radioed the guy that was with the chimps that day to find out exactly where they were (romance = gone).

One of the most aggravating things about studying monkeys in Costa Rica was when the monkeys found a fruiting fig tree. The figs fruit at random times and only for a few days. This means that when they find one they tend to camp on it for days. Chimpanzees are apparently no different.

Do not get hopes up. There is nothing more underwhelming than staring crane-necked at some apes which are barely discernible from the surrounding foliage. No Sistine Chapel moments of gazing longingly and finger touching with our closest genetic relatives at a three foot range. I would have loved to written here that I had some dawning moment, some epiphany, of the intelligence of these nearest and dearest. No such moments, only fig-chomping.

I left after my allotted one hour of viewing depressed and drained. I felt like I was sliding down the other side of my curve. What’s there to look forward to now? Mope, mope, mope, whine, etc. etc. I think it took a few hours to finally gain some perspective.

Stepping back I see my error. The active effect of time and memory is usually one of processing, filtering, and summary. I won’t remember being disappointed. No one bothers with a sore toe, a lost shoe. I will remember the sounds, the route, the euphoria of waking up and expecting the world.

Uganda at its most romantic: a glimpse of something special. The life, the green, the throb and pulse. Arms wide and fingers spread. The space between and the space without.

(I had a good vacation).

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Caught in the act

Apparently, adult hyenas can be pesky too. Every few nights, hyenas from the Serena North Clan come into camp and act like they own the place. They steal shoes, eat buckets, chew on tarps, and generally cause trouble. I decided it was high time to go into stealth mode and catch the culprits in the act.

However, I wasn’t crazy about the idea of hiding out at night, waiting for hungry hyenas to come find me. Luckily, our own Andy Flies lent me a motion sensor camera with a super-cool night vision feature. That way, I could photograph the trespassers without fear of imminent disembowelment.

And, lo and behold, on night #3, the stakeout paid off.

Sauer - a young female who’s been hanging around the den recently - decided to pay us a visit. She was even kind enough to pose sideways for the camera so that I could ID her. Unfortunately, she was also kind enough to eat my last bar of soap.

I’m off to Nairobi for a week (good thing, since I'm out of soap), but the stakeout will continue when I return...

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Occupational hazard of the day

This is what happens when pesky hyena cubs decide that your license plate looks like a delicious chew toy...

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Not just a pretty face

We all know that lions are arrogant, haughty jerks. (OK, OK, I’m exaggerating a bit…behind my lion-bashing façade, I'm enthralled by those gorgeous creatures. Just don’t tell the hyenas.) Anyway, the King of Beasts does have a reputation for being a bit too high and mighty.

However, in this picture, he’s not sneering at us. Instead, he’s exhibiting something called the “flehmen response,” which helps animals detect and identify pheromones. Many African animals exhibit this response around particular scents, and you may even see it closer to home in your own dog or cat.

The crazy-looking lip curl helps draw molecules toward a sensory organ located inside the mouth (side note for bio-geeks: it's interesting that although this organ, the VNO, isn’t developed in humans, we do curl our upper lips similarly when we’re disgusted).

It’s possible these guys were hitting on us, since the flehmen response helps some animals – like lions - determine whether potential mates are receptive.

Dear lions: thanks for your interest, but don't waste your time courting me. And yes, I still think you're haughty.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

A proverb's worth a thousand words

Kiswahili, which is widely spoken here in Kenya, is a fantastic and colorful language. It’s also been tough for me to learn…yesterday morning I mixed up the words for “mud” and “plantain,” and I thoroughly confused Philomen. I’m pretty sure we almost ended up with a side dish of dirt for breakfast.

Anyway, Kiswahili sayings are particularly entertaining…here are some of the best (at least according to me, Audrey, and the rest of her Swahili language class):

Siku ya kufa nyani miti yote huteleza.
The day a monkey is destined to die, all the trees get slippery.

Simba mwenda kimya ndiye mla nyama.
A quiet lion is the one that catches the prey.

Mbuzi wa masikini hazai.
A poor man's goat doesn't bear kids.

Nyani haoni kundule.
A baboon doesn’t see his own backside, he only sees that of other baboons.

Fadhila ya punda ni mateke.
The gratitude of a donkey is a kick.

Majumba makubwa husitiri mambo.
Big houses conceal a lot.

Akipenda chongo huita kengeza.
A person in love with a one-eyed person calls him "cross-eyed."

Kitanda usicho kilala hujui kunguni wake.
You can't know the bugs of a bed that you haven't lay on.

Maji ya kifufu ni bahari ya chungu.
Water in a coconut shell is like an ocean to an ant.

Chime in if you’ve got other great ones to add to the list!

Saturday, April 4, 2009

That's my stick!

There's nothing like a rousing game of tug-o-war first thing in the morning...

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Rain, rain, go away

In the Mara, we don’t have to deal with Shompole’s dust, but we’re currently experiencing the other end of the extreme weather spectrum. Here, the rainy season has arrived in full force. I love seeing the Mara turn gorgeous and green, but dealing with the inevitable byproducts of constant rain isn’t quite as fun.

Creek beds turn into murky death traps which nobody in their right mind would attempt to cross. Hyenas, however, LOVE these spa-quality mudbaths, and become completely indistinguishable for months on end. Inevitably, we also get covered in mud, and since our laundry won't dry, we too remain mud-crusted until the sun comes out. Layers of thick fog blanket the valleys, limiting our vision in any direction to a few mere meters. Hundreds of thousands of frogs call 24 hours a day in a never-ending, deafening chorus. At night, termites fall from the skies like rain (usually, into whatever delicacy we’re having for dinner).

My internet connection isn’t fast enough to upload a fantastic video like Joey’s (heck, I can’t even watch Joey’s video), so you'll have to use your imagination!

As we have more misadventures in the mud, I'll post more pictures.

And yes, for those of you who were wondering, those ARE Audrey's feet.

Michigan State University | College of Natural Science