Wednesday, September 15, 2010

A day with vultures

Submitted by Steph Dawes , 27 August 2010

So, I know that I have been trying to get caught up on blog entries, writing of events of the past, but I have decided that for today’s (or… rather, yesterday’s) entry, I am going to actually talk about yesterday because it was pretty different than most days at Fisi Camp… mainly because, instead of being a Mama Fisi, I was a Mama Vulture! Yes, that’s right. Yesterday, I took a day OFF of hyena obs to spend the day driving around with Corrine (PhD student at Princeton), John (Kenyan research assistant), and Richard (Ugandan Researcher here to learn how to trap vultures), searching for carcasses on which vultures were feeding so that we could trap them and hopefully give them backpacks with tracking devices, very similar to the collars we use…

Out goals for the day: To trap and backpack two vultures… in order of preference: 1. Lappet- Faced Vultures (they are HUGE and have red heads, though the redness of their heads seems to depend more on their aggression and excitement levels rather than the amount of time spent in the sun; they also have very strong beaks and tend to be the vultures that tear carcasses open) 2. Adult white- backed vultures and 3. everything else (which we were NOT settling for yesterday.)

We left around 645am, after a drop off at the Talek Gate and started on our way. We drove out of the park and all around searching for carcasses. So, when we came upon a carcass our first step was to census the vultures- what species, what ages, and then… what was the carcass? from there, we could make an educated decision about setting traps… or not. If the answer was yes, we would do a drive by. John would basically position the car so that the birds were on the opposite side from the carcass and then Corrine and Richard would quietly and stealthily get out and set the traps (basically thick fishing wire that the vulture should step into and pull closed when it moves away…like a slip knot.) They tie the traps onto the carcass. GROSS! and then would sneak back into the car…we would drive away and watch for signs of a vulture struggling to fly, and failing. At that point, we would close in and attack!

I think overall we set traps out 7 or 8 times throughout the day, but did not catch a single Lappet! Turns out they are sneaky, suspicious birds who (once the carcass has been messed with) are very hesitant to return. Don’t blame them. What would you do if you were feeding quietly and contentedly (with the occasional squabble over the best tail scrap or anal meat?) and a car drove up for a few minutes and when it left, there were pieces of black plastic everywhere over your lunch? Luckily, the day was saved by us catching one vulture – a Rupell’s vulture. This poor vulture was caught early in the morning…around the neck… which is exactly what we DON’T want to have happen. BUT it did… so when that happened we rushed in. Seriously, throw stealth mode out the window! We were in. Blanket over vulture. One person steadying his body. The other holding his neck (they are really long… so they can poke and prod very lithely… or lethallydepending on how you look at it.) Then Corrine approached and grabbed blood from the leg. It was awesome to watch how quickly and effectively they worked. Then Poof! the bird was free and in the air, never to land near a car ever again.

That was pretty exciting… probably the best part of the day… the rest of the day was, as I explained above…spent driving around and hoping to catch a lappet-faced… almost and missed calls on so many accounts…

My overall impression, after talking to the team and experiencing part of their work, is they are doing GREAT research… imagine what you can do with conservation if you are able to determine vulture territories, land use and feeding habits? They are a vital part of the eco-system as they prevent carcasses from just sitting there and enabling a dangerous spread of disease (among others). However, as interesting as the research is… I could never ever hold a job where I spend all day every day driving around in a car unable to really move around. That was an important lesson for myself. That I need to have time to move around. Should I ever engage in field work again, I imagine it will have to be moving and outdoor oriented! But, I respect and love the vulture project. I can hardly believe that the species I am coming to respect the most in this Mara eco-system, are those most misunderstood and dis-respected in pop culture.

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