Wednesday, September 11, 2019

3 months in the Mara!

Hi all,

I’ve been in the Mara for a little over 3 months now, which means that I’m officially more than halfway to the halfway point of my year out here, which basically means that I’m almost 30 years old (not really of course, but time sure does fly by fast out here!). Before I came out here, Erin, former Serena RA and overall awesome person, warned me that living in the bush for a year can be challenging, but also incredibly rewarding. Since first arriving in the bush, I’ve learned some valuable lessons:

Most importantly, I’ve learned how to identify hyenas based on their spot patterns, faces, ear damage, body shape, and overall scruffiness. Just a quick disclaimer: spot patterns are the only accurate way that we identify our hyenas, so Lila and I always double check spots if we use other methods. Nonetheless, some of our hyenas, especially the older ones, have been through a lot and it definitely shows. Together, Lila and I can identify most, if not all, of our hyenas when we pull up to one of our communal dens now, which is really cool!
We (primarily me) referred to SASS (Assassin Bug) as Teddy Bear until we confirmed its mother because it looks really fluffy compared to the other cubs at the den.
Second most importantly, I’ve learned how to drive a 5-ton, manual transmission car through our different territories and the bustling streets of Nairobi. This includes off-roading (rocks and wallows are your enemy, avoid at all cost) and mud driving (high ground is your best friend, embrace whenever possible). The most important lesson here is safety first! We only off-road in areas that we know are safe and if it is absolutely necessary to ID hyenas and will often skip an obs period or two if the roads are too muddy after rain. 

Meet KAS – Serena’s powerhouse of a car. Off-roading, mud driving, and long trips to Nairobi with all of our field supplies… she truly can do it all. 
On a less fortunate note, I’ve also learned why everybody warned me about the rainy season: siafu ants. Their underground nests will easily flood in the rain and, similar to us while mud driving, they will seek higher ground. Although we are technically in the dry season right now, we’ve gotten quite a bit of rain in the past couple of weeks. One morning after a rainy night, I was woken up by what I assumed was more rain falling on my tent. I was wrong! When I opened my zipper to meet Lila at the lab tent for morning obs, I realized that my tent had been claimed by an incredibly ambitious siafu colony. Although I made a quick dash for the lab tent, some of the ants were still able to climb onto me: ouch!

After spending the first night in the Mara anxiously listening to what sounded like lions that were right next to my tent, which in fact turned out to be hippos that were indeed very far away, I’ve also learned how to identify animals based on their sounds. Most importantly, I now know what a distressed zebra sounds like! I honestly don’t even know how to describe or mimic this noise, but it’s definitely not at all like what I expected it to be. Before you ask, however, I still have no idea what a giraffe sounds like – stay tuned for future updates.
Baby Zebra! This is the smallest one that Lila and I have seen so far... we think it may be less than a week old. 
While we’re on the topic of animals, I’ve also learned how to sex elephants… in theory. Lila has explained this concept to me numerous times (it has to do with the angle of their forehead, but maybe ask her about it instead). Nonetheless, I still have to wait until I see a fifth “leg” before I can accurately point out a male elephant. 
A little elephant! Is it a male or a female? I have no idea.
Lastly, I’ve learned that Philimon will get upset with me if I repeatedly ask for hard-boiled eggs with breakfast because he “can also cook omelets, and fried eggs, and scrambled eggs” and basically anything else that requires a little bit more effort than boiling eggs. In all honesty, I am so grateful that we have Philimon, Moses, and Stephen in camp with us – they truly spoil us when it comes to food and ensure that our camp site is always properly maintained, and that Lila and I have everything we need. 

Overall, the past three months have been an incredible experience so far, and I cannot wait to see what the rest of my year out here has in store for me.

Bonus Pictures:
RMON (Ramon) and GAZR (Star Gazer) may be contributing to the next generation of North clan soon. Seeing hyenas mate is incredibly rare, but Lila and I saw not only these two, but also another couple in South territory, mate this week. Very cool! (Disclaimer: when I first saw these two in the distance, I thought it was a waterbuck that was awkwardly grooming itself.)
Although we didn’t see her while she was mating, SOUP, the current matriarch of North clan, recently brought her two cubs to the communal den. Meet DASH (Dashi Soup) and SQSH (Squash Bisque). Lila still pronounces SQSH as “squash”, but I like to pronounce it so that it rhymes with DASH (Lila cringes every time).
Plot twist: it’s not hyenas! This pair of Egyptian geese is currently raising 9 (!) little goslings. We often see them while we’re out on obs in Happy Zebra territory, and always stop to make sure that there are still 9 goslings. So far, so good!

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Fisi Fashion

Here at Serena Fisi Camp (fisi is Swahili for hyena) we go through more outfits than you might expect. We start off every morning freezing our behinds off and finish off our evenings back in the cold. However, Kenya has a tendency to heat up very quickly throughout the rest of the day. So here my co-RA Jana and I would like to give you a little tour of our Fisi Fashion: 
Although not taken at 0530 when we leave for mornings obs, this is how Jana starts off nearly every morning.

I myself tend to bundle up, but to everyone's surprise, we're not going to the snow! I'm just that cold.

Come midday, Jana and I tend to do our daily work out, but as Jana is advertising here, it's safety first here at Fisi Camp! Just check out that hydration and high SPF sunscreen.

I tend to go a little more low intensity when exercising; just enough to get a little sweaty so yoga is my go to.

Sometimes we dress up to get drinks at the nearby lodge or when we really want to make a good impression. But you'll never catch me without my Tevas!

Jana gets even more dressed up than I do with those fancy jeans!

After we work out we tend to just lounge and relax. Jana would like everyone to notice that her idea of relaxing is to solve hard sudoku puzzles. Gotta keep that brain sharp!

When lounging, I tend to read a fiction book to take my mind off the stress of the day, but Jana and I have very similar uniforms when it comes to loungewear, mine just happens to be blue instead of black!

As you can see, Fisi Fashion varies widely! From fleeces and sweatpants to elephant pants and tank tops, every day we go through our closet to find the most weather appropriate outfit for that hour. And here, comfort is key, but that doesn't mean we don't stay fashionable! Gotta keep up with those trends, am I right? We are even lucky enough to be able to get some clothes made just for us, Jana tending towards beautiful black and white patterns while I look for as much color as can fit on a piece of fabric. We all have our styles, and they're all great! What's your Fisi Fashion?

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Favorite Sightings so far!

Hi all!

As you probably know, this job requires a lot of driving around the Mara. While Lila and I are primarily looking for suspicious-looking rocks, branches, and topis that could potentially be hyenas, we also encounter some incredible sightings along the way. Here are a couple of my favorite moments from the past 2.5 months: 
It’s mid-July, and rumors had started spreading: the great migration has finally come to the Mara Triangle! Indeed, thousands of wildebeest were hanging out right across the river from us, waiting for a prime opportunity to cross to our side. Eager to see our first major crossing, Lila and I decided to go on an official stake-out. Armed with unfinished transcriptions, binoculars, and snacks, we decided to find a spot close to BBC crossing (one of the many crossing points along the river). As we typed up our transcriptions, the herd of wildebeest slowly crept towards the edge of the river. Two hours into our stake-out, Lila and I decided to drive a little closer to BBC crossing to see how far away the wildebeest were (our previous spot had given us a great view of the river, but bushes obstructed the edge of the cliff). Suddenly, we saw not one, but two cheetahs who appeared to have been hanging out with us for quite a while without either of us noticing them! And, it looked like the wildebeest were right where we wanted them: the only place left for them to go was through the river. Lila and I were stoked to say the least. Until the hyena came! We love our hyenas with all of our hearts, but man, this was not the time to make an appearance. Within five minutes, a single hyena effectively managed to scare all of the wildebeest away from the edge. Disappointed, Lila and I decided to give up – dinner time was quickly approaching. As we drove back to camp, however, we realized that there was a major crossing finishing up a little down the river that we had completely missed. Big L.

Day two in the Mara. Erin and Lila are showing me around our three territories and pointing out various landmarks that we use to orient ourselves. Eager to see my first hyena/lion/cheetah/leopard/eland/etc, my eyes were constantly scanning our surroundings. At one point, Erin casually points to a random tree in the distance: “This is Scrawny Sausage Tree, which marks the end of one of our prey transects.” If you’re wondering how sausage trees got their name, a quick Google image search should enlighten you. Inspecting the fruit that was hanging down from this tree, I was intrigued by one particular fruit – it was darker and fuzzier than all of the other fruit. A quick scan of the tree led to another fascinating fact about this fruit: it was connected to a leopard and was not a fruit at all. Another quick scan of the tree led to an even more fascinating fact: there was a freshly-killed impala in the tree as well. It looked like we had just missed an exciting hunt! Nonetheless, the leopard was more than willing to pose with its trophy for us. Very cool. On an unrelated note, we found a natal den that appeared to belong to SAW (Saw), one of our Happy Zebra mothers, around five minutes later. Although we were unable to see any cubs at this den, SAW has recently brought her cub, ELDR (El Dorado), to our communal den!

What’s cuter than a little lion cub? Three little lion cubs. What’s cuter than three little lion cubs? A mother lion carrying around one of the little lion cubs in her mouth. Unfortunately, I was not able to get any stellar photos of that, so you will have to settle with three little lion cubs and their mother walking off into the distance. Still adorable though!

Our conversation at this sighting went something like this:

Jana: “Wait… are they fighting?”***
*2 seconds later*
Jana: “Wait… are they mating?”

***In case you’re curious, giraffes fight by smashing their necks into each other while standing next to each other.

Another case of mistaken identity! This seems to be a recurring theme throughout my blog posts, but I swear it’s really hard to spot predators that are meant to blend in with tall grass!!! As Erin, Lila, and I were driving to our communal den in Happy Zebra, we noticed an oddly-shaped tree branch/log on the side of the road. Since we drive through these territories regularly, we immediately notice when a rock has moved, a tree branch has fallen, or anything else is out of the ordinary, so we were thoroughly confused by this new branch/log. None of us realized that we were looking at a leopard until we were 5m away from it! To be fair, this was unlike any of our other leopard sightings so far. Usually, the leopard will walk away or hide in the tall grass as soon as a car pulls up, so it was weird to see a leopard sitting quietly right next to the road. As we drove by, we could’ve easily reached out our hands and petted it (don’t worry Mom, I didn’t!).   
You already knew that I *had* to include a picture of hyenas in this blog post! Meet BSCT (Seabiscuit) and her cubs, BLT (B.L.T.) and CHEZ (Grilled Cheese), from South clan! Lila and I are very obsessed with our new cubs in South (see our very excited blog post from July), so it’s always nice to see them out and about while we’re on obs. Now, please look at BLT’s face (the one in the middle) and try to convince me that hyenas actually belong in the Ugly Five.

Honorable Mentions:

Seen on solo obs the other day while I was alone in camp – just 4 lionesses and I! Usually predators in the Mara are accompanied with lots of tour cars, so it’s always nice to have solo encounters with them. 

Too cute not to share 😊

Lila and I managed to see a crossing after all! No wildebeest were harmed (good for them, but Lila and I were hoping for some crocodile action).

We even randomly encountered one while taking our Maruti out for a quick spin. I kid you not, we stopped to let this herd cross the road, and two minutes later they were on the other side of the river (the first few crossings we saw took ages!).


Sunday, August 11, 2019

A Mating Ritual

August 1st, 2019... a brisk, misty morning. We were on the search for our Confusing Den hyenas who have decided to make a move from Villa Den all the way west. They are a part of the Talek West Clan. The terrain out this way is bumpy and sometimes we only see one or two hyenas near this new den. It was almost 7am, cloudy and still a bit dark when all of a sudden we came across a carcass with a female lion feeding! She was huge... and looking in the eyes of a large lioness tearing apart a wildebeest is a bit frightening. That doesn't end though, we look over about 50 meters and see three hyenas eating a different carcass! Our location was not too far from our Confusing Den 3 (yes there are three because the hyenas are on the move and we are very confused on what is happening) so our initial thought was, "Okay these have to be some of the adults we know." It was strange though, no aggressions were happening over this carcass and they were being very quiet. Were they Talek West hyenas?

We drive quickly over to the hyenas and realize "Oh no, they are muddy... very muddy." We did our usual routine: take pictures, look through the books, see if anyone else can ID these animals, and then try to ID our pictures back at camp. It turns out one of the three were one of our immigrant males In Talek West that resides at confusing den, LWIG. What about the other two!? Nope, they were another clan... so we watch and observe for a little while because LWIG was still one of the study animals. All of a sudden one of the hyenas is starting to mate with the other one! We watch, we record, and we are just amazed that we are able to see this behavior in person.

Mating behavior in hyenas is a rarity to witness. Although hyenas can mate year round, it’s difficult to see in the wild, and even so females are only in estrous for three days. When males are trying to mate they must overcome the obstacle of getting their erect phallus into a forward facing pseudophallus. Males are squatting as low as they can and thrusting until they can achieve their goal. The goal is to survive and reproduce. When spotted hyenas are mating both of them are incredibly vulnerable to lion attacks. Now remember, we are at a carcass session and a lioness is on ANOTHER CARCASS about 50 meters away! As the male and female decide to take matters elsewhere, the female starts to follow the male. When the male wants to mate he will bow, paw the ground, lick his legs and he is allowed to get away with peskier behavior than if the female was not in estrous. 

We follow these two. Both of them stop and the male tries to mount. He bites her neck and the female has no response! Usually, if the female wasn't in the mating mood, she would lunge, bite back or chase the male away. She is letting him get away with too much, all to produce more offspring.

In about 110 days the female will have her cubs. If it is her first litter the odds of her cubs surviving are very low. She has to give birth to 1 or 2 cubs out of a plastic straw. It can be dangerous and I imagine, incredibly painful. 

Although these two weren't a part of our Talek West Clan, we hope that both were successful and her babies will be healthy and thriving.

Mating behavior
Picture credit: J. Bro-Jorgensen
J. Bro-Jorgensen


Szykman, M., Horn, R. V., Engh, A., Boydston, E., & Holekamp, K. (2007). Courtship and mating in free-living spotted hyenas. Behaviour,144(7), 815-846

Monday, July 29, 2019

Camera traps in camp are full of surprises Vol2

Hi everyone,
Here's the second post to share what camera traps in Talek camp captured. We had a few surprises again...

A big elephant, in the middle of the day!

Yes, that's a leopard...


Dik-dik saying hi to the camera

Marsh mongoose

Vervet monkeys, always trying to steal our food (ask Abby)

Big buffalo, not a friend of ours...

Hyena friend :)

Baby baboon on his mother's back

Dik-dik really LOVE our camera!



Curious baboon, looking great!

Warthogs and vervet on the same picture

Little bunny again

Baboon, thinking about life...

Thursday, July 25, 2019

UPDATE: Our Prayers Have Been Answered

Hi all! We have an important announcement from Serena’s superstar RAs! If you’re an avid follower of this blog you are probably aware of Lila’s recent Ode to South posted early yesterday (24July2019). A year and a half ago the matriarch JAVA* died, leaving the South clan in chaos. The two next highest rankers: KAPU* and TOBA* seemed like they were unsuccessful in following in their mother’s footsteps and rise to the throne. About six months later, previous RAs lost the South communal den and we have not been able to find it for about a year. However, this is no longer the case. We are happy to announce that the ode worked!

Two days ago, superstar RA Lila was on solo obs in South territory when she came across not one, not two, but ten South hyenas all meandering around one particular area on the southern end of the territory, and soon after she also heard cub noises! If ten doesn’t seem like a lot to you, we generally don’t see more than three or four South hyenas in a single obs period, so this was cause for celebration! Curious, Lila decided to explore some previous den sites, but to no avail. Less than two days later, superstar RAs Lila and Jana decided to go den hunting as Lila had had zero luck on the west side of the road when she heard the cub noises. Superstar RA Jana brilliantly suggested checking out the east side of the road. And low and behold, the first den we drove up to was filled to the brim with hyenas!

As you can imagine, we could barely contain our excitement. But, since we didn’t want to scare away the hyenas or startle them at all we spent the next hour or so silently screaming at each other in excitement complete with mini dances and high fives. Ever the professional hyena researchers, we then went on to take approximately 700769754780975433 photos.

We are incredibly excited to introduce you to the future of South Clan!

BLG yawning because it's tiring raising the new generation of South Clan

SNUG doesn't always make it easy for her cubs to nurse

Look at the face!

Almost everyone at the den!

SNUG finally makes it easy for her cub to nurse
Written by: Serena's Superstar RAs
*Full Names: Java (JAVA), Kapuas River (KAPU), Lake Toba (TOBA), Silver Nugget (SNUG), Bellagio (BLG)

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

An Ode To South

Of our three clans
You’re the least we see around
But fret not my friends
We love you more than we let on

We take you for granted
Sure, that’s the truth
You’re lonely and scarce
You former behemoth

What happened?
You were once so prolific, horrific
And now we see only pieces
It’s like you’re tumbling off a precipice

But still we love you, more than we can say
You’re funny and kind
And — what do you say — okay?

Whoever we see
(Should we see any of you at all)
You’re there to please the crowd
Come one, come all

From ROUG**, popping into view
As if to say “I’m here!” when least expected
Who’re only there to sleep and eat and maybe get
Aggressed on to — what are you doing?

What happened?
KAPU**, TOBA**, poised to take over the throne
Only for us to find you thrown,
Cast off to the side and down to the bottom
But you act as if that’s where you belong

Though you’re in chaos
Your territory shines above all others
In beauty and light and prey that abounds
And so though you are scarce
And we pray for your return
We have never stopped loving you
Perhaps more than we let on

**Full Names: Moulin Rouge (ROUG), Honor Harrington (HONR), Palazzo (PALA), Anubis (ANUB), Kapuas River (KAPU), Lake Toba (TOBA), Texas Slim (SLIM)
*Below are some of my favorite South hyenas just doing their best.
PALA taking a nap

Michigan State University | College of Natural Science