Wednesday, July 17, 2019

A Day in the Life


Hi all!

As I’m getting more settled in the Mara, I thought I’d share what a “typical” day in Fisi camp looks like. In reality, there are no typical days out here, since we never know what the Mara will throw our way – just two days ago, Lila and I were super pumped to go to Happy Zebra (we have seen a couple of new black cubs at our den and really want to confirm nursing to find out who the mother is!), but we ended up getting stuck in a massive hole with our LandCruiser instead and spent two hours collecting rocks, digging up dirt, and calling all of our friends to ask for help getting us out of there. Big shout-out to Geemi, Lerjin, and his crew for getting us back on track! Car problems aside, a typical day usually looks something like this:

0515 – My first alarm goes off, forcing me to get out of my cozy bed and start bundling up for a cold morning with the hyenas. Lila and I meet at the lab tent to make coffee/hot tea, check the weather, and get all of our equipment for morning obs (short for observations).

0530 – We leave camp and directly head to a communal den for the first half of obs. We never know what we will stumble upon as we drive up to the den – sometimes we have a couple of cubs snoozing and slowly waking up when we first arrive, and sometimes we’ll pull up to quite a party abound with cubs, mothers, and even a random male or subadult here and there. Throughout the session, we look for specific behaviors (mainly aggressions and appeasements, but also other affiliative behaviors) and record how far away everybody is from the den at certain time intervals.

0700 – A lot of action happens at communal dens at dawn and dusk, but it usually slows down by 0700. We start driving around the territory to look for other hyenas and predators. This is easier said than done – the grass in the Mara Triangle Conservancy is as tall, and sometimes even taller, than the hood of our car (reminder: we drive a literal boat, so the hood of our car is pretty high). There have been countless times where Lila and I have stopped because we mistook a rock/branch/termite mound for a hyena. It once took me several minutes to confirm that the black-backed jackal head I saw moving in the distance was actually just a bird sitting on a branch.

0830 – We return to camp, unload the car, and process any samples we collected (we collect poop and saliva samples for the graduate students back at MSU).

0900-0930 – Time for breakfast! Our guys love to spoil us when it comes to food. Before I came out here, I was a little worried that I would be eating rice and beans for every meal, but the food is honestly amazing. We usually have avocado toast, bacon, cheese, and eggs (until we run out of bacon and cheese and eagerly await the next Nairobi trip). Philimon, Moses, and Stephen will also treat us to breakfast burritos, pancakes, and French toast whenever we want.

0930-1230 – We usually spend the rest of the morning working – writing up our transcriptions, identifying any hyenas we didn’t recognize while we were out in the field, sending emails, and getting camp organized. While we’re out with the hyenas, we use DVRs to record our observations, which gives us an opportunity to relive the morning through random tidbits of conversation and action that our DVRs unknowingly picked up. My favorite recording ends with a tourist excitedly shouting “I love you, my little noodles!” at our hyenas before driving off.

1230-1400 – Fisi fitness! If you’ve read Erin’s blog post about fisi fitness from earlier this year, you know that we are professional sitters and don’t have access to a gym, so working out always requires a little bit of innovation. My usual workouts consist of running, running, and more running (and lots of walking in between), but I’ve also tried to use heavy rocks as weights (this did not go well), started a daily push-up challenge (Erin and I made it to Day 3 before abandoning ship), and HIIT circuits (it’s way too hot for those).

1401-1402 – At this time, I like to partake in a new daily challenge I like to call “try to take a cold shower as quickly as possible.” To be completely honest, my primary reason for working out is to get hot and sweaty enough to turn our shower into something “refreshing” and “fun”, rather than “cold” and “even colder.”

1402-1600 – We usually have a bit of free time in the afternoon, allowing us to read books, watch movies, chat with friends, clean our tent, etc. I’ve been reading lots of books lately, so feel free to send suggestions!

1600-1630 – Dinner time – if you’re scrolling back to the top to see if you forgot to read the section about lunch, I want to reassure you that you did not. We only eat two meals a day, which my body actually adjusted to quite quickly. Once again, Philimon and co. spoil us with lentil burgers, roasted vegetables, chapati (so good!), pizza, samosas, pasta, curry, etc….

1630-1700 – We start getting ready for evening obs.

1700-2000 – We leave camp once again to study our hyenas. In the evenings, we drive around our territories for the first half, and then spend the second half at the den. This gives us another chance to appreciate the Mara and all of its glory – while driving around our territories, we’ve seen a leopard with a fresh kill, three tiny lion cubs with their mother, countless elephants, and so much more!

2000 – We usually try to be in our tents by 2000, since we have a lot of wildlife coming through our camp at night (and because my current bedtime is anywhere between 2030 and 2100). Throughout the night, I often wake up to the sounds of our hyenas visiting us in camp, buffaloes and giraffes wandering by, and hippos screaming for no apparent reason (I thought I heard a hippo dying one night, but Erin reassured me that “they just sound like that sometimes”).

Thanks for reading! Stay tuned for more fisi fun next month 😊

For your viewing pleasure: 


RPSD investigating our car when we got stuck in the big hole - 4 other cubs came and hung out with us while we waited for help to arrive :)

Cuddle puddle!

Naptime
Golden hour



Sunday, July 14, 2019

A birthday worth remembering

Since I was a little girl I’ve had this dream of being in East Africa. I’ve known since I was three years old that I wanted to work with wildlife and the natural world. I would watch nature documentaries with my dad and be amazed by the giraffes, wildebeests, lions, hyenas, and all the different antelope that were spread out across the plains. My dreams turned into my goals and my goals turned into my career. I’ve had a lot of wonderful birthdays in the past, last year I had to release two bears and a raccoon from bear traps in the Upper Peninsula. I’ve had birthdays spent with friends and family and some taking summer classes and working. This year was special though. This year I spent it driving around the Mara and seeing the lands I once dreamed of seeing. There are so many different species of ungulates and carnivores, there are grasses that spread out for miles, and there are some of the kindest people I’ve ever come across in this beautiful country.

I live with a great team who helped show me that even though we have to work, my birthday is still special and I can’t thank them enough for showing me one of the most beautiful places in the world.

Seeing the Great Migration roam the lands of the Mara is a bucket list I never knew I’d accomplish. Being able to see hyenas fat and bloody from a great meal is even better. Knowing that the wildlife are happy, healthy and enjoying the migration as much as I am is even sweeter. The babies are even being born throughout species and let me tell you, my heart has never been happier. I’m even starting to really know the hyenas and watching them interact is something I am grateful for.

My birthday this year has made me realize that dreams can come true and being surrounded by loving people and beautiful wildlife, is all I ever wanted in my life.

The hyenas show me everyday that relationships are important and lucky for the bond I’m forming with the team here.

Here’s to being 23 and living in the Masai Mara, the place I’ve dreamed about forever.
The beautiful Mara and all its glory!

The Sand River is behind me along with the border to Tanzania! 

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Camera traps in camp are full of surprises!

A few weeks ago, we set up one camera trap in camp to see what kind of animals were visiting us during the night... we were not disappointed! We caught a lot of different animals in only a few weeks, with visitors almost every night. We are very excited to download the images every morning to discover what walked by our tents during the night. Here's a selection of the best photos that we had in the last weeks. Enjoy!

A spotted hyena carrying what may be the rest of a wildebeest calf (?). Unfortunately not one from the clans that we study.

A big male lion, scary!

A big hippo, also very scary!

A group of giraffes that stayed around for a few hours.

Recognize that hyena? It's the same as in the first photo! She likes our camp :)

No comment needed, I just had a good laugh when I saw this one.

A very good looking bushbuck

Porcupine!

One of our genet friends, we have a lot of them walking around at night.

A warthog family enjoying a walk in camp during the day

Some zebras posing for the camera

Eland!

Dik-dik, we also have a lot of them wandering around our tents during the day.

Another bushbuck

Another spotted hyena friend!

A little vervet monkey, very cute!

Guess what this is... yes... it's an elephant!

I hope you also enjoyed discovering what lives with us here in our Talek camp!

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Hyena males! An ode to my favorite hyena: Jeep.

Eremet: The first hyena I ever IDed by myself. She was sacked out on the side of the road nursing her baby, Quetzal. Jeep, an immigrant male, was snoozing about 6m from the two of them. I watched as Eremet would get up to pace or readjust. Each time Quetzal would rise, clearly irritated, and begin to squitter for milk. This was pretty adorable, but it was Jeep that captured my attention. He opened his eyes and watched Eremet move. She strayed about 15m from Jeep before lying down. This was apparently too far for him, because he tentatively got up, stretched, and slowly crept back to sack out, again, about 6m from her. His eyes didn't leave her for a few minutes as if he was waiting to see if she'd move again, before shutting them once more. Over the next few weeks we freqeuntly saw Erem and Quetzal at that spot, and inevitably Jeep would also be there, gazing at Erem, but not engaging. He was just...present. How curious.
GAZR (male) stares lovingly at CRIM (a female).

The relationship between immigrant males and the rest of the clan is fascinating. For those unfamiliar with this aspect of hyena behavior, natal males in a clan usually leave around ages 3-5 in search of a new clan to mate. Sometimes males find a clan, hang out for awhile, realize life is too hard and come running home to mommy before seeking out a new clan again. Sometimes males will stop by several clans in before deciding on the one where they will remain. I got to watch little TERV, a South clan natal male, become an immigrant in North clan. We now frequently spot him hanging out with a group of Northies. When a male joins with a new clan, he drops to the absolute bottom of the hierarchy, lower than all the other immigrant males who are already lower than every natal clan member. It's a hard life to be a man (but hey, at least you don't have to give birth through your phallus).

It’s cute to see how the males have built relationships with females. Jeep has worked hard to get Eremet to tolerate him at 6m away, likely with the hopes that he will get the privilege of mating. You might see Erem and Quetzal feeding on the remains of a carcass while Jeep is sacked out 10m away, just watching. I spent much of the year totally enamored by Jeep and his ways. He is a particularly patient hyena.  I loved him so much that I began to be able to identify him just by the way that he walks or the sound of his whoop (I swear I can differentiate his whoop). See the video below for a prime example.
Jeep at Lugga Den (make sure your audio is on).

I absolutely love watching immigrant males interact with the clan. It’s bizarre to me how females seem to be moody with them. Sometimes a mom, like Eremet, will let an immigrant male hang out, while other times, she might run and chase him off even if he’s a good 50m away from the den. I’ve witnessed a group of moms totally tolerating TEMP’s presence, until CAMI, a young female, showed up and ran him off. I swear the other moms raised their head at CAMI when she came trotting back to the den as if to say “unnecessary.” We could still see poor TEMP wandering around about 100m away for the rest of the session. He's a good one...like Jeep. Very patient and the cubs love him.

OMHA (male) tentatively approaching THLS (female). 

I’m choosing to write about immigrant males, in particular Jeep, for my final blog post because it sums up a lot of my sentiments towards these creatures. I arrived not knowing much about hyenas at all. As I studied their behaviors a story began to form. By the end, it was like watching a movie...a movie where you know all the characters, yet the ending is always a surprise. When I first met Jeep, I had no idea what I was witnessing when I saw him sacked out just a few meters away from Eremet. I had no idea that it likely took him years to forge that relationship and that he actively works to earn that privilege. Or for example, take Wallflower, an old North clan immigrant male that all the females love. He has earned the right to come to the den and play with the cubs. I've even seen low ranking females act submissively toward him. He clearly has built a great circle of trust.

Jeep :)
On one of my last obs periods ever, Jeep came around to the den. I could hardly contain my excitement. He approached Eremet delicately, who was nursing her new baby Mushu. Jeep slowly walked around her, pausing only briefly to sniff her side, before sacking out about 6m away. I couldn't help but smile -- I'll miss you guys.





Michigan State University | College of Natural Science