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

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!

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


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


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!

Michigan State University | College of Natural Science