Thursday, August 31, 2017

On to the Next Great Thing

Well a year has come and gone for this Fisi camper and what a ride it has been.  It has been an incredible privilege to work in the Mara for an entire year studying one of the most under appreciated and misunderstood large carnivores in the world.  It truly has been a pleasure to get to watch hyenas (and all the other wildlife) day in and day out, becoming intricately faceted into a small portion of their lives - something that frankly you cannot put any sort of tangible value on.  While I would simply love to live and breath in the Mara for the rest of my life, it is time for me to depart from this land and start some new adventures.  Before I do however, I'd like to thank everyone who got me here and supported me along the way.  There's no other place to start than with Dr. Holekamp, who saw fit to ordain me with this wonderful opportunity to begin with.  To her credit, this is the most professional and technically sound project I've worked on in my short field career and that can only be seen as a testament to her leadership, patience, and endurance.  To Philimon and Moses, my heroes of the year.  Without them cooking our meals, washing the dishes, doing our laundry, and generally making sure camp operated in an orderly and efficient fashion, there would simply be no way to go out on obs and collect the data on the hyenas.  There will be never enough thanks and praise that I can send their way.  To my Serena Lodge family that welcomed me with open arms on my first day in the Mara, gave me the comfort of a home, and sent me off with tears and hugs, I will never forget your compassion.  To the Mara Conservancy and all of the rangers who risk their lives on a daily basis to protect us and all of the magical wildlife contained within the borders of the Mara Triangle, this would've never been possible without your sacrifice and all of those who served before you.  To the hyenas of North, South, and Happy Zebra clans for your nonstop cacophony of entertainment.  Thanks for making the year as entertaining as it was educating. And last but not certainly least, to mom, because you always need to thank mom.  Without further adieu, so long Maasai Mara! Hopefully we will meet again in another life!
Above, we have a glorious silverback lounging in the montane forests of Virunga National Park, DRC. Below, a curious baby eyes his new visitors warily.
 On my way back to the land of the free and the home of the brave, I ran into some fuzzy friends in the Democratic Republic of Congo in the shadow of the mountains of Virunga National Park.  There are only 880 mountain gorillas remaining in the wild and they are under constant threat from poaching, habitat loss, and wildlife trafficking.  Seeing gorillas in the wild has always been a dream of mine since I was just a wee tot watching Nature on PBS on Sunday nights.  I've finally been able to make this dream a reality and there is simply no way to describe how surreal, humbling, and astonishing this experience was - you guys will just have to do it yourselves one day!
Welcome to Mount Nyirangongo, also located in Virunga NP.  The world's largest lava lake rests here, measuring in at over 300m in diameter.  The rangers told me it would be cold at the top, but not so much with the assistance of grandest campfire of them all. Fun Fact: This is the precise location where Frodo threw the Ring of Power into the fires of Mt. Doom.  If you don't believe me you can ask the hobbit yourself!
 Next up on the docket, the adventure known colloquially as life has me running off to the Bahamas and more specifically Forfar Field Station.  I'll be working there as an environmental educator and telling all the little kiddos about all the fishies in the sea so if you find yourselves rowing past Andros Island feel free to give a holler and don't be a stranger.  Until then, safari njema as the Kenyans like to say.
A quite beautiful sunrise at Forfar Field Station (©International Field Studies, Inc.)

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Birds of the Mara

We spend a lot of time focusing on the mammals of the Mara, e.g. hyenas, lions, and other large carnivores but the Maasai Mara is also one of the top birding destinations in the world. I just started keeping track of my bird sightings (using an app called ebird from the Cornell Ornithology Lab) and I've already documented over 100 new species. Here's a few of my favorites!

Birds of Prey: 
The most impressive bird of prey in the Mara, the Martial Eagle. This one is a juvenile.
Next, the Bateleur. Another very impressive eagle. This one is easy to spot while it's flying due to it's uniquely shaped wings and very short tail. Close up, its red face is a give away.

Here's a juvenile Bateleur. 
This is a Fish Eagle, similar to America's Bald Eagle.

The tawny eagle, a common but impressive sight in the Mara. They hunt and scavenge.
A black-shouldered kite, another common site in the Mara. They're have bright red eyes.
A Verraux's Eagle Owl, a slightly less common sight.

Common birds in camp:

The spot-flanked barbet, a common visitor to our Talek camp.
The brown-throated wattle-eye. These birds have unique red patches above their eyes.

The tropical boubou. A common breakfast table visitor in  our Serena camp.
Black-backed puffback. Similar to the tropical boubou but with red eyes.

A speckled mouse bird. These guys are always hanging sideways on their branches.
A beautiful male African Paradise Flycatcher. They often zip around near our choo (latrine).

A slate-coloured boubou. This one likes to hop around underneath the breakfast table.
A Common Bulbul. We have these guys all over camp and they're easy to spot due to the yellow under their tails. 
A Red-Fronted Tinkerbird. This guy is in the wood-pecker family and is often seen near the choo in Talek camp.

A beautiful and striking Purple Grenadier.  I often see these guys in the thinner scrub around the edge of our Talek camp.

Some birds from around the Mara:

An African Green Pigeon. They blend in really well with the leaves of a Fig Tree.

The White-browed Coucal.

A Northern Shrike. 

The popular Helmeted Guinea Fowl that often graces napkins, dish towels, and mugs.

The red-billed hornbill, also known as Zazu. 

The Southern Ground Hornbill. These birds are large and impressive and also make a very low booming sound.

What African bird list wouldn't be complete without the Common Ostrich? 

The Red-necked Francolin. A grassland bird that likes to hang out on the tracks we drive on.
A Lilac-breasted Roller. This is one of  the most eye-catching common birds of the Mara (see below).

Anytime you see a flash of iridescent blue... it's the Lilac-breasted Roller.


The Pied Kingfisher is a frequent sight along small creeks.

The Giant Kingfisher is truly giant. This guy is the size of a soccer ball. I've only seen one once!

The Woodland Kingfisher. These are also a slightly less frequent sight along creeks. I've seen them a few times.

Birds on mammals:
Anytime you see a bird on a Zebra or Buffalo it's almost always the Yellow-billed Oxpecker (more common in the Mara than the Red-billed Oxpecker).

The Oxpeckers all seem to like to choose the same Zebra.

Every once in a while you'll see a Wattled Starling on the Zebra instead of an Oxpecker.

Parrots, Sunbirds, and Bee-eaters.

Meyer's Parrot AKA the Brown Parrot. I saw this one in camp by the choo.
The Variable Sunbird, identifiable by its bright yellow belly. Sunbirds are tiny hummingbird sized animals that almost always have some kind of iridescent coloring on them.

The Mariqua sunbird. Males have a collar of green, blue and purple.

The Brimstone Canary, a common yellow bird in camp.

Two beautiful Little Bee-eaters.
Glossy Starlings:

The common Ruppell's Starling. These iridescent purple birds are frequent beggars at the breakfast table.

The slightly less frequently seen Hildebrand's Starling.

The Superb Starling. Its coloring is pretty superb.

A Greater Blue-eared Starling. Their yellow eyes against blue and teal feathers is quite striking!
Herons, Lapwings, Storks, etc.

The Grey Heron, similar to America's Great Blue Heron.

Another large Heron, the Black-headed Heron.

The most obnoxious Lapwing, the Crowned Lapwing. These guys are constantly screaming at our car for disturbing them, but rightly so... they're often defending their eggs and chicks, like this adorable tiny little guy! 

Temminck's Courser. A cool looking smaller bird.

The Black-winged Lapwing. Say that ten times fast!

The classic Saddle-billed Stork.

Two Egyptian Geese. We have a water hole named after them in Happy Zebra territory.

The graceful Grey-crowed Crane.
Last of all, the extremely homely Marabou Stork.
There are hundreds more birds here in the Mara and I couldn't share all of them, but I hope you got the idea that the Mara is an amazing place to see a lot of bird diversity!

Michigan State University | College of Natural Science