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!

Michigan State University | College of Natural Science