Thursday, March 12, 2020

An ode to Lila...

Hi all,

Contrary to the picture above, it’s a sad, sad time in Serena Camp right now… After spending ten months together, my co-RA Lila is heading back home. During our time together, Lila has taught me a lot, including what lion paw prints look like (they were actually hippo prints) and how to sex zebras (she showed me a “female” zebra that weirdly enough had a fifth leg?). Unfortunately, she did not teach me how to write poems, so please enjoy this list of 5 things I wouldn’t want to do with anybody else instead of a thoughtful ode:

1. Create a free judgment zone. Ever heard of Planet Fitness? Well, we decided to take the opposite approach. From questionable hygiene, to even more questionable fashion choices (patterns on patterns on patterns) to mumbled sentences that made absolutely no sense at 5 in the morning, we always found something to judge (in an affectionate way).

2. Get lost while accidentally off-roading in the Mara. It was a beautiful day in the Mara, so two young researchers set out in their Maruti to rediscover old tracks that were lost during the rains. “This looks like the track we’re looking for, let’s check it out!” said one of the young researchers (note: it wasn’t me). “Sounds like a great idea,” I replied. It was not a great idea. At one point, we accidentally started following an animal track that looked like it was a part of the track. Needless to say, by the time we had realized our mistake, we were already hopelessly lost in the middle of grass that was taller than the top of our Maruti. Luckily, we slowly found our way back to the track, using a clump of three bushes to orient ourselves (after frantically texting Matthew to come rescue us).

3. Eat pasta every other day. Much to my dismay, Erin, the senior RA who was in camp when I first got here, was having some stomach issues and tried to avoid pasta as much as possible. This meant that we usually had rice, beans/lentils, and vegetables for dinner during my first month. However, Lila and I went a little crazy once we were alone in camp; at our lowest point, we had pasta for dinner 4 or 5 times in one week... Since then, we had to make a conscious effort to limit our pasta intake to every other night (although Matthew swiftly got us back on track with lots of rice, beans, and veggies, much to the gratitude of my own body). 

4. Become identical replicas of each other. It all started when Lila found some scrap pieces of fabric in our lab tent and decided to get some pants made by our local Fundi (Swahili for tailor). Shortly after, I also decided to have clothes made at the Fundi, and soon Lila was buying tons of fabric for the both of us in Nairobi. Then, Lila decided that she’ll go to Ethiopia and Egypt for her vacation. Shortly after, I also decided to go there. Then, Lila decided to get a hyena-related tattoo. Shortly after, I also decided to get a hyena-related tattoo (she got an entire spotted hyena skeleton, I got four paw prints). Then… well, I think you get the gist by now… Not only can we complete each other’s sentences at this point, but we can actually say the exact same sentence at the exact same time, stopping at the exact same time half-way through to look at each other before continuing on at the exact same time. If synchronized speaking was a sport, we’d be winners.

5. Exercise the power of veto. This one ties back a little to number 1. When you’re stuck in a secluded research camp with only one other person for 10+ months, it’s important to nip annoying behavior in the bud. This means that Lila will quickly veto all of my original nicknames for the hyenas (Gin-gin is barely acceptable for GINI, but I’m no longer allowed to refer to WSKY as Whisk-whisk). Meanwhile, Lila is no longer allowed to dance awkwardly while sitting at the lab table.

Good luck with your transition back into real society, Lila. May your hair always be clean, your conversations always revolve around “normal” topics, and your wine glass always be full.

Lila when she realized that she’ll never have a coworker as cool as her current one... unless... see you in Antarctica??

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Rain Rain Go Away, We Want to Get Out Again Some Day

Back in 2016 I participated in the Behavioral Ecology of African Mammals study abroad course at Michigan State University. That was the time I knew that I had to come back to Kenya. I had to experience more than just three weeks of the beautiful scenery and lands that Kenya had to offer, specifically the Maasai Mara National Reserve.

Now, as I write this, I have been in Kenya for nine months. Within the past nine months I have experienced lion-hyena interactions, hyena kills, rhino sightings, leopards mating, lions mating, hyenas mating, a clan split, the Great Migration, clan wars, many new hyena babies, and a whole lot of rain.

Below you will read about some of most vivid experiences that I will remember forever.

October 9th, 2019 – Lions and Talek West
It was a normal morning of observations, where we get up and leave at 5:30am, drive to one of our clan’s dens, and then go explore that clan’s territory. When it was time to go back to camp for breakfast, we had a surprise waiting for us. We were about to cross one of our most used crossings, “15 Years Crossing,” when all of a sudden, we heard multiple giggles and whoops coming from our Talek West Clan. We sped down “Hyena Highway” and to our amazement, we saw 5 lions (2 lionesses and 3 subadult males) pacing back and forth, and multiple members of the Talek West Clan circling these lions. This was my first lion-hyena session to transcribe and I was racing with adrenaline. The lions had an old wildebeest carcass in the bushes and the Talek West Clan were denning about 200 meters away. There were cubs at the den, and when lions are close, this can be very dangerous. Due to interspecies competition, lions will kill hyenas. An interaction was bound to happen, with lions on a carcass and being too close to the hyena den.

The interaction began with one hyena whooping to call for the others, and within seconds all the clan members came running from many directions. The hyenas began to form a coalition and mob the lions, approaching with bristle tails and giggling. By this time, our hyenas were trying to obtain the old carcass and push the lions away from the area. Two more subadult male lions came to join the fun, but they just walked around the area slowly, being careful of the hyenas. At one point in the session several hyenas mobbed at the lions and they responded by growling and roaring. When this session was all said and done, one hyena CRST* was left with the last piece of the wildebeest carcass, the spinal cord. The lions slowly walked away to go lie down and nap for the day. The rest of the Talek West Clan scattered to go back to the den to be with the cubs. This busy session only lasted for about 30 minutes and once it ended, we drove back to camp to go about our own daily routines.

When the rains started
On November 19th, 2019 the rains began. We were stuck in camp for about four weeks because the Mara landscape had too much water and mud. When it rains we do not want to be out in the field and damage the habitat with tracks from the land cruisers, and we do not want to get our cruisers stuck in the black cotton mud. The days we can’t drive into the field, we do a variety of chores in camp. We will inventory supplies, help our staff clean camp, make sure that the tents in camp are protected from rain, do accounting, and will print off updated pictures of the hyenas. We will study hyena pictures to memorize spot patterns and when we have any down time, we will color and listen to podcasts.

We were able to get back into the field again in the beginning of January. Once we drove into the field, we noticed a whole change of scenery. The rains have caused the grasses to grow to the height of the hood of our cruisers. It has been difficult to find some of the hyenas and their dens, but we were on the search. Our Pond Clan had a large baby boom while we were away and we now have 10 new cubs to keep track of. Sadly, the rains are still occurring on and off, but we attempt to get out whenever we are able to.

January 25th, 2020 was a night we were able to get out to the field, and we were not disappointed. Although it was sprinkling a bit, we were optimistic about going to the field. I was driving and Tori Hanley, my coRA, was transcribing. I was heading to Nairobi the next morning, so two Serena Ras, Matthew McBride and Lili Afifi, were along with us for obs. We were on our way back to camp when we spotted some hyena friends near a landmark called Croton Island (an area of bushes made of Croton bushes). KNOT**, LYON***, and CLEE****.

We noticed more hyenas were walk arriving from the South, with being stuck in camp for multiple weeks, we were thrilled to finally see our Talek West Clan again. All of a sudden, we see this darkly spotted hyena sprinting after a Thomson’s Gazelle. It was raining hard at this point but we had to see what was going to happen. CLEE saw this darkly spotted hyena and started to lope after it and help with the hunt. Finally, this darkly spotted hyena slowed down the Thomson’s Gazelle and was able to catch it. This hyena was CHLD*****, a subadult hyena. CLEE was right by CHLD’s side eating dinner when MDSA******, an adult female came along to join the fun. She took this kill from CHLD and CLEE, and ate it for herself. Higher ranking females will obtain the food for themselves, even if they don’t make the kill. This was an experience I will never forget. Watching CHLD run down this gazelle at full speed, was incredible. We had to head back home due to heavy rains but the Mara will always give us a treat when we are able to get out to the field.

Hopeful with good spirits
I have a few more months in the Maasai Mara, and to say that I am emotional would be an understatement. The staff, my coRAs Benson and Tori, have become my family. I am soaking in every moment I have left here, whether we are able to get out to the field or not. These past nine months have been magical, with ups, downs, and all arounds, I have fallen in love with the country of Kenya and its magic. Here is to my last few months in the Maasai Mara National Reserve!

Image may contain: grass, sky, outdoor and nature
This was taken at Lucky Leopard Den in Pond territory. This a normal occurrence at these dens, a bundle of cubs and few adults lounging around.

Image may contain: sky and outdoor
I was on solo obs back in January, when I came across this leopard sitting in a tree.  

Image may contain: sky, nature and outdoor
An elephant making his way through the Maasai Mara landscape

*CRST = Cristo Rendentor
**KNOT = Knot
****LYON = Lyon
*****CLEE = Cleveland
******CHLD = Child's pose
*******MDSA = Medusazoa

Friday, February 28, 2020

The flood scare that wasn’t a false alarm…

The flood scare that wasn’t a false alarm…

This wasn’t the first flood scare we had, but it would certainly be the one we remember.

The night before, we were woken by Stephen and Lesingo; the water from the Talek River had risen some 30 feet and was now breaking at the kitchen tent. So, in the dead of night, we packed the cars full of our most valuable things and moved everything from the kitchen to the lab tent, which sat on higher ground. We ended up with a stove and a fridge on our dining room table. But as the night went on, the river receded, I was sent back to bed, and we were in the clear…for now. 
Just as the guys had settled everything back into the kitchen so that we were able to cook food, the river rose again the next night. But this time, it didn’t just stop at the kitchen tent.

I had experienced quite a few flood false alarms since coming to Talek Camp about 3 months ago, but when Lesingo woke me that morning of January 30th at 4am, something told me that this was the moment we had been preparing for. I quickly gathered my belongings and followed Lesingo into the night to see how high the river had risen into camp. 
The kitchen tent did not have the waters breaking at its edge this time. It was completely engulfed, already about a foot deep in murky brown water, and rising still. The river made its way to the edges of the lab tent, and eventually, took that too. We had a lake instead of a driveway. The shower and the choo (Swahili for toilet) were completely underwater. We were running out of time.
In a hurry, we went through the lab tent flood protocol and loaded the Land Cruisers with the rest of the valuables that weren’t taken the night before and packed them to the ceilings with LN tanks, test tubes, ID books, GPS collars, and anything else we could fit.

Eventually the sun began to rise as we moved to higher ground and we were able to fully see for the first time how much damage the Talek River had actually caused. We waited with the cars on higher ground for nearly 6 hours, while often heading back into camp to asses the situation as the river continued to rise, and then eventually return to its banks. I made several trips back to my tent as I saw the water rising nearer and nearer each time. By the final trip, my tent no longer looked like a cozy home away from home, but rather a scene out of the Twister movie. I had stacked drawers upon desks, and bedding upon drawers, and then more rugs and clothes on top of those. I stripped my bed completely and flipped it over, stacking it even higher on top of the pile of all of my things. I don’t know whether it was the river mocking me for having turned the inside of my tent completely upside down, or simply sheer luck, but the waters never reached my tent, and for that I am grateful.
By around 9 am, just as all of our stomachs were beginning to rumble, Benson emerges from the bushes carrying a crate of soda and a Tupperware container full of leftover bread. It was breakfast for today, and we ate and drank and laughed over the fact that the guys were most upset that they hadn’t saved the chai tea from the kitchen to go with their well balanced breakfast. If you know the Masai men, you know nothing can stand between them and their chai. 
By 10 am the waters of the Talek River had finally receded. The guys had managed to drag the stove from its safe haven on the dining room table of the lab tent, to a dry and shady spot just outside of camp. Within moments we had eggs on the burners, tables and chairs set up in the grass and hot food in our bellies. From that moment on, beginning with that stove, we rebuilt camp. First a tarp to cover the stove, then batteries and lights to see in the dark, more tables for dish washing, another camping tent to store food…
It all came together before our eyes over the next few days. We made do with what we had, for we had come to realize that what we had was much more than others who had been hit by the flood, and we were feeling incredibly thankful. We had enough dry beds to sleep in, clean water to drink, good food to eat, and a warm fire to sit by. All in all, we made out from the flood pretty well. Our camp may have suffered severe damage, but we managed to save nearly everything, most importantly our high spirits. We will need those as we continue onto our 3rd week of rebuilding Talek Fisi Camp!

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

An Ode to the Mara

Most stay for a weekend
But I stayed the whole year through
And there’s nothing to say but
You’re the coolest of the cool

You got me into birding
So I’m officially a grandma
But I don’t mind
They make me ooh and ahh

And thanks for putting me with Jana
She tolerates my b.s.
Even when I ask her
To drive down The Abyss

You brought me close to my hyenas
And for that I’m forever thankful
Not to mention all the sightings
Cheetahs and leopards, you’re never dull

We drive your tracks like we belong
But don’t worry, we never take you for granted
Getting stuck when we least expect
Leaving our respect for you, un-slanted

Your skies make our jaws drop
Burning suns behind wispy clouds
Teaching us to use our cameras
And making our photos the talk of the town

Each of our clans that grace your lands
Entertain us to no end
Happy Zebra, North, and South
Intertwining, and hard to count

ANUB* and ONEK* from South to North
MOMO*, GOLI*, KNG* and more
Moving back to South, ensuring
South returns to it’s former glory

With only a few weeks left
It’s a bittersweet goodbye
You’re biggest drawback
Is you don’t have tacos
But that isn’t a surprise

So thank you for the memories
The photos and the fun
My hyenas and I won’t forget
This year even when it’s done

*Full Name: ANUB (Anubis), ONEK (Onekama), MOMO (Momo), GOLI (Goliath Bird Eating Spider), KNG (King Ghidorah)

Please see below for some of my favorite wildlife photos taken this year:
Camera stare

AMOR* on top of mom, WAFL* 
AMOR* smushed against mom, WAFL*

SPCE* framed by termites

ANUB* throws a carcass

KRKN* carries a carcass

HRLY* freaks out

UNO* freaks out

NEDL* prance

SAW* rolls 
A grumpy baby TLDA*

WSKY* got a vertebra

SNUG* yawns weirdly


So many yawns


Flehmen response

Flehmen response again

Wanna go?

Don't fall off mom!

Ohhhh man


Snack time
More flehmen response!
Full Names: AMOR (Amoretti), WAFL (Waffles), SPCE (Myspace), ANUB (Anubis), KRKN (The Kraken), HRLY (Harlequin), UNO (Uno), NEDL (Needle), SAW (Sawtooth), TLDA (Matilda), WSKY (Whiskey Sour), SNUG (Silver Nugget)

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Three Months In

African Paradise-flycatcher

We spend a lot of time outside. Pretty much from when we start morning obs at 5:30 AM and return to camp after evening obs around 8:00 PM. Being outside this much lets you really get to know the Mara and camp regulars. 

This snag almost always has a grey kestrel perched on it.

Schalow's Turaco
Hardly a day goes by that I don’t see or hear African black-headed orioles, Schalow’s turacos, or African paradise flycatchers around camp. Schalow's turacos are gorgeous but stay high up in the canopy where they have proven challenging to photograph. Others are far more unpredictable. A week ago violet-backed starlings suddenly flooded into camp, and three days later they were gone. Twice I have seen a grey-headed bush-shrike skulking through camp, once in early December and again a few days ago. It stealthily crept through the branches of the trees in camp until the flycatchers discovered it and harassed it out of camp. 

African Black-headed Oriole

We also have a warthog sow and piglet who visit camp everyday. She used two have two other piglets (but we think they may have been taken by a leopard) and two warthog boars. There is a third granddaddy of all warthog boars with massive tusks who I usually see on the edge of camp but rarely comes in when the other two boars do. Four or five dik dik also run around camp with their tiny noses wiggling at full speed. 

Momma warthog with her last remaining piglet

A leopard we've seen frequently not too far from camp.

A pair of cranes that nested in our Happy Zebra territory raised a chick from a tiny ball of fluff to a funky teenager. They consistently hang out at a particular pond and so we’ve gotten to watch the chick grow up. 

Our favorite crane family

Two palearctic migrants, black storks and white storks (super creative names, right) have also showed up in the past two weeks. Large flocks of white storks have been using the marshy grassland in North territory. Rains in late January filled up a creek that runs into the Mara allowing fish to move in. The creek bends and forms a pool where fish get trapped as it dries. The black storks were fishing there alongside the regular Mara inhabitants like African spoonbills, woolly-necked storks, and yellow-billed storks.

Now that pool dried up the black storks are using the marshy grassland in North territory with the white storks. There are also tons of shorebirds using the mudflats and marshes. I’m really hoping to see more migrants moving back north at the end of this month and into April.

Solitary white stork who was hanging out with some marabous

Black stork with a fish

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

IDing hyenas: rainy season edition

Hi all!

We are currently in the midst of an “enhanced” rainy season, giving us all a chance to catch up on our favorite TV shows and movies while we’re stuck in camp. Of course, the rainy season does have some benefits. Since we collect and treat rain water to use for drinking/washing water, we haven’t had to get water from the nearby lodge for the past two months or so, and… well… that about sums up all of the benefits of the rain.

Unfortunately, the rain primarily brings two things: tall grass and mud. Lots of it. Our hyenas love to pamper themselves with mud baths, but we are less enthused about it. Not only have we gotten our Cruiser stuck numerous times while out on obs, but the mud also conveniently covers up all of the spots on our hyenas, making IDing a little trickier than usual. Just the other week, we saw 16 of our North hyenas on what appeared to be a carcass. However, with the tall grass and our inability to off-road due to mud, pictures from the session looked like this: 

 Although it’s almost impossible to record any behaviors for sessions like this, we still try to at least ID all of the hyenas who are present. So, let’s get started! First, we’ll do the easy one:

A collar! Only one of our hyenas in North territory is currently collared: WAFL (Waffles), the former matriarch. Although her collar no longer transmits a signal, it still makes IDing her a piece of cake. 1 down, 15 to go. Let’s zoom in!
While IDing, we usually try to rely on shoulder and leg spots, as multiple hyenas can have similar body spot patterns. However, this pattern is luckily unique to one individual: DEJA (Déjà vu).
Ready for a challenge? Let’s ID this individual:
We’ll zoom in to see the spots a little more clearly…
Unlike DEJA, this is unfortunately not a very unique body spot pattern… carefully looking through our ID binders, we can maybe narrow this down to 3-4 potential individuals. To make it a little easier, here are just two of the contenders: LOBI (Lobster Bisque) and ZIMU (Mzimu):
LOBI - one of the highest-ranking hyenas in our clan (she is one of SOUP's older cubs).
ZIMU - a mid-ranking hyena who belongs to JUDE (Hey Jude). 
Are you able to tell who it is? Luckily, we have another shot of this hyena from a different angle to confirm!
If you squint really hard, you can see three spaced-out spots going down the shoulder of this hyena, making it ZIMU! Another tell-tale sign? One of the other individuals I IDed for this session was actually LOBI, automatically disqualifying her for this round.

Alright, now for the final challenge! Can you ID this individual?

Let’s zoom in to see if that’ll make it easier:
Nope! The mud, tall grass, and stance of this hyena give us little to no spots to use for IDing. In this case, we simply leave the hyena as an unidentified individual, conveniently nicknamed unIDmuddy for this session.

Bonus game: spot the track! 
Another fun side effect of the enhanced rain? Most of our usual tracks have disappeared! Both of these pictures were taken while I was stopped on an actual track in one of our territories – can you tell where I’m supposed to go? 

Michigan State University | College of Natural Science