Raptor Camp Update

September 2013 update
The terrorist attack in Nairobi has left us all in confusion. None know their objectives, but one thing is certain. There has been a show of national unity that has allowed all of us to feel a sense of patriotism.
In the last few months I have had much to do. First I have committed myself to moving to Soysambu Conservancy. At the Little Owl Sanctuary, run by Sarah Higgins I have been busy tending to 4 free flying hawks and doing multiple operations to save the wing of an eagle owl and the leg of a sparrowhawk.

Female Black Sparrowhawk pinned leg

Female Black Sparrowhawk pinned leg

There are now some 40 birds and it could grow forcing big changes upon both of us.
We had a visitation from Prof’ John Cooper and his wife Margaret, both very much involved in raptor work, the former a vet the latter versed in law with respect to raptor care in the UK. It was a testing period as the basic foundation for accepting any public participation in all matters to do with wildlife remains absent. Thus for them to present a series of lectures on raptor rehab (on 3rd July 2013) opens a can of worms that could have devastating consequences unless very cautiously worded. Thankfully although KWS stated the legal difficulties of public participation, at the same time all acknowledged the value we collectively have contributed. It highlighted the inconsistencies prevalent in conservation policy in Kenya where legislation and government resources do not meet the facts on the ground. It brought to light levels of ignorance in the understanding of raptors by our veterinary departments that must be improved. We were repeatedly reminded that raptors were a nuisance (in eating chickens), and were disease vectors (in anthrax…which they are not). It ended on a positive note; the need to know more, and Prof Cooper gave us no excuse as he reminded us all that Kenya was one of the first countries in the world to take on raptor medicine. If only bureaucracy gave us a chance!
Not coincidently I fell victim to recurrent exotic disease that may be a Lyme disease type as I fretted and stressed over the outcome of the above. I took the period of enforced “go slow” to recover and focus on treating the hawks and owls at Naivasha.

Dave the male African Goshawk

Dave the male African Goshawk

As if to illustrate the point KWS from Nakuru bought in 4 baby Barn Owls. Unfortunately they had contracted severe enteritis and one by one they died (leaving only one). Usually they are very simple to raise, but one day of sliding around in a box covered in minced meat and a cold damp night may have begun a series of gut infections. Few who do not care for the very sick know the anguish and sense of overbearing responsibility of tending to critically ill patients. I found myself driving to Nairobi, then to Nakuru so as to pop in to help Sarah give them their injections.
A couple of years ago I helped out in doing a documentary in Zambia for Tigress Productions. I was the “expert” vulture man that on occasion was asked a few questions on camera. But my main forte was in dashing about off-screen helping putting in cameras and such. It was something I did as a boy when helping out my father when he did wildlife films. I was asked to help out again for an upcoming documentary on the rains and how it resuscitates a dying eco-system in drought. I shall be off overland in a car next week. That required that I release what I could and this includes a very neat and exceptionally well behaved male Black Sparrowhawk, one of three rescued nestlings whose nest tree was felled. It is often the case that I must release star performers and birds on which I have spent so much time and I confess this time I felt as though I was losing an important asset as well as a companion.

Fidget, now released

Fidget, now released

With what I hope to earn I shall plough it all into building a raptor centre at Soysambu. It’ll be an extension of Sarah’s Little Owl Sanctuary that focuses on the free flying and release of raptors that were first treated at her centre in Naivasha. Naivasha is now built up with a huge human population making little but the immediate shoreline a suitable place for wildlife. Now that the lake has risen that strip of land has submerged and it is not possible to exercise most of the raptors, which in less than a few seconds can be on adjacent properties. Both Sarah and I have realised that the birds and our objectives will outlive us (some live longer than elephants and many are much rarer!) and there must be a long term plan. The last decade has seen the absolute minimum of financial support for wildlife conservation. Formerly it was not that impossible to scratch along getting the odd donation or grant, but today that is not the case. Perhaps if we formed a long term plan with a trust and a board we would get surety asked for by some funders. It had to come one day.
The plan is to meet the demand. Sarah has an ideal location and already existent farm buildings that could be turned into huge captive breeding facilities worthy of condors. There are offices and rooms perfectly suited to state of the art veterinary facilities that could revolutionise veterinary care of raptors and the study of their diseases. All it needs is a little imagination and support.
For my part I do terribly miss my former bush life and must return. My move to Soysambu took a few stages. First was gaining familiarity with the land through Juliet Barnes and Kat Combes. I was only partly familiar with it previously and very anxious to know more. Birds of prey and especially the migrants tend to gravitate towards the Rift Valley lakes. Soysambu Conservancy fringes ¾ of the lake and is alone in the entire Rift (from Israel to Mozambique) in being mostly under private ownership.

The Raptor Camp forest glade, Soysambu Conservancy

The Raptor Camp forest glade, Soysambu Conservancy

The other lakes are either public land, multiple privately owned or protected making it difficult if not impossible to conduct research or conservation management. Here I was free to wander about, climb trees and cliffs and learn. Such accessibility allows flexibility and frees one from the enormously inhibiting, though well meant, restrictions imposed by our national parks and reserves.
As predicted the lake shore is visited every year by over-wintering raptors such as Lesser and Greater Spotted Eagles, 3 species of Harriers, 6 species of small migrant falcons, two species of large falcons (the Saker and the Russian Peregrine), and virtually all the others. Here too is a curious cross over point between species found in West and North Africa converge to meet their eastern counterparts. The Grey Kestrel and the Fox Kestrel as well as the rare Mountain kestrel occur there and in adjacent Lake Nakuru. It is also rich in vultures which are today uncommon in much of Kenya. It remains to be seen what else is there, and that will be recorded in time. Perhaps I can invite the various interested NGOs whose focus is on the research and conservation of migrant raptors and help set up a field base for their long term studies. Such a programme is vitally important and although widely understood as such the very protection that shrouds nationally protected lands works to oppose and profit from it and effectively turns such concepts away. To financially profit from critically needed research is to actively discourage it and we should consider the reverse…paying people to come and research and thus conserve. It was what I used to do in the days when I had financial backing and I have every intention of making sure it happens again.
I have chosen a little glade in the forests, some 7km away from the lake shore. In a quiet moment one would imagine wood nymphs among the myriad butterflies and birds that inhabit this odd forest patch. But the permanent residence of some 70 buffalo and a nightly visitation by the leopard bring one back to a good reality. I have every intention of integrating the structures with the surroundings and its animals. The rule is that no-one should see it when overhead or within 50m of it and that no tree or animal is displaced. I just have to befriend the leopard, who a few weeks back sat within 15m watching me cook my dinner on a camp fire. Some 400m to the east is a hill overlooking lakes and distant mountains and a small patch of the Mau Forest on Eburru. Here I aim to once again fly and release eagles, hawks, falcons, buzzards and owls and to regain the ability to focus others on specific areas of concern that I feel needed. I will for the first time have to consider donation paying guests or visitors so as to keep the objectives alive and self-sustainable. In the past I used to pay for visitors to come and get exposure, but now that must change.

My neighbourly Leopard

My neighbourly Leopard

When I return from Zambia I will have a busy end to this year.

Jack the Black Sarrowhawk

Jack and Jill, the Black Sparrowhawks.

It is rare these days to get an opportunity to fly a fine hawk. By “fly” I mean to have it buzz about, follow you, exercise and finally catch things on its own. In the past I used to get a number of flyable fine hawks in a year and go through rehabbing and/or flying them like a conveyer belt. I got to be blasé and flew and released so many I lost memory of all but a few. I reminisce over encounters passed somewhat like Maurice Chevalier’s song “Ah yes I remember it well”.  It is all a pleasant blur. I must presume that the low volume today is reflected not so much by a decreasing number of wild raptors but by other factors, not the least being the increased difficulty the public (and rehabbers) now have in being allowed to rescue raptors.

By a ‘fine’ hawk I mean the athletes of the raptor world. The accipiters and large falcons are the chief examples. They are monstrously strong, have an enormous metabolic rate and vast physical demands upon them. They are the “heavily wing-loaded” raptors…the guild of elite that need careful management prior to release otherwise they will die.

Fortunately these birds are almost domestic in the sense that methods used in handling them are as old as those used with the training or herding of domesticated animals. If you know what to do, such a bird slides seamlessly onto your arm and will within a couple of weeks be flying about and returning to you, tweaking your ear and fluffing up on one foot happy at the end of the day with a bulging crop filled with something it caught. Instead of having confined it for a few millennia to your cave, home, enclosure, stables or paddocks; and selected genes that scrubbed all semblance of pride and independence, hawks and falcons are already biddable and potentially good buddies. There’s no need to go through thousands of years of domestication, they get on with it from day one (well, maybe by day 7 if you give them some TLC). You leave them in a cage and they are destroyed.

 

This is falconry, a method of wildlife animal husbandry so ancient and ingrained in raptor management that I feel it should be a legal obligation for anyone handling these birds. I would go as far to add that any rehabber who has not trained and successfully hunted with a single hawk, should under no circumstances attempt to rehabilitate one. I know it opens a can of worms among animal rights groups, and because of this I have kept some of what I do quite. The end result has not been good, for many raptors are released in Kenya (and elsewhere such as India) today with no hope of them being able to catch food. I do not propose each and every raptor needs to be falconry trained prior to release, but I do support that the athlete species should and that most would benefit from it.

After cautiously recognising a new and favourable view on falconry after its UNESCO recognition in Nairobi I felt sufficiently bold enough to once again step out of the closet and train and hunt this new and fearless little sub adult male Black Sparrowhawk, dubbed Jack, after Jack Sparrow. I could have let him go, for there was nothing wrong with him, he was fit and had nearly a year of hunting experience behind him. I actually hoped to show-case his “falconry” management to prominent people, and to use him to get a few messages across. Then release him.

Jack was about a year old, rapidly changing his plumage and thus had no wife and family. Jill was to come later, she was a just fledged female with no hunting experience, picked up by an old friend Craig Sorely and trained. The two birds were very different despite being the same species.

Jack was extremely flighty and bated all the time. Throughout the time I had with him he never returned to his bow perch, nor stayed on it after I put him back. He drove me crazy. I had to keep him on a high screen perch or on my fist, sometimes for 6 hrs of the day. The first day he fed on the glove, the third day he stepped onto the glove, the 5th day he flew to the glove and by 2 weeks he was flying free and chasing birds. Unusually for his species he took to the hood well, which was a great relief as that meant I could have some respite from his constant high fever-pitch behaviour. This hyper-activity was typical of “passage” or “haggard” males. I put his tail in a sheath to stop it from getting damaged. Each day I weighed him twice to the last 1 gram. My goodness to see him all decked out with, jesses, bewits, tail bell, radio transmitter, swivel, leash, 3 different perches, 2 gloves, weighing scales, his night shed and a few fancy hoods even impressed me. To some this image is painful and indicative of dominion, whereas to see him “free” in a large and airy shed would seem to them much more humane. Nothing could be further from the truth as I will relate.

 

Jack, hooded on screen perch and full of food

 

The weather was blistering hot and by mid afternoon I had to spray him with water, which he greatly appreciated. If I missed this, he could well have died of heat stress. I realised with not-so-fond a memory what hard work it was to keep a falconry bird and to keep them in tip-top condition. I was glad that Craig was busy with his female, because 2 Sparrowhawks would be too much.  I had to fly him every day but in view of the limited ability for me to hunt him at wild prey I made a point to exercise him extremely hard and increase his fitness. I used an old trick in putting weights on his legs (bags filled with ball bearings) and getting him to fly high up onto my fist held above my head. This was tough work, but maintained muscle and stamina (for us both!). Anything less and he would not be able to hunt. Such attention occupies a falconer’s mind but seldom seems that important to the pure rehabber, who may blissfully think “the wild” is a peaceful benign place full of food and that a skinny weakling will do just fine. It isn’t, and food (doves mostly for Jack’s species and sex) are damned hard prey to fly down! When finally the clouds broke and it rained, it did so without respite for weeks. But I was able to fly him at Coqui Francolin, Crowned Plovers, Collared Dove and Dikkops (Stone Curlew) and one wet weekend was perhaps the highlight of my entire year despite the mud.

Jack looking keen to go flying

To attempt to tell a person unfamiliar with raptors just how fast a Sparrowhawk can go when in earnest after prey and very fit is impossible. None can understand the impression of speed and agility because it defies imagination.  But image those old movies with an astronaut strapped to a rocket sledge on a railway line. Remember those G forces and the extreme exponential acceleration? Well a hawk’s flight is nothing like it because Jack keeps his composure and his jowls do not flap in the wind. But otherwise the speed seems similar.

On this muddy weekend I took Jack, hooded on my glove for a drive (one handed through knee deep mud). I saw a group of Coqui Francolins and stopped the car and got out and removed his hood. He sat there looking blank and a bit stupid, until he too saw the francolins trotting to cover some 100m away through the yellow fever woodland. This is usually too far for most hawks to stand any chance. His face changed and he lent forward with deadly intent. I stepped forward, anxious lest I messed up. Just as they turned behind a tussock, he snapped off the fist and rowed out with every wing beat gaining him momentum. The francolins were airborne and going flat out, with one (the cock) that rose higher than the rest. Jack picked him out and like an arrow closed at incalculable speed towards him. I was able to see the whole flight as in curved an arc. Other hawks would have long dropped out when the male francolin dropped a gear and blazed for cover. But not Jack. As with every hunt I see, be it a cheetah after a gazelle, or a falcon after a bird my mind was torn between edging the prey on to escape, or edging the predator on for the capture. But on this occasion things were suddenly concluded leaving no time for mixed emotions of any kind. He left only a few feathers floating on the wind. Plodding as fast as I could breathless through the quagmire listening for the sound of his tiny bell, I heard instead a huge and ugly snort behind and to my right. It was two buffalo and I laughed because as stupid as I might have first appeared, I always run through thick bush towards climbable trees through force of habit. That evening by candle light I toasted Jack to the applause of thundering rain on the tin roof. I thanked him for a day too rarely had in this modern Kenya where getting dirty and practical with wildlife is looked upon as unnecessary, distasteful and too “dangerous”.

Jack on prey

I flew Jack at prey for just over a week and achieved the highest possible standard of falconry with him taking 4 Coqui francolin, and one Spotted Dikkop and one Red eyed dove in the air. I fed him and other hawks on these kills. He almost certainly had killed less than he would have done if wild and free, but to me that was an exceptional score. He was not infallible and did bungle a few times. But he was one of the best hawks I have ever seen. It was significant to note that when he did fail it was after a day or less of inactivity. I was so pleased to be able to get back into what, many years ago, was a way of life that taught me more than any scholastic endeavour ever did about wildlife and raptors.

Unfortunately I had to go to a Vulture conference in the Mara and wrecked my car engine on that horrendous road. I had to “ground” Jack for a week, but did so by placing him in a custom-made “padded cell”. I tested him out in the spacious shed with shade-net darkened walls, a tree and a nice bath and he seemed happy. I returned wheel-less and broke and much later than planned and was appalled to see the Jack had damaged his cere and had broken 2 tail feathers during the time I was away. I took him up, repaired his tail and dressed his nose wound, angered with myself at having caused damage, rather than cured it.

I flew him hard and made him carry weights again until he was back to prime fitness. At first he was puffed and weak. I cut his jesses over a week later and left him to finish a meal and fly to the top of a yellow fever tree to clean his bill. He was only a few weeks ago as wild as a hawk could ever be, and now again he was just as wild and fit. He never was “tame” by any stretch of the imagination. Although that is the way I like most of my birds, I did single him out to be the ambassador for regulating of falconry (and rehab) and wanted him to show off his skills in front of VIPs. More to the point anyone of these people witnessing a hunt, would all acknowledge within a heart-beat, the futility of cage managed rehabilitation. But I soon knew he was not going to tolerate company and while that spoiled my plans I bore him no grudge; rather I admired him all the more.  I saw him the next few days, chasing shore birds around the lake. I can’t get near enough to him to feed him and he doesn’t need it either. I am not worried about his fitness or ability to survive because he proved his mettle in an out of captivity. Should I worry about his tameness? Hardly, for I just spoke today at length to what I thought was Jack in a tree high above me, pleased at the faint recognition he showed me by quizzically turning his head upside-down. Last week he would have just raced off ignoring me. What had brought about this new boldness I thought as I raised my binoculars? What I saw was not Jack, but a strange adult (wild) male of whose acquaintance I had never previously made.

This story does have an important message in re-affirming the need for assessing a raptors’ ability to hunt prior to release. For the “athletic” species, those that habitually hunt birds and or active strong prey as large or larger than themselves, it is imperative to have them at peak fitness and with the will and way-with-all to catch their prey. Just a day down and their success rate plummets. More inactivity than that, such as the usual and locally much endorsed small open-sided cage and containment for weeks or even months with barely a few meters to hop…will result in a dead hawk after release. I have incessantly opposed cage management for some groups of raptors. It humiliates me that I erred and placed such a hawk in a shed (infinitely better suited than the usual kind) for whatever the reason. A momentary lapse on my part led to Jack getting injuries incurred while in captivity. He’ll survive the injuries, but had he spent a few days longer in incarceration or had we not taken pains to make his shed quite and “padded”, he could easily have had permanent life-threatening injuries. Short of having football stadium sized totally enclosed pens, physical fitness of these birds is tough to achieve without hard work.

The only way to achieve guaranteed successful results and no injuries at all with this group of birds is falconry management. With falconry only management Jack was perfect in feather flawless and a proven hunter. With “normal” rehab management, he was a near wrecked bird.

The story of Jill will follow. But suffice it to say she flies great, goes for kilometres each day free…but has no idea that she has to catch things to survive.

Rehabilitating a Tawny Eagle

Rehabilitating a Tawny Eagle

A young Tawny Eagle was rescued from a man trying to sell her on the road side. She was kept in a cage by a caring owner and well looked after, but ruined her primary feathers. Her pen had wire mesh of a harmful type and self destruction was sure to follow. We had corresponded by email but well before he had to leave the country he had decided the best thing was to hand it on to Sarah Higgins.

 Unlike most birds who have gone through so much she was always a happy eagle, without too many faults largely because her first owner took an effort to “man” her. Without being kept on the glove and trained she would almost certainly have been a physical and mental wreck. Certainly those cage walls would have finished off a wild and terrified bird and she’d be unmanageable now.

Sarah built her a sensible shed, with partly enclosed walls with soft (shade netting) windows. I would occasionally drop by to see Rosy and Girl and of course I was immediately enamoured by the new Tawny Eagle. I think her name was originally something like Thunder or similar. Such names make my toes curl and I much prefer names that sum up the less dramatic side of an animal. She was called DuDu, (after an insect) then Boo Boo after all the bungled landings and take offs on her severely clipped wings.

Note clipped wings

Note clipped wings

Boo Boo was flying free in a matter of days. She is a pig for food and all one had to do is show her some and she’d run, hop and fly for it. The noble “art” of falconry is a load of bunkum in actuality and it is as simple as asking a dog to come back and a lot easier than asking a cat or horse to do so. It staggers me still why people make such a fuss about the difficulty and either herald it as a fine thing or damn it because it is so cruel. I find it best just to let raptors fly around and exercise themselves and leave the arguments to those that have the time. As much as Boo Boo would try she would fail to catch anything and often land exhausted before she got to her destination. Many an Egyptian Goose she strove to catch, but would land short.

Falconers “imp” broken feathers. Again this is mystified by some, when all it is, is gluing a replacement feather together to the old broken one to make one good feather. I got some old feathers from a Fish Eagle and imped a few. But she needed the whole lot replaced. Imping them all is possible, but the wings need constant maintenance. If she had flown away she would be in danger. It was best to let her moult on her own. 

Note Fine wings!

Note Fine wings!

It has taken her from Oct 2010 to July 2011 to moult out all her flight feathers. Compare the two photos. Prior to a moult release would have been fatal. It just goes to confirm the danger of cage management and it sadness me that this is still the “approved” method here in Kenya.

When I moved into ‘my pad’ in late May I was despite some absence, able to devote much time to flying her. Boo Boo has excelled herself in catching full grown zebra and wildebeest in front of astonished friends and students. The repeated humiliation of being tossed and thrown to the ground like a bug did not deter her.  Trying to set a new world record is obviously her goal, but wisdom has dawned in her small brain finally and she now tries for more reasonable sized prey.

Soy Sambu Hills

Soy Sambu Hills

On July 2011 she was taken to Soy Sambu Wildife Conservancy, there to meet her future minders, Juliet Barnes and Kat Combes. Jolia Hill lies in the middle of a plain, yet again surrounded by other small hills. Thousands of animals now live on rehabilitated land, once a livestock paddock and fields. Instead of the usual wild habitat removal, it is wild habitat encouragement. Still heady from receiving World Heritage Status for protecting Lake Elementeita the outlook is positive.  All were anxious to be there at the precise moment when Boo Boo was released, little realising the event would be somewhat dampened by the fact that I would call her back immediately. We did all have a good time watching her getting used to her surroundings. I think she was a hit.

Release is NEVER an instant severing of ties. The “rush into the bush and hurl” technique so often the officially approved method, is instead replaced by a smooth transition from captivity to freedom. Already a confident flyer with some stamina Boo Boo still has to find a territory, compete with her neighbouring eagles, and find out what foods are available and how to get it.

Boo Boo chased Jackal, stole food from others, stole food from an Augur Buzzard and got chased out of town off “her” hill. Not that it upset her at all! I had to tramp over hill and dale looking for her for two days. The radio transmitter mounted on her tail, a refurbished memory from some distant project squawked its last breath by giving me misleading directions. Because Boo Boo was so mobile and out of control, I knew I would lose her quickly. So I called her back and returned her to Naivasha with it in mind to return with a better transmitter. With luck there will be a series of adventures relating to Boo Boo’s release to follow!

Rosy and Girl part 2.

Rosy and Girl part 2.

Before finishing on Rosy and Girl’s breeding attempt I am happy to see that they still have followers of the blog! I apologise to them all for failing to keep up a routine. Truth is that exciting and positive things to report have been few and mundane entries are strictly prohibited in my book. However we are recognising a need to keep with it so as to raise awareness, and at some point try to expand and get raptor rehabilitation back on its feet again. Not that it is not so today, but all would admit it is low profile and coasting along awaiting official recognition and encouragement. I could get red in the face about various aspects of animal rehabilitation that are so often ignored that ultimately proves fatal. These are practised largely to conform to the myriad restrictions placed upon us.  But today there is a perceptible change back towards accepting public involvement and it is probable that we can grow and fill a sourly needed niche. There are thousands of raptors in need of care each year, but only a handful are brought in. This was not the case 20 years ago when I and others, were inundated with crippled birds. I guess one of the first things to do is to inform, and the internet (blogs) are one way of doing so.

So here goes: Rosy and Girl on eggs.

Rosy and Girl on nest

Rosy and Girl on nest

Just before February 2011 I was busy in Athi and the Mara doing other things, thinking all the while that I was more needed at Naivasha to tend to Rosy and Girl. Hatching can go wrong, and one can assist if need be, by prying miniscule pieces of egg shell away if the chick is exhausted. Easy to say as one would be having to fend off two fierce Velocaraptors with one arm. When I returned on the 2nd Feb to look in the shed, they were still on eggs. The eggs failed to hatch. We all hung on hope for a few more days until we knew nothing would happen. A great pity, for Girl seldom incubates an infertile egg. In the past she would sit on ¾ of the term and leave it without much concern. This time both she and Rosy sat determinedly and hung on well after the end.

Sarah Higgins, Mwanzia and I all felt it possible that disturbance may have contributed. It only needs a 20 minute period of absence during intense heat or cold for the eggs to die. There are fighting hippo crashing up against their shed, wandering students (not sure which is worse), and the occasional tractor. We closed up the area and crossed fingers.

In mid June they started to rebuild, in late June they were very active, in early July they were mating, in mid July things calmed down. We are having a problem feeding them the right food. I have to admit here that we feed them rabbits too seldom (dead rabbits). It is the only food that nears their diet (of monkeys, small antelope etc). To fill in the bulk is beef, and turkey heads. Neither have the nutritional value to keep them in prime health or get them breeding. Rabbits now cost as much as a goat did and contrary to popular belief they do not breed anywhere near fast enough to feed one pair of eagles. However we found some good food in mid June and hey presto, they were mating again. On 21 of July I came back from fixing my car to find them incubating! I think it is one egg, but will leave them a few days before I check.

Boo Boo the Tawny Eagle

Boo Boo the Tawny Eagle

In the next few days I will be releasing a Tawny Eagle called BooBoo. This is a bird that was found being sold on the side of the street, rescued by a pilot, part trained, rescued by another pilot and given to Sarah Higgins. I would pass by and fly it down below the house near the lake shore. Now BooBoo is ready to go. I’ll put a radio on her and have a team of volunteers at Soy Sambu Conservancy all fired up to keep a daily eye on her.

Rosy and Girl, back together.

News on Rosy and Girl:

Those of you who remember Rosy and his cataract eye operations may be curious to know how he is getting on. The truth was that for months after his operations and prolonged treatment he was a shadow of his former self, usually sitting idle in his corner half blind and unable to interact with Girl, his mate of some 25 years. He could not easily find his food or build a nest and he just spent his day loafing with glazed eyes. Every now and then he’d crash into the shed wall and our hearts would sink. I had little hope and therefore no reason to write about him when in so pathetic a state. While it has been incredible that he could see a bit and look after himself we’ve all been disappointed that it was not a miraculous total recovery. But sometimes he’d surprise us all by being seen high up on a perch looking cocky. How did he get there?

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Girl inspects Rosy's DIY skills.

 For the last year and more I usually spend 2 to 3 days in one place before heading off to another destination in my camper car. It (then) hadn’t resulted, as I had hoped, in employment or a place to live. But I think I am doing a number of worthy things and being productive nevertheless. But when I am utterly fed up with everything and in despair, I end up going to see Rosy and Girl now happily housed at Sarah Higgins’s sanctuary at Naivasha. I feel good and among family when I see them. When I visited in October 2010 Rosy and Girl, were showing distinct signs of breeding.  They would sometimes sit side by side. Rosy would try to get the food to the nest, or Girl would take a sprig of green leaves in her bill and look confused. In mid December, while asleep in my car roof top tent behind their shed I was awoken by Girl calling at night. That was always a sure sign when we were all together in Athi that she was thinking of breeding. It was a low monotone call, somewhat sad and foreboding. I went down to see them in their pen in the morning and saw Rosy at one end low down on his usual perch and Girl up in the old nest. Nothing had changed.

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Rosy and Girl on nest

By mid October 2010 I was helping Masumi Gudka to do a Fish Eagle/pesticide project. We were all staying at Sarah Higgin’s place where she also has a research facility. I heard Rosy and Girl make a “mating” call! By the time I rushed down to their shed I saw nothing other than Rosy and Girl on the nest looking innocent. But Rosy was on the nest….a rare feat for him. Over the next few weeks Mwanzia and I with the help of Sarah’s workshop fundis put together a King Sized eagle bed, built for having large and strapping eaglets. A massive iron structure some 2.2m across was set, with some danger to life and limb, on top of their old nest. Not only is the centre nest tree flimsy, but Rosy and Girl could of course drop you with one single blow. We then added a few extra poles to assist Rosy in getting to the nest. Within minutes after we departed Rosy was in there busying himself with nest renovations. By late November he was totally at home nest building and rearranging. I suspected that they had mated, but I was not sure. Still almost blind, his determination is so admirable that it just makes all of us stand back and shake our heads with wonder. He is incredibly clever at using what senses he has at doing what he was always good at. He used to be an exceptional nest builder and father who used to take on incubation, brooding and feeding chores with rare dedication. During the beginning of his current nest duty he would charge threateningly down the perch to collect fresh green branches we placed for him. He would return to the nest to place it with artistic flourish in the bowl, and I smiled a lot for no very good reason. I haven’t smiled in this paternal stupid way since they last had a chick in late 2005. Rosy and Girl look to be back in business, and with them I feel as though things never changed. It would be better than just “good” if they did breed. It would defy all that stood in the way. Much did, and I still harbour simmering anger at those that did harm and ruin so good a thing. But this great news would surely delight all those that helped by gave funds when Rosy needed two cataract operations. Those that contributed and those that did the surgery and cared for him would all finally feel it worth their while. Rosy and I owe so many people, especially Sarah Higgin’s. Above all, everyone can rest assured that the operation was no failure and Rosy and Girl are back together.

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Eagle foreplay. NB: Closed 3rd eyelid.

(At this point I had hoped to close one blog entry so as to build suspense for the next. But caution ruled and I did not post it. Part 2 of the story follows)

In January 2011 they were both busy making the nest. It was impossible now to enter without Rosy or Girl attacking. When the mating call was being made I would rush down and just miss it. Sarah too would dash to see what was happening. Only Mwanzia witnessed them mating, but something was not exactly right. When I finally did see them mate I was confused to see Girl on top of Rosy! It is a very rare thing for eagles to do. Physiologically the mechanics of the whole process just don’t work in this position.  I assumed Girl was frustrated with Rosy’s ineptitude at this tricky task. It takes a lot of caution (those feet could kill the female), and balance to mate. But every time Rosy looked near to mating (lots of nibbling and foreplay etc), Girl would back off. Rosy is smaller than Girl and I worried that this odd mating position could end in serious injury. Girl’s feet are massive. However on one occasion in late January I rushed to the peep hole to see Rosy dismounting. What happened I was unable to tell.

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The nest and eggs. The metal nest rim can just be seen.

On the 2nd Feb 2011 I came in exhausted from a long drive to look into their shed and see only Rosy. Alarmed I swung open the door and entered, only to have Girl rise like a massive demon from the nest and glower with gaping mouth and open wings. She was on an egg! Rosy stood statuesque and in solemn pose a few feet away. His demeanour may look calm and composed, but he was anything but. Had I stepped one more foot into the shed he would have flung himself at me and Girl would have certainly followed. I raced off to tell Sarah. When I returned to Naivasha a week later Girl was on two eggs!

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An egg! Girl attacked so photo poor!

Eagles, unlike people have two birthdays. There is cause for celebration when the egg is laid, and there is yet another celebration when it hatches. In a way, the nail chewing period stretches the entire incubation period for nearly two months. If one or more eggs hatch, Sarah, Mwanzia and I would be thrown into disarray. Good food will be the top priority, and not easy to find.

Of course this is something of a record. Rosy is the only eagle in the world with 2 artificial lenses. He is the only one with such a disability to breed. That both are in the mid thirties is also a feat of sorts. And in Africa captive breeding eagles of any sort is extremely rare. On top of all that, not much was going for them when Sarah stepped in and helped us all out when we had to separate and go our different ways. One thing is for sure, I have felt an inexorable pull towards them and failed hopelessly in the attempt to rid myself of the birds and get a “real job”. I can’t, and should they have a chick I see it as inevitable that I slide back into doing what I always enjoyed. Breeding eagles and releasing their young is about the only thing that has made sense to me in a conservation world utterly bogged down in semantics, strategic plans, funding proposals, jargon and futile inaction. Rare is it to break through and actually work with wildlife make it grow, nurture it and set it free.

(Here I end the second blog entry……read on if you wish to know what happened!)

The Little Owl Sanctuary: Waddlesworth Strikes Again

Another great post from guest blogger, Sarah Higgins of the Little Owl Sanctuary!

A few mornings ago Waddlesworth, the Pelican, excelled himself. He swallowed a teaspoon!

Sammy had just laid the table on the veranda when ‘himself’ arrived and snatched a teaspoon off the table. This is not unusual and we are always shooing him off the veranda as he can be a bit of a pest, but he was just too quick for Sammy and the spoon was gone before he could do anything about it. Swallowing the spoon was unusual as he normally just plays with whatever he has stolen until he gets bored and then he drops it and goes off to find something else to play with. Anyway Sammy didn’t know what to do and as I was not around he decided to give him some fish in the hope, I think, that the food would flush the spoon through the system. Whilst this might work for a human I was pretty sure that it wouldn’t work for a pelican.

So you swallowed a spoon, did you?

So you swallowed a spoon, did you?

As soon as I got back and had been told what had happened I rang our Vet and asked his advice but he had to confess that he had never had a situation like that before and told me that he would have to consult his partner and his books and then get back to me. Some time later he rang back to say that he was none the wiser.

Now, this won't hurt ...

Now, this won't hurt ...

As we know that baby pelicans put their heads inside their parent’s beaks to get the fish out of its crop, I decided that the only option was for me to put my arm down the poor creature’s throat and try to fish the spoon out. The Vet had kept muttering about anaesthetic but I decided that time was of the essence (our Vet is an hour and a half’s drive from here) and didn’t feel that this was strictly necessary so I rang next door and asked Jane to “bring a camera”, rounded up Waddles, got Sammy to hold him and Mwanzia to hold his beak open, oiled my arm with cooking oil and in I went.

Here we go ...

Here we go ...

Unfortunately there were about seven fish on top of the spoon but having fished them all out I eventually felt the spoon, part way through the second sphincter, and was able to retrieve it, much to the relief of us all … with the possible exception of Waddles who had just had his entire breakfast stolen, quite literally, right out of tummy!

Look! You can see my hand

Look! You can see my hand

Gosh, it's a long way down

Gosh, it's a long way down

Got it!

Got it!

Amazingly Waddles is still talking to me after all this, as he usually refuses to speak to me for at least a week after I have had to handle him and more often than not he also leaves home (for a day)! Not that he got the option this time as I confined him to the walled garden for the rest of the day until we were sure that he had suffered no ill effects from my cheerfully thrusting my arm down his throat. The attached pictures are courtesy of Eddie Ver Beek who was literally just arriving back from his honeymoon when Jane caught him and told him that he and his camera were needed next door!

The spoon

The spoon

Waddlesworth is still in fine fettle but I hope that he has learned his lesson and doesn’t swallow anything else that he shouldn’t.

There, that's better ...

There, that's better ...

The Little Owl Sanctuary: Waddlesworth and Rosy

Another great guest post from Sarah Higgins

Waddlesworth is still with us and is worth his weight in gold for all the chuckles he gives us. He spends his days mucking about in the garden, pulling the flowers off my plants and annoying the tortoises by attempting to catch their heads whilst they are trying to eat. When he is feeling really adventurous he gallops (a pelican’s ungainly version thereof) down the lawn and into the air for a quick spin round the bay, but making sure that he is always back in time for ‘lunch’! Then a post-lunch snooze, some more rotting-up of the tortoises and guddling in his little pond and then it is food time again!

He has just recovered from (according to him) a very serious injury! He came in a couple of weeks ago and claimed that he was totally unable to walk. He refused his fish and just lay there with his foot off the ground and was even trying to keep his wing away from the foot. We couldn’t find anything wrong with him bar a little cut on the bottom of his paddle but after a couple of days of this we decided that we were going to have to call the vet. The vet couldn’t find anything that could cause this serious inability to even put his foot to the ground but suggested all sorts of things that we could do to try and help the bird. After day three both Sammy (Waddlesworth’s keeper/mum!) and I had decided that all that was wrong with him really was that small cut on the bottom of his paddle, after all pelicans are renown for getting stressed over the silliest things! So we just continued to carry him out into the sun in the mornings and carry him back to his favourite sleeping spot in the evenings and forced fish down his throat at meal times and ‘Hey presto’ after five days he could walk (with a dramatic limp) and by day seven had forgotten all about it and was cured! It is silly enough that we have a pelican living with us but to have a hypochondriac pelican – well!

He is still showing absolutely no sign of leaving home, I suppose that life must just be too comfortable for him. Perhaps if I cut his food a bit he might think about going and looking for his own, but somehow I doubt it and anyway, with the lake so low, there are not that many fish available for hungry pelicans!

He often amuses himself by trying to catch butterflies but the other day he snapped at a hornet, which naturally didn’t take too kindly to this and stung him in his pouch. I looked up from my lunch just in time to see him open his beak with a squawk and the offended hornet fly out and away. Then there was a great deal of shaking out of the pouch trying to get rid of the nasty pain, poor fellow. You should have seen the swelling that had come up by evening, it was really quite impressive, but by next day all was okay again. I just hope that he learned from that but I doubt it. He still tries to catch butterflies!

Waddles has recently taken to having his bath in the bird bath and, as you can see, it is a perfect fit! Which of course means that he doesn’t get very much of himself wet during the wash, particularly as he has usually spent some time prior to his ablutions using his bill and pouch to scoop most of the water out of the bath! It amuses him to watch the water flow over the edge and then try to catch it on the way down!

Waddles enjoying the bird bath

Waddles enjoying the bird bath

Rosy does not seem to have made any progress with his ability to see. We watch him closely and grasp at every little sign that his sight might be improving but I regret to say I am beginning to give up hope a little. He can see something so the operations were not totally wasted, and can certainly see enough to get round his ‘palace’ on foot and be able to hop up onto his perches. He seems to see much better in poorer light (he has trouble when it is very bright), so these rainy days that we have been having over the past few months have definitely been good for him. He can detect movement in the grass and makes a very good attempt at pouncing on things but if the movement is too fast he can’t follow it and Girl then takes over. Despite this they both seem happy and call often so although the lack of sight seems to have put a stop to the breeding programme they both appear to be content with their lot and are both in very good health.

Mutt the Lammergeyer Release, Part II

Mutt the Lammergeyer flew into a border zone where security is not so good. The next five days were some of the toughest I have had for many years. I scrambled, slid, abseiled and climbed in search of an elusive “blip” on a radio receiver. I was scared because if she was killed or disappeared out of radio contact I would have the death of a very rare animal on my conscience. The responsibility of it was sickening especially so as others would take a dim view and consider this seriously if it failed. In hands-on wildlife management critics are ever ready to oppose, no matter what the outcome. It was not good to worry about people’s opinions but as we searched with an ever increasing risk of finding her dead, I kept reinventing what I was going to have to report. In every respect this was the best chance Mutt would have, with the huge resources of Ol Donyo Laro supporting her. If she failed here she would have no hope anywhere else.

I exhausted three ranger patrols, which would have made me chuffed had I not been highly alarmed and in dread of finding her dead. Frustratingly Mutt proved yet again her total inability to return to the “hack” site for food. Instead she hid. Sometimes she must have flown out of one canyon into another, hugging the forested contours and never venturing out into visual range.

Nguruman

Nguruman

From a distance the Nguruman mountains look like rolling hills cloaked in forest with patches of cliffs and open grassland glades. From afar these look ideal and it is possible to find elephant paths that allow easy walking. You can walk the entire length of these mountains in glorious wooded avenues stamped asunder by millennia of elephants and buffalos. To picture the untrodden slopes in which Mutt was so unkind as to spend the night, think of taking a few dollops of mashed potatoes and arranging them in a neat line like Alpine mountains. Then with the back of the fork go berserk scraping the lower sides with furrows and ridges. Then pour thick gravy all over it so that you cannot see these wicked furrows and you have made the section of mountains in which Mutt decided to hide. It looks smooth and forested from the outside, but in fact it is deeply scared beneath with a myriad ridges. It is impossible to get a good fix on a radio signal because radio waves bounce or get cloaked depending upon the landscape.

Larle, a ranger who had helped me with the previous failed release, was inexhaustible and stayed with me for two days. Like me he was unarmed and did not carry a flak jacket, provisions, radio, heavy army boots etc., as did our accompanying ranger force. We left them far behind as we moved mostly on all fours through terrible terrain.

The second night I had awoken with deep pain in the back and was unable to sleep until dawn. The day before, while negotiating a rocky slope in thickets I had slipped badly and hurt my stomach and back with the stiff backpack which had a thick kidney belt. The next morning I urinated some blood and decided to take it easy and stayed in camp. Thankfully things settled down. All I got that day from Mutt was a steady and reassuring signal coming from the same sort of area far across the valleys. The next day we went early with a fresh team who surged ahead and left me behind. They had no idea where they were going and soon came back. Cautious about my health I plodded along warning them that they had no idea what was in store for them. They needed to reserve their energy.

The next 10 hours saw us sliding and crashing up and down vertical banks, sometimes on ropes. The rangers would pause every hour to shake their heads in wonder. Surely none had seen these parts of the mountain and I believed them. Mutt’s signal was wandering. She was flying. We went lower down the mountain descending hundreds of meters mostly on our backs and finally appeared at a large spring. The water was cold, very pure and much appreciated. The spring fed a small riverine line of tall trees and beyond it was the lowland hot acacia woodlands. The hill here was called Milima moto (meaning hot hill), and it lived up to it.

The rangers, feeling as though they had all survived an awesome experience all expressed a resolution that no matter what we would continue on and find Mutt no matter how far she had gone. They were prepared to walk a week or more and have rations dropped on them from the sky. Still feeling beat from ailing kidneys, my comradery with my new fraternity faltered at this suggestion and I sincerely hoped that I could borrow a plane instead.

In line with her radio signal we saw a Crowned Eagle fly out over the hot lowlands and descend fast. I thought this odd because Crowned Eagles are restricted to the high forested slopes from which we had come. The radio suddenly went quite, an ominous sign in this flat landscape. We trudged on towards Magadi sweating profusely in the stifling heat. I tried the radio receiver and changed course to the left. It was so faint a signal and she sounded a very long distance away. Maybe she was covering ground fast. Then appearing before us were a few giraffe looking down and there on the ground was Mutt. She had been beaten to the ground by the Crowned Eagle.

In the next few weeks I organized a new home for her at the Honorable Mutula Kilonzo’s residence near Machakos. Mutt has had more than enough opportunities for freedom and has demonstrated an inability to return to the place of release. She never ate and spent her freedom sulking, frightened and hidden. Even with the full support of Ol Donyo Laro and their formidable team of rangers we recognized that another release attempt would be fatal. I was disappointed in the lack of other wild Lammergeyers, as these hills were in previously known habitat for this species. The Lammergeyer or Bearded Vulture is certainly a critically endangered species in Kenya, and the future of Mutt must now include captive breeding. This enormous bird is much less common and considerably more threatened than more high profile species that receive generous attention.

Portrait of Mutt

Portrait of Mutt

To be honest I dread the responsibility of re-opening the Bearded Vulture re-introduction project, as it will entail considerable physical effort and fiscal resources. Neither of which I have these days! The lessons I learnt nearly a decade ago were not so much the difficulty in achieving a re-introduction, but the insurmountable problems encountered in modern day conservation bureaucracy. This project needs international consent as well as local, and to please all parties takes patience and a lot of hard office work. I am grateful to have high level support from a prominent MP who has a personal desire to see the species re-instated. It would seem that Mutt, like it or not, keeps the flame alive for Lammergeyers in Kenya.

I have a few priorities to straighten out in securing a place to work and live before I can focus attention on Mutt. Meanwhile we are planning a breeding shed similar to the condor breeding sheds in San Diego Zoo and the Peregrine Fund in Boise Idaho.

Mutt the Lammergeyer Release, Part I

I was asked by Gabriele Schaden about the outcome of the Hell’s Gate Bearded Vulture re-introduction project. There is no way I could answer what took up years of my time in a few brief sentences and in replying I thought I could combine it with a blog. In a nutshell, five Bearded Vultures (Lammergeyers) were taken as Abel rescues from Ethiopia in 2001-2002. It had multi-NGO backing and support with the Peregrine Fund finance and KWS and the Ethiopian Wildlife and Conservation Organisation providing permission. The project was partly successful with two of five birds released surviving in the wild for years. Our intention was to take 15 birds, some put aside for captive breeding, some for immediate release. We could have easily have filled that quota with the abundance of Ethiopian nests, but logistically it provided tough to do much of the practical work alone. I had great support from volunteers and colleagues and for two years it was easy to see the famous “Lammergeyer’s of Hell’s Gate.” Active persecution of the released birds and proliferation of geothermal industries within Hell’s Gate and a burgeoning human population outside it, compromised continuation of the plan and resulted in the death of two birds.

With one bird recaptured to save its life (see the following) we changed our aim to captive breeding, recruiting birds within Kenya using a no-impact sibling rescue method we pioneered in Ethiopia. Although accepted, we failed to get adequate physical official assistance or appropriate permits. As a result we lost 4-5 opportunities to take young. In addition I closed down the facility in Athi and had to seek new homes for all the raptors including the remaining bird called “Mutt.”

In short, we proved we could use Abel-rescued young for augmenting a population, but to establish a breeding pair (or a few pairs) we would need more birds. A captive breeding programme would in practise be cheaper and less problematic than taking Abels, and not that difficult to do. But bureaucracy, logistics, location and finance combined to put an end to it.

The final destination for Mutt the Lammergeyer was not as we had planned. I hoped that she would be free and find a mate in the Nguruman mountains on the Kenya and Tanzania border. The following concludes part of her story and ends with an alternative for her future.

In February 2009 Laila Bahaa-el-din and I delivered Mutt to Mark Jenkins at Ol Donyo Laro. Mark had built a shed on a mountain ridge so that Mutt could establish herself and get “homed in” to the location. There she sat until August 2009 when we wrote of her unsuccessful release. Despite the cage she was feather perfect but she was unfit so I decided to rig up an outside flight arrangement that allowed her to fly some 90m. For this I needed Matusa my old “bird man.” now retired. Matusa I hoped, would be able to put Mutt out each day and return her in the evening to the shed, lest leopards ate her. I collected Mutusa in Makindu on the 7th October and drove all day.

Below the Nguruman’s on the Shompole plains is some of the softest volcanic ash which the wind-screen wipers struggled to shift. The air intake filter needed to be removed and cleaned every few kilometers. The drought was terrible, exasperated by an invasion of livestock many times over that which the land could possibly sustain. Dead cattle and wildlife littered the roads. Significantly not one was eaten by vultures or hyenas.

drought

Arriving at Laro we had a centimeter of dust over us that raised some hilarity.

We met Mark Jenkins and after a grateful shower, fine meal and good night’s rest we continued the next day to drive the one hour up the mountain to Mutt’s domain. Matusa, well into his seventies, excitedly told me of the elephants that smashed trees outside of his banda the previous night. He recalled similar nights, many years ago near Machakos with a mournful shake of his head and click of his tongue. There haven’t been elephants there for the past 40 years.

The trouble with Lammergeyers (Bearded Vultures) is that they do not train up like other more conventional raptors. They find it difficult to land on a glove for example. They never get keen or hungry enough to consider flying to receive their food on a lure or glove like a hawk. While there is a negative side to training Mutt it would greatly have helped her overcome her physical weakness and allowed her to understand that she could habitually feed at a certain location. I just didn’t have the time to train her. The best we could do was to give her a long climbing rope to fly up and down from perch to perch. Since her failed release two months previously I noted that she had spent much of her time leaping about and fracturing the tips of her flight feathers. She was obviously keen to go.

Mutusa and Mutt

Mutusa and Mutt

I came back on the 3rd October to see that Matusa and Mutt were doing well. Matusa “walks” Mutt to and from her night shed to her flying ground … a nice way of getting around the problem of having her perched on the glove.

Mutt and Ricky Raven

Mutt and Ricky the Raven

Mutt and two wild White-necked Ravens were good buddies and I hoped they would help lead Mutt in search of food when she was free. I heard from the rangers that one raven got too cheeky and while stealing food was grabbed by Mutt. Some respect was now afforded to Mutt. Alarmingly the rangers and I had not seen more than three vultures from Mutt’s shed for the past nine months! Mark Jenkins had seen a few groups but he too recognizes their serious decline. This was something inconceivable only a few years ago when dozens would be expected each day. No Lammergeyers either.

On the 7th October we took Mutt’s jesses off. Matusa walked her to her favorite rock. Mutt sat there as though nothing had changed. I wanted no dramatic release. She should leave at her own chosen speed and not be hurried into it. The hours ticked by. The magnitude of the event was long past and we all turned our attention away. I lowered the camera. Then the wind stirred. She lifted off and sailed past the perch and over the valley. We ran for binoculars and telescopes to see her traverse distant mountain ridges with the grace of a veteran. She vanished out of sight heading towards Tanzania. I turned on the radio receiver to hear its edifying silence. Later just before dusk the radio signal was faint, then strong. She had moved back into range. Somewhere within 30 kilometers she spent the night.

Mutt airborne

Mutt airborne

Part II coming soon …

The Last Day

Some of my family and friends have asked why I have not contributed to my blog for months. The answer is that when the raptor expedition was over there was very little to report upon.

I began this blog about the time I had frequent armed attacks on my reclusive house and raptor rehab facility in Athi. I wrote of its inevitable closure, the loss of employment, the translocation of those few raptors I had remaining, Rosy ‘s eye operations and starting an expedition with Laila to cover the whole of Africa in search of raptors. While the expedition was the fulfillment of a personal dream is was not without merit in its own right. We fell just short of our target and concede that our original goal was too ambitious for our limited resources. To have done it justice we should have spent 2-3 years and had a hefty budget. Raptors are never easy and the continent is huge and challenging, especially the central forests and northern deserts. In relinquish these aspirations I realize that the concept is important and we remain with extremely poor knowledge of raptors in a vast area of the continent. We are now working on the book!

I would not have missed what we did for the world. We achieved more than I knew at the time which I am only now appreciating. The ups and downs, the all too frequent breakdowns and the freedom of being “on the road” with the unknown ahead are all good memories. I regret that I was unable to do this many years ago instead of being insular in thought and patriotic without cause. I now measure Kenya against a new, more critical yardstick. I can now stand and defend my view about Johannesburg, Etosha, Penguins, the Kalahari, Puku, the Zambezi, Lake Malawi, Luangua, Pale Chanting Goshawks and the Serengeti. Not only do I have bragging rights at cocktail parties but inside I am different.

Being “back” without work, a house, eagles, dogs or wildlife is to live without purpose and direction. While we were wrapping up the trip I dreaded this situation so much that it soured the last section. I did the drab town campsites, the hiding on the side of the road as night fell and looking after houses while the owners were away. I did stay in Tsavo and the Mara as it was one of the cheapest solutions and had an interesting time helping a South African group capture and mark Ground Horn Bills in the Mara. I also spent time up Ol Donyo Laro in southern Kenya trying to release a daft Lammergeyer. I painted illustrations for our book whenever I could but in general I wished to keep a low profile until I had something secure and constructive to say and do. I had the desire to hide rather than impose, which is inverse to logic, self-destructive but predictable. Tentative jobs did not materialize. I was low in spirit and while I remained active in some conservation and raptor related issues I could see no way to earn a living. Then in the last few weeks I have found a job looking after a small conservancy and lodge. To my surprise I feel much better and can think ahead for the first time in months.

Now empowered I feel moved to end off the intrepid “Raptor Expedition” with one last entry. It was a particularly sublime moment for me.

Laila and I were traveling through Tsavo East in Kenya on our way from Sokoke Forest on the coast. We had driven through Sala Gate on the far eastern side if the park and I, like most rational people had made a mess of the park fee payment by assuming one could pay at the gate. After all was sorted, we experienced once again a section of the park that is much underrated. The Galana River had on its banks a short green ‘golf course’ of vegetation, in contrast to the then barren dust of this drought-ridden landscape. Towering Doum Palms and trees lined its edge and within these there were a large number of raptor nests. Wildlife here was abundant and diverse.

Laila was in her element taking pictures of Bateleurs, Tawnies and African Hawk Eagles. We watched a Fish Eagle land on the bank, look into a pool near it and then with a skip and a jump it plopped onto a fish which it later delivered onto its nest. Laila had remembered a pair of Wahlberg’s Eagles from last year, and to these we made a special pilgrimage. The male was a unique bird, half pale morph and half normal morph and I had to promise to return again to get them in better light.

To complete our park entry fee process we had to drive clear across the park (over 70km) and spent the next few days near Voi.

The moments I wish to share happened during what turned out to be our last full day of safari on the “Raptor Expedition” that has seen us traverse much of southern and eastern Africa. In fulfilling my promise to return to Sala to take pictures of the Wahlberg’s on its nest in good light meant that we were to be caught out by the setting sun. We chose a campsite on the banks of the Galana. I brought the old Range Rover to a stop on the sand beneath a Doum Palm grove. As the sun settled over the baked land I walked to the riverside and sat under the palms on the sand facing the cooling wind. It had been a long trip and I was tired. I was grateful to lie back and reminisce about our trip. It got dark too quickly while I watched sickle-winged Palms Swifts and tiny bats busy themselves with beginning and ending their day and night shifts. I walked back to the car in twilight to make dinner, an uninspired pasta something, and then went back to look at the near full moon rise right down the middle of the avenue of palms and reflect off the river. On looking back at my old car I saw Laila, her face lit by the cold glow of the computer screen, downloading the innumerable pictures of the day. It seemed to take her hours.

Late that night my inner night-watchman that keeps guard in the sub-conscious, nudged me awake to the hushed sound of elephant. I stepped out of my tent and saw the group approach smoothly on silent feet to stand with sub-sonic rumblings beneath three burnt Doum Palms less than 30m away. They were unaware of my presence as I was down wind and in deep shadow, but I could see their outline well against the night sky. Then one scratched itself on the palm and from its rough hide I saw a neon bright glow leap across its vertical length. With each rub of its side the tiny crystals of quartz scrapping against the sooty bark of the burnt palm produced sparks, that combined gave off enough luminosity to highlight the faces and ears of the others near it. It was at first so surprising that I thought it artificial. I looked around in panic in case it was someone with a flash light…something far more threatening than elephant! It was when it was immediately followed by the slight smell of cordite that I realized what was happening. Then one took a few steps forward and I had to speak gently to them. Not overly alarmed, but surprised they all stood still, scanned the sky with up-raised trunks and with a disapproving shake of their heads they moved off down to the river to continue their journey.