Category Archives: Eagle

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?

rosygirl1 (2)

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.

rosygirl2 (2)

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.

rosygirl3

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.

rosygirl4

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!

rosygirl5

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: Batelle

by Sarah Higgins of The Little Owl Sanctuary

The Fish Eagle with the broken right wing that was brought in in July is recovering well. We have decided that she is probably a girl and have christened her ‘Batelle,’ because of her brave fight for survival. I have yet to hear her call – which would tell us for sure what gender she is (a male has a higher voice than the female) – but at least ‘Batelle’ or ‘Battle’ is a name that fits all! Of course, as so often happens, Batelle will no doubt shorten to Batty before too long!

Batelle is proving to be a gentle bird and is prepared to tolerate humans waiting on her hand and foot. Her wing stump, which had to be de-feathered for the operation to remove the damaged part of the wing, is beginning to sprout some nice new feathers, so her nights of a chilly wing stump are almost over. Her legs and feet, which were deeply lacerated when she arrived, have healed well and one of her two broken talons is beginning to grow back. Once she has gown back sufficient feathers to protect her wing stump we will think about introducing her to Bogoria (our other mono-winged Fish Eagle) and see if they would like to have the companionship of another bird, albeit of the same gender. I do hope that they’ll get on.

batelle_fish_eagle_sarah
Batelle the Fish Eagle

Waddlesworth (the Pelican) spends quite a lot of his time beside Batelle’s cage and will often leave his last fish of the day by her cage door, so I oblige by popping it inside for her to enjoy – always a popular move.

The Little Owl Sanctuary: A New Fish Eagle Arrives

Guest post from Sarah Higgins of The Little Owl Sanctuary

Yesterday, July 25, a poor broken Fish Eagle was brought in. It had been found the previous evening trying desperately to fly and getting nowhere, so it was picked up, put in a cardboard box and brought round to me the following morning.

I checked it over and found a clean break up near the right shoulder but sadly it was a fairly old break and the three inches of exposed bone had the look of an old dog’s bone that had been buried for a week! The bird was underweight and desperately thirsty and had just about given up, although he was feisty enough when anyone approached him. I put him in a small compound and went to get some tape to immobilise the broken wing so that he didn’t keep tripping over it, and by the time I got back he was lying on the ground looking as if he really had had enough. In fact I wondered at that moment if he would make it, but as soon as I approached he threw himself on his back and threatened me with his talons (two of which are missing)!

I taped his bad wing to his body and showed him where the water was by splashing in the bowl. Once he had taken his eyes off my face long enough to glance at the source of the sound he fixed his gaze on the bowl. I quietly withdrew and left him to it and as soon as I shut the door he lolloped over to the bowl and drank and drank. Poor fellow, he must have been desperate.

new fish eagle little owl sanctuary
New Fish Eagle at Little Owl Sanctuary

I rang the Vet who told me to bring him in, so I popped him into a large cardboard box and set off. It is a hundred mile drive to get to the Vet but, for someone as desperate as this poor bird, it was worth the journey. The Vet, a delightfully calm and confidence-inspiring man, checked the bird over and weighed him – he was just 2 kg (a healthy male bird should be 2.5 kgs and a female up to a kilo more!). Sadly, having seen the obvious age of the injury and subsequent lack of blood supply to the bone, it was decided that the only thing to do was to remove the wing.

I brought the bird back home after the operation and by late evening he was awake and thirsty again. The Vet had suggested that I should only give him water with glucose for that evening, which he gulped down. He spent the night in the bathroom where he was warm and safe and I could keep an eye on him. He produced a couple of ‘poops’ in the night so at least that side of things was still working well which is always good news.

This morning we tried him on a small fish which he ate greedily. He had another for lunch and another two for supper. He is still rather miserable and unsure of all the things that are happening to him and around him, but at least he has stopped looking fierce and putting his one good wing out at me every time I approach and is now allowing me to come close and talk to him.

I am referring to him as a ‘he’ as I am really hoping that he is but am not entirely sure yet. Bogoria, our resident mono-winged lady Fish Eagle, would be delighted to have a male companion all of her own!

Success in Tsavo

Despite having got a few photographs of raptors in Tsavo West over the first three days we were there, it was rather disappointing. We saw very little in the way of vultures or any other raptor for that matter. We didn’t even see any of the lions or elephants that Tsavo is famous for. The only thing that did not disappoint was our place of stay with friends at Finch Hatton’s which is as beautiful and friendly as ever. In the wood by Finch Hatton is where we saw four species of hawk and heard a fifth.

We left Tsavo feeling a little glum and spent three days at the coast on a Southern Banded Snake Eagle mission. We saw two fleeting glimpses of the bird as it disappeared into thick forest so perhaps we will need to return next year for photos.

We drove back through Tsavo East National Park and were amazed at the contrast between what we got in three days before going to the coast and what we got in three hours in Tsavo East. Before sunset on that first day back, we saw three Wahlberg’s Eagle nests, a Martial Eagle nest, Fish Eagles, African Hawk Eagles displaying and lots of Bateleur Eagles. The red elephants of Tsavo also made several appearances.

9g5g7387.JPG
Young Wahlberg’s Eagle on nest

9g5g7417.JPG
African Hawk Eagle

We spent one night in Tsavo East before moving back to Tsavo West where we hoped to finally get the migrants we had been waiting for. Back in Tsavo West, we had a completely different experience from the previous time. We went briefly to Ngulia Lodge to talk to Colin Jackson, Graeme Backhurst and David Pearson, who were mist-netting thousands of migrants. It was certainly the premier destination for migrants and their human followers.

We also saw many more raptors and mammals this time around. It rained for our whole second night and continued to do so as we set off in the morning. Not too far down the road, we saw a couple of cars stopped and all the passengers standing on the road. We slowed down and asked if everything was alright and they responded that they were just looking at a Sooty Falcon. We jumped to attention – the Sooty Falcon is one of our much needed species to photograph. The observers of the falcon were none other than migrant-seeking birders Fleur Ngweno, Brian Finch, Gordon Boy and others! The rain had brought in the migrants and the premier birders.

We exchanged phone numbers with the birders and promised to be in touch if we saw anything exciting. We didn’t drive too long before we saw another falcon, accompanied by seven others: Amur Falcons! We watched as they sped through the air with full crops, catching termites in the rain. It was good to see but frustratingly rainy and dark so photographing them was tough. A little further on, we saw a few more and stopped. We watched as a swarm of over 200 Amur Falcons flew over us. We let the birders know what was going on and they turned up and were excited to see so many migratory falcons in one go.

9g5g8622.JPG
Female Amur Falcon

We camped near Finch Hatton’s that night and on our way to our campsite, we found a vulture roost. Simon had been worried that a large roost he used to know from a different location might have been wiped out by poisoning but we counted over 80 individuals at this new site so concluded that the roost must have moved.

We went back to the forest by Finch Hatton’s first thing in the morning. We saw rare Ovampo Sparrowhawks swapping food in the air, Cuckoo hawks building a nest, an African Goshawk, a Fish Eagle and a Harrier Hawk and heard the Little Sparrow-Hawk calling, all in a little patch of Yellow Fever forest by the lodge. It was a great photo opportunity.

9g5g8847.JPG
Ovampo Sparrowhawk with prey

9g5g8836.JPG
Cuckoo Hawk

This first 11-day trip ended up being immensely successful, but it also highlighted some of the difficulties we will have throughout this expedition. If we had made conclusions after we spent our first three days there, we might have said that raptors in Tsavo are not doing very well. But spending those extra four days there on return from the coast proved otherwise. It is going to take a lot of time, patience and collaboration with other people to get an idea of what is happening over the whole of Africa.

Searching for Eagles in Tsavo

Laila and I spent the last few weeks on safari photographing raptors in Tsavo National Park and at Sokoke Forest at the coast.

It was a productive period which we first began with old friends at Finch Hatton’s in Tsavo West. I started out on crutches thanks to my recent leg and hip injury, but as the warmth increased I soon felt less uncomfortable and got rid of them. We spent two days there looking for Steven or Emily, two Crowned Eagles I released years ago in their forest. Unfortunately we did not see either of them, but we did see many other raptors. We saw a number of Bateleur Eagles and to my relief a good number of vultures roosting away from their normal site at the Kitani Bridge.

bateleur_eagle_tsavo
Bateleur Eagle

Laila reminded me that this vulture satellite roost was active in the same spot last year. These vultures are particularly good to see given the extent of poisoning in the areas adjacent and within the park boundaries. A massive female Martial Eagle sat in a tree above our heads unfortunately in poor light. I realize now how much we, as photographers, think in terms of “good light.”

martial_eagle_tsavo
Martial Eagle

Laila is one of the fastest camera-women I know. She can throw the long lens camera to her eye and shoot a moving target with unnerving accuracy and speed. I try to duplicate the shots with my lens and although pleased with what I achieve I feel totally beaten by the fantastic shots she makes. I have learned to angle the car to her side and have become complacent in knowing that she’ll have the “bird in the bag,” no matter where it moves. She looks a little absurd for she is small and the camera huge. She counterbalances the lens by leaning back and at a distance looks like a perfect “T” shape. I am not surprised that she sometimes complains of a bad back. Some of her pictures are classics, unparalleled to my knowledge by any others. We have been through some trying times and tough moments in which we have both questioned the sanity of our mission. But peering over her shoulder at some of the images captured I am both amazed and excited that we will produce a wonderful collection of images of African raptors. The results have far exceeded my usual overly critical expectations.

pygmy_falcon_tsavo
Pygmy Falcon

As we drove we counted the raptors we saw. I try and keep my attention on the road, and Laila usually spots the birds first. I then verify her identification and she writes it down next to the mileage. The data produced does not give a true number of what is around but it is one way of setting a standard and a rough index of species composition and density. There is a clear difference in raptor numbers between rural farmed land and ranches and protected areas. In rural areas which comprise much of the route, there are very few species and very few of them. In protected areas the species diversity increases dramatically as do their numbers. In ranch land or areas in which some natural habitat is still relatively undisturbed raptor numbers can be good, but typically made up of a handful of tolerant species. It is plausible therefore to look up at the sky and tell where you are! The bigger message is of course that many raptors are now dependent upon protected areas and active tolerance of wildlife.

Tsavo West has the advantage of having mountains and ridges on which you can sit and gaze out across the plains beneath with the wind blowing vertically up the side. It is on these ridges like these that eagles and falcons slope-soar. They can move without a wing beat and travel fast. On migration it is just these slopes that raptors use to lessen their energy requirements. In mid to late November there are numerous migrants that sneak in under cover of rain clouds feeding on rising clouds of winged termites. But the rains were late. We did see a number of Steppe Eagles a few Harriers and Eurasian Hobbies.

We went on to stay with Charlotte and Norbert Rottcher at Vipingo on the north coast. They live on a 100 acre patch of mostly indigenous forest with large bat caves. They have breeding Barn Owls, Fish Eagles and Black Sparrowhawks in this remarkably rich and bio-diverse area that is crying out for proper conservation status. We spent one evening at the mouth of a bat cave watching the frantic flight of hundreds of fruit bats while Genet Cats lurked to seize those that collided and fell. Then we went on to meet William Kombe at Sokoke Forest in the hope of photographing the rare Southern Banded Snake Eagle. We saw two but time did not allow us to linger and we pressed on to Tsavo East via Malindi.

Laila will write the next entry regarding Tsavo East and our lucky encounter with large migratory flocks of small falcons in Tsavo West. The day after we arrived back from safari Laila returned home to spend Christmas with her family. It was a fast pace of high intensity work followed by sudden cessation and despite having a mountain of work to complete I feel at a loss right now.

For the Africa Raptor Expedition to proceed on schedule it is essential that I find a home for the last bird in my care, the Bearded Vulture. The car, test driven over some of the roughest sections has done well mechanically but fails in being properly outfitted for a trans-Africa trip. These issues must be resolved quickly when Laila returns and we continue with our work across southern Africa in January 2009.

Conserving a Beautiful Location – Kwenia

Staying at Hog Ranch once Simon was released from hospital was great. I had itchy hands as I had no camera with me and wildlife was tame. David Gulden, our host, was scratching a warthog on the nose and called over to me to “come and feel her warts.” A new one for me. I also marveled at a huge bull giraffe that bowed his head down to meet mine, just curious it seemed.

Sandy and Sandy have been endlessly kind to us and have been putting us up in their home. Simon has been progressing really fast and we are almost ready to take on our expedition. Simon’s bad hip is the one he needs for the clutch so I will have to pass my driving test (which embarrassingly I have not yet done) so I can do the driving.

Simon was feeling so well two days ago that with the two Sandys, we decided to go on a camping trip to a cliff site called Kwenia. We made the decision that morning and within a couple of hours were ready with the car packed. We didn’t get too far before the car starting giving us trouble and we had to turn back. That didn’t hold us back for long and we tried again the following day, on Obama Day (Kenya declared a national holiday in honour of Obama winning the American presidency).

It isn’t a pleasant road for the most part, but once we left the main road, we started to see Dikdiks and Kudus. The rain arrived, bringing in the termites which in turn attracted the Hobbies. The scenery got more and more beautiful until we arrived along a huge expanse of cliff faces on one side, mountains on the other and an empty temporary lake in between them, full of golden grass. Sandy and Sandy wowed and we all sat quietly contemplating the beauty of the place. Simon has been talking about Kwenia for a long time and I now understand why. We arrived as night fell, so we started a fire and discussed potential ways in which the place could be protected.

The rain returned and sent us running to the car where we all dozed until the braver of us got out and set up tents. I continued to sleep in the nice dry car. Morning brought light that allowed us to look onto the cliffs and see the real importance of the area: a colony of nesting Rüppell’s Vultures, the largest known in Southern Kenya (at last count, it had more than 200 individuals). We ate breakfast with binoculars glued to our faces as we tried to count them, then watched as they set off to whatever distant locations they may go to. Still so much is unknown about their daily routine but they do travel very large distances. We also had the pleasure of seeing Rock Kestrels and Egyptian Vultures on the cliffs.

vultures at kwenia
Rüppell’s Vultures at Kwenia (How many can you see?)

We set off and took a little detour to Lake Magadi to see the Lesser Flamingos. Simon and I hoped to see a Fish Eagle swoop down on a Flamingo but it wasn’t to be. We did, however, see what Simon believes to be an Imperial Eagle drinking from a puddle. If it was the Imperial, then it is quite a treat as they are extremely rare migrants from Europe. The scenery is beautiful around that area and we all returned pleased from a great little trip. We really do hope that Kwenia’s importance will soon be realised and that it will be conserved.

gerenuk at kwenia
Gerenuk in Magadi

lake magadi
Lake Magadi

All In A Day’s Safari – Leopard, Forest Hog, Eagles, Hundreds of Rhinos!

We left Aberdare NP late yesterday evening after having had a successful couple of days. Simon has already written about the eight black servals which were stunning. We were disappointed at the few mountain buzzards which were our target species. We arrived back in Solio and were paying for a night of camping when we bumped into Annie Olivecrona again. She invited us to her place for an evening drink.

We arrived at Annie’s to find two more Swedish overlander families camping. There was also the overland couple we had met a few days previously who had given tips on preparing our car (visit their Web site). Overlanders are people who kit up their cars and set off on trips by road. Discussions of car parts and expedition sponsorship continued over a few drinks and Annie insisted we stay for dinner and camp out. It was a lovely evening and great to hear from these people who had been traveling for eight months in their cars across some tough countries with their kids in tow (visit the Web site).

overland vehicles
All the overland vehicles (including our 27-year-old Range Rover on the far right)

We were a bit groggy in the morning but we got up with the sun all the same and headed back to Solio Wildlife Sanctuary. It had rained during the night which gave us a much more successful wildlife experience than the previous visit. We saw a few migrants such as Eurasian Hobbies, Steppe Eagles and Harriers. We finally found a juvenile Crowned Eagle as well. We must have seen more than a hundred rhinos. A giant forest hog stood feeding knee-deep in the swamp. This was quite a surprise as this species usually occurs in thick forest.

solio forest hog
Giant Forest Hog

Annie had seen a leopard the day before. It had taken a kill up a tree so we believed it would still be there in the morning. Sure enough, we did spot it, though it came down the tree and ran off on seeing us so we didn’t get the photos.

solio leopard
Leopard far away

How different the two experiences in Solio were highlights how difficult it is to come to conclusions about wildlife. We are sometimes too quick to judge. The simple thing of the rain falling changed our whole outlook. We would really need to spend a lot more time in Solio to get a real feel for the raptor situation but from what we saw, it is not doing too badly. We hope to return after the big rains have hit for some final photo opportunities and a data count.

Taking the Expedition On a Trial Run

In our quest for raptors, Laila and I drove first to Sungare Ranch where we stayed in a friend’s house on a small conservancy before taking a drive early this morning through Solio Sanctuary. It is dominated by Yellow Fever Acacia which grows by the banks of a swamp and small stream. White Rhino teamed everywhere. We stopped to see some 125 vultures feeding from a carcass. Comic relief was provided by a lumbering White rhino that decided to mud bathe behind the vultures. Amused and curious many vultures filed over to have a look.

vultures watch rhino bath
Vultures at the cinema (watching a Rhino mud bathe)

We saw numerous Augur Buzzards, one Martial Eagle, a few Tawny Eagles, one migrant Steppe Eagle, a Bateleur Eagle and a few harriers. The Crowned Eagle which we were so desperate to see evaded us. There were no other or very few migrant raptors despite threatening rain. Solio does have an enormous variety of raptor species in a small area, and because of the road network and see-through forest habitat it is usually a fantastic place to photograph raptors. It is fairly dry now at the end of the dry season. A number of buffalo and zebra had died of drought, or perhaps from a form of colic brought about by eating fresh shoots on an empty stomach.

We were invited for lunch at Annie’s house just outside the sanctuary. She is setting up a Chimpanzee Sanctuary for abandoned chimps. We met a Swedish overlander couple. “Overlander” is a term I am rapidly having to understand. The discussion centered on suspension and engines, then where one was going and where one had come from. Our beat-up ancient Range Rover looks like it has a few trans-African safaris under it belt, but in truth we only arrived from Nairobi, while they had driven all the way from Sweden!

Annie talked of the chimpanzee smuggling and her own plans to expand the sanctuary to include an area set aside for chimps. Her frustrations and passion reflected that of so many conservationists. But never for a moment was there a hint of giving up. She insisted that we return later again on our next visit.

We went back into the sanctuary to meet Benson the warden to discuss the raptor situation. We asked him to keep an eye out for nests and he was shocked to learn that a Crowned Eagle nest can measure about 2.2m across by 2m deep. He told us of a disturbing incident whereby an eagle got poisoned with what he believed to be furadan.

We had a good day watching the rhino but we were a little disappointed at the few raptors we saw. We vowed to return once it rained as the migratory birds pass through in large numbers with the rain.