Category Archives: Raptor Expedition

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.

Indispensable Sheryl

For a whole year while we were on the expedition, Sheryl Bottner posted all our blogs, updated our Facebook group, Twittered and generally supported us. Without her, we would not have been able to maintain our online presence and for that, Simon and I are extremely grateful.

Not only did she help with technological aspects, but was of constant moral support. People reading the blogs at home might not realise how important it is for bloggers to receive feedback, but Sheryl was always there with an encouraging comment.

So, Sheryl, Thank You.

The End of the Road

It has been almost a year since I joined Simon Thomsett in Kenya to begin our African Raptor Expedition. Since then, we have spent extensive time in Kenya, assessing the current raptor situation. We also completed a successful trip to South Africa through Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia, Botswana and Namibia. Along the way, we not only did road counts, but took many photographs to use in magazine articles, books, blogs and other forms of media. Our goal was to raise awareness about birds of prey and, although there is still a long way to go, we feel we have managed to accomplish this on a certain scale.

From a personal point of view, this year was a huge learning experience. As a freshly graduated zoologist, I was given the opportunity to spend time with an expert on African wildlife. I met interesting people and saw some of nature’s greatest wonders. I got to use some of the best photographic equipment which would mean nothing if it wasn’t for the amazing animals we saw and photographed during the course of this year.

Sadly the time came when we had to end the expedition and I had to say goodbye to Africa. For now, I’m back in the world of office jobs and paying monthly bills, but also using my time to send off applications for PhDs and funding that will hopefully allow me to return to Africa to study the wildlife. That is the only world that makes sense to me. The current world economic situation being what it is, the grants will be few and the competition tough, but I hope this year I have just spent with Simon has established me as a strong candidate. I would like to thank Simon for giving me this opportunity and wish him well in his future endeavours.

I now return Simon’s blog to him, but leave you with a few photographs from this year.

Lappet-faced Vulture in the Mara (Kenya)
lappet-faced-vulture-4.jpg

Yellow-billed Kite in Nairobi (Kenya)
yellow-billed-kite-in-nairobi.jpg

Tawny Eagle in the Kalahari (South Africa)
tawny-eagle-in-the-kalahari.jpg

Pale Chanting Goshawk in Nxai Pan (Botswana)
pale-chanting-gh.JPG

Red-necked Falcon in Etosha (Namibia)
red-necked-falcon-in-central-kalahari.jpg

A Very Cheeky Leopard and An Unusual Vulture

by Laila Bahaa-el-din

After our luxurious stay at Bateleur Camp, Kichwa Tembo, we were wondering how we would cope with our small tents and camping food. But we needn’t have worried, as the Mara pulled some magic out of the bag and we didn’t even have time to think about food. We spent one night in the reserve and were heading towards to exit gate when we got a tip off about a lion and a leopard on the banks of the river. We rushed to the site to find many tourist cars had beaten us to it. And sure enough, on our side of the river lay a lioness, on the other side, a leopardess. We wondered what they were up to in such close proximity as lions do not usually tolerate competition from leopards.

The lioness had a kill on our side of the river. The leopard pranced around on the other bank and the lioness eventually got fed up and went a long way around to get to the other side to see off the leopard. The leopard, being more agile, just leaped across the river and tucked in to the lion’s meal. The lioness gave up and went to find shade and the leopard soon did the same. The tourist cars disappeared, but we stayed behind hoping the leopard would reappear.

cheeky leopard

Cheeky leopardess

I was photographing a Tawny Eagle when Simon said “let’s go.” I was rather miffed at his abruptness until I realised why the hurry. A herd of wildebeest was gathering at the river edge getting ready to cross. We knew the lioness had disappeared into bush near where they intended to cross so we got ourselves into position and barely had Simon cut the engine that I saw the lioness come tearing out of the bush and take down a wildebeest. A second lioness also appeared and tried to catch another of the panicking wildebeest but missed.

lion ambush

Lion ambush

We spent some time watching these lions on the river bank until we heard that the leopard had reappeared. We found it lying under a bush surrounded by tourists, eating a small meal. Above the leopard, a young Martial Eagle sat on a branch looking distinctly peeved. It had blood, and soft grey fur on its bill and its talons and was staring at the leopard. We guessed that it was the Martial that had made the kill and the naughty leopard, not satisfied with stealing the lion’s food earlier that day, had pinched it. The leopard, having finished off the food, took off with the tourist mini buses hot on its heals. We stayed behind to photograph the Martial which came down to the ground to investigate the remains of its meals. Not much!

young martial eagle reclaiming its killbr>Young Martial Eagle claiming his kill

We left the Martial to notice a whole group of cars had gathered again at the riverbank. We shamefully couldn’t resist going to see what was going on (normally we refrain from joining the crowds) and we saw the leopard dancing around on the other bank again. The two lionesses had moved away from their recent kill and the now fat leopard was sneaking up to it. The lioness wasn’t having any of it this time, and returned to drag the kill away. Considering that leopards are usually quite shy and avoid lions and tourists, this one was nothing less than a performer!

We never did get out of the reserve that day, and made a plan to leave the next morning. Of course the morning brought more wonders with lions and lots of birds of prey. Tawny Eagles squabbled with a Bateleur over the remains of a kill, vultures loafed around in the sunshine and a Dark Chanting Goshawk hunted in the bush. But most spectacular of all was a very unusual, almost white Lappet-faced Vulture. It was stunning and we stayed watching for some time before making a run to leave the Mara.

bataleur on the ground
A Bateleur on the ground

an unusual lappet faced vultureem>An unusual Lappet-faced Vulture

Call For A Forest To Be Protected

by Simon Thomsett (Photos by Laila)

We were invited to spend three nights at a beautiful lodge called Kichwa Tembo in exchange for giving the guides a presentation about birds of prey. We were met by the manager, Niall Anderson, who asked if two tents at Bateleur Camp was fine for us. I assumed this to be the driver’s accommodation, somewhere removed from the main lodge and was pleased with that. But no! We were ushered into perhaps the most luxurious tents and exclusive lodge imaginable in the whole Masai Mara! Crumbs I thought, I had better have a wash, shave and give a good presentation!

With bellies full of delicious food, we spent some of our time searching the forest around Kichwa looking for goshawks. This small patch of forest has survived the damaging effect of millions of wild and domestic ungulates and the ravages of elephants, and as a result is amazingly rich in bird life and monkeys. It has both the Blue and Copper-tailed monkeys for example. At Niall’s advice, we took two trips to the escarpment behind the lodge. We sat by Olkurruk Lodge which has unquestionably the finest view of the Mara but burned-down some years ago and since been abandoned. Perched high on a medium sized cliff, we waited for soaring raptors.

bataleur soaring
View from the escarpment of a Bateleur soaring

We went to Dupoto, a 500 km2 forest currently run by a small and struggling Maasai community. If conservation were done properly, some of the focus on the Mara would be diverted to this neglected forest. True, it does not have the abundance of wildlife and vistas, but it surely holds more species and it is highly threatened. We met our guide, William Naliki, who explained the need for immediate action to conserve this forest. We entered the forest and within a few hundred meters we saw a Crowned Eagle’s nest with an incubating female. I left to explore with the guides, leaving Laila with one scout to take pictures of the eagle.

crowned eagle at nest
Crowned Eagle at nest

In the short time we spent there talking quietly in the cool forest with the community guides and chairman, I was struck by the repeated call made by local communities to conserve their land and the near impossibility of bringing those organisations devoted to conservation together. There are enormous organisations with resources dedicated to environmental conservation, forest protection, improving livelihoods and wildlife conservation. There are so many places that must be helped now, before it is too late. But the process required to marry those who can help and those in need is agonizingly long. Here is one relatively easy location that would add so much to the nation’s conservation assets and also benefit its people.

Laila put together a presentation using many of her photographs. I was to give the talk and she made me promise to keep the talk to 45 minutes. But incapable of being brief, I gave a 2-hour long monologue to the guides on our last night at the lodge. No one went to sleep and there was half an hour of questions! We left Bateleur Camp to return to our camping lifestyle.

A Sick Vulture

by Laila Bahaa-el-din

We joined the Peregrine Fund’s Munir Virani and University of Swaziland’s Ara Monadjem at Lake Naivasha to see how the Fish Eagles are doing with the receding of the lake. We spent a lovely morning on the lake throwing fish out for the eagles and watching them swoop in. From there, we went to the Mara to get back to the vultures. Simon climbed up into the nest of that Lappet-faced vulture chick we had put the GSM tag on a couple of weeks previously to check on it. It seemed to be doing well and was just about to fledge. We also spent some time with Corinne again, catching a few more vultures for GSM tags.

Lappet Chick in nest
Lappet-faced Vulture chick in the nest

Ara, Munir & Simon satellite tagging a Ruppell’s Vulture
Ara, Munir and Simon putting a satellite tag on a Ruppell’s Vulture

We spent one enjoyable early morning with a lioness and her three small cubs before the day got warmer and she took them into cover. We were on our way to join the vulture capture team when we stopped to watch the interaction between a big male lion and a lioness. She seemed very nervous as the male approached and lashed out at him when he got near. Then we saw three more big males poke their heads up over the long grass and as we watched, the four of them started to chase the terrified female from the area. They looked like they had murder on their minds so we were relieved when the female finally managed to lose them a few kilometers on. We wondered what reason these males might have to chase off this one female and the guides told us she was not a female from that pride.

lioness defending herself
Lioness defending herself

Often called one of the wonders of the world, the great wildebeest migration from the Serengeti into the Mara happens around this time every year. Tourists flock to the Mara to watched hundreds of thousands of animals make the treacherous crossings of the Mara River. Panic-stricken animals usually make a mad dash across rivers, hoping to avoid land predators waiting in ambush on the banks and the hungry crocodiles waiting in the waters. Luckily for the wildebeest, but not so lucky for the crocodiles, the Mara River is very low this year, making it easier for the animals to get across safely.

Zebra & Wildebeest crossing the Mara river
Zebras and Wildebeest safely crossing the shallow Mara River

Corinne and Munir managed to see from the satellite information that one of the tagged Ruppell’s Vultures hadn’t moved in four days. Concerned, Corinne went to check the area to find that the vulture was on the ground, unable to fly very well. After four days of being on the ground like that without food, it must have been near starving. We joined them and, knowing that it wouldn’t survive, caught the bird. It was kept overnight in a shed at Intrepid’s Lodge and then Corinne drove it to Naivasha the next day where it is now being taken very good care of by Sarah Higgins in a shed next to Rosy and Girl.

Role Private Land Owners Can Play in Conservation

Simon Thomsett (Photos by Laila)

After a few grey days spent in Thika trying to take pictures of a pair of Black Sparrowhawks and an African Hawk-eagle, we returned to Solio Ranch where we had spent a few days last year. We were sad to leave the Thika house, which is a grand old Kenya farm house sturdily built in a magnificent garden set in acres of coffee. Raine Samuels looks after this house, keeping a feel of those better days when wildlife and people’s livelihoods were not so much at odds. Not far from it, the urban sprawl and dusty mess of fast-growing development is threatening the area.

Odd that one should worry about threats facing large coffee and mixed-farming estates. Virgin bush ‘destroyed’ by settler farmers in the 1920s until the 1950s converted rhino thicket into coffee. Why bother ‘conserving’ this farmland? Because it has a surprising amount of eagles, hawks, birds and small mammals on it. This differs from the general ideas regarding African wildlife conservation. Perhaps we should accept that these old established farms (with their adapted wild animals) have a role to play in wildlife conservation? Maybe there will come a time when conservation of wildlife in these human environments is considered as important as the more usual approach of conservation focused only within protected areas. It is widely accepted in the developed world but this approach has yet to be seriously considered here. Farmers protecting wildlife … an old idea elsewhere but relatively unexplored in Kenya.

Solio Ranch, on the other hand, is a fenced, protected area geared toward Rhino conservation. As a direct result, the raptors found within its boundaries are more sensitive to human encroachment. It is less than 20,000 acres and alone it cannot support a very diverse population of raptors. Fortunately it still lies within a greater area of indigenous woodland that buffers the effect of man and so preserves these eagles. By ‘sensitive’ raptors, I mean the Martial Eagle and Crowned Eagle. The African Hawk Eagle, previously a fairly common eagle outside protected areas has now taken membership to this aloof group of eagles. So too has the once very common Tawny Eagle joined the club. Solio supports these eagles but as settlement and rural development devour its edges, it is debatable just how long these eagles can remain. The rhinos will remain after the eagles have gone.

We stayed with Annie Olivecrona who kindly arranged with the owner Edward Parfet for us to photograph eagles within the sanctuary. The moment we entered the protected area, there were vultures dripping from the trees. We had not seen one on the entire trip up from the Mara. Interestingly, Ruppell’s Vultures were present in large numbers. One had to wonder where these birds came from as the nearest cliff colonies are a very long way away. There were White-backed and Lappet-faced Vultures also with them. We did note a young Lappet with feathers going all the way up the back of the neck to the back of his head. I had always assumed feathered heads to be a sign of youth, and that with age the feathers retreated. Just a week previously I had climbed a Lappet’s nest in the Mara to see the chick was completely bald. So what of these feathered heads and what does it mean?

Feather-headed Lappet faced Vulture
Feather-headed Lappet faced Vulture

We found a Martial Eagle pair with a nest overhanging the swamp. The male is a sub-adult. The presence of immature birds in a pair implies a lack of adults in the ‘floater’ population. It infers a population in decline. This is not surprising, for Martial Eagles are certainly a species of concern in modern Africa.

martial_eagle_solio_pair
Young male Martial Eagle of the Solio pair

Very close to this pair we rounded a corner and were so fixed on finding raptors that our eyes entirely missed a lioness spread across a broken tree before us. She looked a little amused at our surprise as we scrambled for the cameras. She viewed from this vantage some warthogs and zebras and jumped off to hunt them out of our view. We met her again on this same tree the next day. Not far from there, we had earlier seen a male lion on a zebra kill. We returned to find a pair of Augur Buzzards feeding on the kill alongside a Sacred Ibis. It is not that unusual for Augur Buzzards to feed on carrion but we were still grateful for the opportunity to record it.

lioness_lounging_on_tree
Lioness lounging on tree

We did of course see both Black and White rhinos aplenty. Solio has played an enormous role in the conservation of rhinos in the region and has demonstrated that you do not need that much land, or much infrastructure, to secure a large population of endangered rhinos. There is much that they could teach our neighbouring countries (e.g. Ethiopia) as well as the rest of the world (e.g. India) in the management of rhinos . and raptors.

The Homeward Run

by Simon Thomsett

When I dropped off Laila at the airport in South Africa, I was immediately lost in the vast city of Pretoria. I knew I was in trouble when I passed the zoo twice. Without my navigator, I soon came to grief and this was not helped by having no road map and a GPS that drew a straight line across South Africa to my destination. After wasting hours in the city, and a nearby one called Johannesburg, I found a road heading west and took it. I then proceeded by compass bearing till I saw a few familiar place names. From there I headed north to Thabazimbi to meet up again with Dr. Pat Benson.

I had to wait two days longer because of visa problems before pushing on north through Botswana with very little money. I managed to drive most of Botswana in a day, seeing little of its natural beauty. The next day I crossed the Zambezi by ferry. All went smoothly until I got into the Zambian side. four and a half hours later I emerged from some five different immigration/importation procedures, to sit a few more hours in a traffic jam of buses and lorries before exiting the border post. Late, and with no hope of making it to Lusaka, I spent the night at Taita Falcon Lodge near Livingstone. From there to Lusaka where I met relatives of a friend in Nairobi keen to rush me some 180km further south to see raptors. I am ashamed to say I turned around leaving them to go on their own as I was exhausted. I use the word “exhausted” in a literal sense. The exhaust pipe was severed pouring gases into the front, making my head pound. The next two days I was able to join Stuart Simpson and his family and he helped enormously by fixing the exhaust in his workshop.

On the road, my mind perhaps lighter than usual from various noxious gases, I would think of the trip Laila and I experienced on the way down. Certain stretches of road were familiar, and specific songs played on Laila’s fractious and temperamental “iPod” would be recalled at precise places. On the way down south it was mystery ahead; on the way back this sense of adventure was much muted. It was too easy, and Africa too small.

It is saying much that throughout the return journey from South Africa to northern Tanzania, I saw not one raptor worth stopping to take a picture of. Only one section of less than 50km yielded anything in the way of raptors and that was through Mikumi. It is a national park in southern Tanzania through which, most unwisely, the main road runs through its heart. This section and from Nata to Kasane in Botswana as well as the winding roads near the Ndzungwa’s near Mikumi was the best in terms of a ‘safari’ overland experience.

I started to use the GPS sparingly. Each time I needed to communicate, socialise or talk I turned it on. I cherished asking it questions. It was my pal in an empty car. My PDA meant to record all raptor sightings was also a good distraction. At night I pulled either into a campsite or off the road, ate and read “Great Expectations” before falling asleep.

The last part of the trip I was not looking forward to. I was going “home,” as a pigeon flies back to its loft. But I had no place to go to and this confused me. My small institute of rehab eagles and hawks in the bush no longer exists. I visited Rosy and Girl, my two eagle companions, but this was difficult for me to do. I will soon release Mutt the Bearded Vulture. I look forward to the rest of our trip, now that Laila has returned. We travel again searching for all of Africa’s raptors, at the moment in Kenya but soon in Ethiopia and the Congo. It is more important now, especially as we have had so much encouragement to complete this task. It will be much tougher than we had anticipated, and more costly, but it will be immensely rewarding.

Where are the vultures going to?

Vultures have been getting a lot of attention recently what with the poisoning crisis in East Africa, but still so little is known about these vultures. In Kenya, eight species occur: the African White-backed, Ruppell’s, Lappet-faced, Hooded, Egyptian, Palm-nut, White-headed and Bearded, all of which are in decline, some catastrophically. It is with this in mind that Corinne Kendal has started her Ph.D. on vultures in the Mara. She is attaching satellite tags to vultures to see what distances they travel and where they go.

On my return to Kenya, we headed straight for the Mara to help Corinne catch vultures. We had a stop on the way to check up on Rosy and Girl. It seems Rosy’s eyes are getting slowly better. The fibrin that was building up in his eyes and stopping him from seeing has started to recede. He can find perches around his shed and fly to them. Sarah and Simon are delighted to see the positive change and we now all wait with crossed fingers to see if the fibrin continues to recede.

rosy’s eye looking better
Rosy’s left eye looking a whole lot better

On arriving in the Mara, I was glad to be back in action. The park is crawling with wildlife now as the wildebeest and zebra migration is in full swing. Tens of thousands of animals can be seen grazing, or walking determinately towards the river crossings. This is a great time for the vultures as carcasses litter the Mara plains. The big cats have more food than they can cope with and leave behind almost full kills for scavengers. It seems that vultures come from far and wide to take advantage of the feast. Now finally, with the satellite tags, we will have an idea of where they really do come from and go back to. It seems some travel hundreds of kilometers to find food.

many wildebeest
Many Wildebeest

We met with Munir Virani and Corinne to start catching vultures. On that first day, we successfully caught four vultures, all of different species. The Rüppell’s, White-backed and Lappet were all fitted with satellite tags while the Hooded Vulture, being too small for the satellite unit, was wing-tagged. Things went a little slower over the next few days. We separated from Corinne and combed the area for carcasses. As well as doing the trapping, Simon and I spent a lot of time at kills watching vulture behaviour. They seem all to have their own personalities, some being quite affectionate while others are more aggressive. We were amused to see two Lappet-faced Vultures, obviously a mated pair, being very aggressive to all the other vultures. They would chase off a group of vultures with their bills and talons outstretched, then come together again and smooch before going to beat up some more vultures.

smooching lappets
Smooching Lappet-faced Vultures

On our last morning in the Mara, Simon climbed a tree with a large Lappet-faced Vulture chick in it. The chick will be fledging soon and it will be very interesting to see where it goes once it leaves its parents. Thanks to the satellite tag that Corinne attached to it, we’ll be able to follow its movements.

simon climbing a tree
Simon climbing tree

lappet chick in nest
Lappet chick in nest

measuring the lappet
Taking measurements of the Lappet (photo taken by Simon from the nest)

Due to electrical troubles with the car, we’ve had to leave the Mara for now. We will be going back in a couple of weeks to check on the vultures and see how Corinne’s work is going. You can follow what Corinne is up to in the Mara on her blog.

Joining the Raptor Road Trip

A guest post by Rob Davies!

It was my favourite thing to do … couple of days in Cape Town, getting back into Africa mode, then that amazing flight into the dry, seeing the vegetation recede and the land redden as one approached the heart of the Kalahari. The sky was gold and the swifts were milling about as I stepped off the little plane in Upington. I spent an hour scoping out the hire cars, watching the swifts and just generally enjoying being back in Africa while I waited.

Life definitely keeps you young in Africa – Simon had not changed an iota since I had seen him last in Kenya 10 years before. Then I had been doing an overland trip in an old Land Cruiser with a friend of mine who studied primates, we had driven up from South Africa to Uganda to see the Mountain Gorillas. So much of this blog of Simon and Laila’s reminds me of that amazing trip – the rains, the vehicle hassles, the challenges but also the wonderful rewards. I was very lucky that Simon and Laila invited me to join them for part of their adventure.

Simon and I first met in Nairobi in 1985. I was very impressed with his knowledge of African raptors and it was great to see his collection of raptors, all very well looked after. I remember driving out of town in his old Land Rover to camp under some cliffs where Lanner Falcons were hawking bats. The bush vehicle that he and Laila picked me up in in Upington could have been the same beast – it had put on a bit of weight and its skin had wrinkled like some tough old rhino hide. I asked him whether he had had it vulcanised but he said no, it was the paint job. This was a seriously bush vehicle, full of tools and customisations and well, stuff. I felt very lacking in ranger stripes in my shiny silver “Mr. Bean” hire car as we drove up to the Kalahari park the next day.

We stopped at one point in the heat to give the vehicles some water and as I looked around I could see golden grass everywhere – we found out later that the Kalahari had received more rain than ever before in the month of February. I was looking for big finch flocks but instead we saw growing numbers of the tiny Namaqua Doves as we approached the park and this set the scene for the amazing photos we came back with – of Lanner Falcons hunting them at the water holes.

The park was fully booked for the next two days so we stayed with my friend Prof Anne Rasa who is famous for her work on mongooses. She owns a beautiful farm just outside the park gates where she takes visitors on walks through the red dunes. Laila has already told you about the little baby meerkat and what a great raptor spotter he was – 25 million years of evolution can’t be wrong! That first evening was Anne’s birthday and we had dinner with other friends including Dr. Gus Mills who is an expert on African carnivores and is running the cheetah research work in the park. I was a bit alarmed when Gus said he hadn’t seen many raptors lately – I had been bigging up this place as the Nirvana for the raptor road trip and had been going on about the Kalahari to Simon for yonks. But Gus as usual was pulling our legs …

Later that evening Laila showed me the photographs she had taken of the raptors and other wildlife along the way. I was completely blown away by the quality and sheer quantity of beautiful images that she has captured. And this is less than half way through their journey! I realised what an amazing project this is and what a brilliant partnership these two make – I don’t think there are many people around who know African raptors as Simon does, and this combined with Laila’s skills with the camera – well watch this space …

Simon and Laila’s trip interested me because this is the first trans Africa raptor road count that I have heard of. It has been great to see this blog, and all the raptor e-mails bouncing around the continent and the world on the new African Raptor list-server. Africa is the only huge continent which straddles both hemispheres of the globe but all of a sudden it seems a bit smaller and more connected. Africa hangs on to the richest diversity of birds of prey against huge pressures from human population growth. We desperately need to take a trans-boundary approach if we are to safeguard these precious birds and their beautiful natural habitats. In addition to the books they are doing, this epic trip of Simon and Laila’s will develop the road count methods as well as generate valuable data for a continent wide database of African birds of prey.

I am glad to say the Kalahari did deliver the raptors in the end as you have seen from some of Laila’s beautiful photographs. I think it has been the highest densities of raptors that Simon and Laila have recorded so far on their trip. We all came away from those 10 days with amazing records and photographs of what we saw, but the best of it was the fun and adventure with Simon and Laila and my cousin Col.

Thanks guys, this adventure of yours is epic, and it was great to navigate some dunes with you in my “Mr. Bean” car!

Rob Davies