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)

Yellow-billed Kite in Nairobi (Kenya)

Tawny Eagle in the Kalahari (South Africa)

Pale Chanting Goshawk in Nxai Pan (Botswana)

Red-necked Falcon in Etosha (Namibia)

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

The Little Owl Sanctuary: Waddlesworth Update

by Sarah Higgins

I am pleased to report that Waddlesworth is not only in fine feather but is also in perfect health.

Thanks to the many responses that we had to our appeal for information on our ‘squishy’ bird, I can now report that Pelicans are supposed to feel as if they have bubble wrap just under their skin because they actually do have the bird-equivalent of bubble wrap just under their skin! These are little air-filled pockets are designed for floatation, insulation and protection when diving. I have been absolutely fascinated by the amount of information that has come in and am very grateful for all of your responses – and also very relieved as it means that there is nothing wrong with Waddlesworth!

Waddlesworth has been for his third flight which, by his standards, was an epic trip. He was so disgusted at being tagged that he actually left home, got lost and ended up in our sheep field behind the house. As we hadn’t seen where he had landed he spent the night there – his first night out in the big wild world! We didn’t discover him ’til the next morning and, as he still wasn’t talking to us, he refused to come home. So I left him there and told our staff to just keep a distant eye on him. By lunch time Sammy (his foster mum) couldn’t bear it any longer and went up to the field, caught him and carried him back home under his arm (much to Waddles’ disgust). At that stage we were still worried about Waddle’s ‘bubble wrap’ so it was decided that he should remain in the walled garden (which he can’t fly out of) until we were sure that he really was OK – which, of course, we now know that he is.

Waddlesworth’s freedom has now been restored to him but he seems to have decided that he is not so interested in this flying business and that life holds far too many interests right here at home. I open his gate every morning and herd him out into the big garden where he mucks about and flaps his wings a lot but still he refuses to fly. On the one hand we are delighted, as we all love that bird to bits (especially Sammy, who is ‘mummy’), but on the other hand he should be getting on with his life. Still – the option is there and the decision is his. He has made friends with Batelle (the new Fish Eagle) and spends hours watching her. He is also pals with ‘Shale’, the tortoise.

Oh not again
Oh not again!

i’m getting out of here
I’m getting out of here!

It is totally ridiculous watching Shale and Waddlesworth sunbathing in the morning. Shale parks himself in the sun and sticks all his limbs out of his shell, Waddles comes along and plonks down beside him and amuses himself by very gently trying to catch Shale’s head, which is smartly withdrawn into the shell, only to reappear a few seconds later. Shale will put up with this for a bit but then gets fed up and moves few inches further away so that his head is not actually reachable and then settles down again.

out of reach
Out of reach

Waddles then plays at trying to pick him up, which of course would be impossible. It really is the silliest thing to watch. Waddles’ beak is very gentle and he is not capable of doing any harm, except with the fish hook on the tip, which he doesn’t seem to use except for picking up his fish. The tortoise doesn’t seem to mind this treatment and is perfectly happy to settle down with Waddles – when he is not being a pest and trying to catch his head!

peace at last
Peace at last

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.

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 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.

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.

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

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.

International Vulture Awareness Day

Text and photographs by Laila Bahaa-el-din

Vultures are in trouble worldwide. In East Africa, the deliberate poisoning of carnivores is leading to the demise of vultures, while in southern Africa, vulture parts are used in witchcraft and in West Africa, loss of habitat and their use as bush meat are proving catastrophic. In South Asia, vulture populations plummeted by 95 percent in just a decade as a result of consuming the carcasses of cows that had been treated with the anti-inflammatory drug Diclofenac. In Europe, strict health regulations mean that all carcasses are disposed of, leaving no food for the vultures.

Bearded Vulture at Ol Donyo Laro, Kenya
Bearded Vulture at Ol Donyo Laro, Kenya

Hooded Vulture in the Mara, Kenya
Hooded Vulture in the Mara, Kenya

What to do? The general public doesn’t get up in arms about vultures. We can’t make emotional appeals based around cute and cuddly animals. The world needs to sit up and take notice of this crisis, if not for the vultures’ sakes, then for their own. Vultures have the unfortunate reputation of being dirty. The truth is that they not only clean up everybody else’s mess by consuming carcasses that would otherwise encourage diseases and pests such as rats, but they also are meticulous in washing themselves, finding water to bathe in daily when they can.

Black Vulture head in the Osa, Costa Rica
Black Vulture head in the Osa, Costa Rica

Black Vultures in the Osa, Costa Rica
Black Vultures in the Osa, Costa Rica

So it is that vultures need an image make-over and serious awareness-raising. September 5, 2009 is International Vulture Awareness Day so wherever you are in the world, do a little something that might help spread the message that vultures need our help and fast. Here in Kenya, the Raptor Working Group, made of biologists, photographers and other interested individuals, has been organising a fair at the National Museum for the weekend of September 5-6th. I will be dressing up as a vulture as part of the awareness-raising entertainment and hope to show children what fun animals vultures are. There is going to be a national art competition, puppet show, story-telling and other activities that will hopefully lead to people looking at vultures in a new light. If you’re in Nairobi, come and join us there.

Cape Vulture at Kransberg, South Africa
Cape Vulture at Kransberg, South Africa

Cleanup Crew - King Vulture and Black Vultures in the  Osa, Costa Rica
Cleanup Crew – King Vulture and Black Vultures in the Osa, Costa Rica

We owe a big Thank You to the African Bird Club which has been so generous in its sponsorship of the upcoming event.

To see how you can take part, visit the International Vulture Awareness Day Web site:

Egyptian Vulture at Ololokwe, Kenya
Egyptian Vulture at Ololokwe, Kenya

Young King Vultures in the Osa, Costa Rica
Young King Vultures in the Osa, Costa Rica
King Vulture in the Osa, Costa Rica

Lappet-faced Vulture in the Mara, Kenya
Lappet-faced Vulture in the Mara, Kenya

Long-billed Vulture at Bandhavgarh, India
Long-billed Vulture at Bandhavgarh, India

Ruppell’s Vulture in the Mara, Kenya
Ruppell’s Vulture in the Mara, Kenya

Smooching Lappets in the Mara, Kenya
Smooching Lappets in the Mara, Kenya

Turkey Vulture in the Osa, Costa Rica
Turkey Vulture in the Osa, Costa Rica

Turkey Vulture over the Pacific on Costa Rican coast
Turkey Vulture over the Pacific on Costa Rican coast

White-headed  Vulture female in Etosha, Namibia
White-headed Vulture female in Etosha, Namibia

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.