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.
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.”
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.
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.