Tag Archives: expedition

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

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

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

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.

Preparing for the expedition

The final preparations are under way for the raptor expedition. Simon is moving Rosy and Girl to their new home in Naivasha today. He will be travelling to the UK on Friday to sort out a couple of things, after which he joins me in Ireland to help transport all the equipment back to Kenya. We will be travelling on 4th October, arriving in Nairobi on the following day. We have a busy first week, with three locations to visit, after which we will be going to a very remote location to release Mutt, a Bearded Vulture (Lammergeyer).

The first few months of the expedition will be spent in Kenya, where there is a huge diversity in habitat and, accordingly, raptor species. We hope to observe and photograph a large portion of the African species during this time. We will also be spending time in Ethiopia and possibly Tanzania before Christmas. In the New Year, we will be travelling south, after which we would like to spend some time in western and central Africa. We will interrupt our car expedition either in spring or in autumn of next year to catch the raptor migration through Israel.

The expedition is intended for data collection, as well as for material for the books. We hope to gather as much data as possible. We are in the process of trying to raise funds for this data collection so that we may be as thorough as possible. For example, it would be of great value to the exercise to be able to extend the trip to islands off mainland Africa, such as Madagascar. Finding funding is crucial to making that happen.

We will make every effort to keep this blog going regularly, if not daily. There will be times when we are away from any kind of Internet facility and for that, we are sorry. Sheryl Bottner has very kindly offered to help us with our Internet management while we are on the road. We will have a Facebook group going soon, as well as other networking tools. I hope you all enjoy following our adventure and feel free to participate by making comments, starting discussions, etc.

We’d like to thank everyone who has been so supportive throughout Rosy’s eye ordeal. News on his progress will follow soon. It has also been great to have everyone’s encouragement for this expedition. I hope it is successful and can contribute to the protection of raptors as well as to conservation more generally.

The Great Expedition

Being slow-breeders and top-end predators, birds of prey are highly vulnerable to any persecution or change in their habitat and environment. These traits also make them good indicators of overall ecosystem health. Not enough is known about birds of prey at the expert level, or by the world at large. This has led us to devise a plan that would take us on an Africa-wide adventure which we are hoping you will join us on. It will involve travelling, mostly by car, through Africa, researching birds of prey and photographing them for what will ultimately lead to some books that will serve to raise awareness and increase knowledge of these sensitive animals.

We are in the process of making preparations for the trip, which include buying the necessary equipment, kitting out the car, and sorting out all the administration that such a big project entails. Sadly, it also means that Simon must find temporary homes for his birds. Once on the road, probably around mid-to-late-September, we hope to give you daily updates on the places we go, the people we meet and, most importantly, our wildlife experiences.

Our trip will include:
1. Doing a road count of the raptors as we travel through the continent.
2. Regularly updating a blog, Facebook group and MySpace page in order to keep you in-the-know.
3. Helping local raptor specialists with research as we move along.
4. Observing and photographing the birds with the overall goal of producing a comprehensive publication on all the raptor species of Africa.

We are looking for funding in the form of grants or any such scheme to support the expedition. Do not hesitate at any time to contact us with ideas and suggestions at [email protected]


An idea is born

With my newfound passion for birds of prey, it was obvious that Simon and I would be crossing paths again. I was working at Kipling Camp by Kanha Tiger Reserve at the same time as Munir, Pat and Simon were planning their twice-a-year vulture census in India. As you might already have read from Simon’s entry, vultures have suffered a disastrous decline in South Asia due to poisoning by diclofenac. I was invited to join the team for part of the expedition and jumped at the chance. It turned out to be another great experience. We took a boat down the Chambal River, with cliffs on both sides on which we saw vultures, peregrines, eagles and owls. We also spent time in Ranthambore (where I saw my first wild tiger) and Bandhavargh National Parks.

A Brahminy Kite fishing in Kerala, India

Another continent. A few months later. This time, I was studying primates in the tropical rainforest of the Osa Peninsula in south-western Costa Rica and helping to manage a lodge there. Simon had long been interested in seeing the birds of prey of the New World, for reasons that he can explain in his own entry. I thought this to be a good opportunity to repay Simon for his kindness in looking after me so well in Kenya. Knowing him to be going through a transition stage, with his mind open to travel, I invited him to come and stay.

The stunning New World King Vulture

During the frequent rainy afternoons at Terrapin Lodge, Simon painted birds of prey as I went through photographs and attempted some of my own paintings (which I will not be showcasing). We started talking about producing a book, full of beautiful photographs and paintings, on the birds of prey of Africa, and what began as the germ of an idea started to take root and grow. As we bounced ideas off each other and started to make plans, we realised we would be embarking on an incredible adventure that would take us through much of Africa. More about that in my next post.