Tag Archives: Vulture

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.

Young Wahlberg’s Eagle on nest

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.

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.

Ovampo Sparrowhawk with prey

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.

Monkey Time (Costa Rica part 2)

mWe were to stay the next few nights at Cheryl Chip’s house, a beautifully designed and built three-storied rondaval that pushed discreetly up beyond the high canopy. The view from the top stared south down to the rolling surf of the ocean, to its east a crocodile lagoon, to the west beyond the deep forested valley, Corcovado National park, and to the north, the steep ascending primary forest. We were surrounded by parrots, Macaws, Toucans and the ever present vultures. Jim asked if I wanted tea and duly offered me a cup made from the Aberdares and purchased in Nakumat Nairobi. Sipping on my national brew surrounded by things so similar yet so very different made my brain take a spin. I had no idea where I was.

The view from Cheryl’s house (Photo by Laila Bahaa-el-din)

While swimming in the infinity pool a few days later, some vultures cruised past at nose level. We joked that it was quite possible to do vulture research from looking at their reflection in the pool. Even in this state of complete extravagance, I was questioning why it was that back home we only had vultures in large conservation areas and that they were rapidly decreasing. This constant comparison could have spoiled the moment, but it did not. It offered hope.

Turkey Vulture (Photo by Laila Bahaa-el-din)

Laila’s work centred on transects in modified areas of old farms, residential areas, secondary growth and primary undisturbed areas. Four species of Monkeys: the Howler, Spider, White faced and Squirrel Monkeys live here. As we walked along forest paths, I was told that some have profited from secondary growth while others have not. The Squirrel Monkey, for example, has certainly expanded its range into former farming areas, eating palm nuts, guaver, bananas, citrus fruits and secondary forest products. These tiny monkeys are the only ones without a prehensile tail. The other monkeys, in a possible order of preference favour these areas too and or other more pristine areas. Troops of different species forage together but apparently not in so well organized fashion as do the African monkeys. I suspected the lack of a main predator may have led to this in-orderly behaviour. Put a Harpy Eagle among these and I bet you’ll have a well-disciplined regimental group of monkeys in no time!

White-faced Capuchin monkey (Photo by Laila Bahaa-el-din)

The Howler is the thug of the community. As a fast breeding, quick maturing, heavily built leaf eater, it has an advantage over the more gracile Spider Monkey that has a more particular taste and slower reproductive rate. Spider Monkeys, although common here, are endangered. The White-faced Capuchin Monkey is the most intelligent and well disciplined of them all. They feed on fruits and insects and whatever small animal they can catch. I liked the Squirrel Monkeys the most, they fussed and talked constantly in large groups, and were curious to see you staring up from beneath.

Squirrel Monkey (Photo by Laila Bahaa-el-din)

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.

A reunion in the Mara

Simon and I joined forces again not too long after my time in Athi River, this time to take on the Mara. Our mission was to catch and tag vultures for research, this during the wildebeest migration. Our work involved tracing vultures back to a carcass, setting nooses on the carcass so that vultures would get caught in them, and then quickly removing the noose from the vulture, tagging its wing and releasing it.

Rüppell’s Griffon Vulture

On the first day, we did a trial run, which was actually successful. I sat there, holding my first vulture, and was amazed at how beautiful it was. Having grown up with the same preconception as most that vultures are ugly creatures, I was stunned to find them to be elegant fliers, masters of the sky. Over the course of that week in the Mara, my respect for these animals increased. This only served to deepen my sadness about the poisoning of wildlife that is taking place, which ultimately affects a huge number of vultures that feed on the poisoned carcasses.

Holding my first vulture

Spending a week in the Mara led to other wildlife treats. We came across what has to be one of the largest wild pythons on the planet. Cat sightings included leopards, cheetahs, and lions making a kill. Contrary to the average person, I am much more at ease bathing in rivers and eating camp food than having hot showers and fancy dining. There’s also nothing quite like going to sleep to the sounds of lions and leopards calling into the night.