Thursday, July 31, 2008

Herp of the Day: Heterodon nasicus

I've collected a few pictures and video of Shawn's Western Hognose Snake (Heterodon nasicus). Here's a video of him chowing a pinkie:

The coolest thing about Heterodon is of course making them die. Here's a photo and a video of one of this guy's siblings (from Amanda Talaba, their breeder) dying soon after hatching:

Here's a bunch of photos of Shawn's Hog at a little less than a year old. He's too habituated to die now. Instead, he does this funny cobra-hood, rearing, hissing and striking (but never biting) threat display.You may notice that one of his eyes is bad. That doesn't impede him in any way.

Lab Bobwhite

A male Northern Bobwhite (Colinus virginianus) has been hanging around near the parking lot areas of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology this summer. Today he was apparently out singing a lot, in plain view on the wires or in trees. I finally connected with him on a short walk in the afternoon with Paul Hurtado, and got excellent views of him sitting and singing from ~25 feet up in a tree next to the parking lot.

I snagged a short video of him singing:

Evening at the Lab

Taking a break from Kenya

Shawn is taking a break from his flurry of Kenya bird blogging, to run away from the East coast and go to the West coast for some birding in Olympic, then the AOU Conference in Portland. Unlike last year, I won't be joining in on the conference festivities this year. I will be in the lab pipetting like mad as my summer job wraps up. So, back to your regularly scheduled biological blogging...

Monday, July 28, 2008

Of Rhinos and Camel Meat

*Note: Text and all photos in all Kenya posts are by Shawn Billerman unless otherwise noted.

Day 10 – July 4, 2008

The next noteworthy adventure that we went on was a trip to Sweetwaters Game Reserve. This park is special because it is a rhino sanctuary. In Kenya, all rhino sanctuaries are fenced to prevent rhinos from leaving, and all rhinos are heavily guarded to protect them from poachers. Sweetwaters has both Black and White Rhinos, both of which had to be reintroduced to the park from other parts of Africa. We spent much of the day driving around Sweetwaters, and I was able to add 5 or 6 new birds, including Red-capped Lark, Black-winged Lapwing, and Grassland Pipit. Around lunch, we went to an area of the park that was like a visitor’s center. There were many school children there on field trips, and many tourists. After we ate, we entered a fenced enclosure with an armed guard to see Morani (Maasai for warrior), a tame Black Rhino. It was actually very depressing. Morani is over 30 years old, and was rescued as a baby, after poachers killed his mother. When older, he was re-released to another rhino sanctuary. While there, he got into fight with another male, who castrated him (apparently what male Black Rhinos do to other male Black Rhinos intruding in their territory). Injured, he went to live at Sweetwaters, where caretakers kept a close watch on him. Now, Morani is blind, and his horn was removed last year when it got infected. When we saw him, he just lied on the ground, as we all lined up to pat his back.

Can you find the Helmeted Guineafowl (Numida meleagris)?; Common Bulbul (Pycnonotus barbatus) (photo by Jess Marion); Morani the Black Rhino (Diceros bicornis); Giraffe (Giraffa reticulata); Crowned Lapwing (Vanellus coronatus) (photo by Jess Marion)

Common Ostrich female (top) and male (bottom) (Struthio camelus) (photos by Jess Marion)

Just before leaving the parking area, I noticed a Yellow-throated Longclaw perched atop an acacia. What an awesome bird. Anyway, after seeing Morani, we drove around the park for another hour or so, during which time Harry serenaded us with his new song, “Be my little Warthog.” After we left, we stopped in Nanyuki to be tourists. We visited some shops to get souvenirs. Part of visiting these shops is bargaining, which, needless to say, I suck at. That first day I definitely got ripped off. No matter. When we finished shopping, our van took a slight detour before going back to Mpala. Irby took us to a part of Nanyuki not often seen by tourists, to a camel butchery, to buy some camel meat. We ended up getting 1.25 kg of meat, and 0.25 kg of hump, which is pure fat (looks like Crisco). We left with the camel to head back to Mpala. On our way back, I spotted another new bird, a Pin-tailed Whydah, which, sadly, was my only Viduid for the trip. Also on the way back to camp, I noticed a great place in a small village between Nanyuki and Mpala: Mwangi’s Keg Den. Many people were disappointed they couldn’t have taken me there for my birthday. For dinner that night, the camp staff cooked up the camel we had purchased in Nanyuki, and most people were at least willing to try it. I’m just glad that it wasn’t the main course, and that there was plenty of other food to eat that night. It didn’t taste bad, it was very much like beef, but it was very tough and chewy. I later thought to myself, “how many other Americans are celebrating the 4th of July with camel meat?” If anyone has an answer, please inform me.

Irby and Dustin standing in front of the Subira Camel Butchery (photo by Eric Denemark)

There was an interesting difference in mousebird abundance between Mpala and Sweetwaters. At Mpala, Speckled Mousebirds were particularly common, and I saw perhaps only a single Blue-naped during my entire stay. However, at Sweetwaters, Blue-naped Mousebirds were by far the more common species. The guide I was using was unable to offer any insight into the difference in habitat preference, and if anyone has any experience with these two mousebirds and can shed any light on the situation, please let me know.

The Dead Giraffe

*Note: Text and all photos in all Kenya posts are by Shawn Billerman unless otherwise noted.

There was one part of our trip to Kenya that we kept coming back to, over and over. It wasn't anything that was living, but it used to be... it was a dead Giraffe (Giraffa reticulata). On our first game drive, we came upon the carcass in question. Our guides told us, on our fist day, that this particular had died 2 weeks earlier, after it had broken its leg in an altercation with another male Giraffe. Unfortunately, because the kill was already 2 weeks old, the vultures had come and gone, and presumably most of the big carnivores. Much of the meat that was left was either rotted and being consumed by maggots, or hardened into a kind of Giraffe jerky (yummy!). I know I wasn't expecting much from this kill, but I think Dustin and Irby knew things that we didn't.

Photo of the Giraffe on the first day (note the position of the head, or rather, that it still has one)

Photos of two very strange flies that were found on the Giraffe carcass. These flies, when distressed seemed to split the head apart, and expand this strange whitish blobby thing from between the eyes. It could then retract this blob and return to a normal state. (Photos by Eric Denemark)

On our first night drive, we passed by the Giraffe, and found a pack of Spotted Hyenas (Crocuta crocuta) around the carcass, picking what they could off of it. While watching, it was fun watching the social interactions between individuals. We could clearly identify the dominant female, as she harassed the others. After a couple of days, we found ourselves passing by the Giraffe early in the morning. As we were passing we noticed a Hyena at the carcass, tearing dried flesh, and gnawing on bones, trying to get out marrow. After we stopped, we saw a couple of other hyenas in the distance, waiting until the alpha female had her fill of boney bits. After about 10 minutes of watching, the female started walking toward the Giraffe's head, grabbed it, and started trotting off with it, proud of her trophy. One of the other hyenas started to chase the dominant female with the head. She continued on, walking slowly, and stopped for a bit to chew on the skull for a bit. After another 5 minutes, the hyena picked the head up again and trotted off into the bush, and we were never to see the head again.

Hyena, carrying off her prized Giraffe head into the bush

We jump ahead now to the end of our trip, 2 weeks after our first encounter with the Giraffe. I don't think I will say anything, but just let the pictures speak for themselves...

What's left of the Giraffe... the hyenas did quite a bit cleaning. The top image shows the neck of the giraffe. Giraffe have the same number of vertebrate as you and I, so they just have longer vertebrate

African Wild Dog

*Note: Text and all photos in all Kenya posts are by Shawn Billerman unless otherwise noted.

Africa is home to a number of large carnivores, including several species of Felids, as well as multiple species of Canids, including the familiar genus Canis (Jackals), and the African Wild Dog (Lycaon pictus). The African Wild Dog is a rare and declining species, and is listed by the IUCN as Endangered (Source). Like the Grey Wolf (Canis lupus), Wild Dogs hunt in packs, preying primarily on gazelle and zebra. According to the AMNH (Source), Wild Dogs are the "most endangered" of African carnivores. In addition to being persecuted by humans trying to protect their livestock, the Wild Dog is especially susceptible to diseases, such as rabies and mange which is spread by domestic dogs. Due to its status, there are many groups and researchers studying these spectacular animals. One particular group is based at Mpala: the Samburu-Laikipia Wild Dog Project. This project is aiming to study how Wild Dogs and humans and their livestock can coexist in an increasingly crowed landscape. In addition, the group aims to determine how dogs move in the landscape, and how ecotourism may be used as an incentive to local people to protect the dogs. The Laikipia district in Kenya is particularly famous for its Wild Dogs, as the dogs have recently repopulated the district after being extirpated. Although many threats face the African Wild Dog, the outlook is promising.

On one particular day, about 6 or 7 days into our class, we were neck deep in writing up projects. It was that one lucky day when we had the opportunity to work on three papers at once, in three different groups. Just as we were sitting down to work, Dustin walks in with some news: he tells us that we have two options at this point in time, 1) continue writing our papers, which we thought was the only option, or.... 2) go see a pack of 17 Wild Dogs, including pups. There was a momentary silence, as everyone in the room just stares, somewhat stunned, then all at once, everyone jumps up and races for the vans. Of course, we ended up sitting in the van for 10 minutes before we finally left, but we were on our way to try and track down this pack of Wild Dogs.

We didn't have to drive very far. This group of Wild Dogs was being studies by the Wild Dog Project, and known to be spending a lot of time uphill from the Center, and was thought to have a den nearby. After some interesting maneuvering around Acacias and across some questionable "roads," we soon found ourselves looking upon the pack of Wild Dogs. Now, enough words, here are a small fraction of the pictures I took while we spent nearly an hour watching this group.

Photos of African Wild Dog (Lycaon pictus). Note, in the 3rd picture from top, the dog is collared.

Van one intently photographing the pack; habitat where we saw the Wild Dogs: this location was just above our tented camp (early the morning we saw the dogs (4am early), camp staff and some students heard the dogs from camp)

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Birthday Birding Bonanza

*Note: Text and all photos in all Kenya posts are by Shawn Billerman unless otherwise noted.
Day 8 - July 2, 2008

Day 8 found our group collecting data for our third project, which was about acacia ants, which I will discuss in a future post. July 2 also happened to be my 21st birthday. To celebrate, Irby took me out in the afternoon for 2.5 hours for some good old-fashioned birding. Also along for the ride were Harry, Jamie, and our guide, Colistus. Our first stop was at the Hippo Pools, where we saw, you guessed it, Hippos! Beyond the hippos, we saw some good birds there too! We had Malachite Kingfisher, Common Scimitarbill, Cinnamon-chested Bee-eater, and White-browed Robin-chat. Harry and Irby also saw a Nile Monitor, but I missed it. We got very close to the hippos… a little too close for my fancy, but Colistus said everything was fine. Harry was equally nervous, saying that if any of the hippos moved, he would either pee his pants, or have a heart attack. Luckily for Harry, the hippos just sat in the water and snorted noisily at each other.

From the hippo pools, we headed up to the airstrip, which is much more open than most of Mpala, and has a lot of open grass, which is perfect habitat for Secretarybirds. Sure enough, not too far into the airstrip, I spotted my first Sagittariius! What incredible birds! We continued to drive around the airstrip, and I got some new larks (Singing Bush-lark), and other assorted little brown birds. While driving around, we came upon this large flock of sparrowy-finchy birds. Closer inspection revealed a large mixed flock of mostly Red-billed Queleas, but with many other birds mixed in, like Social Weavers, Chestnut Sparrows, various Estrildids, and, the highlight, a pair of Yellow-throated Longclaws. Longclaws are related to pipits and wagtails (Family Motacillidae), but are apparently convergent in pattern to our Meadowlarks (Family Icteridae, Genus Sturnella).

Secretarybird (Sagittariius serpentarius); Rufous Sparrow (Passer rufocinctus) (photo by Jess Marion); Yellow-throated Longclaw (Macronyx croceus)

Rosy-breasted Longclaw (Macronyx ameliae) (Source); Yellow-throated Longclaw (Source); Long-tailed Meadowlark (Sturnella loyca) (Source); Eastern Meadowlark (Sturnella magna) (Source)

In addition to all the little brown birds we saw in this area, we saw another Secretarybird, this one flying up into a nearby tree, with many Social Weaver nests. I almost got the impression that it was searching the nests for some easy prey. We also had a pair of White-bellied Bustards close to the road, a White-browed Coucal, and I watched as a pair of Rosy-patched Bush-shrikes dueted in the same bush, facing each other.

White-bellied Bustard (Eupodotis senegalensis) (photo by Jess Marion)

We ended this brief but productive birthday birding trip with a stop at Baboon Cliffs Dam. There were many Wattled Starlings flying around getting ready to roost, as well as hundreds of Cattle Egrets already roosting on the pond. But, by far the highlight of this stop was a Verreaux’s Eagle Owl that Colistus spotted, perched in a tree by the pond that many unsettled weavers and Estrildids were attempting to roost in. Also on the pond were Little Grebes, Yellow-billed Ducks, Red-billed Teal, Long-tailed Cormorant, and a pair of Common Moorhen. After getting back, we had dinner, I was embarrassed as everyone sang “Happy Birthday,” (with Irby trying to prove to Dustin that he can in fact sing by singing especially loudly), and then went back to the center for a late night of writing papers.

Cattle Egret (Bubulcus ibis) roost at Baboon Cliffs Dam (photo by Jess Marion); Egyptian Goose (Alopochen aegyptiacus) (photo by Jess Marion)