This morning, we were divided into two groups to trap and band birds on and around Lake Naivasha. The first group, led by Shiv and Meera, worked to catch African fish eagles on the lake, while the second group, led by Teeku and Munir, went for a long drive around the lake. The bumpy dirt roads, taking us through villages and past open fields, allowed us to slowly survey the area for Augur Buzzards.  We set out traps for the buzzards containing small white mice, aptly named Stuart and Little (and Stuart was clever–he kept trying to make a break for it!)

By the end of the day, we had spotted a total of thirteen Augur Buzzards, two unidentified raptors, an African long crested eagle, two unspecified vultures and a kite. We also had the opportunity to band a bird, number D1859, with Liz and Kaitlin taking the opportunity to hold and band the buzzard.

Tomorrow, the groups will switch locations, so everybody will have the opportunity to encounter the different species.

Photo Credit - Teeku Patel

Photo Credit to Rebekah Black

Our eager group started off the day on Lake Naivasha. We split up into two groups to take boat rides across the lake, where we tempted African fish eagles with fish. Unfortunately, not many of us were able to get fantastic shots of the eagles, but we gained a quick hands-on lesson about how difficult it is to photograph moving birds.

Pelicans near the shore of Lake Naivasha

One of many of Naivasha's hippos

From the shores of Naivasha, we began our hike up Barton Hill, where we had the opportunity to witness wildlife literally with every step.

After lunch and a lecture about digital photography and Lake Naivasha, we piled into the van. We met with Simon Thomsett, who is currently studying cheetahs under the employ of National Geographic. As a hobby, he works to rehabilitate raptors. He showed us several species, including the tawny eagle and the African fish eagle, two of the birds that we are specializing in studying for this course.

Simon's tawny eagle

Dinner time!

Noticing our awe in these majestic birds, and Kenya in general, Thomsett cautioned, “I try to knock the awe out of whatever awestruck students I meet. Kenya is a beautiful place, but it has its fair share of problems.” This insightful message seems to foreshadow what we will learn over the course of the next two weeks.

View of afternoon landscape

Hot air balloon tourism / Arianwen Jones

There are still places on earth where wild things happen. As we approached the Masai Mara in southern Kenya , the famed landscape at first appeared to be an overgrazed dustbowl. Masai tribesmen moved across the open grasslands tending their cattle, goats and sheep. But when we entered the reserve this morning as first light brightened the sky, beating even the ticket taker to his post, we encountered a sea of red-oat grass, shin-high, knee-high, thigh-high, rich with the rains, green and ready. Within moments we see two jackals, each with its own half of a small antelope. Around the bend, Chris spots a cheetah sitting poised, elegant, the form instantly recognizable, but REAL, there in front of us. She stands, her belly hanging, and Teeku tells us she’s pregnant. She moves off into the grass, disappearing in perfect camouflage. She emerges and laps from a puddle. She retreats, an awesome arrogance, queen of land-bound speed.

Cheetah / Meera Subramanian

It is just the beginning. We pass an elephant with a criss-crossed tusk. A male ostrich bright pink with lust. Herds of wildebeest moving in single file. By breakfast, as we crack hard-boiled eggs on our knees under an acacia tree, the vultures are soaring. They descend to a wildebeest carcass down the hill from us as we pack up and head down the road. And then in a flurry the scavengers are chased away. Lion! One, then another. But they’re too full to eat it seems. We watch them fifty feet from our Land Rover, close but seeming to not disturb them. Her muscles pop out in definition when she tries to pull the heavy body into the grass. We can hear her panting as she stands over the body, catching her breath. Vultures wait in nearby trees, others kettling above, ten, twenty, forty, sixty as we try to make an accurate count. The lioness passes off her guard to a second female, who emerges from the treeline, and the second sits to eat off the rump of the fallen prey, her muzzle emerged saturated with blood. But together they have barely broken the hide. They are full, bellies hanging, disinterested. They leave, and we watch as the vultures return. In ten minutes they have gutted the creature. White-backs and lappet-faced vultures, and marabou storks fighting over the organs.

Lioness fresh from a wildebeest kill. / Meera Subramanian

When the lions don’t return, Munir cautiously sets the trap — a long line with large noose snares strung along it — as Brian and Arian serve as lion lookout. Twenty minutes later, we’ve caught a white-backed vulture. Evan is out of the jeep in an instant with a blanket to cover her and loosen her talons from the noose, holds her calmly as she vomits bright red innards back out.

White-backed vulture / Meera Subramanian

Vultures on the kill. / Arianwen Jones

Forty minutes later, we’ve attached GPS unit #432 and set her free. Into the wild.

Munir and Evan with a white-backed vulture. / Meera Subramanian

Here is a clip from a BBC show to give you a better feel.

There is more. The wildebeests have begun the migration, though it is early in the season. There are thousands, grunting – humph! humph! There are warthogs, and a single mud-caked buffalo swarming with flies. There are giraffes, legs sprawled to bend down in reach of shrubs. More elephants. More wildebeest. More ostrich. More warthogs. Grey kestrels. Yellow-throated sand grouse. Crowned hornbill. Striped mongoose on their hind legs like meerkats. Lappet-faced vultures. Two tagged vulture resightings. Tawny eagles. Secretary birds. Superb starlings. Rufous-naped larks. Lesser grey shrikes. Antelope. Thomson’s gazelles. A studly impala trailed by his harem. Waterbuck. Topis nodding to us in agreement. More wildebeest. We pass seven carcasses in just a few kilometers. Food. Food. Food drives everything and it is either abundance or death at this moment in the Mara. Grass grows. Grass gets eaten. Calves are born. Mothers are hunted. Wildebeests cross the Mara River and crocs lie in wait. Jackals kill. Jackals are robbed. Everything is immediate. Everything is now.

We spent the last two days trapping birds on and around Lake Naivasha. One group loaded up in the van and drove the road that circumnavigates the lake to do a road count of resident raptors with the hopes of trapping and banding some while the other group climbed into boats armed with fish to trap African fish eagles. The next day, we switched.

A brave little mouse was our lure on land. Safe within its cage that was set with fine fishing line snares, an augur buzzard immediately descended, got tangled, and Munir and Evan jumped to release him.

Munir and Evan band an augur buzzard / Meera Subramanian

Banding, or ringing, of birds helps biologists track bird populations over time and geography.

Maria holds the augur buzzard before releasing it. / Meera Subramanian

It’s also a chance to experience and learn about the birds up close.

Augur buzzard / Meera Subramanian

As its mate waits in a nearby tree, the buzzard calmly lets us affix the ring to its leg.

Drew releases the next bird, in perfect form, as a curious local looks on. / Meera Subramanian

Meanwhile, on the water, Shiv leads the African fish eagle trapping. First, Shiv shows us how to get our hands dirty, using a carp fish as a lure and setting snare lines through it.

Shiv holds a carp with snares. / Meera Subramanian

Shiv holds a fish eagle, calm with its eyes covered. / Meera Subramanian

Fish eagle populations are doing well at Lake Naivasha, but only more studies will determine whether they are being effected by pollution, changes in the ecosystem and water quality, or the lead that remains from decades of bird hunting on this lake.

Maria and Drew watch as Shiv bands a bird held by Chege. / Meera Subramanian

In the afternoon, we visit two flower farms to see their wetlands water filtration system. Homegrown produces both flowers and vegetables.  Oserian is one of, if not the largest flower farm company in Kenya, and a major player in the Naivasha region. Representatives from Oserian came to Elsamere to make a presentation about their company’s ethics, mission and policies. Both companies raise interesting questions about fair trade certification and what it really means. Oserian was proud that they are paying their full-time workers 7,900 shillings per month, which is about a hundred dollars US. Some workers also receive housing, school for their children and health care, but a hundred dollars is still not much money for a month’s labor.

As for their environmental practices, both companies claim to not use WHO Class I pesticides, listed as extremely hazardous. Oserian opts for Integrated Pesticide Management (IPM) instead. What chemicals they are using to produce a million stems of cut flowers each day, though, they refuse to reveal. Both site visits displayed a small area with a series of water containment areas that were filtering not the water coming from the flower production area, but the water from the kitchens, laundries, etc. It was impressive, visually, going from this:

First intake pool. / Meera Subramanian

To this:

Last pool. / Meera Subramanian

Last pool. / Meera Subramanian

But where is the rest of the water that makes it back to Lake Naivasha, untreated and unfiltered? And what, exactly does it contain? What might be in the bodies of the fish that are caught and eaten from the lake? No one, at this point, seems to know.

Oserian shows us their wetlands. / Meera Subramanian

Sunrise / Meera Subramanian

In the early morning, we visit Lake Oloiden, the small lake adjacent, and once part of, Lake Naivasha. Flamingos, mostly lesser, with a few greater popping up twice as large, form pink flocks along the shores. The water is a deep green, thick with algae. We keep a distance and run the engine low, but our presence is still mildly disturbing to the birds, which move in a synchronized counter-clockwise motion in unison. Some peel off in flight, the pale pink erupting into flaming florescent and black as their great wings unfold and lift off their pencil-thin bodies. Clunky black beaks pull them forward, a downward frown etched on their faces. Having boats on this lake doing tourism is a new thing and inspires Brian to write a piece about the complicated world of eco-tourism.

Flamingos flying / Arianwen Jones

Flamingos flying. / Arianwen Jones

Meera Subramanian

Lesser flamingo / Meera Subramanian

Cormorants / Meera Subramanian

Meera Subramanian

Rupert Wilson speaks after breakfast. Author of The African Baobob, he is a lawyer who trains in conflict resolution and points out that more and more environmental issues are ripe for facing with this approach. He says he doesn’t believe that the next wars will be fought over water, that it’s simply too necessary. He thinks that the increasing scarcity of the clean drinking water will foster cooperation, not conflict.

In the afternoon, we visit the Mvuke Primary School, a public school of 700 students within the KenGen compound of red-roofed houses, but students include children from surrounding settlements as well as staff kids. Miss Jane meets us, along with two other teachers, including the science teacher. We’re led into a classroom with nearly a hundred middle school students in white and gray uniforms contrasted with striking red ties.

Mvuke Primary School / Munir Virani

They give us a huge round of applause and we say “Hello!” and they all respond in unison. Meera tells them who we are and then tosses out questions to them. How do we protect the environment? (Don’t litter. Don’t cut down trees.) What kinds of birds do you have here? (Pelicans. Flamingos. Eagles. Ducks.) Why are trees important? (They help make rain.) They cheer madly when Munir does the African fish eagle call. Then they ask us questions, and Brian is our star responder. What is the deepest lake in America? (We’re stumped. It’s Crater Lake, we learn later.) What is the longest river? (The Missouri-Mississippi.) How many freshwater lakes do you have? (Who knows exactly, but just one state is called Land of 10,000 Lakes.) What kinds of trees do you have? (Maple. Oak. Pine. Fir. Redwoods.)

Afterward, we go to the home of Sarah Higgins, the local who came as a guest lecturer a few days ago. In addition to being a farmer, she also is a volunteer bird rehabilitator in a country that has no official support for injured birds. She shows us a Wahlberg’s eagle, a pair of crowned eagles, and a tawny eagle that we all fall in love with. It stands, golden as a retriever and nearly as soft looking, its feathers spiked a bit atop its head as it watches us with curiosity and caution both.

Sarah Higgins with a tawny eagle. / Meera Subramanian

A man in a green jumpuit comes out with meat and a falconry glove and lures Tornado to his fist. The bird is stunning. But there’s more. Marsh eagles. A one-winged fish eagle. A pair of augur buzzards. A pelican. A lilac-breasted roller recovering a hurt wing.

Meera Subramanian

And an eagle owl that might not make it.

Meera Subramanian

But Sarah is doing her best to see that at least it has a chance.

Among the flower farms, private landholdings, gated communities, and slums that surround Lake Naivasha lies Kedong Ranch. Started in 1974, the 60,000-hectare ranch — that’s a staggering 600 square kilometers — straddles Mount Longonot, Hell’s Gate and Lake Naivasha.  Here’s a satellite image. Hit hard by the drought last year, which killed much of their livestock, there are only 1200 head of cattle, goats and sheep currently grazing on the property. At least legally. Masai commonly bring their cattle onto the property to graze. With only 40 employees, it is impossible to monitor the entire ranch.

To generate income, the ranch runs a tourist lodge, the Longonot Ranch House, and leases some of their land for agricultural production.

Farms with Hell's Gate in the background. / Meera Subramanian

Meera Subramanian

A month after our visit, these same workers will go on strike, rallying for better wages they were promised.

Meera Subramanian

Power lines run through the property, carrying KenGen electricity to Kenya’s growing population and also creating a dangerous zone for birds. We see feathers whose shafts are cracked in a distinct way, showing electrocution.

Meera Subramanian

Later, we find the remains of a stork hanging on a line that must have caught its wing on the lines which are invisible to the fast-moving birds.

Meera Subramanian

Dr. Munir Virani is working on a paper warning about the impact on threatened bird species as electrification efforts increase in Kenya.

The ranch felt oddly empty, although there were some wild game, including zebras. Here, Arian inspects a broken water trough:

Meera Subramanian

Later in the day, Sarah Higgins, a local landowner and member of the Lake Naivasha Watershed Council comes to give a lecture.

Not far from Elsamere and Lake Naivasha is Hell’s Gate National Park, named after a narrow chasm among striking red cliffs that was once a tributary to a prehistoric lake in the Great Rift Valley. We begin on foot, and after days of cloudy weather and a bit of rain, the morning is clear and glowing with light that is perfect for photography. Our feet kick up fine dust, the remains of ash from nearby Mt. Longonot, which is dormant. Chunks of obsidian are shiny beneath the dirt.

Fischer Tower, inspiration for Pride Rock of Lion King fame. / Meera Subramanian

Fischer Tower, inspiration for Pride Rock of Lion King fame. / Meera Subramanian

In the distance, steam spurts from the horizon accompanied by a loud hum that indicate the Olkaria Geothermal Station, the first of its kind in Africa, established in 1981 and operated by KenGen, the leading power company in Kenya. There’s a huge push underway in Kenya to use renewable energy, but even this comes at a price. The water needed to operate the plant came from Lake Naivasha until the company began to dig boreholes. All power, ultimately, comes at some price.

Olkaria geothermal station / Meera Subramanian

The natural geothermal energy heats up spring water, which seeps from crevices and cascades down in small waterfalls, smelling strongly of sulfur. We explore the canyon, learning new plants, insects and amphibians.

Meera Subramanian

Hell’s Gate is a heaven for birds of prey. Munir tells us about Simon Thomsett’s attempt to reintroduce bearded vultures back to the park and shows us the remains of the hacking site. A pair of Verreaux’s eagles cruise together across the sky to the north, back to the south, over to the west, landing briefly on the ground at a ridgetop near their nest before heading off again, coasting on the wind. We see a lanner falcon, perched near its nest at the top of a sheer cliff.

Site of failed lammergier vulture reintroduction, but we see a lanner falcon perched near its nest. / Meera Subramanian

Bearded vulture hack site and lanner falcon nest. / Meera Subramanian

Evan and Shiv watch the falcon. / Munir Virani

We also learn how poorly designed watering holes can be fatal for birds of prey.

Meera Subramanian

We climb in the Land Cruiser to head deeper into the canyon, pausing to have a tea break under the tree where famous raptor biologist Leslie Brown sat to study a colony of cliff-nesting Ruppell’s vultures. The cliff is covered with whitewash, but there are only so many ledges. There are vultures on nests and vultures flying on wide plank-like wings eight feet tip-to-tip. Munir has counted up to 60-70 birds at a time at this site. Teeku sets up his 600mm lens and we take turns getting close-ups of the birds from a great distance, then we climb up to the base of the cliffs, searching for prey remains and feathers and eggshell fragments. We also get a spectacular view, spotting giraffes, marred only by the billows of steam and noise rising from the KenGen plant.We discuss how a park that is only 60 square kilometers can be so rich in raptors and plains game but also at odds with surrounding agricultural, pastoral and horticulture pressure.

Ruppell's vultures / Meera Subramanian

Ruppell's vultures on their cliff nests. / Meera Subramanian

We then hike down into the chasm of the canyon itself.

Munir Virani

The rockclimbers of the group (Chris, Brian and Drew), cannot contain themselves!

Chris takes a leap on his way down. / Munir Virani

Chris takes a leap on his way down. / Meera Subramanian

On day two of the surveys, we take opposite sides of the lake. The wildlife is abundant.

Cape Buffalo among invasive hyacinth. / Meera Subramanian

Maria leads the pack. / Teeku Patel
Maria leads the pack with a grin. / Teeku Patel

A waterbuck lets us get a close look. / Meera Subramanian

Hippos snort up water in agitation when we get too close. / Meera Subramanian

While we get surprisingly close to wildlife, we also see that flower farm greenhouses also come much too close to the shore. Human impact has greatly altered the lake’s ecosystem. Papyrus that once ringed the lake and created floating islands of filtration are now mostly gone, replaced with invasive hyacinth. Native fish are also long gone, replaced by numerous introduced species including crayfish, tilapia, carp, and large-mouthed bass (introduced for the pleasure of President Roosevelt in 1927).

Flower farm greenhouses / Arianwen Jones

Greenhouses up close / Meera Subramanian

Lunch was late, by the time one of our boats found their way out of a papyrus thicket that nearly sucked up their vessel! Oh, and once they got out, they ran out of gas in the middle of the lake. Luckily, the second boat had some spare fuel. All in a day’s field work!

Evan and Chris looking a bit dejected. / Munir Virani

Evan and Chris looking a bit dejected, as Drew learns to "live with the papyrus." 🙂 / Munir Virani

In the afternoon, Meera leads the students into the world of environmental journalism.

Lake Naivasha in the early morning light. / Arianwen Jones

Lake Naivasha is nearly 200 square kilometers in size, so we split into two groups and climb into boats to travel the shoreline, counting hippos and African fish eagles. In one boat, Arian takes the clipboard and Maria the map, and note numbers and GPS location as we spot pods of snorting (and scary to us, in our thin aluminum boat) hippos and the distinct white spot among the green acacia trees that indicate a fish eagle.

Arian keeps track of numbers. / Meera Subramanian

Shiv is our guide. He tosses out fish we’ve brought to lure the eagles toward us and we get our first opportunities to practice our wildlife photography, shooting fast and hoping we can focus well enough to get a clear shot of whether the large raptors (which resemble American bald eagles) have a ring on their leg.

African fish eagle / Meera Subramanian

Monitoring the movement and pairing of the birds is helping to understand their conservation status. Here’s a short video that Munir did for The Peregrine Fund:

We meet the other boat halfway around the lake and return over the now-choppy water, fairly soaked by the time we arrive back at Elsamere for a nice hot lunch.

In the afternoon, Munir gives an introduction to Kenya’s birds of prey and Teeku talks about how to work with your photographic subject.

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