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.

Once hooded, the African Fish Eagle is as docile as mourning dove.

Today, the students split into two groups to catch raptors for research. Dr. Muneer Virani, raptor biologist extraordinaire, took one group on the main road around Lake Naivasha along with Tiku, our expert photographer. In the other group, Shiv (one of Muneer’s best students), Meera (fearless environmental journalist), Eric (the colorado kid), John (the fiery red head), Jeremy (aka Big Cat) and myself (aka Rojjars) all went out on the lake today to catch and record data about the African Fish Eagle.

Shiv, John and Eric prepare the bait by gutting the fish and using floss and a needle to sow papyrus into the belly of the carp for bouyancy

Everyone was groggy from a late night of playing cards with the security guards, Robert and Moses. The sky was overcast and it was a chilly 55 degrees, but after tea and breakfast everyone piled in the boat bundled up and ready for action.First, Shiv bought a few small carp from some local fishing boats after a quick bout of haggling over prices. Next, our fishy friends were relieved of their fins and entrails with a sharp knife and scissors. After replacing the guts with a short stick of papyrus for buoyancy, the carp were stitched shut like grotesque piñatas  and laced with short wire nooses meant to snare the eagle’s talons. After anchoring the booby trapped carp to a short log with a nylon line and elastic rope, the plot was ready.

According to Shiv, this technique is as ancient as it is ingenuous and people have been trapping eagles for capture or consumption for thousands of years. Shiv was quick to point out, however, that he and other researchers have made some modifications in recent years that have dramatically increased the success rate.

That said, the first eagle to swoop down to our bait quickly freed its talons from the trap and flew away. A collective sound of dissapointment emanated from the boat as the big white and brown eagle flew away and shrieked in the tree on the bank. Yet no sooner had we reset the nooses on the bait that the same eagle, apparently un-phased by his first encounter, took the bait and became inexorably stuck to his would-be meal.

Our boat driver, Simon, quickly maneuvered up alongside the eagle that sat bobbing in the glassy water, glaring defiantly at us with golden eyes and a hooked yellow beak.  From the bow of our little blue-white boat, Shiv swiftly grabbed the legs of the eagle and turned it upside down to release the talons from the tightened snares. The boat was in awe and John was practically hyperventilating with excitement. Only from this close can one appreciate the size and power of an eagle. The talons were at least 3 inches long and reminded me of the way they opened and closed reminded me of the mechanical claws used by children to extract cheap toys from the quarter fed games one finds in the entry ways to malls and supermarkets.

Shiv wearily describes the long talons of the captured eagle.

After John applied a small leather hood to cover the eyes and calm the bird down, Shiv collected the tag number as well as the weight, height,  and length of talons. Once the data as recorded in the research journal, Meera was given the honor of releasing the bird and we cleared the front of the boat. As soon as the hood was pulled from the raptor’s eyes, Meera let go of the legs and the first Fish Eagle I had ever caught flew back to her nesting tree, appearing no worse for wear, if only slightly indignant about the whole affair.

The second capture happened after four more false captures at a location close by, but patience prevailed and before long, there was another giant bird in our boat, teaming with sharp extremities. This smaller male Fish Eagle was much feistier than the previous female and struggled considerably against Shiv’s well intended attempts to secure it. Once the bird became docile under the hood, however, Shiv allowed me to feel the fast beating heart and soft feathers of our new, temporary prisoner. As Shiv described it, the feathers smelled like a mix between a lake-water and fabric softener due to the powdery mineral found on the feathers that keeps the feathers relatively dry. Catching Eagles in the morning is better than coffee.

Both releases went off without a hitch and the eagles flew back to their partners uninjured.

After lunch, we were driven to the local public school down the road where we were scheduled to teach a class on conservation. In pairs, we planned out discussions and activities for the kids.

Tyler and I chose to teach the 8th graders who had written the essays on Lake Naivasha that we graded the previous day. Their handwriting was superb and though their English was a bit choppy, some of the ideas and arguments they conveyed in their essays seemed well thought out and persuasive.

Despite the fact that the school was paid for by the Olkaria power plant located near by, the class sizes were still large and I walked into the classroom faced with upwards of 40 young faces staring, bemused, up at me from their desks. They all stood up and greeted us at once and sat down in unison when the teacher gave the command. After introducing ourselves, Tyler and I began talking about Lake Naivasha and some of the conservation issues. Each time I would ask a question, they would all stare blankly at me until, at the teacher’s bequest, they would answer yes or no in unison. I could tell that the teachers here were very strict.

42 faces staring blankly at their "teachers"

After a few awkward minutes, the teacher made the intelligent decision to leave the classroom so that the kids would feel more comfortable. As soon as she and the other teacher in the room left, the kids began eagerly answering our questions and breaking out into laughter every time I mispronounced a word or name in Kiswahili. After briefly asking them about their favorite animals, we began talking about what they love about living on Lake Naivasha as opposed to Nairobi. When one girl remarked on the congestion and overpopulation of Nairobi, I  jumped into a story about driving from the airport and being scared by all the matotos (crazy vans, I thought) that were whizzing by our bus. I meant for the story to be a mild icebreaker, but when the whole class erupted into laughter, I was puzzled but oddly elated that I had evoked something other than “yes” or “no” from the class. matoto means child in Kiswahili; I had meant to say Matatu.

From here on, the kids eagerly answered our questions about everything from conservation around Lake Naivasha and the corrupt politics of Kenya.  When I asked how many children had parents working at the flower farms around the lake, just three hands shot up; when I asked if anyone was the son of a fisherman, they laughed raucously at the notion of someone actually making a living just on fishing; yet when I asked those whose parents worked at Ken Gen to raise their hands, the rest of class raised their hands.  When Tyler asked the kids what they wanted to be when they grew up, the answers were impressive as any you’d hear from a school in the U.S.: surgeon, game warden, lawyer, musician and pro athlete were among the few answers I got.

Despite the immense delight these kids seemed to get in listening to me butcher their national language, I was still very impressed and heartened at the breadth of knowledge these kids possessed that spanned politics, conservation and their economy. As large and insurmountable many of Kenya’s problems seem right now, I think my peers and I definitely came away with a sense of how powerful education can be in shaping the future of a country like Kenya.

Photo Credit - Teeku Patel

Photo Credit to Rebekah Black

Today our attempts at trapping more birds were in vain. Going to a different part of the reserve, we realized belatedly that the arrival of the wildebeests in the area we were in yesterday is where all the action is. The few bateleur eagles and vultures that took into interest in the trap were chased away by screeching, attacking crowned plovers!

Setting the trap. / Meera Subramanian

A goat head is our lure. / Meera Subramanian

While there is not the animal concentration we saw yesterday, today’s drive through the park gives us a feel for what the Masai Mara feels like most of the year. Still we see hyenas, elephants, bataleur eagles, vultures, impala, and many other birds and animals.

Common zebra / Meera Subramanian

Topi / Meera Subramanian

Crowned crane / Meera Subramanian

African elephant / Meera Subramanian

Pair of tawny eagles / Meera Subramanian

Tawny eagle up close / Meera Subramanian

Secretary bird, a most unusual raptor. / Meera Subramanian

A brief rain turns the red soil slick, but a good heave-ho gets us out.

Push! / Meera Subramanian

The days in the field are long, but picnics under acacia trees allow time for a little r&r.

Drew takes a siesta. / Meera Subramanian

Teeku enjoys the landscape. / Meera Subramanian

Almost ready to call it a day, we stop for a sundowner, watching a storm move across the horizon, bolts of lightning flashing up the dark clouds.

As clouds move in. . .

Just as we were about to load up, a group of wildebeests were startled and a closer look revealed a lion! We went to get a closer look and saw four lionesses lounging in the tall grass, slowly preparing for their evening hunt.

One of a few lionesses. / Meera Subramanian

After madly snapping photos, as the last light faded from the sky, it was time to go. Really. But the park wasn’t done with us. On the way out, we came across another pair of lions. The male snoozed just feet from the vehicles that had gathered to observe.

Lion / Arianwen Jones

You just never know what might be around the next bend when you’re in the wild world.

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