Monday, September 29, 2008

Lappet-faced Vultures

Vultures have quite a dark reputation, so it's easy to forget what lovely birds they are until you see them up close. And even though their taste for rotting carcasses may seem a bit uncivilized, they play a really important role in the foodchain. You can really see this in the Mara, where the carcasses of lion and crocodile kills are so huge. Without vultures to help in the process, these big masses of nutrients would take quite a long time to decompose, but vultures speed up the process, turning otherwise unsightly carcasses into the raw materials for new life.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

The Flood

The Mara Conservancy ranger told us not to put our tent there...
but things had been going so well on our first camping adventure in the Mara that we didn't give too much credence to his warning.

We started our trip with a visit to our friend, Mark, who manages the Ol Choro Oiryua Conservancy and Rhino Sanctuary. This Maasai group ranchland turned wildlife conservation area is conveniently located near one of our study sites, and has absolutely beautiful scenery. Also, with nice canvas tents to sleep in, and even a bed and mattress in one, this was a gentle introduction to camping for Paul, our driver and field assistant. Although, I did still wake in the middle of the night to some animal rustling around the outside of our tent. This, I thought, is the quintessential African experience, laying in your tent, hearing an animal outside, and not knowing what it might be. The next morning, Mark asked if I had heard the rhino walking round the tents during the night!

The next day, we headed into the reserve and set up our tents for the first time under the big African sky. What a wonderful feeling! Chris and I enjoy camping so much back home, and I didn't know if we would be able to do it here. With no car, no camping equipment and large, man-eating animals roaming around, camping in Africa presented a bit of a challenge!

But we were determined, and with Paul's willing participation, we embarked on a new direction in our travels.

Paul really enjoyed camping, although he did appreciate a few comforts from home, like this solar powered cell phone charger Chris rigged up!

We had lovely weather, a campfire under the stars, good food and drink and no run-ins with wild animals! But trouble was on the horizon...

On our third night, we headed down to the New Mara Bridge, right where the Mara flows across the border from Kenya into Tanzania. This is also on the border between the Maasai Mara Reserve and the Mara Conservancy, two different management agencies for the park, so there is a guard station there. This is a spectacular section of river, and it becomes even more spectacular during the migration. For some reason, many of the wildebeest that die while crossing the Mara float down to this point and then recirculate in stagnant eddies for a while, hesitant to cross back into Tanzania without the rest of the herd. While this makes for a pretty bad smell, it also makes for a huge feast for African White-backed Vultures, Ruppel's Griffin Vultures, Lappet-faced Vultures, Sacred Ibis, Maribou Storks and others, not to mention the gigantic crocodiles!

Unfortunately, it wasn't only the vultures and the crocodiles hanging out in the putrid water. This is also one of the sites where we conduct intensive macroinvertebrate sampling, so we got to spend a couple hours hanging out with the wildebeest carcasses, too! In the picture below, you can see a few of them washed up on the rocks in the background.

As usual, though, we took a lot of precautionary measures, and we were always accompanied by an armed guard, although I think the crocodiles were too full of wildebeest to even think about us! With some ominous clouds on the horizon, the guard brought along his leopard-spotted umbrella.

Just as we finished sampling late in the afternoon, the dark clouds had really begun to gather. "It's going to rain cats and dogs," the guard told us, and I laughed, wondering where he had picked up that saying. As we headed back to the little guard shelter to process our samples, the guard gestured towards our campsite and suggested, for a second time, "You may want to move your tents. When it rains, a river sometimes forms there."

Now, I have a decent amount of camping under my belt, and looking at this flat, arid plain, it didn't look like a river had ever formed there. Plus, we had other things to do than move our tents around, so I figured we'd be alright for this one, little storm. But when the skies finally opened up, it was clear this was no ordinary rainstorm.

I don't know if I've ever seen rain like that in my life! It poured so hard and the wind blew so strongly, that you could barely see across the landscape. But we could see enough to know, when we looked out to check on our tents about 10 minutes into the storm, that one of our tents had collapsed.

Chris and I ran out into the rain to find, to our complete amazement, a river had formed right where our tents were! A 10 foot wide, 1 foot deep and rapidly rising river was rushing right around our tents! It had swept a log into Paul's tent that had caused it to collapse, soaking everything inside with muddy water. We carried his stuff out of the river and then went back to find, also to our amazement, that our tent was still dry (a plug for Coleman tents!). We relocated it to higher ground, and went back to rescue our propane tank and cast iron stove top, that was also being swept away.

It was truly amazing-- within minutes, the whole landscape had come alive with rivers and streams that you never would have imagined would form there. Here's a picture of the river that nearly took our tent right where it flowed into the Mara.

With our gear out of harm's way, we went out to take advantage of this incredible opportunity. We had been taking samples in the river all day long, so now we were able to take samples during and after the storm to learn more about how the river reacts to these large rainfall events.

We were able to get some great data showing how turbidity levels and sediment load rose dramatically, while the concentration of solutes in the water fell.

By the next morning, though, the river was almost back to the levels it had been before the storms. If we hadn't been camping there that night, we never would have known!

Fortunately, Paul was able to sleep inside the guard's shelter for the night, and he was able to laugh about the whole thing. He's even still enthusiastic about camping! All in all, it really was a gift from the river to get to witness this event, even if it did cost us a few tent poles:)


753 macroinvertebrates in one small water sample.  This sample nearly drove me insane...most of the samples only have between 100-300 macroinvertebrates.  The next largest sample only had approximately 450 macroinvertebrates.  753...753...753...753...

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Banded Mongoose

These guys are all over the Maasai Mara...usually running in packs up to 30.  We once saw a large pack of them feeding on a carcass next to the Mara River.  

Wednesday, September 24, 2008


That's right...we had a campfire going the other night and introduced about 15 of our Kenyan friends to the deliciousness of S'mores.  We had to go all the way to Nairobi to find the marshmellows but it was well worth the experience of seeing them bite into the biscuit, chocolate, and gooey marshmellow for the very first time.  

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Water Scarcity

Ok, let's talk Water Scarcity.  

Rainwater Harvesting is a big deal here since there just isn't enough water to go around.  There are public utilities in some areas of the country but they hardly ever provide the quantity of water needed for the population they serve.  

We do have water piped in by the city utilities here in Narok.  However, we only get it pumped to us once a week...if we are lucky...and we never know how much they'll give us. solve our water scarcity problem...we have to turn to Rainwater Harvesting.  

The roof area of our little cottage is approximately 66.3 meters squared.  Our entire 66.3 meter squared roof is guttered and setup to run into two tanks.  We have a small tank hooked up to one half of our roof that can hold approximately 1.33 cubic meters.  The other half of our roof runs into a tank that can hold approximately 4.3 cubic meters.  We have approximately 5.63 cubic meters of Rainwater Harvesting capacity.

We have to make a few assumptions in order to run the we'll assume that Amanda and I each need 20 liters of water per day (that is the worldwide standard for human health...including consumption, bathing, dishes, etc.).  We'll also assume that the rainfall patterns in Narok will remain the same as it has for the last forty to fifty years...we are inputing rainfall data from between 1960 to 1979.  By making these assumptions, we can forecast how reliably we will have water in our Rainfall Harvesting tanks.  

By running the formula found here ( can get a rough estimate that we will reliably have water in our Rainwater Harvesting tanks approximately 64.8% of the time.  One thing we have learned is that the optimum cost to performance ratio for Rainwater Harvesting seems to be at about 67%.  We are close enough to that percentage that it probably isn't worth making any serious improvements to the system.  

We also crunched the numbers for a local college here in Narok.  The college has approximately 1914 square meters of Rainwater Harvesting area yet they have 891 square meters of potentially harvestable area.  They are currently at approximately 50% reliability.  If they finish guttering the buildings they can immediately jump up to approximately 65.8% reliability.  To finish guttering the buildings, they only need approximately 184 meters of gutter.  If they desired to go for the optimum cost to performance ratio, they could purchase another 20,000 liter tank and integrate that into their system.  That would bring them up to approximately 67% reliability.  As an example of how it just isn't worth it to go much higher than 67% reliability...if they wanted 80% reliability, they would have to purchase another 185,000 liters of storage capacity!  

Picture of a Rainwater Harvesting Tank

Rainwater Harvesting is so simple yet elegant.  Most houses already have guttering yet they lack the storage capacity to harvest the rainwater.  It is just so easy to add a bit of storage capacity to the end of your guttering line so that you have some spare water for your garden on those dry days...or like in our is used for so much more.  

Monday, September 22, 2008

Bathing Spur-winged Lapwing

Shannon....No twitchers here but I will tell you that everytime I see a bird, I think of you and I feel compelled to take a picture of it to show you.  :)  

Here is a pretty little Spur-winged Lapwing...bathing in a mud hole.  

We heard the bird saying, "Shannon....can you see me!?"

Saturday, September 20, 2008

What do you do?

So....what do you do when you show up at a sample site and find a Buffalo that doesn't want to move?  

Then once the Buffalo moves, you see the fattest Nile Crocodile that you've ever seen in your life...

Then you see the other HUGE Nile Crocodiles sunning themselves on the bank...

Then you notice the Hippo...

After the Hippo leaves the then notice him hiding in the bushes...watching you (middle of the can just see big ole head sticking out from behind some bushes)...

You sit there for a while and think....and observe...

You watch their movements and be very, very careful...

Nobody ever said it would be easy.  :)  

Hard at Work

Diggin' a trench to plant a "natural fence" of Kei apple.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

African Hoopoes and Hippo Dung

I was sitting outside yesterday...digging through Hippo dung (mafi ya Kiboko) with a pair of tweezers when this guy flew African Hoopoe.

Just so you all know....this is what we've got in front of us for the next few days...all the tupperware containers contain samples from all of our sample sites....and we have to dig through them with tweezers and gently remove any bugs...then put the bugs into the small bottles.  Each tupperware container takes about 2 hours and we have well over 80 of them.  Most of the contents are Hippo dung....because there are so many Hippos in the Mara River that the entire bottom of the river is covered by Hippo dung.  Wish us luck!

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Solar Cooking

We've been doing a fair amount of Solar Cooking here in Kenya.  I had purchased a Solar Cooker in the US and brought it here with me (it was only about 20 bucks....but you can make one yourself with some aluminum foil and cardboard).  Here are some pictures of our Solar Cooker in action...and how we are using it.  

On the bank of the Mara River...working in the river as the cooker is in the foreground cooking our lunch.  The crocodiles on the other bank didn't really seem to mind the Solar Cooker.

A friend and his family stopped by and we prepared a lunch for them with our Solar Cooker.

The Solar Cooker on top of our the Land our lunch as we work in the river.

We visited the Solar Cooker's International Office in Nairobi and bought a Solar Cooker for some Maasai friends of ours.  We saw him the next day using it to heat water for Chai.  

The best thing about the Solar Cooker is that it does not use costly fuel or energy.  

Get more info here:  Solar Cookers International.