Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Friday, December 21, 2012

William's School Visit

We're down in Asheville, North Carolina, visiting with family. This morning, Amanda is reading a book on Kenya to our nephew's class.

It is amazing everyone is sitting so quietly...listening...given that each child just ate 2 sugar frosted sugar cookies.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Coming Home

Three rolls of packing tape, 150 photocopied pages of permits and $833 USD to DHL later, we finally got all our samples shipped home from Kenya on Thursday. This left us with only about 500 water samples, a box full of equipment, all of our clothes and one somewhat suspicious-looking water meter to travel with. We ended up with only one extra bag and one bag overwieght, which in comparison to our arrival meant traveling pretty light!

Despite our generally smooth travels home, arriving back in the US was still a shock to the system. First of all, it's cold. Like, really cold. No more Chaco sandals for a few months. Second of all, being somewhat farther from the equator these days, it isn't light until after 7:00 am and it gets dark by 5:00 pm. After being drenched in regular, predictable sunshine for the past six months, this is an abrupt change. However, the biggest shock by far was walking off the airplane and having our first glimpse of the US be a big-screen television broadcasting the unspeakably tragic events that occurred at Sandy Hook Elementary School last week, just 30 miles from our home in New Haven, when a young gunman walked into an elementary school and killed 26 people, most of them small children. It was a heartbreaking homecoming, and my heart aches for these children and their families. Very glad to be heading home to Georgia in just a few days to spend some time with the beautiful little children in our lives and tell them how much we love and miss them while we're away.

Chris and our luggage arriving in New Haven

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Last-minute preparations

When shipping water samples, it's best to wrap the lids with electrical tape to ensure nothing accidentally opens en route. Of course, you could do this on each bottle as you take the sample, or you could wait and then have to tape them all the night before you fly out. With a bottle of wine and a good tv show, we got through them pretty quickly. Now all our samples are ready to ship, and our import/export permits are in place. Almost ready to go...

Dissolved Oxygen Just Crashed to 40% at NMB

It looks like it is starting to rebound a bit.  

Why is dissolved oxygen important?
Oxygen is measured in its dissolved form as dissolved oxygen (DO). If more oxygen is consumed than is produced, dissolved oxygen levels decline and some sensitive animals may move away, weaken, or die.
DO levels fluctuate seasonally and over a 24-hour period. They vary with water temperature and altitude. Cold water holds more oxygen than warm water (Table 5.3) and water holds less oxygen at higher altitudes. Thermal discharges, such as water used to cool machinery in a manufacturing plant or a power plant, raise the temperature of water and lower its oxygen content. Aquatic animals are most vulnerable to lowered DO levels in the early morning on hot summer days when stream flows are low, water temperatures are high, and aquatic plants have not been producing oxygen since sunset.

Christmas Matatu

The common form of public transportation in Kenya is a matatu. Matatus are mini-vans that have been converted to carry impressive numbers of people. They are also know for having lots of character (wild paint jobs, flashy slogans, and loud music) and generally driving like maniacs. Today we caught a matatu ride home from a meeting with our collaborator at the National Museums of Kenya. I was delighted to get on and find that the inside was painted bright pink, the seats were adorned with the Playboy bunny insignia, there were two signs on the windows - one read, "God is Faithful," and the other read, "Open the windows for better circulation. Circulation prevents TB. We want no TB deaths this year," and blaring over the speakers was "Santa Claus is Coming to Town." It was awesome!

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Far away, but closer than ever

We have been writing a lot recently about our departure from the Mara. We’ll be returning to the USA and Yale for the next six months so I can attend spring semester there and catch up on sample processing and data analysis. However, just because we won’t be physically living in the Mara, that doesn't mean we won’t be continuing to write about it. Here are some of the things you can expect to see us posting about in the coming months…

  • Now that we have live cameras posted on a hippo pool and trail in the Mara, we will be continuing to share real-time photos of the Mara River and talk about how we are using that data to better understand hippo behavior and how it may impact the river.
  • We also have amazing real-time water quality and discharge data from the river, so even though we’ll be on the other side of the world, we’ll know what’s happening in the river at any point in time. For example, over coffee this morning in Nairobi, Chris and I watched as the river rose and turbidity levels climbed for the second time in less than 24 hours. We have spent many mornings sitting at Maji Camp, just a few kilometers from the river, wondering how the night’s rain had affected the river, but not knowing until we traveled an hour to download data from our meter. We’ll be sharing this data as it happens and talking about what it means.
  • Much of what we've done over our last six months in the Mara was collect samples—aquatic macroinvertebrates, water, sediments, plants, hippo poop, more water… now comes the analysis of all those samples. Although lab analysis is generally less fun that field collection, we’ll be getting a ton of cool data over the next few months that we’re really excited about. You can expect to hear both about the daily grind of lab work – the less exotic but equally critical side of field research – and some of the cool things we are learning.
  • By reading newspapers online, checking our favorite blogs and websites and catching up with friends in Kenya, we’ll continue to stay informed about goings-on in Kenya and the Mara even during our absence. For example, there’s a huge election in Kenya on March 4 that will not only decide the new President, but also many new offices created by the new Constitution that was just passed last year. There’s a lot of excitement and apprehension about this election, and we’ll be following the news closely.
  • Despite our best efforts at keeping up with the blog, there are still a lot of great pictures and stories we’re looking forward to sharing from our past six months in the field. We have pictures measuring carcass decay rate, game trails at night, go pro video of a hot air balloon flight over the river and more that we look forward to finally getting posted.
  • Anything else? If there are any other kinds of pictures or information you would like us to share or post more about, leave a comment and let us know!

Elephant Crossing

Wildebeest aren't the only animals that cross the river.  Our heat/motion activated hippo trail camera captured a group of elephants just after they crossed the river yesterday.

Check out the photostream in Mara Live for more.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Packing up

Packing up a field camp for six months is a challenging thing. I thought I would try to distill some of the key elements down into a list...

1) Finish collecting and processing your final samples. No doubt, something really interesting will happen just as you are about to leave the field, thus requiring you to collect and process many more "final" samples than you anticipate.

2) Run last experiments. There is probably a really important experiment (or two) you have put off until the bitter end, hoping that you will gain some more clarity and insight on how to approach it as time passes. You should probably go ahead and do this now.

3) Cook all the really nice food items you purchased and stashed away during your time here. Gain back all the weight you lost during your field season.

4) Deploy field equipment to capture data and images from the river during your absence. Reflect upon the game camera that already went missing this year after a couple day deployment. Get metal re-bar housings welded.

5) Wash all the sampling equipment you used this year before storing it. Yes, this includes the two boxes of dirty sampling bottles that have been waiting in the corner.

6) Inventory all the equipment and supplies remaining from this year so you know what to bring for next year. This will help you avoid ending up with way too much sodium hydroxide but no sample vials.

7) Pack all your samples and anything you might need in the US for the next six months. Realize that water is incredibly heavy when 300 bottles of it are packed into one box.

8) Pack everything else securely into the tents. Remember that this season you have had a new tarp ripped in half by a giraffe and two jerricans destroyed by lions. Add extra ropes.

9) Drop by to say goodbye to all the friends who have helped you out during your time here. A field project is an effort of many, and you can't get by without help from friends.

10) Remember to stand outside your tent for a minute before you go to bed and be grateful for getting to live in this place. Listen to the distant rush of the river and the gentle grunting of hippos and give thanks.

Hippo cam

Doing some last-minute fine tuning of our hippo pool camera, while two hippos watch on.

Optimism... and a lot of metal

There’s a famous quote from former President Ronald Reagan, “Trust, but verify.” We have adopted an adaptation of this quote for our own work, “Be optimistic, but use lots of metal.”

This year, we have lost 3 depth loggers, 1 barometric pressure logger, 1 uplinked game camera, about 30 litterbags, and countless ceramic tiles. Fortunately, we lost almost all of these to natural forces, as I would rather lose 3 depth loggers to a highly dynamic river than have one stolen by someone-- the latter is much harder on the spirit. However, it was a tough season for equipment, and it dealt blows to both our morale and budget. So what do we do in response? Deploy more, of course… there’s still really cool stuff to measure out there. But this time add some extra chains, custom-welded housings, several padlocks, and a few zip ties for good measure.

Reinforced game camera on the river

We're Live!

Thanks to WWF and a lot of hard work from a lot of people, we now have real-time, uplinked water quality and discharge information available for the Mara River, just near the boundaries of Kenya/Tanzania, and the Maasai Mara National Reserve/Serengeti National Park. This is something we have dreamed about ever since starting to work here in the Mara, and it's been such an amazing note upon which to end this field season. Not only will this allow us to stay in touch with the river from anywhere and track interesting events as they happen, but also it will allow us to better communicate the current state of the river to others. Right now, the data isn't publicly available, but WWF is working on a web-based interface to make it readily available in real-time to anyone in the world. We are so excited for all the opportunities this will open. Thanks to everyone who helped make this happen!

Sunday, December 9, 2012


We've blogged a few times about the African Paradise Fly-Catcher that has made a nest and then laid two eggs directly above our fire place.  Well....the eggs hatched a few days ago!  We've got two little babies in the nest!

We hadn't noticed that they hatched although we had suspected it.  The little birds aren't making any noises yet.  The mother and father bird still trade off sitting on top of them.  The only thing that has changed is that the mother bird is regurgitating into the mouths of the younger birds!

Late Night Science

One of the things we have been trying to complete in our last week at camp is an experiment designed to determine how much nutrients leach out of various inputs by animals. We had been delaying this experiment in hopes of getting our machini up and running so we could analyze the samples in the field, but we finally had to just accept that we will be transporting a few hundred more water samples back to the US with us for analysis. I'm pretty excited to see the results from this, but I will have to wait until January to do the analyses in the lab.

Basically, this experiment entails us having a kiddie pool in our yard filled with lots of bottles full of hippo poop and rotting wildebeest meat. This is the second time we have done an experiment like this in camp, and I have no idea how we have gotten away with this without having it destroyed by wildlife. I actually did wake up at 4 am a few days ago to the sound of plastic bottles being gently chewed on, and peered outside to see a curious hyena standing over the pool. However, it had only managed to remove a few bottles from the pool before I scared it off, and only one sample was lost.

Due to our especially busy schedule recently, we have ended up working on this experiment several nights late into the evening. We have a pretty good system worked out by now. Geemi collects a bottle from the pool, reads the dissolved oxygen content and collects an unfiltered sample. Then Chris and I collect one filtered sample each using a syringe with a filter apparatus attached. When we get into a groove, we can knock this out in a couple of hours, but it is still pretty exhausting to be doing at 10 pm. The other night, Chris set up a camera so we could catch some pictures of science in action.   

Geemi reading DO on a sample

Geemi completing an unfiltered sample
Chris and Amanda filtering samples

Geemi, Maji Reserves

We joke that our friend, Paul Geemi, is part of the Maji Reserve Corp....who we call when we need help (maji means "water" in Swahili). Well, at the end of a long, tough field season, we have called him up to help us finish all our ambitious plans before we depart for a few months.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Dinner tonight

Grilled tuna steaks with grilled butternut squash and wild rice...

Friday, December 7, 2012

Season Close-out

This beautiful rainbow appeared just as we pulled our last equipment from the river and took our last water sample of the season. Six months of lab analyses await us, but taking a moment to celebrate.

Ready for deployment

We had the cases welded in Narok. We wired them with batteries and solar panels using spare parts we had at camp. They have been reinforced with epoxy, chain and locks to deter curious animals (hyenas and baboons) and others.

We'll be deploying them soon to monitor a hippo pool and provide us with a live feed

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Hyenas and Hippos

We had some spare meat left over from a chamber experiment so we put it out on a game trail and set up our camera.  It took less than one hour for a hyena to find the meat.

To give you perspective on how large a hippo is compared to a hyena, here is a video of a hippo walking by the same area the hyena was just standing.  

I love these types of videos because of the sounds you hear.  You can really hear the hippo munching on grass and all the sounds of the night in the Mara.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Fishing in the Mara

We have been hoping to do some fish sampling in the river this season to look at what fish are eating, but we haven't been able to afford either buying a lot of fish sampling equipment or hiring people with equipment to help us. Recently, I saw an old piece of wire mesh left unused, and it reminded me of the minnow traps we used to use to catch frogs and snakes in Georgia. After an hour or two, Chris and I managed to fashion two simple fish traps out of this piece of wire mesh, and guess what... they worked!

Holding a fish trap that is lined with hippo poop after being in the river for a while
We deployed the traps in the river around the wildebeest carcasses while our friend Frank was here. I think Frank was a bit skeptical they would work, as we just put a piece of moldy bread inside, most of which fell out right away. But after we left them for a few hours, we had caught a fish!
Frank pulling a fish trap
Okay, we haven't been catching that many fish, but we've put them out several times now and caught at least one fish each time. It's a start. Maybe next year we'll get some real fish sampling equipment. In the meantime, these are important samples for us to get, and it's been great to see some of the fish from the river.

A tilapia caught in the Mara

Almost Complete

We spent most of yesterday installing the conduit and pipe for the telemetry unit. A few more days...

Friday, November 30, 2012

Picking bugs with friends

Today some of our friends from the Mara came to the river with us to help out with our work and see what we're up to. Here are Nick, Julia and Wes picking aquatic insects out of a net and off of stones by the river.

Frank Masese and the Aquatic Insects of the Mara

We were really excited to have one of our friends and colleagues visit us for a few days in the field this past week. Frank Masese is an aquatic ecologist currently pursuing his PhD at UNESCO-IHE Institute for Water Education in The Netherlands. Frank is interested in organic matter inputs into the river, how they are processed by the river and its food web, and how these processes are altered by land use change. There are a lot of connections between his research and mine, and he's been a great colleague to have in the basin. He also knows a tremendous amount about aquatic macroinvertebrates, among many other things, so we took the opportunity of his visit to learn a lot from him about some of the critters we've been catching in the river of late.

The way we sample for bugs in the river is by using a kicknet. We hold the net in place in the river while we kick the river bottom upstream of the net, dislodging small insects that then float into the net.

Checking out our catch
 After you get the bugs in the net, you have to sort through a lot of other plant debris, sand, etc. to find and pick out the bugs.
Frank examining the net for bugs
 The bugs can be really small, and there's often a lot of dirt in the net, making this a pretty meticulous process.
Picking bugs out of the net
 The reward of all this sampling is a living story about the state of the river. Aquatic insects are important to the functioning of the river through breakdown of organic material and providing prey for larger animals. They also are great indicators of the river's health, because they are affected by physical and chemical changes in the water, they can't easily escape large changes, and different groups of insects are more or less sensitive to water quality. Just by looking at who is living in the river, you can learn a lot about how the water quality has been over the last few weeks.

Here are some mayflies we caught from the family Beatidae. Mayflies, in the order Ephemeroptera, are fairly sensitive to water quality. Baetidae are collector-gatherers that feed on plant detritus in the river. This is probably the most common family we catch, although there are many different species included in the family. In this picture, there are two different species of the same family.

Ephemeroptera Baetidae

Here are some mayflies we caught from the family Tricorythidae, which are also collector-gatherers.

Ephemeroptera Tricorythidae
This is another example of a mayfly, from the family Centroptiloides, but these guys are predators.

Ephemeroptera Centroptiloides
We also found a few of these beautiful stoneflies, from the order Plecoptera, which are also highly sensitive to water quality. This individual is from the family Perlidae, and it is a collector-gatherer like the Baetidae and Tricorythidae.

Plecoptera Perlidae
 The third order known for being especially sensitive to water quality is Trichoptera, or the caddis-flies. Ephemeroptera, Plecoptera and Trichoptera are so well-known for their sensitivity to water quality that there's an index of aquatic health known as the % EPT index, or the % of insects captured from those 3 families. Here is a Hydropsychidae, which are filter feeders in the river.

Trichoptera Hydropsychidae
 Finally, we also caught a larval dragonfly, from the order Odonata. Odonates are also sensitive to water quality, but not as much as the EPT taxa. This one is from the family Gomphidae, and it is a predator.
Odonata Gomphidae
 It's a great sign about the river's health that we are catching so many sensitive species in the river this season. In fact, we are seeing some sensitive species at sites that we don't remember seeing before. I think the healthy flow levels over the past year have been great for the overall health of the river. Thanks so much to Frank for teaching us more about these river dwellers!

Thursday, November 29, 2012


Sometimes we get a bit numb to the amazing scenery we drive through every day, but then you happen upon a scene like this, and it just stops you in your tracks...

Giraffes relaxing in the savanna

Leaving Narok

Two days after we were supposed to leave Narok, we finally hit the road. Celebrated with a cappuccino and cheeseburger on the way out of town.

What do carcasses do to a river?

Carcasses contribute a lot of nutrients and carbon to a river system. Depending on the nutrient and carbon levels already in the river, these inputs can either cause an increase in primary production, like algae, or an increase in respiration, caused by bacterial decomposition. Although there are a relatively small number of carcasses left in the river, the river flows have also started going down over the last two weeks, making the effect of the carcasses more noticeable. We have found that most of the equipment we have in the river now has pieces of rotting meat and hair hanging off of it. Here are some tiles we place in the river to measure the growth of biofilm. Biofilm is the community of algae and bacteria that grows on the rocks and sand in the river-- this is what makes river stones slippery. You can see here a big piece of meat hanging off the tiles, and likely affecting what's growing on them.

Carcass meat hanging off my experiment
After we pull the tiles out of the river, we put them in sealed containers of water, and measure the dissolved oxygen in the water before and after exposing the tiles to sunlight and darkness. If there is a lot of algae, they will undergo photosynthesis in sunlight and produce oxygen, resulting in an increase in dissolved oxygen levels. If there is a lot of bacteria, they will just undergo respiration during both light and dark and take up oxygen, resulting in a decrease.

Measuring biofilm activity on carcasses
This is one way we measure how the input of wildebeest carcasses in the river affects the other things living in the river. We also can look directly at the carcasses to see what's eating them. Investigating a few carcasses up close, we found they had lots of a certain kind of aquatic insect called Baetidae (which is a type of mayfly) hanging out on them. By collecting the insects and measuring their stable isotope composition in the lab, we can learn if they are actually eating the carcasses as well as living on them.

Mayfly larvae on a wildebeest carcass

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Tough 2.0

Camera trap case for use in the Masai Mara...with a secure locking box for an external battery for extended deployment.

Wet parts

Still at the garage. I've clocked in about 20 hours here over the last 2 and 1/2 days. Still trying to find the source of the rumbling noise. Replaced and inspected countless parts and still can't find it. Now we're back to the transfer case. Time to open it up...again. But...we can't till the rain stops.

River of bones

On Nov. 13, what will likely be the final die-off of the season occurred. Most of the wildebeest herd has now returned to Tanzania, but a small group crossed at a place downstream of where most of the drownings have occurred, and about 220 drowned. We took these pictures about a week and a half after the drowning had occurred, and most of the carcasses have already broken down a good bit, leaving the river scattered with bones.

Wildebeest bones in the Mara

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Thanksgiving Day Feast(s)

One of the hard things about working internationally is that you miss spending big holidays with family and friends back home. Fortunately, we have a great group of friends here in Kenya, and we were able to spend an awesome Thanksgiving holiday celebrating with them. And what's better than one Thanksgiving celebration? Two!

We wanted to thank the team of builders and engineers who are helping install the equipment at the bridge for our water meter, as well as all the Mara Conservancy rangers and staff who help us with our work all the time, so the night before Thanksgiving, we had a traditional Kenyan goat roast with them. We bought a large goat from one of our friends, packed him up in the Land Rover and drove down to the bridge.

Thanksgiving goat
Goat in the Land Rover - awesome!
  While we worked in the river, several of the guys did all the slaughtering and preparing, and by the time we got back to camp, the goat was already cooking on the fire.

Cooking goat over the fire
We set up our camp at the Rangers' Station for the night, and enjoyed a wonderful meal of goat meat and ugali with good friends. It was a perfect way to start the Thanksgiving holiday!

At camp with Warden Konchella
Celebrating with friends
The next morning, we headed back to Maji Camp (our home base) for a traditional American Thanksgiving meal. All the Americans around (us, the hyena researchers, and the hot air balloon pilot) and several Kenyan friends and colleagues sat down to share an amazing potluck meal, complete with roast turkey, gravy, mashed potatoes, dressing, cranberry sauce and brownies. It was an incredible taste of home and lots of fun.

Dinner table panorama
Even though we were far from home, we felt very blessed to share this holiday with so many good friends.

Thanksgiving dinner in the Masai Mara

Small Work Turned Big

As I'm sure you can tell...I'm spending lots of time at the garage today.

Now we're putting back together the transfer case.


The toughest game camera housing ever made. We are hoping that it will provide some protection from curious wildlife.

Early morning work

On my leaky manifold and grumbling left front wheel.

Monday, November 26, 2012


The African Paradise Fly-catcher we've been watching over the last few weeks just laid two eggs.

Here she is...laying the eggs.  

Here is one of the eggs.  There is another one just below it.  Sorry for the bad picture...I snuck up to the nest right after she flew off but I didn't want to spook her so I snapped the picture without looking.

A male Africa Paradise Fly-catcher has been trading off with her, the job of sitting on the eggs.  I took this picture with my phone so I couldn't zoom in.  Look closely in the middle of the picture and you'll see a bird with bright blue eye-liner and a longer tail.  

To give you some perspective...this is our tent.  The skinny tree to the left of the picture, next to the fire place, is the tree that she built the nest in.