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.  

It was so hot yesterday...

even the giraffe were seeking shade.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Saturday, November 24, 2012

It's Here!

A big thanks to WWF...we are now testing out a telemetry system for our water quality meter at the lower Mara bridge.  Soon, you'll be able to see data from the Mara River live on the internet.  I believe this will be the first uplinked river in East Africa.  More to come soon!

Mara Live Highlights

We took the camera down yesterday for a few days of maintenance.  I downloaded the high resolution images and found a few gems...

Approximately 11 crocodiles basking in the sun to the right of the pool!

A bunch of hippos basking on the bank during the heat of the day.

A small zebra herd.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Musiara Lions

Amanda took this great picture over near the Musiara Swamp when we were traveling to meet up with a friend at Governor's Camp.

Thursday, November 22, 2012


Lots of rain coming down in the reserve and upper catchment.  The river is rising.  

We've had to cancel our plans for sampling at the Emarti site tomorrow due to concerns over the roads in that area.  

Internet First Class

As seen on the back of a matatu....

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Menacing Hippo

If you're following along on our live webcam, you may have noticed that we caught a scary looking hippo last night as he was leaving the hippo pool...

With the night-vision picture...the hippo looks pretty similar to the other scary hippo I blogged about last Friday.


For part of Amanda's research, we have to get in the water and kick around the substrate while holding a net downstream to catch any bugs that may be there.  Well...what if she asked you to "kicknet" just downstream of this... about 350 rotting, dead wildebeest.  They smell extremely bad...the type of smell that makes you gag...crocodiles have moved into the area to feed on them...there around about 50 vultures and marabou storks all over them....and the list goes on as to why this is not a fun part of the job.

So...what do I do?  Instead of getting in the water, we "modify" the method a bit and just sweep the net around a bit on the bottom just downstream of the bodies.  What did we find?

...broken down wildebeest meat and hair lining the entire bottom of the river below the bodies.  Disgusting.  No bugs.  Check.  Time to move on.  

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

An Unusual Sight

Hippos typically feed during the evening.  

Often times during the day, they'll find a nice sandy place to lay around on if they are not in their pool.  

Three hippos laying on a sandy bank above their pool (check out the snaggle tooth on the one to the right)

We occasionally will see one lonely hippo grazing during the day.  It was quite unusual for us to see several hippos grazing directly next to their pool during the day.  

Two hippos grazing during the day

A hippo pool with several hippos grazing on the bank

The migration is over and the wildebeest have successfully shortened all the grass.  Perhaps the hippos aren't getting enough food during the evenings so they are having to supplement their intake?  

Leopard Tortoise

We were driving off-road with the rangers the other day on our way to check on one of our water quality sondes that we had deployed above a bunch of dead wildebeest.  To our surprise, we found a tortoise.  It has been about 2 years since we have seen one in the Masai Mara.  I'm sure there are more around.  They can be quite hard to spot if you're not looking down.  

Higher Ground

Freak rainstorm almost interrupted a batch of garlic ginger bagels...we moved our charcoal oven to higher ground. Batch saved!