Final day in the Mara: Caitlin’s perspective

Every morning in the Masai Mara, a select few individuals are lucky (and rich) enough to hop into hot air balloons for what must be an enviable view of sunrise over the savannah. Since wildlife don’t generally look up, they probably have no idea that the balloon riders are looking down from above; I suspect that the animals therefore probably act more normally than they do during any other human-wildlife “encounter” (if you can call it that). One day I hope to experience this first-hand, but for now I have to be satisfied with looking at both the animals and the balloons through the window of a minibus. Really, I suppose that’s not such a bad perspective, either:

(A herd of elephants feeding in the early hours of the day)

As spectacular as the Masai Mara can be, it can also grow boring relatively quickly. You tend to see the same animals over and over and spend quite a lot of time driving through sections of grassland where relatively few animals can be found (or seen) at all–as was the case on the day of our arrival. The best way to avoid becoming impatient and jaded is to try to maintain excitement about the species that you do see, even if you’ve seen them a dozen times before.

(Helmeted guineafowl)

Take, for example, the helmeted guineafowl. We must see hundreds of these birds during our two-week trip through Kenya, which makes it easy to dismiss them as “ordinary.” But, if you take a closer look, you’ll see that they are anything but boring. They have striking polka dot body plumage, brilliant blue and red faces, and bony knobs on the tops of their heads. These are birds in whom the ancient dinosaur blood still runs strong. There are few other places on earth where something this exotic could be thought of as “boring”–an impressive indication of all the great stuff that Kenya has to offer.

(A pair of red-necked spurfowl)

Guineafowl have several close relatives cohabiting with them in the Mara, and one of these is the red-necked spurfowl. If Kenya were a country in which hunting were permitted, I’m sure that both these species would often grace people’s dinner plates. Luckily for these birds, though, humans are only allowed to shoot them with cameras. The pair of spurfowl shown above were quite generous with their time, allowing me to take several photographs while they posed right next to the road. It’s amazing how birds like these are tolerant of vehicles that pass within just a few inches of their foraging spots, while other seemingly similar species will take flight at much greater distances.

After driving around aimlessly for a while (secretly hoping to encounter leopards on their way home from a night’s hunting), we headed back to the elephant carcass to see if anything exciting had happened since the previous evening. Amazingly, the body was still more or less in one piece; while we watched, a lone jackal tried–in vain–to extract a bit of breakfast from the elephant’s hind quarters. The body was covered in “whitewashing,” which suggested that vultures had come over to investigate the potential meal but had eventually flown off in frustration after being unable to break through the tough hide. Ever the optimists, they had removed themselves just a short distance away, to a nearby acacia; they were waiting quite patiently for something with powerful jaws (i.e., a hyena) to come along and make the interior of the carcass available to them.

(A black-backed jackal attempts to feed from an elephant carcass)

(Hungry vultures wait to feed)

After the morning game drive, we gave the students several hours to put the finishing touches on some presentations they would be delivering later in the day. I used the free time to wander around looking at birds. Coincidentally, large flocks of black-headed weavers, arrow-marked babblers, and long-tailed starlings decided that this would be an excellent time to come forage in our campsite, so I had plenty to see.

(A black-headed weaver feeds from an acacia)

Although I was mainly searching the branches for feathered animals, there were also some furry species to be found; both vervets and baboons were abundant in the area and could frequently be seen (and heard) running across our rooftops. They have been visitors to the campsite in previous years, but I think they were particularly fond of the area this time around because of all the fruits dropping off the trees along the riverbank.

(A vervet monkey has a contemplative moment)

Actually, the vervets were quite a distraction during the student presentations that afternoon; each time the monkeys got testy with one another, their screechy fights would drown out our speakers. There was also one female with a particularly tiny and adorable infant; many people (myself included) were itching to grab their cameras and take a few shots of the baby. Sadly, its mother was very protective and quickly fled with it up into the treetops any time anyone even thought about getting too close.

The presentations addressed the herbivore surveys that we’d asked the students to do earlier in the trip; each bus group had to provide some background on the work, a description of their methods, the results of their quick-and-dirty statistical analyses, and some conclusions based on these findings. Although all the groups used the same techniques and produced more or less similar results, they still managed to generate a wide variety of unique and interesting points about their work. Only at the end of the day did we tell them that the information they collected was being used to initiate a long-term dataset on Kenyan wildlife.

(Bus group 8 presents the results of their observations on herbivore abundance)

As soon as the presentations were finished, we headed off to the minibuses to depart on our last real safari of the trip; the next time we hit the road, it would be for our drive back to the airport in Nairobi. Appropriately, we ended the day much as we started it: with elephants.

(A mother elephant and her calf)

There were also many bird species, but none that I could get very good photographs of. For the first time during the entire trip, I had a driver who was willing to stop to let us look at small birds. In fact, he was very good at spotting these species and pointing them out to us. After spending nearly two weeks speeding past LBJs (“little brown jobs,” for those who aren’t serious birders), I finally had the chance to try to identify the various larks, pipits, and cisticolas that lurk amid the Mara’s grasses. I was quite impressed with the students, who were all quite enthusiastic about poring over the identification guides and using difficult-to-spot field marks to try to determine which species we were viewing. Sometimes our efforts were more successful than others, but it was still great to have the chance to train my binoculars on these cryptic animals.

Our driver was also responsible for creating what was probably the best photo opportunity of the entire trip. Even though we were running very late for our 6:30 PM park exit time, our driver pulled over just within view of the gate and told us to turn around and watch the sunset. When we stopped, about half of the sun was sitting above the horizon; over the next several minutes (and several hundredphotographs), it slowly sank in an explosion of oranges, yellows, pinks, and purples.

(Topi, impala, and gazelles graze in the last rays of the setting sun)

Over the three years that I’ve been doing this field course, I’ve seen several spectacular African sunsets, but this was the first time I’d ever deliberately sat and watched one as it happened. It was a phenomenal experience. I know that sunsets are beautiful in general, but the huge expanse of the African savannah, and the picturesque African wildlife, really made this one remarkable. It was particularly fitting and poignant since it marked the end of the last full day of our Kenya adventure.

(The sun sets on the Masai Mara, and on the 2013 Kenya MSc field course)

Note from the author: Just because this entry covers our last full day journeying through the safari, the blog isn’t done yet! Stay tuned to hear about our chilly return to the UK, see our species lists, find out more about the natural history of the wildlife we encountered, view student photos and videos, read student accounts of the trip, and more!