Assessing a field course

Just before the Kenya staff depart for our field course each year,  we tend to hear a lot of comments from our colleagues about our impending “vacation” in Kenya. However, while the trip can definitely be fun, it is by no means a holiday; we have many early mornings, long days, heavy discussions, and quite a bit of deep thinking about biology and conservation. Accordingly, we build assessments into the trip to ensure that the students are properly motivated to pay attention and internalize the vast quantities of information to which they are exposed in Kenya.

(Observing the biodiversity at Lake Nakuru)

Non-Exeter people may wonder how a field trip can possibly be assessed–after all, we spend a good portion of our time riding around in minibuses, looking at wildlife; we can’t very well give points for each new species spotted (though that might be a good way to increase our chances of finding a leopard each year!). Instead, students get their points in four ways:

1. Prior to the trip, students work in groups to research a Kenyan theme–things like history, climate, biodiversity, or particular destinations on our itinerary. They produce a short presentation that is delivered at a “minisymposium” prior to the trip, plus they create a 2-page summary that can be incorporated into our Kenya field course handbook. That way they can share their findings with other students and increase general knowledge about the places we will be visiting. This year, we also used the background research to form the first several posts in the field course blog.

2. During the trip, we keep track of student participation in activities and discussion groups that are held periodically throughout our journeys. This includes a session where we debate the utility of behavior research to conservationists, and presentations where students discuss the results of the herbivore censusing they performed during our time on the savanna.

(Group presentation during our last day in Kenya)

3. Shortly after the trip, we hold a conference-style poster session during which students give small poster presentations on a conservation topic about which they learned during the trip. People are invariably attracted to themes associated with the “big five”–human-lion conflict, for example, and rhino poaching–but there are always a few surprises. This year, many students were intrigued by the situation at Lake Naivasha, which is threatened by invasive species and overuse of water. Even though students often have similar topics, it is amazing how they manage to locate different references and put quite diverse spins on the same ideas. I find it difficult to visit everyone during the 2-hour session because it is tempting to dwell at each poster and get into lengthy conversations about what person learned during the trip. It is impressive how expert people can become in such a short period of time.

(One of this year’s posters. Click here for a PDF version.)

4. The final assessment is the most traditional: a test. The trip handbook provides examples of the sorts of questions students can expect, so at least they can mentally prepare for the type of thinking they’ll be asked to do during the exam. Really, the most important thing is paying attention during the trip and listening to the ecological, behavioral, and management details that are discussed by both staff and guest speakers. Those who read outside literature (which is required for both the first and third assessments) will be in particularly good shape.

Hopefully the students find the assessments to be fair; I think it’s safe to say that they definitely find them educational. The ultimate goal, of course, is not to earn a particular mark, but to gain an understanding of ecosystems and real-world applications of biological information. There is much to be learned from reading about those issues in books and scientific papers, but nothing really beats heading out into the field and getting some first-hand experience. Whatever minor complaints the students may have about the trip, I think they would give it an A+ for opening eyes and expanding minds.

All content by Dr. Caitlin Kight


Guide to Kenyan species: Giraffes

Giraffes are one of Africa’s most iconic animals, instantly recognizable to people of all ages and backgrounds from around the world. Many people don’t realize that there are actually nine different subspecies of giraffe, three of which are found in Kenya: the reticulated giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis reticulata; also known as the Somali giraffe), Rothschild’s giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis rothschildi), and the Masai giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis tippelskirchi; also known as the Kilimanjaro giraffe).

(Distribution of giraffes in Africa. Image courtesy of Wikipedia)

Reticulated giraffes are found predominantly in the northern portion of Kenya, but they are also quite common in zoos and wild animal parks; we ticked this subspecies off our list during our visit to the KWS headquarters in Nairobi. Rothschild’s giraffes are highly endangered because they frequently hybridize with other subspecies; only a few hundred “pure” individuals are thought to exist in the wild. One of the few locations where they can be observed is Lake Nakuru National Park, where small herds of them can often be found foraging together. By far the most common during our travels was the Masai giraffe, which can be seen in parks, on reserves, along roadsides, and on pastureland.

(Reticulated giraffe having a drink at the KWS headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya)

(Rothschild’s giraffe eating acacia leaves at Lake Nakuru National Park. Photo by John Abernethy.)

(Masai giraffes foraging at Crater Lake)

At first glance, these subspecies may seem too similar to tell apart, but in reality it’s actually not a difficult task. The reticulated giraffe has much whiter lines between the brownish (or sometimes even reddish) patches on its pelt, and the patches are bordered by very smooth lines. The Rothschild’s and Masai giraffes have much creamier lines in between their patches, and the patches have more jagged edges. The key to telling these two subspecies apart is the legs: Masai giraffes’ legs are decorated with brown spots all the way down to their feet, but Rothschild’s giraffes appear to be wearing cream-colored socks.

Seeing a giraffe for the first time can be pretty spectacular because they are so gigantic; indeed, they are the tallest extant terrestrial animals and also, unsurprisingly, the largest ruminant. We see so many that it is easy to begin overlooking them; this is especially true because they tend to be very serene (a less generous person might say “boring”). Anyone who watched the recent footage of fighting reticulated giraffes on David Attenborough’s Africa, however, knows that these guys can be as exciting as any other species on the savanna.

Giraffes are also known for having horns–or, more accurately, ossicones, which are horn-like growths of ossified cartilage (not bone tissue) that are permanently covered in skin and fur (rather than a velvet that can be rubbed off). Some people will tell you that giraffes are the only animals that are born with horns, but technically this isn’t true–and now you know enough to call their bluff!

(Masai giraffes in the Masai Mara)

Adult giraffes are so large that they usually don’t have to worry about the large predators that share their habitat. Young, sick, and old giraffes, however, may be targeted by lions, leopards, hyenas, and wild dogs. Giraffes, in turn, target acacia trees, from which they feed with the aid of their incredibly long tongues. All bits of the giraffes’ mouths are quite tough, since they have to withstand exposure to the sharp thorns of acacia trees. This tolerance allows an individual giraffe to make its way through over 30 kg of foliage each day.

Thanks to their long necks, giraffes are able to eat from parts of the acacia tree that are not accessible to other herbivores in the area. Amazingly, giraffes’ long necks are not achieved by the addition of extra vertebrae (relative to similar species), but, rather, lengthening of individual cervical vertebrae. The animals’ closest living relative (and the only other member of the family Giraffidae) is the okapi; these ungulates have approximately 33% of their vertebral length in their cervical region, whereas this value is approximately 50% for giraffes. While this is advantageous for feeding, it makes drinking a bit awkward; giraffes must splay out their legs in order to achieve a position that allows them to lap up and swallow water.

(Masai giraffes at Crater Lake. Photo by Tristan Pett.)

Giraffe necks are good for one other purpose: necking. This is a fighting behavior characterized by the use of necks as weapons to batter other giraffes; as you might expect, it is seen among males seeking to establish dominance and maintain territories (not to mention access to females). Fights can last over 30 minutes and may be followed by a ritual mounting.

Happily, giraffes are of least conservation concern, though they currently inhabit a much smaller region than their ancestors did. As mentioned above, some subspecies are more threatened than others. There are, for example, fewer than 400 of the peralta subspecies, and fewer than 700 of the rothschildi; in fact, these two species are rarer than pandas, mountain gorillas, blue whales, tigers, and bonobos combined.* However, because giraffes are rarely involved in human-wildlife conflicts, they stand a fighting chance of maintaining or even improving their population numbers. This is especially true given the number of protected areas in which they occur–including many destinations of our field course, such as Hell’s Gate, Lake Nakuru, Crater Lake, and the Masai Mara.

(Masai giraffes in the Masai Mara)

*For more info on this issue, visit the Giraffe Conservation Foundation website.

Unless otherwise credited, all photos and content by Dr. Caitlin Kight.

Where were we?

If you’ve been reading the Kenya posts and wondering where on earth all these events took place, ponder no longer. Each time we arrived in a new location, I used my trusty iPhone to take GPS coordinates of our position. Using Google Earth, I was then able to plot all of our stops and create maps showing how much ground we covered in two weeks.

Here you can see how far we traveled in the nearly nine-hour plane journey from the UK to Kenya. The journey over the Mediterranean is usually pretty calm, but things can get a bit turbulent once we reach the Sahara. As you can see, we are over the desert for quite a long time, which gives us plenty of opportunity to encounter rough spots in the air. I’m not sure what the flight was like this year, since I was asleep during both legs of the journey!

This map gives a bit more perspective on where Kenya, and our destinations within the country, are located within Africa. Considering how hot and dry much of northeastern Africa is, Kenya is bordered by an impressive amount of water–Lake Turkana to the north, Lake Victoria to the southwest, the Mara River to the south, and the Indian Ocean to the east. Its neighboring countries are Somalia, Ethiopia, South Sudan, Uganda, and Tanzania. Over the past few years, we’ve concentrated our activities in the southwest, away from the political unrest in the eastern and northern parts of Kenya. Next year, though, we may change our itinerary, and stay more in the center of the country.

Before I made this map, I’d never actually looked at the distance between our campsite at Mount Kenya and our lodgings in the Mara. Now that I see how far apart they are, I can understand why it takes us a full day to get from one to the other. It’s amazing that the quickest route is through Nairobi, but that’s where the best roads are. The roads are also to blame for making the drive between Top Camp and the chameleon farm almost as long as the one between Top Camp and Lake Nakuru–despite the fact that the farm is much closer as the crow flies.

Finally, here is a close-up of all our lake destinations. Because these sites all cluster around Top Camp, I tend to think of them in terms of their relationship to our lodgings–whether they are reached by turning right or left out of the Top Camp driveway. It is interesting to see them on a map relative to the campsite and to each other. I had no idea that Lake Nakuru was to the north of Lake Naivasha; I always had the sense that we were driving east/west between these sites. Also, even though I knew that Crater Lake was near Naivasha (we could drive between the two in less than a half hour), I didn’t realize that you could potentially see the shoreline of Lake Naivasha if you stood on the rim of the crater and looked eastward.

I wish I’d thought to create and study these maps before our trip, thereby gaining a better sense of orientation while we were in Kenya. Better late than never, though–at least I will be prepared for next year’s trip!

Content by Dr. Caitlin Kight

Birds of Kenya

If you’ve read any of my descriptions of our adventures in Kenya, then you have probably already realized that I get more excited about avifauna than I do about anything else. It seems almost counterintuitive that someone could go to Kenya and not really care about the charismatic megafauna–including the “big five”–for which the country is so famous, but the truth is that you rarely observe those animals doing anything very exciting. Lions, for example, are generally just lounging around napping, while rhinos are either sleeping or munching on grass. There have, of course, been a few exceptions to this general rule; we once saw a cheetah chase a gazelle, for example, and then there were multiple instances of lion sex this year.

(Male rufous sparrow at Hell’s Gate National Park)

However, even when I see the big animals wandering around doing something interesting, I can’t help but feel as though I’ve already encountered this before–in zoos, wild animal parks, and breeding facilities, or on televised documentaries. It should feel different seeing these animals au naturale, but the view from inside a car is strangely similar to the view through a television. Wandering amongst these species on foot might make me feel a bit different–indeed, I quite enjoy our trips to Crater Lake and Hell’s Gate precisely because we are able to commune with nature a bit better–but even then we tend not to see anything very interesting going on amongst the mammals.

(Lesser flamingo at Crater Lake)

For the, the real excitement is in birding. Birds engage in all sorts of activities, they often appear and disappear very quickly, and we see hundreds of different species (many of which can look quite similar to one another). Because of all these things, birds are a challenge–and challenges are interesting. I also appreciate bird aesthetics; elephants may be huge and leopards may be sleek, but it’s hard to think of anything more spectacular than an iridescent sunbird flashing its colors in the sunlight. That said, my favorite group of birds–in Africa and on any other continent–is the vultures, since I have a soft spot for the underappreciated organisms of the world. It’s hard to pick a favorite individual species, but I am rather fond of hamerkops and African dusky flycatchers. This year I was also thrilled to see an African blue-flycatcher, which I’ve longingly eyed in my bird guide, never thinking that I’d actually see one in person.

(Malachite kingfisher on Lake Naivasha)

My strength as a birder is auditory rather than visual, which makes Kenyan birding very challenging for me. We do not own any audio guides to the birds of Kenya (yet!), and we only visit for two weeks each year, so it is difficult to learn the vocalizations of the birds we encounter. This is frustrating because we hear many more birds than we ever see, which means that there are probably dozens of species that are erroneously left off my bird list. I am trying to add more species to my ID repertoire each year, so maybe I will have decent identification skills one day…maybe around the time I retire!

(Grey-crowned cranes at Solio Ranch)

Without further ado, here is my 2013 bird list, alongside the lists from previous years. It only includes the species that I personally saw or heard, and contains only birds that I was 100%–none of the trickier cisticolas and larks, for instance, which I just didn’t get to look at in enough detail for a solid ID. As pleased as I am to have extended the list quite a bit this year relative to what I’ve seen in the past (thanks to the long rainy season!), I should note that my list pales in comparison to those compiled by the even more serious birders in our group; they managed to rack up tallies exceeding 300 different species. To put that into perspective, Kenya is inhabited or visited by nearly 1,100 types of bird. That means that some of our students managed to see over a quarter of the country’s avian diversity in just two weeks–an impressive achievement.

(Sacred ibises taking flight at Lake Nakuru)

Content by Dr. Caitlin Kight

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!

From Mara to manyatta: the Masai experience (Caitlin’s perspective)

On our first full day in the Mara–our 10th day in Kenya–I was beginning to feel the strain of being away from home. The physical and mental exhaustion (not to mention the dwindling sizes of our portions at each meal) were beginning to take their toll on me, and I will admit to being a tad grumpy.  This was exacerbated by the fact that I was assigned to a bus with my least favorite type of driver: the kind that doesn’t actually care about wildlife. Actually, I suppose he did care about wildlife, but only in the sense that he wanted to make sure we all saw the “big five”; what he didn’t care about was the safety or welfare of any of the organisms we encountered during our game drive. He deliberately provoked buffaloes and elephants in order to try to get them to display at us, and he ran smaller animals–including a baby gazelle–off the road just for a laugh. Sadly, this is not uncommon behavior among the drivers, and it’s not the first time I’ve experienced it. Unless really provoked, though, I’m bad about piping up and telling drivers to rein themselves in, and so I mostly just sit and fume in the passenger seat. I hope that other safari-goers are more forceful, both for their own happiness and that of the wildlife around them.

(Composite panorama of a huge herd of grazing buffalo–and a single passing raptor)

We didn’t have that exciting of a morning game drive, but we did manage to see a few interesting things. Perhaps most impressive was the massive gathering of buffalo shown above; I needed to take 5 photographs just to capture all the animals in the group.

(A male lion in his very unnatural habitat)

We also found some lions (two napping males, probably brothers), but the delight of this discovery was quickly soured by the arrival of a seemingly endless horde of safari vehicles. This happens at least once each year, and almost always involves cat sightings. It is a pretty horrible way to view wildlife, especially when you can see that the animals want to get up and move elsewhere but are unsure of how to proceed given that they are completely hemmed in by minibuses. I noticed that this year’s students were quite sensitive to this, and quickly asked our drivers to leave and give the lions some breathing room; if only all tourists were equally well-informed and generous.

(Elephant carcass. When we arrived, the cheeks and trunk were missing, and there was a slash in the belly, but the body otherwise remained intact. Very little changed over the next day and a half, suggesting that scavengers were having a hard time dealing with the elephant’s tough hide.)

We also received word of a “fresh” elephant carcass that we went to visit in the hopes of seeing lions, jackals, hyenas, and vultures. Although there were supposedly lions lurking in the bush behind the body, we did not see any other animals until we departed, at which point we encountered a few hyenas that were obviously waiting for their chance to feed. Although the elephant was clearly not long dead–with the exception of its face, it hadn’t been touched by any scavengers–its scent indicated that it had died more than a few hours ago. We debated whether it was a natural death, a lion kill, or perhaps even a poaching event; human killers will often kill the elephant one day and return on another to grab the tusks, so the presence of ivory is not really a good clue. Since there wasn’t much action going on yet, we decided to visit the carcass later and see how things had changed.

(A spotted hyena waiting for its chance to forage at the elephant carcass. This guy probably could have “opened up” the dead body so that the meat could be accessed by other species such as jackals and vultures, but all the hyenas kept getting chased away by the lions who had been first on the scene.)

(A male elephant in musth, as indicated by the testosterone-rich fluid dripping from his swollen temporal glands)

Near the dead elephant was a herd of maybe a dozen or so living animals, who I’m guessing were probably related to the deceased individual. Elephants are known to grieve the loss of their friends and family members, and so I wouldn’t be surprised if these individuals had stayed in the neighborhood because they were not ready to “let go.” Indeed, one of the other bus groups later saw a standoff between a lion and an elephant matriarch protecting the carcass.

(Martial eagle)

Not all of our sightings were grim and depressing. We also got some excellent views of a variety of raptors, all of which appeared to quite enjoy the overcast conditions on this particular morning. I’d never seen a martial eagle prior to this field course, but on this morning I managed to see two separate individuals (or one individual twice!).

(Field trip to a Masai village)

After lunch, we embarked on an adventure that many of the staff secretly dislike: our visit to a Masai village, or manyatta. The experience is quite educational, but it is also interactive–hence our discomfort; the last thing a lecturer wants to do is be forced to dance around like an idiot in front of his or her students. It is also difficult to take anything too seriously given how keenly aware we are that our Masai hosts are putting on a show solely for our benefit. I have no doubt that there are grains of truth in everything they do or say, but I am also certain that there is quite a lot of embellishment going on. After all, the Masai have opened up their village to outsiders in order to earn money; they charge us for the tour and then they hope to earn additional cash at the end of the afternoon, when they funnel us into a marketplace erected just outside their fence. Thus, it is in their interest to make our visit as exciting as possible, regardless of whether or not that excitement accurately reflects their culture. Or maybe I have just become cynical over the years.

(Being welcomed to the Masai manyatta)

Before entering the village, we were met outside its fence by the chief, who provided some basic background information about the the village and its inhabitants. He then invited Masai performers of both sexes to come sing, dance, and–in the case of the young men–jump.

(The Masai welcome dance)

All of the dancing is interactive, and pretty much everyone is forced to participate. Supposedly, the ceremony is the same one they use when Masai youths gather to look for spouses. Men and women start off separately, but little by little wind up in a more-or-less circular knot of singers and dancers. This group of people then splits up into two chains that pass and acknowledge each other (with a high-five sort of greeting) while singing and bouncing along in time to the music. It is not dissimilar to a conga line. Some people really love getting their Masai groove on, while others are quite reluctant to join in. I felt like a total fool last year, and was very glad to observe the festivities from the sidelines this time around. Some people, like course leader Brendan Godley, manage to look so imposing that even lion-killing Masai warriors are afraid to press-gang them into participating.

(Look at that body language! It’s pretty obvious which one of these guys will eventually dance, and which four will remain standing on the sidelines.)

(Masai conga)

Once the dancing and singing have been completed, the Masai warriors have the opportunity to show their manliness by engaging in a jumping contest. I am not sure how important these sorts of sexual displays are to modern Masai singles looking for partners, but traditionally this was the portion of the festivities when men could demonstrate their physical fitness to the ladies. The warriors jump individually and together, and the heights of their jumps are demarcated by an observer who holds a stick out to indicate the level reached by the highest jumper’s head.

(Toby demonstrates his manliness. Note his straight legs–most UK jumpers bend their knees while in the air, but Toby has managed a very respectable Masai style of jumping.)

With the jumping completed, we went into the village and received another briefing from the chief. Before dividing us up into smaller groups that could more easily fit into the Masai buildings en masse, the chief invited us to watch several young men light a fire in the “traditional Masai style” (friction). I always think this is a rather comical portion of the visit because the adolescents really struggle to get the fire going–suggesting that these days it is more common for fires to be lit with matches or lighters. But, to their credit, the warriors never gave up, and they did eventually manage to get a blaze going.

(Juxtaposition of traditional dress and modern technology. Here, a young warrior uses his cell phone to snap a photograph of the students as they watch the fire-starting demonstration.)

(A Masai guide answers student questions outside his hut. One of the things that surprises students most is that many of the guides are university students in Nairobi or Narok; they participate in these cultural events when they happen to be visiting home during breaks in their education.)

Overall, this year’s manyatta visit was a huge improvement over last year’s–mostly because the much cooler weather meant that we didn’t have students fainting from heat stroke. On our walk home from the village, we had the chance to enjoy some new species of wildlife up close and personal; among other things, we saw a dung beetle rolling along near our path, and a lovely kingfisher foraging for food along the banks of the river running around our campsite.

(Cloudy sky–not only aesthetically pleasing, but also helpful for keeping the temperatures down to a level more tolerable to Europeans)

We arrived home just in time to head out again on the final game drive of the evening. Although the students’ eyes were on the wildlife out on the savannah, their minds continued to linger on the manyatta visit; I heard many lengthy discussions about Masai traditions and the relationship between the Masai and the wilderness around them. It was quite gratifying to find that the students had found the manyatta visit to be so educational and thought-provoking.

It’s just as well that everyone was engaged in such intense conversations, since there wasn’t too much to see out on the Mara. Probably the most exciting find was a trio of dik-diks, the smallest antelope; although it is hard to say for certain, we think that the group comprised a pair of adults and their mostly-grown offspring.

(Female dik-dik; she was distinguishable from the male because she was not sporting small horns)

(Scanning the treeline for leopards. Sadly, there were none to be seen.)

Just as we turned our vehicles around to head back home, we were treated to a meteorological show that partially made up for the lack of wildlife: a late-evening rainbow arcing over our path. Perhaps it didn’t give the same thrill as a cat-sighting would have, but it was still a lovely way to end the day.

(Rainbow over the Masai Mara)

Mara Conservancy: Caitlin’s perspective

Most of the people who participated in the evening game drive through the Mara Conservancy did not get to bed until at least midnight, so our pre-dawn breakfast must have been fairly painful for them. The reward for their suffering, though, was a beautiful golden sunrise and a glut of wildlife.

(Sunrise over the Mara Conservancy)

(A Masai giraffe browses behind a very alert herd of impala)

(The scale of the Mara is such that even giraffes can be made to look small)

The folks in charge of the Mara Conservancy strictly regulate how many vehicles are allowed into the park on a given day, which means that the animals in this area are much less habituated to humans. Sometimes this means they are a bit skittish when they see us approaching, but generally these restrictions seem to help preserve the animals’ “natural” behaviors.

One of the behaviors that we saw both here and elsewhere during our journey through Kenya was fighting—lots of fighting. Although some of the fights were between young animals who were clearly just practicing their skills for when they were older, most were between adult males who were interested in claiming territories, resources, and, of course, females. One of the many wrestling matches we observed was between two waterbuck who, judging from the disinterest of a female conspecific behind them, were not impressing anybody.

(A warthog forages in the grass, seemingly oblivious to the waterbuck fight behind him)


(A Masai herdsman and his son drive cattle across the Mara)

After we had made our circuit around the relatively small Mara Conservancy, we returned to camp in order to pull down our tents and pack up for our journey south to the Masai Mara. On the way back from delivering my baggage to the equipment truck, I couldn’t help but notice that a group of our female students had attracted quite a bit of attention while breaking camp. Their struggles with the heavy and unwieldy tent were being overseen not only by several male classmates, but also by a group of our camp guards. I’m not sure whether the guys had failed to offer assistance, or whether the ladies had declined any such proposals, but all in all it made a rather comical scene.

(Students take down their tents in preparation for our move to the Masai Mara)

(Our camp staff load our supply truck for the journey between the Mara Conservancy and the Masai Mara)

Once everything was packed up, we hopped into our minibuses for the short, and yet lengthy, trip to the Masai Mara. It is short in the sense that the Masai portion of the Mara abuts the Mara Conservancy; it doesn’t take us long to get to the border and cross from one section of the ecosystem into the other. However, it is long in the sense that we do quite a large circuit around the Mara prior to finishing at our destination—Riverside Camp. One reason for this is that we like to visit the Mara River Crossing, that iconic location, shown in seemingly every documentary about African wildlife, where migrating wildebeest go splashing across the river amidst a frenzy of snapping crocodile jaws.

(A group of hippos hiding from the hot sun by lounging in the Mara River all day)

We don’t see any of this excitement during our visits; there are usually a few crocodiles, but hippos are much more noticeable. One of the nice things about this visit is that we are able to get out of our vehicles and walk around; we hire armed guards to escort us along the riverbank and allow us to get good photographs of the river and its wildlife. As we go, the guards provide some basic life history information about the species we see—plus they keep an eye out for any lions that might be lurking in the undergrowth. We’ve never seen any predatory cats during these outings, but large feline paw prints in the mud serve as evidence that lions and leopards do sometimes visit the area.

This year, we initiated a Mara census protocol that we hope to repeat during each of our future visits to the area. The students collected their first batch of data during the trip from the river crossing to our campsite—or, I should say, they tried to collect data during this period. Unfortunately, our route took us through a part of the grassland that is typically quite empty; this year was even worse than normal because of all the heavy rains. The grasses were quite lush and long, which meant that they were assiduously avoided by any individuals worried about falling prey to a lurking lion. Thus, while we occasionally encountered a buffalo or warthog, there wasn’t much else to look at. Even the avifauna seemed pretty sparse here, though at one point I was delighted to look out my window and see a quail winging along at eye level after being flushed by our passage.

Once we arrived at Riverside, students had just enough time to set up their tents before we headed out for the evening game drive. Staff had the luxury of being housed in bandas, which meant that we had time to shower and relax a bit. The birding at Riverside Camp is always spectacular, and one of the first birds I saw this year was one I’ve always drooled over in the bird book—an African blue-flycatcher, which, true to its name, is an incredible shade of blue, and flits about the canopy while holding its tail perkily aloft.

The evening game drive also brought some pretty incredible wildlife viewing. Shortly after entering the gates, we saw our first cheetahs of the trip. They were pretty distant, but were still quite recognizable. Amazingly, our driver spotted them out of the corner of his eye, sitting still and low to the ground off along the horizon. I have no idea how our drivers manage to spot the things they do, but it is great to be able to take advantage of their expertise.

(Precursor to lion sex!)

Even more amazing than the cheetahs were their larger cousins, the lions. We spotted a pair napping in the sun, and I was pretty happy to get a few photographs of the male engaged in a ridiculously large yawn. Things got even more exciting, however, when he decided to snuggle up to his female companion and engage in a round of copulation. Not only could we see them mating—which surely is not something that is frequently observed during safaris!—we could also hear them quietly growling at each other during the event. This turned out to be only one of several lion matings observed by University of Exeter students during our visit to the Mara, so, as I mentioned in an earlier post, love was definitely in the air thanks to the extended rainy season.

There were no other events scheduled for the evening, giving us the chance to recover after a long two days on the road. When I returned to my banda for the evening, I had one last wildlife encounter for the day: a little gecko hanging out by my doorway, hunting by porchlight.

(A gecko does its best to blend in with the wood of my banda)


Looong drive to the Mara: Caitlin’s perspective

As hard as it is to walk up Mount Kenya, the post-hike trip to the Mara is maybe even more difficult; everyone’s sore muscles become even more sore over the nine or so hours that we spend in the minibuses. Unfortunately, nine hours isn’t the entire length of the trip, but merely the length of the drive time; add in another couple hours for meals, toilet breaks, and sorting out unexpected vehicular issues, and you’ll get a bit closer to the actual length of the journey.

There is, of course, a reason for all this hardship. For one thing, placing the Mount Kenya trip in the middle of our travel itinerary offers a brief respite from the sometimes overwhelmingly warm temperatures we experience at the beginning and end of our field course; for another, this scheduling allows us to progressively “ramp up” the Kenya experience as we go along, ensuring that each new destination is more exciting and intense than the last.

For this and many other reasons, the field course can be quite emotionally and physically demanding, which is why I like to sleep as much as humanly possible. On the morning of our journey to the Mara, however, I woke up well before my alarm went off and lay in bed listening to the bizarre sounds of the black-and-white colobus monkeys and rock hyraxes in the trees above my head. Other than our hard-working, early-rising kitchen staff, it sounded as though nobody else was awake, so I decided to visit the shower block to see if I might be able to claim a shower stall and, just maybe, even get a bit of warm water. To my surprise, relief, and great happiness, I was, indeed, able to start my day off with a lovely warm shower. That, in combination with the fact that my stomach seemed to be improving, left me feeling pretty good about the day ahead. Adding to my good cheer was the beautiful sunrise over our camp; little did I know that I would later experience an equally lovely sunset over the Mara.

There was quite a lot of napping in my minibus throughout the day, but I was feeling pretty wide awake since I hadn’t spent all my energy hiking up a mountain the day before. I wiled away the hours looking at scenery and wildlife (black kites galore!) outside my window, and listening to music on my iPhone. I discovered–to my horror!–that my music collection no longer contained Toto’s “Africa,” which I always like to listen to at some point during the field course (just for a laugh). In order to prevent such a catastrophe next year, I immediately put “add Toto” on my list of things to do upon returning to the UK. Luckily, I did still have Paul Simon’s “Graceland” ready and waiting to serve as the perfect soundtrack for a drive through central Kenya.

Around mid-morning or so, we stopped at a rest area that not only has toilets, but also cold drinks and freshly made samosas and mandazis (Kenyan donuts). I don’t normally like donuts or fried foods in general, but there is something about mandazis that makes them irresistible to me. They are quite heavy, and a bit oily from being deep fried, and only have a hint of sweetness; somehow, this is just the right combination for simultaneously minimizing hunger and helping me ward off motion sickness during long car journeys.

As we drove through the outskirts of Nairobi, we were treated to quite an unexpected sight: very upscale and modern-looking subdivisions that contrasted markedly with the poverty-stricken areas through which we had been driving. I noticed that many of these fancy homes were sitting empty, so perhaps these villas had been built out of optimism rather than necessity. Still, it was quite an eye-opening reminder that there is a whole other side to Kenya that we do not spend much, or any, time exploring.

After descending into the Great Rift Valley for the second time during our field course, we drove to Maai Mahiu for a wonderful lunch at another of the rest stops that we revisit each year. Our food was Indian-themed, which is not as unusual a find in Kenya as you might think; Kenya’s colonial history has introduced this and many other foreign influences throughout the country.

Shortly after driving through Narok Town, we turned left off the lovely tarmac highway onto a dirt and gravel road that slowly became less and less passable as we went on. The roads to the Mara have always been quite bad, so we had prepared our students for the discomfort they would experience during the latter portion of our trip; all the same, the bumps and jolts gave all of us a rude awakening (literally, in some cases). On several occasions, the route was so bad that we had to create new tracks, or even pull down low-hanging branches in order to drive through the trees and bypass mud pits and potholes.

Our reward for all this hardship was the spectacular display of wildlife that the Mara has to offer, even to those who are only casually glancing out their windows. At every turn, we saw things like zebras, gazelles, buffaloes, giraffes, woolly-necked storks, widowbirds, fiscals, and eagles. We were also enthusiastically welcomed by countless Masai children who often ran long distances just to stand by the roadside and wave to us as we drove past; their friendliness and excitement began to make us all feel like celebrities.

Our trip was beginning to drag on and we were all anxious to arrive at our campsite so we could set up our tents before nightfall. Even so, we made a quick stop to take advantage of the incredible photo opportunity provided by wildlife walking along the horizon in front of the setting sun. My inner photography buff had been drooling over the scenery for a while, so I was very relieved to have the opportunity to stop for a few snaps.

Shortly thereafter, we finally pulled in to our campsite at the Mara Conservancy. The facilities there are incredibly basic–“long-drop” toilets and a couple basins of water for hand-washing–but the setting is fantastic; there are no fences anywhere in sight, and the wildlife wanders where it pleases. We do, of course, have armed guards that ensure we are protected from dangerous species such as lions and buffalo, but safer organisms such as genets, hyenas, and jackals can come and go at will (as demonstrated by the footage captured on our motion-sensitive cameras–more on which later!).

The Conservancy is also the only place we visit where we have the opportunity to go on a nighttime game drive; this provides us with the chance to see more nocturnally active species such as porcupines, aardvarks, hares, and various felines. As much as I would have loved to have participated in such a game drive, I was so tired by the time my tent was up that I had to take a nap just to have enough energy to make it to dinner. When a few students asked if they could skip the safari and go to bed early, I was all too happy to volunteer to be the staff member left behind to supervise them. I was so exhausted I actually fell asleep between the time that our drivers started their vehicles and backed them out of their parking spots; I continued to sleep so soundly that I failed to hear either the buses returning from their outing, or the nearby hyenas making a racket with their raucous laughter in the middle of the night. I was sad to miss out on the opportunity to add an audio recording of their vocalizations to my collection of African sounds (more on this later, too!). However, all this rest allowed me to be refreshed and energetic the next morning, just in time for our first real game drive through Kenya’s iconic Mara ecosystem.

Mount Kenya: Caitlin’s perspective

There are few things that can make a 4:45 AM wake-up call tolerable, but the beauty of the constellations in a clear sky is definitely one of them. My good spirits were decreased somewhat by the extreme coldness of the tap water in which I washed my face, by were lifted again by the very nourishing pre-hike breakfast served up by our kitchen staff.

The students on my bus also seemed to be quite energized about their impending journey up Mount Kenya; they periodically burst out into song during the drive between our campsite and the national park’s front gates. For the first time since I began coming to Kenya, we pulled over halfway to the park in order to take photos of the mountain; after three years, I finally have images that are not bisected by power lines and telephone poles.

(Dawn over Mt. Kenya)

It always takes a while for officials to process our paperwork at the entrances to national parks, but the wait is quite pleasant (if chilly!) at Mount Kenya since it allows us to look for some of the mountain’s many interesting bird species. On this occasion, we saw red-eyed doves, montane white-eyes, and red-fronted parrots. Once inside the gates, we quickly expanded our lists to include mountain buzzards, Hartlaub’s turacos, mountain greenbuls, and Kendrick’s starlings.

(A view of the peak from inside the gates of the park)

Because I was still feeling a bit under the weather, I volunteered to be the staff member who accompanied our non-walkers up to the Met Station during the shuttle’s first trip up the mountain. I was sad not to make my annual journey up through the eco-zones, but I’d rather be safe than sorry, and this gave fellow instructor Jan a chance to walk up the mountain for the first time in several years. As it turned out, the shuttle journey was actually a pretty exciting affair; we kept encountering ruts and patches of mud, and needed both four-wheel-drive and a bit of luck to make our way up the steep track. Unfortunately, our luck ran out at the very top, in the “driveway” to the Met Station; there, our vehicle got stuck and remained in place for another couple of hours until the sun dried out the mud and gave the tires a bit more traction.

(A very stuck 4×4)

We wandered around the station for a couple of hours, waiting for the others to arrive. As always, there were a variety of birds to watch—Jackson’s francolins, an orange ground-thrush, augur buzzards, dozens of streaky seed-eaters. Unusually, however, there were also many wildflowers to enjoy; the weather has been so mild and rainy that the plants are blooming more abundantly than I have ever previously seen. I saw some type of strawberry, St. John’s wort, clovers, and violets, as well as a number of species that I couldn’t recognize. I was obviously not the only one who appreciated these blossoms—I saw a female sunbird visiting a flower past its prime in order to steal some fluff to line a nest.

(Thawing frost at the Met Station)

(Hanging lichens)

(Lichens, mosses, and more cover a rock near the hiking path up Mount Kenya)

(A Jackson’s francolin foraging for food near where we ate our picnic lunch on Mount Kenya)

(Subalpine clovers so small they were nearly hidden among the grass)

(Streaky seedeater taking a break from eating seeds)

After lunch, I continued my role as chaperone to the shuttle-riders. Our journey down the mountain was slower and more careful than our trip up (perhaps because more damage could be done to the vehicle in that direction?) but otherwise uneventful. As the first people back to the campsite, we were able to avoid standing in line for a shower; we could also nap, or otherwise relax, for a couple extra hours. While I predominantly used the time to read my novel, I also managed to find a way to entertain the kitchen staff: I ran after a female baboon who had invaded our camp in an effort to loot snacks from our tents; unused to seeing either women or mzungus (white people) dealing with baboons so directly, the staff had a good chuckle at my antics.

While we waited for dinner, staff member Sarah retrieved the motion-sensitive cameras she’s been placing around our campsites throughout the trip. So far, most of her recordings have been of people or waving branches, but on this occasion she finally hit the jackpot. She had two clips of baboons using a fallen log to cross the river, and another couple clips of a waterbuck family browsing directly in front of the camera. It was exciting to finally see some wildlife on the footage; we could only hope that it was a sign of more good things to come during our impending stay in the Mara.

The grand finale to the day was our Africa-related pub quiz, which featured questions about wildlife, politics, culture, and staff members. The students probably got the most enjoyment out of the final two rounds; during these, course leader Brendan Godley performed snippets of songs whose names and performers were to be named, and lecturer Dave Hodgson mimicked animal calls in the hopes that students would recognize the original organisms responsible for these vocalizations. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the team that won included both a Kenyan and a South African; their reward was a free round of drinks, though, really, anyone who got to hear our staff performers was also a winner.

After the quiz, the bar’s DJ tried to create a party atmosphere with an unusual mixture of old and current dance music from around the world. Unfortunately for him, people were pretty weary from their long trek and even longer day; it did not take long for people to dissipate and head back to their tents for some well-earned rest.

Lake Nakuru (Day 2): Caitlin’s perspective

In previous years, we have left Top Camp early in the morning in order to travel to Lake Nakuru in time for an early game drive. Part of the fun of staying in the park is that you can rise early and head out into the field before the sun is even up—no long road trip to get there, no long wait at the gate while the tickets are sorted.

We were so organized this morning that it was still dark for the first half hour or so of our drive, during which time we could hear many tantalizing noises, but could not see anything in the murky forest or grassland. One of our first sightings was a bird that had been a common find the evening before: an augur buzzard. We eventually added several other species, perhaps most exciting of which was the grey-headed helmet-shrike; the family that we encountered was located in almost exactly the same place where we had seen the same species last year, suggesting that the birds were maintaining a prime territory in the park.

(Morning at Lake Nakuru)

(We had a fantastic long-crested eagle sighting right by the side of the road)

Although the students were particularly keen to spot another leopard, we ended up seeing the other big cat in Lake Nakuru:  lions. Actually, we wound up with two lion sightings, the first of which was made possible by a tip from another safari driver in the park. Our driver, Elijah, received a phone call and told us that there was potentially something very exciting just up the road; indeed, we found three lions lounging in the shade of a large tree. The students were so exciting about the lion sighting that they were willing to speed right past a group of feeding rhinos in order to get there. Incredibly, the second sighting occurred just outside the fence of our campsite. There, lions had made a kill during our absence, and two of the cats were defending their prize from a half dozen jackals and some greedy-looking vultures; they were also being dive-bombed by a brave pied crow. It was quite a surprise to come home to such exciting activity right on our own front porch, as it were, though also a little unnerving to think about how easily the large cats could have hopped over our fence if they’d really wanted to (though why would they with such an abundance of their natural prey available?).

(This is not just a photo of a beautiful landscape; look closely and you may spot some lions lounging under the tree in the center)

(A family of white rhinos–probably the same ones we’d seen the previous evening down by the shoreline of Lake Nakuru)

(We also saw many baboons, of which the students are now very wary because of their experiences at Baboon Cliff)

(Bitter apple nightshade, a plant commonly seen growing by the roadside in Kenya)

We eventually had to tear ourselves away from this natural soap opera in order to have a late breakfast and pack up in preparation for our trip to Naro Moru, our home for the next 3 nights. The drive is not the longest we undertake, but it can still be a little tedious, so we broke it up into several portions separated by brief recreational breaks. Our first stop was at Thompson’s Fall Lodge, where we looked at the waterfall, observed a chameleon that had serendipitously been located near the toilets, and enjoyed some chilled Coca-Cola out of glass bottles—one of the greatest pleasures that can be experienced in the middle of a hot and dusty Kenyan day. Not long afterwards, we stopped again for a picnic lunch at a shop located on (or more likely near) the Equator. The shopkeepers let us use their toilets and chairs/tables because they know that at least some of us will purchase souvenirs; they also earn a small fee by doing a demonstration of how water (supposedly) spirals in different directions when poured on different sides of the Equator.

Having already visited, and shopped in, Kenya twice before, I had not intended to purchase any souvenirs. However, a carved cat caught my eye as I walked through the store, and I could not resist purchasing it. At the insistence of one of the sales people, I haggled very weakly, bargaining him down a mere 300 shillings. Later, however, I made up for this by haggling for another souvenir like a pro; it is the first time I have ever managed to do this, and I am quite proud of myself. I wound up buying two items for 1200 shillings instead of a single item at the original named price of 3700 shillings. A minor portion of the final price—200 shillings—was sneakily pocketed directly by the salesperson, who told his boss at the register that the entire transaction was only 1000 shillings. I don’t mind that at all, though a part of me feels a little guilty about bringing down the price of the items so low. It’s true that shop owners grossly inflate the cost of everything in order to make as great a profit as possible off tourists, but it’s also true that even the exorbitant price is something that I can easily afford—and something that could significantly influence the quality of life for all those who ultimately receive a piece of that payment. Like many aspects of tourism in Kenya, it is a conundrum.

After our lunch break, we made the final push for our campsite. Our route took us past the far side of Solio Game Reserve, which we would be visiting the following day. Solio has a number of unusual and interesting species—including camels (which I assume are semi- or wholly domesticated) oryx, which I have heard about previously but not spotted until today. As much as our eyes were on the animals on the other side of the fence, we were also watching the horizon, where we could see Mount Kenya looming before us behind a massive storm front. We experienced a brief period of intense rain, but luckily this cleared up before we arrived at Mountain Rock Lodge and began to set up our tents.

Mountain Rock is a rather luxurious campsite, where hot showers are the norm rather than the exception, and where there is a bar where students can buy drinks and relax in front of a roaring fire while waiting for dinner to be prepared. Before that could happen, though, we heard a brief talk from Kenyan staff member Martin Odino of Wildlife Direct, who discussed the avian diversity of Kenya and his efforts to conserve it. Throughout the trip, Martin has been known as the person to help with bird identifications, and this presentation offered him an opportunity to show how he applies his expertise.

Post-presentation drinks were followed by a late dinner, after which the students prepared themselves to experience the excitement of trying to sleep through the cacophony of tree hyrax calling.