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When I last posted, we were gearing up for migration peak. Peak is a week or two when the raptors move in concentrated numbers over the headlands, and is the time when both Hawkwatch and Banding report their highest numbers. People at GGRO talk about Peak with excitement, anticipation, and an almost nervous energy. I’ve had multiple volunteers tell me that I won’t fully understand the work we do at GGRO until I’ve seen Peak.

A juvenile Peregrine Falcon fighting with a raven

A juvenile Peregrine Falcon fighting with a raven

Unfortunately, Peak is a somewhat elusive concept. Over the years, our director Allen Fish has put together all sorts graphs charting out average raptor numbers at certain dates over the years, and the Peak has stayed fairly steady around the end of the September. However, 30 years of data averages out a lot of unpredictability. It turns out that predicting the high point in advance is very difficult, as is recognizing it when you’re in the middle. Peak this year certainly hasn’t gone exactly how people expected it to, and we aren’t sure if it’s over yet or not.

 

Instead of a full week of consistently high numbers, we’ve had a handful of random high days scattered across the past two weeks. There was a storm front that hit the headlands right in the middle of the predicted peak, so it’s possible that that’s what disrupted it, but the reality is that we know very little about what actually controls bird migration, so there are a lot of different theories about what might be responsible: maybe the drought made it more difficult for birds to build up food reserves to migrate at the usual time, maybe there was a different weather pattern north in Canada that influenced birds farther up the migration “pipeline,” maybe birds are shifting their nesting date which would also move their migration date, or maybe it’s just random chance.

A Golden Eagle that soared over Hawkwatch

A Golden Eagle that soared over Hawkwatch

 

Luckily, I happened to be on our peak Banding day, as well as our highest Hawkwatch day so far. Up to that point in Banding, I hadn’t been in a blind with more than a few raptors at once, and I was worried that I wouldn’t have the experience built up to deal with a rush of birds. We caught 36 birds on our Peak day, and it was such a whirlwind that I quickly lost count. I definitely appreciated what training I’d had, since it allowed me to not be as stressed as I could have been. The pace itself was not so insane, but the care needed to make sure we still got adequate data on each bird but didn’t stress it out by holding it too long was a careful balancing act between speed and accuracy that made everything feel urgent.

A Merlin

A Merlin

Marc with Merlin

Me holding a Red-Shouldered Hawk

Me holding a Red-Shouldered Hawk

Our Hawkwatch peak was similarly frenetic, especially early in the day. In a strange way, it reminded me of the whirl of energy that happens in a newspaper editing room the night of publication—everyone running back and forth, hurriedly yelling important data, trying to keep track of all the moving pieces while hastily putting together a finished collection of information. My identification skills had to keep up with the fast stream of birds, and I didn’t have as much time to sit and ponder all of the characteristics on each bird in front of me, I just had to trust in my own abilities and go for it (or make a quick judgment call and say things like “unidentified accipiter” if I couldn’t decide between Cooper’s Hawk or Sharp-Shinned Hawk).

A dark morph adult red tailed hawk

A dark morph adult red tailed hawk

A male American Kestrel (with a deceptive tail)

A male American Kestrel (with a deceptive tail)

***

 

A Ferruginous hawk

A Ferruginous hawk

A distant Ferruginous Hawk showing the characteristic three points of light on the wings and tail

A distant Ferruginous Hawk showing the characteristic three points of light on the wings and tail

I have been very lucky in both Banding and Hawkwatch to get to see and handle some of the rarer birds for this region. We’ve seen a good number of Ferruginous Hawks from the hill, which are very large, light buteos (the group of raptors that includes the bigger birds with large, dark-tipped, squared-off wings, like Red-tailed Hawks). When you see them coming head-on, they just look like a giant white V. We’ve also had some Swainson’s Hawks (another, much darker buteo) fly right over the top of the hill. In Banding, I’ve held multiple Merlins (an adorable little falcon that flies so fast they are notoriously difficult to catch). I was extremely lucky on our peak day to process a Red-Shouldered Hawk, and the season’s first Broadwing Hawk. Both of those are smaller buteos, the Red-shouldered with gorgeous dark reddish colors, and the Broadwing with a very light underside and more squat proportions.

A Broadwing Hawk. This one has the classic "pairing knife" shape to its wings in a glide. Birders used to think they didn't exist on the West Coast until organizations like GGRO documented their migration through the area.

A Broadwing Hawk. This one has the classic “pairing knife” shape to its wings in a glide. Birders used to think they didn’t exist on the West Coast until organizations like GGRO documented their migration through the area.

Some various buteos: An Adult Red-Tailed Hawk

Some other buteos: An Adult Red-Tailed Hawk

A Swainson's Hawk

A Swainson’s Hawk

However my favorite so far was the juvenile female Northern Harrier. Harriers (historically called Marsh hawks) are very unique raptors. Allen likes to describe them as the Frankenstein of raptors: take an accipiter tail, add buteo wings, and an owl face, and you get a harrier. They have a strangely stretched appearance to them, and they can ghost so close to the ground that they seem to appear out of nowhere. They hunt the contours of the land looking for small mammals, and they use their disk-shaped face to help them hear the scuttling of voles in the underbrush before they pounce down with their long legs. When I held the one we caught up close, her face was so beautiful, with rich dark browns and red. Her body was smaller than I had imagined—the wings are so large they give an inflated sense of size—but her legs were far longer than I expected. It was so special getting to release her and watch her fly away.

Me with the Northern Harrier

Me with the Northern Harrier

Me releasing the Northern Harrier

Me releasing the Northern Harrier

***

 

Shorter Bird Notes:

 

A large portion of the raptors that migrate through the headlands are Cooper’s Hawks and Sharp-Shinned Hawks. These are both Accipiters, which is a genus, or grouping of species, that also includes Northern Goshawks, although I have yet to see one of those out here. They are compact raptors that hunt with a focused tenacity that actually makes them look a bit silly. As is true for most raptors, the females are larger than the males. For Cooper’s Hawks and Sharp-Shinned Hawks, the difference can be quite large. So although the “Coops” tend to be larger than the “Sharpies,” there is some size overlap (at least on the West Coast). This, combined with their extremely similar shape and coloration, makes them very difficult to identify. In the end, much of what I learn on Hawkwatch is new tips for how to tell them apart, and for a beginner, I feel pretty good about my progress. However, they are very, very good at trying to trick us.

A Cooper's Hawk

A Cooper’s Hawk

A very, very full Sharp-Shinned Hawk. This fat girl is so big she's very easy to confuse as a cooper's hawk

A very, very full Sharp-Shinned Hawk. This fat girl is so big she’s very easy to confuse as a cooper’s hawk

The day after the storm front moved over the Headlands, we had an explosion of termites. Definitely not as large or as numerous as the ones we had in Kenya, but it was cool to see that even here, the insects work on their own rhythm. Hawk Hill was covered with them during Hawkwatch as they spilled up out of the moist soil, but I was surprised at how few other animals I saw turn out to eat them.

A house finch that came out during hawk watch (but did not eat the termites)

A house finch that came out during hawk watch (but did not eat the termites)

People don’t appreciate Turkey Vultures enough. A lot of volunteers at GGRO scoff at their designation as raptors and the fact that we collect data on them at all. As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, “raptor” is a fairly loose term that originally had more to the do with the look and loosely defined behavior of a bird than its genetic relatedness or diet. However, vultures share many convergent characteristics with other raptors, such as hooked bill and talons, and they eat meat. More importantly than just how they are classified, vultures play an incredibly important role as scavengers. Their scientific name, Cathartes aura, means purifier. They have some really interesting adaptations for locating and consuming carrion, such as an impressive immune system and incredible sense of smell. Unfortunately, Turkey Vultures, despite being common and extremely widespread from Canada to the tip of South America, are not invulnerable to the impacts of humans. Because they can often live close to humans and agricultural areas, they tend to accumulate pesticides and other contaminants like lead shot or poison from baited carcasses. They are also often fall victim to (mostly accidental) collisions, electrocution, trapping, and shooting. They are also the most common bird to get hit by an airplane. Thankfully, most intentional efforts to eradicate vultures have ceased, and their numbers have been increasing in the past fifty years, so now we just need a few more people to recognize how cool these birds really are.

A turkey vulture (notice the deviated septum, aka the hole in its nose. This helps it smell better)

A turkey vulture (notice the deviated septum, aka the hole in its nose. This helps it smell better)

We’re about a month into the field season here at GGRO, and it feels great to be collecting data. Now that we’re really seeing and handling raptors, the pace of learning has definitely picked up. And it’s about to get even busier as we start to head into peak season in the next few weeks.

Red-tailed hawk juvenile gliding

Red-tailed hawk juvenile gliding

Hawkwatch has been slowly building as more birds start to trickle through the area. I have yet to experience a truly busy day on Hawk Hill (the place where we conduct the count), but the slow start is helpful because we get to take our time looking at and identifying the birds. As much work as we’ve done with learning to identify birds from photos, there are many things that didn’t solidify until I got out to the field. I’m starting to immediately differentiate Turkey Vulture and Red-tailed Hawks from miles away just based on the way they hold their wings: Vultures tend to soar without flapping, and hold their wings way up in a big V, usually called a “dihedral.” Red-tailed Hawks keep their wings very flat and often “still” in one place while they scan the ground for prey. Some of the identifying features that we learn about in ID classes become easier or harder out in the field. For example, Red-shouldered hawks have bright crescent-shaped light patches on the ends of their wings where the light shines through like a window. These windows are one of the best ways to ID them, but they don’t show up nearly as well in photos as they do in real life. On the other hand, an American Kestrel is so small and usually flies by the hill so quickly, that most of the specific ID features (like the striping on the cheeks) tend to blend together and become less important than overall shape, coloration, and behavior.

A Juvenile Red-tailed Hawk "stilling"

A Juvenile Red-tailed Hawk “stilling” (same bird as above)

Hawkwatch is also a nice opportunity to get to know a lot of the volunteers, and since the whole team for the day is together on the hill at once (rather than in Banding, where everyone is spread out in different banding blinds), it feels like more of a group activity.

Scanning the skies during Hawkwatch

Scanning the skies during Hawkwatch

For me, Banding has been both the most exciting and the most boring part of the job. When you’re catching birds, it’s an exhilarating experience, but when you sit in the cramped, dark, cold blind for eight hours and barely even see a raptor, it gets pretty hard to stay awake. This early in the season, there are definitely slow banding days, and it’s entirely based on luck and weather as to what (if anything) you’ll catch. Because natural systems are wild and unpredictable, all fieldwork has some component of chance associated with it. I’ve already heard many banders say that this is a substitute for gambling, and I can certainly see that. But if my luck with Banding so far is any indication, I should stay far away from Vegas. I’ve only caught birds about half the time that I’ve been out, but those times have definitely made up for the others.

 

The first raptor I got to handle was my third time out when we caught a juvenile female Red-tailed Hawk. She was such a big bird, and felt so warm and substantial held close to my body. One of the first things I noticed about that hawk was her distinctive, almost dog-like musk that was rich and somehow comforting. I never even thought beforehand about how raptors must have a specific smell, just like most animals, but they absolutely do. It’s a very pleasant odor, though I’ve been warned that some of them do smell particularly skunky or like wet dogs.

Me releasing a juvenile Red-tailed Hawk

Me releasing a juvenile Red-tailed Hawk

That Red-tailed Hawk was very calm, and I surprised myself to realize that I felt so calm around her too, even as I was also thrilling in the experience. I loved watching her giant eyes dilate and focus on the world around her. She was a perfect bird for my first processing experience, because she held still for all of the measurements, but was also big enough that I had to be confident in my handholds.

 

Most of the birds I’ve handled so far have been juvenile female Cooper’s Hawks. At first, I thought I wouldn’t like these birds at all, because the first one I saw up close bit my Site Leader until she bled, and took some good chomps at my fingers too. While the beak of a raptor looks intimidating, it is really the feet that are its main killing tools. Because raptor feet and talons are big, strong, and dangerous, that is the point of the bird that is most important to control. This means that sometimes a feisty bird can bite banders with impunity anywhere it can reach, because they are focused on the feet. Many smaller birds take advantage of this, presumably because they know they don’t have as many other defenses, so they want to do as much as they can to encourage whatever is holding them to let go. Cooper’s Hawks especially have very long legs and are excellent at reaching out and “footing” things very quickly, so I always make sure I have a very, very good grip on the legs, which gives the beak a lot of leeway. However, it doesn’t hurt as much as I thought it would, and sometimes just letting a bird bite seems to calm it down.

Nancy, one of my Day Leaders, releasing a Cooper's Hawk

Nancy, one of my Day Leaders, releasing the “crazy” Cooper’s Hawk

Despite the biting, I really like Cooper’s Hawks. They are very focused and determined in the way they hunt, sometimes to the point of silliness. I’ve seen Cooper’s Hawks go after prey on foot, looking for all the world like a mini velociraptor.

A closeup of a juvenile female Cooper's Hawk

A closeup of a juvenile female Cooper’s Hawk

The other raptors I’ve gotten to handle are American Kestrels. These birds are tiny, colorful, and vexing. They like to come up to the nets in the site and act like they are about to get caught, only to veer off at the last second, or even sit on the net support poles and call irritably while everyone in the blind silently pleads with them to just go into the net already. When we actually manage to catch one, however, they’re a lot of fun to process because they are so tiny and cute (I have also been told that they tend to bite more than Cooper’s Hawks, but I have yet to have a feisty one in hand). The tails on the females look like tiger stripes and I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of admiring their plumage.

A juvenile female American Kestrel, showing off its tail

A juvenile female American Kestrel showing off its tail

With banding, I really get a close-up view of the birds and get to respect both their strength and their frailty, and admire their intense beauty. Most of all, I appreciate how every one is different—from plumage or measurements to personality and behavior. It’s fun to wonder about where they came from, where they’ll go next, and how (or whether) they will survive the long migration ahead of them.

 

***

 

Other interesting stories/thoughts from the past month:

 

The Steller’s Jays outside our house are very good at imitating Red-Tailed Hawk calls, and it gets me every time. In fact, as I was writing this blog post, one of them started doing it again, and I had to get up two times and go look before I was sure it was actually just the snarky little mimics fooling me again. They are such clever birds, it’s nice having them live so close.

 

We’ve seen a lot of Golden Eagles on Hawkwatch and it makes me wonder why there are so many compared with previous years.

 

In talking with some of the volunteers who also do raptor nesting surveys, it sounds like it’s been a pretty dismal year for the raptors nesting in the Bay Area. I wonder how that will impact the birds we see on Hawkwatch, or the health of those we catch.

 

I am having so much fun cooking on my own. I love looking up recipes online, or just throwing stuff into a pan and seeing what happens. I am rarely disappointed.

 

We can see very far from up on Hawk Hill. Since we’re so high up, we get a bit of a birds eye view ourselves, but it’s easy to tell that a lot of people on the roads and trails below don’t realize that we can see them. It ends up being a very interesting time to people-watch when the birds are slow. My favorite sighting so far was a man dressed as Santa Claus shaking peoples’ hands at one of the sightseeing pull-offs along the road. It seems a little early for that.

When I tell people that I work at the Golden Gate Raptor Association, it’s not unusual to get some variant on the following response:

 

Friend: Wow that’s so cool! But isn’t it dangerous?

Me: Not really, we take very careful precautions and they’re not as dangerous to humans as most people think.

Friend: But don’t they have really long claws? And I’ve heard they can run really fast, and even open doors.

Me: … We aren’t talking about the same kind of raptors, are we?

Friend: But aren’t you working with dinosaurs?

 Me: *facepalms*

 

So, if you were picturing the two-legged terrors from Jurassic Park when you read the word “raptor,” clearly you are not alone. Alas for Dinosaur Ecologists (a real profession, often called Paleoecology), velociraptors are extinct and the rest of us must content ourselves with studying their cousins: predatory birds. (Another interesting side note: Birds probably evolved from a group of dinosaurs that includes the velociraptor, so the confusion about the name may unintentionally reflect the similarities of both kinds of raptors. New research reported in National Geographic suggests that velociraptors had hollow bones and although flightless probably even had feathers.)

 

Despite it's similarity to a velociraptor, this Secretary Bird is an avian raptor all the way

Despite it’s similarity to a velociraptor, this Secretary Bird is an avian raptor all the way

To be honest, the term “raptor” often seems a little vague to me as well. This may be because the term originally had more to do with the appearance of the bird than its actual ecology. “Raptor” is generally used for any bird of prey, but as the Raptor Research Foundation’s website points out, nature does not always clearly follow our human-imposed classification systems. Nevertheless, most raptors share important ecological functions that still make it a useful term to understand the roles they play along the food chain.

 

To give a better sense, here are some of the birds included in the term “raptor”: Hawks, Eagles, Vultures, Falcons, Ospreys, Owls, Secretary Birds, and Caracaras. It does not include birds like penguins or herons, despite the fact that both of these are very capable hunters. To narrow it down a little more regionally, some of the most common raptor species that I am likely to see with the GGRO are Turkey Vultures, Red-Tailed Hawks, Sharp-Shinned Hawks, Cooper’s Hawks, Northern Harriers, Red-Shouldered Hawks, and American Kestrels.

Kori Bustard: Not a Raptor (despite its large size and dinosaur-like gait) (taken in the Mara)

Kori Bustard: Not a Raptor (despite its large size and dinosaur-like gait) (photo taken in the Mara)

(White-backed?) Vulture: Definitely a Raptor

(White-backed?) Vulture: Definitely a Raptor

Black-crowned plover and its baby: Not a Raptor (photo taken in the Mara)

Black-crowned plover and its baby: Not a Raptor

Osprey with a decapitated fish: Definitely a Raptor

Osprey with a decapitated fish: Definitely a Raptor (photo taken in Belize)

Pelican: Not a Raptor (despite being good at catching fish)

Pelican: Not a Raptor (despite being good at catching fish)

 

Now that this gives a better sense of what a raptor is, we can move to what is likely the more important question: What about them are we studying and why?

 

The “what” is a bit easier to answer because it deals with the mechanics of the study, so I’ll start with that. The Golden Gate Raptor Observatory has been studying raptors since 1986 through a combination of Hawkwatch and Banding programs, which I outlined in my previous post, but will expand on here. Hawkwatch uses a systematic technique to count the raptors migrating through the headlands. Some raptors are residents, meaning they breed and winter in the same area without migrating. However, many will move to find the places where they can get the most food, which usually results in a fall migration. At the beginning of summer, most raptors begin moving from their breeding grounds to their wintering grounds further south. Because of the way the San Francisco Bay is formed, it channels these southbound raptors along the headlands as they follow the land to avoid flying over open water. The hills of the Headlands also provide excellent thermals as the wind rises off of the ocean, providing perfect gliding conditions for migrating birds that don’t want to expend too much energy flapping. All of this funnels raptors into a smaller area where they are easier to count. Through Hawkwatch, we get long-term trends in the numbers of different species, the timing of their migration, their age (juvenile or adult), and sex-ratios for the ones where we can tell males and females apart. For example, from 1986 to 2009, the GGRO has documented the post-DDT era recovery of Peregrine Falcons. (For more data from the GGRO, visit their website http://www.parksconservancy.org/programs/ggro/ and look at Reports and Summaries).

 

By contrast, Banding is when we catch raptors in order to band and measure them. Banding is a mainstay of bird research all over the world. Essentially, when scientists band a bird they put a small aluminum bracelet around its leg that has a phone number, website, and serial number stamped on it. Some places will also attach a second plastic color band that is easier to read from a distance. Each band has a unique code so that it can be traced back to a single bird. All the bands in US come from the Bird Banding Laboratory and are entered into a government database so that if someone finds a band, they can report it (www.reportband.gov). This online system then notifies the organization that banded the bird with information such as how the band was encountered and where. It’s a very simple system, but works surprisingly well when it’s carried out on a large scale.

 

Banding a flammulated owl (photo taken in Colorado)

Banding a flammulated owl (photo taken in Colorado)

A flam nestling showing off its band

A flam nestling showing off its band

It’s always interesting to hear the stories behind banding encounters. One of the banders told us about how a Peregrine Falcon the GGRO banded later went on to nest on a high rise in San Fransisco, where someone managed to read the band on the bird as it perched outside the window. However, at the GGRO most bands are found (or “recovered” as we so euphemistically call it) when a raptor dies. Most of the raptors that are migrating through the Headlands in the summer are juvenile birds that were born a few months ago and are just making their first migration; unfortunately for them, it’s a difficult journey that most of them won’t survive. A lot of times hikers find dead banded birds and report them to park rangers or directly to the website. Migration is hard enough on its own, but these birds are also passing through miles and miles of human-dominated landscapes with all of the various hazards we unknowingly impose. The GGRO has collected hundreds of stories of birds that were recovered after they smashed into a window, were hit by a car, or tried to fly through a wind turbine. One of the most disturbing causes of death, at least to me after my experiences watching the aftermath of poisonings in Kenya, is how many raptors die from rat poison. Usually, this happens by accident, when people are trying to deal with a rodent infestation without knowing that the toxins can travel up the food chain when a raptor eats a poisoned rat.

 

Overall, this banding data helps us figure out how far and where raptors are migrating, what they are dying from, and how long they live. However, we do more than just put a band on a bird when we catch it. The Banding project also encompasses the careful measurements we take when we catch a bird. This can tell us a lot about the range of physical characteristics of raptors, and we can compare this with other sites around the world to examine regional differences. Physical measurements can also indicate overall health of the bird and we can even use them as early indications that a population is in trouble. We can also take blood samples to look at genetics, endoparasites, and a wide range of tests that help analyze the health of the bird on a finer scale. Every year, the banding program also puts out a small number of radio and Global Systems for Mobile (GSM) trackers on birds to follow their movements. These data are invaluable for looking at where different populations come from, and most importantly, how they’re doing. Because raptors are often top predators, this actually puts them in a precarious and ecologically important position, so careful monitoring is essential for their conservation. The understanding and conservation of raptors is therefore our primary objective. There are many people who debate the ethics of handling wild animals, but to me, preserving the untouched majesty of a bird isn’t worth it if it goes extinct.

 

All together, the GGRO collects a huge amount of data on these avian (not dinosaurian) top predators and I am excited be a part of it. The 2014 field season kicks off today, and I will try to keep updating about my adventures on Hawkwatch and Banding amid all the long, hectic days in the fog and wind.

 

Also, seriously, explore the links on the GGRO website, there is a ton of information there: http://www.parksconservancy.org/programs/ggro/

My new home. The interns' National Parks Service housing

My new home. The interns’ National Parks Service housing

My new workplace, the intern office

My new workplace, the intern office

I just completed my first month as an intern for the Golden Gate Raptor Observatory. It’s been a wonderful first month, despite the fact that I have few exciting stories to share out of it. It’s been hard figuring out what to write about now that I’m back in the US. Life is so different here in every way imaginable, and yet slipping back into a different rhythm has been relatively easy. So easy that it’s a bit unnerving. It already feels like this past year was some sort of dream because of my inability to correctly communicate what it was like. I don’t want the things I learned to fall by the wayside, or for my experiences to be wholly un-relatable to the life I lead afterwards. I don’t want to forget that I don’t actually need most of the things that are a part of my life when I am in the US, but rather that they are privileges that must be appreciated for what they are.

 

There are so many things that I notice and find interesting, amazing, disturbing, or unpleasant after my year abroad. Many of them are food-related (how much I missed cheese, nectarines, or ice-cream), or pertain to overlooked amenities we enjoy in the US (easy access to the internet, roads that are paved and incredibly well maintained, mainstream bike usage, health and safety). There are a ton of small things that I miss from Kenya: I notice how much my vocabulary has changed over the past year, especially with the inclusion of Swahili or Maa phrases; the grocery stores here make me feel overwhelmed and panicky; I love cooking for myself but I also miss Joseph’s food; and I never thought I’d say this, but I actually miss car checks.

 

However, there are some things that I miss about Fisi Camp or notice in the US that seem to hit on a larger concept of my sense of place and self.

  • Driving in the US does not feel as safe as I thought it would after being in Nairobi, partially because everyone drives so fast here and there are so many more rules. In a strange way, I actually felt more comfortable driving in Nairobi than I do here.
  • I have missed an entire year of pop culture, news, and politics and I’m mostly fine with that. It was strange to come home and realize that there were some very important news stories I had completely missed (such as Ukraine).
  • The US (or at least the places I tend to live within it) feels so incredibly, uncomfortably white, and in some ways I feel even more aware of my race here as I readjust back to the culture in which I grew up.
  • I don’t really have to think about dangerous animals at all or be as alert when I walk places. However, in some ways I also miss the daily adrenaline surge I got when I walked to and from my tent in the dark.
  • Lastly, I still think about the poisoning almost every single day, not usually with as much of an emotional attachment any more, but it just pops up a lot as so emblematic of conservation struggles more broadly, as well as personally to my own experiences this past year.

 

a dew-covered spider web on the trail I take to work

a dew-covered spider web on the trail I take to work

For all of that, however, I am so grateful to be living and working in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. It is a startling contrast to the Mara, but intensely beautiful nonetheless. The fog that perpetually blankets the Marin Headlands behaves like some sort of animal in its own right, and the winds that make it such a great place for raptor migrations are constantly pushing the clouds around. Whenever the fog drifts up or (more rarely) dissipates and I get a glimpse of the Golden Gate Bridge standing over the Bay, I feel so intensely happy to have landed in yet another stunning place on planet Earth.

the NPS stables covered in fog

the NPS stables covered in fog

the scenery on the way to work

the foggy scenery on the way to work

 

the view from the Miwok trail

the view from the Miwok trail

We’ve spent this first month preparing for the migration season, which will begin in the middle of August. Once the migration starts, our main tasks will be working on Hawkwatch and Banding, the two main data-collecting functions of GGRO. Hawkwatch is when we will identify and count the various raptor species that migrate through the area each day. Banding will consist of catching, measuring, weighing, and banding raptors. Bands are essentially numbered metal rings that we attach to a bird’s ankle so that if it is ever recovered (most often found dead) or caught again (either at GGRO or somewhere else), we will know that bird’s history; this allows us to look at things like how long a bird lives and how far it travels. The data from Hawkwatch and Banding together help us pull together an incredible amount of information on migration, ecology, physiology, demographics, life history, health and more. These data are ultimately used to further scientific understanding, and most importantly (to me at least), conserve these important aerial predators.

 

Pelicans in Rodeo Lagoon

Pelicans in Rodeo Lagoon (not a raptor but still cool)

a cormorant in Rodeo Lagoon

a cormorant in Rodeo Lagoon

California Quail and chick

California Quail and chick in front of our house

A very well camouflaged California Quail chick

A very well camouflaged California Quail chick

In addition to Hawkwatch and Banding, we will help to coordinate volunteer efforts, conduct independent research projects, and basically help make sure everything is running smoothly while hopefully learning a lot along the way. Until the migration starts, however, we are mostly doing odd jobs around the office, cleaning out cages, constructing banding blinds and platforms, repairing and testing nets, and above all, learning to identify the various raptor species we will see once the migration starts. The process for IDing raptor species reminds me of learning hyena spot patterns, except that there is a huge amount of individual variation within each species, I will have to identify them from extremely long distances (at least during Hawkwatch), and I have a much shorter amount of time before I need to be proficient in my ability to distinguish animals.

 

Part of why I was so excited to work with GGRO is because the organization is mostly comprised of volunteers. The people who donate their time to help collect information on raptors are incredibly passionate and skilled, and it has been immensely fun to start getting to know them. Everyone I work with is interesting, enthusiastic, and personable. I can’t wait for the migration to start!

another dew-drop covered spider web

another dew-drop covered spider web

Rodeo beach, in front of our office

Rodeo beach, in front of our office

I’m finally back home in Oregon for a short while before I move on to the next adventure. I was hoping to write more before I left Kenya or at least sooner after I arrived back in the states, but as always, I needed a bit more transition time than I anticipated on both ends.

 

My last week in Kenya was very nice. I got to meet some of the researchers that are coming in as I leave, and I had a fun time soaking up the wisdom of the older generation from Kay and Dee. My favorite moment was one night when Kay jokingly asked me who I would like them to dart before I left. I say “jokingly” because it’s next to impossible to pick ahead of time who you will dart, since it’s hard to predict which hyenas you will even see on a given day, let alone which ones will present themselves in perfect darting conditions. I put my bid in for Princess Buttercup (Pbut for short), Parcheesi’s year-old cub and the first black cub I ever saw. She is a bold but not exactly brilliant cub, and is one of my favorites because of her funny antics. I didn’t really expect them to be able to dart her, but then the next day, Hadley texted Dee and me to come to the other car.

Pbut! Notice how her teeth still haven't come in yet

Pbut! Notice how her teeth still haven’t come in yet

Benson holding Pbut. She's so small one person can carry her.

Benson holding Pbut. She’s so small one person can carry her.

 

Sure enough, Hadley managed to fulfill my parting wish, and they darted Pbut as she was wandering across a field. She is just den graduating (growing old enough that she begins to move around on her own) and was by far the youngest cub I’d ever seen darted. She didn’t even have all of her teeth in yet. Since she was born almost at the same time as I came out to the Hyena Project, it felt very full circle to get to say goodbye to her in person.

 

I felt so confident in my ability to do my job well, and also recognized so many places for improvement, that it was hard to leave feeling like there was more I could do out there. However, I was also ready to come home. Kenya is a gorgeous country but it is not always an easy place to work, and while I constantly miss the hyenas and the people I worked with, there is a decently long list of things that I will not miss at all (#1 would probably be the blatant and pervasive corruption).

Sunrise from my last hot air balloon ride

Sunrise from my last hot air balloon ride

Hadley on our final balloon flight together

Hadley on our final balloon flight together

a vulture's nest from the air

a vulture’s nest from the air

View from the balloon out towards Serena

View from the balloon out towards Serena

Also before I left, I got one last encounter with the black mamba (which may not actually be a black mamba, as I’ll explain). This time, I was trying to get a look at an elephant that was foraging near my tent in the middle of the day and determine whether it was about to bring a branch down on the tarp, when I saw something move out of the corner of my eye. I saw a very long silvery-brownish-grey body slide into a complex of holes that used to belong to a rat that I hadn’t seen in a few weeks (now we know why). Kay is taking the whole snake thing very seriously, and apparently by now they have installed a critter camera to try to catch the snake in motion, figure out where it’s spending most of it’s time, and determine exactly which species it is. Kay explained that based on my description and the fact that it ran away from me the first time, there is a possibility that it could be a cobra, which are known to be less aggressive and at least slightly less deadly (though versus a black mamba, pretty much anything is less deadly. Also, one last chance for me to throw in a cool hyena fact: Kay has seen hyenas get attacked by deadly cobras and survive, and I have also heard accounts of them surviving black mamba bites unscathed).

 

I had some fun leaving luck on the way out and got to see lots of cute cubs and the start of the migration again. I had been soaking up every moment for the last few months but it was still nice to see lions and hyena babies one last time.

Two young lions mating

Two young lions mating

Helios nursing Tira (Tierra Del Fuego) and Rion (Rio Negro)

Helios nursing Tira (Tierra Del Fuego) and Rion (Rio Negro)

Helios with one of her cubs

Helios with one of her cubs

Some black-backed jackals being cute

Some black-backed jackals being cute

The migration came back just before I left

The migration came back just before I left

I got to meet Kenna, one of Kay’s graduate students, in Nairobi before I left. Kenna is working with hyena vocalizations and has some really awesome theories that I hope to get updates about. Hyenas have a huge range of sounds that they can make, and these vocalizations comprise another facet of their complex social lives; now, sound analysis technology is advanced enough that Kenna may be able to analyze more specific differences in calls, as well as the situations in which they are used. She has some cool ideas about how rank might influence when hyenas vocalize, and how unique vocalizations might play a role in attracting a mate.

 

Finally, my time in Kenya was up. I lugged my giant suitcases to the airport, got to very, very briefly meet two of the new Research Assistants who flew in the same evening that I left, enjoy the last ineptitude of Kenya’s inefficient airport organization, and then bid the cool East African night farewell.

Baez at the new den

Baez at the new den

 

***

 

I decided to split up the long journey home and visit my friend Lindsay, who is studying abroad in Germany. I stayed with her for a little less than a week, spending most of my time in Göttingen, the university town that’s known for it’s famous alumni and teachers, including the Brothers Grimm and Gauss.

 

As someone with European Jewish ancestry, Germany has always held a certain negative connotation for me, so I was rather surprised at how much I liked it there. The people were very friendly, spoke excellent English, and didn’t give me a hard time when they realized that I spoke no German whatsoever. Everything was very clean and orderly, which felt incredibly nice after Kenya’s perplexingly inefficient non-systems.

 

I was worried that I would have a hard time so far removed from the natural world, but I was able to find beautiful green spaces even in Germany. The university has multiple large botanical gardens and pretty outdoor spaces. Obviously it doesn’t match up to seeing savannah megafauna go walking past your tent each day, but it certainly helped the transition.

 

An underwater salamander I found at the  botanical gardens

An underwater salamander I found at the botanical gardens

I had a lot of fun eating delicious food (cheese, cheese, and more cheese) and catching up with Lindsay. It was fun just getting to see a different world for a bit. It’s strange to think that Germany and Kenya are just one time zone apart, yet are so completely different. It also emphasized to me how lucky Kenya is to still have so many natural spaces and wildlife left, since a lot of the students I met at the University really bemoan the dearth of untouched nature in Germany.

 

It was too short of a trip, but I was also eager to finally get home. After two more excruciatingly long flights, I finally got my first mom hug I’d had in a year.

 

Now that I’m finally back, it’s strange how easily I’ve slipped back into this life. In some ways it’s nice, and in other ways it’s frustrating and a little unsettling. It seems like no matter how much I learn and how mature I grow, I will always be a child to my parents and I will always find myself falling into the role of youngest sibling when I’m with my family. Life here is safe and tame, and I appreciate what a privilege it is to live so comfortably, yet it’s hard to deal with all the emotions that go along with that recognition alongside the desire for exploration. I am constantly thinking about my friends back in Kenya, and especially the hyenas. It’s hard realizing that there really isn’t anyone here who can fully understand and connect with what I experienced over the last year, though I have no lack of support from my family during the transition. I still think about the poisoning a lot, and it’s harder to express how I feel about that here.

 

For the most part however, I really love being home and surrounding myself with family, friends, pets, good food, and all the little amenities that I have missed. Oregon is even more beautiful than I had remembered, and I am glad to be in the US for a while. My nephew Ira An Lei is so big now, and is fully interacting with the world. I find myself comparing him to hyena cubs, since those are the last young animals I watched grow up. An Lei may not be as fluffy, but he’s quite cute anyways.

 

Unagi, Taurus, and Pisces, three of the cubs that were born just before I left

Unagi, Taurus, and Pisces, three of the cubs that were born just before I left

***

 

After a very brief trip home, I just arrived at my next job. I will be spending the next half of a year working as an Intern with the Golden Gate Raptor Observatory. As I move in and explore the area, I appreciate how vastly different but strikingly beautiful this place is compared with Kenya. There is so much fog, and it rolls rapidly over the green hills, reminding me much more of a chilly Nairobi morning than the sunny and flat Mara. The views out over the water and the Golden Gate Bridge are spectacular, and it is an interesting mix of human structure alongside natural beauty.

 

I can’t wait to start working with the raptors (the large predatory birds, not the dinosaurs—though they are related). The GGRO is a longstanding volunteer-based organization perfectly situated along a migration corridor, and working here will be a wonderful opportunity to learn how to identify birds in flight and actually handle these beautiful birds of prey.

Kay Holekamp, the researcher who runs the Hyena Project, flew out to oversee the project for the summer and make sure things were running smoothly. She is our boss as well as a well-known and respected researcher, so we were all nervous and excited to have her in camp. It’s been really neat to learn from someone who has as much experience as she does.

 

We've been darting more with Kay around to lend her expertise to the process. Here is Dave preparing the drug for the dart.

We’ve been darting more with Kay around to lend her expertise to the process. Here is Dave preparing the drug for the dart.

Benson preparing to dart

Benson preparing to dart

Weighing a grass rat as part of a small mammal lecture Kay gave to a group of MSU students

Weighing a grass rat as part of a small mammal lecture Kay gave to a group of MSU students

The first night Kay went on obs with us, we sat at the new den for nearly an hour before the cubs came out. While we waited, we noticed that there were bats flying around then den; then, we realized that they were actually flying in and out of the den itself. At first I wondered whether that meant that the hyenas had abandoned the den, but Kay explained that bats will often roost in active hyena dens. Sure enough, after a few minutes, Harpy and Alfredo’s cubs popped out of the den too.

 

Juno and her cubs at the den

Juno and her cubs at the den

I’ve always found it interesting how many different animals share dens with hyenas. I’d seen for myself that warthogs will at least live in neighboring den holes, and apparently porcupines will share space with hyena cubs too. The bats are especially interesting to me because I would have thought they’d be extremely vulnerable in their roosts. It’s amazing to think about an entire world of interactions going on beneath the surface of the ground. We spend so much time with the hyenas, but even so, there are so many unknowns about their daily life. To me, that just reinforces how important long-term research projects are. Kay has been out here studying hyenas since before I was born, and there are still so many questions to ask. It’s incredibly hard to keep a project like this going for so many years, but I wish it were more of the norm in field science rather than the exception.

 

Buar playing with her younger sibling (one of Helios' new cubs) at the den

Buar playing with her younger sibling (one of Helios’ new cubs) at the den

***

 

I finally had my first close encounter with a snake here in camp. I was walking to the storage tent to get some supplies, with my mind on whatever it was I needed, when all of a sudden, something moved on the ground in front of me. A snake had been sunning itself on the rocks next to the solar panels, and I had come about a foot away from stepping on it. I only realized it was there as I saw the end of a shiny grey body slither away fast as it could go into the bushes, presumably to save itself from being trodden upon. I was completely surprised, and the encounter immediately got my heart pounding. When I returned to the lab tent, I described what had happened to Dave, and he pulled up a picture on his computer.

“Did it look like this?” he asked.

“Yeah, that’s exactly it! … That’s a black mamba, isn’t it?”

“Yep”

 

I was certainly more nervous about the encounter after I realized it had been one of the world’s deadliest snakes. While a black mamba bite does not ensure that a person will die, one generally only has thirty minutes to get the antivenom before the chances of survival plummet to essentially zero (there is only one recorded case of a person surviving without antivenom, and even he had intense medical assistance). It is strange to think that therefore in some ways, my life hinged upon the split-second fight-or-flight instinct of another living being. It was another reminder of how many things in life are completely out of our control and how unnerving that realization can be.

 

***

 

One night, we went out for obs and found a giant flock of swallows zooming over the plain. We often see large groups of them foraging in the air over the plains or water, but this was on another level. There were hundreds of them in the air, swirling in a mass above and around the car. It had rained a little the previous night so we thought that maybe they were after termites.

 

***

 

Wilson had never had a birthday celebration before because he didn’t know exactly when he was born, and there isn’t as much of a tradition of celebrating birthdays with the Maasai here. So we decided to pick a day and throw him a small birthday party after obs.

 

We were heading back from obs a little early so that we could celebrate together, when we came across a hyena lying down. When we stopped to ID her, she suddenly leapt up and started running, so we followed her. She led us straight into chaos. We were bumping along off road behind the hyena, trying to find her in the dark, when we noticed herder’s flashlights sweeping around. Then we saw a group of hyenas converging on an animal, and realized it was a cow. We drove up and scared the hyenas off of the cow just as the herder came running back, but we could already see two giant gaping wounds in the animal’s side.

 

I had never seen a Maasai man so distraught. He was crying so hard he could barely breath and he was shaking all over. At first, I thought he was just distraught about the hyenas attacking his cow, but slowly Benson and Wilson translated what had really happened. The hyenas were only the second animals giving the herder trouble that night – a group of elephants with young calves had suddenly materialized out of the bushes a few minutes earlier and started chasing the herders. One of them had gored a cow in front of the herder and then chased him and the other men away. The hyenas then closed in on the wounded cow once the elephants moved back and before the people could chase them away. The herder was so upset because he’d almost been trampled, and because he thought that the elephants had gored more than one cow, so it took him a while to calm down enough for his friends to explain that only one cow was injured. This was all made more serious by the news that just a few days earlier elephants killed a man in the Lloita area not far from Talek.

Elephants can be unpredictable and dangerous. This is one that charged at us from the bushes when we didn't see it and got too close.

Elephants can be unpredictable and dangerous. This is one that charged at us from the bushes when we didn’t see it and got too close.

 

Hadley, Julie, and I waited in the car while the guys sorted out what to do with the cow. She was clearly a goner—her guts were exposed and she already smelled like death—but shock had set in so deeply that she kept standing up and trying to walk back to the herd. It was disturbing to watch the cow walk around with her stomach almost falling out of her side, but it was a mercy that somehow she didn’t seem to be in pain.

 

Finally, we sorted everything out and headed back to camp. We were worried that given the night’s events we might want to postpone the birthday festivities, but in the end I think it helped us get our minds off of the whole ordeal. Besides, Wilson was ecstatic to have his first-ever birthday party; he kept standing up to make speeches about how happy he was and was still thanking us the next morning.

Koitobos, a Fig Tree cub with a giant wound that we think was probably from a lion

Koitobos, a Fig Tree cub with a giant wound that we think was probably from a lion

The Mourning Giraffe

We saw something very strange on obs this past week. One morning, we were at the den, when a group of hyenas started whooping and moving away into the bushes. We couldn’t see what had them so agitated, so we decided to follow. It took us a long time to navigate all of the bushes, but we finally found them running in and out of the thicket around a tall female giraffe. Then we realized that she was standing over a juvenile giraffe that was lying on the ground. We couldn’t tell what was wrong with the juvenile, but it was clearly dying. It was sprawled out on its side and every once in a while it would twitch its head and kick its legs out uselessly. We couldn’t see anything visibly wrong with it but we assumed it must have broken something critical or gotten sick. The hyenas circled excitedly at first, but the mother giraffe kept standing over the juvenile, sometimes running at the hyenas until they backed off. Ripkin, one of our youngest subadults, kept sitting down in the bushes next to the juvenile, watching it hungrily.

 

We stayed to watch, expecting the mother to leave when she realized that her baby was doomed. We stayed for a long time until it became clear that the giraffe wasn’t going anywhere. So we left, planning to come back that evening just in case she was still there.

 

That night, we made our way back, mostly expecting not to see anything since it had been so long. Instead, as we drove up, we saw the mother giraffe’s head sticking out above the bushes. She was still there guarding her calf, which was still alive, but unable to stand or move much at all. There were lots of hyenas in the bushes, waiting for her to leave. Most of them weren’t getting very close since a giraffe can kick the head off an adult male lion, let alone a hyena. They were just resting patiently, waiting. The giraffe, on the other hand, looked very stressed. She had strings of saliva hanging from her mouth and kept walking away from the juvenile as if she was about to leave, and then running back as though she’d changed her mind. We were surprised that she was still standing guard, especially since her calf was clearly not going to make it, and she was unable to eat much herself while she guarded it.

 

The mother giraffe standing guard over her dying calf

The mother giraffe standing guard over her dying calf

Amazon loped up as we were watching. She paced around the giraffe and sat down to wait. But after a few minutes, she seemed to get frustrated, and began whooping. After that, she loped away, presumably too impatient to wait for a meal. Finally, we left as well.

 

The next night when we returned, the mother giraffe was still there, but the juvenile was dead and partially eaten. The hyenas were still mostly keeping their distance but something, probably one of the lionesses we’ve been seeing in that area recently, had managed to eat out some of the internal organs. The mother giraffe either hadn’t comprehended that her calf was dead, or didn’t care, because she continued to keep guard over its body, chasing away any hyena that inched too close. However, after two days of vigilance, she was clearly getting tired; it was taking her longer to run back to the carcass every time she swayed away. Every once in a while she would go just far enough that a few of the hyenas would crawl up and start feeding, but then she would run back and chase them away again. We couldn’t understand why she was still expending so much energy and risking starvation for a calf that was clearly dead.

 

I think perhaps people are sometimes too presumptuous about the separation between animals and humans. There was no (apparent) logical explanation for the giraffe’s reaction except maybe a parental care instinct in overdrive; rather, it seemed as though she was simply unable to let her baby go. Scientists have documented grieving responses in other animals before, so this is nothing new, but still poignantly touching to witness. It makes me wonder whether and how the hyenas might be grieving for their lost clan members after the poisoning event.

 

By the next morning, there were no signs that there had ever been a giraffe in that clearing at all—not even a bloodstain was left. All we found were two hyenas, Alice and Kyoto, sniffing hopefully at the ground.

 

***

 

The rainy season never showed up. It’s supposed to have been raining for months now, but we haven’t had a drop in weeks. All of Kenya is in the middle of a drought, maybe all of East Africa. The guys in camp are getting really worried about their crops and animals back home. At this point, even if the rains do come, it’s probably too late—the corn has already grown up, and may die without even flowering or producing cobs; the bean pods have grown without any beans inside; the cows are too skinny to reproduce.

 

In the Mara, I worry that the dry spell will only put the hyenas in greater conflict with people, because the herders have come back into the reserve and a skinny cow is an easy mark. On the other hand, it might actually be helpful, because without rain, the migration may come to the Mara earlier than expected, which would be an incredible boon to all the carnivores in the area.

 

The dryness and heat have had a noticeable effect on the land. There is an unbelievable amount of dust everywhere. I watched a goat in Talek as it picked at food on the ground, and every exhale from its nose sent up a cloud of dust. Inside the reserve, it’s just as bad. Every time I stop the car, the dust we’ve kicked up catches up with us and leaves us choking; sometimes it’s so bad we lose sight of the hyenas. By the end of obs our eyes sting and our noses hurt, and every time I wipe my face it comes away orange.

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