My Big Year

2012 might to me be a year of milestones. I for instance turned 30, my dad turned 60, my safari and guide training business is entering its 5th year… and the Tanzania Bird Atlas Project reached its goal of 1 million records.  
I’ve decided in celebration that I’m going to do a Big Year starting Nov. 7th. Many people will know what a big year is from the Hollywood movie that came out last year. I don’t watch a lot of movies, but my girlfriend convinced me to watch this movie because it’s about birds. It might also be a coincidence that is the second year that I organized the on-the-ground logistics for a 23 day Tanzania endemic trip run by Birdquest in the UK, where they routinely score 490±3 species of birds.

Now Tanzania is one of the most diverse countries in the world, one that boasts 11% of the world’s bird species. If you have a bit of experience with birds and try, you can easily get over 100 species in a day. Friends of mine (Daudi Peterson, David Moyer, Jon Simonson, Mike Peterson), also mentors, recorded 318 species in a day, and when I was 14, I used to challenge myself to get over 60 species in a day just in the backyard.

Some of my friends and guests who have been on safari with me think I know every bird, but that’s the way I feel when I go birding with serious birders who know their LBJs. LBJs are Little Brown Jobbies or the little brown and grey birds that are really hard to identify. If it were up to me, I might have used slightly different language to describe those little things.  As much as I love birds, I hit the wall with those LBJs and there’s too much other stuff out there that is so intriguing that I’ve pursued some of them instead of challenging the wall, but… maybe it’s time to face it and break it.

It took me a while to find the world record for a world big year, but apparently it stands at 4,372 species. The couple who hold the record have their own blog http://www.thebiggesttwitch.com. Now, I’m not going to sell my house to fund around the world trip, and I had to promise my girlfriend I wouldn’t be the Bostiks guy. I haven’t spent hours strategizing, I don’t have an audio playback system to call rarer birds in, I really struggle with LBJs, but I do have a lot of friends who love birding and my work takes me to many different parts of Tanzania. My real motivation to do a big year is for fun. It’s a challenge and I’m going to need to focus (but not too much), but I’m not going to twitch (well I might a bit). I’m going to hope to get a lot of help from friends around Tanzania who know where to find local species… but ultimately I’m hoping to get a chance to learn a whole lot.

Lilac-breasted Roller (Ndutu)
So, if you’re keen, follow me on this celebration of Tanzanian biodiversity- here…

Hadza


A Hadza man tells me the names of different places.
A couple of weeks ago I took a family to spend a few days with the Hadza hunter-gatherers. The Hadza are a very interesting people to visit, not because of a complex society, but the opposite- beautiful simplicity. The Hadza speak a language full of clicks- not dissimilar to the bushmen of the Kalahari, yet linguistically distinct. They live almost entirely off roots, berries, honey and meat that they collect daily. The technology is so simple that there is no obligate reliance on anyone, so everyone is practically equal and independent. Their society is based on immediate return, not delayed return like most others so there is no need to accumulate food or amass wealth.
Not the stance they teach you in archery.
But an effective one..
Anthropologists studying hunter-gatherers and especially the Hadza see it as an opportunity to look into the past and try to understand how our ancestors probably lived. They’re not saying that the Hadza are backward or subhuman, but that the technology they use is probably very similar to the technology that the first humans used. By definition: “hunter-gathers are people who forage for wild foods, practicing no cultivation or animal husbandry (Marlow, 2010).” Because the environment that the Hadza live in is so similar and close to the habitat in which early homonid fossils have been found, they are the most relevant society to study from an evolutionary viewpoint.

Honey bee (Apis mellifera) larvae are a delicacy.
In a study conducted in the 80’s that scored different societies based on their complexity the Hadza (and Mbuti pygmies of Congo) scored 0 on the scale of 0-40 (Marlow, 2010). Hadza technology consists of a bow, arrows, and some men have an ax. Many also have a knife, and the women use sharpened sticks to dig for tubers. They make fire and light rolled cigarettes by using a fire drill.






Entrance tube of a Stingless bee (Trigona sp.) hive.

Pangolin


Who am I?

1.     I am a mammal.
2.     I belong to my own taxonomic order called Pholidota but I’m more closely related to Carnivores than other mammals.
3.     I am bipedal (which means I walk on my two back legs).
4.     I don’t have teeth so I have a very strong muscular stomach and sometimes I swallow sand to help grind my food.
5.     I can extend my tongue nearly half a meter and it is very thin. It isn’t attached to a hyoid bone like most mammals but instead it extends into my thorax.
6.     I spend a lot of time with my face in anthills and termite mounds so I have small eyes and my ears are basically just holes in my head.
7.     Some people refer to me as myrmecophagous.
8.     I am a very good digger and the claws on my hands are extremely tough.
9.     I have a heavy tail that I use as an anchor when I dig.
10. I have hard scales that even a lion can’t bite through so I roll up in a ball when I feel threatened.
11. Like most other one-of-a-kind animals, I’m threatened by the animal trade because my scales are used in Chinese medicine and witchcraft. If only they knew that they could chew their fingernails for the same effect- my scales, just like rhino horn is just keratin like fingernails.

video

Wilderness walking, Oldonyo Lengai and Serengeti


Shedding the high thread count cotton linen and 5 course meals (luxuries of the semi-permanent and permanent lodges and camps I usually use) and braving the elements, an adventurous group of guests and I set off on safari. After having successfully climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro, including the 10 year old and 12 year old in the group (thanks to the professional climbing outfit I use, Summits-Africa), they were excited for their next experience. My ten days with them can be divided into 3 chapters: Wilderness, the Rift Valley, and of course, Serengeti.

Gourmet bacon, scrambled eggs and cowboy coffee cooked over an open fire.
Wilderness

We left Arusha in one of my new open Land Rovers which immediately added an air of excitement, followed by my trusty Land Cruiser. A private lightweight camp had been set up for us in a special campsite just on the edge of where most people get to in one of my favorite national parks in Tanzania: Tarangire. When the focus is on a wilderness experience, you sacrifice the wildlife abundance that you get in the core tourist areas, but with the right guide, you get to immerse yourself in nature.  The encounters you have with wildlife become much more meaningful and so much more than just about the wildlife.
Three bull buffaloes visit a water hole while we quietly watch downwind of them.
We didn’t really sacrifice comfort. None of us were cold, and we had warm duvets to keep us warm at night. There was always cold beer, gin & tonics at the end of the day, and the scotch was good around the fire after dinner. We even had hot showers. The coffee in the morning was proper and hot. But, yes, there were moments when the sun was beating down, and when we got dust in our eyes. We woke up a couple of mornings having not slept all that well, but it was because of the excitement of hearing a leopard on patrol, and the hyenas whooping.

Rift Valley

Having enjoyed our wilderness experience, we ventured on, taking advantage of the lightweight camp to see another part of the Tarangire ecosystem that most guests to Tanzania don’t get to see. During the wet season, just like in the Serengeti ecosystem, the volcanic grasslands of the Rift Valley draw 10,000 wildebeest (10% of what there once were) to feed on nutrient rich grasses and calve. But during the rest of the year, the valley is dry and harsh. The fertile soil turns to talcum powder dust that feeds tornado-like dust devils, and the volcanic rocks and lava flows violently shake any vehicle that drives those roads. Yet, despite the harshness, Maasai pastoralists eke out a living, herding cattle across the grasslands, and large herds of zebra with their hardy digestive systems feed on the dry grasses that remain. And then, as you come around the corner, Oldonyo Lengai seems to rise out from the plain in front of you.

Under the light of the moon, we attempted began our summit bid. The views from the top are beautiful, but the climb is brutal. Volcanic ash fills your boots, and you slip constantly. There are no switch-backs, just a 5 hr, 6000ft ascent. Since its eruption in 2008, you can no longer walk out into the crater filled with lava and ash. Instead, the mountain is higher than it used to be and the crater a deep, deep hole.
 That afternoon, after napping and eating, we drove to the edge of Lake Natron in search of Lesser Flamingos. Lake Natron lies at a low point in the rift. It has no outlets, and with high surface temperatures and wind, the water in it evaporates leaving behind salt deposits that make it as alkaline as ammonia.  These conditions are perfect for Cyanobacteria to flourish. Lesser flamingos are Cyanobacteria specialists and use Lake Natron as a nesting ground.
A few thousand Lesser flamingos through the eyepiece of my binoculars.
Serengeti
 
A lovely herd of giraffe... yes, those black dots in the background are wildebeest.
Having completed another chapter of our adventure, we climbed back into the vehicle and headed up the few million year-old rift and up and over the 580 million year-old Gol Mountains to northern Serengeti. Unusually dry for August, I was a little worried that the wildebeest migration might have already disappeared across the river into Kenya’s Mara. Again we chose to spend most of the time avoiding the other vehicles and bumbled around finding our own lions, except for one drive that took us towards the confluence of the Bologonja and Mara rivers to see the thousands of wildebeest. The rest of the time we took the opportunity to be quiet and capture the ambient sounds of the bush on film, sipping champagne in celebration of a wonderful experience and 69th birthday, and watching a threatening thunderstorm bear down.
Finding predators is always very satisfying although most of the time they are sleeping.
 
Post note: The group continued to Mt. Kenya where they successfully climbed to Point Lenana, the highest point on the mountain that doesn’t require technical climbing. Well done!

Celebratory Safari


The moon rises as we enjoy sitting around a fire.

The new season kicked off to a wonderful celebratory safari for a well-earned birthday. Two nights in Ngorongoro, three in Serengeti and then a four-day Rwanda trip to see the Mountain Gorillas made for a sweet safari. So here's how we celebrated:
After breakfast on the verandah of the tent, we went for a game drive. Driving around a bush we encountered this impala giving birth- which seemed fitting for a birthday sighting.
The landscapes in northern Serengeti provide a quintessential backdrop to the wildlife sightings in the area. These 500 million year old kopjies provide refuge for lions and leopards. Rock-splitting fig trees (Ficus glumosa) find tiny spaces to establish themselves sending their roots through the cracks in the rocks. Some of them are very old like the one below.
What a perfect tree to have a picnic lunch! The rock at the base was also the perfect table top.

Rounding off the day with sun-downers on a rock with a view.
The celebrations continued in Rwanda with two gorilla treks. Gorilla groups are named after the silverback, the dominant male. We treked to Kwitonda group where this little rascal entertained us for nearly half an hour, and the next day to Agashya group where the weather made it too dark to photograph or film. The Agashya gorillas retreated in the mist and sat in a semi-circle in a cathedral of bamboo.
Kwitonda, the dominant silverback has 4 females and 14 children. He is accompanied by 2 other silverbacks
Gorilla individuals are easily (easily to some) identified by the unique pattern of wrinkles on their nose. By comparing nose prints on the family tree above and the rascal in the video below, I believe his name is Karibu.
video



Guide Training May 2012

A couple of years ago when I started blogging, I started a blog called Encounters in East Africa to write about some of the exciting little things that we encounter while training guides and on safari. This blog quickly got overwhelmed by another one called Safari Ecology and in all honestly I couldn’t find the time needed to write for three blogs.

Having just spent another 4 weeks with guides in Tarangire National Park, I thought I’d share some of those little things on my adventure blog. Tarangire ranks very high on my list of favorite parks and often I’m asked why I don’t prefer Serengeti for guide training. Of course I’ve been coming here since my first word “dudu” (Swahili for insect) meant any animal including elephants. It’s a classic Acacia savannah habitat and has amazing diversity. It also epitomizes why East Africa is such a unique destination.

A beautiful animal- the Fringe-eared Oryx. The population has declined by over 90% in the Tarangire ecosystem.

When it rains in East Africa, mammals head (migrate) for volcanic grasslands. Soils high in phosphorous and calcium give them the nutrients they need to produce milk for their young. Often these grasslands have very limited water in the dry season so animals then return to permanent water supplies. This results in massive migrations of wildlife. In southern Africa, the older less nutritious soils tend to produce palatable grasses in the growing season, so animals disperse to these areas only to return to floodplains in the dry season, again for water but also for the nutritious grasses found in the flood plains- often described as sweet grasses. I find this distinction between sweet and sour veld quite hard to make in East Africa but it does happen to an extent in some parts of Tarangire. With dispersions and migrations happening in the same place, it’s a great place to study savannah ecology.

The Tarangire ecosystem encompasses the Maasai steppe, which represents an ecological transition zone between Somali-Maasai arid habitat and the more typical Acacia savannas. It is so productive in insects during the wet season that even Northern Wheaters from Alaska fly here in their winter to feed on insects. It is a fantastic place to fatten up for their flight back home. The Maasai steepe is virtually unprotected except for some small initiatives that are successfully working to protect pastoralists and hunter-gatherers’ rights while maintaining these important calving and feeding grounds. It’s a great example to use when discussing human-wildlife conflict and land conversion.

Simulated accidents to give real-life scenarios.
Jo Anderson on Behavioral Ecology... or Jo, were you teaching economics? I saw cost-benefit analysis somewhere in your notes.
Contemporary Conservation Issues in Tanzania (and the role of the individual in making a difference).
Gina Kirkpatrick brings light boxes and prisms to understand light and the foundations of understanding color.


These brilliant blues found in feathers are NOT the result of pigments but the result of a phenomena called Tyndall scattering. The feather should actually be brown because of the melanin in it, but air pockets in the outer layers of keratin refract shorter wavelengths of light- i.e. the blues. 
Talking about melanin- if you have deficiencies you turn out a bit whiter than the rest. Extremes are albinism, but less extremes are referred to leucism.

Aposematic coloration of a blister beetle on a beautiful Purple Mallow (Hibiscus cannabinus). Some animals warn you.
Theory can help to explain and give insight to real life observation.
The 4 shaping factors in savannas. Read more.

Monogamous?
A crepuscular owlet. This little fellow has false eyes on the back of his head that might confuse birds that mob him to thinking that he's watching them. Little brother is always watching you.
Great photo by Pietro Luraschi. The tip of an extraordinary organ.

Fungi- a Kingdom more closely related to Animals than Plant, yet a major player in the role of decomposition and completing the nutrient cycle.

Precocial is the opposite of altricial. These are not discrete but a continuum. Animals born more able to help themselves are more precocial than animals born that need parental care. One could also learn what nidicole or nidifuge is... A nidifuge leaves its nest when it is born instead of staying for a while- more extreme precocial behavior.

When frogging beware of frog predators... this Black-necked Spitting Cobra would much rather display than expend the energy on spitting venom or biting. Read more on snakes.

The Commelinas- not just a pretty flower we used to pick to feed our rabbits. Read more.

What bird is that? After 4 weeks our list was 175 species strong.
Identifying tracks.

An Ant-lion. These amazing insects spend months to a couple years in a nymph stage digging little conical traps in the sand to catch ants.
Practicing using the Key to 100 Trees of Tarangire National Park.

Yes we also watched large mammals.
A guide explains the down feathers that Sunbirds have chosen to line their nest.

Observation followed by a lesson.
First we identify using the key in Zimmerman's Birds of Kenya & Northern Tanzania. Then we put the Identification in Context- we discuss behavior. Next we explore the role in the environment.

It is a Slender-tailed Nightjar.
Nightjars are nocturnal insect hunters. Looks like a small bill? Open wide (see picture below

A big mouth is like a big net- the easier to scoop you out of the sky. Hairs on the side of the mouth are also very sensitive and help it to aim its mouth.

The Hairy Rock-fig (Ficus glumosa) gets a hold.
Elephants push down trees to get at the leaves. This is a Desert Date Tree (Balanites aegyptiaca)
This tree normally has green thorns up to 3 inches long... but why waste energy on producing defense when your already out of giraffe-browse way? Read more.
Harvester termite soldier and Sungusungu ant in battle. The Sungusungu won. (Videos coming soon on safari-ecology.blogspot.com)