Thursday, January 14, 2010

East African Raptor Ecology

Yesterday, Karyn and I returned from Kenya where I participated in a course on East African Raptor Ecology. The course satisfies an ecology credit for my upcoming graduation (May 2010). It was a great opportunity for me and was especially nice that Karyn also got to attend. There were a few open seats not filled by students, so I signed her up to come along.

This post is the first of many on our experiences. We took 3147 photos, so it will take a while to filter through them. This was a fantastic, eye-opening experience which will stay with me forever. It is an experience which shifts perspective. I compare it to my 2006 trip to work with Leatherback Sea Turtles which started my shift toward my encore career. I will further state that this was probably the most important educational experience of my recent academic career.

The first stop of the trip was Lake Naivasha. This lake is an important bird area and a Ramsar site. It is also the home of the largest population of African Fish Eagles in the world.

African Fish Eagle. Lake Naivasha Kenya.

While staying at Lake Naivasha, we performed half day raptor surveys (by boat and by car), then spent the rest of the day in lectures on the raptors and the ecology of the lake. Prior to our departure for Kenya each student was assigned a raptor to study and prepare a 30 minute presentation for the rest of the class. My species, the Dark Chanting-goshawk, is not a resident of the lake Naivasha area, so we would not see it until later in the trip.

Dark Chanting-goshawk. Maasi Mara Kenya.

The first day consisted of a hike up Barton hill near the lake, followed by a road survey for raptors. The hike was great to stretch our legs after the long flight over. We saw lots of wildlife along the way. The top of the hill provided us a great vista to spot vultures and raptors. The afternoon was spent on a road survey where we observed more wildlife and continued to see new raptors.

Heidi (left), Kristina, myself (back), Jay (right) and others on the hike. Photo by Karyn.

The next morning we moved on to boat surveys. We split up into two boats and would each survey half of the lake. The next day we would survey the other half. We were counting African Fish Eagle, Hippopotamus, Goliath Herons, and Marsh Harriers.

African Fish Eagle pair. Lake Naivasha.

African Fish Eagle pair. Lake Naivasha.

African Fish Eagle. Lake Naivasha.

African Fish Eagle. Lake Naivasha.

African Fish Eagle. Lake Naivasha.

African Fish Eagle. Lake Naivasha.

African Fish Eagle. Lake Naivasha.

African Fish Eagle sitting on hippos. Lake Naivasha.

During our boat's survey of the lake we counted 102 African Fish Eagles and over 500 hippos. The fish eagles consisted of 19 pairs, 59 individual adults, 3 subadults, and 2 juveniles. This is a very large number of eagles for the size of the lake, but interesting the very low number of juveniles. More on that later.

Hippopotamus. Lake Naivasha.

The boats provided a great opportunity to see many other bird species as well. Including Hammerkops, Kingfishers, flamingos, etc.

Hammerkop. Lake Naivasha.

Pied Kingfisher. Lake Naivasha.

Giant Kingfisher. Lake Naivasha.

Greater Flamingos. Lake Naivasha. Photo by Karyn.

Smell the Jello.

Smell the jello was a saying that Jay coined while at Lake Naivasha. After one dinner while I was 3/4 of the way through my Jello, Jay scoops some into his bowl and smells it. "This jello smells like feet!" In fact, the jello smelled worse. It smelled like the lake. I don't think our food was a purified as we were led to believe. I would be hanging out with my two friends Pepto and Bismol that evening! Anyway, we always smelled our jello after that! The fact is, the lake does smell.

With all of this diversity and wildlife, you might think the lake is in great shape. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Lake Naivasha is in trouble. A look at the color of the water in the photos above provides just one indication. There are many others. The population around the lake has increased from about 6,000 people in 1969 to over 300,000 today. A very small number of these people have running water or sewage systems, they just have the lake. It all comes out and goes right back in. The flower industry is huge at Lake Naivasha. 2/3 of all roses for the British market are grown on the shores of the lake, using water from the lake. There are no limits on water taken out or pollution put back in. The level of the lake has dropped 3 meters in the past year. We saw heavy equipment digging deeper trenches to extract more water from the lake. Please stop buying roses! Lead levels in the lake are 10x greater than US EPA limits. The endemic fish and plant species are gone. The papyrus fringe which assists in purifying the water are nearly gone. Fishing limits are in place, but not enforced. We observed many poachers and poaching nets around the lake. Lastly, the lake is red. Algae has turned it so. This is a lake ecosystem on the brink of collapse.

There are a number of urgent actions that need to be taken immediately. First, restore the hydrological balance to stop lake levels from dropping further. Second, restore the filter swamp which cleans water coming into the lake. Third, establish pollution controls on dumping and runoff. And lastly, shift to unleaded gasoline. There are many other possible improvements as well - stopping raw sewage dumping, etc.

The African Fish Eagle population, while robust, has limited reproduction. While they eat waterfowl as well as fish, they only reproduce when fish diets are strong. The future of this beautiful species depends on restoration of fish stocks in the lake. Action cannot come soon enough.

White Fronted Bee-eaters. Lake Naivasha.

More posts will come later including our time at Maasi Mara and Nairobi National Parks.


Birding is Fun! said...

Thanks for that post Rob. I look forward to more reports of your experience. The photos are fantastic! Your message came through loud and clear too. You are showing a perfect example of how mankind can screw up the environment. Even better, you recommended simple solutions.

April said...

Those eagles looks pretty bad ass.

eileeninmd said...

Great post, photos and blog. What a cool experience!

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Your captures are just fantastic.

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