Saturday, September 25, 2010

Wrap-up in Watamu – dung counts, poachers, and a continuing conflict

We wrapped up fieldwork in Watamu this week, capturing some more birds and collecting their fecal pellets, as well as trapping more arthropods. The fecal pellets have been sent to a forensics lab in Nairobi, where they will be scanned for DNA signatures of different types of insects, so that we can determine the composition of the diets of the birtds (and hence focus our data collection and conservation efforts on those species). We also finished recording turtle nesting habitat data along a 4km stretch of the beach; these data will be combined with similar surveys done throughout this year, so we can discern any patterns between beach condition and turtle nesting frequency.
On our last evening in Arabuko-Sokoke Forest, we did an elephant count data collection practice run. This consists basically of walking along a linear transect, noting any elephant dung piles nearby, and measuring both their distance from the transect as well as their stage of decomposition (from fresh to disintegrated). We’re setting our sights on doing a full comprehensive count in the spring, during the rainy season.
On our way into the forest, we learned that one of the rangers had had a near-fatal encounter with a poisoned elephant trap put in the forest by a poacher. This trap consisted of a sharp knife embedded in a log; the knife had been coated with a concentrated toxic paste of toxins that had been extracted from a local tree. The trap had been laid near a group of downed logs, so that passing elephants might not see it and step on it, injecting the poison into their foot. The poachers are interested in the tusks of the elephant; sadly, the black market for ivory in Africa continues to thrive despite a bevy of national and international restrictions/regulations. The ranger had accidentally stepped on the trap, but miraculously, had been spared because the poison had rubbed off onto his rubber boots before it was able to enter his bloodstream. He is still in recovery; meanwhile, the rangers are redoubling their efforts to find the poachers. This conflict between livelihoods and conservation continues to rage both here and across the globe – conservation biologists are finally starting to focus more on providing alternate sources of incomes for local peoples who historically have depended on hunting and other forms of extraction of biodiversity – but it may be too little, too late in many areas. For our part, continuing to unravel the mystery of how best to foster biodiversity in reserves like Arabuko-Sokoke may be some small help – the more that is known about the wildlife/biodiversity there, the more visitors to the area may include a forest visit in their beach-going itinerary – and hence the more revenues the Forest Service will receive for ongoing conservation efforts. The real trick is to tie things together so that locals (especially the residents of the 50+ villages that ring the reserve) also receive direct benefits from this cascade – and also begin to take more interest in sustainable forest stewardship.
For now, it’s kwaheri to Kenya – until next time!

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Jambo from Kenya!

Jambo from Kenya! I am on the east coast about an hour and a half north of Mombasa, at the Mwamba Bird Observatory & Field Centre. Nestled here at the facility on the Indian Ocean, I and three UWT students have been doing fieldwork for a few ongoing research projects. We spent the last few days in the nearby Arabuko-Sokoke Forest, catching birds in mist nets with a colleague (ornithologist Colin Jackson, Director here at Mwamba) and his team. As the birds are “ringed” (banded for future identification), we have been collecting fecal pellet samples that we’ll have analyzed at a forensics lab in Nairobi for DNA from different types of arthropods in order to better establish what the birds are eating. At the same time, we’re setting traps and catching ground-dwelling arthropods (beetles, spiders, etc.) in order to see where in the nearly 400 sq. km forests reserve their diversity and abundance is higher or lower. Since arthropods constitute a major part of many of the birds’ diets, we hope this work will go a long way towards better understanding (and ultimately protecting) several of the endangered species found here – especially the East Coast Akalat (Sheppardia gunningi), which is found almost exclusively here. This collaboration with the ornithologists here at Mwamba began in 2007, and we are making plans to continue for the next several years. One of the things we discovered last year was that African elephants (who roam freely in most of the reserve, constrained by an electrified fence that runs around most of the perimeter) seem to have a substantial effect on beetles and the organic leaf litter in which many of them thrive – could the elephants be having an indirect effect on the birds by affecting their food? One thing we’re doing as part of this investigation is attempting to count the elephants – next Wednesday we’ll do a practice run for a more comprehensive elephant count that we hope to conduct early next year during the rainy season. Counting elephants here consists mostly of counting piles of dung along kilometers of transects – the elephants themselves are very difficult to find in the dense forest cover!

Out on the beach, we’re undertaking another type of research. The beachfront here in Watamu is in fact a marine reserve, and it turns out to be very important nesting habitat for a variety of sea turtles. The turtles crawl up out of the ocean at night and deposit their eggs in the sand, making a Herculean effort that often takes two or three hours. The condition of the beach habitat is critical to their nesting (and hatching) success – so we are characterizing it in terms of the amount of plastic pieces and the quality of the vegetation covering the area. We are in the process of seeing if beach habitat condition correlates with nesting frequency – there is some evidence so far that the turtles do nest more often in those parts of the beach here that have more intact vegetation cover.
We’re here for another week or so doing fieldwork – then it’s back to Nairobi (a long dusty 10 or 11 hour drive on often rough roads) – I’ll give a talk on our research there at the National Museums of Kenya before beginning the long journey back home!

Friday, September 10, 2010

Notes from España

Greetings from Spain - I've been here the past two weeks attending a workshop and giving seminars. The workshop, which was held in La Mancha (the central region made famous in part by Cervantes' beloved fictional character, Don Quixote), focused on bringing an ecological modelling perspective to some particularly challenging problems in cancer biology. Our group of interdisciplinary scientists included applied mathematicians, ecologists, cancer biologists and physicians - and we spent several days trying to generate some new ideas to tackle some old problems. The workshop was sponsored by the James S. McDonnell Foundation and the Universidad de Castilla-La Mancha, and was quite productive - we have plans to publish some conceptual articles, submit some grant proposals for experimental work (my group focused especially on problems in neuro-oncology), and plan a larger follow-up meeting sometime in the next year.

Today I gave a seminar at the headquarters of the Estación Biologica de Doñana, an ecological research center based futher south in Seville, where I have been spending the last week. Tomorrow, I'm heading even further south - down to Kenya, where I'll meet up with a team of UWT students and head to the coast to continue research on elephants, birds, and arthropods. I'll post updates once work is underway there - our first big challenge will be to organize and conduct an elephant census in the Arabuko-Sokoke Forest!

Friday, July 16, 2010

Hummingbird moths and muddy roads

A new Earthwatch team joined us here in Tarrazú yesterday; we kicked things off with our customary hike through the Fundacion Nubotropica, a protected area in the forested watershed high above Santa Maria. Among the highlights of our first day were repeated sightings of "hummingbird moths" pollinating the shrubs near the meeting/eating hall. These moths, lepidopterans in the Sphingidae family, look and behave very much like tiny hummingbirds - but upon closer examination their six dangling legs give them away! Their close relatives in the Old World, in fact, fill the niche that would be occupied by hummingbirds (which are restricted to the New World, and thus absent in the Old World) and are a common sight in the summer gardens of many countries in Europe.

We got caught by some pretty heavy rain in the field this morning - had a spot of trouble driving out of the steep muddy road leading to the farm, in fact....tomorrow when we return to the farm to harvest the hymenoptera in our yellow pan traps we'll likely have to leave the Land Rover on solid ground and walk the 1-2km down into the coffee farm in order to avoid getting stuck - the joys of doing fieldwork in the rainy season here in Tarrazú!

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Week’s end in Tarrazú

We have finished up a week of fieldwork in Tarrazú – Saturday evening we celebrated with a barbecue at a local farmer’s house, and the Earthwatch team departed early Sunday morning for San Jose. A second team will come in this next week, and we’ll resume work in the coffee fields…so far we have found, as might be expected, fewer bees in the coffee fields than we found during the coffee flowering season a few months ago. However, we have noticed quite a few bees in the forest habitats nearby some of the coffee fields – for instance, native stingless bees that like to make their nests in the knots of large trees. We’ll see if this trend holds up as we sample more farms and forests across the region.The Earthwatch team was treated to a private tour of one of the farms this week – Fernando, one of the coffee farmers with whom we’re working, stopped by his farm and showed us around, noting many of the non-coffee (shade) plants he has planted over the years. He noted especially several species of plants that “fix” atmospheric nitrogen, providing shade as well as natural fertilizer for the coffee shrubs. The forest habitat near his farm is particularly nice – the volunteers did a great job helping put in traps in the steep, dense forest!

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Rainy season in Tarrazú

I’m back in San Marcos, Costa Rica, leading a few Earthwatch teams this month as we conduct more coffee sustainability research. This is a continuation of the work we started in April; the study is focused on better understanding the conservation value of forest fragments in and around coffee farms in the region in terms of an important ecosystem service: pollination. Building on recent research conducted elsewhere that indicates that having forests nearby coffee yields can enhance pollination, we are comparing pollinator diversity and abundance in both coffee farms that either have adjacent forest stands or are isolated from forest fragments. Coffee is able to self-fertilize, but can produce higher yields if it gets assistance from managed honeybees (imported European honeyebees, the same species commonly used in the U.S.) and other bees – these other bees, especially native stingless bees, are especially likely to be found nesting in forest fragments – hence the link between forest conservation and coffee yields. In April, we collected bees during coffee flowering season; now that the coffee flowering has ceased, we are trying to get a better idea of where the pollinators hang out during times when coffee is not flowering – hence we’re sampling in both coffee farms and nearby forest habitat.
This morning our first team of the month hit the field, helping set up yellow-pan traps to capture bees and wasps in both coffee fields and nearby forest areas. The team (six women from the U.S., Canada, and the U.K.) did a great job scrambling up and down the steeply terraced coffee fields…in addition to setting up bee traps, they also recorded timed observations of the number and type of pollinators flying through the fields, and measured ground cover (e.g., live plants, dead plants (mulch), and flowering plants that might serve as alternative resources for pollinators). Tomorrow we’ll go see what our traps have attracted; after we collected specimens from them, we’ll set up traps in another field – and then it’s back to the lab for an afternoon of sorting through specimens so that we can further identify the types of bees /wasps that we have captured.This afternoon, it is pouring rain, as is the norm for this time of year. As we head further into the rainy season, we’ll continue to do our work in the mornings, when we can generally expect at least a few hours of sunny, bee-friendly weather...
Yesterday as part of their orientation, the group was treated to a rare appearance of a male resplendent quetzal, famed trogon of Central America - lots of opportunity for close-up observation as he flitted from tree to tree alongside a dirt road we were descending after a hike through the forest at Fundacion Nubotropical - a terrific and auspicious start to the week!

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Universidad de Costa Rica

I spent Monday morning at the University of Costa Rica with a colleague on the biology faculty, Paul Hanson. He is a specialist in the taxonomy of hymenoptera (bees & their relatives), and has been helping out with identifying the specimens we have been collecting in the coffee fields of Tarrazú for the past few years. This type of collaboration is essential in such a project – without proper identification, it would be impossible to understand the critical ecological roles played by the various bees we’re investigating – and hence the relative importance of the forest fragments where we’re working.

I also spent some time sterilizing some soil samples in the autoclave at the university – they were collected with the help of Earthwatch volunteers over the past few weeks as part of a collaborative effort with another UWT faculty member, Dr. Erica Cline. Erica is interested in mycorrhizal fungi, a symbiotic relationship between plant roots and fungi that is a good indicator for soil health (e.g., resistance to erosion, soil nutrition, etc.). It turns out that mycorrhizal fungi are the only producers of a substance called glomalin, which is a heat-resistant highly stable protein that can be easily detected in soil samples. With samples from many farms across the Tarrazú region, Erica is hoping to detect patterns connecting farmer practices (e.g., fertilizer use) and glomalin – which will give us yet another clue into sustainable best practices for coffee production in the region.

The bustle of San Jose is a stark contrast with that of the sleepy agricultural towns of the Los Santos region – truly like a different country. And further west, development along the Pacific coastal region is running rampant – this is definitely a country in flux. Martha Honey, who has written prolifically on ecotourism - and in particular the tradeoffs between economic development and the loss of socio-cultural and environmental integrity - wrote a poignant and blunt editorial this week in the Tico Times about the current state of (un)sustainable development in western Costa Rica. In the article she highlights the results of a study conducted by the non-profit Center for Responsible Travel (CREST) on the state of tourism development along Costa Rica’s Pacific coast, noting especially that a disturbing trend towards larger resort-style hotels and cruise-ship tourism is on the rise. This type of tourism is generally characterized by an increase in foreign-owned properties, and too often results in environmental degradation and the loss of local cultural as well as socio-economic stability – any increases in tourism-related jobs in resorts of these types tend to have little effect on the local economy as money tends to stay with the foreign owners and/or foreign staff they employ. The report, which you can read in full here, outlines strategies to balance this trend with deliberate movement back towards more sustainable ecotourism that provides benefits to both visitors as well as local people & the environment – usually yielding the type of travel experiences for which Costa Rica has become famous. As Oscar Arias (pictured below with me & my girls a few years ago in the village of Mastatal) winds down the last week of his second term as President here (his successor, Laura Chinchilla, will take office this coming weekend), it will be interesting to see the direction in which the new aministration leads the country.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

May Day in Tarrazú

We’ve wrapped up yet another week of fieldwork in Tarrazú, with a second team from Ernst & Young working in the field as well as in the lab discussing strategies with officials from CoopeTarrazú aimed at increasing farmer participation in supplying coffee to the cooperative. This latter issue is complicated by the fact that independent coffee buyers sometimes offer very competitive prices to farmers for their premium coffee beans, luring them away from contributing their coffee to the cooperative, which can undermine the cooperative’s ability to deliver the estimated volumes of coffee promised each year to their own buyers.

The EY team gave a presentation to CoopeTarrazu officials on Friday, in which they did a terrific job of providing cost-benefit analyses of different levels of farmer engagement and pricing schemes, as well as offering up some innovative solutions/incentives for increasing member participation. This was a great way to cap off a week of terrific work from the EY team – looking forward to working with more EY volunteers in the future!
In the field, we finished sampling hymenoptera (bees & their relatives) in all twelve of the farms involved in the current study – in a few days, I’ll bring all of the specimens to the Universidad de Costa Rica, where I’ll meet with a colleague who is a specialist in hymenopteran taxonomy. In the meantime, I’m organizing lab equipment and supplies, preparing for the next group of teams and more fieldwork when I return here in July.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Earth Day in Tarrazú

We celebrated Earth Day in Tarrazú by planting a tree in the garden of one of our Earthwatch colleagues. Tree planting is, of course, a perfect activity to undertake on this day – and the whole idea of sequestering carbon, offsetting some of the carbon in the atmosphere that contributes to global climate change meshes nicely with the research we’re doing on forest fragments here in the valley.
The Ernst & Young team finished up strong, completing several days of fieldwork as well as preparing and delivering a presentation to the management of CoopeTarrazú, the coffee grower’s cooperative with whom we’re working. We wrapped up the week with a barbecue at a local farmer’s house – smoked pork, rice and beans, and homemade tortillas!

Saturday afternoon I accompanied several of the Earthwatch volunteers down towards to the Pacific, stopping for a few hours in a small farming village to say hi to some friends at Rancho Mastatal, an environmental learning center that is often on the itinerary when I am leading UWT study abroad courses in Costa Rica. After touring the many sustainable building projects around the ranch (including a new biodigester, composting toilets, earth ovens, and a bevy of open-air buildings made mostly of local materials), we took a short hike in the rainforest, culminating in a refreshing swim in a nearby waterfall. I said goodbye to the volunteers after a dinner on the coast, and returned to Tarrazú late Saturday night, ready to greet a new team of volunteers on Sunday morning!

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Wednesday morning at five o'clock

As the sun hinted it might soon peek out above the mountains that surround the valley here, several of us woke up this morning to go for a run through the streets and hills of Santa Maria. Running at dawn is a daily ritual for me when I'm doing fieldwork here, and while I usually enjoy some quiet introspection, I also enjoy it when volunteers join me for some exercise and conversation before breakfast. It's a great way to start the day - we arrive back energized and in time to clean up for breakfast at six, and then it's off to the lab and field!

Today was the third day working in the field with volunteers from Ernst & Young (EY). Coming from all over the U.S. and El Salvador, this group has energetically been continuing the work we started last week with the Fenway High School group. In addition to helping set up insect traps, pollinating coffee flowers by hand, observing & recording the frequency and type of pollinator visits to coffee plants, and assessing ground cover vegetation (as a proxy indicator for farmer practices such as herbicide use), the EY team has also been engaging in some great discussions with CoopeTarrazú about management issues. This morning they got a chance to check out commercial hives belonging to a local beekeeper (and coffee farmer – see below); donning bee suits, the intrepid volunteers were treated to an up-close and personal introduction to the busy bees in their honeycombed home.
I continue to be impressed by how engaged the farmers here are in the research we’re doing. Today I had some really interesting conversations with Francisco Alessandro Urena, a farmer who is participating in our study. Francisco is deeply interested in increasing sustainability on his farm – as a coffee farmer and beekeeper he is committed to finding ways of balancing coffee production and conservation. We discussed the current pollinator services investigation at length; during our conversation he enthusiastically noted that recent studies have suggested that bee-assisted pollination can increase coffee yields from 5 to 20%. This level of engagement and interest on the part of participating farmers is really a dream come true for an agroecologist – for me personally, it serves as an inspiration to work even harder to come up with useful information that will help further our understanding of ecological applications as well as help farmers who are continually grappling with issues of sustainability. As bees & their relatives are some of the most sensitive insects to pesticide poisoning, Francisco (and others like him in CoopeTarrazú) is trying to find ways of managing his farm in ways that will allow him to minimize his reliance upon chemicals. This is also an issue in avocado production (which he grows in addition to coffee), where several pests attack the fruits and render them too damaged to send to market. Biological control agents such as lacewings are in abundance in the area, and they do a terrific job controlling the pests – unless their populations get knocked down by excessive pesticide spraying. As you might imagine, attaining an environmentally sustainable balance between pest control and profits is a complex challenge – exacerbated by the fact that farmer practices on one farm may have a real impact on neighboring farms. For this reason, it is great working with a cooperative of community-minded farmers at coordinating a regional response to such challenges.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Rain in the field!

The rains have begun in earnest here in the Los Santos area (so named for the "saint" names of the towns - e.g., San Marcos, Santa Maria, San Lorenzo, etc.)! We have been treated to some spectacular thunder & lightning storms on a few afternoons (current one included) this week. Luckily we're doing most of our fieldwork in the mornings - but occasionally we have been caught in the downpour!

I am working with a team of teenagers and two teachers from Fenway High School (Boston) who are volunteering with Earthwatch this week - they are doing a great job scrambling up and down the steep slopes on which much of the coffee here is planted - and getting the traps in the ground, soil samples collected, and bee observations & hand-pollination of flowers done. We've caught a nice assortment of bees & their relatives in our traps- currently I'm spending the afternoons sorting specimens we've caught in yellow pan traps from both coffee farms and nearby forest habitats. We've had to work around some of the rain in collecting our bee observation data (comparing visits by commercial honeybees to those by native bees & their relatives), but we're trucking along - overall we're working with twelve farms that feature a combination of traits: some are near forest fragments, some are more isolated from forests, some have managed honeybees nearby, whereas others have no commercial honeybees nearby. When all is said and done, we'll have data that will allow us to estimate the biodiversity and economic value of the forest fragments that are scattered across the Tarrazu region.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Ecosystem services fieldwork in Tarrazu, Costa Rica

I've just arrived at the El Marques lab in San Marcos, Costa Rica, where I'll be leading volunteer teams from Earthwatch Institute in conducting fieldwork for the next month as part of an ongoing research project on sustainable coffee production across the central highland region known as Tarrazu. We've been working with farmers from CoopeTarrazu, a local cooperative of over 2600 coffee farmers in the Tarrazu region, for the past few years in a project linking farmer pratices to both coffee yields and the environment. This year we're focusing on pollinators - specifically, on the economic value of bees to coffee farmers in the region. Coffee normally self-fertilizes, so it is not as dependent on pollinating insects as much as some other well-known crops (e.g., almonds) - but there is some evidence that having native pollinators around may enhance yields as much as 20% under the right conditions. The Tarrazu region is, as are many agroecosystems, a patchwork of farms and forest fragments -- and one thing we'll be exploring is how useful those forest fragments are as habitat that can support important pollinators of the coffee - that is, to what extent forested areas are providing "ecosystem services" to coffee farms. To this end, we'll be looking at the diversity and abundance of native and non-native bees in coffee farms and adjacent forest fragments, as well as conducting manipulative experiments such as manually pollinating coffee flowers and comparing their yields with those of flowers that have netting placed on them to exclude pollinators. Data from these and other experiments we're conducting should give us a better understanding of the benefits of forest conservation in and around coffee farms - and more generally point the way to establishing best practices in agricultural ecosystems. The first volunteer team arrives in a few days; in the meantime, I'll be unpacking my equipment trunks and going through the field protocols with local colleagues today and tomorrow.

It's pouring rain as I'm writing - the kind of downpour typical of afternoons in the tropics - we'll be focusing on getting our fieldwork (capturing and observing bees) done in the mornings, and saving our lab work (sorting and preserving specimens) for the rainy afternoons!

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Last days in Kenya

Last days in Kenya

We finished up another terrific week at A Rocha with a series of student presentations, another pre-dawn trip into Arabuko-Sokoke forest to do some more bird mist-nesting, a mid-day visit to nearby Mida Creek (a highly productive inlet off of the Indian Ocean that regularly harbors tens of thousands of shorebirds, many of them long-distance migrants from Europe and Asia), and late-night turtle patrols. On the turtle front, Thursday night we came across several series of fresh tracks emerging from the water to the beach – but none that led to nests. This behavior, in which turtles emerge and make their way up the beach only to turn around and head back into the water with deposting eggs, is referred to as a “false crawl”, and may stem from several different reasons, including being startled, confusion due to artificial lights on the shore, or some innate sense the turtle may have about the appropriateness (or inappropriateness) of the area for nesting. Whatever the reasons, finding evidence of five false crawls in one night is highly unusual, and left us and the Watamu Turtle Watch staff perplexed. Friday Jim, Buck, & Nelly (from Watamu Turtle Watch) spent four hours collecting more data along 4.5 km of beachfront in order to more clearly analyze the relationship between beach condition and frequency of nesting.
Late in the week the class took a boat out to the coral gardens offshore and had a chance to snorkel (or “goggle”, as it is known here) amidst swarms of colorful tropical fish. Friday night was our last night at A Rocha, and the staff honored us with a goat roast – delicious both fried and roasted! We loaded up the vans early Saturday morning and headed west to Tsavo East National Park - the largest game reserve in Kenya, known for its large elephant herds as well as the infamous man-eating lions of Tsavo. We had an evening game drive amongst the red-dusted elephants and other wildlife, followed by a relaxing evening dining and lounging in front of the watering hole in the Satao camp, where impala and gazelles grazed with a wary eye out for predators. Shortly before midnight, four lions (one male, three females) drifted into camp briefly – quite an experience drifting off to sleep surrounded by the roar of lions, trumpeting of elephants, and hooting of baboons!
Sunday morning we had an early morning game drive followed by a nice breakfast at Satao camp – and then headed for Nairobi and our flight home. Kwaheri Kenya!

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Arabuko-Sokoke Forest

It's a peaceful Sunday morning here at Mwamba in Watamu – the Indian Ocean is calm & glassy as the sun starts to heat things up; birds are singing, and the Sykes monkeys are already scrambling through the trees, occasionally crashing noisily into the corrugated metal rooftops of the cabanas where we're staying. We've been in Watamu now for over a week; the last two days we made a few forays into nearby Arabuko-Sokoke Forest (ASF), setting up mist nets in order to capture some of the forest-dwelling bird species for which ASF is famous. Yesterday shortly after dawn we had a chance to see the birds we captured “up close & personal” while they were being measured (beak length, weight, etc.) and banded (or “ringed” - fitted with a small metal band to record when and where they have been caught); students had the chance to release them back into the forest after data collection was complete. Several of these birds (including some that we caught) are endangered or threatened because their populations are dwindling and/or they are only found in Arabuko-Sokoke forest – the last remaining large forest remnant on the East African coast. For one of the species (East Coast Akalat – a small Afrotropical thrush), we also collected some faecal pellets as part of the ongoing research that I (Buck) have been conducting in collaboration with the ornithologists here – we're trying to pinpoint more precisely what sort of arthropods comprise the diet of this insectivorous bird. We also took a walk inside the elephant roaming area (separated by an electrified fence that discourages elephants from straying out of the forest and running into conflict with the local villages surrounding ASF), where we saw evidence of elephant activity as well as a beautiful sand snake sunning itself on the path.
Today students begin their presentations on various aspects of sustainability (part of their final research projects for the course) – and we continue to work with Watamu Turtle Watch and Mwamba this week on turtle patrols and shore bird counts (Wednesday) in nearby mangrove habitat in Mida Creek, respectively.

Message from Mwalimu Jim:
It has been a busy time here in our first full week at the coast. The students are working on their initial research talks, which is a challenge as they had to try to plan in advance what they would need as references before leaving Washington at the beginning of the month. The reason for this is that the Internet connection here is very slow and sporadic so it takes 10-15 minutes to try to upload one article and inevitably the connection goes before it is done! You can usually hear the cries of frustration of this digitally-addicted group from well down the beach! Some of the students are really getting into their chosen topics. For example, Laura has been into Watamu to the HIV testing clinic to get info on HIV/AIDS in the region, Daniel has been to the marine science resource center to look for info there (latest papers are 2001 though), and some other students have been over to talk to the Watamu Turtle Watch staff about their projects as well. Besides preparing for their presentations we spent 5 hours catching and banding tropical birds in the threatened Arabuko-Sokoke Forest with our host from A Rocha, Colin Jackson, we have gotten to participate in the release of 6 sea turtles (green and hawksbill) caught in fishing nets, we have visited Swahili architectural ruins at Gede, we have held snakes at the well-respected Bio-Ken snake farm in Watamu (a wonderful source of anti-venom right in our neighborhood; Here snaky snaky!!!), and of course we have been working on our Kiswahili language. Whew!!! All we have left this last week is 2 more days of bird banding (including an all-nighter), more turtle patrols, snorkeling in the Marine Reserve, research talks, and a safari in Tsavo East!

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Monday, February 15, 2010

Gede ruins and Watamu Turtle Watch

We spent Monday morning exploring the Gede ruins, the remains of a Swahili city nestled in the forest just inland from where we're staying. Thriving for some thousand years as a trade center, Gede was mysteriously deserted around the 17th century (archaelogists speculate that a combination of disease, dwindling water resources, and attacks from neighboring cities did the population in). Inside the ruins monument we climbed up a tree platform that benefits the ASSETS program, which is a program that provides support for secondary school education for children of families surrounding the nearby Arabuko-Sokoke forest, as well as environmental education pertaining to sustainable use of forest resources.
We also spent some time in the past few days learning about the the Watamu Turtle Watch (WTW) programs administered by the Local Ocean Trust – we got a tour of their rehabilitation center (a short walk from our base here at Mwamba) Monday afternoon and learned about the problems facing sea turtle conservation in Kenya – as well as many solutions that WTW is pursuing. Afterwards we got a special treat – the chance to assist with the release of a small green sea turtle that had been caught in a fishing net back into the ocean here at the beach where we're staying! Tonight we begin the first of several nightly beach patrols to look for nesting turtles – a green sea turtle who laid a clutch of eggs two weeks ago nearby is expected to lay her second clutch in the next few days – so the class will be out patrolling the beach from 2:30am until 4am ithe next two nights n anticipation of her arrival. Tuesday we will also start collecting data on beach condition to help the Watamu Turtle Watch program better understand how nesting success correlates with beach erosion, vegtation cover, and other indicators of healthy beachfront. All of this important turtle conservation work is being done against a backdrop of continued beach development and disputes over land use along the coast – unfortunately a nearly universal challenge facing turtle conservation efforts worldwide. We're excited to play a small role in this local conservation endeavor, while also having some unforgettable experiences!

Friday, February 12, 2010

Notes from Watamu:
We have arrived in Watamu after a long drive from Nairobi to Mombasa, and an overnight stay in Mombasa! Staying in the heart of the city in Mombasa, we spent the next morning walking around the old town, visiting the marketplace and Ft. Jesus (built by the Portuguese in the 16th century) among other things. We also took a ride on the Linkoni ferry across to the south entrance to the city, which afforded us a terrific view of the port. We arrived at the Mwamba Bird Observatory & Field Centre (A Rocha Kenya) in Watamu in late afternoon and spent some time getting to know the staff and settling in to our new digs (and of course taking a dip in the Indian Ocean to cool down after a long hot drive!). Today everyone is reading up on ecotourism and doing research for their independent projects - tomorrow we'll start learning about local conservation efforts - and later in the week we'll be working out in the field with the local turtle conservation group (Watamu Turtle Watch)!

Message from: Laura
We jumped into the Indian Ocean first thing on our arrival yesterday—it was like bathwater!! Warm, green, with blindingly white sand. Headed down again last night for a view of the Milky Way, shooting stars, and my first glance at the Southern Cross---we don't have exact confirmation on which stars made up the cross, but I was assured I was looking at it. It is hot.... “Africa Hot”, but there is a lovely breeze off the ocean and we have fans in our rooms which (surprisingly) help a lot. I'm struck time and again at how incredibly spoiled we are in the States and how so many people do so much with far, far less. Mombasa was crazy hectic—minivans and trucks everywhere, honking, speeding and careening down the streets. It's not clear if people have the right of way, but it certainly doesn't appear to be the case. Would be nice to explore a bit without appearing to be so “American”. Can't quite figure out how to pull that off, though! I think it's going to be weird to go back to the States and, once again, be part of a society where most everyone looks like me.

Message from: Daniel
While sitting on the beach today with Maria and Meagan we watched a dorsal fin ride the waves right up to the shore. We chased it down the shore line trying to get a good view of it and my attempt to run up the shore and get in the water in front of it sounded great until I was in waist deep water with it riding a wave right at me. Were still not sure what it was for sure but our best guess is a small shark (4 ft approx.). I really look forward to snorkeling around the reef that is just off shore and seeing a whole lot more.

Message from Mwalimu Jim:
It's nice to finally have a down day! Buck has been conspiring with Colin from A Rocha and Nelly from Watamu Turtle Watch and we have been setting things up for our next 2 weeks, but otherwise it has been pretty relaxing. I am trying to figure out how to get the students to work on their Kiswahili and incorporate it into their time here, and I hope to set up a site visit with some local sustainability projects possibly through local Peace Corps volunteers. It's good to see many of the students are using at least part of the day to write in journals, catch up on reading, and think about their final papers. The climate here (hot and humid, but breezy in the afternoon) is conducive to sitting still and contemplating for sure!!! And if things get too relaxing you can watch the monkeys steal food from the kitchen!

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Masai Mara safari

We're back from a few days at the western edge of Kenya, where we were on safari at Masai Mara, one of Kenya's most famous game reserves. Spread out over 1500 square kilometers and contiguous with the Serengeti in Tanzania, the park has vast expanses of grassland in which all manner of wildlife can be found – we were able to see lions, elephants, cheetahs, cape buffalo, giraffe, zebras, a leopard, and many varieties of antelope (and a tiny snake that found its way into Buck & Jim's cabin!). We're back at Lang'ata this evening to have our last dinner here, which we will share with Dr. Nick Oguge, a local scientist who is one of the founder members and president of the Ecological Society for East Africa (ESEA), who will talk with us about efforts by the Earthwatch Institute to integrate community sustainability and wildlife conservation in the Samburu region of Kenya. Next we're off to Mombasa and the coast!

Message from Ashley:
Hello from the sunshine!!!! The safari was absolutely amazing! I saw my favorite animal the warthog with a few little babies. It was so cute! The only problem was that all the girls, including me made the awwwww noise and made them run from us. Hopefully someone got a picture of them to share. I have never been so close to wild animals before. Our driver was the youngest and the fastest, thanks to Isaac! We got to see vultures, lions, hippos, yet no rhinos. I tried to keep calm with the amount of flying insects that were smacking me and Vicky in the face, I only screamed from them a MILLION times. I am finally losing my phobia here. (WINK WINK). Our roads were barely roads and extremely bumpy. They said it was a good Kenya massage! The second night was the best. We got to see the Masai dance for us after dinner at the resort, and then on Tuesday morning we stopped at the village and they danced again. Everyone kept rubbing on my tattoo thinking it would come off on their fingers. It was super funny. The men would jump and whoever jumps the highest gets more wives! It was really exciting to see the dance and interesting that many people spoke a few words of english. What an awesome experience! p.s. My name that my family gave me was Danu which means Happiness!

Message from Vicky:
Hi everybody! We went on safari the last few days and saw some awesome animals! I took tons of pictures (in between getting attacked by bugs lol) and it was lots of fun!

Message from Mwalimu Jim:
Well, it seems that I get end of using the health care facilities in Kenya more than in the US! I am feeling much better now although I am bummed I had to miss the homestays. I have had a great couple days in safari in Maasai Mara with the crew seeing the big cats, elephants, and much, much more. The rolling savannah is just beautiful in itself, and an amazingly intact landscape still although our stop in a local Maasai village outside the game reserve showed the increasing pressures from the human population. Kenya is definitely at a crossroads socially, politically and environmentally; they really are all integrally tied together! It is interesting to read of crackdowns on graft and corruption in the newspaper as we hear similar things from our hosts, but they are also very hopeful about constitutional changes in the works and the promise of the near future. Well, off to the coast today, to Mombasa and then Watumu on the northern coast! I was stationed on the coast 20 years ago in the Peace Corps so I am excited to see it again!

Saturday, February 6, 2010