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!

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