Nepali Mountain Views

To get out of the smog in Nepal’s cities, we took a ride into the foothills of the Himalayas, and a one-day trek through the villages of Dhampus and Astam. The sunrise was stunning, with glowing colors spreading over the mist, and the Annapurna peaks shining. As the day progressed, we wound our way up and down hills on small rocky paths, enjoying both the natural scenery and the small villages.

*Please note–all photographs of people were taken with explicit permission, here and in any other post. In this case, we stopped to have cha (hot tea) and chat with these women. The first one asked me to take her photo, and the second is laughing because she was surprised to hear me speak in (rusty) Hindi.

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Sunrise at Sarankot

We spent our first week in Nepal in Pokhara, a medium-sized city centered around the Phewa Lake. Guidebooks of the area always feature crystal-clear reflections of snow-capped mountains surrounding the town, but increasing pollution in recent years has made the mountains a lot harder to see. Even though we were there in one of the clearer times of year, the views from the city ranged from hazy to cloudy, without a peak in sight.

Early one morning, we took a car up a windy road dotted with tourist guesthouses to Sarankot. The lookout there stands at 1600 meters, up above most of the haze. It was incredibly crowded, with people filling the the tower, clustered along the stairs, and spread across the grass at its base. Even packed in tight, we watched in awe as the sky slowly brightened, and a faint line of clouds hovering above the valley coalesced into the range of mountains. The sky brightened and colored until it was crisply blue, and then the fog spread up, we drove back down the hill, and the mountains disappeared once again.

More Mpala Mammals

On my first few game drives at Mpala, I saw more wild mammal species than I can remember seeing in the rest of my life combined. The later weeks did not disappoint, with a longer drive to the northern, drier areas of the reserve, different antelope species, the elusive straw-tailed whydah bird, charismatic reptiles, broad-shouldered raptors, and multiple elephants with young babies, including one that we watched nurse!

Backyard Birds at Mpala

Just over halfway through my trip to Kenya, my camera’s shutter broke. This is the murphey’s law well-known to professional and travel photographers, that cameras are most likely to break on big international trips when they’re not possible to fix or replace–and the missed photo opportunities are priceless. For this reason, many photographers will carry a second full-size camera with them when they travel. However, I am not a professional photographer and my second camera is a reliable but simple waterproof point-and-shoot, and while it takes pretty good landscape and macro shots, it doesn’t have much of a zoom.

Around this time, the rainstorms started, and all the birds changed their behaviors as they began nesting and breeding patterns. I was surrounded by stunning birds, but without my camera.

These pictures were taken with a friend’s camera, loaned to me for one day, and almost all of them were in the bushes around my house–and even perched on a string hanging between the porch columns! I’m so grateful to her for letting me borrow her equipment, and glad I had the time to sit and watch these beauties. Seeing a weaver bird build his nest from start to finish put me in awe of the complexity of creation. The paradise flycatcher was one of my favorite birds of the whole trip, and I was charmed he came to visit my porch on that day. Also pictured are a go-away bird, purple grenadiers, swallows, sulfur-breasted bushshrike, and a sunbird with incandescent feathers.

I hope you enjoy seeing these pictures as much as I enjoyed taking them.

Rains in Africa

Since the first afternoon we arrived in Kenya, storm clouds had been threatening to bring an early start to the rainy season. We worked hard to get the prescribed burns for our research project finished before the rains, each day looking anxiously out across the valley where other ranches were getting isolated storms. Fortunately we were able to finish in time, and just a few days afterwards, multiple bands of storms thundered in. It was amazing to see the intensity of the rainstorms, and how quickly the land responded! Plants started greening up in just three days, and week after the first storm the whole landscape was transformed. Animals changed their behaviors too, with birds starting their breeding and nesting patterns for the new season, and insects emerging in droves out of the ground.

Baby Cheetahs

These young ones were hidden in the grass a little ways away from one of the areas we burned. Our hope is that the burned areas will attract lots of herbivores, which will in turn provide some tasty lunches for the cheetahs when they get a little bit older!

 

 

 

Game Drive

The only legal way to shoot wildlife in Kenya is from a car, with a camera. In the afternoons and evenings after the day’s fieldwork, we drove around to different parts of the reserve, stopping whenever we spotted something in the bushes, trees, or skies.

The diversity of wildlife here is mind-blowing. In just a few weeks, I’ve seen 34 different species of wild mammals, and more birds than I could begin to count. I’ve also gotten pretty good at taking pictures out of a truck window, aided by the best drive and tour guide imaginable (my advisor).

Prescribed Burns

Fire–and what happens to plant communities after fire–is the core topic of my dissertation research. I’ve set up experiments in Sierra mixed-conifer forest and nutrient-poor but diversity-rich serpentine chaparral communities, and when my advisor discussed a project with prescribed fire in his study system in Kenya rangeland, I jumped at the opportunity.

For over twenty years, this project has been studying how the presence or absence of wild herbivores or cattle can affect this plant community–the acacia trees and understory grasses that grow on black cotton soil–and through them, the rodents, birds, and insects that also use this environment.

In 2013, the research team burned a section of each plot to test how past herbivory affected fire behavior, and how fire changed all of these interactions between wildlife, cattle, trees, grass, and insects. This year, we reburned all those sections to look at the effects of repeated fire, and burned a second set of sections in each plot to look at differences between fire in different years.

There were 36 burns total, each 30 x 30 meters. The whole process took our team of almost thirty people five days. Most of the crew was there not to light fire, but to keep anything outside of these sections from catching fire. In addition to the two main organizers and fire-lighters, there were people running two water tanks with hoses, people driving the trucks that pulled the water tanks, people running an even larger refill water tank–which was pulled by a tractor. Another crew wore backpacks full of water, to be able to spray any spot embers, and a final crew stayed behind after each burn, to rake apart coals or smoldering dung, and make sure all the hot spots were extinguished. Plus of course all the researchers recording temperature, wind speed, flame heights, bird movements, and tree survival.

For me, this project was a wave of experiences. This was my first time visiting anywhere in Africa and my first time working on a prescribed fire team. My original plan had been to arrive a week or so before the burning started, to have time to settle in and establish my own mini-experiment within the burn areas. However, due to concerns over the rains coming early, the entire project was moved forward, so we starting burning my second day after arriving. This meant that my first week I was trying to learn the system, help with the burns, keep ahead of the burning plan to set my experiments in the late afternoons or early mornings in the areas that would be burned the following day, and see and photograph as much nature and wildlife as I could. I didn’t have time to be jetlagged or tired from the 24 hour flight until over a week later!

From field assistants to coworkers, the team here has been absolutely amazing. Watching an unwieldy group of people with all these moving parts come together to accomplish all of these burns smoothly and safety was incredible. I’ve learned so much, and I’ve had a lot of fun along the way!

 

The Hippo Pools

On Mpala Ranch is an area commonly referred to as the hippo pools, which is just upstream of a small dam, so the water level stays consistent even during the dry season. It’s one of the best places to go to see wildlife, including the hippos that give its name, and many other animals that take advantage of the predictable resource. We saw over fifteen hippos there on our first visit, as well as a small herd of elephants, a troop of vervet monkeys, two giraffe, a fish eagle, a little bee eater, and a hadada ibis. The big yellow-barked acacia that grow near the river are called fever trees.