Posts from the ‘Travel Story’ category

Elephant seals

California Winter Wildlife Are Here

Anyone who’s traveled to Point Reyes more than once realizes that the weather is completely unpredictable. This is my fourth year as a docent, and still can’t predict how the weather will play out during the day. I always bring four layers of clothing, including long underwear, fleece, my Gore-Tex jacket and some mittens.

Sign at the Pt. Reyes Lighthouse

Sign at the Pt. Reyes Lighthouse

But January 4, my first day of being a docent, was incredibly clear and warm. We saw 28 whales in the morning shift at the lighthouse. Seeing whales is kind of an exaggeration, as anyone who has been up to the lighthouse knows.

Mostly what we see is a faint view of a dark back and maybe a fluke (tail). We often see a light blow of air every once in a while.

kingtides-oceanBut even that slight indication that there’s a forty-ton mammal beneath the surface excites visitors from around the world.  Some complain that they don’t see more. “That’s it?” they exclaim, imagining that they’d see a whole body coming out of the water instead.

Peregrine Falcon on his rock.

Peregrine Falcon on his rock.

The local Peregrine Falcon has a rock that he stations himself on, scanning the landscape for intruders into his territory. We watched him attack a juvenile Red-tailed hawk. He was vocalizing loudly and then swooped the bird, which was sitting on a cliff about 200 feet from the Peregrine.

He circled around and swooped the Red-tail again, vocalizing loudly the whole time. A scene better than any National Geo special I’ve seen online. The crowd was transfixed by the beauty of the Peregrine. The ranger later told me that this conflict had been happening for at least three weeks, and that they had seen the Peregrine tackle the Red-tail on the ground. They rolled over together. But that hawk keeps returning to the Peregrine’s territory, where they have a nest.

Meanwhile, a sea lion in the ocean below had a large fish or shark that it was trying to break apart by bashing it against the top of the water. Bash, bash. Parts of the fish flew around him and the gulls and pelicans dove for those pieces. Bash, bash. Eight or nine gulls hovered over him to grab the scraps. This went on for about ten minutes. (More drama for the visitors.)

Visitors walking down to the Pt. Reyes Lighthouse.

Visitors walking down to the Pt. Reyes Lighthouse.

That’s just some of the morning excitement. I missed the long-eared owls that another docent saw on her way over to our next station.

We moved over the Chimney Rock overlook, where we found the Northern Elephant seals, primarily males with some females and newborn pups. It was slow and quiet among the crowd of mammals on the beach, though we knew in a few weeks that the beach would be noisy with new-born pups, vocalizing females and bellowing males.

Elephant seals

Elephant seals

On our ride home we witnessed a full radiant moon, reflecting on the reservoir as it rose into the darkened sky.


Algae, vellela and feather

Beach Beauties of Summer Featured

Ocean Beach offered up all sorts of uncommon visual marvels this past Tuesday, including Vellela (commonly known as by-the-wind sailor), different types of algae, and remnants of all sorts of hard-shelled creatures.

Nature created the compositions the way that I’ve captured them here. I haven’t styled any of these photos. I invite you to enjoy the beach’s beauty.


Panoramic view of Drake's Bay.

The Sadness of Spring

The only sadness that spring brings for me is the end of my Winter Wildlife Docent days up at Point Reyes. Today was the last day that I spent talking to visitors about whales and elephant seals and whatever other topics came up (i.e., hunting white-tailed deer, smart birds, the appearance of orca whales, the anger of those left behind to endure winter in Minnesota, the grace of being relocated to California from Cleveland, Ohio).

And what a day it was at Point Reyes. Not only were the whales passing by the Lighthouse (we saw eleven in the morning), but this year’s Elephant Seal weaners were playing in the surf, fighting and making their way out into the ocean that they will soon call home.

On top of those usual findings were an abundance of wild flowers, visits from many birds (Surf Scoters, Brown Pelicans, Common Murres, Caspian Terns, Peregrine Falcons), and brilliant vistas all around. Some unidentified fishes were splashing in Drake’s Bay. No one was able to identify exactly who they were since it was the first time anyone had seen them before.

One of the best aspects of being a docent up there is that visitors from around the world see California wildlife for the first time. Locals come, too, and marvel that they don’t go out to Point Reyes enough, perhaps spending too many Saturdays at home relaxing with their NetFlix movies.

On damp, windy days visitors may ask us docents why we volunteer to come up in this weather and stand around for hours talking to strangers. I tell them about the beauty and perfection of what we see before us. How the commitment to do this volunteer work makes us all come out here to watch the bounty of nature unfold. Many still don’t get it. Perhaps they prefer the warmth and comfort to the raw qualities before us here in Point Reyes.


A volunteer and villagers give the goats medicine.

In Uganda, Goats Go to Those who Retire from Hunting

Since the Ugandan National Forest Conservatory has a limited budget for conservation, the Budongo Forest Reserve project also strives to train young locals to become field guides who track the chimps in the forest. This helps bring needed attention to the human-wildlife conflict in the area. With the primary goal of the overall project focusing on conservation, engaging local communities, especially those who hunt, is key.

The project provides goats to those who agree to no longer use snares or hunt. Snares are pernicious, not only trapping the wild pigs and other small animals but also catching chimps. We saw several chimps whose were missing toes and fingers and whose limbs were deformed by the wire snare traps.

In addition to giving the hunters goats, they also provide medical care for their livestock. We joined the vet, Wyclef, on his trip to the village to give de-worming solution to the goats. After we arrived, the word that we were there spread quickly, and we gave medicine to more than 110 goats in two hours.

Chimp in the Budongo Forest Reserve, Uganda.

Grooming the Man and Other Stories

The complex social relationships and bonds among chimps have been written about by many authors. Seeing their interactions in person creates a stronger impression than any words could describe. While tracking these chimps in the Budongo Forest, there were several scenes that we came upon that stand out in my mind:

  • Nick, the current alpha male, lounging on the path while Musa and Howard groom him. He is lying on his back, his legs splayed outward as Musa picks parasites off of him in what appears to be very intimate gestures. Our field guide tells us that Nick is on his way out of power as alpha male but that the other two want to remain friends. They groom him as a way to assure a smooth transition.
  • The mother Bahadi feeds with her infant in a fig tree. He moves away from her for some time and then climbs back into her lap. In one moment she wiggles her foot, sticking it out with a playful gesture for him to hold onto.
  • The guide explains how a new alpha male takes power: He must convince the top-ranking females that he will be a good leader. He does this by bringing them to the good food sources and protecting their babies. If the high-ranking females support them, then all of their offspring will, too.
  • Squibbs pulls a parasite off of Nick after grooming him. He plucks a leaf from a local tree and puts the parasite on it to examine it. The field guide tells us this is an inspection leaf and that they do this all the time to inspect the bugs and such that they pull off one another.
  • Zed grabs a leaf and puts it inside a hole in a tree that has rain water in it. He drinks from the leaf.
  • The veterinary Wyclef tells the story of the baby chimp who is in a jar on the shelf of the laboratory. It was killed by Musa, one of the more powerful males in the Sonso Community. He watched what happened that day in the forest when he heard screaming. Another male was holding a new baby chimp, and trying to protect it from Musa. It was unclear who the mother of the chimp was. Musa grabbed the baby and threw it against the tree, killing it instantly. The guess is that it was not Musa’s offspring and that perhaps it was from another community. Chimps will often kill offspring that are not fathered by one of their own.
  • A crowd of nearly 15 chimps gathers together in a fig tree above where we are all sitting. They ascend the tree swinging from branch to branch, making grunting noises as they eat. They drop fruit, leaves, branches and defecate on us. They pause to itch their backs and peer out over the trees for many moments. One of our volunteers wonders out loud what they are thinking about. Our field guide tells us that they are just relaxing after a long day. That they like to look over the countryside.
On our first day of chimp tracking, we follow Alf (shown) and Bahati.

Tracking the Sonso Community of Chimps

Seeing chimps in the wild was the main reason that I came on this trip to Uganda. I have had a fascination with chimps since I discovered how closely our social networks are to theirs. Really, Facebook is a glorified Pant-Hoot, the vocalization chimps make to one another. Many of us humans tend to cry out into cybersphere to let our friends and family know where we are and what’s going on. Chimps do the same thing in the forest. Day and night we would hear their calls. The field guides told us that they were letting each other know how far away they were. As though the Sonso group may separate during the day, they would join together at night to make their night nests and would keep track of each other’s movements during the day.

The Budongo Conservation Field Station
After our work with the trees, we were ready to track the chimps. The Budongo Conservation Field Station (BCFS) is surrounded by the greatest variety and concentration of primates of any forest in East Africa. The importance of the forest can’t be overstated as it is the largest remaining tropical rain forest in Africa.

It has been a research field station for the past 20 years. The chimp group that we followed consists of around 60 individuals, known as the Sonso Community, who live near the site of a former sawmill.

During the early 1990s, researchers habituated chimps by following them over the course of five years. The Sonso Community slowly began to trust humans and allow them to watch their activities. The researchers came to know these chimps as a family, naming them and watching the soap opera of their lives unfold. Foraging patterns, births, injuries, deaths, fights, political power struggles, immigration and emigration are all part of the chimp story that they’ve studied and documented over the years. Nowadays, graduate students from around the world and university students from Uganda are engaged in chimp and other scientific research at the site.

A Typical Day
We had two days of tracking chimps, where we headed out in the early morning darkness with experienced field guides to find them waking up in the forest. The field guides were primarily young men from the local community who had been trained to collect data on chimp activities.

We followed their path, watching them move through the forest, primarily eating, grooming, mating and posturing to one another, not unlike our daily activity.

On the first day, I spent my time watching Bahati, an adult female who was eating figs in a large tree with her infant, Belvin. This tree was at the end of its fruiting season and had few figs left so she was the only one feeding. They knew our field guide and so trusted the strange faces that were watching them. We sat below the towering tree with binoculars and recorded their actions every five minutes for the eight-hour shift.

Bahati pulled the figs off the tree, stuck them in her mouth and sucked the juice out of them. She seemed to pile a bunch into her mouth until it was full with fig-meat and then she would spit out the meat. They only want the juice from the figs as the meat was difficult to digest. Alf joined her later on and also consumed the figs in a similar manner, spitting out the meat on top of our heads as we stared at them through our binos.

In the early afternoon, the hottest part of the day, she created a nest out of leaves up in the top of the tree. She grabbed a bunch of figs and brought them into her nest with her infant.

During this time, we craned our necks to see what she was eating. What this ripe fruit? New leaves? What type of tree was she in? Was she grooming, defecating or taking photos? Whatever her actions, we would record them every five minutes. I came to appreciate the guides’ patience and stamina as the muscles in my neck felt like broken rubber bands by the end of the day.

I am going to stop here for now as there is much more to say about the Sonso Community, a group whose power structure was in flux with the alpha male Nick being challenged by two other chimps. I will save those details for my next posting, which will feature a bit of video from the field.

In the Budongo Forest.

The Ugandan Tree Phrenology Project

One of our roles on this Earthwatch expedition is to help with the Phrenology project, where they are studying how trees are budding, blooming and fruiting. The long term goal is to understand what is happening in the Budongo Rain Forest and to understand what is causing the changes, such as dwindling pollinators or climate change.

On our hike, a local field guide, Nelson, Pat (another volunteer from Earthwatch) and I went to designated transects and trees to collect specific data.

Using binoculars we surveyed the tree tops, which measured up to 70 stories tall, to determine what each tree was producing, if anything at all.

Although the seven-hour hike was a challenge of trekking over loose roots and massive tree trunks, the visual and aural gallery of birds, insects, flowers, foliage, songs and sounds provided a stunning backdrop nothing like anything I witnessed before, even on our most stunning days in Point Reyes, CA.

Although I didn’t envy their task of collecting data on 1 ,400 trees a month, I could imagine how rewarding it would be to work on an important project like this. I could also imagine getting addicted to the lure of the wildlife and majesty of this unique place.

Baboon on site.

In the Budongo Forest Reserve

I have seen more non-human primates on The Budongo Forest Reserve here in northwestern Uganda than humans so far with Baboons, Black and White Colobus monkeys and Blue monkeys and even a group of about 10 very boisterous chimps visiting early one morning.

Budongo has what brings many people to a home: good food. Figs and nut trees cover the grounds here and attract all sorts of birds and mammals.

Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of humans, too. This is the largest remaining tropical forest in Africa, and had been a field station doing research, training and conservation for more than 20 years. It started as a logging station.

Nowadays, students from Makerere University do research while international students from Poland, France and Great Britain are working on Masters degrees and a post doc on chimp vocalizations.

Our group of seven all happen to be teachers, curious ones who are eager to get out into the forest to look at plants, birds and mammals.

(re) Imagine Uganda

What do you think of when I mention Uganda?

Uganda Shoebill Balaeniceps rex Murchison Fall...

Uganda Shoebill Balaeniceps rex Murchison Falls December 2005 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If you’re like many of the people who I spoke to before I left, you think of the Ebola virus, Idi Amin and some war that’s being waged. The reality of present-day Uganda should bring to mind a colorful, lush landscape with one of the most diverse populations of birds and mammals in the world.

With more than 1000 species of birds, 342 species of mammals and more than 10 species of primates (including our next of kin the chimps and gorillas), Uganda sits the Great Rift Valley near the origin of mankind. Idi Amin is dead, and has not been in Uganda for more than 25 years so it’s time to update your imagination.

Below are some helpful photos that I took today in the Botanical Garden in Entebbe. I leave tomorrow for the Budungo Forest and will continue to post more in the next two weeks.

Entebbe Botanical Garden
We saw a family of Colobus Monkeys playing with the young ones jumping off a large tree and then eating leaves in a nearby bush. Clearly they saw this as a game as their father stood watch.

We saw more than 20 species of odd birds, including Ibis, Grey Kestrel, Grey Parrots, Weavers bathing in a stream, and Horn Bills who kept sweeping over us with wings sounding like a stalled car engine. Then there were the many other bright orange and red birds, iridescent grackles and tiny slow-motion hummingbirds that I couldn’t identify.

At one point we walked into a vortex of bird songs whose chorus continued until we pulled ourselves away 15 minutes later. I believe they were celebrating the suddenly bold mid-afternoon sun.

Next time someone mentions Uganda you should think of a lush landscape of deep red roads, gorillas and chimpanzees, storks sitting on the roof, monkeys and prehistoric birds joining a chorus of afternoon sounds. If you want one image take away, make it the Shoebill, a strange prehistoric bird related to the Pelican shown in the photo at the top of this post. Though I haven’t spotted him yet, he is on my list and I know I will see him by the end of my journey.