Kites and Abdim's storks
Spiral as clouds into clouds
Dry season migrants
From a purely reductionist ecological perspective, it is impossible to fully understand giraffe without understanding the plants that they eat. At the most fundamental level - on the molecular scale - giraffe are comprised entirely of the same proteins, molecules and atoms that comprise the browse they consume. In this way, from an evolutionary view, diet selection is an mechanism to ingest some type of molecular stoichiometry that is most conducive to survival and reproduction. Perhaps
ore simply stated, nutrition is key for making more giraffe and healthier giraffe.
As the seasons progress and landscape responds, we have returned to Murchison Falls National Park to continue our ongoing giraffe population studies. After a few days in the capital city, the open skies and broad horizons of the Ugandan bush offer a welcome contrast to the vehicles and concrete. The change in mentality is almost instantaneous, as we transition to the daily rhythm of field work. On the northern banks of the Victoria Nile, the landscape is verdant. Having just experienced several months of wet season, the plants have responded with remarkable vigor; green leafy trees and tall swards of grass have certainly taken advantage of the abundance of water. Areas that were easily drivable during the dry season surveys have since become impassably quagmired and the termite mounds that were so perceptible a few months prior are once again masked by the tall grasses that erupt from the parched earth following the rains.
In the simplest terms, the science of population ecology concerns itself with how and why a group of animals (or plants, bacteria, etc) changes in number over time. These changes occur -in their most distilled forms- through four relatively simple processes: births, deaths, immigration and emigration. For large-bodied and long-lived animals like giraffe, these processes are very often difficult to directly monitor and are generally inferred. The gestation period of a giraffe is over 14 months and the odds of being present at the precise moment of birth are exceedingly small. Every so often, however, researchers get lucky and witness these miraculous occasions. Such was the case on our latest demographic survey of the endangered Rothschild's giraffe in Murchison Falls National Park. During these surveys, we drive the entire extent of the park and photograph every giraffe that we encounter so that we can identify them by their unique spot patterns in attempt to understand and conserve this population. On this particular day, we were deep in the central region of Murchison Falls National Park, photographing a group of giraffe that frequents the open glades and surrounding dense woodland, when we noticed the large female struggling to give birth to its 150 pound calf. The process from the initial five-foot drop into the world, to the young giraffe's first steps occurred over the span of under an hour. It's an incredible progression from birth to mobility meant to give the calf the greatest chance of surviving this vulnerable stage. This young giraffe has a challenging time ahead of it - mortality is typically highest for giraffes in their first year- but if he survives, we will be able to monitor him as he potentially grows another fourteen feet in height.
A cool breeze catches the nylon fabric stretched over the 9 foot frame and lifts the kite skyward. This particular kite strains under the additional extra ounces of a FujiFilm FinePix XP80 camera mounted to a picavet rig attached to the kite string. The specialized payload contains a programmed intervalometer which will trigger the shutter every 15 seconds. As the kite is guided around the landscape, it -in theory - will capture images which can then be digitally stitched together to create high resolution aerial imagery of the distribution of various plants over the heterogeneous landscape. Coupled with direct observations of feeding giraffes on the same landscape, this birds-eye view can be used to inform our understanding of how giraffes make foraging decisions in heterogeneous browsing landscapes.
In the seasonal cycles of the Ugandan savannah, March is a period of reawakening. The long-awaited rains fall in powerful cascading sheets that sweep across the open landscape. For a field biologist, these rains offer welcome respite from stifling night time heat..cooling the hot March temperatures and offering somniferous percussion on the metal-roof huts. Seemingly overnight, the desiccated, cracked earth transforms - in some places- to impassable quagmires. Hundreds of thousands of winged termites erupt from their subterranean refuges and take to the skies; much to the delight of hungry baboons troops and much to the dismay of lorry drivers and their splattered windshields. Thousands of Abdim's storks are scattered across the Savannah as they stop over in Murchison Falls National Park on their transcontinental migrations. They can be seeing taking to the air, kettling by the tens of dozens as they sprinkle the skies in flight. The grasses - slower to respond to the recent rains- are mercifully short allowing us to easily navigate away from termite mounds and aardvark holes in our off-track driving.
March has also been a rather busy time for giraffe research. Between seasonal demographic surveys, our revisit to Kidepo Valley National Park and a pilot study on foraging ecology, we have spent a fair bit of time in the bush, and garnered a few stories of field work. The next few posts will chronicle the goings ons of the March/April field season and share some of our efforts to understand and conserve Rothschild's giraffe in Uganda.
The mathematical inequality statement is seemingly simple: (16 feet of giraffe) > (4 feet of grass). Under this premise, it's easy to imagine that locating groups of giraffe in the open grassy savannas might be a relatively straightforward task...but occasionally giraffe behaviour trumps rudimentary mathematical representations. It was mid-afternoon during the second day of our seasonal giraffe surveys of Murchison Falls National Park and as we bounced along the dusty game track, we saw what appeared to be a lone giraffe standing in an area of open savanna. I pulled my Nikon Monarch binoculars to my eyes and as I glassed the apparently solo adult female, several other giraffes in repose gracefully lifted their heads above the swards to reveal a group of Rothschild's giraffe in what - moments before- appeared to be a silent sea of grass.
December is one of my favourite times for field work in Murchison Falls National Park. Every morning, I head down to the edge of the Victoria Nile and look east as the red sun rises over the southern banks of the swift, broad river. In the fledgling day, before the temperatures reach their tropical potential, the air is still cool and often the soil is still damp from the last of the wet season storms during the previous night. Within these tropical savannas, changes between wet and dry seasons can potentially alter the entire landscape and shift the dynamics of the complicated community of living beings. Those changes are one of the reasons I come to Murchison Falls in December. During the latter part of this month, the wet-season storm clouds typically dwindle as the landscape transitions into the dry season. I am here to see how these changes can influence this beautiful ecosystem, specifically through the lens of giraffe population ecology and spatial ecology. So as I stand on the banks of this storied waterway, I embrace this morning routine as a quiet, contemplative prelude to coming long rewarding day fieldwork. I'll be spending the next 11 hours systematically driving the network of game tracks looking for giraffe photographing them as part of a seasonal demographic survey.
The Rothschild’s giraffe, Giraffa camelopardalis rothschildi, is among the most endangered of the nine giraffe subspecies with the current global numbers estimated at fewer than 1,700 individuals scattered across isolated populations in Kenya and Uganda. In recent history, giraffe in Uganda have been relegated to two distinct populations - Murchison Falls National Park and Kidepo Valley National Park. During late July of 2015, the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) translocated fifteen individual giraffe from the Murchison Falls population to Lake Mburo National Park, aiming to create the foundation of a third population.
During a previous trip to the field at the end of July 2015, a team from GCF and Cheyenne Mountain Zoo visited Lake Mburo National Park a few days after the giraffe were released in the Park
This brief reconnaissance trip provided critical insights into the translocation process and offered an encouraging glimpse of the newly established population. The giraffe seemed to be settling down in their new, unfamiliar environment, but we wanted to collect a bit more information to examine these behaviors.
Once upon a time, I used to live on a small dredge spoil island at the mouth of the Columbia River. Located within view of beautiful Astoria, Oregon - home of The Goonies and the location of Lewis and Clark's encampment on the Pacific- this small island was an astonishing location for breeding colonies of Caspian terns and double crested cormorants. Given the outflow of millions of salmonid smolts and the proximity to saltwater fish, the piscivorous birds thrived. I lived on the island for a breeding season, spending hours in the bird blinds cataloging diet composition, breeding phenology and colony size. To have opportunity to observe the crescendo and rhythm of breeding season provided an incredibly intimate perspective into a remarkable biological phenomenon and was a formative experience in my fledgling career. Recently, this same island has become the subject of some intense controversy given a proposal to kill thousands of cormorants in an effort to maintain salmonid stocks. This news has caused me to reflect on my own experiences on the island and compelled me to repost a piece that I wrote several years ago while in the midst of a field season on the island.