Last summer, I signed up to volunteer at the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge. Each year, the endangered piping plover comes back to the shores of the Atlantic to nest and breed. Currently, it’s thought that there are only roughly 8,000 remaining. In. The. World. So it’s significant that nearly 25% of those come back to my home state to nest.
Parker River each year runs a Plover Warden program to help protect their nesting grounds. Largely, we are the hall monitors of the beach, reminding beachgoers (despite the GINORMOUS signs) that the beach is closed. The 6-mile stretch of pristine beach with its protected dunes is perfect nesting grounds, hence the beach is closed from the beginning of April each year through early August (even through greenhead season!), or when the last of the fledglings go. Only 1 of 4 eggs make it from nest to flight. In short, it’s our job to help them get there.
My first encounter on my first day last year included a pair of entitled locals and their dog who were indignant that they were not allowed to walk down the pristine beach.But you can’t even see the nests, local Karen said. Ken piped in and asked when the wardens’ hours were. Hand on my walkie-talkie, I persuaded them to cooperate, and they finally relented. It is Federal land after all. Nor are dogs allowed.
The guy with the drone was nicer, but still confused as to why endangered birds, whose primary predators come from the sky, would feel ruffled by an ominous robotic sky creature humming around and spying on them from the blue.
This year’s encounters have been more tame. In my official volunteer t-shirt and fluorescent hat, I’ve been able to ward off most would-be violators just by being a tad obvious, and most people I’ve encountered are genuinely curious – some even passionate – about the birds. Not so much the obnoxious college kids camped out in pop-up tents just beyond the (again GINORMOUS) signs, feigning ignorance when nabbed by the plover police, “we thought nobody was checking.”
So far, we have about 33 nesting pairs, with 16 or so active nests after some storms and predators took out a swath of nests. This weekend, the refuge noted that some hatchlings have emerged. Over the next weeks we’ll expect the little fuzzits to begin scooting around the beach. This little guy is from one of last year’s broods that, sadly, didn’t make it after a spate of coyote binges.
So if you encounter a sign, a volunteer, or even just a plover… please tread lightly, as nests are camouflaged and the little ones need as much help as possible. No kites, no dogs, no bikes, no feet… just for a few more weeks to give these guys a fighting chance at fledging!
Watch this space. I’m hoping to get some plover-ific pics as the little ones emerge.
I didn’t know how to write about this trip. It’s been 5 years since I’ve been on a proper tour and half of those were spent while my life was sideways, treading water in an upside-down world changed forever by a plague and other mishaps. So in trying to compare and contrast my experiences, it dawned on me yet again that places have spirits or souls or essences that invite you in or spit you out, like Rajasthan or Istanbul or Botswana or Sardinia or Belize or Aachen or Marrakech or Amsterdam or wherever you call home…each has left its mark on me in a different way.
In Rwanda, I felt held. I felt fed – with local foods, recent history, a collective passion; with knowledge about conservation and community, with a shared compassion and humanitarian heart, eyes towards the future.
In Kenya, I felt sold-to, as if consumerism and capitalism and commercialism had woven its way into the fibers of existence there. It felt like a place that wanted to be so much of what my country stands for that they have shed their own identity. And while the pockets of the natural world there are being protected and nurtured, the delicate balance between selling eco-tourism as a commodity and believing that conservation is the right thing to do felt like a grand fuzzy line.
That said, I still had two days on my own at the end of the trip. So I spent my last couple of days in Nairobi learning more about how the country came to be, and seeing some of Nairobi’s conservation efforts for the Rothschild’s giraffe.
Stop #1 was the National Museums of Kenya (and snake house). The museum itself was a pictorial and diorama-ish narration of the country’s history from essentially prehistoric man to the present. If nothing else, the snake house was an opportunity to see their deadly (“a bite from this snake is considered a major medical emergency”) reptiles in a controlled environment.
The most disturbingly fascinating part of the museum, though, was the Birds of East Africa gallery. I wandered in, completely unaware, and was presented with what was functionally a life-sized Field Guide to the Birds, but instead of photos, each Kenyan bird was represented as a taxidermied example, meticulously arranged in plexiglass cases, labelled and numbered as in a bird book.
Stop #2 was the Giraffe Centre. What I thought would be a serene giraffe sanctuary turned out to be a breeding center and chatty tourist attraction. You are given a coconut shell full of snack pellets when you enter. Then you walk up to the viewing platform, where you can hand-feed and interact with the giraffes. It is a legitimate reintroduction program, as there are only approx. 1600 Rothschild’s giraffes remaining. They are at the centre to be bred, then released into the wild in protected parks throughout the country.
Looming large (and lovely) in the background was the renowned Giraffe Manor, where for $1000 USD a night (or more) you can stay in an enchanting stone manor that sits within the sanctuary’s grounds, as you commune with the resident long-necks. It was a weird but oddly satisfying visit, giving me hope that perhaps the commercialism of this place would help its natural beauty thrive.
Flying back home, I had a couple of distinct thoughts: I left Kenya with more things bought. I left Rwanda with more experiences sought. Yet it’s the little memories that pop into my mind as I digest my experiences:
The night I stood along the fencing separating the Lake Nakuru lodge from the reserve proper, watching a mass of dark hulking beasts make their way to the watering hole, grumbling and chatting amongst themselves in a low snuffling murmur. It was only once I shined my flashlight on the herd and saw 50 eyes staring back at me in the black night that I realised they were buffalo.
The night I went out to look for rhino in the weird Lake Naivasha camp, instead finding bushbabies skittering about (baby tree, said the night watchman). And maribou storks, dozens of the immense and bizarre creatures, using the half-dead and waterlogged trees as their base camp.
A lunchtime impromptu tour of the bush camp in the Maasai Mara, spotting hippos and monkeys and crocodiles, guided by a kind and eager Maasai warrior.
An exploration of the little paths along the park fence in Akagera National Park, wondering what might be stirring in the long grasses or what critters lurked just beyond the wires. I had a staring contest with a baboon in a nearby tree and spotted a family with the tiniest baboon baby (babette?) I’ve ever seen.
That night the Land Cruiser broke down on a long stretch of road between the Northern Province and Kigali and we were rescued (luggage and all) by a park ranger (and a veritable stranger) on his way back to Kigali.
The bicycles piled high with sugar cane. The lush hillsides. The milky way and the Southern Cross. The shoebills and hornbills and storks and kingfishers…brightly-coloured birds of all shapes and sizes.
A flash of history: We drove back from Giraffe-land past the new president’s house at about the same time the Kenyan supreme court awarded Ruto the win. The street outside his gates was lined with cars and photographers.
And the food…Dinner in the gardens at Hôtel des Mille Collines, staring out over the pool and pondering what Kigali’s people went through during the 90s. A homemade Rwandan lunch in the cook’s own kitchen, probably the best meal I had in the 2 weeks there. Dinner on my last night at an Eritrean restaurant in Nairobi, complete with injera.
I’ll come back to Africa. There’s so much more of this amazingly diverse land to experience. I want to see the Serengeti and Amboselli and Madagascar and Uganda…and return to Rwanda to hike more in the Virungas and return to Botswana and camp for longer, deeper in the Okavango. I want to eat injera in Ethiopia, and I want to see Deadvlei and Sossusvlei in Namibia. There’s probably more, not to mention the East African coast, that I don’t even know I want to see yet!
Travel is a privilege and an education. And for me, it is a prescription for the part of my soul that feels lost and wild and homeless and restless much of the time.
The Maasai villages still operate much the same as they did hundreds of years ago. That is, they live in small compounds, with their animals, practicing rituals and ceremonies that have been handed down over generations.
After a performance of a traditional Maasai dance at our game lodge, I was walking back to my tent with one of the porters (it’s dark and there are critters around) and he asked me how I liked the show. “Did you see me jumping?” he asked. The lodge employs Maasai workers both as a contract with the tribe and to add cultural panache to the fancy digs. “It was great”, I replied, not recognising him in his uniform. “Jump highest and get a free lady,” he said with a humungous grin.
I had some understanding around the Maasai practices of arranged marriage and also polygamy, that the community has input into both, including negotiating the bride price. Wealth is measured in cows and wives here, after all. So I asked him whether he got a free lady. Beaming, he said, “Yes. I jump the highest. I’m going to get another one.” 💖
Welcome to the Maasai Mara. This park covers nearly 16002 km, roughly the size of London, which sounds actually smaller than it felt being there. The savannahs seemed to go on forever, or at least to Tanzania, where the Maasai Mara connects with the Serengeti to form an inter-national animal migration route. So once again I felt as though I were in a postcard rather than seated in a Land Cruiser in the southwestern part of Kenya making photos of the place.
The objective, apparently, in the Maasai Mara, is to find big cats. And while I liked seeing leopards and lions lounging in the sun, I honestly preferred the elephants grazing gracefully with their still-fuzzy calves. I preferred the zebras grazing amid the long grasses, the sun painting a glowing carpet. I preferred the giraffes, with necks so long they looked like they were floating along the savannah like giant puppets. I preferred the rhinos for their prehistoric and surreal stature; the rhinos curiously watching, with their notoriously terrible eyesight, the tourist-filled Land Cruisers, as if we were long-lost relatives.
And there were the hippos. If you guessed that these were the deadliest African beasts, you’d be correct! In fact, hippos kill 40 times more people per year than sharks (even coconuts kill more people every year than sharks, but that’s a completely different argument!). The sad truth, however, is that if you include all types of fauna, the deadliest animal in Africa is still the mosquito.
But I digress. Watching the hippos from the bush lodge in the Maasai Mara was a fantastic lunchtime activity. The word hippopotamus comes from the Greek word meaning river horses, presumably because they spend so much time in the water, protecting themselves from the sun. But upon hearing their clamour one afternoon, I have a different theory…
Before Mt. Kenya was called as such, the Kikuyu people called the it Kĩrĩma Kĩrĩnyaga, loosely translated to ‘the area of the ostrich’, for its black rock and snow-capped peaks that resembled the awkward bird’s plumage. Once the Colonists arrived and simplified (read: bungled) the name, the land (and Mountain) was christened as Kenya.
The last day in the Maasai Mara was elephants and ostriches and secretary birds and hornbills and other savannah oddities, plus trains of wildebeests and hartebeests and zebras, bringing up the rear end of the Great Migration towards the Serengeti. And as much as I’d like to post even more of the thousands of frames I shot, I’ll wrap up with a few more of my favourites.
So while I saw exactly zero glimpses of Mt. Kenya, I left the Rift Valley feeling like I had been squarely in the area of the ostrich for some time. I’ll end with another reading list to paint a more vivid picture of the country from several different perspectives:
Here I was, on a plane much larger than anticipated, flying over Lake Victoria from Kigali to Nairobi. It was like crossing a small ocean, a giant black hole in the night with a lot of unknowns waiting on the lake’s eastern shores. During the flight, I was piecing together in my brain what I thought I knew about Kenya and its history, but memories of the hordes of elephants I saw in Botswana, and the near-misses of them in Rwanda only gave me elephant dreams commingled with fuzzy expectations for the week ahead.
My thoughts, as I wended my way through immigration, then baggage, at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, were that thankfully most airports everywhere function pretty much the same, whether in English or Swahili.
Truth be told, I prepared little for this trip. I signed up a mere 10 days before departure, visions of myriad wildlife and their Great Migration dancing in my head. I hastily arranged yellow fever and typhoid vaccines, solicited favors for airport runs and plant-sitting, packed, then departed, leaving my overwhelming reality behind if only for a couple of weeks. I hadn’t had time to consider the urban spaces dotting the beginning, middle and end of the adventure.
And so, landing in Nairobi was very different than arrival in Kigali. Nairobi is fairly large as cities go, with roughly the population of Sydney; 5x that of Kigali. The slick urban-ness of the place was a little jarring as we navigated through traffic from the airport into the city proper. Gone were the neatly cobbled streets and manicured roundabouts I’d come to adore in Rwanda. This was a City, and all vibes pointed to its wanting to be like New York or LA. Luckily, the first order of business the next morning was to get out and head for the Rift Valley. First stop: Lake Nakuru.
Much of Kenya is in the midst of its worst drought in decades. The dry, dusty and trash-strewn roads we were on are also truck routes, wending their way from the port of Mombasa through the ragged farmlands, to land-locked Rwanda and Uganda. Travelling these roads helped paint a clearer picture of some of the country’s struggles, not least of which is their high unemployment rate. Note: Although we were repeatedly told it is around 40%, which likely takes into consideration their high level of self-employment, and which official numbers don’t incorporate, I can’t find any statistics from the World Bank or elsewhere that puts unemployment there any higher than 5.7%. Even so, Kenya’s economy and livelihood has taken hits from all sides these past few years.
The fact that the water levels in the lakes of the Rift Valley are rising, apparently indifferent to the massive drought in progress, is a peculiar geological and climactic (and human-generated) paradox that we were about to encounter first-hand.
At 5 or 6x smaller than Akagera National Park in Rwanda, Lake Nakuru felt like it was teeming with life from the first moments we arrived. Between the fences surrounding the park (keeping animals in and poachers out) and the rising waters (Lake Nakuru is now 50% bigger than it was 10 years ago), habitat is getting squeezed; and, while excellent for wildlife watching, it could mean disaster for an ecosystem if the waters don’t recede soon. One of Lake Nakuru’s claims to fame is its massive flamingo population. They come to the lake because of its warm water and the algae that creates. The rising waters have decreased their population significantly (it was said that sometimes 1 million of the birds flocked here), but in the past couple of years, they have started to return.
So it was a little surreal, driving just from the park gates to our lodge: Buffalo galore, herds of antelope, zebras, giraffes, rhinos… and this was just on the main road. The lodge, nestled within the bounds of the park, was like an oasis overlooking the savannah, and beyond that, the lake itself, glowing a tad pink from the reflection of flamingos on the still water. I’d be remiss if I didn’t gush even a little bit about the lush grounds where the background music was weaver birds; the watering hole replete with visiting buffalo and zebra herds; the jungle huts from which you could hear the gruff sound of lions calling throughout the night…
On our first official safari drive in Nakuru, we spent an hour and a half watching a leopard monitor, then stalk, an impala, only to give up at the 11th hour. By the end of the 2nd day, the bingo cards were filled with all of the Big Five (so-named originally for the difficulty to kill and the danger they posed to the hunter: Lion, Leopard, Rhino, Elephant, Buffalo), as well as oodles of points for many of the other birds and critters I’d come to see. By the following day, I was itching to stay on there, but the lure of other parks including the Maasai Mara won out in the end. Also, transport.
Out of Africa, but still here.
Next stop on the itinerary was Lake Naivasha, a freshwater lake slightly south of Nakuru. Here, we stayed at a weird lodge with only enough electric fencing to keep out the hippos at night. Water buck and other critters seemed to have free reign of the area, so it was an interesting menagerie-cum-waterside camp experience. Here, too, the waters were very high, meaning that what used to be part of the lodge’s grounds was now part of the lake, and one could see the eerie skeletons of former acacia trees 20 or 30 metres off the shore. The kingfishers and other shorebirds were not complaining one bit.
The afternoon’s activity was to visit a place called Crescent Island, a tiny game reserve in the middle of the Lake. The adventure started with a boat ride over to the island, a scavenger hunt for hippos and crocs en route, and then a walking tour on the island in search of the giant African rock python. I say “in search of” because all we found was evidence, in the form of a massive shed snake skin. Turns out that Crescent Island was one of the many locations used for filming Out of Africa. Legend has it that they imported indigenous animals for the shoots and left them there, rehoming the predators so that the wildebeests and zebras and giraffes and impalas could flourish over time. But that was when Crescent Island was more of a peninsula, and the animals could come and go at will. With the rising waters, it had become an island sanctuary of sorts for the grazing animals, but with water levels recently receding, wily hyenas have made their way back to the island. It will be interesting to see what happens to the balance there if predators have access to this convenient buffet once again.
I’ll pause here to regroup, and to make the drive up out of the Rift Valley and on towards the pinnacle of the trip, the Maasai Mara.
Note to self: don’t go to Mid-coast Maine during 4th of July week unless armed with a bucket of money, a mask, a self-driving car and a high tolerance for touristic behaviour. If you do, take it all in stride in service to the Quest.
The Quest: I’ve always been a dabbler in myth; a sort-of romantic about knights and castles and stones and the sea…and every Quest needs a grail of some sort. So the Holy Grail of this expedition was the Atlantic Puffin. A bowling pin of an endangered waterbird that spends its time (precariously) in the cooler seas. Puffins fly back, in the summer months, to the islands from which they fledged to socialize and mate and breed new pufflings (YES, that’s what they are called!). I had never seen a puffin (or a puffling) in the (feathery) flesh, and the days I took off this week were well-earned, so I took advantage of the holiday and the season, consulted the birding bibles, and loosely stitched together a plan.
I’ve been a hermit these past few months, with work eating up my waking hours, and stress about the current climate consuming the remaining twilight before crashing after such long days… Then came the COVID. And while my case was relatively mild (it only kicked my butt for a week, but even 2 weeks recovered I’m still feeling lethargic!), I can’t imagine what it would or could have been without my being vaccinated. I’m grateful for modern medicine. Shameless plug: get vaccinated already please!
Medieval knights and castles or non, I set out to Mid-Coast Maine to see if I could at least find some puffins.
Maine. First stop on the micro-adventure was a visit with a dear friend I hadn’t seen in years. When miles and life and a pandemic all conspire to get in the way of an otherwise great friendship, it’s nice to know that there are certain humans on this planet with whom you can just pick up again as if all the intervening circumstance didn’t matter. It was one of the most pleasant afternoons I’d had in ages.💖
By the time I arrived at the little hotel I’d booked, I realised my plan to ride my bike along the seacoast the next day wasn’t in the cards. The windy, narrow, hilly roads were made only slightly more treacherous by the smattering of tourists driving too haphazardly, alternately too fast and too erratically, for me to feel safe on my bike on these streets. Time to consider a Plan B. Plan C, actually, since the following morning’s weather looked unfavorable, and I had already moved the puffin expedition out a day.
But first, the fireworks. I’d be remiss if I didn’t say it doesn’t quite feel like the year to be celebrating this country’s independence. But as a tourist in a sea of red (white and blue), it felt like there were two options: watch the spectacle or go to bed. It was 4th of July after all, and the fireworks would go on regardless of whether I felt like celebrating. I used it as an opportunity to play with light.
The next morning’s Plan turned out to be quite lovely actually: I went down to Ocean Point, apparently the east-most point in these already quite eastern parts, and I recharged amongst the rocks as I gazed out at the Ram Island lighthouse and watched boats (and a small pod of porpoises) navigate the harbour. The hazy summer air commingling with the ocean breeze and its seaweed-y bouquet helped clear out some of the chatter in my brain as I meditated to the sounds of the waves on the rocks and the ospreys calling from the little island just offshore.
What this Quest lacked in knights and castles was recompensated in seabirds and rocky outcroppings. Fingers crossed that the Holy Grail of Puffinage would come through.
It was something of a lazy day after the rock-hopping. I napped during the rain showers in the afternoon. I started reading a new novel. I walked amongst the tourists in town and indulged: saltwater taffy and a lobster roll (when in Rome…); and readied myself for the puffin adventure the next morn!
An aside about why we need to protect the puffins and terns and other arctic waterbirds in this part of the world (they are still prolific, apparently, in Iceland, Newfoundland and the UK, and they are even a delicacy in Iceland. Tastes like chicken?). It turns out that fashionistas in the late 1800s needed feathers for hats. In fact, the Victorian-era fancy ladies wore WHOLE STUFFED BIRDS (I sh*t you not!) on their hats, fast-forwarding the decline of these species. By the early 1900s, the entire colony of puffins and terns were all but wiped out in New England. Thanks to some of the fancy ladies, Audubon was started as a grass roots effort, and the anti-bird-hat contingent was born, aka, what the crap were we thinking?
Waiting in line to board the boat, I was hoping for less Disney and more nature, so I channelled my intention on a preponderance of Puffins rather than the annoying boatmates. The fancy ladies from Florida, arguing with the boat lady about why their short shorts and tank tops would be just fine on the open ocean and why she was crazy to suggest they bring along sweatshirts. The guy in the Yankees shirt and thick Long Island accent challenging anyone who would listen about baseball (apparently a Yankees/Red Sox series was in progress). The couple with the Giant Barking Poodle (On an Audubon boat? Really?) I wended my way to the bow: fewer seats, I thought. Fewer annoyances.
I grew up around boats and the sea and I’ve been on quite a few whale watches, so I had come prepared: sweatshirt and windbreaker, towels, binoculars, and, of course, cameras. It was a relatively calm and warm enough morning as we left the harbour. I was cautiously optimistic, but certainly aware that there was a chance we wouldn’t see any puffins. But it felt like a promising day, and I even caught a glimpse of a minke or pilot whale as we got farther into the sea on our way out to the destination.
The fortress, if you will, protecting the Holy Grail: Eastern Egg Rock. This little island sits about 6 miles east of Pemaquid Point and is home to roughly 150 nesting pairs of puffins, as well as a host of other seabirds like terns and gulls. It was about an hour from our departure point in Boothbay Harbor. The “Hilton” on the island is a research station, where teams of hardy scientists spend the summer studying the puffins and their offspring.
So as we approach, our tour guide (Audubon Lady) starts spotting birds: Puffin, 3 o’clock. Tern, 9 o’clock. Puffins flying, 11 o’clock. Puffins diving, 10 o’clock. And so on… Much to my delight, it was quite the puffin-palooza out there. A plethora of puffins. A preponderance even. And like that we spent roughly 30 minutes circling the little island, getting a glimpse of terns (arctic and otherwise), gulls (laughing and not so much), and of course our fill of the enchanting little stars of the day.
In our glee, what we passengers conveniently overlooked was the shift in the wind and the less-than-swell swells that we now had to motor back through to reach the dock. So, just as the captain announced, “the winds have shifted slightly and you may experience some light spray…” we did, and spent the next 40 minutes battening down hatches and bracing for the swells and spray (read: deluges), soaking deck and passengers indiscriminately. The sweatshirt and windbreaker came in very handy. The towels, not so much.
Cameras safely stowed inside, I remembered what my dad taught me about rough seas: breathe fresh air, watch the horizon, and for fucks sake hang onto something! I was wet enough that the saltwater shower didn’t matter by a certain point, so I enjoyed the sunshine, counseled a very green-looking teenager to get as much fresh air into her lungs as possible, and enjoyed the ride. It wasn’t that bumpy after all.
Being on the ocean always brings back warm memories, and this one, paired with the prolific puffin party, did not disappoint. The seas calmed as we were embraced by the harbor, and the warm sun dried salt crystals over my legs and face.
I’d drive home from this adventure salty but satiated; pleasantly puffinated if you will.