Azores : Tenacity rewarded

Update from our marine conservation volunteering holiday in the Azores archipelago, working on whales, dolphins and turtles

The harder you work, the luckier you get.

Sea day 3 began with clear skies and views of Portugal’s highest mountain on the Island of Pico. We headed for the lee of the island to increase our chances of sighting (and recording) target species. Despite the best efforts of the spotters and deployment of the hydrophone, we were not seeing (or hearing) anything. Eventually we received information that a humpback had been spotted off the north coast, so we headed into the somewhat rougher waters on the windward side of the island. This culminated in a 145 kilometre circumnavigation of Pico during which we did manage to find a juvenile humpback feeding and were even treated to a couple of breaches.

Sea day 4 came with more swell and another long day covering 108 kilometres north of Faial. This time sperm whales could be heard in the distance through the hydrophone. So we began the process of slowly honing in on their position. Sea conditions made it challenging and after hours of work, Alice finally spotted the blow as the whales surfaced just 200 metres from the boat. The resulting photos enabled Lisa to get positive IDs on four individuals, some of which had been recorded on previous expeditions of ours.

After four days at sea, fatigue was certainly evident amongst the team. But with incoming rough weather a 5th consecutive day on the water was decided upon. We were a couple of expeditioners down due to sea sickness and fatigue, but the team pulled together, with Emma and Elena volunteering to make sure all roles were covered.

Day 5 was a different story to the previous days, with calmer waters, no rain and more whales. We had over 20 sperm whale sightings with six individuals identified, and as if to reward the hard work of the previous days, we even managed to record a blue whale (we’re still waiting on any positive ID matches for this individual).

This Sunday the team are having a shore day and taking a well-earned rest. Fingers are firmly crossed for a break in the weather to enable one more day at sea.

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Kenya: Still going

Update from our Africa volunteer project working on the Big Five and biodiversity in the Maasai Mara of Kenya

Group 4 has arrived in the Maasai Mara and have picked up where group 3 left off. Sunday and Monday were training days with our now familiar sessions on equipment and methodologies, flanked bypresentations by Rebekah. Group 4 had luck on their side when during the driver training, there were cheetah and elephant sightings – the elephant sighting being a family group of 9 within Mbokishi, which is rare.

The weather has been doing its best to scupper our plans with torrential downpours and thunderstorms, but we are flexible and adaptable in our planning and so far, the weather hasn’t impacted our research. That doesn’t mean that we haven’t had vehicles stuck in the mud, but that’s a different story!

On transect in Ol Chorro we came across a giraffe carcass that had been there for just a couple of days. This turned out to be a feast for the wildlife with over 20 hyaenas in the area and some jackal waiting patiently for their turn to eat. Further away from the action were vultures and eagles fighting over various body parts.

Group 4 are our final group for this Kenya expedition and we are making our preparations to leave the Maasai Mara. Rebekah and Roland are busy planning the expedition report, but we still have data to collect and transects to complete in the meantime. We will be back with updates of how the final local education day of the expedition went later this week.

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Azores : On the water

Update from our marine conservation volunteering holiday in the Azores archipelago, working on whales, dolphins and turtles

The expedition is underway with participants from six countries arriving to Horta on Monday. Some great weather conditions meant we hit the ground running with training on equipment use and data collection amongst the avocado and banana trees at the expedition base.

After the training was completed, the weather became more challenging for Tuesday afternoon’s test run on the water. Despite the conditions, within four hours we’d covered 57 kilometres, recorded common and bottlenose dolphins and three sperm whales (including a calf displaying suckling behaviour). The team did well on the data recording, especially Tracy, who is in danger of earning herself a permanent slot as POPA master.

Expedition scientist Lisa has been giving evening lectures, and after last night’s species identification lecture, everyone was keen to put their new knowledge to the test. However, the cetaceans weren’t making it easy. Despite almost double the distance covered, and deploying the hydrophone – so we could potentially hear what we couldn’t see – day two on the water proved less fruitful (with only common dolphins recorded).

Such is the unpredictability of wildlife. Spirits amongst the team are high and the weather looks good for day three on the water.

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Azores : Re-orientation

Update from our marine conservation volunteering holiday in the Azores archipelago, working on whales, dolphins and turtles

Expeditions are partly about the journey and the destination. So, after three days, three flights and four airports Henry and I landed in the Azores. Though slightly later than anticipated due to an unforeseen strike! No real drama and now the interesting part of the expedition can begin….

For the past couple of days Jim and Claudia (our hosts), and we have been preparing the expedition base for your imminent arrival.

It has been great to re-orientate myself with (and introduce Henry to) Horta, meet up with our hosts and catch up with Lisa (our scientist) to hear about all the recent news. We will share more detail on that once you’ve arrived…

We now just hope that the weather and whales (and other target species) are on our side and we can look forward to some great fieldwork (and data collection) over the next few days.

So safe travels to those of you on group 1 still en route, and we look forward to meeting you all on Monday morning (as per the details in the dossier).

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Azores : Opener

Update from our marine conservation volunteering holiday in the Azores archipelago, working on whales, dolphins and turtles

It’s time for the initial introductions. I am Craig Turner and I’ll be your Expedition Leader in the Azores this year. On the first group, I will also be joined by Henry Taylor (Expedition Leader in training). It is great to be going back to the Azores after a few years’ break and escape the ongoing Scottish winter – I‘ll be making tracks earlier than expected as more snow is forecast, which could otherwise hamper my journey to the airport!

I am currently organising and packing my kit, checking that I have all I need for the next month – so don’t forget to check the project dossier. It will be great to meet up with old friends and colleagues from previous years, not least, our scientist Lisa Steiner. If you want to find cetaceans in the Azores, then she is the person to find them. If you have seen the latest project report and Lisa’s recent publications or the 2022 Azores expedition roundup, then you’ll know, not what to expect, but what we hope to record. Last year, you’ll note they had a variety of records – so you never can be too sure what ‘data’ we will collect. Just cross your fingers for good weather….

We arrive on Friday morning, a couple of days before we meet the first group, in order to set up the expedition headquarters. I’ll send around another message once I hit the ground in Horta and confirm my local contact details.

This reminds me to mention communications on the island. There’s cell/mobile reception on Faial in addition to internet via public hotpots and free WiFi in most cafes. Hopefully, you can resist the need for frequent international comms, and just soak up the experience of Atlantic island isolation.

I hope you’ve all been eagerly reading your expedition materials and know to bring many layers of clothing. As to the weather, think Vivaldi ‘The Four Seasons”, so prepare for warm, cold, wet and dry – sometimes on the same day. Don’t forget your sunglasses or your waterproof trousers – you’ll thank me when you are stationed on the bow of the boat as a lookout and the weather is choppy (so also bring your motion sickness pills/patches – if you know you need them!).

So with the local team in place, whale sightings already logged by Lisa, all we are missing is you. It will be great to meet you all and I’ll send along another update very soon.

Here’s to another month working back in the EU!

Safe travels group 1…

Craig & Henry
Expedition Leaders

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Kenya: Exitus III

Update from our Africa volunteer project working on the Big Five and biodiversity in the Maasai Mara of Kenya

Group 3 have finished and made their way back home whilst Roland, Rebekah and I take a week’s break to prepare for the fourth and final Kenya group of 2023. Group 3 has worked tirelessly for the past two weeks and the data quality and quantity speak for themselves:

16,719 total animals recorded

195 raptors and endangered birds recorded, including 6 secretary birds

13,093 mammals recorded on 23 vehicle transects with a total distance of 311 km including sightings of lions, cheetahs and bush pigs

12 foot patrols completed recording

139 samples of scat and 65 of footprints

Two 14 hour waterhole observations with 3,121 observations in total, these sightings were predominantly domestic, as we establish baseline data for Mbokishi (also see the pie chart below, which paints a very clear picture of the difference between established and newly founded conservancies)

310 iconic species/ interesting animal activities recorded including a hyaena sleeping in a puddle in the middle of the road (!) and 6 ostriches

4,328 images captured by hotspot cameras that contained images of animals, including leopard, lion, giraffe and bush pig

Group 3 – we can’t thank you enough for the commitment and hours of hard work you have put into making this a success. Great to meet you all.

Group 4 – see you on Sunday at our assembly point in Nairobi. Please come prepared for wet weather, mud and long days!

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Kenya: School day 3

Update from our Africa volunteer project working on the Big Five and biodiversity in the Maasai Mara of Kenya

For our third local school day, we arranged to work with a different school, this time from Munyas in Mbokishi conservancy. This is the first time that we have worked with a local school that is based within one of the conservancies and it’s a great opportunity to showcase the benefits of conservation locally and to have open discussion about human-wildlife conflict and fears relating to changes near their homes.

We started the day with a game drive. We drove through Mbokishi so we could witness the wildlife near to the school and then ventured into Enonkishu. The students were treated to sightings of wildebeest, giraffe, hippo, zebra, baboon, warthog and birds including secretary bird, tawny eagle and kingfisher. The game drive was a chance for us to demonstrate the difference that over 10 years of being a conservancy can make for wildlife.

Back at the expedition base, we played some games before local ranger Sikona joined us to give a talk to the students in order to foster relationships between the rangers and the students, as well as demonstrating the opportunities that conservation and ecotourism can offer. After dropping the students back at school and returning to base, we received a message of thanks from the school headmaster. He informed us that students were still excitedly talking about the animals and fun activities whilst the highlight for others was using a flush toilet for the first time! One of our citizen scientists brought a photo printer and gave the students their own individual photos to remember the day, which was also very popular.

We are now preparing to leave Enonkishu for a short break before returning with our final group 4. We hope your preparations are going smoothly and we will see you in Nairobi in just over a week.

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Kenya: Smooth going

Update from our Africa volunteer project working on the Big Five and biodiversity in the Maasai Mara of Kenya

The Kenya expedition is at full speed and the data are coming in thick and fast. The mornings start with crisp cool air, blue skies and the now familiar Kenyan dawn chorus. As the heat rises, clouds build through the day, usually culminating in a raucous mid-afternoon thunderstorm. The weather has settled into a pattern and so have we in group 3.

Biodiversity is one of the key features of the Maasai Mara, with its varied landscape, from grassy plains to forested areas, providing habitats for a diverse range of species including over 95 species of mammals and 500 species of birds. We have been busy mapping this biodiversity through vehicle transects, foot patrols and camera trapping. Group 3 have been fortunate to record cheetahs, lions, bush pigs, bat-eared foxes, elephants and mongoose amongst the usual ungulate crowd. We have some very keen birders that have been busy spotting and identifying birds for our raptor mapping project and we have had sightings of secretary birds, bateleurs, ostriches and an array of eagles and buzzards.

We have also had reports of animals dying without any clear sign of injury including three zebras in a 24 hour period. We have spoken to local people and rangers, but we don’t have a clear consensus on the cause yet. We have been busy setting up camera traps to collect more information.

As we enter the second week of group 3 we have a full and busy schedule ahead of us. We are continuing with our usual day-to-day data collecting alongside making plans for our local education day on Wednesday. So all well here and things going well.

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Kenya: Transition

Update from our Africa volunteer project working on the Big Five and biodiversity in the Maasai Mara of Kenya

Group 3 have arrived in the Mara, and with them – the rain! The past few weeks have been hot and dry with siestas becoming a necessity in the midday sun. The grass had become yellow and scorched from the heat and the plains were beginning to turn to dustbowls. We are excited to witness the transformation of this habitat and the changes in animal behaviour that go along with this. This change in the weather has happened in line with annual expectations, which is a blessing in these challenging and changing times for our planet, where disruption to weather patterns is the new norm.

We have been busy since arriving at base on Sunday with 4×4 driving, scientific equipment, navigation and project methodologies on the training agenda. The driver training and practice transects gave our new citizen scientists a taste of the local area and wildlife and there is a great buzz of excitement around camp at the moment. Everyone is eager to get out into the field and put these newly learned skills into practice.

Today saw our second expedition birthday, Isabelle has been demanding that we make elephants and lions appear, but this seems to be beyond even the Biosphere Expeditions and Wild Hub teams! We celebrated with a team dinner followed by birthday cake, this time the German contingent made up for the disappointment of last week with a rousing rendition of “Zum Geburtstag viel Glück” and the French delegation delighted us with “Joyeux Anniversare”. We finished the day with a screening of The Elephant Queen, a fitting end to the day with a poignant reminder of the importance of the stability of wet and dry seasons.

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Kenya: Half way

Update from our Africa volunteer project working on the Big Five and biodiversity in the Maasai Mara of Kenya

Group 2 have made their way to Nairobi for their onward travels. Thank you for your hard work and dedication over the past 12 days. Roland and Rebekah are happy with the quantity and quality of data that’s been collected and it has been a productive expedition. The methodologies that are now well established, along with the output from citizen scientists, has all contributed to this success.

Here are some headline data that outline the hours of hard work put in by group 2: 11,469 total animals recorded

184 raptors and endangered birds recorded including 70 tawny eagles

8331 mammals recorded on 23 vehicle transects with a total distance of 243 km including sightings of lions, cheetahs and elephants

7 foot patrols completed, recording 71 samples of scat and 38 of footprints

2 x 14 hour waterhole observations with 2617 observations in total – these sightings were predominantly domestic as we establish baseline data for Mbokishi

337 iconic species/interesting animal activity recorded including jackals hunting gazelle and cheetah feeding on impala – our first sighting of a honey badger was recorded whilst on a night drive

15,950 pictures captured by camera traps and many hours spent poring over the data led to records of bush pig, leopard, hyaena, vulture and white-tailed mongoose

Group 3 – rest up and enjoy the luxury in Nairobi before we get stuck into science work and long hours on Sunday!

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