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The Peregrine Fund Notes From The Field
Eye of the Needle (September 1999)
Ruth Tingay — in Madagascar Project    Share
Adult Madagascar Fish Eagles.
Adult Madagascar Fish Eagles.
By the beginning of September, three of my four nests had failed and so I was concentrating all behavioural observations on the remaining nest, #2 on Lake Soamalipo . This nest had one nestling, which was due to fledge in early October and was carefully tended by three males and one female. The nestling was about 60 days old by now, so still had another 20-odd days before it was ready to leave the nest, but it was large enough for me to see it from my observation point. By now Loukman and I had managed to trap 15 eagles in total and we only had a couple more to get before completing the set, including the young eaglet in the nest, which I wanted to band and collect blood from so I could work out who the true father was out of the potential three males.

Martin Gilbert with a Madagascar Fish Eagle.
Martin Gilbert with a Madagascar Fish Eagle.
As I paddled back from the nest site one day in early September I was surprised to find the truck had arrived back from Tana. My isolation had once again been broken by the presence of another English speaker. Well, Scottish anyway. He was pasty white, shorter than me and had red hair. Martin Gilbert was freshly out of vet school and had come to volunteer on the project for a few weeks. I was very excited about his arrival as not only had he brought more mail from Tana, but it turned out that we had both worked on the same project in Mauritius , albeit in different years, so we had lots of mutual friends to gossip about!

The following morning Loukman, Lala (another technician), Martin, and I headed over to the nest tree in order to band the eaglet. Loukman climbed the tree and managed to put the eaglet inside a small rucksack, which he gently lowered to the ground where we were waiting. The adult eagles were quite calm about the whole event, although they remained perched close by, occasionally calling and moving in for a closer look.

We quickly removed the eaglet from the bag and determined that it was a female (females are larger than the males). She was stunning with her beautifully speckled plumage and long gangly legs. I quickly banded her and took a few drops of blood before replacing her in the rucksack and hoisting her back up to Loukman. It’s always a tense moment when putting a young bird back into the nest in case it decides to jump for freedom before it can fly.

Lala and Ruth Tingay with Madagascar Fish Eagle chick.
Lala and Ruth Tingay with Madagascar Fish Eagle chick.
We needn’t have worried though as Loukman is greatly experienced, and he carefully placed her back inside the nest alongside a freshly caught fish, which he left to encourage the adults to return to the nest as quickly as possible. Loukman lowered himself from the nest branch and within seconds the female had flown back onto the nest and began to tug apart the fleshy fish and pass it to the eaglet. I’m always amazed at the gentleness and care shown by adult raptors when they’re feeding their chicks. I wish all those people who think them to be ‘cruel and savage beasts’ could see what I see.

Unfortunately (or fortunately), Martin’s arrival at camp also coincided with a worrying infection in my right eye. Within days my eye had taken on the appearance of a cricket ball and was not responding to antibiotics. Martin is keen to test his new medical skills and says I shouldn’t be any more difficult to treat than a cow. He suspects I’ve picked up a parasitic worm from the lake and begins the relevant steroid treatment.

Ten days later the swelling has gone but so has my vision and so has the truck! I need to get back to Tana in search of further medical attention so I contemplate the 80 km walk up to Antsalova. Luckily for me, a team of researchers from the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust are in the region, conducting studies on the little known Madagascar Teal. Richard Lewis, an Englishman who used to work with the fish eagles but now spends his time chasing ducks, very generously offers the use of their Landover to get me up to Antsalova. I gratefully accept and a few days later find myself on the airstrip awaiting a plane to take me back to Tana. One man and his ox-cart deal superbly with baggage handling and before I know it, I’m bumping over the high plateau courtesy of the national airline, known affectionately (and with good reason) as “Air Mad!”

"Air Mad"
"Air Mad"
Back in Tana I end up at the Military Hospital , where I can just see well enough to side step the chickens in the waiting room. I’m informed that I must have an injection in the eye to regain my vision. I politely decline and go in search of the local Peace Corps doctor, who prescribes eye drops, sunglasses, and a few days off work.

A week later I have regained some vision so it’s time to head back out to Camp Handkerchief, where Martin has been gallantly keeping a watch over the comings and goings at the nest. I am very pleased to learn that the eaglet has not yet fledged, although she has been flapping and testing her wings whilst perching precariously on the nest edge!

My eye is still very sensitive to sunlight, so I enlist Martin’s help to keep track of the four adults at this nest. For the next two weeks, Martin and I spend our days staring through telescopes at the eaglet, waiting for the big moment. We arrive at the site before dawn and are reluctant to leave before sunset in case we miss her inaugural flight. On 1 October, she looks like she’s ready to go as she teeters on the nest edge, flapping furiously and raising her feet a few inches above the stick nest. We debate what would count as actually fledging; would she just have to leave the nest and land on the nest branch, or would she have to leave the nest tree completely? We decide that just leaving the nest would be a pretty brave move for her as she’d have to balance on the branch, so we would count this as the moment of fledging.

By mid-afternoon, Martin has drunk a whole three litres of boiled lake water as he’s still trying to acclimatise to the heat. I, on the other hand, have only drunk one. Consequently, Martin has to relieve himself and races off to the bushes behind the observation site. I swear to God, no sooner had he disappeared from view, the eaglet started to flap her wings, lifted off from the stick nest and continued to flap, taking herself a few feet down the branch and away from the nest!! She landed awkwardly on the branch and looked like she might fall. I held my breath for what seemed like minutes but was actually only a few seconds as she steadied herself and looked around at her brave new world. I whooped with delight just as Martin reappeared around the corner….he knew he’d missed it and he knew I’d never let him forget it!

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