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The Peregrine Fund Notes From The Field
The Place of a Thousand Crocodile Eyes (June - July 1999)
Ruth Tingay — in Madagascar Project    Share
Madagascar Fish Eagle
Madagascar Fish Eagle
I fell in love with Madagascar long before I ever got there. I’d seen pictures of dancing lemurs, upside-down trees, and giant jumping rats and had heard many a tale of exciting discoveries and adventures in this strange and forgotten world, not least the re-discovery of the Madagascar Serpent Eagle by Peregrine Fund biologists. I wasn’t disappointed when I finally got there myself. My chance came when Rick Watson asked whether I would be interested in studying the critically endangered Madagascar Fish Eagle for my Master’s thesis. He only had to ask once!

Rick and other researchers from The Peregrine Fund had been studying the fish eagle since 1991 and they had noticed some unusual breeding behaviour at some nest sites. It seemed that some breeding pairs had extra-pair birds involved with their nesting activities, and it was my job to try and shed some light on who these extra-pair birds were. Were they male or female? Why did they occur at some nests but not others? Were they contributing to the success of the breeding attempt or were they waiting in the wings, so to speak, ready to kill the chicks and claim the territory for themselves? Or perhaps they were related to the primary pair. Were they progeny from previous years, delaying their own dispersal into new territories simply because the habitat was no longer available to support them? Was this behaviour limiting the abundance of the fish eagle, causing it to be listed as one of the seven rarest birds of prey in the world? The scene was set for an intriguing five-month field season, which began with a 2 am start on a three-day journey across Madagascar, to reach the base camp on the western side of the island.

A recent cholera outbreak meant a hastily arranged vaccination in Antananarivo (the capital, known locally as ‘Tana’) in order to pass the army checkpoint on the main road out of town. Those without a certificate were forced to swallow some suspicious-looking tablets on the spot, causing another roadblock a few miles on as people pulled over to vomit.

"Tomb Mural"
"Tomb Mural"
My travelling companion was Yves, the local Peregrine Fund driver, and as dawn broke we swept up onto the central high plateau where the gaping wounds of erosion were only too apparent. No trees, no wildlife, just a few remote villages and an endless vista of crumbling red soil. The area was littered with the elaborate tombs of the ancestors, quite palatial in comparison to the mud-smeared huts of the living. The Malagasy practice a religion of ancestor worship, where the power of the dead is held in high esteem. Every seven to twelve years the bones are removed from the tomb to provide an opportunity to communicate with, and seek advice from, the dead. The Malagasy believe that if their crops have failed, it is a sign that the ancestors are unhappy and efforts must be made to appease their displeasure. After much drinking and
dancing, the families re-wrap the bones in a new burial shroud and replace them in the tomb.

Baobabs at Sunset
Baobabs at Sunset

We descend from the cool highlands down onto the vast, baking western plain, where the tarmac road soon gives way to what can only be described as a glorified ox-cart track. Deeply rutted and dusty, this is Madagascar’s answer to a motorway. We slowly bounce and jolt along in the searing midday sun, accompanied by Yves’ somewhat eclectic taste in music, including Tie a Yellow Ribbon 'Round the Old Oak Tree interspersed with Guns and Roses Greatest Hits. At sunset we approach the west coast town of Morondava to be greeted by a landscape of upside-down trees (the island’s famous baobabs) and the promise of a hot shower, the last for many months.

River Crossing
River Crossing

Our journey continues at dawn as we travel north to the first river crossing, where a ‘restaurant’ serves cold drinks and boiled fruit bat. A seven-hour wait (usually it's only four) until the ferry arrives and we board the wooden platform that has been nailed to some oil drums for flotation purposes. Another night in a hotel across the river, where I’m lucky enough to get a room at the front so I can enjoy the all-night disco without having to pay an entrance fee. A cold shower and an old mattress shared with fleas and cockroaches heralds the threshold into the glamorous world of fieldwork in Madagascar.

Day three and we head further into the unknown, where even the oxcart track ceases to provide any clear route. Fortunately, Yves has made this trip many times and he steers us across the remote plain with his in-built sense of direction, pausing only to shuffle through his cassette box to find the next 70’s soundtrack. We enter the giant Tsimembo Forest at dusk and finally pull into the camp by the glimmer of a half-crescent moon. I’m exhausted after the journey and hastily erect my tent under the star-studded sky and fall straight to sleep.

I crawl out of my tent at daybreak to set eyes on the tranquil surroundings. Our camp is situated on the shore of one of three large freshwater lakes, surrounded by the dry deciduous Tsimembo Forest. Each lake supports a high concentration of fish eagles, with 12 known pairs in this area (approximately 10% of the total world population). There are wetland and forest birds everywhere and I try to make sense of the unfamiliar calls and song. I’m greeted by the eight Peregrine Fund technicians who live at this camp all year round. They are all employed from the local community and have been trained in the techniques necessary to monitor the fish eagle population. All the technicians speak Malagasy and some speak French. I try out my rusty schoolgirl French but soon realise that my pocket phrase book will be in high demand this year! I sound like someone out of a Tarzan film…"Me study birds," "Me live England." Fortunately, Loukman, the Field Manager, speaks some English, and so we discuss the project in a mixture of ‘Franglaise’ and elaborate hand signals. I am eager to get out onto the lake and see my first fish eagle but Loukman insists I have a tour of the camp first.

Loukman and Dead Crocodile
Loukman and Dead Crocodile
Camp really comprises very little. Its formal name is Ankivahihy Camp, which, in typical Malagasy style, is as unpronounceable as it looks. The nearest I can get to saying it is Camp Handkerchief and this name sticks for the rest of the season. We walk past eight tents and Loukman tells me which technician sleeps where. The kitchen has a fire pit and a few smoothed-down logs for seating. At the other end of camp is the long-drop toilet, housed inside a mud hut with a thatched roof, and is home to hundreds of scuttling giant hissing cockroaches. It’s fairly classy though as far as long-drops go, as it has a toilet roll holder made from a stick and a couple of pieces of string dangling from the roof. A large wooden building sits in the central area of the camp, although really it is only a shell of a building. Nobody lives in it but it’s used to store all the project field equipment and also makes for a comfortable hideout for the local rat population. There is no running water and no electricity here and the nearest town/village is situated 11 km away on the other side of the forest. Worryingly, the town is called ‘Masoarivo,’ which translates as ‘The Place of a Thousand Crocodile Eyes!’

Loukman tries to tell me that the Nile Crocodiles here aren’t dangerous and that it’s safe to bathe in the lake. I remember seeing a tomb on the road to camp, which had a mural painted on the outside wall depicting scenes from the dead person’s life. The picture was of a man with his leg in a crocodile’s mouth (presumably how he died). I tell Loukman "Me scared crocodiles," and I build myself a shower cubicle from scavenged pieces of wood, well away from the water’s edge!

Finally, we head out across the first lake ‘Soamalipo’ in search of the eagles. I hear them before I see them; their calls carrying high over the buzzing boat engine. Loukman points out the large stick nest in the distance, high up in a huge baobab tree well above the forest canopy. As we approach and switch off the engine, I see my first eagle, albeit just a head, poking out over the top of the nest. Another eagle glides in from the far side of the lake and can only be described as looking like a flying door! It has hugely broad wings, and cruises effortlessly in to land on the nest tree. Both eagles call, throwing back their heads and duetting beautifully. I am transfixed and quickly frame the perching eagle in my binoculars. Loukman, looking on like a proud father, tells me this is the male (males have a slightly higher-pitched voice than the females). He is gorgeous! Not the usual black and white colour, typical of most sea eagles, but a deep chestnut brown with white-ish cheeks and a stark white tail. I can’t see any coloured bands on his leg that might identify him (some of the fish eagles in this area have been colour-banded, to allow researchers to identify certain individuals from a distance).

Although we are only about 75 metres away, both eagles appear to ignore us. Loukman explains that the eagles here are used to seeing humans, as all the lakes have large fishing communities camping around the shores. We sit and watch as the male preens himself and the female settles back down deep into the nest cup. It appears this pair is in the incubation stage of the breeding cycle, which usually lasts for approximately 42 days. Suddenly the male throws his head back and calls again and the female joins in. Then we hear a third bird calling, just out of view and further back into the forest. I scan the tree line looking for it, but it’s keeping a low profile. The male has now turned his back on us and is also looking in the direction of the third bird. The third bird calls again, and Loukman identifies it as another male. Our first male leaves the nest tree and flies purposefully towards the direction of the second male. He flies out of sight behind the forest but we can hear more high-pitched and frantic calls behind the trees. Suddenly they both appear above the tree line, with one male in hot pursuit of the other, both calling wildly. They twist and turn, dip and dive, and then are lost to view again. We listen intently for clues to their location, but everything has gone quiet. I turn my binoculars back onto the female on the nest but she is not showing any signs of a reaction. After a few minutes, an eagle flies in silently and perches back in the nest tree, a few branches above the nest. I look for a telltale leg band again but can’t see any. Loukman signals that we have to leave so he can show me the rest of the lakes and reluctantly I agree that this would be a good idea, as we start up the engine and head further down the lake to look at the other nest sites.

An Eagle Called Cut-Off

Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner
Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner
My daily routine is now taking shape. Home is my small, nylon tent, shared with large black ants, giant hissing cockroaches, marauding mosquitoes, fleas that I picked up in Tana, and the odd scorpion thrown in for good measure. I rise before dawn and try to force down some food. Meals around here consist of fish and rice. Not as boring as it sounds though….lunch is fried fish and rice, supper is boiled fish and rice, and breakfast is re-heated fish and rice left over from the previous day. It’s an acquired taste. A cup of tea is made with boiled lake water, a few tea leaves, and a tin of condensed milk going by the name "Lucky Cow." Also an acquired taste.

Yves has taken the truck back to Tana and now the only link with the outside world is through my short wave radio, which provides a tenuous grip on reality through the BBC’s World Service. We do have a satellite telephone in camp but it’s strictly only for use in emergencies due to the astronomical costs of a call. I wonder just how useful it would be in an emergency. If I broke my leg, or came down with malaria, it would still take three days for the truck to arrive in camp from Tana, and then another three days to return to Tana, the nearest place with decent medical supplies. The alternative route out would be to walk 80 km up to Antsalova (not easy in any circumstances, let alone with a broken leg), and then hope for a twin-otter plane from Antsalova back to Tana. Little did I know that this is a journey I would have to make in later field seasons.

Just as the sun rises at 6 am, I carefully climb into my fibreglass canoe, trying to keep my balance and not to capsize the thing before I’ve even left the moorings, and then paddle out across the lakes to one of my study sites. I’ve found seven trios of fish eagles in total but have decided to only study four of these, as I want extensively detailed information of a few, rather than a less detailed overview of many. It’s cold before the sun rises and I try to keep warm by paddling quickly, trying to find my way through the early morning mists which shroud the lakes. This is my favourite time of the day here; the water is calm and as smooth as a mirror. All around is bird song and I’m beginning to recognise some species now. My favourites, apart from the fish eagles of course, are the Sickled-billed Vangas. These are large black and white birds about the size of a crow, with ridiculously long curved black bills. They always forage in groups, usually between 15-25 birds and move noisily through the forest, wailing like babies, moving systematically from tree to tree, gleaning insects and grubs from crevices in the branches. I also keep a close eye out for crocodiles, looking for the giveaway snout lurking just above the surface of the water. I’ve only seen a couple so far but they were big enough to frighten me. I try to expel the images in my head of a croc swimming below my boat and tipping me out into the water as it capsizes the canoe with a flick of its tail…I regret ever watching those crocodile documentaries on the Discovery Channel now!

It generally takes me about an hour of paddling to reach one of my study sites and by this time, the sun is beginning to appear above the forest to warm up the lake (and me). After landing the canoe I set myself up at a convenient observation point, close enough to see the eagles and their nest, but far enough away so as not to intrude on their activities. My first job is to set up the telescope, usually trained on the nest, then to apply thick layers of SPF 50 sunscreen to any exposed areas of skin, then settle down with notebook and pen to watch the day’s events unfold.

My main interest at this point is to find out the different role each eagle plays at the nest. I knew from Rick’s earlier work that both the male and female of a pair shared incubation duties. What I wanted to know was whether the third bird also shared in the work, and if so, to what extent? I am also interested in finding out what kind of social hierarchy occurs between the pair and the extra-bird; for example, is the extra bird tolerated or is it constantly chased away? Later in the season I intend to trap all my study eagles so I can take a small amount of blood from each one. By doing this, I will be able to work out a DNA fingerprint for each eagle, to see who are the true genetic parents of any offspring and also to see whether the third bird is related to the primary pair. However, for the time being, I have to put in the long hours required to get the behavioural observations at the nest, to build up a picture of a trio’s ‘normal’ day.

It can be quite difficult at times to identify individual eagles, depending on where they are and what they are doing. If an eagle is already sitting in the nest, it’s impossible for me to see the legs and therefore the leg bands. I soon realise that this game is all about patience and tenacity! I have to remain focused on the nest, sometimes for up to three hours, just waiting for the few seconds when the bird might stand, move a few sticks around, and then re-settle deep into the nest cup. It’s these few seconds which might give me the opportunity to catch a brief glimpse of the coloured leg band, enabling me to identify the specific individual. At other times, one of the eagles may be perching close to the nest tree. As anyone who has ever observed eagles will tell you, they spend an incredibly large part of their day just sitting and apparently doing nothing! But even watching a perching eagle can prove difficult to get a confirmed identity, as often they will lift one leg up and hold it close to their body, hiding the foot and leg (and colour band) in amongst their belly feathers! I can guarantee that 80% of the time, the leg the eagle is hiding is the one which has the coloured leg band on it!! Sometimes the birds would call, and by now, Loukman had trained me to recognise the very subtle differences between the male and female tones, although sometimes I wasn’t always 100% certain and preferred to see a leg band to confirm my predictions. I soon learnt that frustration is also a big part of fieldwork!

An eagle called "Cut-Off."
An eagle called "Cut-Off."
At one of my four study sites I didn’t have this problem. Nest #2 on Lake Befotaka (the adjoining lake to Soamalipo) held a trio of eagles comprising two males and one female. One of these males only has one foot, his right foot having apparently been cut off. His name? ‘Cut-Off,’ of course! This male was first trapped at the lakes in 1996 and his foot was already missing. His leg had healed over into a flat-bottomed stump and the researchers who had caught him noted that he seemed to be in good condition, apart from the obvious! They put a uniquely numbered aluminium band on his left leg and released him. Now, three years later, here he was still at the same site, alive and kicking. There are various debates on what might have happened to his right foot. It’s possible that he became entangled in a fisherman’s net and his foot was cut off in order to release him. Rick told me that he had seen another eagle entangled this way, but fortunately Peregrine Fund biologists were on hand to help release the eagle unharmed. However, it’s also possible that Cut Off was the luckless victim of a local sorcerer or witchdoctor. We know from studies amongst the local community that in this part of Madagascar, some tribes believe that if the foot or beak of an eagle is added to a potion, the potion will have added strength and potency. Whatever the cause, though, Cut Off appeared to be doing well and I spent many many hours watching him hunt successfully and also copulate with the female (no mean feat for a one-footed eagle!).

Aside from the obvious distinguishing feature, Cut Off also had a very unusual call. It was high-pitched like the other males, but sounded as though his voice was breaking and he never quite managed to complete the full melodious song. This made it very easy for me to identify him, even when he wasn’t in sight, and he was the only fish eagle whom I could recognise like this. Needless to say, Cut Off won my heart and is firmly in place as my favourite fish eagle! (My scientific advisors will be horrified to hear I have a favourite as I am supposed to retain a dispassionate distance from my study species….oh well!).

Ruth spotting eagles.
Ruth spotting eagles.
Typically, I would carry out observations at a nest site for 10 hours. I was more than happy to watch the fish eagles for this length of time but there was also a good practical reason too. During the mornings the lakes are very calm and the water smooth, making an hour’s journey of paddling quite pleasant. However, in the early afternoons the winds would get up and transform the still waters into a miniature sea, complete with waves and a strong headwind. Not only was I in danger of being swamped by a rogue wave, but physically, I just wasn’t strong enough to paddle into the wind and make any progress up the lake. A few times I made the mistake of trying to paddle back mid-afternoon, completely mis-judging the strength of the wind and waves. The last time I tried it I had battled for three hours to make the one hour journey and just couldn’t find the strength to keep paddling, so I pulled in the oars and let the wind push me back across to my starting point! By 5:30 p.m. (dusk) the wind had dropped and I was able to have another go, this time making it in just over an hour. Five hundred yards from camp I was greeted by the technicians who had realised I was late and had launched a search party! From then on, I decided to just stay at each nest site until 5 p.m. and then paddle back home, trying to get back before nightfall (and the emerging crocodiles!).

Once back in camp by dusk, I would race against the sun to get into the shower before the evening mosquitoes came out looking for dinner. I was joined on several occasions by a very curious Phaner Lemur, one of seven species of lemur with whom we shared the forest. The Phaners are nocturnal and extremely vocal, and you could set your watch by the beginning of their screeches at dusk. They’re small, greyish lemurs, about twice the size of a squirrel, and the ones we lived with had a distinctive black forked marking running from the back of their neck, over their heads and down over each eye. They run speedily up and down tree trunks and branches, squeaking and shouting at one another, in between grabbing fistfuls of insects and leaves and shoving them in their mouths. It appeared that my shower cubicle had been constructed against a tree which housed the sleeping Phaner Lemur during the day, and he seemed most put out to find me splashing about in a bucket in the middle of his patch! He would run head first down the tree trunk, squeaking his annoyance, then stop just above my head and glare at me until I moved away!

After the hasty shower, I’d gobble down some fish and rice and then retreat to my tent by 7 p.m., exhausted from the day’s work. Usually it didn’t take long to fall asleep, except for when the lemurs were re-enacting World War I above my tent, and then I’d lie in my sleeping bag, trying to listen to the soft calls of the Scops Owl through the mayhem, in between killing mosquitoes with my field notebook.

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