Eye of the Needle (September 1999)
Ruth Tingay— 17 September 1999 — in Madagascar Project Share
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.
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!”
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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