Expedition Mahimborondro: A place to feel the cloudsLatest update March 24, 2019 Started on November 1, 2018
Our team of 8 scientists is heading into a remote, unexplored forest in the north of Madagascar, where we plan to document some of Madagascar's rarest wildlife and perhaps even discover new species.
Searching for the "Chameleon Eagle"
In this installment of the blog, ornithologist John Mittermeier describes the challenges Lily-Arison Rene de Roland faced when he began conducting research on one of the rarest eagles in the world, the Madagascar Serpent Eagle. John also describes the team's experiences trying to see this elusive species in the forest around Bemanevika...
How do you study a bird that nobody can find? In September of 1992, this was the question that faced Lily-Arison Rene de Roland, a graduate student from the north of Madagascar. Lily-Arison (he goes by Lily) had attended university hoping to become a pharmacologist but a few months earlier the university’s pharmacology professor—and Lily’s one hope of advancing into a professional career in the field—had rejected his PhD application. Despite Lily’s strong grades, the professor wanted a student who spoke English and Lily, fluent in both French and Malagasy, did not qualify. Rather than leave academia, however, Lily had decided to apply for a different PhD, one he saw being advertised by the Peregrine Fund, a US-based conservation organization that works on endangered birds of prey. Lily had no experience with wildlife or birds of prey at the time, but the project seemed intriguing and the Peregrine Fund promised full financial support without any English language requirements. Lily's application was accepted, and that September he began research with the Peregrine Fund. On paper, the project was straightforward. The Peregrine Fund wanted Lily to find and study Eutriorchis astur, the Madagascar Serpent Eagle.
First described in 1875, ten Madagascar Serpent eagles were collected by European ornithologists in the years between 1875 and 1930, and then the bird suddenly and inexplicably disappeared. By the time Olivier Langrand published his Guide to the Birds of Madagascar in 1990, no one had definitely seen a Madagascar Serpent Eagle in over sixty years. Had it gone extinct? It seemed unlikely. As Langrand put it: “hope of finding the Madagascar serpent-eagle is justified by the fact that the sites where it was captured in the past are still intact.” In other words, the forest was still there, so theoretically the eagle should be as well. It was just a matter of figuring out how to find it.
To put this situation in perspective, large eagles do not have a tendency to go missing. Beetles, spiders, amphibians, even snakes and the occasional species of small bird can be unrecorded by scientists for years or even decades. But eagles are big, they are usually conspicuous, and they have a predisposition for attracting the attention of both international researchers and local people. In fact, the Madagascar Serpent Eagle’s situation was unique. In the early 1990s, this was the only eagle that no one seemed able to find. In essence, it was the rarest eagle in the world. So even if Lily’s project was straightforward, it was not going to be easy.
Usually when you go looking for a particular species of bird you rely on information about its habitat, behavior, and vocalizations to find it. These details can be so characteristic that they are often reflected in the names of the birds themselves: Bearded Reedlings inhabit reedbeds, Wood Warblers like woodlands, wagtails unceasingly dip their tails up and down, and Common Cuckoos loudly sing a two-noted approximation of “cuck-oo.” In tropical forests, vocalizations are the most significant of these details when it comes to finding a species. Almost all birds communicate by calls and songs and for species that inhabit the dense vegetation of the tropical rainforest these auditory signals are especially important. Learn the sounds that a bird makes, and you can tap its communication lines and find it.
When Lily set out to study the Madagascar Serpent Eagle, however, all of these details were missing. Aside from what appeared to be a general preference for rainforest, no one knew anything about the serpent eagle’s habitat, how it spent its time, or what it ate. Most importantly, no one knew what it sounded like. As a result, trying to find it was a bit like looking for the proverbial needle-in-a-haystack. Only in this case the needle is watching you and silently moves out of the way whenever you get close to it.
I’m reflecting on this challenge as I walk behind Moise, the Peregrine Fund’s lead field technician, through the forest near Bemanevika in northern Madagscar. Like many Malagasy, Moise has only a single name, and he has been working with Lily for nearly twenty years. Bemanevika is a newly designated protected area and in addition to Moise, I’m here with my friend Dale Wright, a South African ornithologist and conservationist, and an international team of field biologists with expertise on birds, spiders, moths, and reptiles and amphibians. Together we are planning to do one of the first biological inventories of some of the lesser-known biodiversity in Bemanevika and an adjacent protected area called Mahimborondro. But before we begin our survey work, we are all eager to see a serpent eagle. To be honest, that alone would have made the multi-day journey to Bemanevika more than worth it for most of us. Lily himself is also with us, but this morning he is waiting back on the main trail. He has seen many Madagascar Serpent Eagles by this point and doesn't feel the need to scramble through the forest with us today.
The morning is cool and overcast, and mist sits heavily among the trees giving an eerie feel to the landscape. Every few minutes, Moise stops and unfolds a metal radio antenna. He lifts a receiver up to his ear and it pings softly as he holds out the antenna, pausing it at compass points to listen. It all sounds the same to me, but Moise has done this before. This way, he gestures, and we quickly follow down yet another side trail winding deeper into the forest.
Finding a serpent eagle today should be easy. We are following a young bird that was fitted with a radio-transmitter a few months earlier so that the Peregrine Fund researchers can learn about its movements and behavior. Every time the eagle moves, we roughly know where it is and how far away. But even with the game rigged in our favor, this feels like a challenge. Wet leaves slap against my face, vines armored with spines wrap around my ankles and a seemingly endless stream of land leeches march up my pant legs. Every few minutes, Moise pauses, unfolds the transmitter, and adjusts our direction. At one point the pinging of the transmitter seems to be directly above us. We squint into the misty canopy, quietly stepping from one side to another hoping to get a better angle. And then the pinging moves, and we’re doubling back the way we came. It has been nearly an hour, and I’ve seen nothing.
Lily began looking for the Madagascar Serpent Eagle on the Masoala peninsula, home to one of Madagascar’s largest remaining tracts of lowland rainforest. To find an eagle that no one could see, Lily decided to rely on using mist-nets. Usually between six and twelve meters long, these are long nets constructed with nearly see-through thread. They are designed to catch birds without injuring them and are one of the primarily tools of ornithological field researchers around the world. I have worked frequently with mist-nets in myself, and while it is always rewarding to be able to have a bird in the hand, I find them exhausting.
To be effective, mist-nets need to be opened at dawn, checked every half hour, and quickly closed if it looks like it might rain or as it starts to get dark. In the tropical forest, they constantly get snagged on twigs and vines. Moths, beetles, and leaves drop into them and become impossibly entangled, and you have to be always vigilant, checking to make sure that birds don't get stuck for too long, and hurrying to shut the nets if the weather turns, as it seems to almost always do in tropical forests. With a team of researchers working together, the most nets I have put up at once is thirty. We set and monitored them in the forest for three weeks. When we returned to the city at the conclusion of the fieldwork, I walked into my hotel room, sat down on the bed, and fell asleep fully-dressed, feet on the floor, muddy boots still on.
Lily and his team set up one hundred and fifty mist-nets on Masoala. In January 1994, nearly five hundred days after they started fieldwork, they had not seen or caught a single serpent eagle. But they were still there. Opening, checking, cleaning, closing, one hundred and fifty mist-nets.
If it had been my job to rediscover the Madagascar Serpent Eagle, I would have done it differently. Even though forest eagles will chase prey down to the ground, they typically pass most of their time higher in the trees, and the odds of catching one in a mist-net are low. Instead, I imagine I would have hired a small field team and spent days quietly walking through the forest, moving between locations and trying to cover as much ground as possible in hopes of encountering an eagle face-to-face. Probably I would have combined this with interviewing local villagers, but the eagle’s apparent affiliation for the most remote forests and its superficial similarity to other Malagasy raptor species would have made this challenging. Mine would have been strategy designed to be as fast and, by hiring only a few people, as economical as possible. Standing in the forest near Bemanevika, I cannot help but wonder if, consciously or not, my approach to finding a serpent eagle would have reflected some of my underlying cultural background and beliefs. Time and people are valuable of resources and should always be maximized as much as possible.
When planning this expedition, Dale and I had fretted over timelines. How many days would it take us to travel from Antsohihy to Bemanevika? What time would we arrive at different points along the way? When not worrying about travel times, we had turned ourselves in circles planning the porters we me might need for different stages of the journey and contemplating how many kilos we could personally carry to offset the costs of hiring.
Lily seemed much less concerned with both of these. Maybe the trip to Bemanevika would take one day, probably two, maybe three. Probably we would arrive before dark, but maybe after dark. When Dale and I had settled on hiring twelve porters to bring us in and out, Lily considered our budget and politely revised it. For a similar price, we could hire twenty-five porters and they could stay with us the entire time. In rural Madagascar both time and manpower are almost unfathomably inexpensive.
I cannot be sure whether my strategy to find a serpent eagle would have worked in the 1992, but I am absolutely certain that I would have quit long before Lily did. In way that perhaps only a Malagasy researcher could plan, Lily’s strategy to find a serpent eagle took full advantage of patience and teamwork. It worked. On January 14, 1994—Lily remembers the exact date without hesitation—the first confirmed living Madagascar Serpent Eagle in over sixty years was lying in one of Lily’s mist-nets on the Masoala peninsula.
When Lily first told me this story, I tried to imagine the feelings of overpowering relief and ecstatic joy that must have accompanied this moment of discovery. Maybe there was dancing, screams of joy. But Lily, true to his personality, was more understated. “Yes, I was very happy,” he says with a chuckle.
One eagle was sufficient to begin to piece together the puzzle of how to find the species. Lily and his team fitted the bird with a radio transmitter, and just as we are doing today, started following it through the forest. A few days later they made the first recordings of its call, an odd croak that sounds so frog-like it was overlooked as amphibian by every previous ornithologist. Soon the reasons it had been so difficult to find became clear. First of all, it was shy. If it saw you before you saw it, as inevitably would happen, it would quickly and quietly slip away. Second, it only vocalized occasionally and, when it did, it sounded like a frog. Third, unlike most eagle species which often soar conspicuously over the forest, the serpent eagle almost never left the canopy, instead preferring to hunt quietly among the foliage or even drop down to walk on the forest floor. Along with these came a discovery that I find especially fun. The serpent eagle isn’t actually a serpent eagle at all. It almost never eats snakes. In fact, the majority of its diet is composed of chameleons.
Chameleon Eagle seems an appropriate name for a species so adept at making itself invisible. After an hour in the forest tracking the radio-tagged eagle, all I’ve seen is a couple of brief silhouettes and a shadow moving through the trees. And then suddenly, Moise points and urgently gestures us over. I peer through a window in the leaves and there it is, muted wood-brown colors, a hefty chameleon-killing bill and a gleaming golden eye staring back at us through the leaves.
Sometimes people ask me: how do you feel when you see a bird? What makes it exciting? Staring through the misty tree tops, my boots and pants soaked from the brush of wet leaves, leeches crawling up my legs, and looking at this nearly invisible eagle with its neatly-fitted radio transmitter, I can’t help but feel that I’m admiring a masterpiece of human endeavor and effort.
Moise is watching us we breathlessly pull out cameras and binoculars and mutter excitedly to each other. When the eagle leans forward and silently drifts deeper into the forest, he gives us an expectant look. Satisfied? We nod happily, goofy grins of relief at our own excitement to see this near mythical creature, and he folds up the metal arms of the radio transmitter and leads us back towards the trail.
An Entomologists point of view...
In this installment of our expedition blog, Dr Merlijn Jocque contemplates the wonders of this endeavour and the potential discovery of a new species!
The extensive deforestation is omnipresent on our long two day journey from Antananarivo towards Bemanevika. Montane forests harbor some of the most intact natural regions worldwide. The isolation from large economic centers and difficult access have only the select few opting to build a life in the mountains. That being said, a rapidly growing population and a high demand for mostly wood in all its applications, moves up the slopes fast here, outgrowing any worries on a shifting climate. After the drive, an intensive two day walk brings us to our camp in the largely intact Mahimborondro forest. The walk starts in a grassland dominated landscape that gradually is populated by more forest. The softly aching melancholy is replaced by a growing all-encompassing enthusiasm for this “amazing” forest, as our American colleagues would say. The crystal clear stream valleys with well-developed multi-layered canopy forest are a pure pleasure to wander through. Charismatic Pandanus the size of apple trees create a feeling of ancient intact and virgin ecosystems. Dense ridge forests barely reaching overhead, covered in lichens and mosses, let the mind wander and sparkle high expectations of adapted camouflaged creatures in the most exciting of shapes. We are privileged to study this ecosystem for a week. Of the selected groups of invertebrates considered, a noteworthy find on this bird inspired expedition was the observation of several pelican spiders (Archeidae), also known as assassin spiders, on the Pandanus plants. Pelican spiders prey on other spiders and thank their name to the unique long jaws (chelicerae) that define the lateral silhouette of the spider, reminiscent of a perched pelican. The first specimen of these small vegetation crawling spiders was wittingly observed by our colleague Brett Gardener on a nocturnal foray for reptiles. A targeted and intensive quest the days after, yielded several more specimens. Considering the isolated location and scant spider observations from this region, our observations could be a valuable elevation extension or maybe even a new species for science. Hoping for a swift processing of export permits now and a successful transfer of the samples to the laboratory so we can study this material. Exciting times ahead!
Photo captions: Dr. Jocque surveying the grassland and forest mosaic which characterized the landscape around Mahimborondro; and in the second photo a remarkable stick insect - just one of the many thousands of insects which call this forest home.
This expedition is made even more exciting by the breadth of experience and knowledge of our team members. So who are they?
Réné de Roland Lily-Arison (Lily) is the country director for the Peregrine Fund Madagascar and one of Madagascar’s leading conservationists. Lily’s experience includes twenty years of ornithological fieldwork and implementing conservation projects across Madagascar. Since he rediscovered the Madagascar Pochard in 2006, Lily has led an ongoing conservation program at Bemanevika, established a research station in the area, and was instrumental in Bemanevika and Mahimborondro being designated as protected areas in 2015. Through his role at The Peregrine Fund, Lily is responsible for developing and implementing the management plan for the two protected areas, a role which ensures that our results will have a direct impact on the protected areas management strategy and conservation of this site. In the field, Lily’s extensive experience with Malagasy birds and fieldwork will be a critical component of our bird survey team.
We are also very fortunate to have the assistance of Lily’s field team based at Bemanevika field station. Eugene Ladoany and Moise are the two principal field technicians at the site, and have both worked with Lily for about 25 years! They started their work with him in the Masoala National Park, a humid rainforest on the eastern coast of Madagascar; Lily noticed the supreme tree climbing abilities of a young Moise and immediately asked him to assist with research projects on the Madagascar Red Owl and Madagascar Serpent-Eagle. Moise and Eugene have been with Lily ever since, contributing immense time in the field throughout their careers, successfully tracking some of the most elusive birds in the world. Michel Rakotarison has worked very closely with the local communities neighbouring both Bemanevika and Mahimborondro Protected Areas and will soon receive his PhD in Geography for research carried out during the process of negotiating and establishing these new protected areas.
John Mittermeier is a conservation biologist finalizing his PhD at the School of Geography and the Environment at the University of Oxford, where his research focuses on using big data to better understand how cultural attitudes towards wildlife impact conservation. He received an MSc in Systematics, Ecology, and Evolution from Louisiana State University, where he worked on the conservation and biogeography of birds in eastern Indonesia, and also holds an MSc in Biodiversity, Conservation, and Management from Oxford. John has extensive experience conducting biological fieldwork, organizing expeditions, and doing ornithological surveys in tropical forests. This includes field expeditions in Suriname, Indonesia, the Solomon Islands, Samoa and Malaysia. However he has a particular affinity for Madagascar and has visited the country nearly a dozen times and lived there for a year. He and Rene de Roland Lily-Arison have previously collaborated on a publication on Malagasy birds and visited the expedition study area in September 2016.
Dale Wright works for BirdLife South Africa where he is the Important Bird and Biodiversity Area (IBA) Conservation Implementation Manager. He received his MSc in Conservation Biology from the University of Cape Town and has more than a decade of experience in conservation, previously managing a large protected area in Tanzania. In his current role, Dale is tasked with designing, fundraising and supervising a suite of landscape level projects focused on protected area expansion and safeguarding Key Biodiversity Areas. On this project he will assist with bird surveys, whilst also assisting with overall logistics, managing the expedition’s budget and providing further support through technical publications such as management plans.
Dr. Merlijn Jocqué is associated with the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences and Biodiversity Inventory for Conservation NPO (BINCO) https://www.binco.eu/. He studies biological diversity, ecosystem functioning and the provision of ecosystem services in the tropics. Merlijn gathered experience in biodiversity assessments of a wide range of organisms and has a keen interest in the exploration of pristine natural regions. On this expedition he will be looking at a selected range of invertebrates including spiders, dragonflies, saturnid and sphingid moths and aquatic crustaceans.
Dan Slootmaekers has been fascinated by living things big and small for as long as he can remember. This broad interest in nature translated into a master of science in conservation biology. He has collaborated on various biodiversity monitoring projects, such as little owl, smooth snake, waterfowl and moth diversity. The study of moths has become a passion in recent years, both in Belgium and abroad. Dan is currently working as an environmental policy advisor for the Flemish Environmental Agency, but joins this expedition as freelance entomologist for the Biodiversity Inventory for Conservation NPO (BINCO) and will be looking into moth and butterfly diversity.
Luke Kemp has completed a B.Sc honours degree in Zoology at Rhodes University, South Africa, specialising in African Vertebrates and Biodiversity. He has a particular interest in Reptiles and has assisted in a variety of reptile and amphibian surveys across South Africa, southern Namibia and Mozambique. He also acts as one of the expert reviewers on the University of Cape Town’s Reptile Map Project. He currently works for the African Snakebite Institute, training corporate and public clients in snake handling, managing snake bites and providing educational programs. Luke will be surveying the diversity of reptiles and amphibians.
Robin Colyn currently works for BirdLife South Africa and oversees numerous threatened species projects. His primary focus areas include spatial modelling and data science within the landscape ecology and conservation biology fields. Keen interests include the development of survey methods for elusive, threatened and range-restricted vertebrate species; which has recently lead to significant breakthroughs in the study of one of Africa’s rarest and most threatened bird species, the Critically Endangered White-winged Flufftail. On this expedition he will be assisting with Slender-billed Flufftail research, as well as camera-trapping, acoustic sampling and small-mammal surveys.
Brett Gardner has spent the last 12 years working as a zoo and wildlife veterinarian. He graduated from Onderstepoort at the University of Pretoria, South Africa. He currently works for Zoo's Victoria in Australia. Has a special interest in field anesthesia/surgery, disease ecology and working in Africa. He has been working with BirdLife South Africa on White-winged Flufftails in Ethiopia and South Africa and will be doing avian field sampling with a focus on Slender-billed Flufftails on this expedition.
We are also very privileged to have the support of Audubon magazine in the form of a journalist and photographer who will be documenting the expedition. Kimon de Greef is a freelance journalist from South Africa. He has written for the New York Times, Guardian, Atlantic and National Geographic, among other outlets, with a particular focus on illicit trades. He has a conservation biology master’s from the University of Cape Town and was named one of the Mail & Guardian’s 200 Young South Africans in 2018. His first book, Poacher: Confessions from the Abalone Underworld, co-written with poacher Shuhood Abader, was published in September.
Tristan Spinski is a freelance photographer from the United States. Much of his work examines the intersection of economy, culture and the landscape. He is a regular contributor to The New York Times, Mother Jones, and a number of other publications, and will be documenting this trip for Audubon.
We would also like to acknowledge the Bird Conservation Fund, BirdLife South Africa and The Peregrine Fund, for providing the financial and logistical support to make this expedition a reality.
The island of Madagascar is widely regarded as a “living laboratory” in which evolution has sculpted an extremely diverse and specialised biota over millions of years. The birds of the island are no exception to this trend, and it currently hosts 282 species, of which a staggering 115 are endemic to the island. Of these, 35 are considered globally threatened to some degree. The high levels of endemic species is a strong motivation for increased conservation efforts on the island, as species lost here, will be lost forever. Madagascar is a country of spectacular biodiversity and unrivaled endemism, yet it is now facing environmental degradation on a massive scale. Unfortunately, to date nearly 90% of Madagascar’s original habitats have been destroyed, illustrating the need for increased conservation efforts in, and support for, this region.
In contrast to this sad picture facing Madagascar’s biodiversity, the story of the Madagascar Pochard (Aythya innotata) provides a refreshing positive outcome for conservation. Against seemingly impossible odds, this species was rediscovered after being declared extinct and now, thanks to a targeted conservation effort, has increased its population nearly tenfold over the last decade. In 2006, Réné de Roland Lily-Arison (principal partner on this project), a Malagasy ornithologist and current director of The Peregrine Fund’s Madagascar program, happened upon a small patch of forest hidden in the remote mountains of north-eastern Madagascar. There, on a tiny crater lake in the forest, Lily rediscovered a small flock of nine Madagascar Pochards. Today, the population of ducks on this single lake, Lac Matsaborimena, has climbed to nearly 40 individuals, and a successful captive breeding program has been started in the nearby provincial capital. With a total world population of less than 150 birds, however, the Madagascar Pochard remains one of the rarest waterfowl on earth.
Furthermore, the remote patch of forest where the pochard survives has proved to be a ‘lost world’ that is home to several of Madagascar’s most enigmatic and poorly-known species. Among others, this includes one of the rarest species of eagle on earth (Madagascar Serpent-eagle Eutriorchis astur), a large owl that went missing to science for much of the twentieth century (Madagascar Red Owl Tyto soumagnei), alongside other rare and threatened biodiversity.
Our expedition is going back to these remote forest patches to both document the rare birds and other wildlife which calls them home, whilst also searching for species which may be new to science. Early expeditions have already revealed a new species of chameleon and thus much remains to be discovered! We'll introduce you to our team of intrepid explorers in our next blog post.
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