9. Birds, Kids and Lemurs at Perinet Reserve

We arrived at Perinet Reserve after a long but interesting drive from Ranomafana National Park. Located three hours east of Antananarivo in central Madagascar, Perinet Reserve is one of the easiest rainforest parks to reach from the capital. This reserve is now a national park called Andasibe-Mantaida National Park to acknowledge that the original, much larger forest, has been divided in two by heavy logging and destructive cyclones that blow in from the Indian Ocean.

A healthy population of the endangered Indri Indri Lemur, the largest lemurs, thrives at the Perinet Preserve. The double name indicates that this species is the one by which all other indri lemurs are compared for purposes of identification.

Efforts to reintroduce two other threatened lemurs, the Diademed Safika and Black-and-white Lemurs, back into their historical habitat have been quite successful. However, continued logging of the rainforest adjacent to the park and replanting with more marketable eucalyptus and pine trees, have ruined chances for enlarging the lemurs’ habitat. We hoped to see all three types of lemurs during our three days at the preserve.


Another Fabulous Birding Moment

On our first morning at Perinet, we had good luck spotting birds along a dirt road near a brushy creek in the park. The drizzle had tapered off and the sun peeked through the clouds when our park guide, Alex, stopped. “Listen,” he whispered as he cupped his hands around his ears to pin down the direction of the call. I hadn’t heard a thing, but as usual, our guide knew what birds might be in the area. Finding a particular bird depends on many things, but I know guides are relieved to hear the call of a difficult bird.

Then I heard a soft “boop” from deep in the forest.

“That’s it,” Alex softly confirmed. The timid sound came again. “Boop.”

“It’s a Short-legged Ground-roller.” Alex’s eyes sparkled, always a good sign that the bird is special. He beckoned us to follow. Only three of us slipped off the road and into the brush. The others waited for us to return, not wanting to risk wet shoes in the marshy ground after a rainy morning full of great birds.

We four birders thrashed through the thick underbrush, attempting to be quiet as we pulled off vines that grabbed our clothing. We ducked under fallen branches and crossed a stream on an impromptu log bridge. Suddenly, Alex held up his flat hand, the signal for us to stop, and pointed up into a tree. About fifteen feet above us, a pudgy bird the size of a child’s football, sat on a small branch. We easily saw the short-legged ground-roller with his bronze-green back and his brown and white belly. Then his mouth opened, his body quivered, and we heard the call, a soprano “boop.”

The bird continued calling, slow and questioning. At every call, his squat body did a little shimmy. He seemed undisturbed by the commotion at the foot of the tree where we stared up at him. We hardly needed binoculars but we carefully raised them to drink in each shaking feather, each placid eye. There is nothing better than actually seeing a bird make a call, which cements that sound to memory.

While we watched, a drab-colored female flew in and landed in a nearby bush. A bright red, eight-inch millipede squirmed in her thick bill—something for the babies. She looked at us for a moment and then flew up the hill. Her mate continued his hooting.

I savored every detail of such a sweet bird in this incredible rainforest environment, unique only to Madagascar. My love for this hot and humid island country, rich with animals and plant life, filled me with joy and gratitude. I noted to myself, Another fabulous moment.


Children Sing About the Kestrel

Birds wisely rest during the oppressive afternoons in tropical climates, so we had the choice of several activities our first day in Perinet. One group chose to visit a school and then go shopping. When I later heard about their encounter with the kids, I was sorry I hadn’t gone with them. Rivo had asked some school children to sing the song about the kestrel that he had tried to teach us on the bus. The children joined hands and circled each other, singing gaily about the Madagascar kestrel.

Fellow traveler Don captured it all on his small video camera. Then, Don gathered the kids around him and played it back. The unfamiliar images surprised the children and they exploded into screams of delight before they could even hear their own voices coming from the recording. They ran around jumping high into the air, hugging each other, clapping, and laughing. After Don told me the story, I wondered, How would the kids have reacted if they had heard us struggling to learn the song they sang? Since our bus driver thought our singing attempts were hysterical, I’m sure the kids would’ve reacted with something far more exuberant than the screaming and jumping!


Harassment or Passion?

In the spiny forest in southwestern Madagascar the guides gently herded birds across the path where we waited to see them. They did not seem stressed with our presence, perhaps because only a limited number of birders visit that area. However, many more visitors visit the eastern rainforests like Perinet, which is so close to Tana and so easily accessible. The eastern rainforests are popular places where up to four groups a day may try and see the same bird. Local Malagasy guides use taped birdcalls to draw territorial birds into the open, but after too many taped calls from the same “bird” the real birds seem to know there is no threat and don’t respond. These practices frustrate serious birders and their guides as well. I was about to experience this frustration firsthand.

On the afternoon in Perinet dedicated to the school visit and shopping, I chose the alternative, the pursuit of another marsh bird. Again, David and I were the only ones eager enough to join Alex on that baking hot afternoon. Alex assured David and me that he could attract a particularly rare bird with a taped birdcall. “Oh, no problem. The bird will come right to our feet.”

I had never experienced using a taped call to attract a particular bird and could not have anticipated the problem I had with the encounter. On that baking-hot afternoon jaunt, David and I expected to observe a Gray Emutail, which is a small marsh warbler. My passion for pretty birds was unquestionable, so after lunch I checked my bird book and found a drawing of an unremarkable bird, the gray emutail. Even though my enthusiasm for the afternoon’s trip was tepid, we had not seen that bird and I told myself at least it was better than shopping.

In search of the emutail

We took a short bus trip down the road and pulled over. We followed our guide along an irrigation ditch, across a rice paddy dike, and on through cultivated fields for half an hour. Alex stopped at an earthen dam that held back a pond almost filled in by reeds and marsh grasses. We listened for a call, facing the marsh. Then Alex turned on his tape player and we heard the recorded call of the gray emutail, a rattling chuchuchuchuk.

Nothing. No answering call.

We tried another spot, still no results. Finally, we teetered along the side of a very steep bank. Alex stopped next to a ten-foot-wide swath of open water that separated us from the reeds. He seemed to be getting nervous.

“I was here two years ago and this is where the birds were,” Alex explained. “They came right to my feet, truly.”

He played the tape again. This time we heard a distant reply. Then, out of the corner of my eye I caught the rustle of reeds and a brown flash just as Alex pointed. “There,” he gasped, but by the time he raised his arm he was pointing at empty air.

I recalled marsh wrens at home that skulk among reeds, but when their territory is threatened they will pop up and hang on the reed top and call out their challenge. However, even with persistent use of the taped call that day this emutail refused to show himself again.

“This water was not here,” Alex noted. “The local people have cleared this place recently and now the birds do not come.”

Alex rewound and played his tape repeatedly. I began to feel uncomfortable for the little bird. “OK, I’m happy,” I said. “I saw it, kind of, and heard the call. Let’s go back.”

“Oh, just up here, maybe he will come just ahead,” Alex responded hopefully with a hint of worry. He headed up the slope another ten feet. Once again, he played the tape with no results.

“Let’s stop now,” I insisted, irritated with Alex’s persistence that looked like harassment at that point. I thought, How much clearer can I be? I turned to go and he followed, looking back one more time.


My Birding Approach

Some birders are called “listers” because they keep a list of every bird they see and take pride in the number. A hardcore lister would not have given up as I did without a good look at the bird, but that trip was early in my birding career. I do keep track of the birds I see, but after a reasonable try, I am happy with a glimpse or a song that I note in my records, especially if it is a rare bird to see or hear. At the very least, I am happy just to know I was in the presence of the bird in his environment.

Birders know that hearing a distinct call “counts” in the birding community. The story passed around is that a birding group initiated this convention after trying to flush a different rare marsh bird by shuffling through its habitatin an attempt to scare it out of hiding. On their next pass over the same spot, they discovered that someone had stepped on the poor thing. This may be a myth, but the point is valid. Birding protocol must include leaving the bird as comfortable as before—or at least alive!


Lemur Families

On the second day, we drove to the Mantiada portion of the park connected to the Andasibe portion only by a corridor. This is where it is sometimes possible to see the troops of indri lemurs. Researchers have been studying the lemurs in this park for years, and while the lemurs there are not tame, they are accustomed to people and go about their daily routines undisturbed. We had high hopes of observing lemur families in Andasibe-Mantiada National Park.

We followed a trail into the thick humid forest and kept our eyes glued to the trees for unusual shaking and our ears pricked for animal noises. Suddenly, I noticed movement in the canopy of some distant tamarind trees and a quick flash of a lemur’s body. We halted, hoping the lemurs might come in our direction.We were thrilled to see that they were indeed approaching. I could see long arms and legs spread to catch the limbs of the next tree and light colored bodies running up long branches to gain height and then leap with confidence.

Mark gasped, then with a tone of reverence and awe exclaimed, “I’ve never seen these lemurs in all the times I’ve visited Madagascar; these are Black-and-White Ruffed Lemurs.” Since I had never seen any lemurs before this trip, every one was awesome but I had to recognize that this sighting was even more special.

A black-and-white ruffed lemur is a medium-sized lemur that weighs up to 9 pounds, and is up to 21 inches tall from head to length of their torso. These lemurs are highly endangered largely due to the degradation of their habitat by loggers and farmers.

We followed the lemurs’ raucous vocalizations as they raced through the trees. At one point, they paused right above us and we could see that their black tails were longer than their black-and-white bodies. I loved the white fluffy ruffs around their black necks and ears that accentuated their bright brown eyes. They easily outdistanced us and soon we lost them—but not the thrill of the brief encounter. For me, that experience with the lemurs will last a lifetime.

An hour later, Mark stopped us. He pointed up into the branches of a tree close to the trail. “There they are, Indri Indri,” he whispered.

A family of indri lemurs, or babakoto in Malagasy, rested in the crotches of several trees close to our trail. These tree dwellers are the largest lemurs in Madagascar and can weigh up to 20 pounds and grow up to 27 inches in length. The indri is the only lemur with a short vestigial tail of 2 inches. The lemur closest to us was black and white, but had a different pattern from the previous family. At first, we could only see a distortion of the belly fur, but soon I made out a baby’s tiny arm that reached around to her mother’s back and firmly gripped her fur.

Mama Indri Indri with baby (Mark Smith photo)

The female had a fuzzy body, round ears, and bright yellow eyes, and she lay on her back on a sturdy branch that served as her lounge chair, gripping the tree trunk for stability. The mother turned her triangular black face in our direction and blinked. She seemed uninterested in us and unbothered by our intrusion.

Other family members around this mother lemur began feeding again. An older sibling ambled to the end of a nearby branch, delicately pulled a flower to his mouth, and nibbled the petals. The baby awakened and squirmed. When the little one spotted us, we could see his head and his large curious eyes. The baby crawled up his mother’s belly and turned sideways, belly-to-belly with Mom. At first, he looked like he might slide off her slippery fur and drop, but he held on and squirmed to drape his little bottom clear of her side. Then he let loose a tiny golden stream, urinating into the branches. When done, the infant climbed back onto her chest and began some practice leaps to the next vertical limb no more than two feet away. He leapt and then looked back at Mom, who was watching. Dare I say she looked on proudly? He leapt back to the safety of her lap, then took another leap away and returned, gaining confidence as he explored the world beyond his mother’s embrace.

While observing the baby lemur, we heard a distant eerie call that reminded me of a humpback whale’s song. The mother lemur heard it as well. She sat up, lifted her head, and formed her mouth in a wide “O,” revealing the ruby red inside her cheeks. She tensed and with a piercing wail, let out a lemur call that slid down an octave, paused in her lower vocal range, and then lifted at the end. This firm reply claimed her territory.

After calling for several minutes, the female shinnied up the trunk of the tree, her infant glued to her back. She paused briefly, sprang in a high arc and grabbed the next tree. She clutched the trunk with her strong legs and then bounced confidently from tree to tree with the speed of a rubber ball.

After the sound of their leaving faded, Mark said, “All species of indri are quite vocal, communicating with singing, roaring, and other creative vocalizations.”

Oh, how I wish I could have hung around there to witness those sweet family activities and to hear more of those creative vocalizations. Once again, Madagascar’s unique beauty filled me with delight and reverence. Our tour would soon be over, so I paused for another moment to drink it all in.