Birds and Bird Guides

Our small bus turns into a road that ends in a cluster of mud and wattle houses. Several men jump up from under the eves of the nearest one and walk toward us. A Rastafarian-looking fellow is in the lead.

“Don’t worry,” Mark says, ”He isn’t as fierce as he appears.”

Mosa greets Mark with a big smile, a firm handshake and manly hug and introduces the six guides. We break into two groups, one for the avid birders and one for the generalists, interested in photos and plant life as well as birds. I join the birdy group. As we follow our guide, Tov, into the scrub, two other guides disappear ahead of us trotting along the sandy paths carved into the dry bush. We pass a shallow pit strewn with tiny bits of charcoal. Tov explains that a villager chopped down one of the few remaining trees, buried the wood and covered it so that it burned incompletely, leaving charcoal which he then sold for one dollar per large bag to feed his family.

Most of the remaining trees are isolated baobabs, their fat trunks with absurdly tiny tops scattered amidst the scrub. They are no good for charcoal, but do have a medicinal use and the tough seeds of the fuzzy fruit yield cooking oil. Under extreme conditions, the leaves and shoots as well as the meager pulp around the seeds are edible. In the worst drought, the whole tree might be chopped down to let the thirsty cattle chew on the pulpy interior.

The octopus plant, didiera, reminds me of ocotillos in our southwest. Tall clumps of branches with long, vicious spines reach 45 feet in the air. The tiny, leathery leaves conserve water and are found on similar plants that seem bare from a distance.

We stroll through the head-high gray-green bushes, identifying common birds and plants, until we hear a whistle and shout from the distance. Tov calls back to the whistler and waves us to follow and runs down the path. For ten minutes, we struggle with the heat and soft sand. We finally catch up to him, and he signals us to stop and wait and be quiet. He points to the path ahead. Still panting, we hear small cracks from the brush. The guides are moving the bird toward us.

We peer into the gray stalks, tense with anticipation.


“Look, look,” Tov says softly, pointing to the right side of the trail. A slender, leggy blue-gray bird with a long tail, picks its way out through thorny branches and saunters into the open space. It reminds me of a road runner, a common Arizona desert bird. The guide whispers, “Red capped coua.” We focus our binoculars and marvel at every detail of the splendid markings. Like all couas, this bird has a striking, bright blue, featherless eye patch. Particular to this coua, we note the rusty cap. The bird creeps into the brush on the far side of the path and disappears. We lower our binoculars and exhale, smiling.

When the Spiny Forest guides gently herded birds across the path where we waited, the birds did not seem stressed. Only a limited number of birders visit that area but many more visit the eastern rainforests, close to the capitol of Antananarivo. Three or four groups a day may go after the same bird. In that area, many guides use taped calls to draw territorial birds into the open, but after too many calls from the same “bird” the defenders seem to know there is no threat, which frustrates the serious birders. Near Perinet, we had just that experience.

“Oh, no problem. The bird will come right to our feet,” our Perinet guide, Alex, says describing a possible afternoon jaunt to find a Gray Emutail, a small marsh warbler. The bird book shows an unremarkable little bird, but the second choice for the afternoon is shopping. I join the other avid birder and our guide for a short bus trip.

What Alex has not mentioned is that the marsh is not beside the road.

We leave the bus, cross the road, walk along an irrigation ditch, across a rice paddy dike and on through cultivated fields for half an hour to an earthen dam. Alex halts on the dam and listens, facing the marsh reeds. Then he turns on his tape and plays the Gray Emutail call, a rattling chuchuchuchuk.


We try another spot with no results. Finally, we climb the steep bank and then down again where we stand teetering next to a ten-foot wide swath of open water that separates us from the reeds. Alex is getting  nervous.

Trek for the Emutail

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

He plays the tape. We hear a distant reply. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I catch the rustle of reeds and a brown flash just as Alex points. “There,” he gasps, but by the time his arm is raised, he is pointing at empty air.

I recall Marsh Wrens that will skulk among reeds, but when their territory is threatened, they will pop up and hang on the reed top and call out their challenge. The emutail is different, and even with persistent use of the taped call, he refuses to show himself.

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

Alex rewinds and plays his tape repeatedly. I am getting uncomfortable with what is feeling like harassment.

“OK, I’m happy. I saw it, kind of, and heard the call. Let’s go back,” I say.

“Oh, just up here. Maybe he will come just ahead,” and off he goes another ten feet and replays the tape with no results.

“Let’s stop now,” I say. How much clearer can I be? I turn to go and he follows, looking back one more time.

Some birders are called “listers” because they keep a list of every bird they see and take pride in the number. A hard core lister would not have given up as I did without a good look at the bird. I do keep track of the birds I see but after a reasonable try I am happy with a glimpse or a song, which I note in my records, especially if it is one of the rarer birds. I am happy to know I was in the presence of the bird.

Technically, birders know that hearing a distinct call “counts” in the birding community. The story is that this convention was initiated after a birding group tried flushing a rare marsh bird by shuffling through its habitat, and discovered on their next pass that someone had stepped on the poor thing. This may be a birding myth, but the point is valid.

One of my favorite Madagascar birds was the Black Egret, a medium-sized wading bird that wraps its wings around its head to shade the water for better visibility while fishing, a position they assume so quickly it is difficult to see. They feed in groups along the shores of fresh-water lakes and on first spotting them, it seems as if there are several black umbrellas, opened but abandoned at the water’s edge. Suddenly, one umbrella becomes an egret with long neck and legs, then another unwraps itself and another. They walk a few paces and, with a swish, become umbrellas again. I have seen that same movement performed in a modern dance.


Another favorite bird was the ubiquitous crested drongo. It is robin-sized and glossy black with erect forehead feathers. The drongo is not a spectacular bird, but his melodious dawn song is glorious. A bird with a less appealing call is the Madagascar lesser cuckoo. The call itself is not the problem. It just never stops. There must be some link to our expression about “going cuckoo”.

While eating lunch by the road one day, we heard a delightful sound. Far over the jungle canopy a pair of Cuckoo-rollers flew joyously, looping, diving and backtracking and making in a piercing, descending call, repeated two or three times, and then a pause and then they called again. Several times, I heard the same sharp call and was delighted to remember that carefree flight display.

Early one morning near Perinet, a deep coo-au, the call of a Short-legged Ground-roller, beckons three of us and our guide. We thrash through the thick rainforest underbrush, detach vines that grab our clothing, duck under fallen branches and cross a stream on an impromptu bridge.

Then, our guide signals for us to stop and he points up into a tree. There is the bird, his bronze-green back and brown and white belly visible fifteen feet above us, the size of a child’s football. His squat body quivers with each hoot. He continues calling undisturbed by the commotion at his feet.

While we watch, the drab female flies in and lands in the lower branches of a nearby bush. A bright red, eight-inch millipede squirms in her thick bill. Something for the babies. She looks at us for a moment, and flies up the hill.

Her mate continues his hooting.

I pause to savor every detail of such a sweet bird in this incredible place.