In December 2014 I went to Madagascar with my wife and a friend. An unknown bird was calling at night in a forest.
All three of us were keen to find out what it was. My wife, Claire, is a scientific ornithologist. Our friend, Callan, is a field naturalist and wildlife-tour leader. I have been an amateur birdman for almost fifty years. I hoped the mystery bird might be a new species; they, knowing more about how these things go, were cautious.
Callan wanted to return to the forested Masoala peninsula in the north-east of the island to try to identify something strange he’d previously heard and briefly seen: a nightjar that he couldn’t place. A bird that Callan couldn’t call would be a bird worth looking for. In his company you have the extraordinary sense of seeing all the birds that are around you. Every one of them. But nightjars are some of the most mysterious and least known, and least knowable, birds in the world. They live in the dark and look like it. There are two known endemic species on Madagascar – the ‘Madagascar’ nightjar and the ‘collared’ nightjar. Was there another?
We were overdue. Both Claire and I had written books featuring the birdlife of Madagascar without ever having been there or having seen any of it alive. Thirty years before, I had taken a white plastic tray with the bodies of nightjars from a dark cabinet to a sunlit table to read what was written on the labels attached to their short stiff legs, which resulted in a conservation-minded study about the historical status of the island’s endemic birds. Coincidentally, Claire had written a guidebook (with Callan) about where to see them. Some of our courtship had drawn on this shared ghosting of the place and its vicariousness to our lives.
Writing the book had taught me something of the diversity of endemic forms in Madagascar, something of its species-generating evolutionary history – and something of the environmental catastrophe that was threatening all life on the island, as forests were cut and torched to clear land to grow food. But it also taught me how little anyone knew of the true status and distribution of the endemic birds of Madagascar, or what knowing those things might more deeply imply.
Human knowledge is thin. And try telling it to the birds. In the forests they fell silent and flew away from us, as they always will no matter what we write or say. They are still there now, in those wet woods and those desert thorns, in the baobabs and at the edge of a clearing, as they were when I filled my notebook with lists of what I was seeing, as they are even as I write out their names this moment in creeping black letters to crowd a virtual white page; they are there and not one knows or cares what it is called or why I am calling.
One of the gifts of birdwatching or of any nature study is the diminishing of self that nature’s carelessness implies. Observing nature weds you to the world and estranges you from it simultaneously. Most birdwatchers wouldn’t put it this way but it’s a good paradox – the more I come to know, the smaller I come to seem. Madagascar teaches this better than anywhere I’ve been.
Two years ago, Callan recorded the strange notes of an unknown species of nightjar, and replayed them into the Masoala forest. The bird leapt at the sound of itself and flew to an overhead tree, but moved off before he could focus his camera. He saw it for only a few seconds in the dark; he could tell it was a nightjar but what he saw looked unusual. Both the nightjars of Madagascar have pale moony patches on their brown bodies, the collared on its tail and the Madagascar on both its tail and wings. It was hard to discern any of those features on the bird Callan saw. Two years on, we three were on the same path in the night forest when something clucked or whirred, a quiet k-tick that might have been a frog, or a cricket, or a bird. ‘Recording!’ Callan said, to keep us quiet, and aimed his microphone at the dark and switched on.
Both of Madagascar’s nightjars are known to be at home in Masoala, and as it was dark we were listening for the call. The Madagascar nightjar’s song falls within nightjar-speak, which is described in field guides as being like a ping-pong ball bouncing on a table or a marble bouncing on a stone floor. I’d heard one earlier in our trip and transcribed it in my notebook as a starter-handle on a labouring old engine.
The collared nightjar is stranger. Its name comes from a distinctive buffish necklace that, combined with a rufous scarf around the nape, gives the bird a more hunched and bigger-headed appearance than many other nightjars. It is a member of a less textbook genus too: the male has white in its tail but not in its wings; and, unusually for a nightjar, it prefers to nest off the ground in the soft root mass of bird’s nest ferns that grow as epiphytes on forest trees. Though it was described in 1871 its voice, the field guides and handbooks say, has never been reported. One notes this as an abiding mystery; others, more plainly, list the call as unknown. Perhaps, it has been speculated, it communicates ultrasonically.
We waited. I wasn’t being much help. My nightjar knowledge, such as it was, I acquired in another time and place. I was a stranger to the jungle, exhausted in the small hours, and my skills as expedition sound-recordist were failing. A while back, up the path, I had managed to hear our target, but hadn’t been able to place the call or record it usefully. Callan had commandeered the kit. We listened to the night.
Our first aim in Madagascar was to try to extract a dark bird from a dark place, but for a month we also travelled the island wanting to see as many bright birds as possible. We zigzagged up and down the country from dry spiny scrublands to soaked rainforests, from cutting our shins and our fingers on the tsingy rock formations of the north, when chasing mesites, to sweeping our chins of leeches in the damps of the east, in pursuit of ground-rollers. Our bird list grew and each place also had its own lemur and its own chameleon, and as many other distinct and particular species as our guides could point to and name.
It was the endemics that we most wanted: those species that Madagascar either invented and had kept to itself or with which it leads the world. No other country comes close to matching its tally of more than one hundred species of endemic birds, all found nowhere else, and all of which have lived so long and so alone on the island that they have become, as it were, themselves. Mesites, ground-rollers, couas, vangas, tetrakas, asitys, jerys – wherever you have come from, if you’ve never been to Madagascar, almost every bird you see will be new to you.
We saw just a few that weren’t. And the familiarity of these wrong-footed me. A gang of barn swallows, my swallows, cut at the insect-thick air above a swamp, their slate-blue wings and tails scoring grooves through the heat haze. A pair had nested within yards of the front door of our home in England that summer and I couldn’t look at the birds in Madagascar without thinking of them as being away and therefore somehow wrong.
Another day we saw Eleanora’s and sooty falcons hawking for dragonflies above a river, sharing the thundery sky like stitching loosed from heavy drapery. Both were at home, beautifully so, and yet also away – both breed elsewhere but spend their winters on the island. In a fabulous utilitarianism, that could make you believe in a cosmic air traffic controller running the life of the skies, nearly all the Eleanora’s falcons that breed on the rocky islands in the Mediterranean migrate afterwards to Madagascar. Similarly most sooty falcons that breed from Libya east to the Red Sea also come, when they have finished breeding, to Madagascar.
It is hard to fathom how such a falcon distribution might be so apportioned and so upheld. Seeing hunting birds above the fields of Ankarana in Madagascar and having seen the same species previously on the cliffs of western Mallorca reminded me that there had been a Nazi plan, before the Final Solution was devised, to ship all European Jews to Madagascar – the island being chosen as a prison because it was as far out of mind, as well as physically as removed from Europe, as possible. Yet here were the falcons stitching the world together.
The Nazi sense of Madagascar’s isolation was half right. Mostly, the island is away: its nature (the diversity of its endemic families of animals and its mixed human ethnicities and languages) has been made by its being away (in space and in time, an island long islanded) from the rest of the world. The better part of me knows this, but in Madagascar my confusion persisted, I think, because familiar birds were so few (the swallows were the only birds I easily identified as I knew them already), and because almost every one of the many unfamiliar species was at home only in Madagascar.
I first heard the island’s name when my mother asked me, aged about six, to fill the sugar jar but to save, as I did, the vanilla stick from Madagascar. I wasn’t sure whether Madagascar was a person or a place, or why you’d want to keep a dried up and dead something that looked like a wizened black finger. Then, at the same time, there was my mother’s story about her merchant seaman grandfather who had come ashore in Madagascar, got drunk and lost his way back to his ship, and was rescued and looked after (or, in some versions, held captive) by a village of natives, until he escaped with a bag of gems and a monkey. Then I saw a picture of an aye-aye on a tea card that I had collected, and all of Madagascar, and its mysteries and everybody’s getting it wrong, somehow lined up behind it. The aye-aye was a lemur not a monkey – there were no monkeys in Madagascar – and it had a vanilla stick for a finger and looked out of a night forest that was as black as its own face, with the stare of a mad man.
Fifty years on, the aye-aye was on my wish list. I’d seen one captive in a zoo on Jersey: a nightmare of coconut fur peering out of a carboniferous gloom, two big forward-facing orange eyes, bat ears, bad teeth and one extra-long finger on each of its old-man hands: the vanilla pod animated on a tarot card. I wanted one, a wild one.
In Madagascar, we tried to find an aye-aye, but the nearest we got was the dropped seeds of Canarium trees that the animals had been eating high above us at midnight at Farankaraina. Each greenish, egg-shaped seed had been opened in the same way, and was still glistening with teeth-marks and lip gloss. Afterwards, I pointed my torch down rather than up, and I heard, or thought I heard, a seed hitting the path ahead of us, but I never saw what dropped it.
It was a similar story on most of our nightjar nights. Our days in the forest were bright beneath the rigging of the canopy: sun-splashes, the iridescence of birds, vivid green sword blades of tree ferns, white clown suits of sifakas, the tight-stretched jogging pants of indri, colour-cards of chameleons, a waxy tumble of epiphytic orchids. The nights were black, and our lives should have been simpler: the colours had gone, we walked the paths and played back the calls, waiting for the moon to come. Before it climbed the sky, the needlepoint light of fireflies and distant stars pricked through the canopy, but my head, fogged with night murk and muffled with night noises, couldn’t tell what was close and what was far.
We were, in any case, in pursuit of a concealed genius. If an owl is a worked bag of leafy air, a nightjar is a dusty carpet whose pattern has absorbed into it every tread, until it cannot be said what is dirt and what is design. All of the world’s 135 species of nightjar are tailored like this. The birds look like the floor of a woodshed that might be trampled sawdust and earth or laid with an old rug. Configured to hide in both light and dark, nightjars are active in the night and manage to look like it, while in the day they sleep and then look like that too: like sleep embodied. If you stumble on one roosting or guarding its eggs or young on the ground (it makes not even a scrape for a nest), it will flick hurriedly away in a flying gangle, hating the tombstone glare of the sun, and often slump back to the ground feigning injury as a distraction. If you manage, in daylight, to peel or break one free from its camouflage and spot it without flushing it from its roost-branch or its phantom nest, it will remain stock-still. The bird seems able to stop or absorb time through the ancient clothes it is wearing, and the great black globes of its dozing eyes. The effect is to befuddle and stun and, after who knows how long, you pick yourself up and move heavily away, a deadbeat lost to nightjar-time.
Nightjar songs and calls are equally elsewhere, like by-catch trawled from beyond the sound horizon, earth-purrs and night-slips, netted to the surface and brought just about into the sonic range of the world’s ear but felt as often in the chest as in the head: calls like flint-chips from scattered stars, and shared with cicadas and crickets and frogs, and songs like various pre-industrial pumps that sound the same as the ooze they pump, motors blurred with the motored, like leaf mould opening a throat.
And because they are the night’s things and we are not, nightjar kinesis appears as weird as their crypsis and as thrown as their voices. They move too fast or not at all. By day they play the part of a log in a neighbourhood watch, sitting tight and so still that lichen might advance over them. Once, in Crimea, I watched a mosquito land on the wet eyeball of a grounded nightjar and it didn’t blink. By night they work as a headache. Moths are what they mostly catch and the birds fly after them as they must, but to my eyes that is faster than is comfortable, and their wing-scythes and hawking jinks fillet the dark sky. Under unclouded moonlight these actions might be computable, but crossing a torch beam or a headlight directed up into overcast sky, the same flights get chopped into a kind of bat-like origami – the sky is being shredded as well as folded, with the birds appearing all too quickly and exiting at the same moment, each its own chronic hurry.
The tapes began to work. We stopped recording the songs and began playing them back. The nightjar we were looking for hardly ever called without our provocation and never appeared by chance across our path. But after hours of waiting in the woods the machine lured the birds. The full moon slow-bounced its way through the top branches of a tree and after a blast of amplified playback, the odd, old, clock-tock of the bird that Callan had recorded, something real called back and was there, all at once, flying up towards the moon, landing horizontally on a bare branch, and fully in view. Callan fired his camera.
Whatever the nightjar was, there were other new birds to see. When I wrote my book in 1986, the red-shouldered vanga was thought to be a regional variant of a more widespread endemic bird, the red-tailed vanga. Now it is known to be a separate species. On a scrubby flat hilltop, not far from Toliara in the south-west of Madagascar, our guide, Relatz, led us to the nest of one in a thorn tree that he’d found a few days before.
As anywhere, new species come in two forms in Madagascar. There are animals still being found that have never been seen by naturalists before, which are called new because they were previously unknown to science. These seem the truest or purest additions to the list of life: a net plus for the world. But, because there are now improved tools and techniques for looking more deeply into what is already known, there are also new species being declared that were previously named (as variants, races, or subspecies) but not described as separate species. These are new species born of splitting, thanks usually to laboratory work deciphering DNA. Taxonomy is always (and can only be) just a way of putting things. A place to put them and a means of finding them again. If an animal or plant is described as new to science, it means we have pulled a species into our ken from the riot of life, but it doesn’t necessarily mean the riot itself has become rowdier. New to science is not the same as new to nature. The known world is not the same as the world.
The red-shouldered vanga is one of these split birds, but it was still good to see. Its nest was a beautiful little felted cup, crafted on its inside with soft lichen and spider webs, and armoured at its rim with tougher lichen and twisted twigs. Living leaves had been plaited through it. The incubating male sat tight. He looked like a weaver but with the fierce lemon eyes of a pixie sparrowhawk. The nest stretched beneath the bird like a skirt and we were able to walk right up to him.
Vangas show how life has run in Madagascar. The family of smallish passerines have evolved (perhaps from one starter species) and diversified extraordinarily, theatrically I want to say, radiating into more than twenty species to fill various ecological niches. As we travelled through the forests of the island, we saw vangas that were taking the role of shrikes in their absence, and others that have become the equivalent of flycatchers, or nuthatches, or wood hoopoes, or babblers. At Masoala a mixed bird party passed through the canopy above us and was lit up with several species of vanga (blue, Chabert’s, rufous, red-tailed and Bernier’s), busy being themselves as well as intimating the unrelated birds they’d taken after.
Once the party had moved on and the forest fell quiet – and its disturbed air stilled – we sat under the trees, and Claire told me about phylogenetics and the branching of lines while I filled her in on the Crummles in Nicholas Nickleby, the family of entertainers who take on all the parts and do all the voices, reaching into a pantomime basket filled with every bill and beak, cloak and cape, gown and mask.
The bird party was just the beginning: in the daytime woods of Masoala we saw a cavalcade of head-shrinkers and mind-benders coming through the trees. There were huge cuckoo rollers, with their great encephalic slow-motion stares – Diane Arbus birds or avian coelacanths, indulged by time; there was a solitary helmet vanga with a bright blue casque-beak making it hunch like a old washerwoman in its furry brown cape; there were blue couas made of a colour unavailable to the rest of life, deep-dyed so that the bird’s body itself appeared blue; there were brown mesites that didn’t want to be seen, walking head down like tiny snuffling pigs through the leaf mould of the forest floor; there was a pair of short-legged ground rollers whose common name describes their least interesting aspect, ignoring their heavy look, their ancient faces, their bristles, the purple iridescence that slides around their heads, the green that does the same on their backs and tails, the streaks and dots of their coppery plumage and spots and scales. The male landed first, on a branch that crossed above a forest path, and opened its beak as if to speak, then flew down and caught a small frog. The female arrived with a chattering call as the male returned, he squeezed the frog in his beak so that its dead head ballooned, fed his mate, and they tidied themselves.
Beyond our taxonomical juggling, evolution continues relentlessly. Most of us carry on as if it has finished, but species are coming into and out of existence as much as they ever were. Yet it is also true that too many species are being lost at our hands. Alongside background extinction, the flux of life that makes some as it breaks others, we are hurrying plenty more to the brink.
Madagascar schools us in extinction as well as in speciation. The snail-eating coua is no more. There were once gorilla-sized lemurs and elephant birds. Other birds haven’t been seen for decades, and some are only known from the single specimen that described them. Many lemurs have only disastrously truncated patches of woodland to live in. The smoke plumes that our Air Madagascar planes steered us around on our travels show the island incinerating itself. 85 per cent of its forests have been cleared and burned. On our flight to Masoala I counted more than one hundred fires. Vast tracts of the centre are ruined.
After cutting and burning woodland to prompt grass growth for agriculture, the soil that had previously been held by the roots of the trees is washed away forever. From the air most of the island is red, like a great plate of uncovered raw meat. We spent our days in forests, but most of the green that survives across the wider island is rice-paddies not trees. Of those, pitifully few are left for aye-ayes or indri, serpent eagles or red owls.
Relatz, Claire and I were the first people ever to knowingly see the eggs of a red-shouldered vanga. Nothing more than a half-finished nest had previously been found. When the male flew we peered at the clutch of three lightly spotted blue eggs, with each of us clocking, as best we could, how the world was enlarged by what we could see.
Claire took GPS coordinates and candled the warm eggs over a torch to see their contents, and I tried to recall what I’d once known of the red-tailed vanga, the species from which the red-shouldered had been split by taxonomists. As we watched the female come through the thorn scrub to take over incubation duties, Relatz’s mobile rang and he broke away from our admiring circle to answer it. He’d programmed various different Madagascar bird songs and allocated them to each of his friends and guiding partners. ‘My friend, the swamp warbler, is calling me,’ he said.
We paid Relatz thirty euros a day for his work. He wore flip-flops, shorts and a Chelsea football shirt, while his helpers went barefoot into the thorny bush. Christian (the swamp warbler), in pirated pants that read calni kean for Calvin Klein, and a T-shirt that said i am hip hop; and Manola (the sickle-billed vanga), in a T-shirt with the fading head of an old presidential candidate above the words source vital. The three of them spoke through whistles and quick, whispered calls on their phones. Christian and Manola knew little English or French apart from the birds’ names. At times we talked in Latin chopped up with mimicry, each of us translating between our languages and the birds’.
Often the young men would hurry ahead, turn off the path and murmur or squeak into the trees, and a bird would then appear on its way towards us, a cadeau being shepherded into our notebooks and camera lenses.
This was marvellous – we were seeing new things – but it also made me feel a little dirty, like an unavoidable visitor with the bird made my unwitting host. I felt bad, too, about using playback to mess with the birds’ minds – blasting out a recorded version of themselves, coaxing them to sing or appear, gulling them into thinking a rival had opened up his stall in the middle of their patch. Some had already surrendered. In Zombitse forest we failed to find a giant coua in the woods with whistles, playback and corralling. Lucien, our guide there, in his Arsenal shirt, took us back to the reserve headquarters, parked us in a picnic area, and clucked at the undergrowth. In a few seconds a giant coua appeared and proceeded to pick up sandwich crumbs from around our feet.
My book on the endemic birds of Madagascar knew nothing of tame couas. It had been written at a distance, out of others’ words and others’ birds. Instead of going to see the island for myself, I photocopied and transcribed every existing book and every scientific paper and journal article I could find that mentioned anything about the status or distribution of any of the endemics. No one had brought together this knowledge before, and as it was becoming obvious that Madagascar was busy burning itself to death, it was thought that such a compilation of what had been known might be useful.
As well as becoming an expert at photocopying pages written by now-dead people about now-dead birds, I corresponded with the handful of living people who had at that time seen and studied living birds on Madagascar. (None of them were Malagasy – indeed the book happens, I am now ashamed to say, almost without mentioning the island’s human inhabitants as anything other than axemen or arsonists.) My final source was the dead bodies of the birds themselves. Museum curators would send me information on the specimens of Madagascar endemics in their care, the bodies that had been shipped out and were held in natural history collections around the world. I also made my own appointments with the dead.
One day in April 1986 I travelled to the British Museum’s bird collection at Tring in Hertfordshire. That was the nearest I got to Madagascar and its birds during the time that I was writing about them: walking the narrow and dark corridors of the museum, pulling open cabinets, handling corpses in one sarcophagus after another. Lying in the drawers, mostly on their backs, were hundreds of gutted specimens, what scientists call ‘skins’, many with a stick driven up through their insides and a dab of cotton wool in their eye sockets.
Among the skins I fingered were some collected by M.J. Nicoll in Madagascar in 1906. He sailed on the Valhalla and returned with bags of specimens, mostly from the north of the island near where they docked at Diego Suarez. Several birds he shot could not be fetched because the forest was so dense and tangled. Back at the coast, the last bird he reported seeing as he left Madagascar was a nightjar sitting on a stone at the sea’s edge. It’s an unlikely record but he doesn’t tell us what species it was, nor whether he killed it.
The magically complete avifauna found only on Madagascar, I knew in the museum as stiff and sorted, eyeless and grounded and wrapped into themselves like all dead birds. I took tray after tray to a worktable to decipher the details written on the labels tied to the leg of each bird. These labels are passports, means for onward travel, like the cards tied round the necks of evacuee children, or coins placed under the tongues of the dead. They are small, no longer than an inch and a half, and usually written by the person who had collected the bird.
To collect a bird means to kill it. That ought to be interesting, the written words ought to allow you to reinflate the moment and the hollow skin that came from it. And it was fascinating that no two collectors prepared their skins in the same way, every one was marked by its maker, each tied to its end. I stared at the birds as I turned them in my hands, blue couas, sickle-billed vangas and short-legged ground rollers; they were beautiful but strange, airy, fading smudges, and somehow even further away from me at an arm’s length than they were before, when all I knew was their name. There was nothing to them beyond the colourless string, the greying card, and the inky lines recording dates and weights, measurements and localities. Laid out in rows in trays like sorted bodies after a disaster, the dead awaiting repatriation, I had no way of helping them home. In death and tethered to their facts they were, to me at least, invisible. No news from nowhere. The bodies fetched out but for what?
As we tried to work out the nightjars at Masoala, we shuttled back and forth between the absent and the present, the living and the dead, the known and the unknown. Answering the call of the wild, playing the tapes and winding in the birds: if we wanted to hear the nightjars or see them or know them at all we had to mess with their brains, to commit a kind of piracy, to make them forfeit themselves.
At Masoala, we watched a nightjar come to the replayed call of that first bird Callan had recorded, two years previously. What we could see of this new bird on the camera screen all but clinched what we already suspected: the bird was not, as I had hoped, a new species. What Callan had heard and glimpsed – and the birds we had subsequently lured – were collared nightjars. Its call and song had never been identified before. We had untangled the sounds of a hidden singer from the thick of night noise and had pinned it on to a mass of feathers.
I’d come to Madagascar to try to colour in the faded bodies I knew from my bookmaking days at the museum. To see the birds in the forests might bring to life what I had only recorded as dead. I know the world is not ours to get or to spend, but I’d also hoped for a different sort of resurrection, to find something new, to fetch something out of the dark. Although I was less scientifically serious about this than Claire or Callan, I seem to have minded more when we didn’t. They were happy with new data. The call and the song of the collared nightjar are now known. That is good. But I surprised myself by how disappointed I felt.
In the last minutes of our last night at Masoala we had our best view of our bird. Callan was confident by then that the nightjar he’d heard and seen and all the birds we’d recorded and lured and glimpsed and pictured were collared nightjars, but we were still hoping to close it all down with better views, greater detail, fewer questions, more certainties. It gets light at four-thirty in the morning in Masoala in December. We’d been out on the trail all night. Already the day was opening high and fast when suddenly right next to the cabin where Callan was staying, on a bare branch towards the top of a spreading tree, came first one and then another nightjar, calling and agitated after a last squirt from our canned sounds. We didn’t need torches to light the branch, the day was doing it, and the birds seemed exposed now, conned by our version of their music and caught out in the coming light. A pale blue was pressing through the grey overhead like something alive behind something dead, and from another tree a day bird called, a bulbul, the first of the morning, and everything of the dark, the night and the night birds, seemed at once old and uncoloured, finished and no longer wanted. It was all put away in a trice and the dawn won. And, as if they knew it, the nightjars got up and flew fast from the branch, hugging the dark comfort of leaves, and then twisted through a small shadowy opening and were gone.
Photograph © David Cook