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Walk Softly – The power of the internet

by Geoffrey Carpentier

Sometimes I lament the speed at which technology moves and sometimes I marvel at it. I recently had the opportunity to solve a mystery which had bothered me for years, and the key to the puzzle was the internet!

The mystery began in December 2019, when I was bird watching in Madagascar, at a place called the Belalanda Wetlands. This was a fabled place and a ‘must see’ place for birders coming to Madagascar, for it is one of the last accessible wetlands one can visit in that country. One of the draws is, this is also one of the few places one can see the Malagasy Harrier, a rare endemic species only found in Madagascar.

When we were there, we saw and luckily photographed an immature harrier (a type of hawk), thinking we had found our target.

I enter all my sightings on an app called eBird which is an international database where people share their sightings, to contribute to a citizen science based resource for academia.

A few days later, one of the local eBird reviewers contacted me, to tell me he thought my bird was not a Malagasy Harrier but rather, a much rarer bird, called a Pallid Harrier, which I had previously seen in Africa. This cousin of the Malagasy Harrier had never before been recorded in Madagascar – wow! A new bird for the country. The downside (from a selfish perspective) is, I still, to this day, have never seen a Malagasy Harrier and likely never will.

Flash forward to mid-October 2023: I signed up for a webinar, put on by Cornell University, to look at opportunities to search for ‘extinct’ birds. This is the dream of any birder, to find a species new to science or re-find one presumed extinct. In that regard, many years ago I was part of a group which helped document the rediscovery of the New Zealand Storm-petrel which had been lost to science for decades. But back to the present: one of the stories they told on the webinar was about a group of scientists from the Peregrine Foundation. They had been studying the Malagasy Harrier for years and on one of their field trips found another bird called a Madagascar Pochard (a type of duck) which hadn’t been seen for decades and was presumed extinct. So what does the duck have to do with the harrier? Well, if it hadn’t been for the duck being rediscovered, I wouldn’t have heard about this team studying the harrier.

Now here’s where the internet comes in. I searched the internet for the scientist who found the pochards and came up empty, at first. I recalled the mention of the Peregrine Foundation, so I found a contact online for that organization and reached out to them. I asked if they could put me in touch with the lead member of the harrier team or give them my contact information. Within minutes, I got a reply from the Peregrine folks, who said they weren’t sure if the team would answer but they would pass on my message. Within 24 hours, the lead scientist, Lily-Arison Rene de Roland, contacted me, and we chatted about harriers and pochards and my experience with the Pallid Harrier. She said, she would look at my photos, to see if, in fact, I had seen an immature Pallid or Malagasy Harrier, as there was still a nagging doubt in my mind which species I had seen. Bingo! It was a Pallid, according to her, and so I had confirmed, through a second source, my discovery of this super rare bird for Madagascar! Still, I had also secretly hoped it might turn out to be the Malagasy Harrier, so it could be on my life list. Either way I couldn’t lose, new bird for me or new bird for Madagascar.

Think back a couple of decades and imagine how difficult this search would have been. I likely wouldn’t even have known this scientist was out there, unless I stumbled on her story in a magazine or scientific paper. The power of the internet is truly amazing.

Geoff Carpentier is a published author, expedition guide and environmental consultant. Visit Geoff on-line on LinkedIn, Facebook and Instagram

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