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Madagascar, November 1st – 14th 2013, Mike Nelson
This was a custom tour for 14 members of the Birdlife Northern Gauteng group, and we had a blast! The group dynamics were great, as the group all knew each other before the trip, which made for some great camaraderie. And with both Chris and myself plus our local guides we were never short of eyes and help for such a large group. As a group we only missed three birds that the entire group didn’t get on to, so it worked out well. Special thanks have to go to Philip Calinikos for arranging the group and making it all happen.
Day 1, November 1st. Transfer to Andasibe
Our tour started with a long drive to Andasibe after our arrival in Madagascar’s capital Antananarivo, whose name is often shortened to Tana. Along the way we were able to pick up common species like Madagascan Wagtail and Dimorphic Egret from the bus. Our comfortable accommodations awaited us upon arrival, and we got settled in after a wonderful dinner.
Day 2, November 2nd. Andasibe-Mantadia National Park
Our first full day in Madagascar was greeted by the wailing sounds of indri coming from the surrounding forest, while Madagascan Stonechats sang in the garden. For a few who also woke early the sounds and sightings of Stripe-throated Jery and Malagasy Coucal greeted us to the new day. A Blue Coua was also seen, and while we were enjoying breakfast a Madagascan Magpie-Robin burst into song.
We arrived at the Andasibe-Mantadia National Park to a Crested Drongo on the nest, then met our local park guides, and soon we were in the forest. The trails through the primary forest gave us great chances at some fantastic birds, and our first day was highlighted by Cuckoo-Roller circling overhead, while in a small open patch, where some water collected, we enjoyed the brightly-colored Malagasy Kingfisher, with a Rand’s Warbler happily singing overhead.
Several Vangas were found, including Blue and Nuthatch, and also Madagascan Cuckooshrike, plus great looks at several diademed sifakas, moving through the canopy with apparent ease. An uphill hike allowed us to find the nest of the elusive Collared Nightjar with its cryptic camouflage. Madagascan Cuckoo called constantly from the canopy and was eventually scoped, while Malagasy Paradise Flycatcher showed very well near our lunch stop.
After lunch we walked one of the roads next to the park, picking up Ward’s Flycatcher, Madagascan Buzzard, and a quick flyby of Frances’s Sparrowhawk. From the road we took a path into the forest to catch up with the skulking Crossley’s Vanga and were treated to some crippling views of this bird singing.
Crossley’s Vanga © Mike Nelson
While we were circling a small pond, a booming chorus of sound came from some close indri, and we got some great looks at these lovely lemurs, while also enjoying Chabert Vanga. A fruiting tree nearby gave us a chance for Madagascan Blue Pigeon, and we found a pair enjoying some of the fruits.
We spent some time this evening doing a night walk, where we found two Goodman’s mouse lemurs. They were quite small, living up to their name, and tricky to keep a torch on as they sped through the understory, But we all managed to see them well.
Day 3, November 3rd. Andasibe-Mantadia National Park
The next morning we drove deep into the park, stopping along the way when we saw two eastern lesser bamboo lemurs feeding heartily on bamboo leaves next to the road. Upon arrival we were greeted by two Broad-billed Rollers and a Madagascan Starling. Once geared up we began our hike through the pristine forest here. We first came across a nesting Tylas Vanga, shortly followed by some red-bellied lemurs foraging in a nearby tree. Another short hike eventually led us to our first main target, the Scaly Ground Roller. After some hurried uphill hiking we managed to catch up with two birds for some cracking views of this stunning species.
Buoyed by the success of this hike we continued through the forest till we came across another uphill stretch, which led us to three black-and-white ruffed lemurs foraging in some flowering trees above us. We sat and enjoyed these fantastic animals for quite a while before making our way back down to the main trail in order to catch our breath and get ready for the next stunning find. This arrived shortly after, when our top local guide found a Short-legged Ground Roller, which again was up another trail. We all trudged uphill towards our target, and it was made all the better by the fact that the bird was waiting for us and that it was in very close proximity.
Black-and-white ruffed lemur © Mike Nelson
From here we made our way back to the van, taking in Nuthatch Vanga in the process. After traveling for a short while we hiked up to a small pond, where we found Madagascan Grebe and the rare Meller’s Duck. Though the ducks hid at the back of the pond, the two grebes ventured quite close, and we got some fantastic looks at them. While taking in the waterbirds we also enjoyed a nice pair of Broad-billed Rollers sitting astride a dead snag overlooking the lake. Madagascar Swamp Warbler also put in an appearance, and several species of brightly-colored dragonflies hovered around the scene.
While taking all this in a sudden commotion above us drew our attention to a rather low-flying Madagascan Buzzard with a snaked draping from its talons. It was being mobbed by a Crested Drongo, which would swoop down and at one point landed on the back of the buzzard and proceeded to peck away at it for a brief second before flying off.
Having enjoyed the waterbirds we ventured back into the dark forest to find our last local target, the Pitta-like Ground Roller, and shortly, after some searching, we found a pair of these stunning birds foraging through the undergrowth. Though they were moving quickly through the brush we managed some great looks at the wonderful, blue, green, and buff plumage of this stunning pair before they moved off where we could no longer see them.
Pitta-like Ground Roller © Mike Nelson
From the forest we then drove back to our lodge for the evening to get some well-earned rest.
Day 4, November 4th. Drive to Antsirabe
The next day we began a long drive to Ranomafana National Park, broken by an overnight stay in Antsirabe. Along the drive we stopped for White-throated Rail feeding in a roadside paddy, and our lunch stop was punctuated by Common Jery.
Day 5, November 5th. Arrival at Ranomafana National Park
Eventually in the afternoon of this second traveling day we made it to our lodge at Ranomafana. We then spent the afternoon looking for Madagascan Snipe, but only came up with Greater Painted-snipe instead. Our luck held better with Forest Rock Thrush close to the waterfalls, before we headed back to the lodge for the night.
Day 6, November 6th. Ranomafana National Park
The next day started with a hike into the forest to look for our next Ground Roller, the Rufous-headed, which took some coaxing, but finally good looks were had by all of this fantastic species. This left the rest of the morning open to look for other great birds like Pitta-like Ground Roller singing from a low tree, Blue Coua along one of the waterways, Madagascan Cuckooshrike, Velvet Asity, and a long uphill hike to see Yellow-bellied Sunbird-Asity.
Blue Coua© Mike Nelson
In the afternoon we headed for an open marshy area, where we found Grey Emutail, but the singing Madagascar Flufftail didn’t show itself.
Back at the lodge we discovered a huge Parson’s chameleon at the back of the lodge. The fantastic blues and greens of its skin provided some wonderful looks.
Day 7, November 7th. Ranomafana National Park
The next day we had only just begun our drive to the park when we pulled up to check out some Nelicourvi Weavers next to the road, with a male showing well. We then continued to the main park entrance and walked the trails there, finding several red brown lemurs next to the trail, where they were preening themselves in the cool morning air. Then we hiked to the lek of a very cooperative Velvet Asity that showed particularly well, with a female in attendance; the male was quite vocal. The trails here also gave us Wedge-tailed and Green Jery and a nesting Rufous Vanga, and after a bit of a hike we got to the nest of a Henst’s Goshawk, which we were finally able to get everyone to see. A tiny short-horned chameleon provided a nice distraction along the trail. Common Newtonia was seen quite a few times, and the soon-familiar four-note call of Madagascan Cuckoo provided musical accompaniment most of the day.
Day 8, November 8th. Transfer to Isalo National Park
We left Ranomafana the next morning and began the long drive west to Isalo, picking up species like Madagascan Lark and some rather obliging Marsh Owls next to the road, as well as the first of many Pied Crows. We did a short stop for Forest Rock Thrush and managed to pick up Madagascan Hoopoe in the process, before arriving at our lodge for the night.
Day 9, November 9th. Zombitse-Vohibasia National Park
The next day began with a two-hour drive to Zombitse, where we birded the dry thorn scrub and thick bush here. Our first foray around the park took us to a pair of roosting White-browed Hawk-Owls; we managed some cracking views of the pair in a tree cavity. We also had our first flyby of a Crested Coua, before we headed for the main trails.
As we were about to enter the park we spotted a Madagascan Buzzard being harried by a Malagasy Kestrel, which provided some epic air battles reminiscent of some WWII footage of a slow bomber being strafed by the much quicker fighter. Once the kestrel had seen off the buzzard we entered the park, with both Common Jery and Common Newtonia seen quickly, before we began our quest for the local specialty, the Coquerel’s Coua, which called quite often but was tough to track down. Finally we all got good looks at this bird before lunch.
We also managed some great views of Verreaux’s sifaka, with several in close attendance just off the trail, and another lemur, Hubbard’s sportive lemur, was seen well, peering from its day perch, it’s wide eyes staring down at us with curiosity.
Verreaux’s sifaka © Mike Nelson
We did hear Giant Coua on our morning walk and found another nesting Rufous Vanga. Banded Kestrel was seen by a few people, and the constant wailing of Cuckoo Roller was heard, as several circled overhead.
Our lunchtime break was interrupted by a very close Giant Coua that came to investigate us while we ate our sandwiches. This provided some great photo opportunities as it skulked close to the benches, grabbing a quick discarded sandwich morsel before fleeing back into the brush.
Giant Coua© Mike Nelson
From here we continued west to Tulear for the night.
Day 10, November 10th. Nosy Ve, Anakao
Our next day began early with some excitement, as we drove to the beach and boarded Zebu carts to wade out to our boat for a one-hour transfer to the island of Nosy Ve. The sea was calm, and a few unidentified terns along the way was all we saw, until the small island began to loom in the distance.
Once close to shore we picked out our first main target, which were some Crab-plovers. Standing tall in the morning light along the beach, they were a welcome sight, and once we were all on land we were able to scope them, along with some Greater and Lesser Crested Terns. We also found a number of White-fronted Plovers along the beach, and a surprising find was a Madagascar Cisticola walking the sand in between flat vegetation. It was barely concealed by short grasses and looked quite out of place.
We began our walk on the beach, picking up some Whimbrel, which, of course, flew long before we got there. Soon we began to check the large bushes at the center of the island, where we found our first Red-tailed Tropicbirds, some on the nest and a few juveniles waiting for food to be brought back to them. There also were a group of Ruddy Turnstones and a number of Grey Plovers, along with a rather noisy colony of Dimorphic Egrets. A lone Kelp Gull made an appearance along the coast.
We continued walking further along the beach, until we finally came to some shelters, where we plopped down – only to find another tropicbird nesting right next to us. We watched for a while as several adults and first-year birds circled around the brush here, and while the group did some snorkeling I took pictures of these beautiful birds.
When the wind picked up the snorkeling got a bit tiring, so everyone returned to the boat and we headed across to Anakao, a little fishing village on the southwest coast of Madagascar, where we were to have lunch. Once across we headed for the restaurant, which is home to several target species, most important of which is the Littoral Rock Thrush. Thankfully we had timed our stop right, and a pair had built a nest in one of the small bushes next to the restaurant. So we were able to get great looks at the pair feeding their chicks.
Red-tailed Tropicbird © Mike Nelson
After lunch we walked around the grounds. The small shrubby trees behind the restaurant held a large group of Sakalava Weavers, and scurrying below some of the smaller bushes was an obliging pair of Madagascan Buttonquail. Some of us searching at the back of the foliage in a more open area turned up Subdesert Brush Warbler and a lone Malagasy Kestrel, feasting on a lizard.
We then returned to the boat for a rather more wavy afternoon ride back to Tulear and relaxed around the pool for the remainder of the afternoon.
Day 11, November 11th. Birding around Tulear, transfer to Ifaty
The next morning we headed for an open area of grassland in search of another particular Madagascar endemic, and while waiting we picked up Kittlitz’s Plover and a nice pair of Grey-headed Lovebirds. Eventually a small group of large birds settled on the other side of the field, and once we had our bins on them we could see that they indeed were our target, Madagascan Sandgrouse. A group of several males and females gathered together in the grass, and we were able to creep quite close and get some great looks at these fantastic birds. A local passing by on the trail sadly sent them all into flight, and we watched as they disappeared along the grassy area to a pool to collect water for the day.
Since now we had gotten our target we headed to the bus and drove to a small hill reminiscent of Table Mountain in Cape Town, here called La Table. Behind it is a small area of scrubby forest, where we searched out the now famous Red-shouldered Vanga, the last lifer Phoebe Snetsinger saw before she was killed in a car accident – while birding! – and the localized Verreaux’s Coua. We located both, as well as Lafresnaye’s Vanga, which was great.
From here we headed back to Tulear for lunch before loading up the bus and taking a long and bumpy ride to Ifaty. We arrived at our lovely lodge, overlooking the ocean, and settled in for the evening to the sounds of Madagascan Nightjar and the rolling waves. A nice cool breeze made for a very pleasant night.
Day 12, November 12th. Ifaty Spiny Forest
We were up early, though, the next morning to get to the spiny forest. It gets hot early, and the birds become quiet, so an early start saw us at the park at 5:00am. The walk in through the soft sand was a bit tough first thing out of the blocks, but once in the park proper the trails were more firm, and we were soon birding. Crested Drongo, Common Newtonia, and Common Jery were all frequently seen, before our local guides located our first target: After working our way through some underbrush we came across the amazing site of seven Subdesert Mesites on their roost from the previous evening. We happily snapped away as they all sat motionless, before we quickly moved off for another target heard quite close, Archbold’s Newtonia, also a spiny forest specialty.
We also found a white-footed sportive lemur, during the daylight hours carrying its baby in its mouth. It was amazing to watch as it deftly moved through the spiny forest without impaling itself on the long thorns.
White-footed sportive lemur © Mike Nelson
Our local guides then spotted a Red-capped Coua, which we managed to chase down and get a look at while it moved through the underbrush. This proved quite an elusive target, but all of us managed to get a look at it before it wandered off into the thick, dry understory.
Continuing our birding quest, we found a Hook-billed Vanga on the nest in a cavity in one of the massive baobab trees here. We also saw a pair of Banded Kestrel and watched as a male brought his larger mate a hissing cockroach for breakfast, which she proceeded to consume in front of us atop a tall, spiny trunk.
More targets awaited us, so we carried on with the superb birding here, latching onto yet another target bird and possibly the most desired, the Long-tailed Ground Roller. As it was our last species to find in the family, it was on everyone’s want list. Thankfully our local help managed to usher one bird towards our large group, and as it walked out across the trail in front of us there was an audible intake of breath as this stunning bird wowed the crowd gathered to admire it. Quite nonchalantly it strutted up the trail away from us, and we watched as it disappeared into the undergrowth, and then we all quickly followed. Once past it we all scanned up and down both sides, until it popped out again behind us for another look, but then again waltzing down the trail and hopping off into the brush not to be seen again.
Our last ground roller done, we all sighed with relief and moved on to other interesting birds. In this case it was the odd Thamnornis, one of the members of the Malagasy warblers, and although the first bird didn’t play along, we soon bumped into another group and got great close looks at this rather drab but unique warbler.
Long-tailed Ground Roller © Mike Nelson
A short while later the wailing call of Sickle-billed Vanga got our attention, and we managed to track down the culprit and get some good views of this amazing-looking vanga. As the heat was beginning to rise we headed back to the entrance, but not before picking up a very close and obliging Crested Coua feeding in a baobab right next to the trail head. A nice end to the mornings birding here.
We had given a brief try the evening before for another target, but the wind was quite bad and we had had no luck. So we headed back to an open area to look for Madagascan Plover. Once driving around the area we noticed another group of birders, all looking through scopes, and figured that they must have located the bird. And, sure enough, they had. That made it easy for us, thankfully. At first only a single bird was seen, but it was soon joined on a bank by another, and we enjoyed great looks at the pair before heading back to the van. While we were doing that a pair of Madagascan Harrier-Hawks did a flyover for us.
Back at the lodge I headed behind the bungalows to some low, thick scrub to look for Madagascan Nightjar on day roost. Since I had heard so many the night before, I figured they must be here roosting, and soon enough I located several. I was able to approach a few birds and get some decent photos, and after lunch took a few of the group, who wanted pictures, out to get some snaps.
Madagascan Nightjar © Mike Nelson
The rest of the afternoon was spent relaxing around the lodge, as the wind and heat had picked up and made birding impossible. After dinner, though, we headed back to the spiny forest for one last target.
As it was now quite dark we proceeded with torches into the forest, listening to the chorus of nightjars, until we got to the desired location, where we could try for Torotoroka Scops Owl. After a short while we could hear the soft call of the owl close to us, and with some stumbling around in the dark through some brush we managed to locate the bird. With our torches we were all able to get some great looks at this magic little scops owl.
We were also treated to some fantastic interactions with a lesser hedgehog tenrec, all curled up in a spiky ball. A few patient minutes on our part, and it uncurled and began to forage again in our torchlight.
Sadly the owl was our last bird of the trip, as we were to fly back to Tana the next morning very early, so we all packed off to bed soon.
Day 13, November 13th. Transfer to Tana
First we had to make the bumpy ride back to Tulear the next morning, and then from there we took a flight to Tana. Back in the capital we had a fantastic farewell dinner, during which we reminisced about the great birds and other creatures we had seen and marveled about what an amazing place Madagascar is. This was an overall fabulous trip, with loads of success on many of the desired target birds, lemurs,, chameleons, and sights and sounds.