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|A Report from birdtours.co.uk|
Madagascar, September 14th – September 29th, 2007,
During the Sydney Olympic Games in 2000, I was contacted by a member of the Madagascar Olympic entourage, José Bronfman, who was a keen birder and who asked whether I could guide him for a day in the Sydney region. We had an excellent day out and he said that, should I ever contemplate a birding visit to Madagascar, then I should contact him for assistance. This offer went onto the back burner for a while but, after some urging from birding associates (most notably Steve Anyon-Smith and Murray Lord) to make a trip to Madagascar, I finally e-mailed José for some advice in early 2007. Having been to Costa Rica in 2004 with a commercial tour company, Louise and I had resolved that we would avoid groups in the future wherever possible and organise our own itinerary and guides, and I explained this to José. He responded immediately, saying that we should contact his friend Bakoly Razanamiarantsoa who could ‘organise the whole trip for us’. This advice proved to be the best approach we could have taken for an independent visit to Madagascar with Bakoly immediately responding with a number of alternative itineraries and assuring us that she could obtain the services of the very best local guides.
The only possible downside to our independent approach was that the local bird guides and limited accommodations are heavily booked for a long time in advance by the overseas bird tour companies in the prime months of October and November. Consequently, we had to choose between making the trip in September or December in order to be assured of good guides and lodgings and, even then with our late start, some of the better accommodations were already fully booked. With the stormy wet season commencing in December, we opted to go in September albeit in the knowledge that some species would not yet be on territory at that time and would therefore be much harder to find. In the event, Bakoly did a magnificent job of organising accommodation, local bird guides, drivers and internal airline flights and she proved to be a great travelling companion throughout the trip providing a wealth of information about Malagasy customs and culture as well as all the local flora and fauna. We would strongly recommend her to anyone contemplating an independent visit to Madagascar and she is equally at home with mammals as with birds, and with wilderness trekking/camping as with more comfortable forms of travel. Her e-mail contact is email@example.com and her website can be found at www.mgias.com
We decided right from the start that we would look at a trip duration of about 17 days as our research into birding Madagascar had showed that this should be sufficient to visit the primary sites. Accordingly, Bakoly provided three alternate itineraries covering such a period and we opted for the following:
Day 1 – arrive in Antananarivo and overnight
Days 2 to 4 – fly to Toliara and bird around Toliara and Ifaty
Day 5 – drive Toliara to Zombitse National Park and then Isalo
Day 6 – drive Isalo to Ranomafana
Days 7 and 8 – Ranomafana National Park
Day 9 – drive Ranomafana to Antananarivo
Day 10 – fly to Mahajanga and drive to Ampijora (aka Ankarafantsika)
Days 11 and 12 – Ampijora National Park and drive back to Mahajanga
Day 13 – boat trip on the Betsiboka estuary and fly back to Antananarivo
Days 14 to 16 – drive to Perinet and bird Perinet Reserve and Mantadia National Park
Day 17 – drive Perinet to Antananarivo airport and flight to Johannesburg
We made the decision not to include the more remote Masoala area in our itinerary and in so doing, we gave up the opportunity to see both Helmet Vanga and Bernier’s Vanga. Also, we opted to omit Berenty from our itinerary thereby missing some excellent encounters with more lemur species, but probably adding very few additional species to the bird list.
The weather in the west of the country was unfailingly hot and sunny but, in the rainforests of Ranomafana and Perinet, we experienced unexpected persistent rain which made birding both uncomfortable and relatively unproductive. As a result of the rain and perhaps the fact that it was early in the breeding season, we missed out on a few birds, the most notable of which were Brown Mesite, Scaly Ground-Roller and Rufous-headed Ground-Roller. However, we finished our trip with a total of 150 species of which 111 were lifers and almost all of these lifers were endemic to the region. We found the Birds of the Indian Ocean Islands by Sinclair and Langrand to be an adequate field guide, Nick Garbutt’s Mammals of Madagascar to be an excellent guide to the mammals, and would also highly recommend the Bradt Travel Guide to Madagascar as it contains a wealth of useful information.
We didn’t find Madagascar an easy place to visit – the standard of some accommodation was not terrific, most early mornings were spent brushing teeth in bottled water in the light of a torch (generators were generally not working at that hour), and the steep, muddy, leech-infested trails in the rainforests would be a trial for the unfit or elderly. Also, the poverty of the people (particularly on the west coast) together with the total lack of electrical power, water, sewerage or any of the other infrastructure that the western world takes for granted made us feel guilty at the way this lovely country has been exploited (and continues to be so) by the western world. However, it was easily the most interesting destination that we have visited around the world with fascinating birds and lemurs, lovely friendly people and some great scenery. We never felt threatened or unwelcome and would recommend it highly to anyone contemplating a visit to a unique part of the world and we would also highly recommend Bakoly as your organiser and guide.
Thursday 13 September 2007 Sydney to Johannesburg
We departed Sydney Airport at 10.00am on a direct Qantas flight to Johannesburg where we arrived at 5.00pm and stayed overnight at an airport hotel. The other travel options from Sydney are Air Mauritius to Mauritius and Antananarivo, and Thai/BA to Bangkok and Air Madagascar from Bangkok to Antananarivo. However, each of these two latter options has quite limited numbers of flights on these routes thereby reducing the flexibility of the itinerary.
Friday 14 September 2007 Johannesburg to Antananarivo
We left Johannesburg on a SAA flight at 9.30am for the four hour flight to Antananarivo where we were met by Bakoly and were driven immediately to a private lake in the city called Lake Alarobia which is well known for its good population of breeding water birds. As we walked in, we were met by a bewildering number of birds but a systematic scan and analysis revealed that they comprised almost entirely Dimorphic Egret (white morph), Common Squacco Heron, Black Egret, Red-billed Teal, White-faced Duck, Great Egret, Black-crowned Night-Heron, Striated Heron, Knob-billed (Combed) Duck, Common Moorhen and Cattle Egret. As we circumnavigated the path around the lake, we began to pick up some terrestrial species including Madagascar White-eye, Madagascar Brush Warbler, Madagascar Coucal and Madagascar Fody. Louise’s sharp eyes picked up a delightful Madagascar Kingfisher and we heard but could not find a Madagascar Scops Owl. All too soon, it was time to get back in the 4WD and head off to our hotel, the Tana Plaza, where we checked in and had an excellent meal in their French restaurant.
Saturday 15 September 2007 Antananarivo to Toliara and Ifaty
We arose very early, took a quick breakfast at 4.30am and were on our way to Antananarivo’s Ivato Airport for an early flight to Toliara which is sometimes known by its French name Tulear. The Air Madagascar turboprop was almost empty and we had a very pleasant 90 minute flight to the south west where we arrived at about 9.00am in already hot sunshine. After collecting some provisions in town we set off on the main west coast track northwards to Ifaty at the hands of our very careful driver for the next week or so, who went by the name of Bosco. Once out of Toliara, the condition of the track deteriorated considerably and we bumped along at speeds that rarely exceeded 25kph. However, the slow travel speed allowed us to pick up birds more easily and we stopped at a couple of roadside wetlands where, amongst other species, we saw Madagascar Pratincole, Kittlitz’s Plover, Three-banded Plover, Madagascar Plover, Madagascar Mannikin and Madagascar Bee-eater. By lunchtime, we arrived at our hotel, the Nautilus, which was nicely situated right on the beach in Ifaty and we had a pleasant lunch accompanied by many Sakalava Weavers which were just moulting into breeding plumage.
After a siesta to allow the hottest part of the day to pass by, we were met at 3.00pm by our guide for the next two days who goes by the name of Mosa. He is very well known in Madagascar as a fantastic bird guide but also for his drinking habits – in the Bradt Travel Guide it says that you can always find Mosa in one of the local bars! However, Bakoly told us that, for almost six months now, he has been off both alcohol and cigarettes and is something of a reformed character. Our destination this afternoon was the Balalanda Wetland where we spent a delightful couple of hours walking around the main lake. There were not a lot of species to be seen but we added Madagascar Green Sunbird, Red-knobbed Coot (a good bird for Madagascar), Baillon’s Crake and Madagascar Swamp Warbler to the list. Our outdoor dinner in the evening was accompanied by a nearby Madagascar Nightjar which called and caught moths from the eaves of the building.
Sunday 16 September 2007 Birding the Mangily Spiny Forest
We were up at 4.00am with no power and brushed our teeth by torchlight in bottled water, a ritual which was to be repeated on most mornings of our trip. We drove for about 45 minutes north from Ifaty to Mangily where we picked up Mosa and his sons and set off by foot in the pre-dawn darkness into the fascinating vegetation of the spiny forest. Our first birds were the common Madagascar Magpie-Robin and Common Jery but these were followed quickly by our first coua, a Crested Coua and our first vanga, a Chabert’s Vanga. After good looks at a Greater Vasa Parrot, our guides became very animated as they first found for us a Sub-desert Mesite and, shortly afterwards, a lovely Long-tailed Ground-Roller – both of the ‘speciality’ birds of the spiny forest within five minutes of each other! Birds took a back seat briefly as we came across a slumbering nocturnal White-footed Sportive Lemur half hidden in a cavity, our first lemur species of the trip. New bird species kept on coming apace including Madagascar Cuckoo-Shrike, Thamnormis Warbler, Lafresnaye’s Vanga, Sickle-billed Vanga, Grey-headed Lovebird, the uncommon Banded Kestrel and Madagascar Harrier-Hawk. By 9.00am it began to get quite hot and we were getting weary from walking on the soft, sandy soil and fighting our way through the spiny thickets, so we headed back to the Nautilus for a second breakfast, a rest and then lunch where we had our first experience of roast zebu.
After lunch, we set off again with Mosa to a section of the spiny forest a little further north from where we were this morning in a search for two vangas and a coua that we had missed this morning. It was still very hot and Mosa would have us hurrying around in impenetrable thorn-scrub trying to catch up with an elusive bird – it was very tough going. However, we eventually had good views of Hook-billed Vanga and White-headed Vanga but the coua was proving difficult and so Louise, who was getting hot and tired, headed back to the vehicle for a rest. She immediately had a great view of a Running Coua crossing the track and, around the same time, Mosa and I were looking at another one nearby. When we returned to the vehicle, both Louise and I thought that the other would be ‘gripped off’ by missing the bird and there was great relief when we found that we had both seen one.
On the track back to the hotel we passed through a very poor village where a group of 40 or so people were gathered about a gruesome body of a young man who had obviously had many bones broken. Bakoly explained that he was probably a thief who had been caught by the villagers and, in the absence of any official form of law enforcement in the region, village ‘justice’ had taken its course. It was a sobering reminder that we were in a very different environment from that which we know.
Although we were absolutely whacked-out when we got back, a shower and a cold beer put us in a better mood to enjoy the special lobster dinner that Bakoly had organised for us.
Monday 17 September 2007 Birding around Toliara
After our usual 4.00am alarm clock wake-up, we had a quick breakfast, checked out of the Nautilus and headed off with Mosa back to Toliara where we were to visit a couple of bird sites looking for some regional specialities. Our first destination was the escarpment some 12km south of Toliara known as ‘La Table’ where we were going to search for Red-shouldered Vanga, a bird only first discovered here in 1997 and not known to occur anywhere else. When we arrived at the obscure walking track at the side of the road, we were in thick cloud and it was surprisingly cold. There was a small shelter nearby and from it emerged a young Malagasy soldier carrying an AK47 who Bakoly informed us was going to protect us during our walk as there had been ‘an incident’ a few weeks ago. Despite our best attempts, she would not be drawn as to the nature of the incident and we were not sure whether to be worried that protection was necessary or happy that we had a man with a gun to keep the nasties away! As it happened there was an upside to the situation as the soldier had become quite interested in the Red-shouldered Vanga during his guard duties and was able to take us to where it had most recently been seen. It was very quiet bird-wise and even tougher walking than yesterday but, within about 90 minutes, we had found our two target species Red-shouldered Vanga and Verreaux’s Coua and we also had a Sub-desert Brush Warbler as a bonus.
We then drove back down the hill into the sunshine to visit a coastal site just south of the town of Toliara to look for two more target species. We left the vehicle and started walking across some open wetland and, soon after, two Madagascar Sandgrouse flew in – the only ones we were to see in the entire trip. We continued walking over the grassland and entered an area of coastal scrub and, after a lot of searching, we eventually found and had great views of a Green-capped Coua which allowed a close approach. Our first views of Madagascar Hoopoe finished the morning’s birding with a flourish. We headed back into Toliara and checked in to the Hotel Victory which turned out to be our most upmarket accommodation of the trip outside of the Plaza in Antananarivo. We had a quiet afternoon watching World Cup Rugby, had some laundry done and finished with an excellent meal in the restaurant.
Tuesday 18 September 2007 Toliara to Zombitse NP and Isalo
We arose at our customary 4.00am (but with power and light in our upmarket hotel) and were on the road east by 5.00am with Bosco at the wheel. We saw some very interesting and ornate burial tombs with ornate art on the exterior walls on the drive to Zombitse. Bakoly explained that the art on the walls is customised to the experiences of the people who are buried within – however, she explained that a painting of the SS Titanic on one tomb showed that the occupant had seen the film and had not been on the actual ship.
We arrived at Zombitse National Park at 7.30am where we were met by our guide Flaubert and had a wonderful morning filled with birds, chameleons and lemurs. The walking was very pleasant and easy and we quickly saw many good birds including Madagascar Blue Vanga, Frances’s Sparrowhawk, Coquerel’s Coua, Red-tailed Vanga and our first Madagascar Cuckoo-Rollers with their noisy calls and conspicuous display flight. Amongst all these birds we were also treated to great views of beautiful Verreaux’s Sifakas, a dozing Red-tailed Sportive Lemur and an impressive Oustalet’s Chameleon. As the morning wore on, we found a group of the rare and local Appert’s Greenbul, an out-of-range Madagascar Blue Pigeon and the largest of the couas, a Giant Coua. We reluctantly took our leave of Flaubert and continued on our drive to Isalo where we arrived at the palatial hotel, Relais de la Reine, for an excellent lunch. Now, I should admit at this point that today was my birthday and, not just an ordinary one but quite a major milestone. When I realised that this hotel was not our place of sleeping tonight (Bakoly had explained that it was so popular that it is booked out a year in advance), I had some concerns about where my birthday dinner would be celebrated! We added a delightful and obliging Benson’s (Forest) Rock Thrush to the list after lunch and then rolled up to our accommodation for the night, the hotel Le Joyau D’Isalo, definitely the worst accommodation and food of the trip. However, we had a local group playing very pleasant Malagasy music as we ate dinner and, when they lowered the lights and played ‘Happy Birthday’ as a cake and candle was presented to me (care of Bakoly of course), it didn’t seem such a bad birthday.
Wednesday 19 September 2007 Isalo to Fianarantsoa and Ranomafana
We were up at 4.00am again for the long drive of 360km to Ranomafana with the only birding of the day to be done from the vehicle as we travelled. In the early morning gloom, we spotted an African Marsh Owl drop to the ground in the open plains. We left the vehicle and walked towards where the bird had settled and had excellent views as it lifted off in front of us. A little later we stopped at Andringitra National Park to see the local sub-species of Ring-tailed Lemur which showed very well for us. Then it was on to the town of Ambalavao where we visited a small factory where they make Antemoro paper fabric using ancient techniques passed on from early Arabic settlers. In between these stops, we managed to add Madagascar Buzzard and our first Hammerkop of the trip to our list.
In the large town of Fianarantsoa, we stopped to admire the cathedral and were greeted by a group of young lads who wanted us to buy their home-made drawings and notepaper. We were impressed at their excellent French and English capabilities and, when they explained that their teacher had told them that begging is wrong but it is alright to sell something that you have made, we felt obliged to make some small purchases. We had an excellent crepe (Louise) and pizza (Roger) lunch and then it was another two hours drive to Ranomafana seeing only two new birds en route, Mascerene Martin and Madagascar Wagtail.
When we arrived in Ranomafana, it was raining steadily and so we passed on the late afternoon bird walk and checked into the Hotel Domaine Nature. Our room was clean and spacious but lacked a few things like a chair or a lamp, so reading had to be done by torch or candlelight. However, the restaurant was good and I tried my first Madagascan pork rib which was very tasty.
Thursday 20 September 2007 Birding around Ranomafana
On the odd occasion that we woke during the night, it was raining solidly and, when we had breakfast at 4.45am, it continued to do the same. Our guide for the next two days Loret and his lovely little assistant (and niece) Landri met us after breakfast and Bosco drove us all to the Sammalaotra Trail in Vohiporara.
It was very dark as we started the walk and, with the never-ending rain, it wasn’t to get noticeably better even though we knew that the sun must be getting higher in the sky somewhere! We earnestly looked at colourless shapes moving in the trees that we had to trust were Spectacled Greenbul, Dark Newtonia, Tylas, Grey-crowned Greenbul and Nelicourvi Weaver and it was just as well that we saw all these birds at later stages of the trip in better light. The walking in the rainforest was very uncomfortable as we were getting wet through, the trails were steep and slippery and it was always pretty cold around 14degC. As we climbed higher, the light improved a bit and we saw in quick succession both Common Sunbird-Asity and Yellow-bellied Sunbird-Asity both absolute jewels even in the poor light. However, at around 10.00am Louise and I had has enough and we persuaded our reluctant guiding team that we really did want to go back to the hotel to shower and dry out. On the way back to the vehicle we added Wedge-tailed Jery and Pollen’s Vanga to our slowly increasing list.
After a lunch of local freshwater crayfish, we were faced with the option of going out again in the heavy rain and Louise, wisely, opted out. I felt as though I was making a reasonable contribution to the local employment figures as I headed to the local ‘wetland’ with a driver, two guides and an assistant guide! The local wetland where we were to look for Brown Emutail and Madagascar Snipe was actually a fairly smelly rice paddy where we walked along the narrowest of raised paths between the paddies, hoping (in my case) not to fall in. A mid-distant view of a flushing Madagascar Snipe was the only notable occurrence and I again had to persuade the reluctant guides to take me home and out of the rain.
Friday 21 September 2007 Birding around Ranomafana
We had a bit of a lie-in this morning getting up at 5.15am but still to the sound of steady rain. We drove to the Park Entrance from where our morning walk would commence, with the target species being Brown Mesite. The morning started well with good scope views of a Rand’s Warbler at the Park Entrance and, then shortly afterwards, good views of a Madagascar Wood Rail as it made its way through the rainforest understorey. The guides were using the tapes almost continuously to try and find a Brown Mesite and, indeed, we had distant responses a couple of times. On each of those occasions, we scrambled through thickets, streams and dense rainforest tangle to try and find the bird but, each time, without success. It was proving once more to be really hard work but a taped-in Pitta-like Ground-Roller helped to compensate and a Crossley’s Babbler turned out to be far more handsome than the field guide would have you believe. A well-seen Ring-tailed Mongoose crossing the trail was the only mongoose that we saw on the entire trip and a beautiful Blue Coua was a great bonus.
After arriving back at the hotel for a hot shower and lunch, Louise again wisely passed on the afternoon session when she heard that it was back to the same location as this morning. The rain had pretty well stopped but for a few showers, and the guides and I once again walked for miles playing Brown Mesite calls, this time with no response at all. The afternoon’s comfort level took a dive when we added leeches to the other forms of discomfort – seven of them on my trousers and rain jacket was the highest number at one time! With the Brown Mesites not cooperating, Loret decided that we needed to make the long, steep trek to a location where Henst’s Goshawk was nesting. On the way up there, we encountered some Milne-Edwards’s Sifakas , almost the only living thing that we did see, although we did hear the goshawk calling which spurred us on a bit. However, a thorough search around their nesting tree for nearly an hour revealed nothing and, as we made our way back down, there was the call again...! Good views of a foraging Eastern Red Forest Rat was only only sighting on descent and we finished with no new trip birds for the whole afternoon. When we arrived back at the hotel after dark at 6.15pm, I was absolutely exhausted and could hardly lift a glass of beer to my mouth.
Saturday 22 September 2007 Ranomafana to Antananarivo
We had a 390km drive back to Tana today and it was not surprising that Louise and I unanimously agreed to pass on the opportunity of a two hour walk to look for Brown Mesite before leaving Ranomafana. We departed from Ranomafana at 7.00am after a brief pause near the hotel to look at our first Red-fronted Brown Lemurs of the trip. We took a short cut on an unpaved and rain damaged track to get to the main road to Tana and saw some very interesting rural scenes in an area to which outsiders rarely venture. However, during the long and somewhat arduous drive, we sighted only one new trip bird, this being a Common Stonechat. We stopped off for lunch in the attractive town of Antsirabe and eventually arrived back at the Tana Plaza Hotel in the capital at 4.30pm and had another good meal in their French restaurant with our first wine of the trip – French of course!
Sunday 23 September 2007 Antananarivo to Mahajanga and Ampijoroa
After a somewhat disturbed night, we were collected at the hotel by Bakoly and were driven to the airport to catch the 9.10am flight to Mahajanga on the north west coast of Madagascar. We arrived in a very hot Mahajanga even though it was still only 10.00am and we were collected by our new driver Lova who drove us about 115km eastwards to the Ampijoroa National Park or, as it has recently been re-named, Ankarafantsika National Park. Our only new species for the day, over Lac Ravelobe close to our destination, was a pair of Madagascar Fish-Eagles circling high above us.
It was stiflingly hot as we checked in to our cabin at the National Park and not helped by the fact that the generator does not run during the day, so there was no fan to provide a bit of air movement. We met up with Jacky, our guide for the next couple of days and headed off on an afternoon dry forest walk which yielded no new birds but gave us good looks at Coquerel’s Sifaka and Milne-Edwards’s Sportive Lemur.
Bakoly had organised for a chef (who went by the name of Bebe) to come up from Mahajanga and prepare all our meals for us which we ate in a small paved and covered outdoor area. Dinner was therefore a very good experience with the proviso that we were encountering our first mosquitoes (potentially malarial) of the trip, so there was plenty of insect repellent being splashed around.
Monday 24 September 2007 Birding around Ampijoroa
We slept well despite the heat and had our first breakfast of the day at 5.30am before setting off with Jacky to an area on the other side of Lac Ravelobe where we hoped to find the fabled Schlegel’s Asity. It was very pleasant birding along well-defined paths in relatively cool conditions and we were soon adding to the trip list with Madagascar Green Pigeon, Rufous Vanga and African Palm Swift. Then, after a long search, Jacky heard the call of a Schlegel’s Asity (he doesn’t use tape playback but just his own vocalisations which were astonishingly good) and shortly afterwards had us looking at a male and female which foraged at eye level, giving us great views of this spectacular little bird. As we walked back to the lodge past Lac Ravelobe, we saw African Darter and a very impressive Humblot’s Heron. We arrived at 8.30am back for another (larger) breakfast from Bebe and then set off for a walk in the high forest behind the camp where we had three target species. After a couple of hours, we had found two of them, Red-capped Coua and White-breasted Mesite but were unable to locate the elusive Van Dam’s Vanga. However, Jacky showed us some interesting flora and fauna including a locally endemic white flowering bush called diplictaria, a Spiny-tailed Lizard, a Green Gecko and a snake which he called mimophis mafiafaliensis.
After an excellent lunch comprising grilled crayfish we were given the afternoon off and, as the heat subsided, Louise and I spent some time scoping the lake and lake margins finding several new trip birds including Madagascar Jacana, Greater (African) Painted Snipe, Common Sandpiper, Glossy Ibis and Madagascar Pond (Squacco) Heron. We also saw our only Nile Crocodile of the trip which was lurking close to some women who were doing some clothes washing in the lake. We arrived back to our cabin to a mini-crisis caused by the laundry lady ‘losing’ one of Louise’s only two pairs of birding trousers. Our guides brought her in for a grilling (from them) and an apology (to us) but the trousers never re-appeared. We went on a short night walk with Jacky at 6.30pm and found a calling Madagascar Scops Owl (rufous morph) which gave great views, and we saw Golden-brown Mouse Lemur, Western Avahi (or Western Wooly Lemur) and Grey Mouse Lemur to add to our mammal sightings. A pair of sleeping Madagascar Paradise-Flycatchers, which didn’t stir even under our torch light, were extremely cute roosting side-by-side.
Tuesday 25 September 2007 Birding Ampijoroa and then to Mahajanga
Another hot night with plenty of mosquitoes to keep us company and then it was breakfast at 5.30am before setting off on a forest walk with Jacky to look for Van Dam’s Vanga. We saw a Common Brown Lemur shortly after setting off and then, a little later, Jacky heard the call of a Van Dam’s Vanga which he astonishingly ‘spoke to’ with a series of different vocalisations using just his mouth. We initially had frustrating flight views of the bird but then we had a great perched view of a Van Dam’s Vanga and even took some reasonable photographs of it. A roosting grey morph Madagascar Scops Owl was very impressive and also provided a great photographic opportunity.
We arrived back at camp for our now customary second breakfast and were given the rest of the morning off. After a final excellent lunch from Bebe, we checked out and drove back towards Mahajanga with Jacky on board to have a look around the irrigation dam located about 15km west of the National Park. We had a walk around the water’s edge in the heat of the afternoon and added Purple Heron, Hottentot Teal and African Pygmy Goose to our trip sightings, with none of these being life birds.
We dropped Jacky in the local village where he would take a taxi-brousse back to Ampijoroa, and we continued on our drive back to Mahajanga where we checked in to the beach front, but rather run down, Zaha Motel. However, the evening meal was good and we had an air-conditioner in the room which, although very noisy, was a welcome change from the past few nights.
Wednesday 26 September 2007 Betsiboka Estuary and then to Antananarivo
We had a luxurious lie-in until 6.00am and drove to a hotel further up the coast where we had breakfast and then boarded a 5 metre outboard motorboat for a journey up the Betsiboka River. The tide was just beginning to rise and, coupled with the river flow which opposed the tidal movement, the turgid brown water was surprisingly choppy. The estuary is huge in area, probably 20km across at the mouth, but the water depth is very shallow and we went aground on several occasions which was a little disconcerting. After motoring for 90 minutes or so and getting thoroughly soaked in the spray, we arrived at our target area where there were a lot of low-lying mangrove covered islets in the middle of the river. Our target species on this expedition were the endangered Bernier’s Teal and Madagascar White Ibis both of which we found easily, although there was no sign of the hoped-for Crab Plover. The other new trip birds seen were Lesser Crested Tern , Terek Sandpiper and Greater Sand Plover.
After a much more comfortable run back to the river mouth and into the ocean,the fellows on the boat dropped us off at the Zaha Motel right in front of our chalet at 12.30pm and we showered, lunched and headed to the airport for our flight to Tana. We were amused to see that, with all passengers ready to go ahead of schedule, so did the plane – about 35 minutes early! When we arrived at the Tana Plaza that evening, it felt a little like returning home and we had another good meal there before turning in.
Thursday 27 September 2007 Antananarivo to Perinet
We were up at 6.00am and were collected from the hotel by Bakoly for the three hour drive to Perinet with Bosco again our driver. The weather was cool and it began to rain steadily early in the drive which gave us some concerns because this was the busiest road that we had yet travelled on the trip and some drivers were not of top notch ability. For some reason, the truck drivers in Madagascar just stop their vehicles in the middle of their side of the road when they need to check something, and they invariably do this near a blind corner or the brow of a hill. As we approached such a truck stopped on the other side of the road in the rain, a small sedan came at speed from the other direction and, realising there was no way around the truck, went into a four-wheel slide and smashed into the back of the truck with some force and right next to us. We really expected fatalities from the mangled wreck of the car but four young lads came climbing out and, with the exception of some limping and some blood around the place, appeared to be not too badly hurt.
On arrival at Perinet, we checked in to the Feon’ ny ala Hotel which apparently used to be of reasonable quality but, with apparently zero maintenance or cleaning since it was built, was not amongst the better accommodations of the trip. We headed out with our guide Maurice (one of the top Perinet guides and a lovely man to boot) for a short walk along the road before lunch and saw no new birds. However, we had great views of the large black and white lemur called the Indri which lives in family groups and calls in the forest with a loud unforgettable eerie wailing song which, once heard, is never forgotten.
After lunch, we went for a walk in the Perinet Reserve which was quite quiet probably as a result of the persistent rain. Maurice showed us a pair of beautiful Collared Nightjar which were roosting on the ground side-by-side and also a pair of ‘Rainforest’ Scops Owl which were roosting in a cavity and were quite difficult to see. We also saw two new lemurs for the trip, the Eastern Grey (or Lesser) Bamboo Lemur and the Eastern Avahi (or Eastern Woolly Lemur). Later in the afternoon as the rainy gloom increased, we returned to the road and found an obliging Ward’s Flycatcher and then, after some effort using tape playback, tempted a White-throated Rail to make an appearance, crossing the road in a leisurely fashion. As it began to get dark, Maurice said that he would try and call in a Madagascar Long-eared Owl although he was not too confident as it is not a common bird at Perinet. However, he had barely started the taped call when the owl flew in and showed itself brilliantly in the beam of the spotlight. A Greater Dwarf Lemur just outside the hotel restaurant was the last wildlife of the day and then it was indoors for a somewhat slow but reasonable dinner. It was raining and about 11degC as we walked back to our chalet, which was humid and perhaps 12degC inside and came fully equipped with a damp cold bed. We slept fully clothed and huddled for body warmth but we could not fault the solid eight hours of sleep that came our way!
Friday 28 September 2007 Birding in Mantadia National Park and around Perinet
We awoke at 5.20am to the sound of steady rain, had breakfast and headed off with Maurice to Mantadia National Park which is located about 20kms north of Perinet on a slow bumpy track. We passed a graphite processing plant using graphite which is mined inside the park, and has been since the 19th century apparently. Our first new bird of the day was a Henst’s Goshawk which I had missed on that long wet climb in Ranomafana – we didn’t even have to leave the vehicle to see this one. We had three excursions on foot into the wet, steep and slippery rainforest to look for some of our target species but, after a couple of hours during which we heard very little, we had seen only White-throated Oxylabes (not particularly well) and a stunning Short-legged Ground-Roller which glided in and landed very close while Maurice was up the hill trying to find one!
We then took a walk up the track into the graphite mine area where there was a secluded pool which sometimes holds the difficult-to-find Madagascar Little Grebe and after a few minutes searching, we successfully located one foraging on the far side of the pool. We returned to the main track and, with the rain still falling, decided to walk along it for a few hundred metres before heading back for lunch. In one of those moments that only birding can provide, we went from being tired, wet, muddy and despondent human beings to absolutely deliriously happy ones as we saw first a beautiful little Velvet Asity closely followed by a bird that we really wanted to see, a Nuthatch Vanga. We drove back to our hotel for a late lunch in good spirits especially as the sky was lightening and the rain was petering out.
With only limited time before we would lose daylight, we spent the late afternoon birding along the road near the hotel where we had fleeting views of the comical little Madagascar Flufftail and where we finally found a Green Jery, a little bird that is quite common and which we should have seen sooner than this. Back to the hotel where we found we had only hot water in the bathroom which made a shower impossible, then dinner and finally another fully-clothed night’s sleep.
Saturday 29 September 2007 Mantadia National Park and Perinet Reserve
We were up at 5.15am to start our last full day in Madagascar and the downside was that despite the brighter weather yesterday afternoon, it was raining again this morning. The upside to the start of the day was that Bakoly had arrived for breakfast first and had found a Cryptic Warbler right outside the restaurant and we had good scope views of the bird despite the poor light. On the way to Mantadia National Park we stopped at a small wetland which was a stakeout that Maurice reckoned was a good bet for Madagascar Rail and after a couple of unsatisfactory glimpses, we finally had excellent views of this normally skulking bird.
Our prime target bird today was the prized Scaly Ground-Roller and Maurice took it upon himself to make it his life’s work to find us one in the dense wet rainforest. We climbed hilly, muddy trails; we heard the bird call tantalisingly far away several times; we fought our way off the track through virgin jungle; and were covered in large numbers of leeches; all to no avail as we never set eyes on the bird. At one stage Louise slipped and went flat on her back in the mud which didn’t cheer her up a lot, but all (well, almost all) was forgiven as we came across the rainforest-dwelling Madagascar Pygmy Kingfisher, a little orange jewel of a bird that seemed to glow in the gloom. After both Louise and I went on strike in terms of any more leech catching, we reverted to walking the main track along which we heard a Red-fronted Coua calling in the forest. Louise passed on this one but I went bush-bashing once again with Maurice and we eventually got a reasonable look at the bird which I thought was a deserved result. We had heard Madagascar Lesser Cuckoo calling on many occasions during the last couple of days without ever seeing one, but now we found one perched over the track giving great views and even allowing good photographs to be taken. This was to be the last new bird that we would see on our Madagascar adventure and we returned to the vehicle to drive back for a late lunch.
On the way, we went to have a look at Vakona Forest Lodge which is close to the southern edge of Mantadia National Park and it looked very upmarket and modern compared to the Feon’ ny ala. As is the case with the Relais de la Reine in Isalo, very early bookings are required to get into the Vakona, so it would pay to plan a Madagascar trip a long way in advance if you want good quality accommodation. We then moved on to the Hotel Buffet de la Gare in Andasibe for lunch but, before eating, we had a look at the new, high quality chalets that have recently been built there and which would definitely be a good alternative for accommodation in the area.
After a truly excellent lunch of pate de foie gras and magret de canard, the rain had set in for our last few hours and Louise opted out of further birding. Maurice, Bakoly and I spent a frustrating couple of hours in Perinet Reserve trying to locate a Madagascar Starling, an ‘easy’ bird that Maurice was amazed that he hadn’t found for us. However, it was all to no avail and our final count tonight was 150 trip birds of which 111 were lifers.
Sunday 30 September 2007 Perinet to Antananarivo Airport and on to Johannesburg
We had a relatively late breakfast as our flight time this afternoon was around 2.30pm and were on the road with lots of time to spare. After an interesting stop at the Marozevo Reptile Farm where we were able to see all sorts of chameleons, geckos, frogs, snakes, moths and some cute furry tenrecs, we arrived at the airport in time for a very nice lunch in the airport restaurant. We said our farewells to Bakoly and Bosco and had a comfortable flight to Johannesburg where, because SAA had rescheduled this flight to miss the Sydney connection, we were accommodated for free at the 5-star d’Oreal Grande Hotel in the huge casino complex on the outskirts of the airport. We found the contrast between this luxury and the previous night of sleeping fully clothed highly incongruous.
Monday 1 October 2007 Johannesburg to Sydney
We had to hang around the hotel/casino complex for most of the day and them caught the 6.00pm Qantas flight to Sydney arriving at 2.30pm on the afternoon of October 2nd.
Should anybody reading this account require further information, please contact me at the coordinates shown below.
1/67 Cremorne Road
Cremorne NSW 2090
Tel. +61 2 9953 3484