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|A Report from birdtours.co.uk|
Madagascar in the low season, 20th July-11th August 2009,
The purpose of this short report is to outline a birding and natural history trip undertaken to Madagascar in the summer of 2009. There is an excellent site guide and plenty of decent trip reports available for the 8th continent but the majority of the latter cover the peak birding season (October – November). Also, Madagascar underwent some serious political changes in early 2009 and, understandably, this has put off a lot of prospective visitors, both natural history-orientated and otherwise. I wouldn’t normally start a trip report with the following heading but, for that reason, here goes!
Madagascar suffered a military coup early in February 2009. This was about a week after we had bought our flights, although apparently had been fomenting for some time (and, actually, brings the country back to the form of ‘government’ that it has seen most of since independence in 1960). As a result, we put trip planning on hold before checking the UK Foreign Office website for tourist advice in June, i.e. as late as we realistically thought we could leave it. This indicated that things had pretty much settled down and there seemed little real risk to tourists. Therefore we decided to take the plunge and go ahead. As it turned out, this was certainly the correct decision and, other than the minimal numbers of other tourists (Madagascar is usually full of European tourists, especially French, in July – August), we saw little evidence of any deviation from the norm. The incumbent government realise the extent to which the local economy depends on tourism and, to this end, have eliminated the Visa fee on arrival at Antananarivo (Tana) (although they still haven’t trained staff on how to process Visas, resulting in a major scrum every time an international flight arrives).
Assuming you don’t risk arrest by attending any political rallies, or sign up with any local insurgents you find (we noted none) the main way which recent events are likely to effect tourists is the potential upsurge in petty crime. A lot of people have been left jobless as international companies have withdrawn and, in a desperately poor country (for example, I have never seen so many people with no shoes), tourists are an obvious target. Hence the need for all the usual precautions, especially in built-up areas. That said, we stayed in the centre of Tana, a very bustling and scenic city, and unconcernedly wandered round through the thronged streets without feeling in the least bit threatened. That is more than can be said for a lot of African cities. It remains to be seen how conservation in Madagascar will fare under the new regime. The former President had apparently greatly enlarged the protected areas; what happens now is anybody’s guess but recent reports in the western press of increased pressure on lemur populations from bushmeat hunting by impoverished people is not encouraging. Finally, night walks at Ranomafana and Ampijoroa were curtailed due, apparently, to the risk of muggings (by poachers?) in the forest. This looked a bit implausible to us but, to avoid incriminating our guides, we adhered and stuck to the main road in each place. At least, we did once we had safely scored Pitta-like Ground-Roller!
With limited time, limited French and no patience to deal with the likes of Air Madagascar, we took the easy option and booked everything with a ground agent. We found Bakoly Razanamiarantsoa (http://mgias.com/index.php/Madagascar_Tours ) recommended in another trip report and she made pretty much perfect arrangements: Air Mad not withstanding, our itinerary went like clockwork. Bakoly accompanied us for the entire trip and knows the route well, having done it a number of times before. She is very knowledgeable on the natural history of the island and also knows personally all the guides at each site, although we did sometimes feel that she could have been a little more flexible with the itinerary. Birding Africa www.birdingafrica.com can also make ground arrangements with local operators (as well as leading their own tours annually) and provided some useful expert help in the initial planning.
Miscellaneous practical details
Hotels Most of Madagascar is far from a hard-core birding destination; nearly all the key sites are on or not far off the beaten track and popular with civilian tourists as well as birders, with a consequent range of high-quality accommodation. Several of the places were much plusher than necessary for us, although we aren’t particularly fussy. Food was to a very high standard throughout. Hotel names are given in the outline below, but apart from Les Frangipaniers by the airport, all were booked by Bakoly so I have no up-to-date contact details to hand. However, many get a mention in Lonely Planet.
Roads are bearable and no worse than most of, say, rural India (and generally with much less traffic). The exception to this was the 30km stretch of sand between Toliara and Ifaty: this stretch definitely needs 4WD.
ATMs are slowly becoming more widespread, and easily found in Tana and Toliara (and probably in between too (although VISA is still a much better bet than Mastercard). Some cards would not pay up, possibly due to bank security being suspicious of withdrawals in strange places such as this. We hate dealing with banks; they are a total inconvenience in your own country let alone abroad so we got round this by bringing a selection of cards; invariably one or more worked.
Language Without a guide, some knowledge of French is a virtual necessity, although all the guides speak English to a reasonable standard.
Air Mad Given the size of the country, dealing with these guys is a necessity; the flights were actually very comfortable although punctuality varied from about 2 hours late to 8, and there is always a risk of them leaving early too! Hence you can factor out days waiting for flights as being valid for planning anything else and it also essential to call the airline, preferably several times, on the day or so before the flight to keep track of their highly fluid ‘time’tables. This all assumes they have anyone in the office to pick up the phone. We also had a near miss on departure when Air Kenya changed out outbound flights without telling us; check and double check times and re-confirm a good couple of days in advance. We don’t generally put airlines in the same league as banks, but some should be! Enjoy.
Bugs Almost none. Just a few mosquitoes (we followed advice and took Larium) at Ampijoroa near the lake and the sum total of one leech. Mind you, it did turn up on my tongue (about half an hour after Scaly Ground-Roller)!
Being teachers, the obvious time for us to visit was the northern summer. This is low season (for birders) but (in a normal year) high season for European holidaymakers. Normally accommodation and flights would need to be booked well in advance for July and August, although the best bird guides at each site are generally available (unlike in October – November when they are booked up years in advance by all the big operators). This year we (or, to be precise, Bakoly) had no problem making bookings in early July; most hotels we visited had occupancy rates of 15% or less and, presumably, all the national parks were much quieter than normal too: it certainly wasn’t hard to avoid tourists most of the time!
The risk of going in July – August is that it is the local winter and so bird activity is somewhat suppressed. This certainly proved to be the case in the eastern rainforests and made a country with famously slow birding even more like pulling teeth at times. A few things were not calling at all (e.g. Cryptic Warbler, Short-legged Ground-Roller) or responding to tapes (e.g. Brown Emutail) and the likes of Madagascar Crested Ibis and Madagascar Jacana disperse widely outside the breeding season, or, at least, don’t hang around known nests. If you are hung up on every last endemic you won’t want to visit at this time of year. However, for those with a broader perspective, there are certain advantages of a going at this time (apart from the already noted lack of bugs and the fact that the high-spending listers aren’t clogging up the trails and getting in the way of your mesites and ground-rollers).
The weather is generally very pleasant everywhere. Tana, on the plateau, was sunny and breezy (cold at night); it was fresh, mild and dry in the montane rainforests of Perinet and Ranomafana; quite bearable (only slightly humid) in Ampijoroa in the northwest and pleasantly hot (but not excessively so) in the far southwest. The latter two lowland regions must approach insufferability in the local summer, yet we found the southwest to be superlative (and easy!) birding and just a great place to hang out on the beach for a few days too, which we did. This is one part of Madagascar where sensational birding (in spiny forest, one of the surrealist habitats in the world) can definitely be effortlessly combined with civilian activities. The icing on the cake down here (only July – September) is the superlative whale-watching; after humpbacks breaching everywhere and – ye gods! - at 12 feet through a mask and snorkel, even the agonising (and ultimately unsuccessful) run-around we got from Rufous-headed Ground-Roller for an hour in Ranomafana ceased to matter very much at all.
Books and Guides
For books, we used the Southern African Birdfinder, our favourite site guide by far, and found it as good and realistic for Madagascar as it is for South Africa (although inevitably rather less detailed). For identification we started with Birds of the Indian Ocean Islands which was OK but found Birds of Madagascar, although rather older and using photographs, far more detailed and informative.
Bakoly had arranged some excellent guides for us. Hence we were entertained to good effect by Patrice at Perinet and had an equally good time with Jackie at Ampijoroa, Loret at Ranomafana, Flaubert at Zombitse and the maverick Musa at Ifaty. All were different, but all come highly recommended.
Despite only 2 ½ of us being hard-core birders, we completed what is pretty much the standard Madagascar birding tour, with some extra time in Tana at the start (worth it; nice city) and on the beach at Ifaty and Anakao in the southwest at the end. After much deliberation we opted out of Masoala (two days travelling, great extra expense and the risk of cyclones), although this did mean no chance of Helmet Vanga or Red-ruffed Lemur. We also didn’t bother with the boat trip from Mahajanga to the Betsiboka Delta as the Sacred Ibis and Bernier’s Teal are, apparently, iffy at this time of year and not exactly captivating anyway.
Breakdown of route:
July 18th – 20th: in Tana (arrive am, 18th). Staying at: Les Frangipaniers, Ivato http://lesfrangipaniers.ifrance.com/anglais.php (5 mins from the airport)
July 20th: depart Tana for Perinet (Andasibe) (four hours). Staying at: Mikalo.
July 20th – 23rd: Perinet and Mantadia, returning to Tana pm on 23rd. Overnight 23rd at Tana Plaza.
July 24th: am flight Tana to Mahajanga (1 hour), then drive to Ampijoroa (2 hours). Staying at: Ankarafantsika Lodge
July 25th and 26th: Ampijoroa / Ankarafantsika, returning to Mahajanga late pm. Staying at: Le Badamier.
July 27th: Mahajanga, until early pm flight (=2100!) back to Tana and overnight Tana Plaza.
July 28th: leave Tana for Ranomafana (arriving July 29th, 1430; staying at Centrest Hotel), via Antsirabe (overnight in local hotel 28th)
July 29th – 2nd August Ranomafana (departing 1000) for Ranohiro (arrived 1800; staying at Orchidee.)
August 3rd: Isalo National Park all day.
August 4th: Ranohiro to Toliara via Zombitse Forest (all am) then onto Ifaty (arrive 1900; staying at Le Nautilus).
August 5th – 7th: Ifaty; then very early departure for La Table above Toliara and 0930 boat to Anakao (staying at: Safari Vezo).
August 8th – 9th: Anakao, including Nosy Ve and return to Toliara am 9th. Staying at: Le Victory.
August 10th: flight Toliara to Tana and overnight at Tana Plaza.
August 11th: in Tana and then flight out very early morning 12th.
1: Perinet & Mantadia
This the logical starting place on any Madgascar birding trip. It is prolific temperate (at least in winter!) rain forest less than 4 hours from Tana. It is actually two sites; the forest reserve close the village of Perinet / Andasibe (Analamazaotra Special Reserve) and, about 15km along a fairly rough track, Mantadia. The latter especially is superb; pristine rainforest with loads of secluded trails skirting boggy patches in the valley and mossier cloud forest higher up. In contrast, a lot of Analamazaotra is secondary, and, due to presence of habituated groups of Common Brown Lemur and the sensational Indri, gets a lot of civilians.
Early morning birding is good from the track through Mantadia and this is the way to get to grips with a decent selection of common rainforest species. With the help of the irrespressible Patrice, we saw a lot of specials here as well. The best included Madagascar Little Grebe, Henst’s Goshawk perched openly, Collared Nightjars at stroking range, Wood-Rail (a second pair easy after the first gave us the slip after 40 minutes of point-blank calling), Madagascar Flufftail at our feet, Scaly Ground-Roller brilliantly on the trail, Red-fronted Coua seen very well (after narrow misses with Red-breasted) and Nuthatch Vanga in two flocks (one to make sure you see here as, apparently, it is absent from Ranomafana further south). We also saw, after a lot of looking, Pygmy-Kingfisher which posed brilliantly as we were heading back to base for the last time.
We also enjoyed our first lemurs with two of the very best: Indris wailing just above our heads and an hour with Diademed Sifakas at Mantadia culminating in two quietly foraging on the forest floor just feet away from us all hunkered down on the trail: I guess the closest we’ll ever get to an Attenborough and the Gorillas moment!
En-route to Perinet, on the main road from Tana, a stop at the reptile farm at Marozevo is probably a pre-requisite. The farm is on right as you descend from Tana, at the bottom of a fairly serious and scenic gorge. There are plenty of chameleons and geckos to look at but we also scored Meller’s Duck in the pond behind the Visitor Centre; seen brilliantly here but we never got a sniff of it elsewhere. There may no longer be any accessible and reliable sites for this species anymore.
2 Ampijoroa (Ankarafantsika National Park)
The forest at Ampijoroa is a lot lower, warmer and dryer than Perinet and sports unmissable and gorgeous Coquerel’s Sifakas in the forest station grounds, as well as an interesting Durrell breeding centre for endangered tortoises. Being deciduous it is also a lot easier to deal with than the rainforest of Perinet but we were a little disappointed not to find bird activity a bit higher; we had a couple of morning walks where there were long pauses between bursts of activity. However the local guide, Jackie, is a pleasure to bird with and this is a good area for couas (3 species, especially Coquerel's) and vangas (6 species, although we struggled with Van Dam’s: just not calling). The other monsters here are Schlegels’ Asity and White-breasted Mesite, and we also saw a lot of buttonquail easily while searching for the latter.
Variety is provided by the adjacent Lac Ravelobe which has a resident pair of Madagascar Fish-Eagles; the best way to see these is to take a boat trip which is well worth doing anyway for great photo opportunities of various herons and Madagascar Kingfishers. It would be worth trying hard for the Jacana here; we had a fair look without success but there was no other chance of this species on our route. The nearby Lac d’Amboromalandy looks a long shot for this species as cultivation is now intense around the edges and bits suitable for jacanas were not obvious.
This is an awesome rainforest clinging to the escarpment, with a superlative gorge and a significant latitudinal range, from 600-1500m. The whole area is much more scenic and pristine than Perinet and, whilst there is much overlap, a suite of eastern rainforest species are more likely to be located here. There are also upland marshes, for example in the vicinity of Vohiparara, although one key species here, Madagascar Snipe, seems to be becoming increasingly tough as the marshes are converted to paddies.
Although we enjoyed ourselves here, it was, at times, tough going. No amount of creeping the trail near Vohiparara gave us a sniff of Yellow-bellied Sunbird-Asity (very tough outside the breeding season) and we narrowly missed Madagascar Yellowbrow here. Worse still, we battled through chest-high vegetation for an hour in pursuit of a calling Rufous-headed Ground-Roller to get within feet of it and still not satisfactorily lay eyes on it. On the positive side, amongst 65 species, many (including Ward’ Flycatcher, several vangas, Velvet Asity) were seen very well, as were some total monsters: Pitta-like Ground-Roller appeared on the trails at Belle Vue on two evenings (very close to the viewpoint, but only very late on; we also saw a Striped Civet here), Brown Mesite gave us amazing views, we saw a Madagascar Long-eared Owl while searching for Golden Bamboo Lemur and we also saw Pollen’s Vanga in the mossy roadside forest just below Vohiparara.
4: Isalo National Park & Zombitse Forest
Isalo is the obvious stopover on the road south from Ranomafana and we had a full day in the national park here. This was easily the most ruggedly spectacular part of Madagascar that we saw and we had a most enjoyable time. Canyon des Makis was wonderful for the amazing dry forest-merging-into-rain forest squeezed into the microclimate of the razor-thin gorge that has been cut into the Jurassic sandstone massif. As the name suggests, Ring-tailed Lemurs and Verreaux’s Sifakas are the stars here, and the profuse ferns and clouds of butterflies relegated the birds even further. We located Benson’s Rock-Thrush at the Interpretative Centre and, very easily, on an afternoon hike to the famed Piscine Naturelle. This must be one of the sublime natural rock pools on the planet and definitely had not been exaggerated by all the local guides and tourist propaganda. Don’t miss it!
We left Ranohiro, Isalo quite early next day to arrive at Zombitse whilst it was still cool. With the easy-going Flaubert we had a very nice morning here, headlined by Giant Coua, the ultimate Malagasy pheasant analogue and the very dapper Appert’s Greenbul (don’t be put off by the second word in its name). There was a fair selection of other western woodland species, plus more Verreaux’s Sifakas and a huge Oustalet’s Chameleon.
5 Toliara area (Ifaty, La Table & Anakao)
There are number of discrete sites in this area and we had a good time at all of them. Indeed, all things taken into consideration, the southwest was by far our favourite part of Madagascar.
A: Wetlands north of Toliara, on the Ifaty road These extensive pools are impossible to miss as you head towards Ifaty. We saw a decent range of wetland species here, mostly widespread ones, but a Madagascar Pond-Heron was a major bonus. Baillon’s Crake was seen very well and Little Bittern, Harrier-Hawk, Caspian Tern, Greater Painted Snipe and lots of Swamp-Warblers were also notable.
B: Mangily Spiny Forest This is the main reason to visit this area and we had a fantastic day in the company of Musa. He manages (owns?) a bit of land and logs every new ground-roller footprint as it appears. It is a good job that he looks after this area as most of the surrounding area is very degraded and seems to be rapidly converting to temporary farmland (and then useless weedy scrub). We eventually had Bird Moment of the Trip in the guise of the unforgettable Long-tailed Ground-Roller point blank and free of twigs, snags and spines for over 10 minutes but had to return for an afternoon trip to see Sub-Desert Mesite. As well as all common denizens of the spiny forest, we also saw Banded Kestrel here very well, two new couas, plenty of vangas (including by far our best Sickle-bills) and finally, after a few naff views elsewhere, Greater Vasa Parrot. Ting-a-ling!
C: Nautilus Hotel This wonderful place is globally significant for the Madagascar Plovers on the dried saltpans by the track between the hotel and the main north-south sandy road and rendered stratospheric by the Humpbacked Whales just beyond the offshore reef. Four hours with these guys (we spent 8!) and you will never need to go whale-watching again. Taking a swim in the hotel pool in the evening is also recommended as you can enjoy Madagascar Nightjars hawking above you and spoiling your backstroke. In conclusion, go at once to the Nautilus before the rest of the world cottons on.
D: La Table This low, flat-topped hill and the surrounding ridges of Euphorbia scrub is famous for being the best-known (only?) locality for Red-shouldered Vanga. Despite being a bright, snazzy (and quite noisy) vanga living alongside the island’s main north – south highway and within sight of a major town, this species was only described in 1997. With Musa leading the charge, we plunged in and emerged an hour later after crippling views of a pair and scooping Verreaux’s Coua and Lafresnaye’s Vanga en-route. You will also encounter a marvel of evolution in the form of tennis ball-sized, evilly barbed seedheads that look like they are straight out of the Spanish Inquisition. Don’t worry about searching for them; they will surely find you and let you know about it!
E: Gravel road to Le Mangrove and Arboretum d’Antsokay The turn-off for the road to Le Mangrove is back down the hill from La Table, before the untidy sprawl of Toliara begins. Several km down this track, a large grassy area appears on the right and the dried pools within it are used by Madagascar Sandgrouse to drink. We had them flying in on arrival (approx 0830) and two pairs were viewable on turf, seemingly oblivious to kids wandering around just behind them.
Close by the junction to Le Mangrove is the Arboretum d’Antsokay. This is botanically fascinating and well worth a visit anyway but was also a good site for Mascarene Martin, buttonquails and Green-capped Coua.
F Anakao We spent two nights here and, like Le Nautilus, enjoyed the relaxing beachfront location very much. Littoral Rock Thrush is the ultimate slam-dunk (visible from the boat as we arrived!) but the real attraction is a visit to the island of Nosy Ve and its sensational and very photogenic Red-tailed Tropicbirds. We also added a suite of waders here, most notably Crab-Plovers and found several imposing Humblot’s Herons in the heronry.
The boat journey between Anakao and Toliara produced another Humpback very close and good views of cliff-nesting herons (mostly Grey but also Humblot’s: ask the boat driver to skirt the tall cliffs just north of the mouth of the Onilahy River).
This bustling, friendly city sits in the middle of vast plateau of rice-paddies and very little (basically none) natural vegetation remains. Hence, we saw very few bird species, and almost none that we didn’t see elsewhere. One exception was Little Swift (seemingly a recent colonist; common over the craft market area on the airport road; Madagascar Black Swift was also best seen here too). Lac Alarobia, a private reserve within the city limits was worth a visit for sensational close ups of many herons and common ducks, including Comb Duck.
Species checklist (.pdf file)