Madagascar Highlights Nov 06—20, 2013

Posted by Dion Hobcroft


Dion Hobcroft

Dion Hobcroft has been working for VENT since 2001. He has led many tours (more than 170) to Australia, New Guinea, New Zealand, Bhutan, Indonesia, India, China, Southwest ...

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Madagascar set out on its own evolutionary tangent when it split from Gondwanan Africa 80 million years ago. It is totally unique, and holds some of the most bizarre plants and animals on the planet. This very comfortable tour enables participants to take in the best of this intriguing island-continent while avoiding rugged terrain hikes on narrow trails, atrocious roads, and sometimes less than functional hotels in the more remote areas. On this tour we enjoyed 4–5 star hotels in every location, traveled comfortably, and dined handsomely on Malagasy-French cuisine. We saw 145 species of birds (and heard another five) including 99 regional endemics.

Convening in Antananarivo on October 8, with everyone arriving a bit earlier than scheduled, we organized an afternoon city tour of Tana, as it is popularly known. From our eyrie-like location at the Hotel Palissandre overlooking the city, we gently introduced ourselves to several of Madagascar’s more widespread birds including the scarlet Red Fody, pole-haunting Madagascan Kestrel, and hawking Mascarene Martin and Madagascar Black Swift. The city, very much a photographer’s delight, with handsome people in stark light set amidst a riot of fresh produce and distinctive Afro-Gallic architecture, was well worth exploring. Our first stop, a small museum, held a fascinating collection of specimens and skeletons including two species of Elephant Bird (Aepyornis)—the heaviest bird that is known to have existed, Pygmy Hippopotamus, and several Giant Lemurs, with a more contemporary collection of extant species. After checking out a local craft market we spent a bit of time people-watching in the traffic as we wound through some grindingly impoverished neighborhoods and some considerably more affluent.

We made an excursion to the Parc Zoologique the next morning where we caught up with more endemic birds. This included great looks at Madagascar Bulbul, Madagascar Turtle-Dove (appropriately in the Aldabra Tortoise exhibit), the stunning Madagascan (Malachite) Kingfisher, a brief Madagascan Hoopoe, and the Green Sunbird. Hundreds of nesting egrets here included mostly Western Cattle and Dimorphic egrets, with a healthy scattering of Squacco Herons and Black-crowned Night-Herons.  Ambling through the collection of lemurs, fosa, various reptiles, and birds was quite educational. We were lucky enough to see the most unusual Aye Aye in the captive collection. We bade farewell to the delightful Hotel Palissandre after a superb lunch and traveled out to Lac Alarobia, a private wetland reserve on the outskirts of Tana.

This well-protected wetland was heaving with White-faced Whistling-Ducks and Red-billed Teal with a fair number of enormous Comb Ducks present. Hundreds of nesting herons included a scattering of Black Herons (some doing the classic shadow umbrella pose) and with careful scanning we found about five Madagascan Pond-Herons in full breeding plumage. This endangered species, with its shaggy plumes all feather-postured up, would give a bird-of-paradise a run for its money—a very smart bird indeed. We had a wonderful White-throated Rail foraging right out in the open. Our first Madagascan Brush and Swamp warblers showed well with a Madagascan Coucal also making its first appearance. We moved along to the airport for our evening flight to Tulear. The biggest surprise of the day came when we walked out on the tarmac to board the plane at night and found a Sooty Falcon hawking moths around the lights like a giant microbat.

Awaking in Tulear, our first mission was to try and sight the Madagascar Sandgrouse drinking at a near coastal brackish soak. We enjoyed stunning views of seven birds. While taking in the views, we caught up with common open country endemics like Crested Drongo, Madagascar Cisticola, and Madagascar Lark with several Kittlitz’s Plovers forming a welcome distraction. Moving to La Table, a location of dense semiarid coral scrub, we quickly located Subdesert Brush-Warbler, Souimanga Sunbird, Common Jery, Common Newtonia, plenty of Namaqua Doves, and a showy Sakalava Weaver before we dived into the thick vegetation to have great views of the scarce, highly localized Red-shouldered Vanga skillfully located by Freddy. The plants here are superb and complex—a community of Euphorbias, Pachypodiums, Aloes, Mouse-trap Plants, and Baobabs of the genus Adansonia. We learned more of this unique flora at the Arboretum d’Antsokay later in the morning. This was a very enjoyable location with our first lemur—a Gray-Brown Mouse-Lemur—staring down at us like a micro-gremlin, nesting Madagascan Nightjar, polished Chabert Vanga, timid Green-capped Coua, and Madagascan Button-quail, plus chameleons, iguanas, and an unbelievable variety of unique xerophytic plants to absorb—not to mention lunch!

In the afternoon we journeyed two hundred kilometers north to the Isalo National Park—spectacular fiery-orange sandstone pagodas with storm clouds and bright sunshine making for some excellent photo opportunities. One interesting event was spotting a distant raptor in flight which was originally considered a Madagascan Buzzard. Jay’s digital photos blown up 60 times revealed it was the much scarcer Madagascan Cuckoo-Hawk, a species that mimics the buzzard.  The luxurious hotel had some folks revisiting their retirement plans!

White-browed Owl in Zombitse

White-browed Owl in Zombitse— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

As is the normal procedure, we were up early the next morning looking for the Forest Rock-Thrush which we quickly located. The elusive Madagascar Partridge was going to be a tougher nut to crack, although we enjoyed our first Gray-headed Lovebirds during the search. We moved along to the Zombitse Forest, home of several endangered Madagascan endemic birds. First up we had a pair of Appert’s Tetrakas—diminutive forest warblers of a family represented only in this most unusual country. This species is found only here. Then we worked on both Coquerel’s and Giant couas with outstanding success, the Giant Coua being reminiscent of a sports model chachalaca. In between we were distracted by sightings of displaying Madagascan Cuckoo-Roller, Lesser Vasa-Parrot, France’s Sparrowhawk, Standing’s Day Gecko, and a bright-eyed Hubbard’s Sportive Lemur, with yet another great highlight of the day—a White-browed Owl at a day roost. As a grand finale to our Zombitse Forest experience, we met a group of Verreaux’s Sifakas. These stunning chocolate and white lemurs fed around us on leaves, allowing us to admire a young infant and take hundreds of photos! We returned to the lodge for a siesta before resuming our search for the partridge. At the last minute we found a pair that gave several views in flight—a great end to a spectacular day.

Returning to Tulear the next morning, we made a return brief stop at Zombitse. A local guide had found the scarce Rufous Vanga on a nest with four eggs. She was sitting tight on a delicate deep cup-shaped nest made of bark, cobwebs, and lichen. We were able to watch her without disturbing her from her duties. Back in Tulear we made the voyage by speedboat to Nosy Ve, a one-hour crossing in increasingly blustery conditions. On arrival at the island we were greeted by a flock of 30 Crab Plovers looking strikingly pied against the turquoise-blue ocean. Wandering along the shoreline we saw a variety of shorebirds including Sanderling, Black-bellied Plover, Whimbrel and, most notably, several dapper little White-fronted Plovers. The Red-tailed Tropicbirds, here protected by a local fady (taboo), were in excellent form, doing the backward display flight. We found a few birds at their nests in dense bushes, the adults showing the evanescent rosy-pink hue like a Roseate Tern.

With the wind really kicking off to near gale force, we made the dash to the superb Anakao Resort. Despite the wind, we explored the hotel grounds in the late afternoon. Sheltering in the dunes we found five Littoral Rock-Thrushes and, best of all, a stunning female Lafresnaye’s Vanga. What a great bird.

A birding walk the next morning was highlighted by a tame male Peregrine Falcon and dozens of apple-green Gray-headed Lovebirds drinking at a watering site. Marty and Barbara saw a flock of 40 Greater Flamingos in flight across Anakao Bay. Returning to Tulear in calm conditions, we formed a convoy of three four-wheel-drive vehicles to take on the deep sand track to Ifaty Village. On the way we stopped at a series of wetlands that held numerous birds. This included our first Hamerkop, migrant shorebirds like Common Greenshank, Curlew and Common sandpipers, Little Stint, and Common Ringed Plover, with resident wetland birds like Little Grebe, Red-knobbed Coot, shy Hottentot Teal, and our first Madagascan Munia. With a tremendous stroke of great fortune we came across a pair of Madagascan Plovers almost immediately. Very few individuals of this endangered species have a territory accessible by road.

The rare Madagascar Plover near Ifaty

The rare Madagascar Plover near Ifaty— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

In the afternoon we headed to the famous Spiny Forest Reserve. This would prove to be an outstanding session of birding. First we had Running Coua, albeit briefly, followed by a Hook-billed Vanga pulverizing a chameleon in its powerful mandibles. A male Madagascan Harrier-Hawk flew low over us. Next, an astonishing pair of Long-tailed Ground-Rollers allowed a surreal photographic view, almost invisible in the dense undergrowth of the Spiny Forest. Then breaking news of a Subdesert Mesite had us running to the site. There she was, adopting a cryptic posture, perched motionless in a sticky shrub! Two of Madagascar’s great birds—bang, bang! These famously elusive birds can be seen only with the assistance of the superb local guides who know the territory of just about every individual bird in their local patch. Next, we were on the trail of the rare Banded Kestrel that allowed a good scope view before we were distracted by another of this country’s superb endemics, the Sickle-billed Vanga. Who said afternoons can be slow? Then Archbold’s Newtonia made a vital appearance, followed by a female and infant White-footed Sportive Lemur, and a Lesser Hedgehog Tenrec discovered in a hollow log on the ground. It was almost too much.

The Spiny Forest Reserve continued to deliver astonishing results the next morning as we enjoyed the cool of the day. This time a Running Coua perched up for a lengthy view, well-appreciated by those who had missed it the day before. Then a female Madagascar Button-quail could be heard booming and was herded towards us for a great sighting, easily our best view of this little skulker. We targeted the few birds that had eluded us including the Subdesert Tetraka (previously called the Thamnornis), a pair of Rufous-tailed Vangas and, best of all, a bonus adult Madagascar Sparrowhawk adult that was absurdly tame. With the heat building up we returned to the very comfortable La Mira to relax, have lunch, and then return to Tulear. We had one last regional endemic to locate, and after a fair search we located a Verreaux’s Coua that perched up allowing a great view. This coua is a bit reminiscent of a go-away-bird with bright blue facial skin.

The next day we flew north to Tana on Air Madagascar. Arriving as scheduled, we jumped back in our trusty coaster bus, well-driven by Fedy, and made the drive to Vakona Lodge. Before leaving Tana, we made a stop to get good views of Hottentot Teal and made time for a tasty Italian lunch. En route to Vakona we picked up a few new birds for the trip including Madagascar White-eye, African Stonechat and, most important, a pair of beautiful Madagascan Pratincoles at the Mangoro River. Then we received news of Madagascan Long-eared Owl and made a quick dash into the rainforest in fading light to see a very active, largely downy fledgling of this elusive endemic species. We settled into our comfortable lodge for a four-night stay. The gardens at Vakona proved excellent for the stunning Blue Coua and smart-looking Ward’s Vanga (previously considered a flycatcher).

Collared Nightjar in Perinet

Collared Nightjar in Perinet— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

The well-known Perinet Reserve was our first stop. The powerful hooting gibbon-like call of the Indri, the largest of the surviving lemurs and amongst the most spectacular of all surviving mammals, set the atmosphere in the cool of the morning. First though, before tracking down the Indri, we were on the trail of some “mega-mega” rarities. First up was an absolutely stunning Collared Nightjar nesting in a Bird’s Nest (Asplenium) Fern. Next, the seriously endangered Madagascan Crested Ibis was seen on a nest with a large chick. This forest-dwelling ibis is in serious conservation trouble, popularly targeted by hunters in a rapidly diminishing habitat. This species had not been located nesting in the previous three years, so it was a lucky break for us. Then a splendid pair of Indris put goose bumps on our goose bumps with their haunting, powerful song! Like a creature from a Dr. Seuss book (The Lorax comes to mind) you have to pinch yourself to make sure they are real. In between we were constantly distracted by new birds ranging from Madagascar Wood-Rail, Madagascar Blue Pigeon, Rand’s Warbler, and Long-billed Bernieria. We also spent time admiring both Brown Lemurs and the very cool-looking Diademed Sifakas. After a siesta we returned to the village protected forest and in quick succession picked up Madagascar Green-Pigeon, tame Greater Vasa-Parrots, and our first White-headed Vangas, and then spent time admiring both the adult and chick of the Madagascan Long-eared Owl again. We also found a huge male Parson’s Chameleon—a truly impressive lizard.

We spent the next two days exploring the more remote Mantadia National Park that is home to quality pristine rainforest and some sensational birds, reptiles, and mammals. Our first day started off with views of Eastern Gray Bamboo Lemurs—gentle creatures are these. This was followed by two encounters with the Black-and-white Ruffed Lemur whose vampire-like canines, strikingly pied pelage, and explosive territorial vocalizations make for one hell of a prosimian. Then we found two Lesser Streaked Tenrecs—like miniaturized hedgehogs with black, orange, and white quills—totally bizarre. As if this were not enough, the Giraffe-necked Weevil may have taken the prize for the oddest creature of the day, if more was not to follow. In between we worked hard on a whole suite of new forest birds. One of the first found by the outstanding local guides was the Dusky Tetraka. An often controversial bird to identify, this is a scarce bird of the low strata rainforest. Then we had repeat views of the glamorous Pitta-like Ground-Roller, one of the star birds of these eastern forests. A visit to an old graphite dam produced the hoped for endangered Madagascan Grebe, here a pair with three chicks, and the equally endangered Meller’s Duck. We also enjoyed our first Tylas Vanga, Dark Newtonia, White-throated Oxylabes, and Forest Fody. After a siesta we went on a night walk. This produced in quick succession the astonishing Brookesia superciliaris chameleon (one of the world’s smallest lizards), the beautiful Sikora Leaf-tailed Gecko, timid Furry-eared Dwarf Lemurs, and the translucent Treefrog, Boophis viridis.

The fantastic Indri in Perinet

The fantastic Indri in Perinet— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

Our next visit to Mantadia started well when we found the Madagascar Pygmy Kingfisher—a glowing orange and white sprite of the forest interior, Fano’s favorite bird no less. We made the breakthrough with the very difficult to find Short-legged Ground-Roller, spending time with a pair as they perched quietly in the mid-level forest, somewhat reminiscent of a giant puffbird. We had the most unbelievably tame pair of Crossley’s Vangas—birds that convergently appear like Asian ground-babblers, creeping covertly on the forest floor. We finished with a stunning male Nuthatch-Vanga that convergently appears like a nuthatch. Fascinating birds are the vangas. Post-siesta we visited the Lemur Islands for some excellent photo ops with four captive species at point-blank range (or on top of your head in some cases). Then we turned our attention to the endemic rails—the Madagascan Rail showing briefly but well. This was followed by a Madagascan Flufftail that was gently herded in a pincer maneuver by Marcella, Julian, Fedy, Dion, and Fano towards the group before fluttering up and around the participants.

We had one last forest birding session in Perinet before returning to Tana and ending our tour. The hot dry conditions that had prevailed during our visit made the birding slow. We had early excellent success with a pair of Red-fronted Couas. Despite a serious effort, both Velvet Asity and Red-breasted Coua would remain as heard only. We had excellent views of Madagascar Wood-Rail, White-throated Rail, Green Jery, and Greater Vasa-Parrot. We reconnected with the Indri for another loud experience and spent time with a group of Brown Lemurs.

Back in Tana at the Hotel Palissandre it was hard to digest just how much we had seen and enjoyed on our tour of this superb country. I would dearly like to thank all the participants and Team Malagasy so capably led by Fano who made this tour such a success. I cannot wait to return.