Madagascar Highlights Nov 05—20, 2014

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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With everything going to plan, our group met for dinner in the delightful Hotel Palissandre. After a good night of rest we kicked-off our birding with a visit to Lac Alarobia, a wetland on a private estate on the outskirts of the capital city, Antananarivo. Amongst the hundreds of Red-billed Teal and White-faced Whistling-Ducks we found a small number of Comb Ducks, Hottentot Teal and, best of all, five of the rare Meller’s Duck. Similarly, amongst the hundreds of nesting Little Egrets and Squacco Herons we found smaller numbers of Great Egret, Western Cattle Egret, Black-crowned Night-Heron, Black Heron and, best of all and with some careful scanning, five of the rare Madagascar Pond-Heron. Pure white with a luxuriant crest and sky-blue facial skin and basal bill, these are smart-looking birds. We also put a dent in some of the more widespread endemics of this fascinating island with our first Madagascar Turtle-Dove, Madagascar Coucal, Malagasy Kingfisher, Madagascar Kestrel, Red Fody, and Madagascar Swamp and Brush-Warblers respectively. We opted to drive through to Perinet for lunch, making a couple of strategic stops for both Hamerkop and a nesting pair of Madagascar Pratincoles along the way. At lunch we watched a Madagascar Buzzard, found a White-headed Vanga that must have been feeding chicks, and watched a Madagascar Wagtail have a stoush with a cat. Some roadside forest birding in Perinet brought our day list up to fifty species with Madagascar Blue Pigeon and Ward’s Flycatcher-Vanga. It had been a great first day.

Scaly Ground-Roller

Scaly Ground-Roller— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

Due to the deterioration of the road into Mantadia National Park, this year we had to access this fabulous park in three “four-wheel-drive” vehicles. It was well worth the effort to access the forest here, as amongst the first birds were Madagascar Pygmy-Kingfisher, Lesser and Greater vasa-parrots, Blue and Tylas vangas, Long-billed Bernieria, Ashy Cuckoo-shrike, and a stunning Scaly Ground-Roller. Exploring further into the forest, we made the breakthrough with the aberrant Short-legged Ground-Roller, that contrary to its name appears to rarely, if ever, feed on the ground. Instead it sits motionless in the forest mid stage, waiting patiently to pounce on unsuspecting prey items. Later we visited the graphite dam that was home to the rare Madagascar Grebe; this year the faithful pair produced three stripe-headed chicks. Broad-billed Rollers glowed chocolate in the sun. It had been a great morning. After a lengthy siesta we ventured to the Perinet Community Forest. The big highlight was watching a Red-breasted Coua feeding a chick at the nest, the first time the locals had found this skulking bird nesting so close to the trail. A pair of France’s Sparrowhawks was watched eating a hapless small passerine. A night walk started well with a Madagascar Long-eared Owl fledgling noisily begging for food. Both Goodman’s Mouse Lemur and Furry-eared Dwarf Lemur gave views, but were hyperactive and hard to pin down, no doubt with ravenous Long-eared Owls on their minds. Just at the end we located a pair of Eastern Avahi (Woolly Lemurs) feeding low down close to the road, which was a good result for this elusive species. Then the heavens opened and a torrential deluge saw us back in our vehicles and back to the hotel.

The rare Madagascar Crested Ibis

The rare Madagascar Crested Ibis— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

The following day started in the Perinet National Park. Our first major breakthrough was a superb Madagascar Crested Ibis located roosting in the canopy, basking in the morning sun. This endangered forest ibis is a real discovery these days. Then we worked on Madagascar Wood-Rail with success, as a pair snooped around us, occasionally tossing leaves searching for invertebrates. A Red-fronted Coua was a very handy sighting, the bird being unusually cooperative. Then we were on the trail of lemurs. First up we had a troop of Brown Lemurs foraging overhead and next to us, communicating to each other with pig-like grunts. Then a family party of the beautiful Diademed Sifaka were located feeding unconcernedly in the thick ridge-top rainforest. We had seen this species the previous day in Mantadia where they had “wowed” us as they leapt right past us in a series of spectacular leaps, commuting through the forest searching for food trees. After some searching we made the breakthrough with the Indri. The largest surviving lemur, and the signature mammal of Madagascar, this incredible prosimian produces an astonishing wailing vocalization in some ways similar to the song of the Humpback Whale. We had been tantalized by the song of the Indri for the past few days. Now here they were right in front of us—we even watched them mating. This was one of those “life moments.” Our incredible morning was not over, as we continued to find more endemic birds. Our first White-throated Rail sunned itself next to a stream. The beautiful and rare Collared Nightjar was seen nesting in a Birds Nest Fern, and a male Madagascar Flufftail beeped at us like a Microhylid frog.

The amazing Indri

The amazing Indri— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

We returned to Mantadia the next morning. Everyone had great views of Scaly, Short-legged, and Pitta-like ground-rollers, quite the result for these fantastic and often very difficult birds. We then had a superb performance from a trio of cuckoo-rollers, two males and a rufous-speckled female that were hunting caterpillars and perching very low down and quite out in the open. We squeezed in both the Dark Newtonia and Forest Fody for good views. The afternoon was equally productive. First, Julian again this year found the rare Dusky Tetraka that gave some good views. A Madagascar Pygmy-Kingfisher was found perched in the forest interior and proved absurdly tame, being only five feet from us when we spotted it. A pair of fluffy Madagascar Long-eared Owl chicks were located perched right by the roadside. On top of this we found a glowing male Parson’s Chameleon and the bizarre Mossy Leaf-tailed Gecko.

Our final day in Perinet district was quite different. We visited a remote wetland area to find it had flooded with all of the overnight thunderstorms, and we could not access the best area at all. After a bit of head-scratching we hired three local people to walk into the swamp and, after a bit of thrashing around, they flushed four Madagascar Snipe, now quite a rare endemic. We then returned to Vakona and had a bit of fun feeding banana to the four species of captive lemurs (Black and White Ruffed, Brown, Bamboo, and Diademed Sifaka) that live on some well-wooded islands. We returned our focus to the birds and after a bit of effort lured the elusive Madagascar Rail out into the open for two views. At the same time a male Little Bittern flew up and gave a lengthy flight performance. We made a final last ditch attempt for the Madagascar Starling that paid off handsomely when we found a male and female drinking in a Travellers Palm flower. It was time to drive to Tana for our flight the next day to Tulear.

Parson's Chameleon

Parson’s Chameleon— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

 Our boutique hotel had a wetland out front that was quite full of birds. We found a few shorebirds including Kittlitz’s and Three-banded plovers, and Common Sandpiper, but the major result was a superb Humblot’s Heron—a scarce endemic. With some time before our flight we visited the museum at Academie Malagasy, taking in the collection of extinct and extant birds, lemurs, and other mammals including hippos, giant lemurs, elephant birds, and even some dinosaur fossils. A visit to the Parc Zoologique found us taking in some captive lemurs and reptiles before a tasty lunch at a hotel near the airport. Here we saw a nesting Madagascar Hoopoe. We then flew to Tulear, nearly 1,000 kilometers to the southwest coast of Madagascar.

Our first morning at Ifaty was dedicated to the Spiny Forest, a striking habitat of unique Malagasy xerophytic plants including the Red Baobab, Madagascan Balsa, Pachypodium, and the unique Didiera, also known as Octopus Plant. With rain the previous month, many plants were flowering and it looked overall in good season. This is a very important morning of the tour as we are focused on seeing many rare and elusive endemics in this unique habitat. First up we had a great view of a Long-tailed Roller dust bathing. Then we taped in both Thamnornis and Archbold’s Newtonia. A Sickle-billed Vanga flew in, and we tracked down a female Lafresnaye’s Vanga incubating on a well-concealed nest. Also seen nesting, we enjoyed two elusive endemic raptors—the Madagascan Sparrowhawk and the unusual Banded Kestrel. In between we had Crested, Olive-capped, and a stationary Running Coua. Also new for the group were Stripe-throated Jery and Madagascan Green-Pigeon. Towards the end of the morning we had success with the elusive Subdesert Mesite skillfully found by the local guide, Freddy. Also of note were Spider Tortoise, Lesser Hedgehog Tenrec, and a nervous White-footed Sportive Lemur. With the day heating up, we made a dash for the scarce endemic Madagascan Plover on a nearby samphire pan. After a bit of a search we found a single bird that scoped well.

Banded Kestrel

Banded Kestrel— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

Post-siesta we visited some brackish and freshwater marshes that dot the side of the now much improved road between Ifaty and Tulear. Lots of migrant shorebirds are a feature here including Whimbrel, Black-bellied Plover, Greater Sand-Plover, Common Ringed Plover, Curlew Sandpiper, Sanderling, Little Stint and, best of all, a Terek Sandpiper. However, the bird of the afternoon was a male Greater Painted Snipe that gave an excellent view before retiring into the reed beds. A single Red-knobbed Coot, a bunch of Little Grebes, another Humblot’s Heron, and dozens of luminous green Gray-headed Lovebirds coming down to drink in beautiful late afternoon light made for a great afternoon, to what had been a sensational day.

We loaded up in a speed boat and made the dash offshore to the remote island of Nosy Ve. With calm conditions and only a light sea breeze, it was a pleasant journey. We stopped for a pair of Bridled Terns en route. Once at the island on an incoming tide we scoped a tern roost where the major highlight was a trio of Crab Plovers mixed in with Saunder’s, Lesser Crested, and Common terns. Several pairs of White-fronted Plovers were seen with a single Gray Heron a bit of a surprise. Even more of a surprise was a White-tailed Tropicbird that gave a great performance. Next we took in the nesting Red-tailed Tropicbirds, watching a returning adult feed a chick and even assisting a bird that seemed hopelessly tangled in a thick Euphorbia tree. The crossing to Anakao was very pleasant and we set up in this idyllic location. We added Littoral Rock-Thrush, Subdesert Brush-Warbler, Peregrine Falcon, and even a Barn Swallow to our trip list, while a Warty Chameleon was a good find.

White-tailed Tropicbird

White-tailed Tropicbird— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

We departed the superb Anakao early by boat. Making a strategic stop at a brackish pool near the coast we were able to catch the last Madagascar Sandgrouse of the morning coming in to drink. It was tame and approachable, giving excellent scope views. Next we headed to “La Table,” a semiarid uplifted coralline plateau covered in thick scrub. Here Freddy took us straight to the nest of the rare Red-shouldered Vanga where the female was sitting tight on her clutch of eggs. The male turned up as well and gave good views of this only recently described species. Next we worked on Verreaux’s Coua that typically was quite furtive, but did yield a couple of good views before slinking away. It was to be an action-packed morning, as our next stop was the excellent D’Antsokay Arboretum, developed by a Swiss botanist to showcase the floral diversity of southwest Madagascar. Amongst our first sightings was a dozing Gray-brown Mouse Lemur. This was followed by a Madagascar Nightjar brooding a chick with a sensational female Madagascar Button-quail that walked right past the group. A visit to a Marine Museum showed some of the diversity of life on the coral reef systems of Tulear. The collection showpiece was eight specimens of coelacanths, ancient live-bearing fish that appear unchanged since the Devonian era. The first was captured by a local fisherman in 1995. After lunch we made the drive through to Isalo National Park. Approaching thunderstorms made for spectacular light conditions against the eroded sandstone pagodas that are the feature of this park. Just inside the park we saw a pair of Helmeted Guineafowl, an African species introduced into this country. The endemic Forest Rock-Thrush was singing from the roof of our rather stunning accommodation.

A morning walk from our beautiful hotel had us heading out to some grassland near a dam. A scan of the dam produced a Purple Heron and, surprisingly, a Nile Crocodile that had undoubtedly been transported here by human agency. Walking through the grass, we eventually flushed a male Madagascar Partridge that is always a difficult bird to see. A couple of Madagascar Button-quails were also put to flight by our line of beaters, namely ourselves. We then drove to the Zombitse National Park, a wonderful dry deciduous vine forest growing on deep sand. In quick succession we observed the scarce Rufous Vanga on a nest, the Appert’s Tetraka that is endemic to this forest, a roosting White-browed Owl, superb views of Giant and Coquerel’s couas, a Hubbard’s Sportive-Lemur with a look of perpetual astonishment on its face from those giant orange eyes and, perhaps best of all, the beautiful Verreaux’s Sifaka. We encountered several family groups, some with infants perhaps three months old riding on their mothers’ backs. Returning to the hotel at dusk, we tracked down a Torotoroka Scops-owl, but it showed only briefly, gale force winds making conditions not the best.

Verreaux's Sifaka

Verreaux’s Sifaka— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

The following day commenced with a short walk into a rugged valley on the eastern side of the Isalo Massif. We waited, watched, and listened, and eventually found a troupe of Ring-tailed Lemurs chorusing in the riparian thicket. Several were seen feeding on fruits on apparently what is the Strychnos tree, of strychnine fame. Quite a few birds were seen in the forest here with the best being a trio of Ashy Cuckoo-shrikes and a tame Madagascar Cuckoo. We returned to Zombitse where we were able to catch up all of the previous day’s sightings for some folks who could not make it the day before. We also found a Giant Hog-nosed Snake and a female Oustalet’s Chameleon. On the drive back to Toliara we made a stop in the Coral scrub to check on a Sickle-billed Vanga nest of the previous year. No luck with the vanga, which we were also trying to catch up for some folks, but we managed a good sighting here: we found a passage of Madagascan Black Swifts moving ahead of the frontal weather system. Flying low over the vegetation, they gave good views.

With breaking news of a short flight delay the following morning we spent an hour scanning shorebirds in Toliara Harbour. There were lots of birds here including two new birds for the trip, singles of both Bar-tailed Godwit and Greater Crested Tern. Also of note were three Crab Plovers including juveniles, at least thirty Saunder’s Terns all in winter plumage, and a pair of Lesser Crested Terns. There were lots of Whimbrel, Common Greenshank, Curlew Sandpiper, Ruddy Turnstone, Greater Sand-Plover, Common Ringed Plover, and Black-bellied Plover. The flight took off on the rescheduled time and we were returned to the Hotel Palissandre where our adventure had commenced two weeks before. It had been a great tour. Special thanks to Fano, Julian, Freddy, and our excellent team of drivers and service providers who did such a great job in ensuring not only a very smooth tour, but showcasing the exceptional country that is Madagascar.