Madagascar Highlights Nov 06—21, 2016

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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We enjoyed a particularly successful tour to Madagascar this year, although as usual, the order of the tour flip-flopped around due to the erratic scheduling of “Mad Air.” It was also unfortunate that three travelers were forced to cancel at the last minute due to personal circumstances: terribly sorry to have this happen to you.

So our diminished group set out from Antananarivo on the 9th of November. Before leaving though, we took in the bird life at the wetlands that are on the grounds of the boutique hotel we started from. This is a great location, and we had enjoyed good views of White-faced Whistling-Duck, Hottentot and Red-billed teal, Black Egret, Madagascar Swift, Madagascar Kestrel, Madagascar Swamp-Warbler, Madagascar Munia, and Red Fody, plus several others before we embarked on the drive to Perinet.

Madagascar Pratincole

Madagascar Pratincole— Photo: Dion Hobcroft


We broke the drive at the Mangoro River where we picked up our first quality endemic, the localized Madagascar Pratincole, the faithful pair having hatched two chicks, both tiny, on their riverine rock island. While enjoying this sighting, we picked up a group of Chabert Vanga and our first Green Sunbird. After settling into our comfortable hotel (that produced another pratincole and a regular Greater Vasa Parrot attracted to a fruiting tree), we spent a couple of hours exploring the community forest with wonderful local guide and friend, the tireless Julian. We had several targets, and the first to fall was a superb pair of Crested Ibis, one individual even briefly raising its incredible crest. Next was a Madagascar Long-eared Owl, and first we enjoyed a fluffy, white recently fledged chick, then an adult. A family of Indri, six in total, perched overhead, getting ready to wind down for the evening. The largest surviving lemur, with its powerful gibbon-like hooting song, is capable of spectacular leaps of over 15 feet from tree to tree, propelled by remarkably long legs. Straight out of a Dr. Seuss book, this is a must see on any Madagascar tour. Leaving these beauties behind, we took off on the hunt for the shy forest-dwelling Red-breasted Coua. At the last minute we found a single bird that slinked around us and was especially cooperative. It had been a superb first day.

Madagascar Crested Ibis

Madagascar Crested Ibis— Photo: Peggy Wang


We made the drive to Mantadia early the next morning. The forest was quite dry, and this kept birdlife relatively subdued. With patience we tracked down two Pitta-like Ground-Rollers and a shy Scaly Ground-Roller. Best of all though, was a cracking Madagascar Pygmy-Kingfisher that permitted us to approach to within a couple of yards.  Forest edge birding was productive, as we quickly racked up excellent looks at the wonderful Blue Vanga, Tylas Vanga, Hook-billed Vanga, fabulous Blue Coua, demure Ashy Cuckooshrike, and started our good fortune with the scarce Madagascar Sparrowhawk, a species we would see well on three occasions on this tour. Lemur-watching was amazing on this day—eight species in total with the beautiful Diademed Sifaka, gentle-looking Eastern Gray Bamboo Lemur, and the elusive canopy-dwelling Black-and-white Ruffed Lemur all giving amazing looks. Not to be forgotten was the incredible Fimbriated Leaf-tailed Gecko, perhaps the most exquisitely camouflaged terrestrial vertebrate imaginable. A visit to a small dam produced a pair of the rare Meller’s Duck, plus a displaying pair of the now highly endangered Madagascar Grebe.  After a siesta we did a night walk that began somewhat slowly, but gained momentum with incredible views of an Eastern Avahi and a Crossley’s Dwarf-Lemur, a brief Goodman’s Mouse-Lemur, plus two species of chameleons and the translucent tree frog Boophis viridis.

Blue Coua

Blue Coua— Photo: Dion Hobcroft


We commenced our second full day in the popular Andasibe National Park. This is always a lively location, and we were quickly amongst the mega birds with an extraordinary Collared Nightjar on the nest, a reasonably cooperative Madagascar Flufftail, a very cooperative White-throated Rail, our only Red-fronted Coua, a Malagasy Scops-Owl less than two feet away, and the scarce Nuthatch Vanga another trip highlight. We enjoyed another pair of Indris that let rip with their sonic wailing at close range. A Henst’s Goshawk, a big female, was seen bombing over at lunch. This is a difficult species to encounter. In the afternoon we made a special effort to see the shy Madagascar Rail and were rewarded with views right at our feet. A Madagascar Blue-Pigeon proved to be our only sighting. 

We returned to Mantadia and gave the Short-legged Ground-Roller a patient and systematic search effort, but unfortunately could not make the breakthrough with locating this cryptic and low density species. It was fun in the forest though, as we had some luck in several other departments, perhaps the luckiest a quartet of Red-bellied Lemurs that investigated a decaying tree stump just next to us, searched for insect larva, and then drank from the forest stream. The male is quite something with his sky-blue eye shadow. We enjoyed a lot of repeat forest bird sightings including nesting Madagascar Paradise-Flycatchers, Madagascar Starlings feeding down low at the forest edge, Long-billed Bernieria, Spectacled Tetraka, close Madagascar Buzzard, Madagascar Cuckoo, Malagasy Spinetail, Lesser Vasa Parrot, Ward’s Vanga, Green Jery, and nesting Nelicourvi Weaver. A major bonus was when some scuttling in the undergrowth turned up a Lowland Streaked Tenrec, a colorful representative of this endemic Madagascan family of spiny insectivorous mammals. A sighting of a non-habituated Indri was also quite notable, and his alarm call was quite something. We spent the afternoon tracking down the Madagascar Wood-Rail, and with this we had excellent success making it four endemic rails in two days—good going.

Collared Nightjar

Collared Nightjar— Photo: Dion Hobcroft


We spent the next morning in the Anturoturofutsy Wetlands, a RAMSAR listed site, but very threatened; this year a massive ditch had been dug around to drain the protected area.  We tried our luck and managed to get good views of two Madagascar Snipe—a threatened species. A Gray Emu-tail was located and popped up out of the sedges for an extended view. A male Madagascar Partridge flew past us on its own accord, most fortuitous and saving us a lot of searching later on in the tour. We hung about to try our luck with the rare Madagascar Harrier that had been sighted the previous week, but no luck with this. We did locate one raptor though, that had us scratching our heads until it dawned on the leader it was a Madagascar Cuckoo-Hawk, a species that is difficult to see well and infrequently reported in this district. A Madagascar Harrier-Hawk also began soaring and was peppered by Crested Drongos, plus a pair of Madagascar Buzzards meant it had been a fruitful hawk-watch. Interestingly, on this day we found both Madagascar Pygmy-Kingfisher (at our hotel) and Madagascar Malachite Kingfisher (at lunch), individuals that had smashed into windows. Luckily the Malachite was collected and placed in the shade and later flew off. We did the same for the Pygmy and it made some recovery, but was still sitting with its eyes closed when we left.  We drove back to Tana where we did some birding around the hotel. The major highlights were finding the chick of a Madagascar Nightjar and a great view of a Barn Owl.

Our flight to Tulear took off right on schedule, and we were transported to a new habitat zone, the semiarid coast of southwest Madagascar. Immediately there were quite a few new birds for the trip list, like the Namaqua Dove and abundant Madagascar Lark. First up we visited the lovely D’Antsokoray Arboretum that showcases many of the bizarre plants that make up the Spiny Forest. A tiny Grey-Brown Mouse-Lemur looked like a cute little gremlin suspended upside down like a microbat. A Green-capped Coua gave the most unbelievable views. We found several Warty Chameleons and a Madagascar Ground Boa. We made the drive north to Isalo National Park through the sapphire fields region. Two Madagascar Pond-Herons in complete breeding plumage were a highlight, as was a Hamerkop. The spectacular landscape of Isalo came into view, ancient dissected sandstone outcrops with patches of humid forest and abundant Borassus palms. A storm with gale force winds and lightning swept through, so we opted to have a quiet afternoon enjoying the moody views of the vast panorama.

Ring-tailed Lemur

Ring-tailed Lemur— Photo: Dion Hobcroft


A clear morning dawned and we were soon having a good look at our first target species, the Forest Rock-Thrush. We proceeded on to Zombitse, one of my favorite birding sites; here we were teamed up with Lucien. A pair of Cuckoo-Rollers swept into view and gave great close perched views of this enigmatic species. We entered the deep sand vine forests and began searching for the key species. First up was a female Rufous Vanga, a tricky species on this itinerary. Then we worked on the Giant Coua, reminiscent of a chachalaca with purple and blue facial skin. Our encounter with this species was fantastic. Next we searched for a Coquerel’s Coua they had staked out at a nest with success. The highly localized Appert’s Tetraka was located in a mixed flock, a pair foraging close to the ground. On several occasions we had this rare species less than a meter from us. We enjoyed the antics of a troop of Verreaux’s Sifakas, amongst the most beautiful of all lemurs with their snowy-white and chocolate pelage and piercing golden gaze. A tree hollow produced a day-roosting Zombitse Sportive Lemur, again the golden gaze giving the species a perpetually astonished look. We had one last “hurrah” at Zombitse when Fano and Lucien tracked down the lovely White-browed Owl in a dense thicket, and we appreciated great looks at this often elusive species.

Leaving Zombitse we returned to Isalo where we hatched another plan, taking our picnic lunch into a shaded forest gully. We enjoyed our lunch with two troops of Ring-tailed Lemurs, Madagascar’s most famous lemur, with their distinctive barber pole banner tails. We also enjoyed a fantastic encounter with a family of Red-fronted Brown Lemurs, a first for this itinerary, keeping our good luck with lemurs on this tour on a roll! Like Zombitse though, we had one last hurrah when a fine female Madagascar Buttonquail came tootling past and allowed everyone a great look. With all the targets in the bag, we had a relaxing afternoon for photography, swimming, or hiking. Good views of a Madagascar Ground Boa were reported.

Sickle-billed Vanga

Sickle-billed Vanga— Photo: Dion Hobcroft


We made tracks the following day, retracing our journey south towards Tulear and then north to the coast of Ifaty. The highlight of the drive was watching Sakalava Weaver males working on and displaying at their nests. As we approached Ifaty on the now new sealed road, we had a stroke of luck finding a distant Humblot’s Heron, now a rarely seen giant endemic heron. The views were not great though, so we thought we would return later when the light would be better and hopefully the bird a bit closer. Shorebirds at the estuary included numerous Sanderling, Curlew Sandpiper, Greenshank, and Whimbrel. 

Once settled into our very comfortable hotel with bird-rich gardens, we made our first exploration of the nearby Spiny Forest. Here the team of Freddy and Riddafy (aka Hustlegang) set to work, and it is fair to say we had one of the best afternoons of wildlife watching I have ever had. We started with good views of both Running Coua and Crested Coua, before finding a mixed flock that held both Thamnornis and Archbold’s Newtonia. We moved along through the amazing plant community, visiting the nests of Madagascar Sparrowhawk, Madagascar Harrier-Hawk and, best of all, Madagascar Cuckoo-Hawk. All of the raptors were in attendance at the nest and all gave amazing views. A pair of Subdesert Mesites were found on the ground and flushed up to perch, adopting their curious cryptic posture. While enjoying the curious mesites, a pair of Sickle-billed Vangas turned up, churring and vocalizing, providing astonishing views. It was a case of which way to look. There was more to come, as we went to visit the nest of a Lafresnaye’s Vanga. Wandering out, Riffany found a Spider Tortoise, and we watched this beautiful chelonid bury itself into the sand and leaf litter. Then he found a Lesser Hedgehog Tenrec that eventually unfurled itself and dashed into thick cover. Our last sighting was of a family of Grey Mouse-Lemurs hidden in a vine tangle, getting more active as the sun lowered. It had been an extraordinary afternoon.

Verreaux's Coua

Verreaux’s Coua— Photo: Dion Hobcroft


Having been so successful the day before, we returned to the Spiny Forest for one last key target: the fabulous Long-tailed Ground-Roller. After some effort we located a single bird and watched as it unconcernedly foot-paddled, searching for hidden invertebrates in the sandy substrate. Folks on the tour rated this amongst the birds of the trip. We finally caught up with the crisply contrasting White-headed Vanga and then moved along to the saline flats where the rare Madagascar Plover makes its home. After spreading out we soon had a pair in the scope for excellent views. In the afternoon we walked around some brackish lakes. We added some birds to the trip list like Red-knobbed Coot, Eurasian Little Grebe, and Little Stint. Scrutinizing the coastline turned up some Terek Sandpipers, a close Humblot’s Heron that gave a good scope view in the reduced heat haze, and a surprise Greater Flamingo seen flying along the shoreline.

We left early the following morning, and upon reaching Tulear port we were whisked by speedboat to the superb Anakao Resort. Fano had been working on a plan and after breakfast we jumped into an all-wheel-drive vehicle and drove along a remote desert sand track to the Tsimanapetsotsa Reserve. It proved to be another fabulous day as first we visited a large lake that held good numbers of Greater and a sprinkling of Lesser flamingos. We wandered into a rocky escarpment with ancient Baobab trees and caves with clear lakes that held blind fish and the rare Dumeril’s Boa. Giant fig trees had roots reaching down into the sinkholes producing a tangle of tree growth that was impressive. A giant Radiated Tortoise, a genuinely wild one, was found in this desert oasis. We also found Verreaux’s Coua, Lafresnaye’s Vanga, Green-capped Coua, and a Ring-tailed Lemur. We were on the search for one last key endemic, and a patient wait at a brackish soak produced a drinking pair of Madagascar Sandgrouse, typically always a difficult bird to encounter. Tsimanapetsotsa had been a trip highlight with its stark scenery and rare desert wildlife.

Red-shouldered Vanga

Red-shouldered Vanga— Photo: Dion Hobcroft


We made a quick visit to Nosy Ve, a small coral atoll in the bay across from Anakao. This is a key site for nesting Red-tailed Tropicbirds, and we enjoyed watching these truly bizarre birds in flight display or tucked in under thick bushes. The site is increasingly disturbed, and there was no sign of any Crab Plovers. We returned to the mainland and set up in the astonishing Hotel Bakuba run by Bruno and Patricia. In the late afternoon we scoured the port area for Crab Plovers, but there was no luck with this. We moved on to La Table where once again with Freddy and Riddafy we began searching for the rare Red-shouldered Vanga. It took quite a while for Freddy to make the breakthrough, but with a bit of patient shepherding and bushwalking we enjoyed fine views of this, our last key endemic in this region of Madagascar.

After breakfast we strolled around some coastal ponds enjoying our last looks at Subdesert Brush-Warblers and Gray-headed Lovebirds. Our flight was on time, and we spent the afternoon relaxing in Antananarivo doing a bit of shopping and the like. We did have one major stroke of luck though, when we located a perched Sooty Falcon at the airport that gave walkaway views! This is a scarce wintering migrant from the Middle East and always a great bird to get.

Fano managed to get permission to visit Lac Alarobia just before we flew home. There had been a dispute between staff and the landowner of this private estate, and we were lucky to get in! We had two very good sightings here, as first I found a Fulvous Whistling-Duck, the first I had ever seen in Madagascar. While enjoying this rarity, in flew a fine female Madagascar Harrier, a species I had called “a mythical bird that does not exist” based on Sean Dooley’s reference to the Grey Falcon in his book “The Big Twitch.” Well it does exist, and we enjoyed it as it dove into thick cover while nesting egrets thrust their beaks at it. It was a grand finale to what had been a very good tour. With special thanks to Fano, Julian, Coco, Orlan, Freddy, Riddafy, Tuvu, and Fedy for making this trip to Madagascar so wonderful.