This was my fifth run-through for Field Guides of this comprehensive tour of Madagascar, which Field Guides has been running since 1986, this year in a reconfigured smaller group context that worked very nicely. We again had a great tour of this fascinating country, albeit with lots of traveling on slow roads and the worse than usual vagaries of Air Madagascar, which made significant late changes to 5 out of 6 flights, costing us an afternoon at Ifaty and our morning boat trip from Mahajunga as a result.
For the fourth time in recent years we offered an extension to the Masoala Peninsula in quest of some of the most charismatic Madagascar species. This is not for the faint-hearted -- though this year we had good calm sea crossings both ways, and that overnight in Maroantsetra was a great innovation. The walking on the extension is up and down on rough and sometimes slippery trails, so moderate fitness is required. The trek for the Helmet Vanga on the first afternoon was amazingly hot and humid, everyone was soaked with sweat -- BUT you get to see some wonderful birds! The Helmet Vanga had a new nest site which took about 90 minutes of rough walking but paid off nicely. Red-ruffed Lemurs were very vocal and showed well, and we had great looks at both the elusive Red-breasted and the striking Blue Coua, Madagascar Pratincole, a couple of great sightings of obliging Short-legged Ground-Rollers, plus an amazing four Scaly Ground-Rollers on one day! Brown Mesite was again very obliging, with good close views thanks to the local guides; getting this one anywhere can be a real challenge. We also got to see Madagascar Ibis at a nest after a glimpse of one alongside a trail for a few. Masoala for this group proved to be one of the major tour highlights, which was gratifying.
Hubbing back to Tana and meeting up with more of the group for the main tour, we then set off for Andasibe/Perinet where a brilliant Madagascar Flufftail at a small marsh was exciting. I love that lodge where you can hear the Indri from your room (be sure to listen to the audio clip in the list below alongside the Indri entry--what a great sound!), though this year a termite hatch made the first evening memorable for some of us as well! The road up to Mantadia is now really bad, but on this trip we had two 4WD vehicles for this section so it worked out fine. Small bird numbers seemed down again this year, but nonetheless we got great looks at the rare Nuthatch Vanga, plus Blue, White-headed, and Red-tailed vangas, and Ward's Flycatcher (Vanga).
A very wet morning saw some of the group get a brief look at Madagascar Rail, and Indri Ridge gave soggy Diademed Sifakas and a morose Indri, but that afternoon it cleared off and Nestor, (actually on this way home), gave an amazing performance, walking away then repeatedly calling us along to come see Giant Leaf-tailed Gecko, then a chameleon, next an adult Madagascar Long-eared Owl, then Red-fronted Coua followed by Indri, with an extraordinary interaction with a delightful group of Goodman's Mouse Lemurs that were in the road in daylight. Gerard thinks their nest had come down so they were disoriented, scurrying about under a bus and across the road, with one individual coming out and climbing up my left leg! Wonderful, cute little creatures -- we spent about half an hour trying to shoo them off the road and watching the goings-on, it was just a magic afternoon.
Madagascar Long-eared Owl had two fine, white fluffy babies with dark face masks that sat in pine trees by the road, and with the adult female there next day for good measure. Madagascar Scops-Owl also showed beautifully at roost in a cypress just at head height.
Lemurs were excellent, with great looks and sounds from Indri, standing right by a pair that gave a truly wonderful heart-stopping noise, and nice views of Diademed Sifaka in the rain, plus Crossley's Dwarf Lemur (Furry-eared on our checklist) congregating at a fruiting tree at the lodge and running down the power lines. A lucky sighting was Black-and-white Ruffed Lemur up at Mantadia, with lovely looks at several of these striking animals in the forest there, complete with their loud vocalizations.
Next we flew down from Tana to Fort Dauphin for the Berenty section, arriving mid-day and braving the still-rough 97km drive over the worst road of the trip, though thankfully the bridges are now all fixed up and the first 10km of road has been redone. Berenty is always a winner for the wonderful tame Ring-tailed lemurs and dancing Verreaux's Sifakas, and this year again they lived up to expectations, with some great interactions here. The night walk here got us Madagascar Nightjar and Torotoroka Scops-Owl seen very well as it called, and Madagascar Sandgrouse eventually cooperated next morning, as did Giant Coua and a wonderful daylight roosting Torotoroka Scops-Owl as well as both Barn and White-browed owls. Back at Fort Dauphin our flight to Tana was delayed, but thankfully the flight to Tulear was not cancelled (as it had been for some tours recently), and we left Tana at 7pm for Tulear.
This year we had two nights at Ifaty, which was just as well as Air Mad did not get us into Tulear until 8pm and we had to drive up in the dark. Once again the local guides here were great, and we duly notched Gray-headed Lovebird, Madagascar Sparrowhawk, Sickle-billed and Lafresnaye's vangas at nests, Long-tailed Ground-Roller, the bizarre Subdesert Mesite, Thamnornis, Running and Green-capped couas, Banded Kestrel, and Archbold's Newtonia. The rare Madagascar Plover showed very well nearby as did (Madagascar) Three-banded Plover en route back to Tulear for two nights.
The boat ride across to Nosy Ve next day was, as ever with boat rides, not without its challenges, with a slightly bumpy crossing. Still, we got beautiful Red-tailed Tropicbirds very well, and Littoral Rock-Thrush and Subdesert Brush-Warber were very obliging, making the crossing well worthwhile.
A late afternoon foray to La Table netted us Verreaux's Coua nicely, and Mosa was star as he knew where the nest of the rare Red-shouldered Vanga was located, and we had great looks at a female sat on it, maybe the first time the nest has been seen? A Lafresnaye's Vanga was also a good pick-up here as we had only seen a nesting bird at Parc Mosa.
Driving up to Ranohira we spent a couple of hours at Zombitse Forest, where it was mercifully overcast and for once not baking hot. Appert's Greenbul was seen quickly and well, what looked to be an Eleonora's Falcon was at the car park briefly, and both Coquerel's and Giant couas showed very well, with a large Oustalet's Chameleon for good measure and a Zombitse Sportive-Lemur, (formerly Hubbard's but now seemingly rebranded) as well as an engaging troop of Verreaux's Sifakas, with one hanging at full stretch upside-down for ages.
The lovely sandstone hotel at Ranohira is always a pleasure, with great rooms and beautiful surroundings as well as nice food, a welcome break in the long haul north, and with Benson's Rock-Thrush thrown in as well as a bonus Madagascar Pond-Heron and an unexpected Nile Crocodile.
We then journeyed north with a long travel day to Ranomafana for three nights, and a whole swag of exciting rainforest specialties -- Rufous-headed and Pitta-like ground-rollers, Sunbird Asity and even better a pair of Yellow-bellied Asities at the nest, a good view of the rare Henst's Goshawk, Cryptic Warbler and the very hard to see Brown Emutail at a nest, plus a Madagascar Yellowbrow calling and circling around us as it gave tantalizing glimpses, these last two species being amongst the hardest to see on a tour. Meller's Duck and Gray Emutail showed briefly up at the marsh. Lemurs were also great, with lovely looks at the last surviving male Greater Bamboo Lemur here, plus Red-fronted Brown Lemurs, and the diminutive Brown Mouse-Lemur and a lucky encounter with a troupe of the very elusive Milne-Edwards Sifakas one morning before we left.
We drove back via Ambositre, and did some cultural sightseeing there and at Antsirabe, with visits to the woodcarvers, embroidery works, and zebu horn workers shops, which helped break up the journey. We tried for Madagascar Snipe at one spot, even hiring a couple of what I termed "snipeurs" to go walk through the wet vegetation, all to no avail. Happily next day we got three at a site not too far out of Tana, with very nice flight views. An unexpected Marsh Owl right by the road was also a treat; we watched it perched for some time.
Our flight to Mahajunga was in late afternoon this year, so we had time to go to Lac Alarobia as usual and this was excellent, with our first Humblot's Heron, an unexpected Meller's Duck, Hottentot Teal, and Madagascar Pond-Heron, plus nice looks at the nesting Squaccos and Black Herons. Driving out from Mahajunga we made reasonable time to Ampijoroa at Ankarafantsika NP, arriving not too long after dark.
Next day here was terrific; they had had heavy rain the day before and activity was really sparked up, plus the excellent local guides really knew what we wanted to find. We began before breakfast, unusually this year up on the sandy plateau first, and in the relative cool for a change. Here we scored big- time with a family group of 3 Van Dam's Vangas -- Gerard had recently spent 5 days here and heard it just once, so we were really lucky to latch onto this easily missed species. Red-capped Coua showed nicely, then after breakfast we had two sets of amazing encounters with Schlegel's Asity, with two very obliging pairs giving fantastic views, we walked away and left the second pair eventually, definitely one of the birds of the trip. White-breasted Mesite also performed well and was encountered twice. Madagascar Jacana was seen at two sites, we got onto Allen's Gallinule too, then the guides found us Madagascar Fish-Eagle sitting in a gum by the road just as we finished lunch, all in all a terrific visit here and with Coquerel's Sifakas showing off as we were leaving.
Air Mad did their thing and wrecked our chances for the Betsiboka boat trip next day, with a 10:00 a.m. departure meaning we had no time to catch the low tide. Still, back in Tana we went to Tsimbazzaze Zoo, where we saw some lovely lemurs and some forlorn Fossas in cramped cages, plus an unexpected Madagascar Pond-Heron at what used to be a major breeding site for this species.
Mauritius reverted to type and gave us a foul, wet foggy early morning. Rather to my surprise we got great looks at Mauritius Fody and some Pink Pigeons and later when it had cleared up a very responsive male Mauritius Cuckooshrike, whilst the Mauritius Bulbul also eventually showed well at the third site we tried. Our site for the major non-passerine rarities came good for Pink Pigeon, and some superb Mauritius Parakeets which were calling really well. The Mauritius Kestrel was at one of the customary nest boxes, and we had great looks at a male coming in and out and a female tearing up a nestling bird to feed the chicks, a much better set of circumstances than the more usual ones sitting in the nest box.
Our final late-afternoon trip was down to La Roche qui Pleure for a seawatch (aka staring at distant dots), which gave us a few Wedge-tailed Shearwaters, plus several Barau's Petrel and a far-distant Pterodroma that was probably "Round Island" Petrel, but which we lost too soon to confirm.
Departure next day to Reunion was straightforward, and for once we had time to make a scenic circuit of much of the spectacular island, seeing the lava flows en route, before views of Barau's Petrel coming in by the river mouth before dusk. Our final morning birding in the lovely native forest at La Roche Ecrite got us more or less everything, though sadly being denied playback again cost us the Reunion Cuckooshrike with one calling very briefly some way away. Still, a fine male and then a female plumage Reunion Harrier were great, and the eponymous Stonechat, Gray White-eye, Olive White-eye, Bulbul, and Paradise-Flycatcher all performed nicely.
Star experiences of our trip were:
--Helmet Vanga as always, one of the planet's great species.
--I can't pick between the ground-rollers, they are all charismatic and exciting to track down.
--Schlegel's Asity was wonderful this year, and we met the man who was the star of a famous twitch here many years back, when the group missed it but he stayed on and saw it, going back to Tana via bush taxi (15 hours). He was here cleaning up the various species that have now become available since that time; Madagascar is one of those places where it is better to have come later than done it years back!
--That nest of Yellow-bellied Sunbird Asity was fantastic and we saw both sexes nicely.
--The Madagascar Yellowbrow leading us such a dance.
--All 3 mesites once again, just such odd birds.
--The 6 species of owl we saw in daylight, just amazing.
--I must also include the Goodman's Mouse-Lemur experience, which was just incredible, and those extraordinary Uroplatus leaf-tailed geckoes.
My thanks to a very pleasant and good-humored group; it was fun taking you all round on what is quite a long and taxing trip. Particular thanks to the brilliant Gerard, our long-time local fixer and birder, to the various skilled and entertaining local guides Nestor and Laurent, Benoit, Mosa, Jean-Chris, Ndrema, and Jean-Claude, and to Sharon in the Field Guides office for good logistics on a complex and difficult itinerary. I enjoyed sharing all these wonderful sightings in Madagascar and the Mascarenes with you, and we look forward to another chance to do the same in another part of the world. Safe travels, good birding, and Happy New Year to you all!
KEYS FOR THIS LIST
One of the following keys may be shown in brackets for individual species as appropriate: * = heard only, I = introduced, E = endemic, N = nesting, a = austral migrant, b = boreal migrant
Papilio antenor is the large spectacular swallowtail from Parc Mosa.
Trachylepis (Mabuya) was a skink we saw at Berenty.
Two mystery snakes include something called Iphiticus miniatus which we saw at Zombitse.
The Spider Tortoise (Pyxis arachnoides) is a species of tortoise in the Testudinidae family. We were lucky enough to see 3 at Ifaty spiny forest, endemic to Madagascar and one of only two species in the genus Pyxis. Very little is known about the life cycle of this endangered tortoise, which is believed to live for up to 70 years. The remaining tortoises are found only in south western Madagascar, where they inhabit the spiny vegetation of the sandy coastal areas. They feed on young leaves, insect larvae, and even the droppings of larger animals.
Other oddities include the hissing cockroach we saw at Ifaty, and the memorable kung-fu cricket that waved its limbs at us when disturbed from under some bark on a log.
Giant land snails were also seen at Ranomafana and Andasibe, native here.
I can find nothing accessible in the way of books on Madagascar butterflies, and they proved particularly vexatious to photograph on this trip. We did see the spectacular Papilio antenor at the spiny forest, and a beautiful black and blue swallowtail at puddles at Mantadia.
Many of the photos are on the Internet Bird Collection (IBC), a free access site via Lynx Edicions (publishers of the classic Handbook of Birds of World). It is a superb collection of videos, photos and sound cuts and I usually post pictures and sound cuts from the tours here, as well as on the Field Guides gallery for that particular tour.
I also recommend the xenocanto website which has cuts of almost all the world's bird species, I contribute cuts from most tours.
Folks were also asking about the IOC World Checklist of Birds, a free access downloadable Excel file that gets updated every 4 months, version 4.4 has just been published. Go to worldbirdnames.org or google IOC and ignore the Olympics stuff!
Totals for the tour: 201 bird taxa and 32 mammal taxa