Madagascar is an extraordinary place, though what was once the Great Green Island of the 16th century is now the Great Red Island, due to the rampant deforestation that has destroyed most of the country's forest cover. Traveling around, you almost get the feeling that you're in the future, with few birds and huge areas of manmade habitats and villages -- but then you come to the precious fragments of the reserves and national parks. Here, the wonders still exist and you will see something marvelous at every site: one of the 100+ endemic birds, mammals, chameleons, insects, plants or the very friendly local people.
This was my sixth Field Guides tour (and my seventh Madagascar tour overall), in what proved to be an odd year; due to the effects of the current, massive El Nino, it was unusually dry in some places but unusually wet in others. Madagascar Air also proved more than usually chaotic this year, canceling our flight to Maroantsetra and then canceling its replacement the next day. We improvised with a visit to Lac Alarobia in Tana, and saw one of our very few Madagascar Pond Herons, the tour's only Black Egrets, and two very unexpected Meller's Ducks, plus White-throated Rail-- and we timed our leaving very nicely, just as a storm came in!
We devised the strategy of turning up at the airport very early the following day, and acting surprised when told of the cancellation, playing the old "stranded international tourists" card. Amazingly, this worked, and we were soon on our very own Twin Otter, which took us to Tamatave and then on up to Maroantsetra. Our troubles were not over, however, as a huge storm had dumped tons of rain on the area, and the Bay of Antongil was much too rough for us to attempt a crossing to Masoala; even the fishing pirogues were grounded.
We spent the night at the Maroantsetra Resort (now well past its best), and were able to come up with a backup plan: going to a new site at the Parc Naturelle at Makira. This involved a 4-hour boat ride, then a 3-hour trek up into the hills to stay at a research station, which had two chalets and tents for the rest of us. The group was up for it, and we set off like some Victorian exploration expedition, with 22 porters, 2 local guides, 4 cooks, 2 boatmen and 2 watchmen along.
The weather gods did not smile on us the next day either, with quite heavy rain overnight and in the morning, but we had a good walk along a track through great forest, seeing Madagascar Pygmy Kingfisher and hearing both Helmet and Bernier's vangas, while the rare Silky Sifaka showed very nicely. A night walk near the camp gave us a marvelous close Giant Leaf-tailed Gecko (Uroplatus fimbriatus), two lovely Greater Dwarf Lemurs and a sportive lemur of what may be a new taxon (given the adoption of the phylogenetic species concept for all the various taxa in this family).
Happily, the following day dawned fine and clear, and we went up onto the ridge right by camp, getting great views of two Helmet Vangas, with Bernier's Vanga also showing briefly and Short-legged Ground-Roller very nicely. We even saw the Helmet Vangas later from the camp itself -- a nice pickup for those who had not done the trek. This new reserve is a great spot and has much the same avifauna as Masoala does, so it is a viable alternate if required.
Andasibe/Perinet/Mantadia came next. This is always a lovely spot and we had wonderful views of Indri on several occasions, away from the tourist mecca at Indri Ridge too, which was even better. We also saw the rare Diademed Sifaka up at Mantadia, and were treated to an Indri chorus right at the lodge on our last morning. Laurent did well to get us fine views of the rare Scaly Ground-Roller at Mantadia; this species had not been seen at the park for some time, and we'd only heard it at Makira, so it was a great catch-up, with the first of several Pitta-like Ground-Rollers also showing very well here. Nuthatch Vanga was a good bonus, and the rare Madagascar Grebe was on its usual pond, with Meller's Duck again for company.
Vanga activity again seemed low this year, but we did see Blue Vanga nicely, and the guides had a staked out Madagascar Scops-Owl that sat stoically as dozens of gawking passing tourists peered up at it. I must check that the coast is clear before we go in next time! A nest of Madagascar Crested Ibis was a fantastic find (and right by the road!); this can be a tough species to see well. The guides once again had Collared Nightjar staked out atop a tree-fern nest. Madagascar Long-eared Owl was elusive, but we did get a brief flyover and heard an adult call back a couple of times, while a lucky few got views of Madagascar Flufftail on the first of many efforts; they seemed oddly unresponsive this year. As we left the park, Madagascar Pratincole showed nicely when viewed from someone's yard overlooking the river, and we had the unexpected bonus of a Madagascar Partridge nearby.
To break up the long drive to Ranomafana, we overnighted at Ambositre as usual, with the Marolefy family musicians playing some very pleasant Malagasy songs for us as we ate our meal. A check of a small marsh the next day brought us the rare Madagascar Snipe, then it was down to Ranomafana for three nights.
Highlights here were varied, as ever, but the park was very dry and lemurs seemed scarcer than usual -- we saw Golden Bamboo Lemur but then got Jean-Chris's son soundly told off for losing track of the Greater Bamboo Lemur as we dallied with a Brown Mesite instead! A tiny and feeble-looking Brookesia Chameleon was a nice find here too, as was an astonishing pair of the positively psychedelically colored O'Shaughnessy's Chameleon.
A Yellow-bellied Sunbird Asity pair had a nest, but there was no activity there and I think it was abandoned. Happily, some flowering Bakerella nearby yielded two adults -- a great rarity we have done well with of late. The marsh at Vohiparara gave us good looks at vocal Gray Emutail and more Meller's Ducks, while the colorful Mantella frogs were diverting. A late afternoon storm washed out our walk along the trail, but (happily) we had seen Rufous-headed Ground-Roller that morning -- barely vocalizing this year and hard to find, but eventually showing very well; I even managed a photo at last!
Another very long drive down to Isalo and the simply gorgeous Jardin du Roy Hotel yielded little in the way of birds, but Benson's Rock-Thrush at the lodge was good next day.
Zombitse NP was very good, with nice cloud cover so it was not too hot. The local guides got us nesting Appert's Tetraka and Rufous Vanga, plus Coquerel's Coua, Cuckoo Roller and White-browed Ow. On then to Toliara, and then 90 minutes on a rutted gravel toad north to arrive at Ifaty/Mangily by late afternoon. The following day is always one of my favorites, as the spiny forest at Parc Mosa is always outstanding. Once again, the local lads did a fantastic job of reeling in the endemics, beagling out to find each target and whistling when they had them lined up -- the fifth and final ground-roller of the trip showed beautifully, with great views of a Long-tailed. In addition, a Subdesert Mesite sat on a nest, as did a Lafresnaye's Vanga, Madagascar Sparrowhawk and Banded Kestrel showed very well, the elusive Running Coua came good, Green-capped Coua showed for most, and the amazing Sickle-billed Vanga sat up nicely. Thamnornis showed well early on, and the lads even corralled an Archbold's Newtonia for us, so it was an extraordinary couple of hours, a wonderful experience.
The very rare Madagascar Plover was obliging on the usual salines, and late that afternoon, we went out to the arid thorn scrub at La Table, where Freddy had Verreaux's Coua on a nest, and then -- even better -- a Red-shouldered Vanga doing the same, with a changeover of the sexes incubating as we watched. Green-capped Coua also had a nest, and eventually showed very well for us all.
Our boat trip to Nosy Ve next day was calm and dry, and we had great looks at Crab Plover, Red-tailed Tropicbird and Littoral Rock-Thrush. That afternoon, most of us went to the local markets and saw the Aepyornis eggs, plus shopped for assorted local crafts -- a fun visit.
The flight back to Tana late mid-afternoon the next day was one to forget, as a thunderstorm near the city meant a rough flight and a divergence. After refueling at Tamatave along the coast, we tried again, and conditions were much better.
The journey down to Tolagnaro/ Fort Dauphin the next day was mercifully straightforward, then we had the usual interminable four hours on the awful road to Berenty, arriving in time for lunch and the first of many Ring-tailed Lemurs. An afternoon walk was dominated by massing clouds, but we dodged the raindrops and had great looks at Giant Couas stalking along the forest floor, and a nesting Madagascar Cuckoo-Hawk. A night walk in the spiny forest gave us White-footed Sportive Lemurs, a Madagascar Nightjar singing atop an octopus tree, and fantastic views of calling Torotoroka Scops-Owls, plus assorted chameleons, a scorpion, and a roosting Crested Coua.
The next day dawned very threatening (though I'd told the group I'd never had rain at Berenty), and sure enough heavy rain commenced by mid-morning. Gerard has visited the area for 35 years, and this was the first time he'd had rain in the daytime at this time of year. The only compensation was that the usual baking heat was alleviated and the remains of the Berenty road when wet were quite a sight! We did manage to see roosting Barn Owls, Madagascar Flying-Foxes and some amazingly tame Madagascar Nightjars roosting in the spiny thickets, plus Gray-brown Mouse-Lemurs, and a spider tortoise. Verreaux's Sifakas also danced very nicely for us, and we watched them feeding for ages, a major trip highlight.
After a surprisingly routine flight to the north, we had a terrific visit to Ankarafantsika NP. Yet again, we had an atypically wet early morning, but we saw the stars of the show very well in spite of it: Schlegel's Asity, Van Dam's Vanga, White-breasted Mesite, Madagascar Fish-Eagle, and Madagascar Jacana. A male Rhinoceros Chameleon was a great find on the night walk too, the eleventh chameleon species for the trip!
This year, we even managed to squeeze in an afternoon boat trip on the Betsiboka River for the rare Madagascar (Sacred) Ibis and Bernier's Teal, both seen nicely, and with the tide just barely low enough to still give us a shot at seeing them. A fine adult Yellow-billed Stork was an unexpected addition too.
Next came Mauritius, thankfully with good weather this year, and it all went quite smoothly -- except for our unusually protracted arrival, when we got to immigration just behind another jet-load of passengers! A stop at Pigeon Wood got us very nice Pink Pigeons in a natural setting, and a fine male Mauritius Fody, while Bassin Blanc produced two of the rare Mauritius White-eyes, and a distant hearing of the now critically endangered Mauritius Cuckooshrike. Bel Ombre was very good, producing a great view of a female Mauritius Kestrel, and some very active and noisy Echo (Mauritius) Parakeets, which really posed for photos. Sadly, we were not able to go to Ile aux Aigrettes, so a substitute sea-watch involved a scenic tour of half the island, then quite good looks at Wedge-tailed Shearwaters and a couple of Barau's Petrels, plus distant Bridled Terns and Lesser Noddy.
Reunion was not too rushed this year, so we did a scenic tour of the island and saw the drolly named Cascade Niagara, the quite extensive lava flows, and two very nice pairs of Reunion Harrier, then went to the Etang du Gol to see the Barau's Petrels readying themselves to fly in to their montane nest sites. The next day at La Roche Ecrite was a good finale too, with a fine start and the rain only coming in as we left, though the trail there was the wettest and most slippery I have ever seen it due to heavy rain the day before. Happily we were well-trained for it, and saw all of the remaining endemics very well, with the Reunion Paradise-Flycatcher and Reunion Cuckooshrike showing very nicely -- the latter my first sighting since 2010, and an excellent finale to the tour.
Favorite sightings from this tour are remarkably hard to do as there is just so much, Amongst birds the Helmet Vanga is an obvious standout, but the Sickle-billed Vanga runs it close, the various couas, ground-rollers and the mesites are pretty darn amazing, and both Velvet and Schlegel's Asity were stars.
Lemurs were a big hit of course and the sifakas, ring-tails and mouse-lemurs were delightful, with the Silky Sifaka being a new one for the tour. Chameleons were also unusually well-represented with 11 species seen, and the tour had so many marvels it is invidious to single things out!
Nov 5 Lac Alarobia after cancelled flight to Masoala
Nov 6 Maroantsetra river trip due to rough conditions precluding crossing to Masoala
Nov 7 River trip and trek to Antsahabe Research site at Makira Parc Naturelle
Nov 8 Antsahabe Ridge
Nov 9 Antsahabe camp area then back to Maroantsetra
Nov 10 Maroantsetra to Tana, then down to Andasibe
Nov 11 Mantadia am and Andasibe pm
Nov 12 Andasibe Indri Ridge and roadsides
Nov 13 Andasibe/ Tana/ Ambositre
Nov 14 Ambositre-Ranomafana
Nov 15 Vohiparara Trail and marsh
Nov 16 Ranomafana Park HQ trails and Vohiparara pm
Nov 17 Ranomafana to Fianarantsoa and then to Isalo
Nov 18 Jardin du Roy area, then to Zombitse NP, then on to Toliara and Mangily
Nov 19 Parc Mosa, Mangily salines and then to La Table and Toliara
Nov 20 Nosy Ve and Anakau, then Toliara markets
Nov 21 Toliara to Tana via Tamatave
Nov 22 Tana to Tolagnaro and then Berenty
Nov 23 Berenty, then to Tolagnaro (Fort Dauphin)
Nov 24 Tolagnaro to Tana with Madgasikara Airways Embraer turboprop.
Nov 25 Tana to Majunga and then Ankarafantsika/Ampijoroa
Nov 26 Ankarafantsika area and Lac Ravelobe
Nov 27 Ankarafantsika early morning then to Mahajunga and the Betsiboka estuary early pm
Nov 28 Mahajunga to Tana, then shopping at two sites
Nov 29 Departure pm for Mauritius
Nov 30 Mauritius Black River Gorges area and Ile aux Aigrettes pm
Dec 1 Mauritius to Reunion, then lava flows and Gol estuary
Dec 2 La Roche Ecrite trail, Reunion, then assorted departures home late pm
My thanks again to a very pleasant and good-humored group, which included sundry stone egg collectors (which may now include me among their number, all Steve's fault), bulbous-plant experts (note the hyphen here), photographers, and a very varied knowledge and skill set which made for an extra dimension to the tour; it was fun taking you all round on what can be a long and taxing trip, made extra vexing this year by odd weather and the vagaries of Air Mad. I was really pleased that we were all able to do the extra trek to save the extension; not every group would have been up for this and everyone did really well.
Particular thanks to the brilliant Gerard, our long-time local fixer and birder, and to the various skilled and entertaining local guides: Armand, Olivier, Nestor and Laurent, Jean-Chris, Freddy and the lads, Benoit, and Ndrema and his wife, plus Jean-Claude on Mauritius and Frederic on Reunion. Special thanks to Sharon in the Field Guides office for good logistics on such a complex and difficult itinerary. I enjoyed sharing all these wonderful sightings in Madagascar and the Mascarenes with you, and 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
We had numerous other sightings of interest:
A rat from the mouse lemur feeding site at Ranomafana is apparently something called Eliurus tanala, the Tanala tufted tailed-rat.
An amazing pale colored Vespertilionid bat found by Steve and Sharon at the Bamboo Club looks to be Commerson's Leaf-nosed bat Hipposideros commersoni.
Trachylepis sp. (Mabuya) was a skink we saw at Andasibe.
The Rhinoceros Chameleon Furcifer rhinoceratus was seen very nicely as we ended our night walk near Ankarafantsika, the eleventh species of the trip and actually a new one for Phil too. It has the most bizarre head shape with a serrated and rather blunt horn poking out laterally from the forehead. Endemic to the dry western forests and a very good find
The big-eyed snake Mimophis sp. with a small one in the riparian forest then an adult later.
Trachylepis (Mabuya) was a skink we saw at Berenty.
The Spider Tortoise (Pyxis arachnoides) is a species of tortoise in the Testudinidae family. We were lucky enough to see 1 at Ifaty spiny forest and another at Berenty; it is 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.
Quite a good tour for them, we saw what I think is Boophis bottae at Mantadia, being small and green with red eyes.
A striking bluish-white frog with orange feet was seen at Maroantsetra.
A small green frog with a white facial V stripe and small dark dots on a pale green background was seen at the Croix du Sud Hotel, one I had never seen before for sure.
A dark brown one with a reddish face stripe and short legs was on the track near Ankarafantsika on the night walk.
Other oddities include the hissing cockroach we saw at Ifaty, which I duly tape recorded, and a couple of small yellowish-grey scorpions at Berenty.
An amazing red and orange ferocious looking robber fly with an imposing set of mandibles was at Ankarafantsika, quite daunting I must say!
Flatid leaf bug Phromnea rosea is a member of the planthopper family and endemic to Madagascar, we saw the extraordinary white flower-like nymphs at several dry sites, with some folks seeing the rose-colored adults too.
Giant land snails were also seen at Ranomafana, Andasibe and Ankarafantsika, they are native here.
I can find nothing accessible in the way of books on Madagascar butterflies, and they again proved particularly vexatious to photograph on this trip, though I did manage a few and have put some on the Smugmug website for this tour. We did see the spectacular Papilio antenor at the spiny forest, and a beautiful black and blue swallowtail at puddles at Mantadia.
Two lovely moths were the reddish and purple large-sized Antherina suraka at Ankarafantsika, and the very beautiful sunset moth Chrysiridia rhipheus from Makira, endemic to Madagascar and much prized by collectors.
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 xeno-canto website which has cuts of almost all the world's bird species, I contribute cuts from most tours and the Torotoroka Scops and Madagascar Nightjar cuts are uploaded.
Folks were also asking about the IOC World Checklist of Birds, a free access downloadable Excel file that gets updated every 4 months, version 5.4 has just been published. Go to worldbirdnames.org or google IOC and ignore the Olympics stuff!
Totals for the tour: 211 bird taxa and 25 mammal taxa