This was my seventh Field Guides Madagascar tour, and ninth overall. This time round, with mercifully few Madagascar Air flights, we enjoyed close to an ideal itinerary. Very dry conditions certainly depressed some small bird activity, and both chameleons and snakes were remarkably scarce. It was a vintage trip for lemurs however, with a very good range of species and great views of some very special ones, like sifakas, Indri, mouse-lemurs, bamboo-lemurs, and woolly lemurs.
We began by driving up to Ankarafantsika, meeting up with our excellent local guide and his wife, and staying at the park. A Torotoroka Scops-Owl roosting under a hut roof right by the park entrance was a bonus, and both White-headed and Sickle-billed vangas showed, as did the first of many wonderful lemurs, in this case Coquerel's Sifaka. A short night walk got us Golden-brown Mouse-Lemur and Oustalet's Chameleon, and a brief view of Western Tuft-tailed Rat.
The following day, we had a mission to see all of the special species. We began very well with a newly discovered nest of Schlegel's Asity, soon followed by White-breasted Mesite and eventually (after breakfast) a splendid Van Dam's Vanga -- a rare species that is easily missed. Coquerel's and Red-capped couas showed well. Western Woolly Lemur was a good find, as was Mongoose Lemur, whilst a nesting pair of Banded Kestrels was a major surprise and my first sighting in the park.
A perched-up Humblot's Heron was spotted in the forest near Lac Ravelobe, and what proved to be our only Madagascar Pond-Heron was seen nearby. Madagascar Jacana showed well, and then we found a lovely Madagascar Fish-Eagle sitting right by the track, so we had cleaned up nicely and set off very happily for Mahajunga.
The Betsiboka estuary boat trip worked like a charm this year, with calm seas, the tide rising and just right for great looks at seven Bernier's Teal and a couple of the rare and very distinctive "Malagasy" Sacred Ibis (currently considered to be a subspecies by some taxonomists), plus a bonus of two Crab Plovers. If only it could always be this easy!
Then came Feon 'Ny Ala ("Song of the Forest"), one of my favorite little lodges right by the forest at Andasibe, where we had the most wonderful encounter with a troop of Indri right in the hotel grounds at very close range, and heard them singing their haunting evocative song each morning at first light, just magical. Our guides Nestor and Laurent worked hard for us and dug out both Scaly and Short-legged ground-rollers for excellent views, and had an incredible Collared Nightjar lined up sitting as always atop a bird's nest fern. The roosting Malagasy Scops-Owl was in the same cypress tree for the third year running, and a there were two lovely baby Madagascar Long-eared Owls available in a village forest reserve, with Madagascar Wood Rail for good measure. Gray Bamboo-Lemur, Eastern Woolly Lemur, the rare Diademed Sifaka, and Brown Lemurs all showed very well, whilst Crossley's Dwarf Lemurs were stars each night feeding on bananas at the lodge. A Southern Leaf-tailed Gecko was a good find, and getting views of a Madagascar Ibis foraging on the ground was quite something.
Then we were off to Berenty on the still dire 90 km remains of the road, reputedly about to be refurbished but don't hold your breath. Four hours later we were there, to find the rooms had been refurbished and were now really nice, and we had already seen Ring-tailed Lemurs en route. The night walk was good as ever, with Madagascar Nightjar, White-footed Sportive-Lemur, Gray-brown (=Reddish-gray) Mouse-Lemur and sleeping Ring-tails and Verreaux's Sifaka, pretty good for 30 minutes in the spiny forest, and narrowly beating a rainstorm.
Birding next day drew a blank for Madagascar Sandgrouse again this year, but Madagascar Cuckoo-Hawk, Frances's Sparrowhawk, Giant Coua and White-browed Owl were terrific sightings, and the dancing Verreaux's Sifakas put on a great show a couple of times, as did the cheeky Ring-tailed Lemurs by the dining area. It made the four-hour bumpy ride back worth it, and next day we got an on-time flight. Even better, the road to the Bamboo Club had been rebuilt, so instead of three hours we did it in one, and had great encounters with Gray Mouse-Lemurs at dinner.
The spiny forest next day is one of the highlights of the trip, with the local lads acting like beagles in the forest to find us the birds, so we were done and dusted before it got too hot. Subdesert Mesite frozen on a branch, Madagascar Sparrowhawk at nest, Madagascar Cuckoo-Hawk a new species for me here and at nest too, great looks at the sometimes tricky Running and Green-capped couas, Thamnornis, Gray-headed Lovebird, Lafresnaye's Vanga on a nest, great Sickle-billed Vangas perched atop octopus trees, and the star of the show perhaps, a confiding Long-tailed Ground-Roller near its nest hole were the highlights. We then chilled out for a while, and did the Madagascar Plover site late afternoon when it was cooler, getting excellent views of two of this rare bird at the only place I have ever seen it.
Next morning in the spiny forest we were lucky to have the lads find us a special request, this being a Madagascar Buttonquail, with a male sitting on a nest. Back then to Tulear and a late afternoon foray out to the extremely dry thorn-scrub at La Table. Mosa and Dedi worked really hard and got us a Verreaux's Coua, but the Red-shouldered Vanga was tough and came late in the day after a quick trek down a rough track to get it, well done to them for finding it and then keeping it in play until we got there!
The boat trip to Nosy Ve was actually quite eventful -- why are boat trips almost never straightforward? After seeing Red-tailed Tropicbirds and some 37 Crab Plovers, we chugged across using the small outboard to Anakau, and had cool drinks and saw Littoral Rock-Thrush and Subdesert Brush-Warbler whilst a new boat was organized. This was a bigger and more powerful beast with a higher freeboard, so we kept dry, and even had the excitement of making a rescue at sea when a small fishing boat was disabled in a bad area of rough sea near the reef. Our boat gave them a tow to calmer and much safer waters, and then some fuel for the engine so they could putter back to land, it was lucky we were out there!
The drive to Isalo was easy enough, going through the sapphire towns and with us making a stop at the very hot Zombitse Forest. Here we made a longer than usual trek to go see a marvelous adult Madagascar Long-eared Owl with 2 babies, the adult right by the track and permitting amazing photos. Appert's Tetraka also showed well, as did Blue Vanga and Cuckoo-Roller, and the likely-split inceleber form of Long-billed Tetraka, whilst a Hubbard's Sportive-Lemur peered out at us from a tree hole.
The lovely hotel at Jardin du Roy did not disappoint, and most of us got great looks at the Benson's subspecies of Forest Rock-Thrush right by the pool, with me seeing one from the bus next day just as we were leaving the habitat and so getting everyone to see it.
A long and tedious drive to Fianarantsoa seemed to take forever, but once there we got to the park at Ranomafana quite quickly and prepared for the trek up the ridge next day. Jean-Chris is the local expert here, and he took us to a newly built nest of the rare and very localized Yellow-bellied Sunbird-Asity. This was all very well, but a 45-minute wait only gave some hearing records of the quarry with no nest visit, but then Gerard got us into a pair which we saw mating and then the male sitting and preening and calling, just great. Brown Emutail showed for some, likewise Pitta-like Ground-Roller, but small bird activity was very limited. Lemurs however proved diverting, with wonderful close Red-bellied, then a splendid Milne-Edwards Sifaka.
That afternoon we decided to forgo the long trek for Gray Emu-tail and instead had a diverting time with group of youngsters whom we hired to help us see Madagascar Snipe, which worked a treat! We followed this up with Madagascar Flufftail calling and showing intermittently, (having failed three times at Andasibe), then a great Forest Rock-Thrush sat up singing very late in the day before a close look at Brown Mouse-lemurs taking bananas put out by the road, which is now a big tourist attraction.
The bamboo-lemur walk next day was a great success, with tremendous views of both Golden Bamboo and the rare Greater Bamboo-Lemur, both showing really well. Pitta-like Ground-Roller came good for everyone, as did a gorgeous male Velvet Asity, and Pollen's Vanga on its nest was a good sighting of a rare bird. Red-fronted Coua and Wedge-tailed Tetraka (Jery) also showed nicely, as did a Madagascar Pygmy Kingfisher, but perhaps the highlight of the morning was the discovery of a Satanic Leaf-tailed Gecko near the bridge, a totally astonishing creature which was very hard to puzzle out as to what was where, and aptly named Uroplatus phantasticus.
That afternoon we returned to the quest for the always tricky Rufous-headed Ground-Roller, eventually coming good very late in the day and showing for us all. Nests of both Velvet and Sunbird Asity were also seen, with us hearing the latter but not getting a view.
During the entire tour we had heard Red-tailed Vanga at various forest sites, and some of us had brief views at Zombitse and Andasibe, but oddly we were in the unique situation where we'd seen Red-shouldered Vanga but most had not seen Red-tailed! Happily that last morning we found a nest by the road at the very last stop as we left Ranomafana, and all came good with one of the most widespread vangas. Then it was up to Ambositre, arriving in the only downpour of the entire trip, and enjoying the fantastic local musicians the Marolafy family who played for us at dinner, as is now something of a tradition.
The last day was a travel day back to Tana, where the Francophone summit meant we could not get into the Carlton Hotel but instead went to a lovely new one, which has a marsh right by the dining area, and will I hope be a keeper for us. Departure on Air Mauritius was uneventful and we got to our hotel at Flic en Flac around 10 pm, where they had kindly kept the buffet for us.
Our day around Mauritius was good, with decent weather, and we picked up the big three very quickly, with great views of Mauritius Parakeet, Pink Pigeon, and Mauritius Kestrel at our usual site. Trying for Mauritius Cuckooshrike proved hopeless, but we did jam a very close Mauritius Olive White-eye, and a Mauritius Bulbul not far away was a valuable addition of a sometimes tough species. The short boat trip to Ile aux Aigrettes sanctuary went well, but for some reason the tour was somewhat rushed (I complained about this afterwards), but we did enjoy great looks at Mauritius Fody, more Mauritius Olive White-eyes and a wonderful 150-year-old adult male Aldabra Giant Tortoise that looked so much like a model it was accidentally kicked by one of us who thought it wasn't real (no worries, it's huge with a hard shell)!
We got into Reunion late afternoon and dashed straight down to a site near St Denis to get great looks at Barau's Petrel, (which you can actually see off the seawall right by our hotel as I saw 131 there on Dec 1 as well as an odd dark petrel). The walk up at La Roche Ecrite gets into beautiful native forest, and we quickly saw Reunion Stonechat, Reunion Bulbul, Mascarene (Reunion) Paradise Flycatcher and the two endemic white-eyes. Some found the muddy and quite slippery trail hard going, but all the usual suspects were found except the Harrier in the somewhat misty conditions. Some of us went right up and heard Reunion Cuckooshrike, with a brief flyover from this rare species too as the finale, before back to day rooms at St Denis and an unexpected departure by taxi to the airport when our bus driver failed to turn up! In 2017 and 2018 we are doing Seychelles as an extension instead of Mauritius and Reunion, so that will be a nice contrast.
Tue Nov 8 Group arrives Tana in the small hours from Paris, and we leave for Ankarafantsika by road at 0600, overnight at the National Park
Wed Nov 9 Ankarafantsika area and Lac Ravelobe then to Mahajunga.
Thu Nov 10 Mahajunga and Betsiboka estuary early am leave 0730 and back by 1100; airport ponds pm.
Fri Nov 11 Mahajunga area and then long delays from the inimitable Air Madagascar, eventually getting back to the Carlton in Tana at midnight after some 5 hours of delays, all par for the course.
Sat Nov 12 Lac Alarobia then Tana to Andasibe arrive late pm
Sun Nov 13 Mantadia NP am on atrocious road, then pm roadside near Feon 'Ny Ala.
Mon Nov 14 Andasibe Indri Ridge and roadsides
Tues Nov 15 Tana to Fort Dauphin (Tolagnaro) and then 4 hours by atrocious road the 90 km to Berenty, where the rooms had been renovated and were now very nice.
Wed Nov 16 Berenty am, then back to Tolagnaro
Thu Nov 17 Tolagnaro to Tulear (Toliara) via Air Mad at 1400, then new highway to Ifaty so arrived at the Bamboo Club by 1700
Fri Nov 18 Parc Mosa at 0545 till 0930, then Mangily salines 1545-1645.
Sat Nov 19 Parc Mosa early morning, then to Tulear and late pm to La Table.
Sun Nov 20 Nosy Ve and Anakau, then Toliara markets
Mon Nov 21 Toliara via Zombitse to Isalo and Jardin du Roy
Tue Nov 22 Jardin du Roy/ Fianarantsoa/ Ranomafana late pm
Wed Nov 23 Ranomafana Vohiparara Trail and marsh
Thu Nov 24 Ranomafana Park HQ trails and Vohiparara pm
Fri Nov 25 Ranomafana to Ambositre, arrive 1500
Sat Nov 26 Ambositre/Antsirabe/Antananarivo
Sun Nov 27 Departure pm for Mauritius
Mon Nov 28 Mauritius Black River Gorges area and Ile aux Aigrettes pm
Tue Nov 29 Mauritius to Reunion
Wed Nov 30 La Roche Ecrite trail, Reunion, then assorted departures home late pm.
Particular thanks to the brilliant Gerard, our long-time local fixer and birder, and to the various skilled and entertaining local guides: Ndrema and his wife, Nestor and Laurent, Benoit at Berenty, Freddy, Dedi and Rofia the beagles at the spiny forest, Mosa and Dedi at La Table, Jean-Chris at Ranomafana, 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 the best for 2017 to you all!
-- Phil from St Denis, Perth, and Kuranda
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
An unusually poor tour for snakes, though we did see a Mimophis sp. at Berenty, and a skink called Trachylepsis madagascariensis there.
A couple of frogs were Glaucodactylus sp. from Andasibe and Mantodactlylus alboguttatus from Berenty.
Other oddities include the hissing cockroach we saw at Ifaty, and giant millipedes (megapedes) from Mantadia.
A striking yellow and black cicada was at Ranomafana.
An extraordinary red velvet bug was at Berenty, I should have photographed it as it was very vivid.
Giraffe-necked weevil was seen at Andasibe, as well as a freshwater crab in a forest stream there.
The 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.
Lucy spotted some bizarre spiny backed rockskipper type fish at La Possession on Reunion and we spent some time ignoring Barau's Petrels to look at them, the local name is cabot sauteur.
I can still find nothing accessible in the way of books on Madagascar butterflies, and they again 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, now HBW Alive and a great database of all the world's birds). IBC 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 have uploaded several from this tour, just look under my profile to see what is there.
Folks were also asking about the IOC World Checklist of Birds, a free access downloadable Excel file that gets updated every 4 months, version 6.4 has just been published. Go to worldbirdnames.org or google IOC and ignore the Olympics stuff!
Totals for the tour: 199 bird taxa and 31 mammal taxa