This was my tenth Field Guides Madagascar tour (12th overall), enlivened by a congenial, enthusiastic and observant group who were good spotters and enjoyed the excellent endemic birds and wonderfully varied assortment of lemurs, and put up with long travel days and unusual weather with admirable fortitude.
Driving up to Ankarafantsika, we encountered Phil’s first Little Swifts in Madagascar at a town en route, then a Madagascar Partridge flushed up before we saw two Malagasy Harrier, plus our first Madagascar Pratincoles on the Betsiboka River. We were thankfully based at the park, arriving just after dark, and met up with our excellent local guide Ndrema. A short night walk got us Golden-brown Mouse-Lemur, Mongoose Lemur, Fat-tailed Dwarf-Lemur and Oustalet's Chameleon, plus some lovely roosting Common Jeries. Brian’s infra-red spotting device was an interesting and useful item on these night trips, good for mammals and roosting birds.
The following day, we had a mission to see all of the local special species. We began very well with a newly discovered nest of Schlegel's Asity and some nice looks at White-breasted Mesite, then after breakfast more mesites and eventually 2 splendid Van Dam's Vangas -- a rare species that is easily missed. Coquerel's and Red-capped couas showed well too, as did Madagascar Green Pigeon for most. Milne-Edward's Sportive-Lemur was a good find peeking out of a crack in a hollow tree, then we managed a Madagascar Fish-Eagle sat by the lake plus a bonus in a vagrant Osprey soaring over, a new Madagascar bird for Phil. The Madagascar Jacana was again proving recalcitrant this year, but our guide knew of a site near the airport in Majunga and in the very late afternoon we scored some 5 of this rare bird, plus 7 White-backed Ducks and a couple of Madagascar Pond Herons.
The Betsiboka estuary boat trip worked like a charm this year, with a foray out at 0740 and back by 0940, with calm seas, the tide rising and just right for great looks at 5 of the rare and very distinctive "Malagasy" Sacred Ibis (split by the IOC and HBW/BirdLife checklists), plus a bonus of 8 Bernier’s Teal, our first sighting for several years. Back then on an uneventful lunchtime flight to Tana, with a night at the Tamboho.
Next day was the first of two long travel days as we drove to Ambositre, stopping at a small marsh where we saw Madagascar Cisticola and Madagascar Stonechat but not much else due to the dry conditions. Then across to Ranomafana, seeing Madagascar Snipe at a marsh stop en route and getting to the lodge in time for a very late lunch. This park is always a highlight but is also the most physically demanding part of the tour. There are a couple of hikes that can take most of the morning and involve a bit of up and down, though nothing too strenuous for most. The rewards are great, with Pitta-like Ground-Roller showing well, Velvet Asity, Rufous-headed Ground-Roller eventually seen after much effort, a nest of the rare Pollen's Vanga, good looks at Crossley's Vanga and a lucky pick-up of Madagascar Yellowbrow late one afternoon, also the first couas in Red-fronted and Blue. It is also the introduction to the wonderful lemurs, with Golden Bamboo Lemur, Fat-tailed Dwarf Lemur, Grey Bamboo Lemur (Eileen's 400th species of mammal), Brown Mouse Lemur, Red-fronted Lemur and Milne-Edward's Sifaka. Vanga and tetraka numbers seemed well down though overall, maybe too dry?
After Ranomafana we headed south, stopping at the Ambalavao artisan silk-making co-operative and the local paper-making enterprise before our new site at Anja for Ring-tailed Lemur. This proved to be great; the animals are in very fine condition and we encountered a nice close group before the first of what proved to be a series of storms over the next few days hit. This site is looked after by the local villages, so the money goes back to the community. Arrival at the beautiful Jardin du Roy was in the dark and we had the next day to explore the attractive sandstone and grassland surroundings, seeing Benson's Rock-thrush, Madagascar Hoopoe, roosting Torotoroka Scops Owl (thanks Dion) and a brief encounter with Madagascar Partridge.
Suitably rested, we drove two hours south to the precious forest fragment at Zombitse near the sapphire mining area, where Giant Coua and Cuckoo-Roller showed beautifully, a White-browed Owl, and the attractive Verreaux's Sifaka and Zombitse Sportive-Lemur showed well. For the first time ever the local guides failed to come up with the rare Appert's Tetraka, one of the most range restricted species on earth, no doubt due to the heavy recent rain. A stop on the way south got us Madagascar Sandgrouse after a trek up the hillsides in the pouring rain, the local lads were drenched but those of our group who did it were very happy to score so well.
On then via Tulear to the coast at Mangily/Ifaty, seeing some migrant shorebirds en route as well as the Madagascar form of Three-banded Plover and Kittlitz's Plover. Our time in here was focused on the legendary spiny forest, and we spent most of our birding time in the eponymous Parc Mosa, for the first time ever dodging some epic storms and getting wet several times. Our guides here were Mosa himself, his supposedly 103-year old dad and Mosa's son Fredi. Despite the difficult weather and getting soaked, they were fantastic at pulling every last bird out of the inhospitable-looking spiny forest, from megas like Long-tailed Ground-Roller, and a forlorn, very wet Subdesert Mesite, to the tricky and secretive Thamnornis, and even a bonus Madagascar Sparrowhawk by her nest. The forest also produced Archbold’s Newtonia, Lafresnaye’s Vanga, and both Crested and Running Couas.
Nearby we had good looks in the heavy rain at Madagascar Plover, and the mudflats at Tsingoritelo gave us White-fronted Plover, Lesser Flamingo and Humblot’s Heron. The Bamboo Club itself was good for some dusk views of Grey Mouse Lemur, picked up by Brian and his amazing infrared spotting device. A visit to the amazing arid dense thorny vegetation at La Table saw our guides Fredi and Mosa expertly track down both Green-capped and the rare Verreaux’s Coua, and once again they did an amazing job of finding a male Red-shouldered Vanga. Both of these latter species have tiny worldwide ranges, and it was great to connect with them both.
It was not possible to do the boat trip out to Nosy Ve as it was still too rough, so we went down to the estuary at Ste Augustine and saw both Lesser and Greater Flamingoes plus Humblot’s Heron. We got back in good time for lunch, then our late afternoon flight to Tana was uneventful.
The final eastern leg of the tour saw us splitting up into three SUVs for world famous Andasibe (also known as Perinet in the old days), and our hotel for some 3 nights was the rustic but beautifully sited Feon N'y Ala (which translates to “song of the forest”, referring to the haunting vocalizations of the Indri) nestled in at the very edge of this wonderful native forest. True to its name, our home base gave us daily hearings of their wonderful calls, one of the most evocative of all Madagascar sounds.
We had a full morning each at the Mantadia (where the road gets steadily worse each year) and Andasibe units of the National Park, and we experienced some truly special birds- Scaly Ground-Roller after an epic long search, a fine Collared Nightjar late on our final afternoon, Red-breasted Coua and both Madagascar Long-eared and Madagascar Scops Owl, but dipped utterly on both Short-legged Ground-Roller and Nuthatch Vanga. In addition to Indri, our other non-birds included some Common Brown Lemurs, Diademed Sifakas and an amazing Southern Leaf-tailed Gecko, plus an assortment of chameleons.
We then packed up and headed east, with our next target being the legendary Aye-Aye, a bizarre creature that makes you wonder if it was George Lucas’s inspiration for Yoda. A half-day drive to the coast included a couple of rest stops, and during both of these we had the phenomenon of very vocal Madagascar Pratincoles flying around these small towns, right over our heads, and then landing on top of buildings. They were apparently nesting on some of the nearby roofs, and we got to see some of their excellent display flights.
It took some 4 hours to get to the coast, and catch our boat. The boat ride took us through the Canal of Pangalanes, enlivened by a nice flight view of an Eleonora’s Falcon, and to the Palmarium resort, where we had a nice lunch. This was followed by an interesting walk around the garden with our resort guide. Many of the tame lemurs came and had a look at us, and we got climbed on by Black Lemurs, Black and White Ruffed Lemur and hybrid Red-fronted Brown x Black lemurs. They are amazingly well mannered (totally unlike monkeys which I definitely would not have climbing on me!), have very soft paws, and weigh less than 4 kg (10 lbs), a nice encounter. We then headed over to Aye-Aye Island, typically for this tour coinciding with a thunderstorm which delayed our seeing one for some while. I was just glad it showed it all! Watching this prehistoric looking mammal devour coconut flesh with the help of their long, thin middle fingers was a huge highlight for everyone. Going back in the boat we had to turn off all lights as they travel without any lights, using the shape of the forest or lakeshore to navigate. They ran aground once, which was slightly disconcerting, but it all came good and this seems to be the standard practice here, all very odd.
The drive back to Tana took all day to go some 300 km, lorry traffic is now so heavy. Final dinner at the Carlton was good and the transfers next day went well enough. This year we reverted to our usual Mauritius and Reunion extension. The afternoon departure from Tana on Air Mauritius was delayed for an hour and we got to our hotel at Flic en Flac around 1000 pm, where they had kindly kept a dinner for us, which almost no-one wanted, being happy with fruit and yogurt.
The Mauritius/Reunion trip extension is outlined in a separate trip report this year but summarized below:
Our day around Mauritius was excellent and in good weather, with Mauritours doing a fantastic job and local guide Jean-Claude being great. We could not go to our usual site at Bel Ombre as construction of a golf course has blocked access, so Jean Claude took us instead to Chamerel where we saw the first Mauritius (Mascarene) Paradise-Flycatcher we had seen in some years. Bassin Blanc gave us Mauritius Bulbul and Mauritius Olive White-eye, two very good pick-ups, though trying for Mauritius Cuckooshrike proved hopeless at what was a good site until recently. This species is now down to around 30 birds and is likely to go extinct, I fear. The short boat trip to Ile aux Aigrettes sanctuary was good again, and we enjoyed great looks at Pink Pigeon, Mauritius Fody, close Mauritius Olive White-eyes and a wonderful 105-year-old 200 kg adult male Aldabra Giant Tortoise. A fine addition to the trip and well worth the effort. Jean-Claude arranged for us to pay at a site at Ferney where they feed Mauritius Kestrel each day at 1130. Nice to see this species in action for once! We were still missing Echo Parakeet, but a trip to the picnic area at Petrin saw us make a short walk and have good fly-bys of 2 birds, with a single later.
Reunion this year was trouble-free and in good weather, with thankfully no protest, unlike 2018. Our first afternoon saw us visit the amusingly named Cascade Niagara, with several sightings of the rare Reunion Harrier the highlight, then a very calm conditions sea-watch late afternoon near St Denis which gave nice looks at many Barau's Petrels and a few Tropical Shearwaters, plus pale morph Wedge-tailed Shearwater and both Brown Noddy and Bridled Tern, with suspected Lesser Noddy too far away to be certain! Next day it was a lovely sunny early morning at La Roche Ecrite, ideal conditions for finding Reunion Olive and Reunion Grey White-eyes, Reunion Stonechat, Reunion (Mascarene) Paradise-Flycatcher, Reunion Bulbul and best of all terrific looks at a male Reunion Cuckooshrike, found right by the track just before it clouded over and we beat a retreat.
Particular thanks to our skilled associate Gerard, our long-time (since 1986 I think?) local fixer and birder, and to the various hard-working, skilled and entertaining local guides: Ndrema at Ankarafantsika Jean-Cris and Baku at Ranomafana, a team of guides at Zombitse, Fredi, Mosa, Mosa’s ancient dad and 2 nephew "beagles" at the spiny forest, Fredi and Mosa at La Table, and Laurent and the somewhat eccentric Nestor at Andasibe. For the extension there was Jean-Claude on Mauritius and Fred on Reunion, who both did a fine job. Thanks to the group for good company, good spotting and cheerful outlook, I hope we can bird together again somewhere, sometime and best wishes for 2020.
Special thanks as ever to Sharon in the Field Guides office for good logistics on such a complex and difficult itinerary.
Nov 4 Pre-tour outing to Ambabomirahavavy Lemur Park near Tana
Nov 5 Tana to Ankarafantsika by road via Ankozobe and Lac Amboromandy
Nov 6 Ankarafantsika Park and lac Ravelobe, then Lac Ampitolova late pm.
Nov 7 Boat trip to Betsiboka estuary 0800-1000, then flight to Tana 1130
Nov 8 Tana to Ambositre via Ambatofotsy and Antsirabe.
Nov 9 Ambositre to Ranomafana, roadside birding pm.
Nov 10 Ranomafana Bamboo lemur circuit and Bellevue, pm Vohiparara and mouse-lemurs.
Nov 11 Vohiparara Trail am and pm.
Nov 12 Ranomafana bamboo lemurs and Vohiparara upper levels.
Nov 13 Ranomafana to Fianarantsoa, Ambalavao silk-making then then Ring-tailed lemur reserve, night at Jardin du Roy at Isalo.
Nov 14 Isalo area
Nov 15 Isalo to Zombitse then Tulear and Ifaty, heavy rain after Zombitse
Nov 16 Parc Mosa trip aborted due to torrential storm, Mangily salines in the rain, Tsingoritelo mudflats then spiny forest 1600-1800.
Nov 17 Spiny Forest 0600-0800, some rain! Ifaty to Tulear depart 1400, Belalande marsh en route, and La Table 1545-1745.
Nov 18 Boat trip to Nosy Ve and Anakau cancelled due to rough weather, so trip to Ste Augustine estuary, before late pm flight to Tana
Nov 19 Lac Alarobia and then Andasibe
Nov 20 Mantadia and Andasibe roadside pm
Nov 21 Indri Circuit and roadside pm
Nov 22 To Pangalanes via Brickaville, Aye-aye island that evening.
Nov 23 Pangalanes then to Andasibe for picnic lunch and Antananarivo late pm
Sun Nov 24 Departure pm for Mauritius
Mon Nov 25 Mauritius Black River Gorges area and Ile aux Aigrettes pm
Tue Nov 26 Mauritius to Reunion, sea-watch off St Denis late pm
Wed Nov 28 Early departure to airport on Reunion, then assorted departures home.
Particular thanks to the brilliant Gerard, our long-time local fixer and birder, and to the various hard-working, skilled and entertaining local guides: Jean- Cris, Zo and Baku at Ranomafana, Randria and Andry at Zombitse, Fredi, Dedi and Rofia the 3 beagles at the spiny forest, Fredi at La Table, Ndrema at Ankarafantsika and the incomparable Nestor at Andasibe. For the extension there was also Jean-Claude on Mauritius and Fred on Reunion. Special thanks to Sharon in the Field Guides office for good logistics on such a complex and difficult itinerary.
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
Birds of the trip were a diverse assortment, with Cuckoo-roller, Velvet Asity, Schlegel's Asity, Scaly Ground-Roller, Brown and White-breasted Mesite, with another highlight, of course, the exceptional array of lemurs we saw this year
As would be expected in such a unique location, there were many other creatures of interest encountered that aren't listed above. Here is a list of some of the ones we could pin down. Butterflies account for most of these, as there are reasonable references available to aid in their identification. I'd love to know the identity of the very large bright blue dragonfly with the green head that was patrolling up and down the creek at Andasibe.
Giraffe-necked Weevil (Trachelophorus giraffa)- We had our first at Ranomafana, and then saw a couple of more at Mantadia.
We had Giant Pill Millipedes in several places, and a large hissing cockroach at Ankarafantsika.
A large lizard called Dumeril's Swift (Oplurus quadrimaculatus) was seen at Jardin du Roy.
Identified butterflies were as follows:
Madagascar Commodore (Precis andremiaja)
Madagascar Swordtail (Graphium evombar)
Citrus Swallowtail (Papilio demodocus)
Banded Blue Swallowtail (Papilio oribazus)
Madagascar Giant Swallowtail (Pharmacophagus antenor)
Green Lady (Graphium cyrnus)
Madagascar Orange Tip (Colotis evanthe)
Yellow Pansy (Junonia hierta (paris))
African Monarch (Danaus chrysippis)
Madagascar Brown Pansy (Junonia gaudotii)
Brilliant Blue (Junonia rhadama)
Many skippers (Hesperiidae)
Assorted Satyrs, of several species.
I recommend the xeno-canto (XC) website which is a fantastic archive of bird sounds of most of the species in the world, freely downloadable. I usually publish significant cuts from my tours here as it is a valuable research tool for anyone interested.
The Internet Bird Collection (IBC) run by Lynx Edicions (of Handbook of Birds of the World) is another wonderful free access site, you just have to register, and can then view thousands of videos, photos and sound recordings, with many of them from my tours. Again, it is an invaluable research site, and is now being subsumed into the Cornell Lab archive.
I also recommend the IOC World Checklist of Birds, a free access downloadable Excel file of all the world's species which is updated every 4 months or so. This is the one I use for my own checklists as it is the most current and has a progressive outlook on taxonomy and names. You can find them at worldbirdnames.org or google IOC (but NOT the Olympics stuff!)
PG Kuranda Dec 2019
Totals for the tour: 177 bird taxa and 26 mammal taxa