Two destinations that appear on many peoples holiday wish list are Mauritius and Madagascar. Not everyone has heard of Reunion, but deserves to change soon. It’s been a few weeks since getting back and I just want to get this done and on the blog, so it will be a bit brief unfortunately. I’ll try and cover the important bits, but if there’s anything you want more detail on just post here and I’ll get back to you.
Tim Sykes, Adam Batty and I flew out to Madagascar via Nairobi on Kenya Airways on Nov 2nd. Landing in Antananarivo (known by everyone as Tana), we managed to somehow bypass immigration and then catch our flight to the sub-tropical island of Reunion about 300 miles to the east of Madagascar. The main targets were the endemic forest species comprising Reunion Cuckooshrike, Reunion Olive White-eye, Reunion Grey White-eye, Reunion Bulbul and the Reunion Stonechat. Also on the radar were the near endemic Mascarene Paradise Flycatcher and the recently split Reunion Harrier, along with the endemic breeder Barau’s Petrel. We knew we had little chance of the other endemic seabird, Reunion Black Petrel, and so it proved to be. We stupidly did very little research for our Mascarene adventure, and relied heavily on the limited text in the front of the Guide to Birds of the Indian Ocean Islands. We had decided to stay in St Denis to be nearest to the forest species, and accessing the forest here was relatively straightforward. We basically just drove uphill towards the high elevation forest (maybe along the D43 road – but can’t honestly remember!) until we saw a sign for “La Roche Ecrite”. This is a popular hiking route and there is a decent car park at the roads end, with a footpath heading off up the mountain. The two White-eyes and the Stonechat are all very common and easy to find. In fact, the chats seemed to spend a fair amount of time showing down to a couple of feet on the track, while the White-eyes are almost constant companions. The bulbul is less common, but still easy to find. The Mascarene Paradise Flycatcher is endemic to Reunion and Mauritius, but is very hard to find on Mauritius so try and nail it here if you can. Luckily, it is fairly common here, and we saw several along the trail.
Reunion Stonechat, male
Reunion Stonechat. female
Reunion Olive White-eye
Reunion Grey White-eye
Mascarene Paradise Flycatcher
The Reunion Cuckooshrike is the real prize along here, and it is not easy to find. In fact, it is one of the rarest birds in the World according to Birdlife International with a population numbering approximately 75 individuals (http://www.birdlife.org/datazone/speciesfactsheet.php?id=5929). We finally managed to find a pair engaged in nest building after several hours hiking, and just as we were on the point of giving up. It was that classic situation when you meet some locals who tell you that “yess, zis little oiseux, he is very common ere”. Then you listen to their description of it, and realise that they haven’t got a clue and are describing one (or both!) of the White-eyes! After politely waving them goodbye down the trail, you turn around, and bam!! A Reunion Cuckooshrike is showing well beside the trail! We watched them for about 30 mins as they fed around a small area and were then amazed when the female went and sat on a nearly completed nest. By this point we had been joined by a small team of researchers who were monitoring the Cuckooshrikes, and they were ecstatic as this pair was unknown to them. Once we realised they were nesting, we beat a retreat, but with some big smiles on our faces.
Reunion Cuckooshrike, male
Reunion Cuckooshrike, female
Moving down the coast, our next target was the seabirds. To cut a long story short, we failed to secure a boat charter to take us out to the bird rich waters that were visible on the horizon. We should really have done better with this, but I suspect costs could be prohibitive to small groups on a budget. Apparently the best port to try and secure a charter is St Gilles. From there, just sail south along the coastline a few miles out, and we suspect that you will have seabird heaven on the end of your lens. We had to be content with seawatching from St Pierre and further along the coast at St Joseph. Barau’s Petrels were very common, and make sure you wait until the evening as they come stupidly close inshore, climb up and then head inland to their nest sites high in the volcanic cliffs of the islands interior. Driving along the motorway at dusk and seeing pterodromas flying over the road was an amazing experience! Also present offshore were many Wedge-tailed Shearwaters and Common Noddies, but flocks of more distant smaller shearwaters had to remain frustratingly unidentified as Audobon’s/Mascarene.
Barau’s Petrel overhead
We then spent an enjoyable day taking in the scenery of the interior and of the lava flows in the south east, and the avian highlights were the many White-tailed Tropicbirds that nest in the islands interior and the Reunion Harrier. If our observations are anything to go by, the harrier is surprisingly distinct. In the absence of other raptors, it seems to have evolved into a generalist hunter, and its shape now approaches that of a buteo. The wings are shorter than Malagasy Harrier, as is the tail. I don’t know the two species well enough to comment on plumage differences, but the structural differences are quite striking.
Reunion Harrier, male
Reunion Harrier, female
After all this excitement, it was time to leave for pastures new. We flew to the neighbouring and more famous island of Mauritius, and were shocked on arriving to see a countryside denuded of any decent vegetation cover. Mile after mile of cash crops and a rather flat landscape was a sorry sight after the forest covered mountains of Reunion, and worse was to come. We were keen to charter a boat to go to Round Island off the north coast of Mauritius, so drove from the airport straight to Grand Baie in the north- west. Round Island is a seabird colony and noted as the only breeding site for the Round Island race of Trindade Petrel, sometimes treated as a full species, and there were also a few other decent seabirds on offer. However, the bloke on the beach that we finally found and organised a charter with turned out to be a complete fraud. Luckily we didn’t give him any money, but we did travel the length of the island and back the following day from where we were staying to Grand Baie to meet a boat that never turned up. Speaking to another fisherman, we finally learnt that “our” bloke didn’t even own a boat, and the cost he had quoted was a vast under-estimate. Trying to salvage something from the day, we did a bit of sightseeing around the north of the isle where a distant booby sp was the highlight, then called in at Rivulet Terre Rouge Bird Sanctuary in Port Louis. This turned out to be a very fortuitous move, as among the Curlew Sandpipers was a stunning Crab Plover!
Crab Plover, with Curlew Sandpiper
Crab Plover, with Bar-tailed Godwit
The following day dawned and we decided to give up on seabirds. With only one full day left and almost no endemic land birds under the belt and with only one full day left on the isle, we bowled up to the Black River Gorges NP in the south-west of the isle. We managed to locate a couple of Pink Pigeons and Mauritius Bulbuls along the main trail not far from the visitor centre. I also saw a very distant raptor which basically had to be a Mauritius Kestrel, but it was so distant I lost it against the far cliff face before I really got anything on it and before Tim and Adam could get on it. Feeling confident we’d see another, I said that I wouldn’t be counting it. What a foolish gesture that was! We had some gen that one of the good areas for endemics was the Maccabee Ridge, so we walked to that. For the record, I would not recommend walking to the Maccabee Ridge from the main visitor centre! It’s a hell of a long walk, uphill all the way. The only relief in the heat was the occasional bird that appeared before us, but finding the endemics was proving very tricky. We did manage to luck in with a Mauritius Cuckooshrike giving great views, and also managed to pick out two Mauritius Fodys.
Mauritius Grey White-eye. Currently lumped by IOC with the Reunion Grey White-eye, for mysterious reasons.
The incessant sun, heat and hard climbing took its toll on me over the course of the day, and feeling pretty down and knackered, we drove back towards our digs in La Gaulette and I took the early bath and bed option. This turned out to be somewhat of a mistake when Tim and Adam went around the back of Black Gorges to the Petrin entrance and found a Mauritius Kestrel dust-bathing along a track!
Our flight the next day was in the afternoon, so we had a few hours in the morning to try and score the Echo Parakeet, the Mauritius Olive White-eye and the Mauritius Kestrel for me. We decided to walk the Maccabee Ridge again, but this time we walked in from the Petrin entrance. A much better and more sedate option than the mountain climbing the day before! Some strange calls drew our attention to a parakeet that landed above the trail. A quick check, and the grey bill of the female Echo was in our sights; despite conservation efforts, still one of the World’s rarest parrots.
Despite much searching, there was no sign of the Olive White-eye (apparently this is the hardest of the endemics to find now), but another Cuckooshrike was nice. And yes, I somehow managed to fail to find Mauritius Kestrel. Quite interesting in its own way, I think this is the first bird that I’ve dipped that I think I will never get to see. Mauritius is an ecological disaster area, the countryside is far from scenic and the World is a huge place with loads to see. Mauritius also left a slightly sour taste to be honest. Tourists could be forgiven for thinking there are no birds on Mauritius at all, as the only bird that appears in publicity anywhere is the Dodo. From signs to tourist trinkets available in seemingly all shops, the Dodo is everywhere. The same cannot be said for the wildlife that is still managing to hang on. It’s as if the Mauritians are prouder of a lost heritage than the one they still have. There is very little publicity for the Black Gorges NP, and plantations seem to encroach on the last remnants of native vegetation. There are efforts to redress the losses, and the team at Black Gorges and the Gerald Durrell gang have had success with greatly increasing the population of Mauritius Kestrels. However, going back to Mauritius is pretty low on my list of things to do. Reunion on the other hand, was a great place with a good vibe to it. Beaches were in short supply, but the forest was pretty extensive, even if introduced rats are threatening the Reunion Cuckooshrike.
So, leaving Mauritius wasn’t difficult. And besides, we were on our way to Madagascar…
Landing in Tana, we were met by Bakoly Voahangy Razanamiarantsoa (known as Bakoly, thankfully!) of Great Island Adventure Safaris who was our ground agent for the next 3 weeks. After a night in Tana, we were off to Anjozorobe forest for our first major target – Slender-billed Flufftail. As far as I know, this is the only accessible site in the World for this critically endangered endemic as it seems to be plummeting to extinction http://www.birdlife.org/datazone/speciesfactsheet.php?id=2817. A venture into the marsh failed to find the hoped for mega rail, but we did get close views of a Madagascar Cuckoo Hawk. This bird seems to be getting rapidly rarer, and increasingly hard to find. Most people seem to see it at Berenty, but we were not going there so were very happy to have scored it so quickly. In fact, we would not be seeing another in the next five weeks! The extreme similarity of the Cuckoo-Hawk to the very common and widespread Madagascar Buzzard doesn’t help in finding it either.
Madagascar Cuckoo hawk
Madagascar swamp warbler
We also scored a few other endemics in the forest there, but there was nothing that we wouldn’t be seeing later. We were surprised by our first nest of Madagascar Paradise Flycatcher within a couple of feet of the trail, but birds nesting next to trails would become something of a feature of the trip.
After overnighting in Tana, we drove all day to reach Ankarafantsika NP at sunset, only stopping for about 30 mins at the Betsiboka River. The river produced about 15 Madagascar Pratincoles hawking over the impressive rock formations. We only had two nights and one full day at Ankarafantsika, so had to make the most of it. This was a shame in one way, as it was a superb site. It’s one of the last remnants of western deciduous forest in Madagascar, and as such has a highly specialised avifauna. We spent much of the morning failing to find Schlegel’s Asity, but some other feathered delights awaited us. We had great views of White-breasted Mesite, then decided to go back to the National Park visitor centre and the area of forest just behind it to try for the very rare and highly localised (two descriptive terms that could apply equally well to much of Madagascar’s impoverished birds and other wildlife) Van Dam’s Vanga. Not sure who Van Dam was or why he came to have a Vanga named after him, but I’m guessing it wasn’t our old friend Jean Claude. After a relatively brief search, our luck turned and Van Dam’s Vanga showed pretty well.
Van Dams Vanga
This vanga is pretty similar in appearance to two other vanga species – Lefresnaye’s and Pollen’s Vangas – but is separated from them by habitat (the other two are arid thorn forest and rainforest specialists respectively) as well as some subtle plumage differences. We also scored some cracking Couas. These are large relatives of cuckoos, but are endemic to Madagascar. Probably my favourite was Red-capped Coua, and we managed to get good views of one here. We then went back to the forest patch that allegedly held the incomparable Schlegel’s Asity, and after much searching and a herculean effort by our guide, Jocky, we finally found a pair high up in one of the tallest trees in the forest.
Madagascar Magpie Robin. Note the white belly of this race.
We then had an excellent little jaunt on a punt into the Lake Ravelobe. We managed decent views of Madagascar Fish Eagle, Humblot’s Heron and Madagascar Pond Heron, but it was the crocs surfacing a few meters from the boat that I kept an eye on most of the time!
Madagascar Fish Eagle
Other wildlife was obvious at Ankarafantsika, and we saw several lemurs on a short night walk including the fantastic little Grey Mouse Lemur and the boingy Milne-Edward’s Sportive Lemur.
Milne-Edwards Sportive Lemur
Eastern Avahi (aka Eastern Wooly Lemur)
On Nov 13th we left Ankarafantsika and started the long drive north to Bemanevika. The journey was long, tiring and long. We had been told that the road would get progressively worse as we got nearer Bemanevika, but the track we ended up late in the afternoon could hardly be described as a road! The dirt track was truly horrendous, and our progress slowed so much that there was no way we would reach our destination before dark. Given the state of the road, our driver didn’t want to risk damaging the 4×4 by driving in the dark, so we stopped at the last major village before Bemanevika and set up our tents on the village football pitch. I can’t remember the name of the village, but the folk there were incredibly friendly and curious about us. As we set up our tents we were surrounded by all the kids and most of the grown-ups from the village. After Adam attempted to show his silky football skills with some of the kids and I showed some of them a distant Zebu through my scope, we managed to get our tents sorted and then head into the village were one of the families had kindly let Bakoly prepare our dinner for us. I should probably preface this with saying we had carried our dinner with us all the way from Ankarafantsika in the feathery form of a real life “chicken in a basket”. Christened Deirdre (be me privately anyway!), she gave a few disconcerted clucks when things fell on her during the journey, but by and large she got through the journey pretty well. Anyway, she tasted pretty good once de-feathered, de-boned and cooked slowly for 3 hours!
The following day saw us finally arrive at Bemanevika camp. Bemanevika is a small village, near to which is the last remaining site for the critically endangered Madagascar Pochard. The crater lakes at Bemanevika are not all equally used either. One of them is now a marsh, with no open water at all. Most of the Pochards use just the one small lake of about 20 hectares in extent. This species was once found at several sites in the northern half of Madagascar, but mainly on Lake Aloatra. This, the largest lake in Madagascar, has been subject to many years of eutrophication, drainage and has suffered the introduction of alien species of fish. This has all resulted in the extinction of the Aloatra Grebe that was only found on this lake, and was thought to have resulted in the extinction of the Madagascar Pochard. Some further information can be found here http://www.birdlife.org/datazone/sitefactsheet.php?id=6567 . Who knows what else has been lost from this site?
Happily the Madagascar Pochard was rediscovered in 2006 at Bemenavika, but life remains incredibly tough for them. Restricted to just one or two tiny crater lakes, the entire population of about 20-30 individuals is at risk of extinction at any one point. There is now a successful captive breeding population instigated by the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust and the Gerald Durrell conservation trust, but productivity in the wild is dangerously low. In fact, I’m amazed that any birds survived at Bemenavika in the interim between being lost from Aloatra and being discovered there. The main reason for this seems to be to do with the characteristics of the lake. Being a crater lake, it is very steep sided and quite deep. The adults can dive for food found on the lakes bottom, but the chicks cannot dive deep enough to reach the bottom. Consequently, most chicks starve to death. It’s a simple problem that has devastating consequences, and it’s not easily solved. Later in our trip we actually met the WWT researcher on a break in Masoala NP, and it was good to chat about this with him. I suggested some form of constructed artificial shelves that could be sunk into the lake that would then be colonised by vegetation and eventually provide accessible food for chicks. He assured me that plans like that were in the pipeline, so hopefully there will be some good news on that in the future. In the meantime, here are some pictures.
Bemanevika. All of the World’s wild Madagascar Pochards were on this lake when the picture was taken. Plus a lot of Mellor’s Ducks and Madagascar Little Grebes.
The marsh at Bemanevika, adjacent to the main lake. A good spot for Madagascar Harrier, but note the encroaching deforestation.
Madagascar Little Grebes
White-throated Rail. This bird was remarkably confiding around the campsite.
Bemanevika is also famous amongst birders as the only place you are likely to see the incredibly rare and elusive Madagascar Red Owl. They are undertaking studies of the owls here, and one individual is fitted with a radio tag, so they are able to find this bird on demand. This of course, is a very helpful scenario for lazy birders like me! Following the guides through the dense forest and down the near vertical slopes of the other crater lake, we were eventually greeted by the sight of the Red Owl roosting above a vine tangle, just a few meters above our heads. We also saw our first of several forest species, such as Madagascar Starlings, Blue Couas and the like, and the marsh that takes up one of the three craters held a female Madagascar Harrier.
The next day consisted mainly of a 10 hr drive south, back along the terrible track and then onto the terrible semi-tarmac semi-potholed road south. Staying in a quiet village hotel overnight, we then had another 9 hr drive south to Tana the next day. I can safely say that that is the longest “twitch” I’ve ever done – 19 hrs driving for a duck! Still, it was certainly worth it, and I would recommend more birders make the pilgrimage to Bemanevika for two reasons. Firstly, you’ll get some amazing birds on your list and have a great time. If you spend some decent time up there, you may even make some crazy discoveries. There hasn’t been a Madagascar Serpent Eagle seen for a while here now, not since the radio tagged bird died. They are probably still in the general area though. Do bear in mind that the Red Owl we saw is the only one that is radio tagged, and we were told that its battery is probably going to run out at some point over the 2012/13 winter. We may have been the last tourists to see this particular bird, but the researchers there do hope and intend to catch another owl to tag. No guarantees though. Secondly, the more birders that go, then the more publicity and money can be put into promoting, protecting and researching the site and its birds. I can’t say I’ve ever been a proper eco-tourist before, but I did feel as though our presence there was a good thing on many levels.
Back in Tana, we met up with friends Owain Gabb and Robin Cox in the Tana Plaza hotel, and got ready for our first jaunt into the eastern rainforests. We arrived at Andasibe Special Reserve late morning on Nov 17th and checked into the Mikalo hotel, which was superb. We then spent the remainder of the day in Andasibe (also known by its French colonial name of Perinet). This produced brief (very brief!) views of Madagascar Crested Ibis flying up and away from the trail, cracking views of a roosting Collared Nightjar and our first Nuthatch Vanga but despite much searching we only heard Rufous-headed Ground Roller. Bird of the day for me was the Madagascar (Long-eared) Owl that our guide pointed out between Andasibe and Mantadia NP. Also in that area was an elusive Madagascar Rail – our only one of the trip.
Madagascar Long-eared Owl
The nightlife around the hotel would prove to be very interesting, although I could have done without the two giant wolf spiders in my room. I just tucked my mosquito net under the mattress and drank a lot of beer! Some of the moths, mantis and other bugs were a major source of entertainment in the three evenings we were there.
The next two days were spent Andasibe special reserve and Mantadia NP, and we managed to notch up most of the hoped for species. We scored all four of the endemic Ground Rollers (Rufous-headed, Short-legged, Scaly and Pitta-like), Red-breasted and Red-fronted Couas, Forest Rock Thrush, Madagascar Pygmy Kingfisher and many more. We also saw the incredible howling Indri and the stunning Diademed Sifaka. The call of the Indri is one of the most evocative sounds of the natural world that I’ve ever heard.
Rufous-headed Ground Roller. Very skulking!
Madagascar Pygmy Kingfisher
Ward’s Flycatcher. Actually now known to be another species of Vanga, and not a flycatcher at all!
After a great time at these sites, it was time to leave and drive back to Tana. We went via a reptile farm where Sykes got bitten in the face by a huge snake. Could have been horrendous, turned out to be quite funny thankfully.
The birding sites are a heck of a long way apart in Madagascar, and after overnighting in Tana, it was a further all day drive to get to Ranomafana NP. Like Mantadia NP and Andasibe special reserve, Ranomafana NP is part of the “Rainforests of the Atsinanana”, a World Heritage Site. These forests once spread along the entire eastern mountain chain of Madagascar and are one of the World’s great biodiversity hotspots, but are disappearing at an alarming rate. Already highly fragmented, the future of these forests hangs in the balance as the National Parks have their edges eroded away by “slash and burn” agricultural encroachment, illegal logging and other nefarious uses. For more info read http://www1.american.edu/ted/MADAGAS.HTM. With an increasing population that is one of the poorest in the World, any solutions to the forests rapid disappearance are unlikely to work in my view. Basically, if you want to see Madagascar’s wonderful and unique wildlife, go now. It may well be gone within your lifetime.
Ranomafana NP is a truly beautiful place, with steep sided forested hills and a boulder strewn raging river flowing through the middle of it. We spent the next two days in the park and scored some more of the critical endemics. Unfortunately, the outstanding memory is of spending an inordinate amount of time trying to find Brown Mesite. The usual pair was flushed by the group preceding us, and we simply couldn’t find them or any others again. This meant that we did not put in enough time in trying to find other things, and we ended up missing Brown Emutail as well. We did have a cracking morning looking for Yellow-bellied Sunbird-Asity, eventually finding a pair nest building. The male is without doubt one of the best birds I’ve ever seen, a true flying jewel. Just a shame my crap photo doesn’t do it justice. Other great birds here over the two days included truly stunning views of Madagascar Sparrowhawk feeding unconcerned just a few meters from us, a Madagascar Yellowbrow skulking within a few feet, Henst’s Goshawk, Pollen’s Vanga, Grey Emutail, Forest Fody and our only male Velvet Asity of the trip.
Yellow-bellied Sunbird-Asity. At one point, this little jewel was thought to be extinct, and Ranomafana remains the only accessible site for it.
Madagascar Sparrowhawk. Another species that is becoming increasingly hard to find.
Pitta-like Ground Roller
The incomparable Blue Vanga, about to nail a huge cricket
Mammal wise, we did extremely well. The group of Red-fronted Brown Lemurs showed well on several occasions, but when they started barking in alarm , we knew there was something afoot. Creeping along the trail below them, I looked over the into the small gully below us and saw the unmistakable form of a Fosa slinking along the gully bottom. Looking over its shoulder at us, Madagascar’s largest predator fixed us with huge eyes , then carried on and disappeared into the forest with cat-like grace. The occasional cries and whoops from the lemurs throughout the day let us know that it was still around, but we never saw it again. We did manage to see a troop of three Black & White Ruffed Lemurs which was a nice bonus. I was starting to get into lemurs by now, and really enjoyed seeing these Black & Whites. Having seen Fosa (which almost no one sees at Ranomafana) and Black & White Ruffed Lemur (which is tricky and erratic throughout its fragmented range), we thought we were on a roll and decided to give the Golden Bamboo Lemur one last try. We failed. The one lemur that babies can find while dribbling along the main trail, we just couldn’t find. I was philosophical about it at the time, but now I’m pretty gutted we missed it. We did get cracking views of Brown Mouse Lemur coming to the roadside trees to eat a banana mush.
Black & White Ruffed Lemur
On Nov 24th we started the long drive to Isalo NP early in the morning, finally catching up with the recently described Cryptic Warbler singing along the roadside at Ranomafana. The long drive was broken up by a lunch stop at Anja, an isolated patch of rocky forest that contains a troop of habituated Ring-tailed Lemurs. Unfortunately, it also contains hordes of cooing tourists, so be prepared for annoying French grannies getting in the way of that perfect lemur photo, every ******* time!!! Still, the lemurs were nice, although I have to admit to being slightly disappointed that King Julian didn’t make an appearance.
Ring tailed lemur
We then drove across a massive open plain, with occasional large rocky outcrops. The outstanding highlight was a male Madagascar Harrier, hunting low over the grass. The structural differences between this and the Reunion Harrier were very striking, with this bird being much more like a typical harrier in structure and jizz. Finally arriving at Isalo, we nailed the Benson’s Rock Thrush that nest on the visitor centre. This used to be a species in its own right, but is now lumped within Forest Rock Thrush due to there being no genetic differences between them. Personally I think that’s a load of tosh. There is a vast distance between the two populations, and no chance of any mixing now. Benson’s is restricted to the rocky outcrops of the Isalo massif, and Forest is a rainforest specialist. Closely related, for sure, and almost identical in appearance, but not the same species. If you go by the principle of “Identifiable Forms” like I do, then you’ll appreciate seeing this, no matter what the scientists tell us about is genetic make-up.
Benson’s Rock Thrush
We also scored Madagascar Partridge at this site, and I discovered that Madagascar Cisticola responds very well to pishing. Just in case you struggle to find this, one of the commonest species on the island!
We spent the night near to Isalo NP, and decided to do some birding in the grasslands behind the hotel at Ranohira. It didn’t take long to find one our hoped for species when a pair of Marsh Owls performed very well for us, quartering the grasslands. The next morning saw us heading for Ifaty and the iconic and world famous spiny forest there. First however, we were in for a treat on the journey. The Zombitse-Vohibasia NP is a remnant patch of deciduous woodland, and is one of the few places in the world for the for the Appert’s Tetraka. This small Madagascar warbler has now been found at a further two locations, but Zombitse is on the main road between the rainforest sites in the east and the spiny forest sites in the south west, so will always be the most accessible site for it for most people. http://www.birdlife.org/datazone/speciesfactsheet.php?id=7262 . It wasn’t just the tetraka that was a highlight in our short stay here, and we were treated to stunning views of White-browed Owl and both Giant & Coquerel’s Couas. Lemurs comprised the famous Verraux’s Sifaka with the obligatory baby in attendance and both Hubbard’s & Red-tailed Sportive Lemurs.
Hubbard’s Sportive Lemur
Arriving at Ifaty after a long drive along the coast going north from Tulear, and after a quick look at the wetland just north of Tulear, we checked into our picture postcard beach front “Nautilus” hotel. We were starting to feel just a little pampered on this trip, and the standard of all the hotels had been excellent and well above what we are used to. The pool and bar overlooking the ocean did just give this one the edge, and with a family of Madagascar Nightjars hawking around the grounds we were very happy bunnies indeed. On Nov 26th we got up early and headed into the incomparable spiny forest, on the edge of Ifaty. With incredible elephant-like baobabs, euphorbias, the frankly weird octopus trees and the masses of smaller thorn bushes, the spiny forest is like nowhere else I’ve ever been. It makes the acacia and wait-a-bit thorn scrub in east Africa look positively welcoming!
The birds were actually hard to find, except for one of our most wanted birds – the Long-tailed Ground Roller. This was singing from a low branch at the entrance to the forest.
Long-tailed Ground Roller
We did manage to see another one inside the forest too. The other highlights of the spiny forest were:
Subdesert Mesite. The obligatory aboreal photo of this normally terrestrial bird. This was very difficult to find, and we would have no doubt failed without the help of our guide (Mousa) and his son.
Subdesert Brush Warbler
Sickle-billed Vanga. The largest of the vangas, this impressive, and frankly weird, bird is fairly widespread in the west of Madagascar. We saw them at Ifaty and Ankarafantsika.
The following day again started early, and we drove to the La Table area of thorn scrub just inland of Tulear. For anyone expecting La Table to be a mountain, as it is described in the literature, prepare for a big disappointment. It’s very low more of a small flat-topped hill than anything else. Anyway, we were there to look for two highly range restricted species, the Verraux’s Coua and the Red-shouldered Vanga. Both species are restricted to the coastal thorn scrub in south-west Madagascar. The vanga was only described in 1997, but had first been seen 50 years early. It’s apparently not as rare as some of the sources imply http://www.birdlife.org/datazone/speciesfactsheet.php?id=9808 , but it’s still a cracking bird to see, and is famously the last new species that Phoebe Snetsinger saw before her untimely death on the roads of Madagascar not far from here.
Red-shouldered Vanga, male
Red-shouldered Vanga, female on nest
After a couple of hours, it was time to get back to Tulear and catch our charter boat to Nosy Ve. The 2.5 hr journey to Nosy Ve was one of the worst boat journeys I’ve ever done, and I work offshore! The head-on swell combined with our impressive speed resulted in us being airborne for much of the trip, with the result that I was certainly pretty bruised by the time we got there. Still, some Lesser Crested Terns had provided a bit of entertainment on the way. Landing on Nosy Ve, we walked around the whole island, which didn’t take long. The reason for going there was to see the nesting Red-tailed Tropicbirds on their only Madagascan nesting grounds. The population has steadily declined in recent years, but we did find a few adults nesting under the bushes, and a few more flying around the island. Also present were some nice White-faced Plovers. This really was a another picture postcard destination, with white sandy beaches, wide open sea views and a sense of wild isolation, as Nosy Ve is a few miles off the mainland. With time knocking on, we got back on the boat and headed for the mainland fishing village of Anakao. This village is only realistically accessible by boat, as to get there overland involves a stupidly long 4×4 journey. It’s famous in birding circles as the only accessible place to see the Littoral Rock Thrush. We were staying overnight in the Safari Veso hotel, which I can thoroughly recommend http://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/Hotel_Review-g736871-d735899-Reviews-Hotel_Safari_Vezo-Anakao_Toliara_Province.html , not least because the thrush nests in the euphorbias within the hotel grounds! It’s a great place just to kick back, relax and enjoy the ambience of this stunning place, seemingly at the end of the world.
Littoral Rock Thrush
Lesser Crested Terns
Our final two days with Bakoly started with us getting back to Tulear early the next day (Nov 28th). We found our final coua species (Green-capped) just outside Tulear, and that provided a fitting climax to our listing ambitions in this south west corner of Madagascar, even if we had dipped on Madagascar Sandgrouse and Green-capped Coua was probably the dullest of all the couas! Catching the (delayed) flight back to Tana that evening, we spent another night in Tana before saying goodbye to Bakoly and to Owain and Robin at the airport. Owain and Robin were heading back to Britain, and myself, Tim and Adam were flying up to Maroantsetra to begin a fortnight in the north east of Madagascar.
I had organised all of the north-east part of the trip through Olivier Fournajoux, the owner of Chez Arol eco-lodge. http://arollodge.free.fr/home.htm . We were going to be staying at Chez Arol, right on the edge of Masoala NP for 7 nights. After an initial night in Maroantsetra staying at the Coco Beach hotel, the Chez Arol motor boat picked us up from the river pier at the back of the hotel. We then sped out into the expanse of Antongil Bay and the 90 minute journey to the lodge.
The lodge is located between a small village and the primary rainforest of Masoala NP, and as such is nearer to the forest than the other lodges that are often used by groups. The lodge consisted of a large dining area and several individual chalets for guests. We had the largest chalet to ourselves for the 7 nights, and after meeting two guests on our first night we had the entire lodge to ourselves for 6 nights.
Rainforest comes down to the shore in many parts of Masoala
Our chalet at Chez Arol
Dining area and pineapple bushes at Chez Arol
Our guide for our entire time in Masoala NP was Joseph Raveloson, and as well as being the best guide we had in our entire time in Madagascar, he also became a good friend to us. You can find him on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/#!/ravelosonjoseph.joseph?fref=ts and I can definitely recommend him.
Our main target in Masoala NP was the Helmet Vanga. It’s one of those iconic World birds that feature on many peoples “must see” list and we were not to be disappointed. They are only found in the north-east of Madagascar, but are not necessarily rare where they occur. We didn’t see them every day by any means, but we did find a pair in one area that seemed to be fairly regular, and on top of that we saw the pair of Bernier’s Vangas that Joseph had found previously. Our 6 days there were magical, and we even finally managed to see a pair of Brown Mesites after several hours of intensive searching. One of the highlights was finding Scaly Ground Rollers with a recently fledged chick, and a stupidly confiding Short-legged Ground Roller. Several Madagascar Pratincoles were nesting on rocks along the shore, and we found several Brookesia chameleons (the World’s smallest lizards), leaf-tailed geckos and even a couple of snakes. Unexpected bonuses included two Collared Nightjars (including one bird hunting in a clearing – it just sat on a perch constantly moving its head looking for prey, then finally did a flycatcher-like sally before returning to the same perch), a sunbathing Red-breasted Coua, regular (if highly camera shy) Blue Couas, Cuckoo-Rollers displaying around the lodge, Rainforest Scops Owl hunting a few feet from us as we ate in the evening and more wonderful wildlife than you could shake a stick at.
Helmet Vanga up close
Bernier’s Vanga, male
Bernier’s Vanga, female
Scaly ground roller, the last picture showing a recently fledged chick
Short-legged ground roller
Frances’s Sparrowhawk, male
Frances’s Sparrowhawk. Six fingers is unusual for such a small accipiter.
Madagascar Magpie Robin, the black-bellied race.
Madagascar White-eye. Very common!
Madagascar Paradise Flycatcher
Rainforest Scops Owl
Spectacled Tetraka. This is the northern race of Spectacled, and was previously thought to be the enigmatic Dusky Tetraka. That species is now thought to be either highly localised in some unknown location, or maybe even non-exisistent.
White-fronted Brown Lemur
Eastern Avahi (aka Eastern Wooly Lemur)
Brown Mouse Lemur
Looking upstream from the beach
A palm. This had the longest “above ground” roots of any plant i have seen. The main trunk is quite short, but the roots start about 6 meters up in the air!
We whiled away some of the afternoons by going snorkelling and just chilling in the bar. Truly a hard life! The weather was sometimes against us, with monsoon quality rain at times. Being there in early December, we knew we were there at the start of the rainy season, even though it’s often said that Masoala is so wet that it doesn’t really have a discernible rainy season. We really felt like we got to know the area pretty well, and I’m certainly glad that we spent so much time there.
I feel like I have to explain something about Masoala that may come as something of a surprise. Madagascar in general is not the easiest place in the world for the independent traveller. In fact, with a poor road network, massive distances between sites and the difficulty in hiring transport, it is downright difficult to get around on your own. If I had to get to Ifaty or Bemanevika on my own, I’m not entirely sure how I would do it. Masoala on the other hand, is easy. If you’re prepared for the cost of an internal flight (the road to Masoala is among the worst in the World, and will take several days to travel along – it even featured recently in the BBC program “World’s Most Dangerous Roads”), Masoala is probably the easiest of the National Parks to get to. Simply get a taxi from Maroantsetra airport to one of the hotels in the town. If you have organised accommodation in one of the lodges at Masoala, they will pick you up from the hotel and ferry you across the bay to the lodge. It’s dead easy! I guess you could even just turn up in Maroantsetra and book accommodation on Masoala there and then, as all the lodges have well sign posted offices in Masoala. For the Chez Arol office, just cross the bridge over the river and turn left.
After our time in Masoala, we got back to Maroantsetra and after an overnight stop at Coco Beach hotel, we headed off upstream in a metal pirogue towards the Makira forest. We had retained Joseph as our guide, and even the same cook. We did feel slightly strange about heading off with guides, porters and a cook, as it’s not really what we are used to. Having someone carry all the equipment was a novelty, but I got used to it pretty quick! We spent the 1st night in a new camp that is being set up for eco-tourism, and got the approval of the local village elders. The forest here is now community owned, and they hope to be able to preserve it as it is for the benefit of both the wildlife and the community, but obviously they need tourism for this to be a viable option. We only spent a few short hours in the forest in the company of a local guide as well as Joseph, but we managed to get good views of Helmet Vanga and Madagascar Wood Rail, plus a pair of both Short-legged and Scaly Ground Rollers. We also managed to nail our only specifically identified bat in Madagascar, as a Peter’s Sheath-tailed Bat was roosting in the shelter above my tent. Leaving this site, we cracked on towards Makira. It wasn’t much further upstream, but after stopping at another village to get permits and then a 2 hr hike to get to the research station, it was midday or after by the time we arrived. And what a place it is!
After dumping our gear at the station, we set off in pursuit of the research team who were studying the resident family group of Silky Sifakas. After a few false starts in the dense forest and incredibly steep terrain, we finally found them, and were treated to point blank views of this very rare and localised lemur. This particular group have become habituated after years of study by the research team, and two of them also carry radio collars to enable them to be found every day. Despite nearly blinding myself on a wayward twig, the views were incredible, and they even had a mischievous baby in tow. We spent the remainder of the day and half the next day exploring the forest around the camp. Helmet Vanga was seemingly pretty common, and we found two pairs of Bernier’s Vanga – one of which were nesting in a palm in full view of the station. We couldn’t have wished for anything more really. I suspect that given proper exploration by birders, there would be some nice surprises in store in this forest, but as it’s a large tract with virtually no access, it will probably hold on to its secrets until it is felled. Go there, and help make a case for its continued survival. Beware though, it is a voyage to get there, and the climb up the wooded slope to get to the research station is incredibly tiring and not for the faint (or weak!) hearted. At times it’s almost vertical, and there is much holding onto trees and branches to climb up. Of course, the porters made it look easy, and were literally running up certain sections! We were even lucky enough to bump into the Sifakas on the way back down, and were treated to more of their antics at close range. For anyone interested in going to Makira, I can thoroughly recommend it and would certainly recommend that you contact Olivier Fournajoux and ask him to organise it. He is trying to set up an eco-tourism initiative here, and that deserves support.
Helmet Vanga, the second photo shows a recently fledged chick.
Bernier’s Vangas, including a female sat on nest in a palm.
The afternoon was taken up with the journey downstream to Maroantsetra, followed by another night in the Coco Beach hotel after we had waved goodbye to Joseph and the rest of the crew. The next day was our last in Maroantsetra, and we decided to do something a little different. Again, with Olivier’s help we organised a pirogue to take us to a “nearby” forest that apparently has Aye-Aye. Not ones to miss a good opportunity, we were soon heading off into the unknown again, and reached the Farankaraina forest well after dark. We failed to find Aye-Aye, but did see some Greater Dwarf Lemur. The highlights were two Madagascar Crested Ibis that we spotlighted roosting up in the trees; our best views of this species, which had proved incredibly elusive at every site we went to. The 6 hours spent squatting in a pirogue as we were punted and paddled along was certainly a different way to travel, and not one I would want to do on a daily basis like many people do over there.
From then we flew back to Tana, had a day to relax and do a spot of shopping, then catch our flights back to London on the 13th. A truly great trip, with lots of memories. If there is anything I haven’t covered that you want information on, just comment here or send me an email.