The Best of Madagascar, Birds and Wildlife Trip Report, October 2017

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17 -31 October 2017

By Jason Boyce

 

ITINERARY

Day Date Start Finish
1 06 October 2016 Antananarivo Antananarivo
2 07 October 2016 Antananarivo Antananarivo
3 08 October 2016 Antananarivo Mahajanga
4 09 October 2016 Mahajanga Ankarafantsika NP
5 10 October 2016 Ankarafantsika NP Ankarafantsika NP
6 11 October 2016 Ankarafantsika NP Antananarivo
7 12 October 2016 Antananarivo Masoala National Park
8 13 October 2016 Masoala National Park Masoala National Park
9 14 October 2016 Masoala National Park Masoala National Park
10 15 October 2016 Masoala National Park Antananarivo
11 16 October 2016 Antananarivo Anjozorobe
12 17 October 2016 Anjozorobe Antananarivo
13 18 October 2016 Antananarivo Andasibe
14 19 October 2016 Andasibe Andasibe
15 20 October 2016 Andasibe Andasibe
16 21 October 2016 Andasibe Antsirabe
17 22 October 2016 Antsirabe Ranomafana NP
18 23 October 2016 Ranomafana NP Ranomafana NP
19 24 October 2016 Ranomafana NP Ranomafana NP
20 25 October 2016 Ranomafana NP Isalo
21 26 October 2016 Isalo Ifaty
22 27 October 2016 Ifaty Ifaty
23 28 October 2016 Ifaty Toliara
24 29 October 2016 Toliara Toliara
25 30 October 2016 Toliara Antananarivo
26 31 October 2016 Antananarivo Fort Dauphin
27 01 November 2016 Fort Dauphin Berenty
28 02 November 2016 Berenty Berenty
29 03 November 2016 Berenty Fort Dauphin
30 04 November 2016 Fort Dauphin Antananarivo
31 05 November 2016 Antananarivo Departure

 

OVERVIEW
A birding wonder of the world! The gigantic island off the east coast of Africa that is Madagascar truly is a must-see birding and wildlife destination. Our classic itinerary that starts in the capital Antananarivo traverses the eastern rainforests of Andasibe (including Andasibe-Mantadia National Park) and Ranomafana National Park. We then head south to the beautiful landscapes of Isalo, the dry forest patches of Zombitse-Vohibasia National Park, and the Ifaty Spiny Forest and then take a boat to the island of Nosy Ve. We managed to record a total of 156 species on this trip (one of them heard only), including all of the Ground Rollers and all Couas, a host of Tetrakas, and all possible Vangas, as well as the enigmatic Cuckoo Roller! To compliment the incredible set of birds we were fortunate enough to see a fair selection of mammals, 25 species in total, as well as many interesting reptile species on night walks. This 15-day classical tour was thoroughly enjoyed by Ron and Ruth as well as Kristin and Kjell, who also joined our Berenty Reserve extension, and the tour was a complete success.

Day 1 – Arrival Day and local birding
Everyone arrived safely and was ready to get the birding under way. We kicked off our birding for the tour with a visit to the local ‘bird island’ called Tsarasaotra Park, an oasis in the city area for many species of heron and egret as well as many of the more common passerines. The small lake was full of waterfowl, and our first few species included Red-billed Teal, Knob-billed and the endemic Meller’s Duck, and Squacco and Black Herons, as well as Western Cattle and Dimorphic Egrets. Malagasy Pond Heron was a highlight, three birds in cracking breeding plumage displaying on the reed bed in the middle of the lake. Madagascan Swamp Warbler was heard and then seen in the reeds. Malagasy Bulbul was seen moving around the trees alongside the lake, and Malagasy White-eye was also present. Malagasy Kingfisher came and landed close by on a dead tree alongside us, and a small group of Hottentot Teals was spotted along the back side of the lake. White-throated Rail was heard calling, but we were unable to get any visuals of this skulker. A relaxing start with some of the more common species kicked things off nicely today.

Day 2 – Drive to Andasibe, afternoon birding the Analamazaotra Special Reserve
We met for breakfast and then started the drive east to Andasibe, where we would spend three nights. We stopped en route at a river crossing, where we spotted a pair of Madagascan Pratincoles, Common Sandpiper, Crested Drongo, and our first vanga species, namely Chabert Vanga. The Andasibe area is rich with rainforest bird species as well as an assortment of mammals and reptiles. We did a walk with our local guide, Patrice, in the Analamazaotra Special Reserve, and it wasn’t long before we saw our first Indri, the largest of the lemurs in Madagascar. We had a really nice look at Blue Coua (one of the arboreal species) in flight and later perched fairly low through some tangles. Some of the other highlights this afternoon were Madagascan Pygmy Kingfisher, Rainforest Scops Owl at a day roost, both forms of Malagasy Paradise Flycatcher, including a male bird on a nest! We did also see our first jery species, both Green Jery and Common Jery were seen. A good conversation at dinner prepared us for the full days birding in Andasibe-Mantadia National Park the following day.

Day 3 – Andasibe-Mantadia National Park
Before we could even lay our eyes on any bird species this morning we heard a few Indri calling nearby, so we stopped and enjoyed amazing sightings of three of them. We were also treated to visuals of Velvet Asity at the same site. Pitta-like Ground Roller was spotted on the road as we entered the park. Andasibe-Mantadia National Park is very well known for at least three species of the sought-after ground rollers, and it was definitely a great day for them. Hearing Short-legged Ground Roller on the hillside we scurried up through the thick forest to get some visuals – we were not disappointed. Later that morning we found Scaly Ground Roller. We sat extremely still and quietly observed it moving slowly along the forest floor. Later that morning we had a pair at even closer proximity – truly one of the most spectacular Madagascan birds! We obviously added a large assortment of other species too; these included Madagascan Grebe, Greater and Lesser Vasa Parrots, Madagascan Spinetail, Madagascan Flufftail, Madagascan Starling, and Blue and Red-shouldered Vangas, as well as Madagascan Magpie-Robin. We spent some time with a local guide trying to track down the place where a fossa had made a kill that morning (seen by other local guides in the area), but with no luck. We did have nice sightings of Black-and-white Ruffed Lemur, though, as well as of a very vocal Red-fronted Coua!
Our night walk produced many Goodman’s Mouse Lemurs, and a Rainforest Scops Owl was found calling and showed absolutely beautifully under the light of our torches. Here we also saw two smaller chameleon species, Nose-horned and Short-horned Chameleons.

Day 4 – Analamazaotra Special Reserve and the Torotorofotsy Wetlands
We met fairly early once again for breakfast before heading off into the Analamazaotra Special Reserve with a good few targets in mind. First up was Madagascan Wood Rail, which we managed to locate and coax onto the path in front of us for good visuals. We spent good amounts of time working some small parties; these included Tylas Vanga, Madagascan Cuckooshrike, Rand’s Warbler, Common Newtonia, and Red-tailed Vanga. Red-breasted Coua was eventually seen after time spent tracking it back and forth in the undergrowth. Frances’s Sparrowhawk perched beautifully at eye level in the forest for us to marvel at, while a group of Brown Lemurs entertained us as well.
The Torotorofotsy Wetlands, a BirdLife International IBA and Ramsar site, is a well-known birding destination within Madagascar, a site that used to hold many Slender-billed Flufftails (now rare in most parts of Madagascar) and is still host to Madagascan Rail and Madagascan Snipe. Upon arrival we picked up the likes of White-headed Vanga and Ward’s Flycatcher. The walk to the marsh produced sightings of Madagascan Cuckoo – a species heard more often that seen. The marsh was still fairly dry ahead of the rainy season, but the birding was still enjoyable. Madagascan Cisticola as well as Madagascan Mannikin were both flitting over the grassland, while the calls of Madagascan Flufftail were heard close by. We spent a good amount of time tracking down Madagascan Rail, which we eventually got great looks at between the reeds. Madagascan Snipe and Grey Emutail were both flushed while looking for the rail. Satisfied with our time here we headed back to the lodge for a night walk later that evening.
The night walk at the hotel produced a trio of nocturnal lemur species, Eastern Woolly Lemur and soon after both Geoffroy’s and Furry-eared Dwarf Lemurs. Another treat was seeing the tiny Short-nosed Chameleon.

Day 5 – Travel day south to Antsirabe
The resident Chabert Vanga and Souimanga Sunbird were there to bid us farewell as we left the lodge after a hearty breakfast. We knew that today would be mostly a day of travel to Antsirabe, so we enjoyed the scenes and bustling towns as we made our way south. Other than a couple of species at the lodge and the assortment of herons and egrets on the rice paddies we only added Yellow-billed Kite and Pied Crow to our list for the trip. We arrived safely at the accommodation for the evening and enjoyed some local cuisine.

Day 6 – Antsirabe to Ranomafana
Travel in Madagascar is rather slow, and so we spent the morning and much of the afternoon traveling to Ranomafana. We stopped for an early lunch in Ambositra, where we were treated to a local traditional dance and song and picked up many Malagasy Kestrels, Common Jery, and Mascarene Martin. A few small ponds between the myriads of rice paddies held species such as Great and Dimorphic Egrets as well as flyby Alpine Swift and Madagascan Buzzard. Finally, nearing Ranomafana, we walked on the main road in the forested area and managed to locate Pitta-like Ground Roller and Forest Rock Thrush – two tough species that we managed to see very well, a brilliant end to a travel day.

Day 7 – Birding Ranomafana National Park
The wake-up call this morning was at around 4 a.m. in order to have some breakfast and get into the Ranomafana National Park. We kicked things off with a cracking male Velvet Asity near the start of the trail, while White-throated Oxylabes and a small group of Golden Bamboo Lemurs boosted the excitement levels. Wedge-tailed Jery, Long-billed Bernieria, and Spectacled Tetraka entertained us for some time along the uphill forest trail, while Eastern Red Forest Rat was an interesting distraction as well. I am rather sad to report that our search for the enigmatic Brown Mesite was unsuccessful this morning. After many, many hours no birds could be found at any of their locations within Ranomafana. A party of vangas was thoroughly enjoyed late in the morning, with Rufous Vanga, Red-tailed Vanga, Blue Vanga and Pollen’s Vanga. However, Crossley’s Vanga stole the show today: A single bird was heard calling nearby a couple of times, and after two attempts to get visuals we finally found this cracking endemic walking slowly on the forest floor like a wagtail alongside a small pond.
Ranomafana is definitely known for its night walks – many tourist groups join night walks in the hopes of seeing some of the nocturnal night life that is on show along the forest edges. We saw an assortment of chameleons, geckos, and nocturnal lemurs over the course of the next few nights. Tonight we found O’Shaughnessy’s and Blue-legged Chameleons, Rufous Mouse Lemur, and Furry-eared Dwarf Lemur.

Day 8 – Ranomafana National Park
We started in the upper level forest this morning, knowing that the Rufous-headed Ground Rollers (which had given us a hard time the day before) would be active in those same areas. This as well as Cryptic Warbler, Common Sunbird-Asity, and Brown Emutail became our biggest targets for the morning. The Cryptic Warbler did give us a good view, and so too did the Common Sunbird-Asity, while Yellow-bellied Sunbird-Asity wasn’t anywhere to be found. Madagascan Wood Rail came strolling onto the path in front of us just as we were trying to get another glimpse of Velvet Asity. We did manage a great look at a male Velvet Asity, with a female bird nearby. Madgascan Blue Pigeon perched high in a sparsely vegetated tree for an open view in the scope, while a large group of Milne-Edwards’a Sifakas lazed around for quite some time for us to get saturating views. We walked for quite some way through the stunning forest and recorded other species for the day, such as White-headed Vanga, Ward’s Flycatcher, Dark Newtonia, Malagasy Paradise Flycatcher, and a brilliant Henst’s Goshawk flyby late in the morning. Yet, still no sign of Rufous-headed Ground Roller. Our afternoon birding session after lunch was also cracking, and we kicked off with Red-fronted Coua as we entered the forest trail in the Ranomafana upper forest. Forest Rock Thrush right alongside the path was a treat, and after many hours of trying we finally connected with one of the birds of the trip, our fourth ground roller – the magical Rufous-headed Ground Roller! We also added the likes of Red-bellied Lemur and a stunning Ring-tailed Mongoose to our ever-growing mammal list.
On a night walk O’Shaughnessy’s Chameleon and a Mossy Leaf-tailed Gecko were two of the highlights. We also found another Furry-eared Dwarf Lemur.

Day 9 – Travel to Isalo National Park
The Ranomafana forests were truly spectacular; birding the mature forest patches over the last couple of days really had produced some cracking birds. It was time, however, for some dry country birding, so we started our journey south to Ifaty. After some time we arrived at the Anja Community Reserve, a location where we would spend some time birding as well as have our packed lunch before continuing south. Our first surprise was seeing the beautiful Ring-tailed Lemur. A family of these iconic lemurs, including three young, spent time in the shade of the introduced Chinaberry trees while we watched them playing, feeding, and marking territory. Birds included our first Grey-headed Lovebird and Madagascan Hoopoe as well as a few Yellow-billed Kites chasing a Madagascan Cisticola. Pied Crows were a dime a dozen during the whole drive, and the Madagascan Larks became slightly more common through one of the passes closer to the town of Ihosy. The large Oustalet’s Chameleon was also a highlight at the Anja Community Reserve. We watched a male feeding on grasshoppers, shooting its prehensile tongue to grasp the grasshopper right before our eyes – amazing to witness this iconic feeding behavior. One of the birding highlights was spotting a Malagasy Harrier cruising fairly high over the dry grassy fields as we were nearing Isalo National Park. We arrived at our lodge right alongside Isalo National Park and rested up for another travel day (including some really great birding) down to Ifaty.

Day 10 – Isalo National Park to Ifaty
A morning walk around the grounds of the lodge was beautiful; riverine woodland and some fantastic rocky landscapes produced a few nice bird species. Madagascan Hoopoes were feeding in a nearby field, White-throated Rails were calling in the swampy areas near the stream, Malagasy Kestrel and Broad-billed Roller were perched on some of the rocky ridges, Souimanga Sunbird was feeding on a flowering tree right alongside the chalets, and African Palm Swifts were fluttering around the palm trees in the garden. After we had packed and checked out we began the journey south to Zombitse National Park, where we spent a couple of hours birding the dry but dense forest patches. We enjoyed getting our binoculars onto Coquerel’s and Crested Couas, Appert’s Tetraka, Cuckoo Roller displaying, Frances’s Sparrowhawk, a mighty quick Banded Kestrel flyby, the impressive Giant Coua, and Blue Vanga. We also made a few visits to some of the known sportive lemur roosting spots and eventually did see Hubbard’s Sportive Lemur – our first nocturnal lemur for the trip. We also encountered a troop of Verreaux’s Sifakas, a species with a lot of attitude, and a treat to watch. Our last avian gem was a roosting White-browed Hawk Owl.

Day 11 – Boat trip to Nosy Ve
What a fantastic day trip it would be today! We set off early in the morning and grabbed a couple of ox carts to get to our boat that was docked in the bay. Nearing the fishing town of Anakao, where we would later have lunch, we spotted a single Greater Crested Tern flying in a northerly direction. We stopped on the mainland and picked up Littoral Rock Thrush, Sakalava Weaver, Red Fody, and Subdesert Brush Warbler. Then we took to the boat once again, this time armed with some snorkeling gear as well, and made our way to the island of Nosy Ve. Before we knew it we were looking at numerous Red-tailed Tropicbirds; some were sitting on the water and some were flying around the shoreline of the tiny island. We stepped ashore and had a walk on the island, all the while watching the ‘snow-white’ seabirds cruising right over our heads. The island is home to many breeding pairs of this iconic species, and we were lucky enough to see one chick on a nest.
We ended the daylight hours with a brilliant Humblot’s Heron near the lodge.
Our night walk in the spiny forest was eventful. Lesser Hedgehog Tenrec made an appearance but unfortunately stayed in his defensive position. Both White-footed Sportive Lemur and ‘Black-shouldered Sportive Lemur’ (an undescribed species) were found by the local guides, two very interesting lemurs for the trip. We also found Grey Mouse Lemur.

Day 12 – Birding the Ifaty Spiny Forest
An amazing morning in the spiny forest north of Ifaty was a real treat! We started things nice and early once again to make the most of our visit, and after breakfast and a quick ox cart trip over the thick sand we encountered our first few species, Grey-headed Lovebird, Crested Drongo, Souimanga Sunbird, and the impressive Greater Vasa Parrot at close range! The last member of the ground rollers, the wonderfully distinctive Long-tailed Ground Roller, absolutely didn’t disappoint us; with a bit of help from the local guides we were able to enjoy this beauty up close and personal! The flora of red-trunked baobabs and spiny cacti really makes the landscape pretty impressive. Later that morning we added a few more passerines in the form of Archbold’s Newtonia, Thamnornis, and both the amazing Sickle-billed and Lafresnaye’s Vangas to our list.
Sub-desert Mesite really did take a lot of work searching and listening for the call, but finally we found it perched up at eye-level in a small spiny tree (cover picture). We later picked up Madagascan Harrier-Hawk circling over the spiny forest and finally Running Coua, living up to its name. Madagascan Plover took some time to track down; we finally found a pair of them hanging around at the edge of a saline settling pond. Finally today we traveled toward Toliara, checked some roadside lake areas, and found Greater Flamingo, White-faced Whistling Duck, Hottentot Teal, and Wood and Curlew Sandpipers. A day without any lemurs was a little strange, but the incredible spectacle of spiny forest birds species really made up for it.

Day 13 – Birding around Toliara
A local spot to the south of Toliara is known for Madagascan Sandgrouse, but unfortunately we didn’t manage to connect with any of them at their drinking spots. We did, however, pick up a male Greater Painted-snipe, which landed in the open for a good couple of seconds for all to see! Our plan later that morning was to give the fairly recently described (and famous) Red-shouldered Vanga a try. We arrived at the site and started our search. The wind made the birding really tricky but didn’t stop us from giving it our best. The ‘Olive-capped’ subspecies (not recognized as a full species by the IOC) of Red-capped Coua) was calling close by and was seen perched low in the dry scrub; nice visuals were had. Red-shouldered Vanga has a fairly soft but drawn-out whistle, which is probably the best way to locate this fairly unobtrusive species, and this is exactly how we ended up finding it. Excellent visuals of both the male Red-shouldered Vanga and the ‘newtonia look-alike’ female bird were had. Bar-tailed Godwit, Common Ringed Plover, and a big flock of Whimbrel were the only shorebirds around the harbor in the now really strong wind, so we opted for an early end to the day.

Day 14 – Final day, flight back to Antananarivo
Our final day in Madagascar (for those not doing the Berenty extension) was a relaxing one with a hearty breakfast, and soon we were off to Antananarivo for our international flights home. It would be difficult to pick a bird of the tour, or even the top five, as so many of us differed on what we enjoyed the most. However, the species that were highlights for the group were Velvet Asity, Pitta-like Ground Roller, Cuckoo Roller, Giant Coua, Madagascar Hoopoe, Red-tailed Tropicbird, and Subdesert Mesite.

 

Please see the downloadable PDF above with the full species lists included.