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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Madagascar

2017 Narrative

In Summary: I like to compare each successive report for this tour, with so many constants, always the same time of year, visiting the exact same locations and using the same local help in each location. With this repetition, any changes become very apparent which sadly builds into a discouraging history of various species abundance. 2017 again showed a marked decline in species and numbers, and more degradation of habitat, and though appearing unchanged in some “protected” areas, the absence of a healthy avifauna tells a different and more depressing story. Large areas of forest now are devoid of any bird activity, wetlands are under even more threat making the birds both difficult to locate and directly threatening them with extinction. Perhaps the most alarming group affected this year was the raptors, species that once provided no real problems to locate in the past, failed to show any sign of existence this year. So we failed to meet up with African Cuckoo-Hawk, Madagascar Sparrowhawk, Madagascar Harrier and Banded Kestrel. On questioning guides in various places where Banded Kestrels were once reliable, such as Ifaty, Zombitse, Ankarafantsika and even forest edge at Andasibe, I was advised that they no longer see them. Sadly it looks as if these species will continue to fade away, and many more unrelated species following their ghosts.

With pressures on individuals there is an obvious move away from the paths alongside which species were once seen with relative ease. Now it is necessary to move further and further away from where the birds were, and more effort is required to find them. This means more time in the field, more expended energy in finding them and covering longer distances on foot. The group this year fully appreciated the difficulties involved in finding the birds. Coupled with this, we had to contend with drought, and did not see a drop of rain throughout the entire tour. What this meant was that there were few insects and the insectivorous flocks were small and widespread, and many species usually in full voice at this time of year were silent or at least reticent to announce their presence.

Then we had the complications provided by Air Madagascar – our flight from Mahajanga was completely cancelled and we had to drive back to Tana. Our next flight that should have left Tulear at 10.30am to get back to Tana was rescheduled to an 8.30pm evening flight. The next flight was to Maroansetra for the Cap Maso’ala extension; this was not delayed or rescheduled but completely removed from existence, leaving us a bit shell-shocked with less than two days to find new alternatives for the five-day extension in which to organise constructive birding adventures.

How did we fare? With each of these problems we surmounted them, and on each occasion that Air Mad threw spanners into our machine we turned it around to a profitable change. The final result was seeing many more species, without their help to convey us to locations, than we would have gained from being transported at the flight times scheduled.

In the slightly less than three week period we saw 118 regional endemics which is 92% of all endemics we got into the range of. Of the nine, three were seen by leaders and another heard only but seen by the guide. So we did do incredibly well in spite of the array of obstacles. We invested the energy required to see all five Ground-Rollers, three of the four Asitys, twenty out of the twenty-one members of the endemic Vanga family, all three Mesites, all twelve of the heron species, four endemic rails and four endemic owls, and all nine Couas, with the addition of the justifiably lumped Olive-capped. There were other casualties caused by external influences:  the famous Madagascar Sandgrouse that delighted so many for so long with their regular water visitations on the St. Augustin Road have all been shot, and Madagascar Serpent-Eagle whilst in both Ranomafana and the Andasibe regions is only seen about once a year by the guides (if they are lucky!).

Once again much of the headache associated with the necessary and abundant administrative interventions were shouldered by Bruno. Bruno was exceptional in sorting out these situations, but was also a first class birder, photographer, and fit in so well with this group. The tour was all the much better for his presence, enthusiasm and sense of humour. Behind the scenes, Hassanate was charged with the task of ensuring a good continuity after the Air Mad disruptions, and did a superlative job arranging our many recommended changes.

In Detail: The tour started on 31st August with a meeting in the evening. Several had arrived earlier and two arrived later in the very early morning with everyone convening around the swimming pool before breakfast. We had been advised in good time that our flight returning from Mahajanga had been cancelled and we had catered for this with transport provided for a return by road. However the flight to Mahajanga was barely late and we arrived to meet the bus, which had picnic lunches for the transfer to Ankarafantsika. On arrival, again with foreknowledge we had to split the group into two with seven staying at Ankarafantsika and five in nearby Andranofantsika. This provided little problem with an easy commute for the group meals. The reason being that a couple of cabins had been damaged by a cyclone and were under repair. We enjoyed the picnic at Amboromalandy watching numerous Black Herons and other water birds. Apart from the Relais swimming pool and outside the airport, this was really the first birding for the group, and the first thing we did after settling into our rooms was a boat trip on Lake Ravelobe. One half birded the Car Park, and the other the lake, then groups switched. It was a great start with Mad Fish Eagle, Humblot’s Heron and Mad Jacanas being readily found amongst an assortment of commoner species.

We awoke to a beautiful cool morning although the sun was quick to break through, but it remained comfortable enough in a sweater. Having had our success on the Lake, we thought we would give the morning to searching out Van Dam’s Vanga, probably the scarcest of the local endemics and before leaving, the following morning would be dedicated to finding Schlegel’s Asity. We were successful on both, and departed on our bus for Tana having seen many endemics. Apart from those mentioned Mad Buzzard, France’s Sparrowhawk, Mad Kestrel, White-breasted Mesite, Mad Buttonquail, Mad Green Pigeon, Mad Turtle-Dove, Grey-headed Lovebird, Lesser Vasa Parrot, Greater Vasa Parrot, Mad Cuckoo, Coquerel’s Coua, Red-capped Coua, Crested Coua, Mad Coucal, Torotoroke Scops-Owl, Mad Nightjar, Cuckoo-Roller, Mad and Mad Pygmy Kingfishers, Mad Hoopoe, Hook-billed, Sickle-billed, White-headed, Chabert’s, Blue and Rufous Vangas, Common Newtonia, Mad Cuckoo-shrike, Mad Paradise Flycatcher, Crested Drongo, Mascarene Martin, Common Jery, Mad Brush Warbler, Mad Swamp Warbler, Mad Bulbul, Long-billed Tetraka, Mad Magpie-Robin, Mad White-eye, Mad Green and Souimanga Sunbirds, Mad Mannikin, Mad Fody and Mad Wagtail. On the drive we picked up African Pygmy Geese (though not an endemic) and Mad Harrier-Hawk, arriving back in Tana at about 6.45pm. 

Apart from the birds we saw our first Lemurs with Brown, Mongoose, Grey Mouse, the local speciality Golden Mouse, and Milne-edward’s Sportive Lemurs, plus the wonderful Coquerel’s Sifaka. An additional mammal was the sure-footed Western Tuft-tailed Rat. Reptile fauna amounted to Nile Crocodile, the most attractive and large Black-and-Yellow Ground Snake, Mahafaly Zig-zag Snake, glowing Large Day Geckos, numerous Asiatic House Geckos around the lights, difficult to identify Dwarf Geckos, Collared Iguanid, Flat-tailed Plated-Lizard, Oustalet’s and Rhinoceros Chameleons. In captivity we saw the world’s rarest tortoise, the Ploughshare. Only two frogs: a tree frog in the cabins (Boophis platyduella) and the terrestrial Mascarene Rocket Frog, which out of some 250 species of frogs in Madagascar is the only one not endemic, being common in Africa. Butterflies included the massive Mad Giant Swallowtail and the fluorescent Morpho Pansy. After dinner we retired to ready ourselves for the start of the long drive to Ranomafana the next day. 

A cool morning greeted us on the 4th, as we set off for the south. We stopped to admire a colony of about fifty Little Swifts, not an often seen species in Madagascar, but have been at the same site for a long time. We had a long but comfortable, scenically attractive but fairly birdless route, with a delicious lunch stop at the Mania Hotel in Antsirabe accompanied by endemic music, and finally arriving at dusk at the Centrest Hotel, our home for the next three nights. After a short meeting with our three guides the plan of attack was etched.

On 5th after an early breakfast we set off with the guides for our first look at the eastern rainforest. It was a while since it had seen rain and things were a bit on the quiet side… for much of the time. So the birds took some searching out. In the afternoon we had a look along the roadside and the marsh reserve. On 6th we concentrated on Vohiparara, with a final look again on our morning of departure. In the time there we had many more new endemics; highlights were undoubtedly the Brown Mesite, Scaly Ground-Roller and Velvet Asity. But we also left having encountered Mad Flufftail, Mad Blue Pigeon, Blue Coua, Red-fronted Coua, Pitta-like Ground-Roller, Common Sunbird-Asity, (sadly Yellow-bellied Sunbird-Asity was only seen by our guide), Red-tailed Vanga, Pollen’s Vanga, Tylas Vanga, Dark Newtonia, Ward’s Vanga, Green Jery, Grey Emu-tail, White-throated Oxylabes, Cryptic Warbler, Wedge-tailed Tetraka, Grey-crowned Tetraka, Spectacled Tetraka, Rand’s Tetraka, Mad Starling, Forest Rock Thrush and Nelicourvi Weaver. Unfortunately whilst the group heard Brown Emutail, only myself saw it albeit very briefly. 

The mammals we encountered included Eastern Rufous Forest Rat and Ring-tailed Mongoose, with a lemur line-up of Rufous Mouse, Red-bellied, Red-fronted Brown Lemurs and Milne-edward’s Sifaka. It was cool for reptiles but we did manage Short-nosed, Keel-nosed, Cryptic and O’Shaunessey’s Chameleons, Side-striped and Four-eyed Day Geckos, but the highlight was the Fantastic Leaf-tailed Gecko. Frogs included Major’s Tree Frog, Mad Bright-eyed Tree Frog, the Tree Frog (Boophis culturatus), and a Reed Frog (Heteroxalis betsileo).

The morning of the 8th was another clear but cool start in Fianarantsoa where numbers of Mad Black Swifts were feeding low around the buildings affording excellent views. We paid a visit to a natural silk producing and weaving facility, which was very interesting and informative, and then continued on to nearby Anja to see the Ring-tailed Lemurs there. It wasn’t that productive for new trip birds but there was a Common Sandpiper! Very nice views of lovebirds and of course the lemurs.

There was additional fauna, both Mad Iguanid and Mad Plated Lizard were on the rocks, sharing them with the Imerina Tree Frog which shelters from the sun under narrow shelves. There were a few butterflies seen including a number of Pierids (whites & yellows) and the only Polkadot for the tour. After a traditional lunch we wended and winded our way westwards across to the remarkable Isalo National Park. On the way we walked in the grass and successfully found Mad Partridge, and both Mad Lark and Mad Cisticola were new for the group. There was an area being burnt which was attracting some 700 or more Black Kites, which were fascinating to watch as they hunted amongst the flames. It was late afternoon as we arrived at Relais de la Reine into the lap of luxury and settled in for a two-night stay.

In the early morning we had a pre-breakfast walk to the pond. Here there was a still winter-plumaged Mad Pond Heron, and Baillon’s Crakes were seen fleetingly but this was rectified a few days later at Belalanda. A pair of Mad Brush Warblers in the sedges was most unexpected. After breakfast we set out for a short drive and a walk to the natural swimming pools in a most beautiful setting. Both Verreaux’s Sifaka and Ring-tailed Lemurs were present, and new birds included White-throated Rail, White-browed Owl, dubiously lumped Benson’s Rock-Thrush and recently split Pelzeln’s Magpie-Robin.

Reptile life was not too abundant with Mad Garter Snake, Western Iguanid, and Red-necked Skink. There were a few butterflies, the most attractive being Mad White-banded Charaxes coming to water.

On 10th we departed after breakfast for Zombitse Forest through the frontier town of Saffira, and with the help of the guides we added Giant Coua and Appert’s Tetraka, as well as another pair of White-browed Owls. The new mammal was the newly-described Zombitse Sportive Lemur, previously a race of Rufous-tailed, the only other lemur being a family group of Verreaux’s Sifaka with a baby. Reptiles fared a little better with Standing’s, the largest of the Day Geckos, the strange Three-eyed Iguanid with its curious pineal eye (dark/light sensitive) and an enormous Oustalet’s Chameleon. One tree in flower was attracting all the butterflies of the area, which seduced a vast array of whites, some eight different Acraeas and several Skippers, which included the large, iridescent Blue-bodied Policeman.

After lunch we continued heading westwards to Tulear then north to Ifaty. Pausing at wetlands en route we admired the mysterious Archaebacteria in the natural salts, this being a new kingdom for several people, not something that happens every day! There was a group of four Greater Flamingos as well as a few waders. In the evening arriving at the Solidaire we met up with Mosa to plan the following two days. Dinner was interrupted by a very obliging Mad Nightjar on the rooves of the bungalows.

An early breakfast was available at 5.30am, and at 6.00am we left for our morning in the spiny forest. It was a strange experience with two other groups also in the forest, and Mosa dodging between the three groups, presumably to keep them apart, however his son Freddy and a couple of others were soon on our case and expertly rounded up the desirables; Sub-desert Mesite, Running Coua, Long-tailed Ground-Roller, Lafresnaye’s Vanga, Archbold’s Newtonia, Thamnornis, and our first Sakalava Weavers. This was followed by a trip to the salt-fields where we had two adults and an immature Mad Plover, as well as a few waders such as Kittlitz’s and White-fronted Plovers, Whimbrel, Ruddy Turnstone, Curlew Sandpiper, Common Sandpiper and Common Greenshank topped off with only our second Humblot’s Heron.

After a relaxing morning we had lunch and set off for Tulear. Here we also received news of our flight back to Tana the following day – instead of leaving at 10.20am, it was now not leaving until 8.40pm, which was good news as it meant a full day in Tulear and not having to rush around La Table. On the way we picked up a group of volunteers willing to wade amongst the reed beds to help us see the inhabitants. With their enthusiasm we found several Greater Painted-Snipe and five Baillon’s Crakes, as well as our first Little Grebe, Grey Heron and Hottentot Teal. 

After an early breakfast on the 12th, we were soon looking for and finding Verreaux’s Coua, Red-shouldered Vanga and Sub-Desert Brush Warbler. Following a fairly relaxing morning we had lunch then ventured out to Auberge de la Table. This is the Arboretum on the outskirts of the town. It was a fascinating place with clearly labelled xerophytic plants from the surrounding area, and a very knowledgeable and informative guide. A bonus here was a very tame Olive-capped Coua (previously a species, but now subsumed into Red-capped Coua). The plane was small and took over 1½ hours to grind back to Tana. I left most of my luggage to go back on the bus, which freed a lot of weight so that the rest of the luggage could go back. (Thinking it would be just for a few days, and available for the extension after Andasibe.) Even then Air Mad tried to charge excess baggage, but with minor distribution it passed muster and all the luggage with us, arrived safely. A tasty selection of food had been left in our rooms, as it was very late by the time we got back to the Relais.

Yet another cool morning greeted us on 13th, as we came to breakfast, our bus would only have just left Tulear and not be back for two days but now we had three 4x4’s for the rest of the main tour with Solofo, Hadza and Fano as drivers. This was now the final part of the Main Tour and we took the tortuous road to Andasibe, followed by the steep drive up to Eulophiella. After lunch we descended again and met up with our guides, Patrice, Dominique and Mako, and birded locally around the main reserve. The next day found us at Mantadia where we had our picnic before descending and birding along the road as any presence in any National Park is forbidden after 4.00pm. When we got back to Eulophiella the news came that Air Mad had completely cancelled the flight to Maroansetra for the extension. After a short period of disbelief came the necessity of totally replanning the next five days in situ, and the final day of the Main Tour. After running through the options it was decided that we would stay in Andasibe for the entire period. We were unbelievably lucky as Bruno had the time to stay with us for these five days, Patrice and Dominique rearranged their schedule to be with us until we left, and miraculously we found enough rooms for the five days, but it involved staying in three different lodges, but all were really nice. Arrangements were made by Hassanate and another guide was found to lead the three returning members of the group to Tsaratsaotra and Tsimbazaza for the final day in Tana. Otherwise Bruno would spend half a day to get back to Tana and the whole of the next day, and the following morning to get back to us.

With our guides’ tireless input before our friends departed we were treated to a number of new endemic species: Meller’s Duck, Mad Grebe, Mad Crested Ibis, Henst’s Goshawk, Mad Wood Rail, Rainforest Scops Owl, Mad Long-eared Owl, Collared Nightjar, Mad Spine-tailed Swift, Rufous-headed Ground-Roller, Nuthatch Vanga, Crossley’s Vanga, and Stripe-throated Jery. So in the afternoon we farewelled three of the group as they returned to Tana.  

The remaining seven in the extension group by visiting Maromizaha, Torotorofotsy and Antavalobe and with much personal effort also had Mad Rail, Mad Snipe, Red-breasted Coua, and after listening to Patrice making “poop” noises for the six previous days we finally had a Mad Scrabble (another endemic?), when he eventually was rewarded as were we by a Short-legged Ground-Roller! Attractive Forest Fody also capitulated. It also gave people a chance to catch up with missed birds with Forest Rock-Thrush and Wedge-tailed Tetraka and the country’s final heron, a superb male Little Bittern at Eulophiella.

The last day was the last ditch effort to see the last of the endemics we could have had on the cancelled Cap Maso’ala extension. It was a several kilometre drive to the edge of the forest of Antavalobe, and from there a ten kilometre hike along a forest trail to an extremely southern locality for both Bernier’s and Helmet Vangas. The first appeared and was an adult male, shiny black and giving his explosive call and bouncy flight, but settled only for a fraction of a second before moving on. The Helmet was a sad story, the guides including Bruno located a pair, and came back to get us, it was a rushed hike through the forest, crossing the same stream six times. Whilst waiting with the bird Bruno photographed it, but when we had reached the spot alas it was not to be seen. Some twenty minutes later the local guide re-found it and we went to the spot and again it had melted away and no group member saw anything of it. We did encounter a very large mixed flock, which gave excellent views of species not seen as well up to now so there was some consolation. An impressive bright yellow Slime-Mould gave some people their second new Kingdom for the trip! We all got back to the car and tucked into some biscuits before heading back to the lodge for the evening meal.

In the mammal line after nine days we knew Indris very well, but also had Goodman’s Mouse, Grey Bamboo, Common Brown, Black-and-White Ruffed, Eastern Woolly Lemurs and Diademed Sifaka. Reptiles were in small numbers including the most amazing Sikora Leaf-tailed Gecko, when first seen during the day members doubted that it was not just a piece of bark even from a range of a few feet. We also found two at night, which looked more like geckos, though rather strange! The only Day Geckos we met were Side-striped. Two new Chameleons were Parson’s and Short-nosed whilst Keel-nosed was an old friend, as were Common and Red-necked Skinks. There were a few tree frogs met with at night, but not all have been identified as yet, we did however have Mad Green Tree-Frog, and Viridian Tree Frog only known from this immediate vicinity, terrestrials were Mad Jumping Frog, and previously encountered Mascarene Rocket Frog. Butterflies were interesting with five different swallowtails and numerous Satyrs still to be sorted out.

The 21st was the final day, and we departed Eulophiella after a good breakfast and returned to Tana. Near Moramanga was a perfect adult Mad Pond Heron, the first seen in this attractive ivory plumage. On arrival in Tana we had lunch at La Rova with its magnificent vista, and after some local shopping we visited Tsaratsaotra  with its avian abundance. Amongst the large numbers of ducks including Meller’s and Hottentot Teal, was the only Knob-billed Duck for the trip. We also had our best views of White-throated Rail and two Mad Grebes were in non-breeding dress. From here we went to the Relais to prepare for the departure tonight for all but one of the group.

All through the tour, the local guides were of very high calibre and experience, most had some understanding of English and improve year by year, a few still only spoke French and the more junior guides nothing but Malgasche. Their local knowledge and eyesight are legend, not only birds and mammals, but encyclopaedic knowledge of reptiles, amphibians and plants and best of all, many with an insatiable appetite to learn more. If Madagascar is to be saved, it will be thanks to people like these.

Forest comfort… a few weeks later than our tour takes place, there will be many biting horse-flies, mosquitos both in the forest by day and rooms by night, as the rains roll in leeches will become very common in the eastern forests. We never saw a leech; there was only the very occasional mosquito at night, and none by day when we also never encountered any other form of biting insect. The fauna for us was benign.

We never saw any rain throughout the tour and even if a misty start, blue skies soon prevailed. Hot conditions were not really met with; it wasn’t warm at Ankarafantsika until 11.00am, or after 10.00am at Ifaty, our two warmest sites. Everywhere else started cool enough for at least a sweater, and at its hottest was never more than pleasantly warm, apart from any prior physical exertions of course, and there was plenty of that.

After we did our twenty kilometre in and out hike on the last full day, I asked one participant who had a GPS programme recording how much she was walking per day what the total of birding/walking we had done on the whole tour, and it came in at 160kms! No one can accuse us of having a cushy time, and every member deserved every bird. 

It would be remiss not to formally thank Bruno for his major contributions leading to the success of the tour. This was such a compatible and keen group, and whilst there were occasions where the birds did not co-operate fully, participants were rewarded for their physical efforts leading to the sightings of some of the world’s rarest and most difficult to locate species. This also highlighted the skills of the local guides, who also worked hard and even fanatically, to find and show the desired species to all members of the group.

We had several drivers on the trip, and all were good and conveyed us safely. Herve however, our bus driver for two weeks was stand alone, always cheerful and very, very careful negotiating every bend with consideration for his passengers.

Finally it was the compatible group themselves, whose individual contributions resulted in amusing anecdotes, and interesting and informative discussion having come from a wide professional diversity, that in some cases will be remembered as equally as the unique fauna!

- Brian Finch 

 

 

Created: 11 October 2017