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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative


2019 Narrative

In Summary:  Each year I make a comparison of the experiences as opposed to those of the previous year. With so many constants on this tour (always around the same time of year, visiting the exact same locations and using the same local help in each location), any changes become very apparent which sadly builds into a discouraging history of various species’ abundance. 2019 again showed a decline in species and numbers, and yet 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 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. So sadly, not the Madagascar I remember when starting tours nearly thirty years ago, yet even then habitat was scarce and under threat. Once again 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 as with 2018, we failed to make contact with African Cuckoo-Hawk, Madagascar Harrier and Banded Kestrel. When I again questioned 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 now never see them. Sadly it looks as if these species will continue to fade away, with many more unrelated species following their ghosts.

With continued pressure on fewer individuals there is an obvious move away from the paths alongside which species were once seen with relative ease. It is necessary to move further and further…and now, yet further away from where the birds once were, and more and more effort is required to find them. Each species now requires dedicated effort to locate, and when located is not so readily seen, requiring yet more time sacrificed. This year’s most painful example was Rufous-headed Ground-Roller – a large part of four days was spent trying to tie this species down for all to see, and not until the final morning did we catch up with this last of our five Ground-Roller species. All this entails more time in the field, more expended energy in finding them, and covering longer distances on foot, and each such dedicated search erodes the time to find other species. The group this year fully appreciated the difficulties involved in finding the birds but were well rewarded with many incomparable sightings to the point of leaving the bird in peace after drinking in the beauty, character and uniqueness of this Madagascan avifauna.

The weather was quite dry throughout, only at the end of the tour was rain encountered. Nowhere could be termed hot apart from self-generated heat as a result of looking for Chestnut-headed Ground-Roller!

The infamous unreliability of Air Madagascar timings did change our flying schedule, but in every instance this year it was to our advantage instead of a complete loss of valuable time as in the past. In fact, I had the choice of selecting the departures and what we ended up with would have been the times of preference.

In the eighteen-day period we saw 109 regional endemics which is 89% of every endemic we were in the range of. Only three endemic species were heard that were never seen. These were Henst’s Goshawk, Brown Emutail, and Pollen’s Vanga. We finally saw all five Ground-Rollers well, three of the four Asitys, seventeen members of the endemic Vanga family, all three Mesites, four regionally endemic rails and four endemic owls, both endemic Nightjars, and all nine Couas, with the addition of the justifiably lumped Olive-capped.

Once again much of the headache associated with the 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 more successful for his presence, enthusiasm, dedication and sense of humour. Behind the scenes, Hassanate was charged with the task of ensuring a good continuity following Air Mad changes, and did a superlative job of arranging the smooth transitions that this tour required.

In Detail: The tour started on 5th September with a meeting in the evening. Several had arrived earlier and two arrived later, in the very early morning, with everyone convening as a full group at an early breakfast on 6th. We had been advised in good time that our flight to Mahajanga was now late afternoon not early morning, and whilst a blow, it enabled us to make the private lake of Tsaratsaotra our first excursion. This was ideal as an introduction to Madagascan fauna.

On our arrival with no traffic hold-ups en route thanks to the recently opened bypass, we found the place dripping in ducks and numerous heron species. In the couple of hours we spent there, we found a good assortment of species, many of which would be encountered again but not so with the pair of Knob-billed Ducks. Of further interest were the rare endemic Meller’s Ducks and two leucistic White-faced Whistling Ducks. On the island there were showy breeding Dimorphic and Black Egrets, and Squacco and Black-crowned Night Herons. In addition were six Hottentot Teal amongst the flocks of the estimated 3000 Red-billed Teal. Three territorial White-throated Rails provided superlative views, and other non-water species included Mad(s)…Kestrel, Coucal, Swamp Warbler, Brush Warbler, White-eye, Bulbul, Mannikin, Fody and Wagtail. Kingfishers were finding plenty to eat along the vegetated banks and a few Mascarene Martins were flying overhead. Returning for lunch and we were soon bound for the airport, and the flight to Mahajanga. Here we were met by our bus for this excursion, and arrived at Ankarafantsika close to 8:00pm. After a good meal at the restaurant we had a good night’s sleep, ready for an exciting day tomorrow.

The 7th saw the whole group assembled for breakfast at 5:30am whilst it was still dark. It was a beautiful cool morning and remained comfortable enough in a light sweater up to mid-morning. We had a lot to cover on this [our only] full day at this rich site, and no time to waste. After breakfast we started our walk up to the sand forest. The first bird we actively looked for was one of the most troublesome species to locate: Van Dam’s Vanga. We had a good assortment of the local specialities but for this Vanga on this morning we failed, not through want of trying. We had hardly gone any distance when a guide located a roosting Milne-Edward’s Sportive Lemur. Another desirable was a family of White-breasted Mesites. After this we descended and boarded the bus for the northern end of the Park. Here we were lucky to enjoy a pair of Schlegel’s Asitys and Coquerel’s Coua which had been holding out on us.

After the boat, we still had time to try for Mad Jacana at Andranofantsika, here we were entertained by a lone Jacana, and also had a beautiful Peregrine of the small resident race, then we returned to ready ourselves for the night walk before dinner. On this sortie we had incredible views of the localised Golden-brown Mouse Lemur Microcebus ravelobensis, named after the same small Lake we were on earlier. We also found a number of sleeping Oustalet’s and Rhinoceros Chameleons.

On the 8th we got up early and had breakfast at 5.30am. We had another morning exploring the area, and still finding new birds, but most importantly we were not leaving any species unseen that were restricted to this region as we had up close and personal experience with a pair of unperturbed Van Dam’s Vangas. After lunch we farewelled Ankarafantsika and departed for Mahajanga for our late evening return to Tana. On the way we stopped at Amboramalandy seeing a distant Humblot’s Heron, at the time not realising that we were not to find the species again in the south. It was late when we finally arrived at the Relais, and after dinner had a good night’s sleep.

On the 9th it was a long but comfortable, scenically attractive but fairly birdless route. The only bird of any note was shortly before we arrived at our destination of Ranomafana, when the bus flushed a Marsh Owl near the road but only Bruno saw it. We had minor stops on the way finding Hamerkop, Plain Martin, and Madagascan Stonechat, and a delicious lunch stop at the Mania Hotel in Antsirabe accompanied by endemic music, eventually arriving after dark at Setam Lodge, our home for the next three nights.

After breakfast on the 10th, we set off with our guides Jean Crie and Pindog for our first look at the eastern rainforest. Even though gloomy in the forest interior, it was a while since it had seen rain and things were a bit on the quiet side for much of the time that morning, but with stubborn persistence we were successful with Brown Mesite, Mad Wood Rail, Blue Coua, Pitta-like Ground-Roller, Velvet Asity, Red-tailed, Hook-billed and Ward’s Vangas, Stripe-throated Jery, Spectacled Tetraka, Nelicourvi Weaver and Mad Wagtail. Other creatures found included very close views of several Golden Bamboo Lemurs (only known from here), Eastern Woolly Lemur, Common Bamboo Lemur and couple of Red Forest Rats. At a viewpoint we had a most attractive Ornate Mongoose. Lunch was back at Setam Lodge, and in the afternoon we visited the marsh reserve. Here we had brief but good views of Grey Emutail, but Mad Snipe were not to be found. We followed this up with a night walk with the masses – everyone visiting Ranomafana was here. We found several each of O’Shaunessey’s, Blue-legged, and Short-nosed Chameleons, a couple of Madagascar Bright-eyed Frogs, and hungry Brown Mouse Lemurs. Then it was back to Setam Lodge.

On the 11th the whole day was dedicated to the Vohiparara section of the Park, with a rendezvous for a picnic lunch near the highest point. On the way we had a look along the roadside, finding Forest Rock-Thrush and interesting mixed species flocks. Walking the lower trail we had nice views of Mad Flufftail, but although we put a great deal into trying to see Rufous-headed Ground Rollers there was no reward, Brown Emutails called very briefly but were completely unresponsive, and many invisible Pollen’s Vangas called a ways away. We had some fine Milne Edwards Sifakas and a few mixed species flocks of insectivores. We climbed the hill with still no sight of the three target species but did pick up Red-fronted Coua, Dark Newtonia, White-throated Oxylabes, Long-billed (Tetraka) Bernieria, Grey-crowned Tetraka, Cryptic and Rand’s Warblers. The highlight was being led to a roost and finding a recently-described new Lemur, now called James’s Sportive Lemur Lepilemur jamesi which posed obligingly for the group outside of its roosting hole. Another short night walk, then back to Setam Lodge and overnight.

Now already the 12th, it was time to farewell Ranomafana. We spent the morning in the low parts of Vohiparara where Rufous-headed Ground-Rollers continued their mean game. The frustratingly noisy, up to now, always-hidden voices of Mad Cuckoos were to haunt us no longer, and we had one bird sitting openly at last. After lunch at Setam, we set off with all our luggage and arrived at our next brief base at Zomatel in the university city of Fianarantsoa.

In the early morning of the 13th, there were many Mad Black Swifts screaming, chasing and wheeling around the hotel where we had spent the night. Our first stop for the morning was Anja Reserve, the main target being the Ring-tailed Lemurs which were there to greet us. There were no new birds for us, but much closer encounters with Grey-headed Lovebirds. The Central Iguanids Opleurus fiheneriensis posed on the rocks in their nuptial colours, a Four-lined Snake hunted amongst some stones, and we also found the Reed Frog Heteroxalis betsileo. But the major discovery here and most unexpected was a male Benson’s Rock Thrush, usually confined to Isalo, not this far east. After lunch we set off on our journey to Isalo National Park arriving at 4:30pm allowing time for a short walk. We set off for the small pond, but the water was very low, so any hopes for Baillon’s Crake or Mad Sandgrouse were soon dashed. After a delicious meal at the Relais de la Reine we retired for the night.

The plan for the 14th was a morning walk into the kitchen garden where we were successful in finding a very obliging group of Mad Partridges, then after breakfast departed for the Ranohira side of the Park near the camping area. Here was an extravert Mad Buttonquail, roosting Torotoroke Scops Owl, seeing our first Mad Buzzards, and attractive Benson’s Rock-Thrush (where they actually belong) as well as the potential split of Pelzeln’s Magpie-Robin. In the grassland were our first Madagascar Cisticolas. Another delicious meal, and a night in the lap of luxury at the Relais de la Reine.

We departed immediately after breakfast on the 15th, passing through Isalo National Park and extensive sapphire-mining areas, arriving at Zombitse Forest for a morning’s exploration. The guides Liwoj and Gomip soon located the desired species White-browed Owl and Giant Coua, but Appert’s Tetraka required a little more effort. Our best views of Cuckoo-Roller were also here. Apart from giant Oustalet’s Chameleons, we also saw the attractive Standing’s Green Day Gecko, a cryptic Dwarf Gecko Lygodactylus sp and incredible Three-eyed Iguanid. The mammals consisted of the now-split Zombitse Sportive Lemur and infamous dancing Verreaux’s Sifaka. After lunch we continued towards Tulear where, with the help of two local communities, we had excellent views of a pair of Mad Sandgrouse on the way but otherwise not much of interest in the bird department. Passing through the port town of Tulear we headed north to Ifaty checking the saline pools and salt fields with new waders for the trip being Kittlitz’s Plovers and Black-winged Stilt. In the evening a Mad Nightjar provided superb views as it “sang” on our rooves at the Solidaire Lodge.

Rising early on the 16th, we had an early breakfast ready at 5:00am. Our morning would be spent with the Mosa family on their privately set up reserve of Park Mosa. Here our list of desirables fell fast as we had one amazing experience after another and excellent views of Sub-Desert Mesite, Greater Vasa Parrot, Running Coua, Long-tailed Ground-Roller, Archbold’s Newtonia, Thamnornis Warbler, and Sakalava Weaver. We followed this with a look at the nearby salines finding a pair of Mad Plover as well as Ruddy Turnstone, Curlew Sandpiper, and Common Greenshank. After lunch we departed and set off for the Belalanda Swamps with Freddy, who arranged local help for some of the secretive species. Here we had Little Grebes, more than 120 Lesser Flamingos, Purple Swamphen, two Allen’s Gallinules, eight Baillon’s Crakes, Mad Pond Heron, and two Little Bitterns, a truly staggering 50 Greater Painted-snipes all as new species for our tour. The night was spent in Tulear.

Another early breakfast on the 17th, and we set off for some birding at la Table before our flight to Tana. Here we had success with close views of both Verreaux’s Coua and a pair of Red-shouldered Vangas as well as our first Sub-desert Brush Warblers, and LaFresnaye’s Vanga which had failed to appear at Park Mosa. After leaving Mosa and Freddy we went and had lunch at the Botanical Gardens taking a guided walk and learning about the incredible plants of the region and having point blank views at some absurdly tame Olive-capped Couas. Then farewelling our driver (who was returning to Tana) we boarded the plane and were soon back at the Relais des Plateaux for dinner and a good night’s sleep, apart from Mad Nightjar who called from rooves for much of the night and Mad Stonechat that started singing at a ridiculously early hour!

After an early breakfast on 18th we drove towards Tana, skilfully avoiding traffic hold-ups. The drive to Andasibe was uneventful, and on pulling up, met Patrice and Michel who immediately showed us a roosting Rainforest Scops Owl. We then carried on to the Vakona having lunch, then returned to Andasibe and re-joined Patrice and Michel who were to be our guides over the coming three days. We were treated to excellent views of Mad Crested Ibis and our final Coua, the Red-breasted, as well as our best views of Mad Blue Pigeons. On the night walk we had some nice reptiles in the form of the local Parson’s and Short-nosed Chameleons, and several outstandingly cryptic (a descriptive oxymoron!) Sikora Leaf-tailed Geckoes. Amphibians included the beautiful Viridian Tree Frog.

We were up early on 19th, and after breakfast left for Mantadia with Patrice, Michel, and now Dominique. Mantadia opens at 6:00am and all visitors must be out by 4.00pm (and it is the same for the main reserve as well) which makes for a short day, even though we had a picnic with us. The first climb of the day was a successful one for Short-legged Ground-Roller. There were a number of species that we had not seen as yet, and during the course of the morning we had the cutest pair of Madagascar Grebes, and a pair of Collared Nightjars which look and behave like no other nightjar and could be a separate monotypic family altogether – they were roosting on the ground with each benefitting from the other’s cryptic pattern by clustering and facing at different angles. Mad Spine-tailed Swifts patrolled the road near the grebes pond, a Scaly Ground-Roller was located, posing openly on a dead stump for all to admire, Nuthatch Vangas (which are amazingly like nuthatches but only know up not down) were in mixed flocks, and a Wedge-tailed Tetraka busied itself in clusters of dead leaves. Whilst a good day we had had some major misses which meant we would return for another visit the next morning.

It was a misty morning on the 20th, but it soon burnt off and revealed a cloudless blue sky. We climbed the tortuous road back up the hill to Mantadia. Our first target was our nemesis Rufous-headed Ground-Roller. We located a calling bird and everything conceivable was tried but the bird remained up a very steep slope above us. Then we birded along the upper trail where Diademed Sifakas were obliging but Black-and-White Ruffed Lemur was not so friendly. We actually saw quite a number of species and people caught up with better views of some than they had had before. After lunch we descended down the slow road back to the entrance, and not far from the hotel located a pair of Mad Rails. In the afternoon we returned to Andasibe to stay until dusk for another night walk. Mad Long-eared Owl was seen at its pine tree roost having not been there on our last search. This was an excellent finish to our last full day’s birding, and we returned to Vakona for dinner and overnight.

Our final morning on the 21st was a final assault on Rufous-headed Ground Roller at Mantadia, where we met up with another local guide giving us now four! We scrambled along ridge ‘trails’ that were not really paths but passages over tree roots; there was a territory but the bird called and remained invisible so we retraced and carried on descending down the principal road. There was another calling down an extremely steep slope that was an old landslip and whilst the recolonisation was dense there were isolated bushes and to cut a seemingly timeless story short, we finally saw our last Ground-Roller! We returned for our final meal at Vakona and set off back to Tana and the Relais des Plateaux, where we had our farewell dinner together and retired to bed for the last night. The tour was officially finished at breakfast the following morning, and from midday onwards various participants were heading off homeward on different flights, with Bruno and myself were due back at our own residences immediately after our group breakfast.

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 apart from their mother tongue Malgasche. Their local knowledge and eyesight are legend, not only birds and mammals, but encyclopaedic knowledge of reptiles, amphibians and plants but 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 rapacious in the eastern forests. 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 proper rain throughout the tour and even if a misty dank 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. No one can accuse us of having a cushy time, and every member deserved every bird. 

I 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 cooperate 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. Darfi, however, was stand-alone. Our bus driver for two weeks, he was 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!

-          Brian Finch

Here I personally encountered a conservation enigma. I shared this with the group whilst we were chugging along seeing precious little and promised I would include it in the report for them and here it is!….


Through tireless manual effort, local people had been encouraged to remove the Water Hyacinth which used to choke the entire circumference of the Lake (Ravelobe). In the last twelve months since I was last there, they had managed to remove all of this South American noxious weed responsible for covering and completely closing many waterways throughout the warmer parts of the world. It is undeniably a bad plant, and to remove it by hand is a very impressive feat. The trips around this lake used to be one of the major highlights of the tour; Allen’s Gallinules, African Darters, Reed Cormorants, numerous Squacco and Mad Pond Heron, Striated Herons, Black-crowned Night-Herons, Great, Dimorphic, Black and Cattle Egrets, Humblot’s, Grey and Purple Herons, were all readily to be found at the site, benefitting from abundant aquatic creatures that also benefitted from life in the invasive aquatic weed. Mad Jacanas bred amongst the clumps, and various waders also found the habitat attractive. Now, here we were on the same lake, and apart from the pair of resident Mad Fish Eagle, couples of Striated Herons, Cattle Egrets and Mad Kingfishers, we saw nothing.


Whilst seeing little but bare banks and water it gave me time to ponder over what had happened to the birds. My reasoning was that originally, the lake had its own aquatic flora in the water around the perimeter, behind this on the shallowly-shelved southern end it was backed by species of sedges, protected from the sometimes rough water by the native aquatic plant species. Carp had been introduced into the lake as a coarse edible fish; the shallow water was home to Tilapia as well as small native fish, numerous frogs, and pond life. The Tilapia and other species were safe from the voracious carnivorous Carp, and had plenty of places to hide, and the weeds were nurseries for the continuation of the species. With such an abundance of food, waterbirds also flourished.


At some point, Water Hyacinth found its way to the lake and whilst in its native parts of the New World, controlling species would keep it in check so that it did not choke the water as it has everywhere it is not native. These insects that would feed on the plant were not present and the plant’s population exploded with no natural enemies. So in a short space of time, the indigenous water plants were virtually choked out of existence; cut off from the light they were unable to photosynthesize and perished. The invertebrate and insect life, previously found among the native plants, gradually transferred across to the now monocultural Water Hyacinth, and the small predators like dragonfly larvae and water beetles etc., did likewise. Small fish found food and shelter from the marauding Carp of the open water, and prospered in the underwater jungle. Birds found plenty to eat amongst the insects, frogs and small fish and the water community (now minus the native aquatic plants) flourished.


Then came the cleansing, and all the Water Hyacinth had been removed, leaving nothing for the aquatic life. The now-exposed small native fish and tadpoles were decimated by the Carp and the whole ecosystem became a barren waste, with nothing at all for the waterbirds to feed on, so they left. The peripheral sedge beds in the shallows were now exposed to the open water and the waves eroded away at the banks and the sedge beds succumbed and died out. That was the end of the many different nesting herons and Glossy Ibis that raised their families here.


So what is the solution? To me, the obvious one would be extremely controversial and solely for the short term: to put back the Water Hyacinth into the lake! Madagascar does not have time to wait for a natural recolonisation of native aquatic plants, or even a methodical reintroduction. What will happen once the Carp have devoured the little food that remains and turn on themselves? At present the Carp are the last natural food for the resident Crocodiles, they really have nothing else. Until now the local fisherman wade and small children play in the lake unbothered by the fish-eating Crocodiles…what happens when they get really hungry?!


Created: 26 November 2019