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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative


2018 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. 2018 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 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 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. Now it is necessary to move further and further…and yet further away from where the birds once were, 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. All this entails 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 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. During our stay we had to contend with drought, and not a drop of rain fell on us the entire tour. This meant that butterflies were rather disappointing and late in emerging, and many reptiles continued their aestivation. The effect was that there were few insects and the insectivorous flocks remained small and widely scattered, and many species were silent or at least reticent to announce their presence.

The spectre of last year’s horrors of dealing with Air Madagascar was not repeated this year. Only one major logisctical complicaiton changed our programme and threatened the finding of a number of the most interesting species. Thankfully, we had received advance warning by several weeks before the tour was to start, rather than a major change in situ as in the past. To change any part of the itinerary was to throw the entire tour into complete disarray as by this time all reservations of hotels and vehicle and guide bookings were indelible and we had to accept this blow on our first day. Our early morning flight to Mahajanga was put back to a mid-afternoon departure, and instead of getting into Ankarafantsika at 11.00am we arrived on the scene at 9.00pm, so lost most of the first day. The flight back to Tana originally scheduled in the early evening had been brought forward to a check-in time of 8.00am. All this meant that we had no more than one full day in which to find everything in that place that we would never re-encounter. The only other flight was from Tulear to Tana and left much as scheduled, so we “got off lightly,” compared with 2017.

How did we fare? With the drastic restriction at Ankarafantsika being the only “spanner in the works,” on this tour we did exceptionally well. We had a very successful tour in 2018 with close-up encounters of some of the world’s most secretive and scarce species!

In the eighteen-day period we saw 115 regional endemics which is 91% of every endemic we were in the range of. Only one endemic species was heard that was never seen. We saw all five Ground-Rollers ridiculously well, three of the four Asitys, eighteen members of the endemic Vanga family, all three Mesites, four regionally endemic rails and five owls which included four endemics, and all nine Couas, with the addition of the justifiably lumped Olive-capped. A nice surprise was a sighting of thirteen Madagascar Sandgrouse en route to Tulear. On checking eBird we were astounded to find that this was only the third time the species had been reported to their site in the whole of 2018, which did not bode well for the species!

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 after the initial and only Air Mad disruption, and did a superlative job of arranging the smooth transitions that this tour required, and smoothly is exactly how the tour went.

In Detail: The tour started on 6th September with a meeting in the evening. Several participants had arrived earlier and two arrived later in the very early morning with everyone convening as a full group at an early breakfast on 7th. We had been advised in good time that our flight to Mahajanga was now mid-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, 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 single Knob-billed Duck or the Meller’s Ducks present. With the Red-billed Teal was a very pale leucistic bird, a sub-adult Madagascar Heron (Humblot’s) resting on the island with the breeding Dimorphic, Black and Cattle Egrets, Squacco and Black-crowned Night Herons. Only one fully adult Mad Pond Heron was present, and a single Great Egret. The second-most abundant duck was White-faced Whistling Duck, with over a dozen Hottentot Teal in the flocks. White-throated Rail provided very good views and a tiny male Peregrine of the endemic race ernesti took up a station in the waterside trees but caused little disturbance even when it flew, and was most confiding. Other non-water species included Mad… Kestrel, Coucal, Brush Warbler, Bulbul, and Fody, with Kingfishers finding plenty to eat along the vegetated banks. A few Mascarene Martins were also flying around with Palm Swifts.       

Returning for lunch we were soon bound for the airport, and our flight to Mahajanga, where we were met by a bus which had driven up from Tana. This is a necessary insurance in case Air Mad screwed up the return flight and we were left stranded – this way we had an escape back to Tana. After a good meal at the Restaurant at Ankarafantsika we had a good night’s sleep.

The 8th 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 for a sweater up to mid-morning. We had a lot to cover on this, our only, day at this rich site and no time to waste. After breakfast we started our walk up to the sand forest. Our first bird was one of the most troublesome species to locate so the first Vanga species for the group was a pair of Van Dam’s! We had hardly gone any distance when a guide located a roosting Milne-Edward’s Sportive Lemur, and whilst watching this, Schlegel’s Asity started calling and we quickly located a pair. That was both the awkward species and it was only 6.20am! This was surely a good sign that we could find everything in the day, just Mad Jacana was deemed as being a problem and there were now none at Ankarafantsika nor nearby Andranofantsika which had been good for the species the past few years… but no more.

We continued our forest walk finding many species that included France’s and Mad Sparrowhawks, Mad Buzzard, Coquerel’s, Red-capped and Crested Couas, Sickle-billed, Chabert’s, Blue and Rufous Vangas, Mad… Cuckoo-shrike, Paradise Flycatcher, Magpie-Robin and White-eye, Crested Drongo, Common Jery, Common Newtonia , and Souimanga Sunbirds a–plenty. No sign of White-breasted Mesite as yet, so we decided that our time would be better time spent in the forest around the lake. On the way we found a Reed Cormorant on a submerged branch, this being the first in the area for many years, the downside being that Darters once reliable are now no more. Successfully locating White-breasted Mesites with mind-blowing views, we then thought it ideal to go for a fairly lengthy drive for Mad Jacana which we did and were successful, as well as spotting a pair of distant African Pygmy-Geese and Mad Cisticola. After lunch we followed with the boat trips, netting us desired Fish-Eagles, another Humblot’s Heron, and an assortment of waterbirds including the only Glossy Ibis for the tour. And there was in fact a pair of Cormorants, not just one. In the car park were our first Grey-headed Lovebirds, Lesser Vasa Parrots, an extrovert male Cuckoo-Roller, Mad Hoopoes, and Mad Green Sunbird. Other beasts encountered included Nile Crocodile, Collared (Cuvier’s) Iguanid, Rhinoceros Chameleon, Mad Green Day-Gecko, Asiatic House Gecko, and in the cabins the Tree Frog Boophis platyduella. Mammals included the beautiful Coquerel’s Sifaka and Red-fronted Brown Lemurs. Our first meeting with the Mad Giant Swallowtail was an impressive spectacle.

At dusk a night walk provided the endemic Golden-brown Mouse Lemur (only known from here) and the delightful arboreal Western Tuft-tailed Rat. Our only miss was the rare Mongoose Lemur, another nocturnal. There were several Oustalet’s Chameleons, Guenther’s Leaf-tailed Gecko, a sleeping day gecko Lygodactylus tampolynae, and an impressive spider. 

On the 9th we got up early by necessity and had breakfast at 5.00am. Leaving at 6.30am, it was an uneventful drive to the airport where we arrived at 8.30am. We were back at the Relais des Plateaux to drop off the luggage by 12.30pm and left for lunch in Tana at the Grill de Rova, with its impressive views of the city and surrounds. After lunch we went to Tsimbazaza for a rendezvous at the Museum, where we were conducted around the collections by a very enthusiastic and dedicated researcher, and of course saw the only surviving complete skeleton of an Elephant Bird towering above a skeleton of an Ostrich alongside. We then had a guided tour of the live exhibit including a performance by Madagascar’s largest carnivore, the mountain lion-like Fosa. In the late afternoon we returned back to the Relais for dinner and overnight, to ready ourselves for the long drive to Ranomafana tomorrow.

On 10th it was a long but comfortable, scenically attractive but fairly birdless route apart from the tour’s only Barn Owl. We had a delicious lunch stop at the Mania Hotel in Antsirabe accompanied by endemic music, and finally arrived after dark at Setam Lodge, our home for the next three nights.

After an early breakfast on 11th, we set off with our guides Theo and Anto 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 that morning, but we were successful with Brown Mesite, Mad Blue Pigeon, Blue Coua, Pitta-like Ground-Roller, Velvet and Common Sunbird Asitys, Red-tailed, Hook-billed and Ward’s Vangas, Stripe-throated Jery, Spectacled Tetraka, Nelicourvi Weaver, and Mad Wagtail. Other creatures found included the Golden Bamboo Lemur (only known from here), Grey Bamboo Lemur, Red-bellied Lemur, and a couple of Red Forest Rats. Lunch was back at Setam Lodge and in the afternoon we visited the marsh reserve. Here we had excellent views of Grey Emutail, Mad Swamp Warbler, and Plain Martin. Frustratingly, we heard Theo flush Madagascar Snipe when we were on the wrong side of the scrub and the long search for them that ensued resulted in the discovery of a handsome pair of Mad Partridge. We had brief but very open views of a male Mad Flufftail, and another Peregrine in the area, but noisy Pollen’s Vangas were not so willing to be seen. We followed this up with a night walk with the masses – everyone visiting Ranomafana was here. We found several O’Shaunessey’s Chameleons, a couple of Madagascar Bright-eyed Frogs, and several hungry Brown Mouse Lemurs. Then it was back to Setam Lodge.

On 12th the whole day was dedicated to the Vohiparara section of the Park, with a rendezvous for a picnic lunch at the highest point. On the way we had a look along the roadside, finding Forest Rock-Thrush with unusual ease and before we had climbed the hill we were fortunate with Red-fronted Coua, Pollen’s and Crossley’s Vanga, Dark Newtonia, White-throated Oxylabes, Long-billed (Tetraka) Bernieria, Cryptic and Rand’s Warblers. Brown Emutails remained voices in deep cover and a long trial with Rufous-headed Ground-Rollers ended in our loss with the only view being of it disappearing up the valley and plummeting back into the thickest vegetation available.

When we started climbing, it was quite quiet with more tormenting Brown Emutails, though nice sightings of a pair of Mad Harrier-Hawks that were fooled by whistled mimicry and came lower and lower until only fifteen metres above us, and the massive Henst’s Goshawk was also eventually obliging and investigated us. After hearing so many Mad Cuckoos we had superb views of one bird that was not shy. Reaching the area for Yellow-bellied Sunbird-Asity, there was no sign, and as an effect of the drought, there were no flowers for it to feed on. Other creatures met with included the attractive Milne-Edward’s Sifaka, and on the evening walk not with the masses of the previous night and still with daylight, we had Keel-nosed, Knob-nosed and Cryptic Chameleons, Mad Green Tree-Frog, and Marjori’s Tree Frog. Then it was back to Setam Lodge and overnight. 

Now already the 13th, it was time to farewell Ranomafana. We spent the morning in the low parts of Vohiparara. On the way there we had prolonged views of a roadside Ring-tailed Mongoose and on the way back stopped at what used to be a large colony of Major’s Bent-winged Bat but it was rather depressing to find only two remaining. Rufous-headed Ground-Rollers continued their mean game, but exposure to a pair of nest-building Brown Emutails was an experience of a lifetime. The area they had chosen was open underneath with leaf-litter and the birds posed in the open with leaves almost as large as themselves, and every barb on their tails was crystal clear! Mad Flufftails also performed well compared to the brief exposure two days before and Tylas Vanga was seen for the first time. After lunch at Setam, we set off with all our luggage and had a short stop at the radio-tower hill finding an annoyingly concealed Red-fronted Coua, but more obliging examples of Common, Green and Stripe-throated Jerys, all singing on their territories. On the way into Fianarantsoa there were several Hamerkops and a changing Mad Pond Heron in roadside paddies. 

In the early morning of the 14th, there were about thirty Mad Black Swifts screaming, chasing and wheeling around the Zomatel 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 fiheneriensisi posed on the rocks in their nuptial colours, a Four-lined Snake hunted amongst some stones, and we also found the Reed Frog Heteroxalis betsilio. 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. Around the edge were pairs each of feeding Mad Partridge and Three-banded Plovers, but any hopes for Mad Sandgrouse were soon dashed. After a delicious meal at the Relais de la Reine we retired for the night.

The plan for the 15th was a morning walk to the pond where both the Partridge and the Plovers were again present, then after breakfast depart for the Ranohira side of the Park near the camping area. Here were a pair of Mad Buttonquail, a roosting pair of Torotoroke Scops Owls (one rufous and one grey), and the attractive Benson’s Rock-Thrush as well as the potential split of Pelzeln’s Magpie-Robin. In the grassland were the first Madagascar Larks not seen from the vehicle! An evening walk for nightjars only resulted in the species being heard.

We departed immediately after breakfast on the 16th, passing through the Park and extensive sapphire-mining area arriving at Zombitse Forest for a morning’s exploration. The guides soon located the desired species White-browed Owl and Giant Coua, but Appert’s Tetraka required more effort. Apart from giant Oustalet’s Chameleons, we also saw the attractive Standing’s Green Day Gecko, a cryptic Dwarf Gecko Lygodactylus sp., and an incredible Three-eyed Iguanid. The mammals consisted of the now-split Zombitse Sportive Lemur and Verreaux’s Sifaka. After lunch we continued towards Tulear finding thirteen 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 Grey, Kittlitz’s, White-fronted and Common Ringed Plovers, Ruddy Turnstone, Curlew Sandpiper, Common Greenshank, and Black-winged Stilt. We also found our third Humblot’s Heron for the tour. In the evening, two pairs of Mad Nightjars provided superb views as they displayed on our roofs at the Solidaire Lodge.

Rising early on 17th, we had our first part of two breakfasts with tea/coffee, fruit juice, baguette and conserves 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 Mad Sparrowhawk, Sub-Desert Mesite, Mad Green Pigeon, Greater Vasa Parrot, Running and dubiously split Green-capped Coua (from Red-capped), Long-tailed Ground-Roller, Lafresnaye’s Vanga, Archbold’s Newtonia, Thamnornis Warbler, Sakalava Weaver, and our first breeding-plumaged Red Fodys. Now we were deserving of the second part of our breakfast, and afterwards had a successful trip to the salines for Mad Plover.

After lunch a walk around the garden rewarded us with the Western Iguanid quietly resting on a whale skeleton, Modest Green Day Geckoes and another being a male of the race isakae which surely deserves recognition as a species. Once it had cooled a bit we set off for the Belalanda Swamps with Freddy, who arranged local help for some of the secretive species, and here we had Little Grebes, Greater Flamingos, five Greater Painted-snipe and ten Baillon’s Crakes as new species for our tour. The night was spent in Tulear.

Another early breakfast on 18th, 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. After leaving Mosa and Freddy and farewelling our driver (who was returning to Tana) we boarded the plane and were soon back in the Relais des Plateaux for a late lunch and spent the time remaining at a more relaxing pace! 

After an early breakfast on the 19th we drove towards Tana, skillfully avoiding traffic hold-ups. Our first stop was the Little Swift colony visited last year. Only two birds were present when we arrived but about thirty were visiting nests by the time we left. The drive to Andasibe was uneventful, and on pulling up, met Patrice and Michel who immediately showed us a pair of roosting Rainforest Scops Owls. We then carried on to the Vakona for lunch, then returned to Andasibe and re-joined Patrice and Michel who were to be our guides over the coming three days. It was quite quiet as is often the case in the afternoons, and a beautiful pair of Mad Pygmy Kingfishers was our only addition. On the night walk we had some nice reptiles in the form of the very local Will’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 20th, 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. 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 with three small hungry chicks, a pair of shy Red-breasted Couas being the last of the group, 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 and posed 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, a Wedge-tailed Tetraka busied itself in clusters of dead leaves for a long period enabling not only good images but also a video, about eight Madagascar Starlings posed on dead branches along the road, and a beautiful breeding male Forest Fody was displaying from a forest vine. After lunch we descended down the slow road back to the entrance, and not far from the hotel we located a pair of Mad Rails. Whilst a good day we had had some major misses which required another visit the next morning.

It was a misty morning on the 21st 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 Short-legged Ground-Roller, and unlike the search yesterday this time the bird performed so well for us, we followed this up with a try for our final Ground-Roller, the to-date unfriendly Rufous-headed. With eerily skillful manipulation, a bird calling at the bottom of the hill appeared in the open on the top where we were waiting for it, and proceeded to give its strange hiccup calls in clear view on a low but open branch. With these two stunning creatures having performed so well, we returned to Vakona for lunch.

In the afternoon we returned to Andasibe to stay until dusk for another night walk. Mad Wood Rails were searched for and found, one was even up in a tree which is where they roost, and at long last a pair of White-headed Vangas gave a show. Although found in protected areas all through the country, this was our first encounter, and it is not an uncommon species. A Mad Long-eared Owl tormented us by calling at no great distance but was only seen as a shape flying away in the shadows. Earlier in the day we had had very good views of Black-and-White Ruffed Lemurs and Diademed Sifaka, and now added Goodman’s Mouse Lemur to our impressive primate tally. New reptiles were Side-striped Green Day Gecko, Mad Common Skink, and Ornate Plated Lizard. 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 22nd was back at Andasibe. On arrival Patrice led us straight to a roosting Mad Long-eared Owl which gave outstanding views as it glared down at us with its very black face but although we diligently searched the area, the Crested Ibis was not to be found. During the tour we neither saw nor heard the species, and for the first time never found a feather on the paths. We reunited with a number of species during the search, but the most interesting was a mammal that was not identified at the time. Luckily a photo was taken enabling identification. It was a Rice Tenrec (Oryzorictes hova) which was freshly dead by the track and still bleeding as if we had disturbed its predator. It appears that this endemic animal is hardly ever seen and not much known is about it. We have notified the Mammal Department of the National Museum and will supply the images.

So the birding had drawn to a close and we farewelled Patrice, Michel, and Dominique who had provided superlative service in leading us to Madagascar’s most challenging species with near unerring success. After our final lunch at Vakona, we left in our three 4WD vehicles back to Tana and into the melee of traffic, arriving in time to complete the final list, have dinner, meet up with Hassanate, and prepare for departures tonight and tomorrow.

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, mosquitoes both in the forest by day and rooms by night, and 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. 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, that in some cases will be remembered as equally as the unique fauna!

- Brian Finch



Created: 21 December 2018