Madagascar in July: Wonders of the 8th Continent in the Cool Season

Madagascar’s flora and fauna are so different from anywhere else on Earth that it is often referred to as the eighth continent; five bird families and 120 species are found only here. Madagascar is home to some of the planet’s greatest biological oddities, including other-worldly plants, Jurassic reptiles, and unfeasible birds and lemurs that appear to have their origins in Alice’s wonderland.

The classic time for birders to visit Madagascar is between September and December, at the beginning of the rainy season, when birds are most active and vocal. However, July is also a wonderful time to visit the 8th Continent. It offers cool, dry, and comfortable weather, and the vast majority of the species for which Madagascar is famous. For birders who have their heart set on seeing as many Malagasy endemics as possible, September-December is the time. But for visitors who want an excellent birding and all-around natural history experience, without the heat and humidity of the rainy season, July is worth strongly considering.

QUICK SUMMARY:
September-December = all the birds and mammals and more reptiles and amphibians BUT hot and humid weather
June-August = most of the birds and mammals and fewer reptiles and amphibians BUT much more comfortable weather

This tour follows the same itinerary as our normal, tried-and-true Madagascar set-departure itinerary. We range from the bizarre Spiny Forest of the southwest, into the dry forest and upland of the interior, then into the wonderfully rich eastern rainforest. An extension to northern Madagascar seeks out some of the island’s best lemurs and its most bizarre and wondrous landscape: the eroded limestone badlands of the Tsingy.

Please note that due to ever-changing flight schedules this itinerary may need to be changed slightly.

Day 1: Antananarivo. We arrive in Antananarivo, the island’s capital, and spend a night in a city hotel. As soon as we land in this city, it’s obvious that we are in a very different part of the world. Quaint two-story red brick houses rise from a landscape of endless rice paddies. Despite being in the mountains, Tana almost feels like an island floating in a sea of rice! Even between the airport and our hotel, we’ll have a chance to spot our first birds, maybe including Little (Dimorphic) and Great Egrets, and Black Heron. A few endemics including Madagascar Kestrel and Madagascar Fody are common even in downtown, and we should spot them quickly.

Day 2: Antananarivo to Ifaty. A morning flight takes us to Tulear. After landing, we transfer to Ifaty, surrounded by the strange spiny desert, Madagascar’s most striking and unique natural landscape. Here, the spiny-tentacled octopus trees, cactus-like euphorbias, and towering baobabs combine to create an eerie scene. Our first birds should include Madagascar Bee-eater, Madagascar Lark, and Madagascar Cisticola. En route we encounter several marshes and wetlands, where we should find many waterbirds, ranging from shorebirds like Black-winged Stilt, to marsh denizens like the shy Baillon’s Crake and Little Bittern.

Panther Ground Gecko on a spiny forest night walk
Panther Ground Gecko on a spiny forest night walk (Ken Behrens)

Day 3: Ifaty. This morning we seek out spectacular semi-desert endemics such as Running Coua, Thamnornis Warbler, and Lafresnaye’s Vanga. The hulking Sickle-billed Vangas give themselves away by their odd wails, that sounds more like a human baby than a bird! There are two very rare endemics here: the cryptic Sub-desert Mesite and the elegant Long-tailed Ground-Roller, an elusive bird resembling a colorful roadrunner. Despite the dry season timing of this tour, our skilled local guides normally have no problem turning up these elusive and beautiful specialties. They sometimes even find these birds by following their tracks in the red sand! Visiting another site, just outside the village, we’ll seek out the rare Madagascar Plover, which usually allows close approach and wonderful views. This day normally allows for a mid-day siesta, when the intrepid and tireless have the option to take a small boat out for some snorkeling on one of the world’s longest coral reefs. In the evening, we’ll head back into the spiny forest for a night walk, where targets will include the beautiful Madagascar Ground Gecko, an enigmatic Sportive-Lemur which is probably Petter’s Sportive-Lemur, and two species of Mouse-Lemurs: Gray and Gray-brown.

Long-tailed Ground-Roller on the red sand of the spiny forest
Long-tailed Ground-Roller on the red sand of the spiny forest (Ken Behrens)

Day 4: Ifaty to Tulear. After another morning birding around Ifaty we head to Tulear to overnight. We may stop for more wetland birding along the way. The extensive tidal flats are a great place for White-fronted Plover and a variety of terns. There should be some over-summering Eurasian shorebirds like Black-bellied Plover and Curlew Sandpiper. Occasionally, a long-legged Humblot’s Heron or flamingo also graces these flats. In the afternoon, we head for the strange coral-rag scrub habitat around the plateau of La Table to search for Verreaux’s Coua and Red-shouldered Vanga, a species only discovered in the 1990’s.

Day 5: Tulear Area.First thing in the morning, we head to a stakeout for Madagascar Sandgrouse, which has become increasingly rare, but hasn’t yet disappeared from this corner of Madagsacar. Next, we board a boat to visit Nosy Ve, a small, enchanting offshore islet, whose star attraction is a colony of Red-tailed Tropicbirds, but also often hosts Crab Plovers. This tiny island seems like such a classically “touristy” place that it’s almost difficult to believe that it’s part of a birding tour! We return to the lodge with a stop at Anakao to search for the very local Littoral Rock-Thrush.

Crab Plover, Common Tern, and Lesser Crested Tern on Nosy Ve, where we take a boat trip
Crab Plover, Common Tern, and Lesser Crested Tern on Nosy Ve, where we take a boat trip (Ken Behrens)

Day 6: Tulear Area. We have a final flexible day in Tulear to “clean up” anything we might have missed. We might return to La Table if we missed Verreaux’s Coua or Red-shouldered Vanga there earlier, and also have another shot at the increasingly difficult Madagascar Sandgrouse. Another option is a visit to the wonderful Arboretum d’Antsokay, which boasts a wealth of Spiny Forest plants, and is also good for tame birds like “Green-capped” Coua, Madagascar Buttonquail, and sometime day-roosting Gray-brown Mouse Lemur or Madagascar Nightjar.

Day 7: Zombitse and Isalo. We will wake up very early and drive about 3 hours inland to Zombitse-Vohibasia National Park, where we spend a few hours birding. This park is a forest haven in the dry and mainly de-forested southwest. Our main target is one of the world’s most range-restricted birds: Appert’s Greenbul that is only found in this forest. Other residents in this dry, deciduous forest include Giant Coua, Madagascar Cuckoo Roller, and Rufous Vanga. We often get lucky with day roosting Zombitse Sportive Lemurs, Madagascar (Torotoroka) Scops-Owls, and sometimes even White-browed Owl. By mid-day, we arrive at Isalo, whose sandstone massifs and lush riparian forests rank among the most striking of Malagasy landscapes. When the day begins to cool, we search for the ‘Benson’s’ Forest Rock-Thrush that frequents the hotel grounds. We may also search for any owls that we failed to find on day roosts earlier in the day.

Torotoroko Scops-Owl on a day roost in the western dry forest
Torotoroko Scops-Owl on a day roost in the western dry forest (Ken Behrens)

Day 8: Isalo to Ranomafana. Today is a long driving day, but is not without rewards, as we stop to search for the local Madagascar Partridge, and hope to encounter the rare Reunion Harrier along the way. The grasslands of the central plateau are all that separates us from the beckoning eastern rainforests, which we reach this evening at Ranomafana. Although they have been heavily modified by humans, the Malagasy highlands are still hauntingly beautiful. There are bold granite massifs, and we may sight the mighty Andringitra Massif in the distance. We’ll make one important stop at a community-run reserve where we are virtually guaranteed to see Madagascar’s most famous creature: the point-eared, pied-tailed, black-masked Ring-tailed Lemur.

Days 9-10: Ranomafana. This is Madagascar’s premier mid-altitude rainforest reserve. We’ll search for a variety of endemics like Brown Mesite, Henst’s Goshawk, Pollen’s Vanga, Brown Emutail, and Yellow-browed Oxylabes. Higher up we bird Vohiparara, where we look for the highly-localized Yellow-bellied Sunbird Asity, though it can be very tough to locate at this season. One benefit of visiting at this season is that one of Madagascar’s best reptiles, the well-named Satanic Leaf-tailed Gecko is normally quite easy to locate, and we’ll thoroughly enjoy watching and photographing this alien-looking beast. Wetlands in the area give us a chance of locating Meller’s Duck, Madagascar Snipe, and Gray Emutail. Although one of the drawbacks of a tour at this season is that ground-rollers are more difficult to find, we still stand an excellent chance of locating Pitta-like Ground-Roller, and a fair chance at the bamboo-haunting Rufous-headed Ground-Roller. Twelve species of lemur, Madagascar’s weird and enchanting primates, are found at Ranomafana, and one night we’ll have the unforgettable experience of Rufous Mouse-Lemurs coming to within inches of our faces. Chameleons are remarkably evident at Ranomafana, and we often turn up half a dozen species on a single night walk, from the diminutive Perinet Chameleon to the big and beautiful O’Shaughnessy’s Chameleon. If we follow various grunts and croaks, we may turn up frogs including Tschenk’s Bridge Frog and Madagascar Bright-eyed Frog.

Madagascar Pygmy Kingfisher
Madagascar Pygmy Kingfisher (Ken Behrens)

Day 11: Ranomafana to Antsirabe. After a final morning in Ranomafana, we drive to Antsirabe for the night. This highland town is in Madagascar’s agricultural heartland, and retains a strong colonial feel from the day’s of French rule. We usually enjoy an excellent dinner here due to the bounty of fresh, high-quality local produce. If time allows, we’ll visit some local workshops where skilled artisans cleverly use a variety of materials to create unique handicrafts.

Day 12: Antsirabe to Perinet Reserve. We continue on to Perinet, crossing the Horombe Plateau, where roadside markets display a variety of handicrafts, fruit, and meat. We sometimes see Madagascar Pratincole en route along the Mangoro River. After arriving in the rainforest, we’ll make a night walk.

Black-and-white Ruffed Lemur in Mantadia NP
Black-and-white Ruffed Lemur in Mantadia NP (Ken Behrens)

Days 13-15: Mantadia NP and Perinet Reserve. These two areas offer the best chance to see some of the country’s finest rainforest birds. We’ll also search for easier quarry such as Madagascar Flufftail, Madagascar Blue-Pigeon, Madagascar Pygmy-Kingfisher, and Madagascar Starling. In the forested hills around Perinet, we will try to locate Red-breasted, Red-fronted, and Blue Couas, the glowing Velvet Asity, and the bizarre tree-creeping Nuthatch Vanga. Madagascar Crested Ibis can be bafflingly difficult to see later in the year, but is usually not too hard to see in July, when there are not nearly as many birders walking through its haunts. Although ground-rollers are tricky at this season, we still stand some chance of finding Scaly Ground-Roller, along with the widespread Pitta-like. The experience of birding in Perinet would not be complete without being serenaded by the planet’s largest lemur, the Indri. The spine-chilling hoots and wails will stay with you forever. Night walks should reveal other mammals including Eastern Woolly, Crossley’s Dwarf, and diminutive Goodman’s Mouse Lemurs. The reserve’s herpetofauna is also impressive, with brightly-patterned and bizarre frogs, geckos, and chameleons, including the giant Parson’s Chameleon.

Day 16: Perinet to Antananarivo. After a final morning of birding, or perhaps visiting a nearby reptile park, we return to Antananarivo where we spend the night.

Indri, the biggest living lemur
Indri, the biggest living lemur (Ken Behrens)

Day 17: Antananarivo. Transfer to the airport for departure.

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EXTENSION OPTION

Northern extension

Madagascar’s far north offers some of its best lemurs, plus excellent reptiles, beautiful coastline, and the 8th Continent’s most distinctive landscape: tsingy, a jagged badland of eroded limestone.

Day 1: Antananarivo to Diego-Suarez (Antsiranana) to Amber Mountain. Today we fly from Tana to the bustling and surprisingly cosmopolitan town of Diego-Suarez, at the northern tip of Madagascar. A short drive takes us from the dry coastal lowlands up the humid slopes of Amber Mountain, an astoundingly isolated island of lush rainforest. Our comfortable lodge enjoys views out across beautiful forest, with the mighty bays of Diego-Suarez, one of the world’s greatest natural harbor systems, off in the distance. As the sun sets, we’ll make a night walk to look for some of the special mammals and reptiles of this isolated treasure house of biodiversity. Targets will include several of the astounding number of leaf-tailed geckos and chameleons that co-exist on this mountain. We’ll also try for Amber Mountain Fork-marked Lemur and Amber Mountain Mouse-Lemur, and for the beautiful, black-masked Crossley’s Dwarf-Lemur.

Uroplatus allaudi is one of several species of leaf-tailed geckos found on Amber Mountain
Uroplatus allaudi is one of several species of leaf-tailed geckos found on Amber Mountain (Ken Behrens)

Day 2: Amber Mountain to Andrafiamena: We have a morning in the Amber Mountain rainforest to seek out some of its diurnal inhabitants. Sanford’s Brown Lemur and Crowned Lemur are both only found in northern Madagascar, and will be our prime targets. Ring-tailed Vontsira (Mongoose) and Madagascar Crested Ibis are both generally shy, but can sometimes be fairly accommodating here. The enigmatic Falanouc is even occasionally spotted around the picnic area! This rainforest supports a rich set of birds, including many species of the eastern rainforest such as White-throated Oxylabes, Spectacled Tetraka (of a very pale race that is endemic to the mountain), and the gorgeous Pitta-like Ground-Roller. The local race of Forest Rock-Thrush was long considered to be a distinct species, and even if it is only a subspecies, it is certainly very different from rock-thrushes elsewhere in Madagascar.

Leaving Amber Mountain, and heading south then west, we’ll travel only a short distance in terms of miles, but to an entirely different world in terms of biogeography. Our next destination is the dry and mainly deciduous forest on the limestone ridges of the Andrafiamena Reserve. Our main target here, and one of the north’s true marquee species, is the critically endangered Perrier’s Sifaka. There are only a couple hundred of this stunning all-black sifaka left in the world, all found in a few forest patches in this tiny corner of Madagascar. This rare beast can be difficult to find, but afternoon hikes into its territory often turn up an actively feeding troop. The sifakas spend most of their time in the canopy, but sometimes descend to just above the forest floor, and can be remarkably tame. If we manage to locate it, we’ll certainly savor the sight of one of the world’s most endangered primates.

For those who have the energy, we can do a night walk to search for Ankarana Sportive-Lemur, Tavaratra Mouse-Lemur, and perhaps an interesting gecko or two. Scops-owls are remarkably common at this site, which is interesting as a place where the two dubious “species” of Malagasy scope-owls come into contact. We’ll also be serenaded by the beautiful call of Madagascar Nightjar, one of the most characteristic night sounds of the 8th Continent.

The all-black Perrier's Sifaka is major target of our northern extension
The all-black Perrier's Sifaka is major target of our northern extension (Ken Behrens)

Day 3: Andrafiamena to Ankarana NP. Although the Perrier’s Sifaka is the focus at Andrafiamena, there are also many birds in this reserve. These include Madagascar Blue, Hook-billed, Sickle-billed, and Red-tailed Vangas, Common Newtonia, Common Jery, Lesser and Greater Vasa Parrots, Madagascar Hoopoe, and many others. There are even isolated populations of White-breasted Mesite and Van Dam’s Vanga, though these species are hard to locate at this site. On the diurnal lemur front, there are Crowned Lemurs and Sanford’s Brown Lemurs, though these species are much less tame here than in Amber Mountain and Ankarana National Parks.

After lunch, we’ll make our way a short distance back to the main highway, then south to the fringe of the great Ankarana National Park. This park protects one of the largest stretches of Tsingy, Madagascar’s most bizarre, wonderful, and other-worldly landscape, an endlessly intricate maze of jagged eroded limestone. Our main aim in visiting this park is simply to experience the Tsingy, though this being Madagascar, there is plenty of biological diversity to go along with the geological wonders.

Sanford's Brown Lemur female
Sanford's Brown Lemur female (Ken Behrens)

Day 4: Ankarana NP. Most of this day will be spent hiking deep into the national park to experience the wonders of the Tsingy. The patches of lush forest that we traverse, sunk into valleys within the Tsingy, feel like lost worlds, like places that time forgot, where it would be unsurprising to see an Elephant Bird or a small dinosaur suddenly walk out from behind a bush! Fancies of spotting extinct species aside, Ankarana is a good place for living lemurs including Crowned and Sanford’s Brown Lemurs. If we’re very lucky, we might even see a troop of Crowned Lemurs crossing the jagged limestone of the Tsingy to access a sunken pocket of forest with a particularly attractive fruiting tree. On the reptile front, we’ll watch for the Northern Madagascar Velvet Gecko, the huge Oustalet’s Chameleon, and a variety of gecko species, a couple of which are endemic to Ankarana. Birding is similar to Andrafiamena, though White-brested Mesite is more common here, albeit still hard to find. At the end of the day, we’ll retreat to our beautiful lodge, which features a beautiful swimming pool, and even its own private patch of Tsingy, where we may do a short night walk.

Madagascar Blue Vanga, just one of a bounty of beautiful vangas
Madagascar Blue Vanga, just one of a bounty of beautiful vangas (Ken Behrens)

Day 5: Ankarana to Nosy Be. Yet another dramatic change of scene awaits us today. The north is notable for its diversity of drastically different and beautiful landscapes, all in close proximity. We head south again, then turn west to reach the coast. A short boat ride brings us to Nosy Be, one of the most-visited tourist spots in Madagascar. This island has a wonderfully laid-back vibe, and a well-developed infrastructure. Our main reason for visiting is an excursion to the newly-created Lokobe National Park. Here we’ll seek out another of the north’s marquee lemurs, the Black Lemur, whose males are indeed all-black, while females are brown; both with delightfully tufty heads. Along the coastline, we’ll watch for White-tailed Tropicbird, Greater Frigatebird, Little (Dimorphic) Egret, and a variety of terns and shorebirds. Night walks are not always allowed, but if we manage to do one, we’ll seek out two lemurs that are endemic to Nosy Be: the Nosy Be Sportive-Lemur and Nosy Be Mouse-Lemur.

Day 6: Nosy Be to Antananarivo. If the Air Madagascar flight time allows, we’ll spend a final morning in the forest before catching our domestic flight from the Nosy Be airport back to the capital city of Tana, where we connect with our international departure flights.

In Ankarana National Park, on the northern extension, we experience Madagascar's most remarkable landscape: the Tsingy
In Ankarana National Park, on the northern extension, we experience Madagascar's most remarkable landscape: the Tsingy (Ken Behrens)

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TRIP CONSIDERATIONS

PACE: Moderate. The days during the austral “winter” are only about 11 hours long. There will be some down time at mid-day on most days of the tour, except for days with all-day drives. There are some long drives (8-10 hours) on this tour, particularly on days 8, 11, and 12. Most of the main tour is spent on national roads which are mostly in decent condition, though often windy. Some sites are accessed via short drives (two hours maximum) on sandy or muddy tracks.

PHYSICAL DIFFICULTY: Moderate. The eastern rainforest sites require long sessions in the forest, away from the vehicle. One one or two days, these sessions may run from early morning until the late afternoon. Although we try to find as many species as possible from the trails, bush-whacking is often necessary to seek out special birds and lemurs, but these diversions from the trail can be skipped by those who are physically unable to make them. The most difficult site is Ranomafana, where there is lots of elevation change. The rainforest trails don’t generally have deep mud, but can be slippery on the surface after recent rain. Walking sticks are strongly recommended. The terrain in the western sites is completely flat, but often sandy, which can be fatiguing. You can expect to walk around 4 miles (6.4 km) per day on average. On the northern extension, there will be one potentially steep hike at Andrafiamena, and one long but easy hike into Ankarana National Park. All other sites have mostly easy trails.

CLIMATE: The wonderful weather at this time of year is one of the best parts about this tour. Nowhere on this tour will have uncomfortable weather. The eastern rainforest sites are cool, with rain possible. Nights can be chilly, but extra blankest will be available when necessary. The climate in the southwest and all of the sites on the northern extension are warm, dry, and often windy.

ACCOMMODATION: Very good throughout. One night will be spent at a basic eco-lodge near Zombitse NP if local conditions allow. Nearly all of the lodges have 24h electricity and hot water.

PHOTOGRAPHY: This is a birding tour, but Madagascar offers excellent chances for nature photography. Many Malagasy creatures are approachable and photogenic. Many sightings, of lemurs in particular, are extended, allowing abundant chances for photography. Birds are generally quite approachable, though rainforest bird photography can be difficult here as anywhere in the world. The Northwestern Endemics Extension is particularly excellent for bird photography. Reptiles and amphibians offer wonderful chances for macro photography. Serious nature photographers may wish to check out our Madagascar Photo Journey.

OTHER INFO:

TRAVEL REQUIREMENTS: A valid passport is required; the passport must be valid for at least six months past your intended stay. Free 30-day tourist visas can be obtained upon arrival for citizens of the US, Canada, UK, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and all European countries. A visa can also be obtained beforehand through a Malagasy embassy. Advance visas are only required of a few nationalities, mostly in Asia, Africa, and the middle East.

WHAT’S INCLUDED?: Tips to local guides, drivers, and lodge staff; accommodation from the night of day 1 to the night of day 16 if taking only the main tour, and through the night of day 5 of the Northern Extension; meals from dinner on day 1 (unless you arrive too late for dinner service) to breakfast on day 17 if taking only the main tour, and to breakfast on day 6 of the Northern Extension; safe drinking water and/or juice during meals; Tropical Birding tour leader with scope and audio gear from the morning of day 2 to the evening of day 15 if taking only the main tour, and to the morning of day 6 of the Northern Extension; one arrival and one departure airport transfer per person (transfers may be shared with other participants of the same tour if they arrive at the same time); domestic flights; ground transport for the group to all sites in the itinerary from in a suitable vehicle with a local driver; entrance fees and local guide fees for all the birding sites mentioned in the itinerary; a printed and bound checklist to keep track of your sightings (given to you at the start of the tour, though electronic copies can be provided in advance).

WHAT’S NOT INCLUDED?: Optional tips to the Tropical Birding tour leader; tips for luggage porters (if you require their services); snacks; additional drinks apart from those included; alcoholic beverages; travel insurance; excursions not included in the tour itinerary; extras in hotels such as laundry service, minibar, room service, telephone calls, and personal items; medical fees; other items or services not specifically mentioned as being included.

A NOTE ABOUT INTERNAL FLIGHTS: The flights within Madagascar are included in the tour price, but any additional costs incurred due to internal flight delays or cancellations will not be covered by Tropical Birding. Ensure that your travel insurance covers you in such cases.

Crested Coua is well-named indeed!
Crested Coua is well-named indeed! (Ken Behrens)

Madagascar Crested-Ibis can be easier to find in winter, when there are fewer birders in the forest
Madagascar Crested-Ibis can be easier to find in winter, when there are fewer birders in the forest (Ken Behrens)

We have a chance to see Amber Mountain Fork-marked Lemur on the northern extension
We have a chance to see Amber Mountain Fork-marked Lemur on the northern extension (Ken Behrens)

Madagascar Kestrel is one of the more common of Madagascar 100+ endemic species
Madagascar Kestrel is one of the more common of Madagascar 100+ endemic species (Ken Behrens)