Madagascar: The Eighth Continent
An utterly unique island of wonders.
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.
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!
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 Greater Sand-Plover, to marsh denizens like the shy Baillon’s Crake.
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. We sometimes find these birds by following their tracks in the red sand.
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.
Day 5: Tulear Area. Today 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. With luck we may also encounter Madagascar Sandgrouse near Tulear.
Day 6: Nosy Ve. We board our 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. We return to the lodge with a stop at Anakao to search for the very local Littoral Rock-Thrush.
Day 7: Zombitse and Isalo. An early start takes us inland to enjoy birding Zombitse, a forest haven in the dry and mainly de-forested southwest. Our main target is one of the world’s most endangered 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. 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.
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.
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, and Yellow-browed Oxylabes. Higher up we bird Vohiparara, where we look for the highly-localized Yellow-bellied Sunbird Asity. The ridge is also home to the well-named Cryptic Warbler which remained undiscovered until the 1990s! Wetlands in the area give us a chance of locating Meller’s Duck, Madagascar Snipe, and Gray Emutail. Twelve species of lemur, Madagascar’s weird and enchanting primates, are found at Ranomafana, and one night we’ll have the unforgettable experience of Brown Mouse-Lemurs coming to within inches of our faces.
Day 11: Ranomafana to Antsirabe. After a final morning here 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.
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.
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. Mantadia is the best ground-roller reserve in Madagascar, and we might see Pitta-like, Rufous-headed, Short-legged, and Scaly Ground-Rollers here. 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 the very local Red-breasted, Red-fronted, and Blue Couas, the glowing Velvet Asity, and the bizarre tree-creeping Nuthatch Vanga. 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. We return to Antananarivo where we spend the night.
Day 17: Antananarivo. Transfer to the airport for departure.
Western Endemics extension
Day 1: Antananarivo to Ampijoroa: Today we fly to Mahajanga on the north-west coast of Madagascar, for the final leg of our island adventure. After arriving in this sleepy town, we will drive to Ampijoroa, a forest station situated in the extensive deciduous forests of Ankarafantsika National Park. En route to the reserve we will scan roadside water bodies for African Openbill Stork, Purple, Striated, Common Squacco, and Madagascar Pond Herons, and flocks of Black Egret, which we will watch as they perform their bizarre “umbrella-feeding” routine. Striking Madagascar Jacanas strut through lily-covered wetlands and we will stop off at Lac Amboromalandy to search for other waterbirds including Humblot’s Heron, Madagascar Little Grebe, African Pygmy Goose, Red-billed and Hottentot teals, White-faced Duck, and if we are very fortunate, the extremely rare Bernier’s Teal.
On arrival at the forestry station we should encounter numerous “campsite residents” such as Broad-billed Roller, screeching Lesser Vasa Parrots, Crested Drongo, Madagascar Magpie Robin, Sakalava Weaver, Madagascar Hoopoe, Madagascar Paradise Flycatcher, Madagascar Green Pigeon, and Madagascar Turtle Dove. We will spend the afternoon birding along the edge of the adjacent Lac Ravelobe, where we hope to find the threatened Madagascar Fish Eagle, a pair of which is resident here. Wintering Sooty and Eleonora’s falcons may be seen hunting overhead, White-throated Rails favor the waterside vegetation, and we may find noisy groups of Sickle-billed and Madagascar Blue Vangas moving along the forest fringe. Ampijoroa is still poorly developed for eco-tourism, so in order to experience the unique birdlife of this remote area we will be accommodated in a comfortable tented camp and have our food prepared by camp staff. A definite advantage of this arrangement is our proximity to the wildlife: previous groups have encountered Coquerel’s Sifaka and even the scarce White-breasted Mesite right in the shady campsite. Meals taken around the open fire, with the background sounds of nocturnal lemurs and Madagascar Scops Owls, are sure to be some of the most memorable of our trip.
Day 2: Ampijoroa: We have a full day to explore the network of trails through the dry forest around Ampijoroa, in search of the many birds restricted to this region. Foremost amongst these is the secretive White-breasted Mesite, our third and final member of this endemic family, and the jewel-like Schlegel’s Asity, which gives one the impression of a miniature bird-of-paradise. We will also concentrate on finding the highly localized Van Dam’s Vanga and our final species of coua that we would not yet have encountered, Red-capped. Other birds we hope to see whilst searching for these specials include Madagascar Crested Ibis, Madagascar Buttonquail, Frances’s and Madagascar Sparrowhawks, Madagascar Pygmy Kingfisher, and Hook-billed, Rufous, White-headed, Chabert’s, and Red-tailed Vangas.
No less than eight species of lemur occur in the near vicinity of the camp and we will search for the comical Coquerel’s Sifaka and Common Brown Lemur during the day, and the rare Mongoose Lemur, Western Woolly Lemur (or Avahi), Milne-Edward’s Sportive, Fat-tailed Dwarf, and Gray Mouse lemurs after dark. If we are lucky, we may also find the recently described Golden Mouse Lemur, one of the world’s smallest primates. Reptiles are also plentiful along the trails and we hope to see the impressive Giant Hog-nosed Snake, as well as several smaller species of snake (all harmless – amazingly, there are no venomous snakes in Madagascar), Oustalet’s Chameleon (the world’s largest species), and the aptly named Rhinoceros Chameleon, with its enlarged nasal protuberance.
Day 3: Ampijoroa to Mahajunga. After some final birding around Ampijoroa, we return by bus to Mahajunga for an overnight stay in a comfortable hotel.
Day 4: Betsiboka estuary and Katsepy. Today we will embark on a great boat trip up the Betsiboka River Delta, south of town, in search of Madagascar Sacred Ibis and, if we are lucky, the elusive Bernier’s Teal. Later in the day we return to Mahajunga, but not before (if the tides and currents permit) we stop off at Katsepy and search for the superb Crowned Sifaka, a very seldom seen lemur. We overnight at Mahajunga.
Day 5: Mahajunga to Antananarivo. Fly back to “Tana” in the afternoon. This is the arrival day for the main tour.
Helmet Vanga and Northeast Endemics extension
Day 1: Tana – Maroansetra – Masoala Peninusula. From Antananarivo we fly north to the town of Maroantsetra, where shortly after arrival (weather permitting) we transfer across the Bay of Antongil, to the stunning Masoala Peninsula, where we will have the next three days to explore the pristine lowland rainforest that blankets the peninsula.
Days 2-4: Masoala Peninsula. Masoala is endowed with Madagascar’s largest tract of protected rainforest. A haven for many bird species and a hideout to a select few that are too bizarre to ignore. The tracks and trails are slippery, steep and often long. Indeed this leg is for the tireless and ravenous birder that wants to take birding in Madagascar into a different dimension. Some of the more commonly sought-after specialties include the breathtaking Helmet Vanga, loquacious Red-breasted Coua and handsome Scaly Ground Rollers. Nonetheless our ramblings will set off with higher hopes, as the elusive Bernier’s Vanga, the ghostly Dusky Greenbul and cryptic Red-tailed Newtonia have all been sighted here. Although sightings are not likely, the peninsula is also home to the magnificent Madagascar Serpent-Eagle and Red Owl.
Day 5: Masoala – Maroansentra. After lunch and some fine morning birding we sail back to Maroansetra in the afternoon (weather conditions dependant), where we book into our comfortable hotel for the evening, where warm showers and comfy beds will offer welcome respite, and also we will be able to celebrate our incredible birding haul in comfort.
Day 6: Maroansetra – Antananarivo. After breakfast we leave Maroantsetra and return to Antananarivo by airplane. The afternoon will be spent at leisure (i.e. no planned activities), and you are welcome to wander the city sight seeing Tana, visiting its museums, markets, or historical sites before we connecting with your outbound flight.
CLIMATE: The eastern rainforest sites are cool, with rain possible. The climate at Ifaty and all of the sites on the western endemics extension are very hot and dry. The weather at Ampijoroa on the Western Endemics extension is very hot and humid.
DIFFICULTY: Moderate. The eastern rainforest sites require long days on forest trails; those at Ranomafana are steep. All other sites have mostly easy trails.
ACCOMMODATION: Very good throughout the main tour, except for two nights on the western extension that will be spent in a tented camp.