Madagascar: The Eighth Continent

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 (often known simply as “Tana”), 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 fields. 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.

Surely amongst the most sought-after of all Malagasy birds, the road-runner-like Long-tailed Ground-Roller is no disappointment
Surely amongst the most sought-after of all Malagasy birds, the road-runner-like Long-tailed Ground-Roller is no disappointment (Keith Barnes)

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. 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. Today, 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. We return to the lodge with a stop at Anakao to search for the very local Littoral Rock-Thrush.

White-breasted Mesite is one of three members of the endemic mesite family
White-breasted Mesite is one of three members of the endemic mesite family (Ken Behrens)

Day 6: 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.

Day 7: 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 8-9: 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.

Seeing a crazy Leaf-tailed Gecko can be a major highlight on any Maddy tour
Seeing a crazy Leaf-tailed Gecko can be a major highlight on any Maddy tour (Cladio Velasquez)

Day 10: 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 11: 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 12-13: 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 14: Andasibe to Anjojorobe. We head back to Tana, skirting its eastern suburbs, then head north to the forests near the town of Anjojorobe.

Day 15: Anjojorobe. This is a good area for some of the higher-elevation forest specialties, and in fact, they are easier to find here than at Ranomafana. So depending on our success earlier in the trip, we’ll be seeking out Henst’s Goshawk, Rufous-headed Ground-Roller, Brown Emutail, Gray-crowned Tetraka, Dark Newtonia, and/or Madagascar Yellowbrow. Regardless of our specific targets, we’ll enjoy our picturesque lodge, perched at the border between an emerald green swath of rice paddies and rich, mossy cloud forest. The local Indris here are nearly all-black, but it takes a bit of luck to see them, as they’re much more shy than the habituated Indris in Perinet. 

Day 16: Perinet to Antananarivo. After a final morning of birding, we return to Antananarivo where we spend the night.

Mouse-lemurs like this Gray-brown are among the tiniest primates in the world and a joy to behold
Mouse-lemurs like this Gray-brown are among the tiniest primates in the world and a joy to behold (Ken Behrens)

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

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EXTENSION OPTIONS

Western Endemics extension (prior to main tour)

Day 1: Antananarivo to Ampijoroa: Today we fly to Mahajanga on the north-west coast of Madagascar. 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, 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.

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. If we arrive early enough, 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. Striking Madagascar Jacanas also strut through the dense hyacinth. 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.

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 are the secretive White-breasted Mesite 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 both Red-capped and Coquerel’s Couas. 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-brown Mouse Lemur, one of the world’s smallest primates. Reptiles are also plentiful along the trails and we hope to see the impressive Blonde 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. 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 if the tides and currents permit we may first 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. Today, we make our way back to “Tana”. This is the arrival day for the main tour.

Helmet Vanga and Northeast Endemics extension

Due to almost annual cancellations and flight interruptions by the only airline with scheduled flights to Maroantsetra, we will only be using charter flights to access Masoala in the foreseeable future. As a result, the cost of this extension will be higher. However, as the alternative is either not making it to Maroantstera, or being stuck there and missing international departure flights, we feel that this is the only reasonable option. If you compare our prices with those of our competitors, please check whether or not they are using charter flights.

Day 1: Tana – Maroansetra – Masoala Peninusula. From Antananarivo we take a charter flight 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 two days to explore the pristine lowland rainforest that blankets the peninsula.

One of the most wanted birds in Madagascar: the jawdropping Scaly Ground-Roller
One of the most wanted birds in Madagascar: the jawdropping Scaly Ground-Roller (Dubi Shapiro)

Days 2-3: Masoala Peninsula. Masoala is endowed with Madagascar’s largest tract of protected rainforest. It is a haven for many bird species and a hideout to a select few that are too bizarre to ignore. Chief among these is the Helmet Vanga, an enormous vanga with an enormous blue bill. Some years we are even lucky enough to see a nest of this marvelous bird. Some of the more commonly sought-after specialties include loquacious Red-breasted Coua, and handsome Scaly and Short-legged Ground-Rollers. However, our ramblings will set off with higher hopes, as we also stand a good chance of finding the elusive Bernier’s Vanga, which prefers pandanus palm swamps. Although sightings are not likely, the peninsula is also home to the magnificent Madagascar Serpent-Eagle and Red Owl.

Day 4: Masoala – Maroansentra. After a final delicious breakfast on the seaside terrace, we sail back to Maroansetra, and catch our charter flight back to Tana, where the tour ends.

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TRIP CONSIDERATIONS

PACE: Moderate. The sun comes up just after 5am, and early morning is the prime birding time, making for many early mornings. On the other hand, the sun sets about 6pm, meaning that days are not extremely long. There will be some down time at mid-day on most days of the tour, except for days with all-day drives. In the very hot northwest and southwest, we often have many hours of down-time due to high heat and lack of bird activity in the middle of the day. There are some long drives (8-10 hours) on this tour, particularly on days 8, 11, and 12. Most of the tour is spent on national roads which are mostly in decent condition, though often winding. 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. On 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. Some trails are broad and flat while others are narrow and uneven, with rocks and roots underfoot. 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.

CLIMATE: The eastern rainforest sites have moderate temperatures (mostly 70°-80°F, 21°-27°C), though they are humid, with rain possible. The climate at Ifaty and all of the sites on the western endemics extension are very hot (up to 95°F, 35°C) and dry. The weather at Ampijoroa on the Western Endemics extension is very hot and humid. Masoala is warm (mostly 75°-80°F, 24°-29°C), and very humid.

ACCOMMODATION: Very good throughout most of the main tour. One night will be spent at a basic eco-lodge near Zombitse NP if local conditions allow. Two nights on the western extension, and four nights on the Helmet Vanga extension will be spent in basic but comfortable lodges, with ensuite bathrooms.

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.

WHEN TO GO: We run the set-departure tour in October or November, at the beginning of the warm and rainy season, when many birds begin breeding, hibernating mammals have started to emerge, and frogs and reptiles become conspicuous. Although it is somewhat less diverse, the austral winter is also a good time to visit Madagascar, as the parks are less crowded and the weather is very comfortable. We offer  a set-departure tour at that season. Custom tours can be tweaked to make the most of any season.

OTHER INFO:

TRAVEL REQUIREMENTS: A valid passport is required; the passport must be valid for at least six months past your intended stay. A visa is required. Currently, 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. The visa costs approximately $30. A visa can also be obtained beforehand through a Malagasy embassy or consulate. Advance visas are currently only required of a few nationalities, mostly in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. Travel requirements are subject to change, and it is a good idea to double-check your entry requirements at least six weeks before you travel; contact the nearest embassy or consulate, or ask our office staff for help.

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, all nights on the Northwestern Endemics extension, and through the night of day 5 of the Helmet Vanga 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, throughout the Northwestern Endemics Extension, and to lunch on day 6 of the Helmet Vanga 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, throughout the Northwestern Endemics Extension, and to the afternoon of day 6 of the Helmet Vanga 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.

SPECIAL NOTES ABOUT MADAGASCAR TOURS: It is possible that the final itinerary for this tour will be somewhat different from the one given above. Flight schedules in Madagascar are complicated and ever-changing. Most flights operate only on certain days of the week, and the itinerary above is based entirely on those schedules. We will monitor the situation, and adapt our itinerary as necessary. Flights can even change on a moment’s notice based on weather conditions (or the whims of the airline!), so last-minute modifications are also a distinct possibility.

Madagascar is an underdeveloped country. While we endeavor to use the best providers possible, sub-par service (e.g. uncomfortable or poorly-maintained vehicles, simple hotels, cancelled or redirected flights) can sometimes cause inconveniences to travelers. Every tour company running trips here has to deal with this, and we feel it is best to inform you beforehand, as it can be quite disconcerting considering the costs involved in visiting this country.

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.

 

Gallery of the Top 20 Birds of Madagascar: