Northern Madagascar and the Comoros

Many birders have visited Madagascar, but very few have seen some of the island’s rarest birds, in particular Madagascar Pochard, Red Owl, Madagascar Serpent-Eagle, and Sakalava Rail. For those who have already had a taste of the ‘8th Continent’, this tour will complete their set of endemics. Very few foreigners, let alone birders, visit the Comoros, but these remote islands hold a rich set of endemic species, including 4 beautiful scops-owls, the hulking Comoro Olive Pigeon, odd Humblot’s Flycatcher, and a bounty of drongos, white-eyes, and sunbirds. Our tour will take in all four of the islands of the Comoros, and give us a chance to ‘clean up’ on the endemics.

This is a rugged tour to a rarely-visited part of the world. We’ll spend four nights camping, make a couple of tough drives on dirt roads, and a couple of long treks on the Comoros. It’s a good tour for the adventurous birder eager to see some places that are way off the beaten path. Tropical Birding’s Madagascar office is at the center of this region, giving us an unsurpassed capacity to handle the tricky logistics of this tour.

Day 1: Arrival in Antananarivo, Madagascar. 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. The night will be in a comfortable hotel, with some fine French-Malagasy cuisine for dinner.

Day 2: Flight from Tana to Moroni, Grande Comore. A couple hours in the air will bring us to the Comoros’ capital city of Moroni, a rather sleepy and forgotten corner of the world. We will spend the afternoon searching for the oddly scarce Grand Comore Drongo in some scrubby secondary habitat. Here we also have chances for our first encounters with other endemics like Grande Comore Green and Humblot’s Sunbirds, and Grand Comoro Fody.

Day 3: Full day trek up Mount Karthala. This bulky mountain has the largest caldera of any of the world’s active volcanoes. It also holds two rare endemics, the Karthala White-eye and Scops-Owl. The latter is our reason for spending the night camping on the mountain.

Karthala White-eye, found only in moorland on the heights of its namesake mountain
Karthala White-eye, found only in moorland on the heights of its namesake mountain (Markus Lagerqvist)

This will be a long and strenuous day of hiking, with over 1700m (5500 feet) of elevation gain. Thankfully there will be loads of birding along the way. We  should run into Comoro Blue Pigeon, Lesser Vasa Parrot, Kirk’s White-eye, Madagascar (Grande Comore if split) Cuckoo-Roller, Comoro Olive Pigeon, Madagascar Paradise Flycatcher, and Comoros Cuckooshrike. The high moorlands on the top of the mountain are where we search for the endemic Karthala White-eye, and also may hold Madagascar Harrier. The Karthala Scops-Owl is found in the lower-lying montane forest, and finding it will require an adventurous night walk.

Day 4: Karthala to Moroni. We make the long hike off the mountain, though this time with gravity on our side! Along the way, we’ll have chances to continue savoring the unique and rarely-seen birdlife of Grande Comore. By the evening, we’ll have returned to the relative civilization of Moroni, where we’ll enjoy a hearty dinner and some cold drinks.

Day 5: Flight from Moroni to Moheli. Depending on the flight schedule, we may have an easy morning of sleeping in to recover from our Karthala trek. Around town, we might pick up a few terns or shorebirds. A short flight will bring us to our next of the Comoro islands: Moheli. Here we will spend this evening searching for Moheli Scops-Owl, perhaps the best-looking of the 4 scops-owls endemic to these islands.

Mohéli Scops-Owl, perhaps the best of the Comoran endemic owls
Mohéli Scops-Owl, perhaps the best of the Comoran endemic owls (Markus Lagerqvist)

Day 6: Mohéli. This will be a long day of hiking the central mountains, which hold the island’s remaining forest and endemic birds. These include Mohéli Fody, Mohéli Green Sunbird, and Mohéli White-eye. The Mohéli Brush Warbler is another target endemic, and an interesting case, as unlike most members of this genus, it is found high in trees rather than skulking in the undergrowth. Mohéli is the best place to find the local race of Madagascar Blue Vanga, which may be a full species. This beauty is the only vanga found outside of Madagascar. Mohéli Green Pigeon is perhaps the most difficult endemic. We’ll watch carefully for flyovers and for birds feeding in fruiting trees.

Day 7: Boat from Mohéli to Anjouan. We should have a final morning to clean up anything we might have missed on the island, before catching a boat that brings us across to Anjouan. From the boat, we’ll watch for Bridled and Sooty Terns, Masked Booby, White-tailed Tropicbird, and the endemic breeding race of Persian Shearwater.

Day 8: Full day Anjouan. The birding on Anjouan is a bit easier than on Grande Comore and Mohéli, and long hikes aren’t normally be required. Here we’re looking in the remaining forest patches for Anjouan Brush Warbler, Anjouan White-eye, Anjouan Sunbird, and Anjouan Fody. At night, we hope to come face-to-face with yet another handsome scops-owl, the Anjouan Scops-Owl.

Comoro Blue Pigeon is among the islands' top endemics
Comoro Blue Pigeon is among the islands' top endemics (Markus Lagerqvist)

Day 9: Flight from Anjouan to Dzaoudzi, Mayotte. Although it is biogeographically part of the Comoros, Mayotte is a piece of sovereign French soil. As such, it has much better infrastructure, and we will spend the night in a comfortable lodge.

Day 10: Mayotte. We have a full day of easy birding in which to find Mayotte White-eye, Sunbird, and Drongo. In the evening, we’ll search for the Mayotte Scops-Owl, hopefully completing our set of these exquisite owls. If time allows, we will bird some mudflats for Crab Plover, Greater Sand Plover, Terek Sandpiper, and others.

Mayotte Sunbird is a real beauty
Mayotte Sunbird is a real beauty (Markus Lagerqvist)

Day 11: Flight from Mayotte to Majunga, Madagascar. We leave French soil and return to Madagascar, flying into Majunga on the northwestern coast. We’ll spend the night in a comfortable waterside hotel with good food and even a swimming pool.

Day 12: Majunga to Lake Kinkony. This will be a long day of driving that includes a couple of adventurous ferry crossings. Although we don’t do a lot of birding, there are chances for Madagascar Sandgrouse, Madagascar Pratincole, African Openbill, and Madagascar Fish-Eagle along the way. This journey is also a chance to see authentic Malagasy culture, far off the path travelled by most tourists. We’ll spend the night camping in a nice site that lies adjacent the vast marshes of Lake Kinkony, one of the best wetlands left in Madagascar.

Madagascar Fish-Eagle is possible along the way to Lake Kinkony
Madagascar Fish-Eagle is possible along the way to Lake Kinkony (Ken Behrens)

Day 13: Lac Kinkony to Katsepy. On a morning trip in a small boat, we will seek the enigmatic endemic Sakalava Rail. During the search, we will find loads of other waterbirds, including species that are rarely seen in most of Madagascar, including Little Bittern, Purple Swamphen, Glossy Ibis, Madagascar Jacana, and Yellow-billed Stork. In the afternoon, we’ll start retracing our steps back towards Majunga.

Day 14: Katsepy to Ankarafantsika NP. In the morning, we’ll take a boat trip on the Betsiboka Delta for a couple more of the island’s rarest birds, namely Madagascar Sacred Ibis and Bernier’s Teal. We’ll also see and a variety of shorebirds. In the afternoon, we make the short drive to Ankarafantsika National Park, situated in the rich western deciduous forest, a paradise of vangas, couas, lemurs, and a variety of reptiles.

Day 15: Ankarafantsika to Antsohihy. We will spend the cool hours of the morning birding the dry forest of this wonderful national park. Targets will include White-breasted Mesite, Schlegel’s Asity, and Van Dam’s Vanga. We might spot lemurs including Western Avahi, Coquerel’s Sifaka, Milne-Edward’s Sportive-Lemur, and Mongoose Lemur. In the afternoon, we drive several hours to Antsohihy, where a simple but comfortable hotel makes a good stopover.

Mysterious lake where the Madagascar Pochard was rediscovered
Mysterious lake where the Madagascar Pochard was rediscovered (Ken Behrens)

Day 16: Antsohihy to Bemenavika. Today, we venture away from the coast and into the interior to the mysterious and only recently discovered last bastion of the Madagascar Pochard, which was thought extinct for decades. Reaching the remote paradise isn’t easy; this is a tough drive on a very bad road. Steep slopes, mud, and river crossings will make for a truly adventurous day. As long as all goes well, we should be scoping the incredibly rare and recently re-discovered Madagascar Pochard by nightfall.

Day 17: Pochard site. The pochard is easy to see, but here we also have more elusive quarry in the form of two of the island’s rarest and most mysterious species: Red Owl and Madagascar Serpent-Eagle. Our ability to find these species will largely depend on whether the Peregrine Fund staff are currently tracking any individuals of either or both species. The wetlands of this isolated paradise also hold Madagascar Rail, Madagascar Snipe, Madagascar Grebe, Meller’s Duck, Madagascar Partridge, Madagascar Harrier, and Gray Emutail. Even apart from the birds, this is a magical place, which seems hidden away from the world… a hint of how Madagascar looked before people started modifying the environment so heavily.

Madagascar Pochard, one of the world's rarest birds.
Madagascar Pochard, one of the world's rarest birds. (Ken Behrens)

Day 18: Pochard site to Antsohihy. After a final morning of birding the lakeside forests, we’ll head out of the mountains, back to the hot lowland town of Antsohihy. One bonus of our stopover here is the excellent local seafood – succulent prawns in particular.

Day 19: Antsohihy to Joffreville. Although this is mainly a travel day, to put us in position for our flight back to Tana, we should have time for a late afternoon visit to the rainforest on Amber Mountain.

Sickle-billed Vanga is possible at Ankarafantsika and Ankarana
Sickle-billed Vanga is possible at Ankarafantsika and Ankarana (Ken Behrens)

Day 20: Joffreville to Diego. This isolated mountain massif is rich in interesting frogs and reptiles, plus the charismatic Sanford’s Brown and Crowned Lemurs, and the distinctive local subspecies of Forest Rock-Thrush, formerly known as “Amber Mountain Rock-Thrush”. After a full morning in the forest, we’ll make our way down to the bustling and surprisingly cosmopolitan town of Diego-Suarez.

Day 21: Diego-Suarez to Tana. If the flight time allows, we may do a bit of morning birding before flying back to Tana.

Day 22: International departures from Tana

Humblot's Flycatcher on Grande Comore
Humblot's Flycatcher on Grande Comore (Markus Lagerqvist)

Madagascar Grebes thrive on the pochard lake
Madagascar Grebes thrive on the pochard lake (Ken Behrens)

Crab Plover on the mudflats of Mayotte
Crab Plover on the mudflats of Mayotte (Markus Lagerqvist)

Pitta-like Ground-Roller is a Malagasy gem that we stand a good chance of seeing
Pitta-like Ground-Roller is a Malagasy gem that we stand a good chance of seeing (Ken Behrens)

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TRIP CONSIDERATIONS

PACE: Moderate to intense. 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. We will have several owling sessions on the Comoros, which may be long if our quarry is uncooperative. This tour covers a lot of ground, much of it in remote and rarely-visited parts of the region, so unexpected challenges are to be expected! To a large degree, the intensity of our pace will depend on our luck with the endemics that we are seeking. There will probably be some down time at mid-day on many days of the tour, except for days with all-day drives. There are some long drives (7-9 hours) on this tour, particularly on days 12, 13, and 15, and 19. Reaching Lake Kinkony and the Madagascar Pochard site requires long drives on rough tracks. Some of the other drives within Madagascar are on decent national roads, though the section of the RN6 between Ambilobe and Diego-Suarez is in very poor condition.

PHYSICAL DIFFICULTY: Generally moderate, though there will be a couple of optional difficult hikes. The most difficult hike is the one up Mount Karthala on Day 3. Reaching the camping site requires a long walk (6km/4miles), mostly on a good trail, but ending with a steep and muddy (though short) section. All of the endemics except the Karthala White-eye can be found below the camp. Seeing that last species requires another climb up a decent, though steep and sometimes rocky path (about 8 km/5miles round trip from the camp). We will keep our hotel rooms in Moroni throughout our time on Grande Comoro, so those who decide to skip some or all of this hike will have a place to stay. Many of the endemics are available in the lower-elevation, more easily accessible sites that we will visit on the island. Accessing one of the birding sites on Moheli require a fairly long hike and significant climb (6km/4miles round trip), though on a decent trail. One of the sites that we visit on Anjouan, in seek of the scops-owl, requires a short but steep and often muddy walk. The other major site, which holds all the other endemics, has easy walking. Most of our birding in Madagascar will be physically easy or moderate, though a few portions of trails in the Pochard Site are narrow and steep.

CLIMATE: Generally hot (up to 90°F, 32°C), and humid. The weather at higher elevations on Mount Karthala and at the pochard site is much more comfortable, and nights can be cool.

ACCOMMODATION: Most of the hotels are of moderate standard, with hot water, electricity, and private bathrooms. The hotels in Tana and Majunga are very nice. Internet access will only be available on a couple of nights, though good coverage is available for those who purchase (cheap) local sim cards and a data plan. Several nights will be spend camping: one on Mount Karthala, one at Lake Kinkony, and two at the Pochard site. Private tents, mattresses, and sleeping bags will be provided, though bringing your own mattress, pillow, and/or sleeping bag may enhance your comfort. The night of camping on Mount Karthala can be avoided by those who choose not to make that trek.

PHOTOGRAPHY: This is a birding tour, but the Comoros and Madagascar offer excellent chances for nature photography. Birds are generally quite approachable, though rainforest bird photography can be difficult here as anywhere in the world. Serious nature photographers may wish to check out our Madagascar Photo Journey.

WHEN TO GO: We run the set-departure tour in October, at the beginning of the warm and rainy season, when many birds begin breeding. Custom tours are possible anytime from May to November. During the wet season, the Pochard site and Lake Kinkony become inaccessible.

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 in both the Comoros and Madagascar. 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 Madagascar visa costs approximately $30 and the Comoros visa approximately $50. A Malagasy 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. Mayotte is part of France, and a visa is not required of visitors from the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and most European countries. 
 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 20; meals from dinner on day 1 (unless you arrive too late for dinner service) to breakfast on day 21; 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 20; 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); flights within Madagascar, between Madagascar and the Comoros, and within the Comoros; ground transport for the group to all sites in the itinerary with a local driver; boat transfer between Moheli and Anjouan; boat trip and ferries across the Betsiboka River, and other ferries on the way to Lake Kinkony; 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 and REGIONAL FLIGHTS: The flights within Madagascar and the Comoros 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. Please also note that some changes to the itinerary above may be necessary, depending on the timing and availability of flights. Tropical Birding will inform you of any itinerary changes prior to the tour.