Northern Madagascar and 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, and make a couple of tough drives on dirt roads. 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 Gramd 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.

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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 of the 4 scops-owls endemic to these islands.

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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 days of hiking won’t 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 scops-owl, the Anjouan Scops-Owl.

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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’s much more developed for tourism, 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.

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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, perhaps including Little Bittern, 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. 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.

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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.

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 Ankarana National Park to Joffreville. Although this is a long day’s drive, we we do have time for a short stop at Ankarana National Park, with a very different environment from any of the places on the normal birding circuit. Ankarana if famous for the tsingy, an endless beautiful landscape of eroded limestone. It also holds some excellent western deciduous forest where we may see birds like Sickle-billed Vanga, Crested Coua, White-brested Mesite, and Sakalava Weaver. By evening, we’ll find ourselves in the misty mountain refuge of Joffreville, on the slopes of 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-Suarez. We’ll spend a full morning hiking, hoping to connect with the local endemic “Amber Mountain” Forest Rock-Thrush, plus mammals like ring-tailed mongoose, crowned lemur and sanford’s brown-lemur. In the afternoon, we’ll make our way to the bustling and surprisingly cosmopolitan town of Diego-Suarez, home of Tropical Birding’s Madagascar office.

Day 21: Flight from Diego-Suarez to Tana. A short flight takes us from the northern tip of Madagascar, back to the capital at the island’s center, where we will connect with our international departure flights.

Day 22: International departures from Tana

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

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CLIMATE: Most of the sites on this tour are low-lying, hot and humid. Mount Karthala, on Grand Comore, can be quite cool.

DIFFICULTY: Moderate to difficult. One long trek and a night of camping are necessary on Grand Comore. There is a long day of hiking on Moheli, to reach the island’s remaining forests. There will be three nights of camping on the Madagascar portion of the itinerary, though all of the walking will be fairly easy. Most of the driving is not difficult, but there is one drive on a horrendous road to reach the Madagascar Pochard site.

ACCOMMODATION: Four nights of camping. Otherwise moderate to good.