Madagascar:
The Eighth Continent

8 October-2 November 2007

Guide: Josh Engel
A Tropical Birding Set Departure Tour

Trip report and photos by Josh Engel
All photos taken on this trip
Right: Crested Coua in a baobab


Introduction

Madagascar ranks among the world's ultimate birding and natural history destinations. With over 100 endemic bird species and five endemic families, even the most traveled of world birders is guaranteed a large number of lifers. Add to this the remarkable lemurs, chameleons, geckos and bizarre plants and you have a tour unparalleled in unique fauna and flora. This year’s tour was phenomenal; we cleaned up in the northwest and southwest and did extremely well in the east. Our new Marojejy extension visited one of the most remote and seldom visited national parks in the country. We were welcomed to the park by the incredible Helmet Vanga, and spent three days soaking in the peace and splendor of this unspoiled wilderness.

Days 1-4: Ankarafantsika National Park (Ampijoroa Forest Station) and the Betsiboka Delta

Ampijoroa, as this park is commonly known, is one of Madagascar’s top birding spots and the perfect place to start a tour.  Not only are many very difficult endemics readily accessible here, but many widespread species are particularly easy to see, allowing time to concentrate on the other difficult species later in the tour. 

The afternoon we arrived served up an amazing start to our Madagascar experience.  We arrived at lunchtime, but by the time breakfast was served we had already seen several distinctive Malagasy birds, including White-headed and Chabert’s Vangas and Greater Vasa Parrot.  Best though was a brilliant Crested Coua, that we watched at our leisure as it ate drying sap from the bark of a tree, all of two meters from the parking lot! After lunch we hit the trails, walking through the dry, deciduous forest typical of this park.  We were especially searching for the very rare and local Van Dam’s Vanga.  As we set out, we came across several common species for the first time, including Common Jery, Common Newtonia and Souimanga Sunbird.  Very soon we heard a Red-capped Coua, an Ampijoroa specialty, calling very close by.  A bit of playback drew it out for excellent views as walking on the trail in front of us in plain view.  Very soon after we had seen our third (and final for this site) species of coua, when a Coqueral’s Coua, another dry forest species, sat in a vine tangle for us. 

Shortly afterwards we came across a couple of Madagascar Green Pigeons in a fruiting tree.  As soon as I got the pigeons in my bins I shouted “Schlegel’s Asity!”  A female of this difficult-to-find species was feeding in the same tree and everyone got nice looks before it took off.  Soon we were hearing distant Van Dam’s Vangas.  As we got closer I put on the tape, and duly they approached.  Eventually we pulled a brilliant pair into close emergent trees, and everybody got great scope looks at both male and female of this very rare species.  It was a great accomplishment to have seen both the asity and Van Dam’s Vanga, two of Ampijoroa’s most difficult specialties, on the very first afternoon of the tour.

As we walked back, we came across yet another dry forest species as a pair of Rufous Vanga obligingly sat on a bare branch for us.  As we made our way back, Ndrema, our fabulous local guide, took us off the path to show us a roosting Torotoroka Scops Owl, that sat unflinchingly as we watched it from just a few meters away.  We made it back to the lodging for a rest, then headed out for a short night walk to try and find our first lemurs of the trip.  It didn’t take long before we found a very cooperative Golden-brown Mouse Lemur, a species that was only described to science ten years ago.  We saw several more of this adorable, miniscule lemur, as well as great looks as a Western Wooly Lemur, before making our way back for dinner after an extremely satisfying first day in the wild island of Madagascar.



Mongoose Lemur is a rare and local lemur that can sometimes be seen at
Ampijoroa. This is a female.

The second day had us waking up early, heading for a pre-breakfast walk in a different area of the park.  Of course, before leaving the parking lot we were severely distracted, particularly (first) by the loud wailing and (second) the outrageous appearance of Sickle-billed Vanga, one of the more remarkable species of vangas (and that’s saying a lot!).   After enjoying the vangas, we headed into the forest.  We came across a number of mixed flocks with the typical composition, including a number of Madagascar Paradise Flycatchers.  A juvenile Madagascar Harrier Hawk entertained us with ten minutes of poking its legs into tree cavities, but seemed unsuccessful in its hunt.  We also saw our first Madagascar Buzzard.  Later we birded along the road, specifically looking for Banded Kestrel.  The kestrel eluded us, but we had great looks at our first Blue Vanga, the most colorful of the vangas, as well as another Sickle-billed Vanga, an adult Madagascar Harrier Hawk and scope views of our first Gray-headed Lovebird

After a nice post-lunch rest and scope views of a pair of the uncommon Mongoose Lemur, we visited Lac Amboromalandy, a large reservoir and a well-known spot for the local Madagascar Jacana.  We scanned and scanned, but no jacana appeared.  Instead we saw many other waterbirds, including the always difficult African Pygmy Goose, the endemic Madagascar Little Grebe, Whiskered Terns in breeding plumage and myriad herons and egrets.  After a brief stop at the headquarters, we returned to the forest.  On the way, we stopped along the lake and turned up the previously missing Madagascar Jacana! After soaking up the jacanas, we made our way towards the forest, but were again distracted, this time by another rare species—Banded Kestrel


We found this Madagascar Nightjar hawking insects inside the dry forest.

By the time we made it into the forest, it was practically dark, so after looking at our first Common Brown Lemurs (including a mother with an adorable small baby) we took a seat and waited for darkness to set it to see what the night would bring.   We picked a good spot to sit and wait.  Without even moving, first a couple of Mongoose Lemurs passed right over our heads, then a Madagascar Nightjar began flycatching from a dead snag.  Fortunately it always returned to the same snag, and everyone got fantastic scope views.  By the time we got up to start making our way back to the vehicle, Milne-Edward’s Sportive Lemurs were making their usual racket, and we soon had one in the scope for great looks.  We saw several Golden-brown Mouse Lemurs before reaching the car and returning for dinner and a restful night.

Our final morning at the park started well, on the way to our walk we found an adult Humblot’s Heron along the lake edge.  Soon after beginning our walk our local guide went off to check something; while we were waiting a Coqueral’s Coua appeared and walked around right in the open, completely ignoring us.  At one point I thought it might walk over our feet!  Searching carefully through mixed flocks finally revealed another target, a great Schlegel’s Asity, that posed for great looks but evaded the camera. 

We then walked a bit around the lake, locating our target Madagascar Fish Eagle when it started calling thanks to a pair of Pied Crows approaching a little to close to this critically endangered species’ nest.  An adult Madagascar Harrier Hawk also posed nicely.  After lunch we returned to Mahajanga where we took a well-deserved poolside rest.


Bernier's Teal is an endangered species that favors estuaries along the west coast
of Madagascar, where they feed on mudflats at low tide.

Our last day in the northwest of Madagascar was also our first of two boat trips for the tour.  This one went into the Betsiboka River delta, with its mangrove islands and tidal mudflats.  A small group of Saunder’s Terns and a very obliging flock of Lesser Crested Terns punctuated the ride into the delta.  We arrived at low tide, and found our main targets straight away—Madagascar Sacred Ibis and Bernier’s Teal.  We got great looks at both of these endangered species, even balancing the scope on the boat!  Shorebirds were also present in good numbers—we had nice views of Bar-tailed Godwit, Greater Sandplover, and Terek Sandpiper among the flocks.  Dimorphic Egrets were present in abundance in both color forms, and a flock of four brilliant Lesser Flamingos graced us with their presence as they flew slowly past.  Waterbirds weren’t the only highlight, we also had great views of our first Madagascar Swamp Warbler in the mangroves.  We reluctantly returned to terra firma for lunch and our return flight to Tana. 

Days 5-6: Tana and surrounds

We spent our first morning in Tana at Lac Alarobia, a birding Mecca in an urban center.  Hundreds of waterfowl and waders greeted our arrival, and within minutes we had great looks at Comb Duck and Intermediate Egret among several other ducks and waterfowl.  After a bit of scanning through the abundant Common Squacco Heron I found our first of several beautiful breeding plumage Madagascar Pond Herons, our main target for the site.  A small flock of Madagascar Munia was feeding on the edge of the reeds, and we had brilliant views of a Madagascar Brush Warbler as it posed on bare branches sticking out from some dense fern banks.  A calling White-throated Rail was less cooperative, not emerging from the reeds.  After seeing non-breeding plumage Madagascar Little Grebe in the northwest, it was great to catch up with a beautiful breeding plumaged individual.

 
Comb (Knob-billed) Duck is most easily seen in Tana. Here it is pictured with
White-faced Whistling-Duck and Red-billed Teal.

We had nearly completed our circuit by the time I found our only Fulvous Whistling Duck, a lone individual sleeping among a large group of White-faced Whistling Ducks.   By this time I had nearly given up our final target at this location, but some last second scanning was rewarded with the semi-resident African Openbill Stork of the endemic subspecies madagascariensis.  This site makes for a great morning of birding in Tana, and today was no exception.


 
Madagascar Pratincole had become increasingly difficult to find in recent years.
This year we found this cracking bird during a day trip from Tana.

Our second day in Tana was spent northwest of the city.  We had one main target here: Madagascar Harrier, an inexplicably rare species that is not uncommon in certain areas in the haute plateaux.  As we were heading out I shouted “Stop!”, we came to a halt and everybody rushed out of the van; a male Madagascar Harrier was quartering over the grasslands for great views.  We continued on, stopping possible site for Madagascar Pratincole, but without success.  We took a short walk in a forest patch, seeing a very nice male Ashy Cuckoo Shrike and hearing Madagascar Flufftail and Madagascar Lesser Cuckoo.  We stopped again at the pratincole spot because Earl saw something fly up from the river; moments later a brilliant Madagascar Pratincole landed on a rock in the middle of the river!  We again rushed out of the van; looking closely revealed several pratincoles, including a very close one that posed for photos.  Elated, we made our way back to the capital. 

Days 7-12: The Southwest

We arrived in Tulear in mid-morning, and, with time to kill, I decided to go to a nearby spot to look for Madagascar Sandgrouse before heading north to Ifaty.  I didn’t have high hopes for the sandgrouse, since they are generally only present early in the morning, but I thought it would be worth a try.  As we began walking through the field, we had our first good looks at Madagascar Cisticola, and soon found a group of both migrant Common Ringed Plover and resident Kittlitz’s Plover.  As we turned to continue walking I could hardly believe my eyes—a Madagascar Sandgrouse was flying in!  Despite the people, cows and goats littering the field it landed and allowed us to approach quite close as it drank from a small pool of water, before taking off again for parts unknown.  Not a bad way to start in the southwest!

We then took the coastal road north to Ifaty, famous for its spiny forest.  Along the way we stopped briefly to scope a few shorebirds feeding on the mudflats, quickly finding Greater Sandplover, Black-belled Plover, Whimbrel, Ruddy Turnstone and Common Greenshank


Banded Kestrel is an uncommon forest dwelling kestrel.

We had a lovely midday rest, after which we entered the spiny forest for the first time.  This forest is unlike anywhere else in the world, and even without seeing any birds would be a wonderful experience.  But we did see birds.  One of the first that we saw was a Banded Kestrel, our third for the trip.  We saw a wide variety of common species as we walked, like Chabert’s Vanga, Common Jery and Souimanga Sunbird, but the real gem came when the guides located a true spiny forest specialty, Long-tailed Ground Roller.  It disappeared briefly (no matter, a brilliant adult Madagascar Harrier Hawk flew in and landed very close by), but was quickly refound and ended up posing for the group.  It was only a couple meters away, sitting motionless and occasionally running, looking like a mini roadrunner.  On the walk back towards the car an entertaining group of Sickle-billed Vangas was found, and we spent some time watching one use its impressive bill to probe for bugs in a baobab fruit.  As we were watching the vangas, an Archbold’s Newtonia popped up next to the group, allowing for great views of its distinctive rufous eye ring and photos to be taken.  We returned to the car walking into a beautiful sunset, with the same Banded Kestrel present to wish us a goodnight.


The wonderful Long-tailed Ground-Roller is a true spiny forest specialty.

The following morning found us returning to the spiny forest.  Soon after entering the forest we heard Thamnornis Warbler.  A bit shy at first, when they finally came out they really came out, with a group of four birds showing superbly.  We continued walking but were soon disturbed by excited shouting among the local guides—they had found a Subdesert Mesite!  We hurriedly bushwhacked our way to the site where the bird had been flushed into a tree, sitting absolutely motionless as it stared straight at us and we stared straight at it through the scope.  Our next target to fall was Lafresnaye’s Vanga (with nice views of an Archbold’s Newtonia on the way), especially rewarding since we had already checked two active nests, but both were empty.  We had great scope looks at a remarkably cooperative female.  While we were watching the vanga, the local guides located a Running Coua.  We hurried over to find the surprisingly well-camouflaged bird sitting motionless in an octopus tree, where it posed for several minutes showing off its beautiful plumage and incredible blue and pink orbital skin. 


Archobold's Newtonia is a lively little specialty of the dry southwest.

The afternoon was spent looking for waterbirds at a series of lakes south of Ifaty. It was a very pleasant afternoon, breezy and cool and very birdy.  We started off with some beautiful Hottentot Teal and a distant Caspian Tern.  We got a response from a Baillon’s Crake, always a tricky bird to see.  A bit of work afforded the group great views of this reclusive species.  Walking a bit further we flushed yet another crake, and as we were looking for it to very small chicks appeared from the reeds and swam towards their calling parent.  Five Baillon’s in a matter of minutes—including scope views for the whole group!  As we were watching these crakes to Little Bitterns of the endemic subspecies podiceps flew out of the reeds for nice flight views before disappearing.  A couple of Red-knobbed Coots and Little Grebes were new birds for the trip, as was a Purple Swamphen on the edge of the reeds.  Allen’s Gallinule and White-throated Rail were less cooperative, and were only heard; the gallinule in the distance and the rail seemingly at our feet.

Our final morning in the spiny forest was spent searching for the last of the region’s forest specialties that we had not yet seen—Green-capped Coua.  It didn’t take long before we had scope views of one sitting in a classically Malagasy tree, the baobab.   We decided to then spend some time looking for Madagascar Lesser Cuckoo.  Despite hearing a couple in the same area yesterday morning, they were silent this morning, so I was a bit skeptical of our chances.  Nonetheless, the local guide came through, spotting one eating a caterpillar in a Didiera.  After soaking up the cuckoo, we found one last new bird for the trip, a Stripe-throated Jery sitting on a snag singing away. 

We left the forest to hit a site for Madagascar Plover.  We had hardly gotten out of the car before we had spotted one on the salt pan, an obliging individual that fed actively in front of us while we studied (and photographed) its immaculate plumage. 


Madagascar Plovers were seen a number of times on this year's trip.

We spent much of this afternoon looking for shorebirds at low tide.  Most we had seen before, but a Lesser Sandplover, at times in the same scope view as Greater Sandplover and Common Ringed Plover, was great to see.  A couple Caspian Terns loafed on an exposed sandbank, and a Humblot’s Heron was watched for some time.  We also found a distraught Madagascar Plover, and soon found out why—a tiny chick was with it!  Yesterday it was Baillon’s Crake chicks; today Madagascar Plover.  What a way to end the day…

We started the following morning near Tulear, searching for two localized endemics: Verreaux’s Coua and the recently described Red-shouldered Vanga.  They didn’t make it easy this morning, but at last we prevailed.  First while we were searching hi and lo for the vanga, a Verreaux’s Coua put in a brief appearance.  Fortunately, it put in a longer appearance a few minutes later, showing off its distinctive crest.  The vanga proved difficult today; it took no small amount of bushwhacking but eventually we prevailed thanks to the hard work of our local guide, getting very close—if brief—looks at this beautiful and rare bird. 

Leaving the forest we decided to try for Greater Painted Snipe in a local wetlands.  In no time at all it seemed we flushed one, and the whole group got nice flight views.  This was not to be our only experience with this strange bird today. 

We stopped by Tulear’s mudflats in the afternoon to do a bit more shorebirding, finding all the usual suspects, including Black-bellied Plover, Greater and Lesser Sandplover, but a White-fronted Plover was only seen briefly before somehow disappearing.  Still missing Three-banded Plover for the trip, we went inland to some ponds where I had seen the species in years past.  Sure enough, a pair was present, showing beautifully in the late afternoon sunlight.  Hottentot Teal seemed out of place at the same pond, and a couple of Common Moorhens were also present.  I decided to try one more small wetlands, just to see what we could find.  It proved extremely worthwhile when Eddie asked “Is that a Painted Snipe?”  Indeed it was; a pair as it turned out.  We enjoyed leisurely looks at this normally reclusive species feeding amongst the reeds, completely relaxed despite the many nearby people and livestock.  Not bad for an entire day spent within a few minutes of a major town!


Another handsome plover, this White-fronted Plover was nesting on Nosy Ve.

The following day was devoted to boats, beaches and birds.  We left from Tulear for our first destination, the small island of Nosy Ve, arriving just at the right time.  I quickly spotted Crab Plover, one of our main targets for the island.   After seeing them perched, they got up and flew right past the boat in the front of us for superb views of this strange and beautiful shorebird.  We disembarked to look at the rest of the roosting shorebirds and terns.  I set up the scope and the first bird I saw was a Sooty Gull!  This vagrant was returning for its third year to this location; it remains the only individual of this species even seen in Madagascar.  We also scoped Lesser Crested and Crested (Swift) Terns, and various shorebirds including White-fronted Plover and a mostly breeding plumaged Black-bellied (Gray) Plover.  Walking along the beach yielded more White-fronted Plovers including chicks of varying sizes, and we eventually ended up searching for the most photographable Red-tailed Tropicbird among the many nesting under the island’s bushes. 

Once on the mainland we imbibed a cold drink and great views of the target Littoral Rock Thrush, along with Subdesert Brush Warbler, a very cooperative Madagascar Kestrel pair, and we flushed two quail that may have been Harlequin Quail; alas, they got away before being identified with certainty.  After a session of Internet back in Tulear we enjoyed a delicious dinner and an early bedtime in preparation for the next day’s early start.


Madagascar Kestrels are quite variable. This very pale bird was photographed
on the beach in Anakao.

Days 13-14: West to East

Today was the trip’s token extremely early morning, as we headed from Tulear to Zombitse Forest.  We arrived early and began our birding along the road through the forest.  It was extremely birdy, with lots of Lesser Vasa Parrots, Cuckoo Rollers, and Bee-eaters perched in the treetops and flying around actively.  We stopped when Kathy spotted a group of Red-fronted Brown Lemurs feeding on fruits in a large roadside tree, and further excitement ensued when I located one of our main targets here, Giant Coua.  It was right next to the road, first perched in a vine tangle then making its way to the ground where we had excellent looks at this beautiful and massive coua. 

We made our way to the parking lot after meeting our local guide.  A recent Tropical Birding trip had seen a Madagascar Cuckoo Hawk in the area, a rare and seldom seen hawk, so I decided to put the tape on.  Immediately a raptor flew up—Madagascar Cuckoo Hawk!!!  It soon went back down into the trees; I played the tape once more and it shot out of the trees and passed right by us on the wing for great views for the entire group. 

As if that wasn’t a good enough start to the day, almost as soon as we entered the forest we were watching the extremely local Appert’s Greenbul hopping around on the forest floor, perhaps the park’s most famous avian denizen.  Continuing on, we stopped to see two species of chameleons, including the massive Oustalet’s Chameleon, but we only heard the park’s elusive group of Verreaux’s Sifaka.  Our local guide brilliantly spotted a perched female Frances’ Sparrowhawk, then equally brilliantly whistled in a gorgeous male Red-tailed Vanga, both new species for the trip

But more was still to come.  We heard a cacophony of birds scolding something; I knew it was something good when our local guide very excitedly motioned me over.  The object of the birds’ ire was a White-browed Owl!!  We enjoyed amazing daytime views of this beautiful Ninox owl, as it tried to rest while being mobbed by Common Newtonias and other small bird. It really was a superb morning, with our target species easily seen and several great bonus birds (and mammals and reptiles) added as well. 


This sleepy White-browed Owl was being mobbed
during the middle of the day by Common Newtonia,
Common Jery and others.

We made our way to the hotel and a much needed afternoon nap.  We took a short walk in the evening around the beautiful surroundings of the hotel, seeing Purple Heron, Madagascar Little Grebe, Crested Drongo on a nest and, eventually, a singing male Benson’s Rock Thrush.  We unsuccessfully tried to tape out White-throated Rails; though responsive they wouldn’t show themselves (again!).       

The following day was mostly devoted to traveling eastward, a beautiful drive across rocky, hilly landscapes.  Before we left in the morning we searched unsuccessfully for Madagascar Partridge, but we did have leisurely views of Benson’s Rock Thrush.  We broke up the drive with a stop by a great community-run reserve, where we easily found the resident Ring-tailed Lemurs, wonderfully photogenic and simply a gem to watch. 


Whenever possible, we stop at a community-run protected area for a picnic lunch
and to one of the local troops of photogenic
Ring-tailed Lemurs.

Days 15-17: Rainforest Part I: Ranomafana

We arrived to Rano around mid-morning, after a few quick stops along the road, including one to see our first Green Jery.  We picked up our guide and returned to some local marshes to look for Gray Emutail, a local and secretive marsh-dwelling bird.  Sadly, some of the grassy marshes it favors where we have seen it in years past have been converted to riziculture, but we persevered and had eventually had nice looks.  A bonus was great views of Blue Coua in the same area, and our guide found us a gorgeous and colorful frog, Mantella baroni.  After lunch and a rest, we took our first rainforest walk of the trip.  Mammals provided the first highlights; we found Red-bellied Lemur and roosting Eastern Wooly Lemur.  The first real bird highlight came when we located a very tame Crossley’s Babbler, a strange terrestrial vanga that showed superbly.  Most of the group got views of a Wedge-tailed Jery, though one person was distracted at the time by a Gray Bamboo Lemur!  Such is the rainforest…

After a detour along which we had brilliant views of a Milne-Edwards Sifaka and an early emerging Fanaloka, a beautiful nocturnal carnivore, we went in search of Pitta-like Ground Roller.  Our local guide took us to the spot, and after a bit of strategic taping and a dose of patience, I located it on a low snag.  Everyone got brief but good views before it moved, but we relocated it, and everyone got great views of this stunning bird while it sang from a bamboo stem.  On our way back to the nocturnal viewing area we had brief glimpses of some Gray-crowned Greenbuls, an often elusive species, and once at the viewing spot we saw not only the usual Fanaloka (Striped Civet) and Brown Mouse Lemur, but also Ring-tailed Mongoose and Eastern Red Forest Rat.

It still wasn’t even dark yet, so we found a nice open area and I put on the Rainforest Scops Owl tape.  After waiting a couple minutes the bird shot in and landed only a few feet away from us, close enough that only a small flashlight was more than ample lighting to see it extremely well.  After a stop to see a Mantydactylus frog we returned to the hotel.


Part of the group first saw the brilliant Collared Nightjar at Ranomafana, the rest
of the group caught up with it at Perinet. It is surely one of the world's most
beautiful nightjars.

We devoted our one full day at Rano to hiking in the higher elevation forest.  It was a wonderful day of hiking and birding, giving us a real taste of both the difficulties and the highlights of rainforest birding.  We had great looks at several of our targets, including Common Sunbird Asity, Gray-crowned Greenbul (including chicks being fed by an adult), a Spectacled Greenbul on a nest, Red-fronted Coua singing in the scope, a superb male Velvet Asity, and several each of Pollen’s and Tylas Vangas in the same mixed flock.   Others proved more difficult: only one participant had good looks at Yellow-bellied Sunbird Asity; a couple people glimpsed the furtive Madagascar Yellowbrow; and a Rufous-headed Ground-Roller was taped in very close, but showed itself only briefly. 

We had one final rainy, misty morning in the park.  Half the group went into the forest on an unsuccessful hunt for Brown Mesite, but they did see a Collared Nightjar with a chick as well as Greater Bamboo Lemur, one of the rarest lemurs in Madagascar.  The other half of the group birded the road, spending some time chasing two singing Cryptic Warblers, which unfortunately were never seen.  They did see a Frances’s Sparrowhawk trying to dry itself out, as well as a couple of Ward’s Flycatchers.  We also stopped so the orchid enthusiast could see two beautiful orchids flowering on a wet rock face along the road.  We spent the rest of the day driving to Antsirabe, with stops to see the famous woodcarvings in Ambositra and to see the first Hamerkop of the trip.

Days 18-21: Rainforest Part II: Perinet and Mantadia

We had two full days and two half days to enjoy the splendors of Madagascar’s most popular and well-known parks.  Our beautiful lodge was conveniently located half way between the two, and we spent a nearly equal time in each.  Our first afternoon in Perinet was very productive.  Just after our picnic lunch we found our first Madagascar Starlings, perched on an open branch along the road; straight afterwards we were on our way to a roosting Collared Nightjar that our local guide knew the location of.  Although this species is often present in this same location, today it was unusually unobstructed by branches, presenting us with great photo ops.   At a wet spot in the forest we enjoyed brilliant views of White-throated Rail, a species that we had heard a close range several times previously.  Madagascar Blue Pigeons fed in a tree over the trail, proving to be impressively acrobatic (and impressively beautiful) for a pigeon.  A pair of White-throated Oxylabes was seen in pieces as they moved about in dense vegetation. 

The next day we spent the whole day in Mantadia, the more remote and pristine of the area’s parks.  The morning was fantastic.  Rand’s Warbler was quickly checked off, we had nice views of a scoped singing bird.  After chasing a Short-legged Ground-Roller that eluded us, we found a pair of Madagascar Pygmy Kingfishers right along the road.  These incredibly cooperative birds were a real highlight of the trip, perching in the open for an extended period, inviting us to take their picture.  I took nearly one hundred digiscoped images of these birds!  Moments later we heard close boop emanating from the woods and we were tearing through the forest after the strange bird who made the call—a Short-legged Ground Roller. This species can be extremely difficult to track down, favoring steep and heavily wooded terrain, so it was with great pleasure to find one so close to the road.  A minute after leaving the road we found it sitting in the mid-level of the forest calling.  One person saw it in the scope before it took off, but we quickly relocated it, and everyone got a look at this elusive species before it took off for good.     We continued our ground-roller hunt, searching high and low, but ultimately unsuccessfully, for Scaly Ground-Roller.


This was one of a pair of fantastically cooperative Madagascar Pygmy
Kingfishers we found along the road in Mantadia.

After lunch a Madagascar Flufftail started calling, so we decided to go for it.  This famously elusive bird responded strongly to our playback, running around in the reeds practically at our feet, showing surprisingly well as it paused between clumps of grass.  Lemurs put in a brief appearance, with Common Brown Lemurs along the road, and only Eddie went in after a group of Black-and-white Ruffed Lemurs, seeing a group of this gorgeous animal at close range.  On the way back to the lodge we stopped to look for the rare Madagascar Rail, we everyone saw running back and forth between areas of reeds in response to some strategic playback work by our local guide.

The following morning we started early to continue our search for missing ground rollers.  They proved very difficult, as they sometimes do.  We chased after a calling Rufous-headed Ground-Roller, but it remained a several steps ahead of us, never allowing itself to be seen.  We chased long and heard after Scaly Ground-Roller, but this species was never even heard.  Normally one of the easier ground-rollers to see, this species was unusually difficult this year.  We did succeed with the recently described Cryptic Warbler, just before the rain started in earnest and we headed back to the lodge. 

In the afternoon we returned to Perinet, where our local guide immediately took us to a roosting Madagascar Long-eared Owl.  We had great, leisurely views of this bird and saved ourselves a lot of effort in the evening trying to tape it out!  Afterwards we hit the forest in search of Madagascar Crested Ibis, a bizarre and beautiful forest dwelling ibis that we had seen briefly earlier in the trip.  We were close to giving up, literally on our way back to the van, when we flushed one right off the trail in front of us.  Fortunately it didn’t go far, and we excitedly maneuvered ourselves into position to see it.  We got great views as it sat in the canopy; it even sat long enough to be digiscoped.  We finished the day with a night walk, finding Greater Dwarf Lemur at its usual haunt, then finding two species of Calumna chameleons while only I got a brief look at the recently described Goodman’s Mouse Lemur.      


Madagascar Crested Ibis is a reticent but beautiful forest dwelling ibis. We saw
it briefly at Ampijoroa, but got great looks of this bird in Perinet.

Our final morning of birding for the main part of the trip found us returning to Perinet.  We started out looking for Red-breasted Coua, here at the southern edge of its range.  After not very long we heard it calling, and soon Rose had spotted it at remarkably close range.  It ran past us just long enough for everyone to have a nice look.  We were then off to the back area of the reserve to search again for Rufous-headed Ground-Roller.  Unfortunately we never got a response, so we returned to the main area of the reserve to look for lemurs.  It didn’t take long before we had located the local troop of Indri, they announced their presence with their incredible calls as we approached.   We had great views of this huge and wonderful lemur, the symbol of the park, and right in the same area we had lovely looks at the area’s other very large lemur, Diademed Sifaka.  We finally headed back to the car, but not before doing a bit of herping, finding a bright green Parson’s Giant Chameleon and a Madagascar Tree Boa.  We returned to the lodge of lunch, and were off on our way back to the capital.


This is the head of a Red-breasted Coua, it was much to close to have its full
body digiscoped! This species was first seen at Perinet, and was common and easy
to see at Marojejy

Days 22-25: Northeast extension: Marojejy

If you’re looking for something different, something remote and unspoiled and forever memorable, this is the trip for you.  We arrived in Sambava, on the far northeast coast of Madagascar, and were driven in a small Renault to the inland end of the road, Andapa.  We spent the first night in Andapa (where a Panther Chameleon had taken up residence in the hotel's parking lot), enjoying a Chinese dinner upon arrival. 


This gorgeous Panther Chameleon was living in a potted orchid at our hotel
in Andapa.


The next morning began the real part of the adventure, the first day’s hike to Mantella Camp, the first camp in Marojejy National Park.  It was a challenging and beautiful hike, much of it through stunning primary forest.  Amazingly, we found the unbelievable (and very seldom seen) Helmet Vanga in the very first vanga flock we came across.  We could hardly believe our luck finding our main quarry so easily and quickly, enjoying scope views of the amazing blue bill and listening to its eerie song.  The next flock we came across also contained a heard only Helmet Vanga; we didn’t encounter another one the rest of our visit!


This spectacular view greeted us upon our arrival to Marojejy's Mantella Camp.

We spent three days birding our way along the trails between Mandena and Mantella Camp and between Mantella Camp and Marojejia Camp.  The forest is the best I’ve seen in Madagascar, with amazing huge trees, spectacular strangler figs, rare palms and fabulous mixed species flocks.  The large trees and thick undergrowth made the birding challenging, but the mixed flocks were the biggest and most diverse I’ve seen in Madagascar, often containing Blue, White-headed, Tylas, Nuthatch and Red-tailed VangasRed-breasted Coua was common in the thick undergrowth and proved to be much easier to see here than in Perinet.  We thoroughly enjoyed watching one singing from a low liana—we ended up leaving before it did!  (But only after photographing and videoing it, of course.)  We were rarely far from a Blue Coua.  The only ground-roller encountered was a heard only Short-legged.  An understory flock allowed us our best views yet of the skulking White-throated Oxylabes


White-fronted Lemurs were common and inquisitive at Marojejy.

The other wildlife was great as well.  Eastern Gray Bamboo Lemurs were common, one evening we watched them eating melastome berries while we read in camp.  White-fronted Lemurs were also common; other Tropical Birding groups this year were lucky enough to encounter the extremely rare Silky Sifaka.  We also saw a leaf-tailed gecko, one of Madagascar’s iconic strange animals, a Ring-tailed Mongoose, as well as Phelsuma geckos and Zonosaurus lizards and Mantydactylus frogs.

We all agreed that despite the difficult walking Marojejy was an incredible overall experience.  The cook whipped up delicious meals in the jungle (even flambéing bananas for us one night!); the bungalows were just right for the setting, the forest is gorgeous, peaceful and full of fascinating creatures, and everyone involved in opening Marojejy to tourism was extremely helpful and enthusiastic.  An absolute highlight of the experience was waiting for our ride at the end of the trip, sitting on a porch in Mandena, the end of the trail and beginning of the road, entertaining and being entertained by the children of the village, showing photos, taking photos, looking through my spotting scope, playing Malagasy birdsongs from my iPod and just sitting around, admiring each other and the setting.  It was a fitting end to a great Madagascar experience.    


Sambava's beautiful beaches beckoned us upon leaving
Marjojejy at the end of the trip.


BIRD, MAMMAL, and HERP LISTS

BIRDS (endemics in bold, Southwest Indian Ocean regional endemics in italics)

Little Grebe

Tachybaptus ruficollis

Madagascar Little Grebe

Tachybaptus pelzelnii

Red-tailed Tropicbird

Phaethon rubricauda

African Darter

Anhinga melanogaster

Grey Heron

Ardea cinerea

Humblot's Heron

Ardea humbloti

Purple Heron

Ardea purpurea

Great Egret

Ardea alba

Black Heron

Egretta ardesiaca

Dimorphic Egret

Egretta dimorpha

Common Squacco Heron

Ardeola ralloides

Madagascar Pond-Heron

Ardeola idae

Cattle Egret

Bubulcus ibis

Striated (Green-backed ) Heron

Butorides striatus

Black-crowned Night-Heron

Nycticorax nycticorax

Little Bittern

Ixobrychus minutus

African Openbill

Anastomus lamelligerus

Madagascar Sacred Ibis

Threskiornis bernieri

Madagascar Crested Ibis

Lophotibis cristata

Lesser Flamingo

Phoenicopterus minor

Fulvous Whistling-Duck

Dendrocygna bicolor

White-faced Whistling-Duck

Dendrocygna viduata

Comb Duck

Sarkidiornis melanotos

African Pygmy-goose

Nettapus auritus

Bernier's Teal

Anas bernieri

Red-billed Teal

Anas erythrorhyncha

Hottentot Teal

Anas hottentota

Madagascar Cuckoo-Hawk

Aviceda madagascariensis

Yellow-billed Kite

Milvus aegyptus

Madagascar Fish-Eagle

Haliaeetus vociferoides

Madagascar Harrier

Circus macrosceles

Madagascar Harrier-Hawk

Polyboroides radiatus

Frances's Goshawk

Accipiter francesii

Henst's Goshawk (H)

Accipiter henstii

Madagascar Buzzard

Buteo brachypterus

Madagascar Kestrel

Falco newtoni

Banded Kestrel

Falco zoniventris

Helmeted Guineafowl (H)

Numida meleagris

White-breasted Mesite

Mesitornis variegata

Subdesert Mesite

Monias benschi

Madagascar Buttonquail

Turnix nigricollis

Madagascar Flufftail

Sarothrura insularis

Madagascar Wood-Rail

Canirallus kioloides

Madagascar Rail

Rallus madagascariensis

White-throated Rail

Dryolimnas cuvieri

Baillon's Crake

Porzana pusilla

Purple Swamphen

Porphyrio porphyrio

Allen's Gallinule (H)

Porphyrio alleni

Common Moorhen

Gallinula chloropus

Red-knobbed Coot

Fulica cristata

Madagascar Jacana

Actophilornis albinucha

Greater Painted-snipe

Rostratula benghalensis

Crab Plover

Dromas ardeola

Black-winged Stilt

Himantopus himantopus

Madagascar Pratincole

Glareola ocularis

Black-bellied (Grey) Plover

Pluvialis squatarola

Common Ringed Plover

Charadrius hiaticula

Madagascar Plover

Charadrius thoracicus

Kittlitz's Plover

Charadrius pecuarius

Three-banded Plover

Charadrius tricollaris

White-fronted Plover

Charadrius marginatus

Lesser Sandplover

Charadrius mongolus

Greater Sandplover

Charadrius leschenaultii

Bar-tailed Godwit

Limosa lapponica

Whimbrel

Numenius phaeopus

Common Greenshank

Tringa nebularia

Terek Sandpiper

Xenus cinereus

Common Sandpiper

Actitis hypoleucos

Ruddy Turnstone

Arenaria interpres

Sanderling

Calidris alba

Curlew Sandpiper

Calidris ferruginea

Sooty Gull

Larus hemprichii

Caspian Tern

Sterna caspia

Lesser Crested Tern

Sterna bengalensis

Great Crested Tern

Sterna bergii

Saunders' Tern

Sterna saundersi

Whiskered Tern

Chlidonias hybridus

Madagascar Sandgrouse

Pterocles personatus

Rock Dove

Columba livia

Madagascar Turtle-Dove

Streptopelia picturata

Namaqua Dove

Oena capensis

Madagascar Green-Pigeon

Treron australis

Madagascar Blue-Pigeon

Alectroenas madagascariensis

Grey-headed Lovebird

Agapornis canus

Greater Vasa Parrot

Coracopsis vasa

Lesser Vasa Parrot

Coracopsis nigra

Madagascar Lesser Cuckoo

Cuculus rochii

Giant Coua

Coua gigas

Coquerel's Coua

Coua coquereli

Red-breasted Coua

Coua serriana

Red-fronted Coua

Coua reynaudii

Red-capped Coua

Coua ruficeps

Green-capped Coua

Coua olivaceiceps

Running Coua

Coua cursor

Crested Coua

Coua cristata

Verreaux's Coua

Coua verreauxi

Blue Coua

Coua caerulea

Madagascar Coucal

Centropus toulou

Malagasy (Rainforest) Scops-Owl

Otus rutilus

Torotoroka (Western) Scops-Owl

Otus madagascariensis

White-browed Owl

Ninox superciliaris

Madagascar Long-eared Owl

Asio madagascariensis

Madagascar Nightjar

Caprimulgus madagascariensis

Collared Nightjar

Caprimulgus enarratus

Madagascar Spine-tailed Swift

Zoonavena grandidieri

African Palm-Swift

Cypsiurus parvus

Alpine Swift

Tachymarptis melba

Madagascar Black Swift

Apus balstoni

Madagascar Kingfisher

Alcedo vintsioides

Madagascar Pygmy-Kingfisher

Ispidina madagascariensis

Madagascar Bee-eater

Merops superciliosus

Broad-billed Roller

Eurystomus glaucurus

Short-legged Ground-Roller

Brachypteracias leptosomus

Pitta-like Ground-Roller

Atelornis pittoides

Rufous-headed Ground-Roller

Atelornis crossleyi

Long-tailed Ground-Roller

Uratelornis chimaera

Cuckoo Roller

Leptosomus discolor

Madagascar Hoopoe

Upupa marginata

Velvet Asity

Philepitta castanea

Schlegel's Asity

Philepitta schlegeli

Common Sunbird-Asity

Neodrepanis coruscans

Yellow-bellied Sunbird-Asity

Neodrepanis hypoxanthus

Madagascar Lark

Mirafra hova

Brown-throated Martin

Riparia paludicola

Mascarene Martin

Phedina borbonica

Madagascar Wagtail

Motacilla flaviventris

Ashy Cuckoo-shrike

Coracina cinerea

Long-billed Greenbul

Phyllastrephus madagascariensis

Spectacled Greenbul

Phyllastrephus zosterops

Appert's Greenbul

Phyllastrephus apperti

Grey-crowned Greenbul

Phyllastrephus cinereiceps

Madagascar Bulbul

Hypsipetes madagascariensis

Forest Rock-Thrush

Monticola sharpei

Benson's Rock-Thrush

Monticola bensoni

Littoral Rock-Thrush

Monticola imerinus

Madagascar Cisticola

Cisticola cherinus

Brown Emu-tail

Dromaeocercus brunneus

Gray Emu-tail

Dromaeocercus seebohmi

Madagascar Brush-Warbler

Nesillas typica

Subdesert Brush-Warbler

Nesillas lantzi

Thamnornis Warbler

Thamnornis chloropetoides

Madagascar Swamp-Warbler

Acrocephalus newtoni

Rand's Warbler

Randia pseudozosterops

Dark Newtonia

Newtonia amphichroa

Common Newtonia

Newtonia brunneicauda

Archbold's Newtonia

Newtonia archboldi

Cryptic Warbler

Cryptosylvicola randriansoloi

Madagascar Magpie-Robin

Copsychus albospecularis

African Stonechat

Saxicola torquata

Ward's Flycatcher

Pseudobias wardi

Madagascar Paradise-Flycatcher

Terpsiphone mutata

Common Jery

Neomixis tenella

Green Jery

Neomixis viridis

Stripe-throated Jery

Neomixis striatigula

Wedge-tailed Jery

Hartertula flavoviridis

White-throated Oxylabes

Oxylabes madagascariensis

Madagascar Yellowbrow

Crossleyia xanthophrys

Crossley's Babbler

Mystacornis crossleyi

Souimanga Sunbird

Cinnyris sovimanga

Madagascar Green Sunbird

Cinnyris notatus

Madagascar White-eye

Zosterops maderaspatanus

Red-tailed Vanga

Calicalicus madagascariensis

Red-shouldered Vanga

Calicalicus rufocarpalis

Rufous Vanga

Schetba rufa

Hook-billed Vanga

Vanga curvirostris

Lafresnaye's Vanga

Xenopirostris xenopirostris

Van Dam's Vanga

Xenopirostris damii

Pollen's Vanga

Xenopirostris polleni

Sickle-billed Vanga

Falculea palliata

White-headed Vanga

Artamella viridis

Chabert's Vanga

Leptopterus chabert

Madagascar Blue Vanga

Cyanolanius madagascarinus

Helmet Vanga

Euryceros prevostii

Tylas Vanga

Tylas eduardi

Nuthatch Vanga

Hypositta corallirostris

Crested Drongo

Dicrurus forficatus

Pied Crow

Corvus albus

Madagascar Starling

Saroglossa aurata

Common Myna

Acridotheres tristis

Nelicourvi Weaver

Ploceus nelicourvi

Sakalava Weaver

Ploceus sakalava

Magagascar Fody

Foudia madagascariensis

Forest Fody

Foudia omissa

Madagascar Munia

Lonchura nana

   

MAMMALS (all are endemic)

 

Eastern Red Forest Rat

Nesomys rufus

Fanaloka (Striped Civet)

Fossa fossana

Ring-tailed Mongoose

Galidia elegans

Brown Mouse Lemur

Microcebus rufus

Golden Brown Mouse Lemur

Microcebus ravelobensis

Red-tailed Sportive Lemur

Lepilemur ruficaudatus

Milne-Edward’s Sportive Lemur

Lepilemur edwardsi

Furry-eared (Greater) Dwarf Lemur

Cheirogaleus crossleyi

Eastern Gray Bamboo Lemur

Hapalemur griseus griseus

Greater Bamboo Lemur

Hapalemur simus

Ring-tailed Lemur

Lemur catta

Mongoose Lemur

Eulemur mongoz

Common Brown Lemur

Eulemur fulvus

Red-fronted Brown Lemur

Eulemur rufus

White-fronted Brown Lemur

Eulemur albifrons

Red-bellied Lemur

Eulemur rubriventer

Black-and-white Ruffed Lemur

Varecia variegata

Eastern Woolly Lemur (Avahi)

Avahi laniger

Western Avahi

Avahi occidentalis

Diademed Sifaka

Propithecus diadema

Milne-Edwards Diademed Sifaka

Propithecus edwardsi

Coquerel's Sifaka

Propithecus coquereli

Verreaux’s Sifaka

Propithecus verreaui

Indri

Indri Indri

   

PARTIAL REPTILE and AMPHIBIAN LIST (all are endemic)

Crocodylus niloticus

Nile Crocodile

Calumma brevicornis

Short-horned Chameleon

Calumma nasuta

Nose-horned Chameleon

Furcifer oustaleti

Oustalet's Chameleon

Furcifer verrucosus

Warty Chameleon

Furcifer rhinoceratus

Rhinosaurus Chameleon

Calumma parsoni

Parson’s Giant Chameleon

Chalarodon madagascariensis

Three-eyed Lizard

Oplurus cyclurus

Madagascar Iguanid

Uroplatus fimbriatus

Leaf-tailed Gecko

Phelsuma madagascariensis

Madagascar Day Gecko

Phelsuma standingi

Standing's Day Gecko

Phelsuma lineata

Lined Day Gecko

Phelsuma quadriocellata

Four-spotted Day Geckos

Zonosaurus madagascariensis

Common Lizard

Mabuya gravenhorstii

Gravenhorst's Skink

Sanzinia madagascariensis

Madagascar Tree Boa

Mantella baroni

Painted Mantella