ULTIMATE MADAGASCAR BIRDING TOUR: DETAILED ITINERARY
Ultimate Madagascar: Day 1 Our tour begins in the evening at Antananarivo, where we will stay overnight.
Ultimate Madagascar: Day 2 Antananarivo is a strange mixture of traditional Malagasy, French Colonial and modern architecture. Traditional Malagasy architecture clearly has many Asian roots and the buildings look much closer to those one would see in Nepal than anything found on the African mainland, reflecting the Asiatic origins of most of the Malagasy themselves.
From the capital we will head southwards to Ranomafana for a three nights stay. As we travel across the interior plateau, the heartland of Madagascar, we will have a close-up of the Malagasy way of life. The countryside is a mosaic of tiny terraced rice paddies in the valley bottoms, grassy slopes, small villages of ochre-brown, thatched-roofed houses and isolated mountains of worn grey granite. Lean-limbed Malagasy farmers guide their zebu-drawn ploughs through the paddies whilst groups of smiling women carry produce to market. Life is hard in the countryside in Madagascar but the ever-friendly Malagasy have an astonishing capacity for happiness in spite of their difficulties.
The extensive rice paddies of the interior are frequented by Western Cattle and Great Egrets, Squacco Heron and Red-billed Teal, whilst Yellow-billed Kite, Madagascan Buzzard, Madagascan Kestrel, Malagasy (or Madagascan) Black Swift, Madagascan (Bush) Lark, Mascarene Martin, Madagascan Stonechat, Madagascan Cisticola, Red (or Madagascar Red) Fody, Pied Crow and the introduced Common Myna are all typical roadside birds. We may also encounter Hamerkop along the rivers and perhaps a flock of Alpine Swifts wheeling around the rugged hillsides. As we approach the eastern highlands we will stop at some areas of marshland where Madagascan Snipe can sometimes be found. The road eventually winds through forested hills, past some scenic cascades and waterfalls, before we see the little spa town of Ranomafana appear below us.
Ultimate Madagascar: Days 3-4 Ranomafana is situated on the edge of the eastern escarpment and came to the attention of the world when a new species, the Golden Bamboo Lemur, was discovered here in 1985. Now a national park, this superb area is rich in lemurs. Several species have been studied here for many years, resulting in the animals becoming oblivious to the presence of humans and giving us the privileged opportunity of watching them, unafraid, at close range. We have a good chance of encountering Golden Bamboo Lemur (still only known from two localities), the pug-faced Greater Bamboo Lemur (a species as rare and as localized as the Golden Bamboo Lemur), Eastern Grey Bamboo Lemur, Red-fronted Brown Lemur, Red-bellied Lemur, Milne-Edwards’s Sifaka and perhaps a roosting Eastern Woolly Lemur (or Eastern Avahi). One evening, as dusk falls, we shall wait for diminutive Brown Mouse Lemurs to appear, attracted to a bait of bananas. The experience of watching these tiny primates at close range, manipulating items with their perfect miniature hands, is certainly very special. Other mammals we may encounter at Ranomafana include Eastern Red Forest Rat and perhaps Ring-tailed Mongoose and Fanaloka (or Striped Civet).
Not surprisingly, Ranomafana also offers rich pickings for the birdwatcher and, indeed, the area is now acknowledged to be one of the best accessible site for seeing Madagascar’s rainforest endemics. As the wreaths of early morning mist gradually dissipate the forest comes alive: jeries and sunbirds sing from the canopy, tetrakas and newtonias chatter from the undergrowth and resonant hoots announce the presence of a ground-roller. At the roadside Rand’s Warblers and Common, Green and Stripe-throated Jeries give their confusingly similar songs from prominent exposed perches, as does the recently described Cryptic Warbler, and we will scan similar locations for Madagascan Starling and the striking Madagascan Blue Pigeon. Overhead, Cuckoo Rollers call wildly as they give their dramatic aerial displays and the monotonous call of the Madagascan Cuckoo forms an almost constant backdrop to our birding.
Once on the trails, however, forest birdwatching requires time and patience, but the rewards can be rich. We will be making a particular effort to find a selection of species that we can only reasonably hope to see at Ranomafana. One of these is Brown Mesite, a secretive species of the forest floor, and another is the fearsome Henst’s Goshawk, a highly vocal raptor which we will hope to see sitting in the canopy, glowering at us from under its heavy brows. Madagascan Yellowbrow (or Yellow-browed Oxylabes) favours the thickest undergrowth but, like many of Madagascar’s ‘skulkers’, can sometimes be watched at unbelievably close range. The chunky Pollen’s Vanga and Grey-crowned Tetraka (formerly Grey-crowned Greenbul) are two other specialities, and at higher altitudes we will search for the iridescent Yellow-bellied Sunbird Asity and for Brown Emutail, an ace skulker that we may see creeping, mouse-like, at our feet.
Perhaps the most mysterious of all Madagascar’s birds are the ground rollers. The iridescent Pitta-like Ground Roller is, in fact, quite common here and we also have a good chance of finding a furtive Rufous-headed Ground Roller, perhaps watching its head bobbing and throat feathers bristling as it calls from a low perch deep in the shade of the forest undergrowth. If we are really lucky we will even encounter a Short-legged Ground Roller sitting motionless for long periods in the forest canopy.
Other species that we may well find include Frances’s Sparrowhawk, Madagascan Wood Rail, Madagascan Flufftail (which can sometimes be enticed to within a few feet), Madagascan Cuckoo-Hawk (uncommon), Madagascan Turtle Dove, Lesser Vasa Parrot, Red-fronted Coua, the stunning, turaco-like Blue Coua, Malagasy (or Madagascan) Coucal, African Palm Swift, Madagascan Pygmy Kingfisher, the curious Velvet Asity and Common Sunbird-Asity (members of a family now thought to be related to the broadbills), Madagascan Wagtail, Madagascan (or Ashy) Cuckooshrike, Spectacled Tetraka (formerly Spectacled Greenbul), the aptly-named Long-billed Bernieria (formerly Long-billed Greenbul), Madagascan Bulbul, Madagascan Magpie-Robin, Forest Rock Thrush (with its beautiful yodelling song), Malagasy (or Madagascan) Brush Warbler, Dark and Common Newtonias, Wedge-tailed Jery, Ward’s Flycatcher (now thought to be a vanga), Malagasy (or Madagascan) Paradise Flycatcher, White-throated Oxylabes, Red-tailed, Chabert, Tylas and Hook-billed Vangas, the unbelievably blue-hued Blue Vanga, Crossley’s Vanga (formerly Crossley’s Babbler), Malagasy (or Madagascan) White-eye, Malagasy Green (or Long-billed Green) and Souimanga Sunbirds, Nelicourvi Weaver, Forest Fody and Crested Drongo.
In a nearby area of damp heathland we will search in particular for the skulking Grey Emutail, as well as Brown-throated Martin, Madagascan Swamp Warbler, and Madagascan Mannikin. We will have another chance to find Madagascan Snipe and, if we are lucky, we will come across Meller’s Duck, now probably one of Madagascar’s rarest endemics.
Ultimate Madagascar: Day 5 After some final birding in the Ranomafana region we will make the scenic journey south to Ranohira for an overnight stay. Leaving the forests of the escarpment behind, the densely-populated, well-watered plateau country gradually gives way to dry grasslands punctuated by stark, steep-sided mountains. Large herds of zebu, the characteristic Malagasy cattle, are driven to water by herders whose faces betray their African origins, for now we are entering Madagascar’s deep and once lawless south.
We will make a stop along the way at the small Anja reserve, where we can admire some wonderfully tame Ring-tailed Lemurs.
Eventually we will cross the lonely Horombe Plateau This remote area is favoured by the uncommon Madagascan Partridge, and we may well also encounter the rare and attractive Malagasy Harrier quartering the arid upland grasslands, or even a Marsh Owl, a species which can sometimes be seen hunting in daylight (although both the latter are declining owing to the drainage of wet grasslands). Once at the dramatically beautiful Isalo Massif, an area of tangled, contorted limestone pinnacles surrounded by grasslands. we will look for the local form of the Forest Rock Thrush which, although a bird of the rocky slopes, has taken to singing from the roof of our hotel. This form is sometimes split as Benson’s Rock Thrush. At night, we will try and find a White-browed Owl.
Ultimate Madagascar: Day 6 From Isalo we travel southwestwards to Tulear (or Toliara) for an overnight stay. We will stop en route at Zombitse-Vohibasia National Park, which protects a relict of a once much more extensive forest, where we should find the extremely localized Appert’s Tetraka (formerly known as Appert’s Greenbul). (As with the other ‘greenbuls’ of Madagascar, this species is now placed in the recently recognized Malagasy warbler family.) Other species that we may well find in the dry deciduous forests at Zombitse-Vohibasia include the superb Giant Coua, Coquerel’s Coua, Madagascan Spinetail, Madagascan Hoopoe (with its peculiar purring call), Helmeted Guineafowl and Rufous Vanga (with its repertoire of strange vocalizations). The forest also holds several species of lemurs, and we should have our first encounters here with the charismatic Verreaux’s Sifaka and may even find a Hubbard’s Sportive Lemur at its daytime roost.
Continuing southwards, the first baobabs appear in a landscape otherwise denuded of trees, and at length the open country gives way to dense arid scrub as we near the coast. This scrubland lies on a ridge of ancient coral, raised from the sea bed by the Earth’s inexorable movements. Although uninviting at first glance, this coral-rag habitat holds two highly restricted specialities. Here we will search for the beautiful Red-shouldered Vanga, described as recently as 1997, and Verreaux’s Coua, perhaps seeing this elegant coua sitting on a bush top, giving its not-so-elegant croaking call.
Other species in this area include Madagascan Buttonquail, Namaqua Dove, Madagascan Green Pigeon, Red-capped Coua (the local form is sometimes split as Brown-capped Coua), Grey-headed Lovebird and Olive (or Madagascar) Bee-eater.
Ultimate Madagascar: Day 7 The highlight of our stay at Tulear will be an excursion by boat to the small island of Nosy Ve. This lies just a short distance offshore and holds good numbers of breeding Red-tailed Tropicbirds. We should have superb views of this elegant seabird, both in flight and as they sit on their nests under the low shrubs, where they are remarkably tame and can be quite closely approached without causing disturbance. After leaving Nosy Ve, we will cross to the small fishing village of Anakao on the mainland, where the localized Littoral Rock Thrush is common (and can even be seen whilst sipping cold drinks at a beach-side bar!), before returning to Tulear.
We will also explore the mudflats, beaches and the saline lagoons that lie amidst the flat sandy land near the coast. Among the numerous Kittlitz’s Plovers we should find a few Madagascan Plovers, and we will also have a first chance to encounter Madagascan Sandgrouse as they come down to drink in the morning or evening. These pools attract a variety of other waders, and together with the adjacent mudflats and sandy beaches should produce Black-winged Stilt, Common Ringed, White-fronted, Greater Sand and Grey (or Black-bellied) Plovers, Eurasian Whimbrel, Common Greenshank, Ruddy Turnstone, Terek, Common and Curlew Sandpipers, and Sanderling. We will be searching in particular for the strange burrow-nesting Crab-Plover, a species which regularly occurs along this coast. The coastal flats sometimes hold large numbers of Common Terns, as well as both Lesser and Greater Crested Terns, Saunders’s Terns (in their extremely Little Tern-like winter plumage) and a few Caspian Terns. Other birds we should encounter along the coast are the statuesque endemic Humblot’s Heron, Dimorphic Egret (here mostly of the dark morph, in contrast to inland areas), Striated (or Green-backed) Heron and Hottentot Teal. The concentration of birds in this region is attractive to raptors, and we may come across a Peregrine Falcon of the small, dark local form.
During the afternoon we will reach Ifaty, situated on the coast to the north of Tulear, where we will stay for two nights. In the late afternoon we will begin our exploration of the Ifaty area.
Ultimate Madagascar: Day 8 Our hotel is situated on the beach and is backed by stands of coastal scrub which, hold some interesting birds; notably the large, pale, Subdesert Brush Warbler, with its mechanical, clock-winding call, the yellow-headed Sakalava Weaver and Madagascan Nightjar, which can be watched floating over the bushes, ghost-like, at dusk (and they also often call loudly outside the rooms at night).
Whilst at Ifaty, however, we will be concentrating on the strange and wonderful spiny Didierea forest, the habitat that holds most of the region’s specialities and which lies just a short distance from the coast. Walking along the sandy trails through the spiny forest is a fantastic experience. Tall, many-branched Didiereas with a potent armour of spines give the impression of being witches’ broomsticks planted in the ground. Amongst the many different kinds of Didiereas are strange euphorbias and many squat, bloated baobabs. The whole feel of this bizarre forest, especially as dusk approaches, is of something dreamed up by Tolkien.
The most sought-after birds of the spiny forest are undoubtedly the strange Subdesert Mesite and the attractive Long-tailed Ground Roller. We may encounter a small party of mesites creeping furtively though the undergrowth and perhaps find a pair of ground rollers attending their nesting burrow at the base of a tall Didierea.
Other specialities of this habitat are Thamnornis, with its loud rattling song, the unassuming Archbold’s Newtonia and Lafresnaye’s Vanga (which, with its massive and swollen bill, is very much the local counterpart of Pollen’s and Van Dam’s Vangas). We should also see small groups of Sickle-billed Vangas, one of the most striking members of the family, flying unerringly through the maze of spines to perch in the Didiereas as they give their loud, raucous calls. Couas too are a feature of the spiny forest and we should see Crested Couas moving clumsily through the trees whilst Running Couas walk sedately amongst the tangled undergrowth, only to leap into a low tree or bush to give their loud, whistling advertising calls. (The local form of the Crested is sometimes split as Rufous-vented Coua.) We are also likely to come across Greater Vasa Parrot and Madagascan Harrier-Hawk, and we will keep a special look-out for the sedate but uncommon Banded Kestrel, which can be remarkably tame.
Ultimate Madagascar: Day 9 After some final birding in the Tulear (or Toliara) region we will take a flight from Tulear to Antananarivo. We might find a hunting Sooty Falcon or two at the Antananarivo airport. From Antananarivo we will drive eastwards to Perinet for a five nights stay, stopping en route to look for Madagascan Pratincole at the Mangoro River. This afternoon we will begin our exploration of the Perinet area.
Ultimate Madagascar: Days 10-13 The Andasibe-Mantadia National Park at Andasibe (formerly known as Perinet) protects some of the richest rainforest in Madagascar. The park shares many species with Ranomafana, but also hold several that are difficult or impossible to find there, and we will be concentrating on these.
Four species of ground roller occur in the area, and we will try in particular to find the superb Scaly Ground Roller, arguably the best-looking ground roller of all, and the sedate and strictly arboreal Short-legged Ground Roller. Wandering flocks of vangas regularly hold the curious Nuthatch Vanga, a localized species once considered a true nuthatch but in reality a remarkable example of convergent evolution.
At dusk we will listen for the piping whistle of Rainforest Scops Owl (one of two species resulting from the splitting of Malagasy Scops Owl), and we may even find one roosting in the dark recesses of a pandanus palm. We might, with luck, also hear Madagascan (Long-eared) Owl, either the bark of the adult in flight or the grating hiss of a fledged but still dependant youngster, but seeing this species is usually hit-and-miss. A very special nightbird that we will hope to find is Collared Nightjar, surely one of the most strikingly beautiful of all nightjars. Its voice is still poorly known, but we may encounter one at dusk, sallying out from the tree tops for food or, even better, we may find a roosting bird and admire at close range its fantastic camouflage.
Other notable species we should see at Andasibe-Mantadia are Madagascan (or Madagascar Little) Grebe, the impressive Madagascan (Crested) Ibis (ambling rather incongruously along the broad trails through the forest or sitting on a large and untidy nest), White-throated Rail and Red-fronted Coua, and if we are in luck we will come across Madagascan Sparrowhawk and Red-breasted Coua. Broad-billed Roller is quite common in this area. In nearby areas of marshland we will search for Madagascan Rail, and we will have another chance to find Madagascan Snipe.
Andasibe-Mantadia provides a secure refuge for a wealth of wildlife and are famous as the haunt of the superb Indri, the largest of all the surviving lemurs. The ear-splitting, wailing cries of the Indri echo through the green galleries of the forest, and as one approaches the trees in which these great black and white creatures are sitting the volume of noise becomes almost deafening. In addition to the famous Indri, we may also see the beautiful Diademed Sifaka, Common Brown Lemur and, at night, Greater and perhaps Furry-eared Dwarf Lemurs. We may be fortunate enough to come across Black-and-white Ruffed Lemur, one of the most handsome of all the lemurs.
While we are based at Andasibe we will make one or possibly two excursions to the Antavolobe Reserve. The star avian attraction here is without doubt the improbable and spectacular Helmet Vanga with its stunning combination of black and tan topped off with a huge, almost fluorescent, turquoise-blue bill. We have a very good chance of seeing this striking bird, which is not uncommon here and often associates with mixed flocks of vangas. We also have a good chance of coming across Bernier’s Vanga, a species confined to the rainforests of northeastern Madagascar, perhaps coming across a jet-black male hacking away at an epiphyte or a tiger-striped female stripping bark from a high bough. Many other species found in Madagascar’s eastern rainforests can be found at this superb reserve.
Ultimate Madagascar: Day 14 After some final birding and lemur-watching in the eastern rainforests we will return to Antananarivo for an overnight stay.
Ultimate Madagascar: Day 15 Today we will head northwestwards to Ampijoroa, situated in the Ankarafantsika National Park, for a three nights stay. The drive offers another chance for both Malagasy (or Madagascar) Harrier and Madagascan Partridge. The drive is a long one but we will arrive in time for some initial exploration.
Ultimate Madagascar: Days 16-17 The Ankarafantsika National Park protects an extensive area of plateau country. Most is cloaked in well-developed dry tropical woodland, but along the watercourses there are stands of slightly moister and richer forest.
We will of course be concentrating on the area’s specialities during our visit. In the plateau forest we will search for the highly localized Van Dam’s Vanga, found at only two sites in the north-west of the island, and for White-breasted Mesite, similarly confined to just a handful of localities. We have a very good chance of finding the vangas, our attention attracted by their whistled calls from the tree-tops, and of coming across a group of mesites walking sedately through the sparse undergrowth and stopping occasionally to give their shrill duetted calls.
In the subtly moister woodlands we should come across the beautiful Schlegel’s Asity, here at the edge of its range. Another speciality is the majestic but critically endangered Madagascan Fish Eagle, one of the world’s rarest raptors with a total population estimated at just 100 pairs, which we should find at Lac Ravelobe near the forest station. In addition to its specialities, Ampijoroa holds a wide variety of other birds, notably including Red-capped and Coquerel’s Couas, Torotoroka Scops Owl and Rufous Vanga. We also have another chance for Banded Kestrel.
This is also an excellent site for lemurs: the handsome Coquerel’s Sifaka is common here and we may also find Common Brown Lemur and the very localized Mongoose Lemur, whilst a night walk could produce Fat-tailed Dwarf Lemur, Grey Mouse Lemur and perhaps Western Woolly Lemur, Milne-Edward’s Sportive Lemur or the recently discovered Golden-brown Mouse Lemur.
Not far from Ampijoroa is Lac Amboromalandy, a large impounded reservoir, and this wetland and some adjacent small wetlands and flooded fields, as well as Lac Ravelobe, hold large numbers of herons. Black Herons can often be seen in substantial flocks, performing their famed ‘umbrella’ fishing dance en masse, and there are also smaller numbers of Malagasy (or Madagascar) Pond Herons. Here we will be searching for Madagascan Jacana (a species that is surprisingly localized), Malagasy (or Madagascar Malachite) Kingfisher and also African Pygmy Goose and Allen’s Gallinule.
Other waterbirds that we may come across at these wetlands include Little Grebe, Reed (or Long-tailed) Cormorant, African Darter, Grey and Purple Herons, Black-crowned Night Heron, Glossy Ibis, White-faced Whistling Duck, Knob-billed Duck, Common Moorhen, Three-banded Plover (the local form is a potential split), Whiskered Tern and, occasionally, African Spoonbill, Yellow-billed Stork and Greater Painted-snipe.
During our stay at Ampijoroa we will also visit the Majunga (Mahajanga) area and we travel by boat into the broad estuary of the Betsiboka River, where we will search for two of Madagascar’s most endangered species, the endemic Bernier’s (or Madagascar) Teal and Malagasy Sacred (or Madagascar White) Ibis. We may well find scattered pairs and small flocks of Bernier’s Teals feeding on exposed mud banks, a habitat shared with the ibises. We will also have another chance for Humblot’s Heron, as well as a variety of shorebirds and terns.
Ultimate Madagascar: Day 18 Today we will return to Antananarivo, where the tour ends this evening after dinner and a chance to wash and change at an hotel near the airport. (Most international flight connections depart after midnight.) We will have time for some early morning birding at Ampijoroa if need be, or some stops along the way.
SOUTHEAST MADAGASCAR EXTENSION
Ultimate Madagascar (Southeast): Day 1 We will overnight at Antananarivo.
Ultimate Madagascar (Southeast): Day 2 This morning we will take a flight to Fort Dauphin (or Tolanaro), situated at the southeastern corner of Madagascar, for an overnight stay. Here we can look for Madagascan Gull (sometimes split from Cape, which in turn is sometimes split from Kelp) and also Humpback Whales. At this time of year there are both adults and calves present and we have a reasonable chance of seeing these magnificent animals breaching spectacularly off the coast.
Ultimate Madagascar (Southeast): Day 3 We will make an early start in order to reach Andohahela National Park in good time. Lying at the extreme southern tip of the eastern escarpment, the humid forests of the mountain slopes form a startling contrast with the arid spiny forest of the coastal plains. Here we will search for the enigmatic Red-tailed Newtonia, a species known for many years from just one specimen (and whose very existence had even been doubted) until it was rediscovered here some years ago. We will also be looking out for the attractive Collared Brown Lemur. Afterwards we will drive to Berenty for a two nights stay.
Ultimate Madagascar (Southeast): Day 4 The Berenty reserve, set aside by the de Heaulme family who own the surrounding sisal estate, protects a small but rich area of gallery forest on the banks of the wide Mandare River, an oasis amidst the semi-desert. Huge kily (tamarind) trees form a green canopy against the burning sun, leaving the trails below cool and shady. Here we shall see lemurs at really close quarters – unmolested for more than half a century, they have lost their fear of man. Gleaming white Verreaux’s Sifakas hurl themselves from one tree to another above our heads, peer curiously at us from the vegetation or waltz bipedally away across the trails. Ring-tailed Lemurs, like strange cats, stroll right up to us, their long, banded tails raised aloft like flags. Red-fronted Brown Lemurs are also common and tame (but are introduced here) and we should also see White-footed Sportive Lemur which, although nocturnal, can often be found at its daytime roosts. A night-time excursion is usually essential, however, to see the tiny Reddish-grey (or Grey-brown) and Grey Mouse Lemurs.
Seeing lemurs like this is unforgettable and it will be hard to drag ourselves away to look for birds. Nevertheless we ought to give them some attention too, for there are some notable specialities. Giant Couas have, like the lemurs, become completely unafraid of man at Berenty, and we should enjoy some superb looks at these stately birds walking around on the forest floor. Both White-browed Hawk-Owl and Torotoroka Scops Owl are common and very vocal at night. We should be able to find both species roosting during the day, giving us the chance to really admire the intricacies of their beautifully cryptic plumage. This is also the best place on the tour for the elusive Madagascan Cuckoo-Hawk, a species that has alarmingly big ‘bug’ eyes, well-suited to its near-crepuscular lifestyle, although even at Berenty it is not guaranteed.
We also have another opportunity to come across Madagascan Sparrowhawk, a seldom-seen species that is hard to separate from the much commoner Frances’s Sparrowhawk). Along the river we have another chance to find Madagascan Sandgrouse coming to drink. The sanctuary provided by Berenty also attracts large numbers of nesting Western Cattle Egrets and there is a substantial roost of Madagascar Flying Foxes in the reserve. At dusk these huge bats decamp in large parties in search of fruit.
Ultimate Madagascar (Southeast): Day 5 Today we will return to Fort Dauphin (or Tolanaro) and take a flight to Antananarivo, where our tour ends this evening after dinner and a chance to wash and change at an hotel near the airport. (Most international flight connections depart after midnight.). Depending on flight timings, we may have time for some final birding and lemur-watching at Berenty.