BEST OF MADAGASCAR: DETAILED ITINERARY
Best of Madagascar: Day 1 The tour begins in the evening at Antananarivo, where we will stay overnight.
Best of 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 eastwards to Andasibe (formerly known as Perinet) for a four nights stay. As we travel through 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 scattered flocks of Western Cattle and Great Egrets, whilst Yellow-billed Kite, Madagascan Buzzard, Madagascan Kestrel, Malagasy (or Madagascan) Black Swift, Madagascan (Bush) Lark, Mascarene Martin, Madagascan Stonechat, Madagascan Cisticola, Malagasy (or Madagascan) White-eye, Red (or Madagascar Red) Fody and the introduced Common Myna are all typical roadside birds. We should also encounter Hamerkop (and, on October-November tours, Madagascan Pratincole) at the Mangoro River. During the afternoon we will commence our exploration of the Andasibe area.
Best of Madagascar: Days 3-5 The Andasibe-Mantadia National Park protects some of the richest rainforest in Madagascar. The national park holds the lion’s share of the eastern rainforest specialities, including several species that are difficult or impossible to find at the other accessible sites.
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, and we will scan similar locations for Cuckoo Roller, Madagascan Starling and the striking Madagascan Blue Pigeon. During October-November, Cuckoo Rollers call wildly as they give their dramatic aerial displays and the monotonous call of the Madagascan (or Madagascar Lesser) Cuckoo forms an almost constant backdrop to our birding. Once on the trails, however, forest birdwatching requires time and patience, but the rewards are rich.
Perhaps the most mysterious of all Madagascar’s birds are the ground rollers. Four species occur in the area, including the superb Scaly Ground Roller, a terrestrial species that is arguably the best-looking of all. Equally terrestrial and almost as attractive is the iridescent Pitta-like Ground Roller, which is not uncommon here, and we also have a good chance of finding Short-legged Ground Roller sitting motionless for long periods in the forest canopy. If we are lucky we will even encounter a 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.
Another species of the forest floor, but often rather harder to see, is Red-breasted Coua, here at the extreme southern edge of its range. With luck we will lure one into view, its blue orbital skin shinning electrically in the gloomy undergrowth, whilst its breast glows like burning coals. Along the road edge we will search for Madagascan Flufftail, which can often be enticed to within a few feet, whilst overhead the wandering flocks of vangas often hold a few Nuthatch Vangas, a 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 the barking of a Madagascan (Long-eared) Owl, 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 find a roosting bird and admire at close range its fantastic camouflage.
Other notable species we should see at Perinet or 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.
Additional species that we may well find include Madagascan Wood Rail, Madagascan Turtle Dove, Lesser Vasa Parrot, the stunning, turaco-like Blue Coua, Malagasy (or Madagascan) Coucal, African Palm Swift, Madagascan Spinetail, Malagasy (or Madagascar Malachite) Kingfisher, the curious Velvet Asity and Common Sunbird-Asity (members of a family now thought to be related to the broadbills), Madagascan Wagtail, Ashy Cuckoo-shrike, Spectacled Tetraka (formerly Spectacled Greenbul), the aptly-named Long-billed Bernieria (formerly Long-billed Greenbul), Madagascan Bulbul, Madagascan Magpie-Robin, Malagasy (or Madagascan) Brush Warbler, Dark and Common Newtonias, Wedge-tailed Jery (which, unlike its cousins, is a species of the forest undergrowth), Malagasy (or Madagascan) Paradise Flycatcher, White-throated Oxylabes, Red-tailed, Chabert and Tylas Vangas, the unbelievably blue-hued Blue Vanga, Ward’s Vanga (formerly Ward’s Flycatcher), Crossley’s Vanga (formerly Crossley’s Babbler), Malagasy Green (or Long-billed Green) and Souimanga Sunbirds, Nelicourvi Weaver, Forest Fody and Crested Drongo.
With luck we will also come across one or two of the rarer inhabitants of the area such as a Forest Rock Thrush (with its beautiful yodelling song), a Grey-crowned Tetraka (formerly Grey-crowned Greenbul) or a secretive Brown Emutail. In nearby areas of marshland we will search for Madagascan Rail. With luck we will also find the increasingly uncommon Meller’s Duck, now perhaps one of Madagascar’s most endangered species.
However, it is not just the birds that we will concentrate on. 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 Grey Gentle and Common Brown Lemurs and perhaps a roosting Eastern Woolly Lemur. At night, we may well see the tiny Brown Mouse Lemur and the slightly larger Greater Dwarf Lemur (and possibly Furry-eared Gentle Lemur). We may also come across Diademed Sifaka, one of the most handsome of all the lemurs, and perhaps even the superb Black-and-white Ruffed Lemur. Another mammal we may well see is Eastern Red Forest Rat.
While we are based at Andasibe we will make an excursion 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 reasonable chance of seeing this striking bird, which often associates with mixed flocks of vangas.
Best of Madagascar: Day 6 After spending much of the day in the Andasibe area we will return to Antananarivo for an overnight stay.
Best of Madagascar: Day 7 Today we will head northwestwards to Ampijoroa, situated in the Ankarafantsika National Park, for a two nights stay. The drive offers a chance for both Malagasy (or Madagascar) Harrier and Madagascan Partridge, two declining species that are becoming harder to find. The drive is a long one, but we will arrive in time for some initial exploration.
Best of Madagascar: Day 8 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, Madagascan Hoopoe (with its peculiar purring call) and Rufous Vanga (with its repertoire of strange vocalizations), as well as Broad-billed Roller in October-November.
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. There are also smaller numbers of Malagasy (or Madagascar) Pond Herons in October-November. Here we will be searching for the statuesque endemic Humblot’s Heron, Madagascan Jacana (a species that is surprisingly localized), Madagascan (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, African Darter, Squacco, Grey and Purple Herons, Black-crowned Night Heron, Glossy Ibis, White-faced Whistling Duck, Knob-billed Duck, Red-billed Teal, Common Moorhen, Three-banded Plover (the local form is a potential split), Whiskered Tern and occasionally Greater Painted-snipe.
Best of Madagascar: Day 9 After some final birding in the Ampijoroa area we will return to Antananarivo for an overnight stay.
Best of Madagascar: Day 10 This morning we will take a flight to Tulear (or Toliara) for an overnight stay. While waiting for our flight at Antananarivo we can admire the Mascarene Martins that breed on the terminal buildings. During our stay at Tulear we will 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 hope 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, White-fronted and Greater Sand Plovers, Common Greenshank, Curlew, Terek and Common Sandpipers, and Ruddy Turnstone. We may also come across the strange burrow-nesting Crab-Plover, a species which wanders widely along this coast (and is more often seen in October-November). 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 Dimorphic Egret, 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.
Best of Madagascar: Day 11 This morning we will visit an area of dense arid scrub. 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’ 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.
Subsequently we will drive a short distance along the coast to Ifaty for a two nights stay. In the afternoon we will go out to look for the birds of the nearby ‘spiny forest’.
Best of Madagascar: Day 12 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, the most striking vanga of all, 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 will also keep a special look-out for the sedate but uncommon Banded Kestrel, which can be remarkably tame, and amongst the other raptors we may find here is Madagascan Harrier-Hawk.
Best of Madagascar: Day 13 After some final birding in the Ifaty/Tulear (Toliara) area we will take a flight back 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.)