Report: Madagascar 21 day tour in 2006
A trip with Birding Africa organised
by Callan Cohen and
21-day tour (16-day tour and 5-day Masoala extension)
Areas visited: Tana, Andasibe, Mantadia, Ranomafana, Isalo,
Zombitse, Toliara, Ifaty, Nosy Ve, Mahajunga, Betsiboka Delta,
Ankarafantsika (Ampijoroa) and Masoala.
Wide range of habitats covered, from eastern rainforests,
dry western forests and the bizarre spiny forests of the south-west.
Almost complete clean sweep of all endemics and near-endemics,
including every single member of each endemic family, such
as all vangas, 5 Ground-Rollers, 4 asities, etc.
We recorded 126 endemic and near-endemic bird species.
Incredible experiences with lemurs of 26 species including
Indri and Red Ruffed Lemur.
Detailed Tour Report
Day 1 – 4 November
This tour started in the early
morning with a early flight arrival and after breakfast at a nearby
restaurant we proceeded to a wetland for some introductory Madagascar
birding. On arrival we saw some widespread species relatively quickly;
both Madagascar Lesser Cuckoo and Madagascar Kingfisher perched
in the open for us. The open water held African Pygmy Goose, Hottentot
Teal, while Madagascar Silverbills (Mannikins), Madagascar Swamp
Warbler, and a confiding Baillon’s Crake were seen along the
reedy edges of the waterbody. Afterwards we went to lunch, before
heading again in the afternoon to Lac Alarobia. This large park,
composed of a number of adjoining lakes and woodland, has been protected
for decades and lies on the edge of the city. It hosts numerous
waterbirds which are otherwise persecuted and is an excellent place
to get to grips with herons especially. In fact it was here we first
saw Madagascar Pond Heron, a declining species. Among the large
numbers of common Squacco Heron, Black Heron, Dimorphic Egret, Great
Egret, and Cattle Egret. Ducks included Comb Duck, Fulvous Duck
among the common White-faced Whistling Duck and Red-billed Teal.
A local rarity was present in the form of an African Openbill. One
of the highlights was a confiding White-throated Rail that showed
well at the edge of a reed bed in the late afternoon that capped
the day’s birding.
Day 2 – 5 November 2006
The second day started with a morning flight to Mahajunga on the
north west coast. We then embarked on a boat trip to the Betsiboka
Delta in search of two species of rare waterbird. Madagascar’s
wetland birds have suffered tremendously from habitat degradation
and destruction and the two species for which we were searching
have populations little in excess of a thousand birds each. We specially
chartered a large motorboat to head deep into the delta, timing
our visit to coincide with the dropping of the tide and the expected
feeding of these species on the edge of the mangrove swamps. We
were in luck and before long we saw a total of 35 Bernier’s
Teal and a single Madagascar White Ibis. Other waders included Terek
Sandpiper, Greenshank, Curlew Sandpiper, Whimbrel and Common Sandpiper.
Many Dimorphic Egret were present, mostly dark phase individuals,
and other goodies were Lesser Flamingo and Lesser Crested Tern.
We returned to Mahajunga for lunch before driving to Ampijoroa forest
station of Ankarafantsika National Park, where we birded in the
late afternoon. Here we saw our first vanga, the attractive Chabert’s
Vanga with its neon blue eye wattle, and other birds included Madagascar
Bee-eater, Crested Drongo on the nest, Mascarene Martin and Broad-billed
Day 3 – 6 November 2006
After some early pre-walk coffee we headed out into the forest to
catch the cool of the early part of the day. Our pre breakfast walk
was a dazzling introduction to Madagascar woodland birding and we
saw no less than 6 species of vanga in just two hours. The most
spectacular was arguably Sickle-billed Vanga, a unique bird with
its large downcurved bill, social habits and bizarre haunting calls.
We also saw the brightly coloured Blue Vanga, White-headed, Rufous
at the nest and the shrike-like Hook-billed Vanga. We were also
introduced to another of Madagascar’s endemic families, the
Mesites, with a small group of White-breasted Mesites scuttling
through the undergrowth almost at our feet. However, the star bird
of the walk must have been another representative of one of Madagascar’s
endemic bird families, the Schlegel’s Asity, a bright yellow
bird with a neon eye wattle with both bright blue and green elements.
Also present were Cockerels and Crested Couas, another sub-family
endemic to Madagascar, Madagascar Hoopoe was also seen, a species
that looks superficially like regular hoopoes, but has a strange
We returned for a well-earned breakfast and not to be outdone yet
another representative of Madagascar’s endemic bird families
displayed above us; the Madagascar Cuckoo Roller. These characteristic
and evocative whistles from the birds wheeling display flight were
to become a familiar call in the forest (although getting a view
of the displaying birds was not always that easy). Breakfast was
a fantastic spread of fresh fruit, pancakes, juice and coffee, one
of the finest we were to experience in Madagascar. Also at breakfast,
Collared Iguanas, one of the ancient reptile links with South America,
scuttled up the trunks of adjacent trees.
Our post-breakfast walk, although getting rather warm, was productive.
Van Dam’s Vanga was our main target and we also saw Madagascar
Crested Ibis on the nest and Red-capped Couas stalking on the path.
Owing to the heat we returned for a relaxed lunch and rest before
heading out for a late afternoon boat trip on the nearby lake Ravelobe.
Our main target here was one of the rarest raptors in the world,
Madagascar Fish Eagle and we were lucky to have excellent views
of three. We also saw Madagascar Jacana and Humblot’s Heron
very well, as well as Madagascar Kingfisher (very close), Allen’s
Gallinule (with its bright blue frontal shield) and African Darter.
A number of large Nile Crocodile was also present.
At sunset we went on a night-walk, which turned out, to be a major
highlight, not only did we saw all 8 species of lemur possible,
but we also saw a giant Oustalet’s Chameleon, one of the world’s
largest chameleons. Just before dark we were entertained by Coquerel’s
Sifakas, a large species of lemur with a mixed white and rufous
fur. These large lemurs with their curious human-like faces, and
family antics, were a firm favourite. Common Brown Lemur and Mongoose
Lemur are two closely related lemurs that were also seen at dusk
but it was when we headed into the forests once it was completely
dark that we began to see some of the smaller lemurs. These included
Fat-tailed Dwarf Lemur, which had recently come out of hibernation
(as the name suggests they store their energy reserves in their
tail), Grey Mouse Lemur and the recently described Golden Brown
Mouse Lemur. Milne-Edward’s Sportive Lemurs attracted attention
with their loud screeches while the tranquil Western Woolly Lemurs
merely sat sedately and munched leaves.
Day 4 – 7 November 2006
Our early morning walk was very successful with the highlight being
a closely perched Banded Kestrel (it was even worth running back
to fetch Trevor for this one!). We also saw France’s Sparrowhawk
and a Common Tenrec. On our drive back towards Mahajunga we headed
past a large lake where we added Little Grebe to our list, and watched
Black Egrets hunting using their characteristic shading posture
(during which the birds hold their wings forward to create a patch
of shade in front of them thereby attracting small fish).
We then popped in at an hotel for a swim and lunch while we waited
for the late afternoon flight to Tana.
Day 5 – 8 November 2006
After breakfast we flew down to Tulear on the south west coast,
and we then drove up the coast to the small town of Ifaty, entering
our first spiny forest vegetation en route. This is a very picturesque
coastline with aquamarine waters and dotted with small Vezo fishing
villages. We made a brief stop for some waterbirds, included Black-winged
Stilt, and added Sub-desert Brush Warbler.
Close to our hotel we searched for the rare and localised Madagascar
Plover. Some of us walked a huge loop in the heat before finally
having success: only to find out when we returned to the car that
there had been a pair at the bus all along! There were also Kittlitz’s,
Three-banded and Common Ringed Plovers nearby.
After lunch we had a short rest before heading on a late afternoon
trip into the spiny forest. Our main targets here were two highly
localised species, both members of Madagascar endemic families.
With our team of helpers, essential in this dense spiny vegetation
where the birds are at low density, we had phenomenal success with
very close views of both Long-tailed Ground Roller and Sub-desert
At dusk we went on a short night-walk encountering Grey-brown Mouse
Lemur, a species that is seldom seen.
Day 6 – 9 November 2006
We spent the early morning in the spiny forest searching for the
remaining endemics. It was very successful and we saw both Running
and Green-capped Couas, Archbold’s Newtonia, and the Thamnornis
Warbler. Vangas were very much in evidence and we saw the localised
Lafresnaye’s, White-headed, Sickle-billed, Chabert’s
and Red-tailed. We also encountered Striped-throated Jery, Madagascar
Turtle Dove, Namaqua Dove, Madagascar Hoopoe, Ashy Cuckooshrike,
Madagascar Paradise Flycatcher and Sakalava Weaver. Another highlight
was a pair of Madagascar Harrier Hawk, with their faces flush pink
After lunch and a rest we returned in the afternoon where we watched
Madagascar Sparrowhawks at the nest, the most exciting was when
the male and female made a food pass allowing excellent views of
both birds. Three-eyed Lizards were common.
Day 7 – 10 November 2006
Another early start took us to some scrub habitat near Tulear where
we were to look for two highly localised endemics. However, it wasn’t
long before we used calls to locate both Verreaux’s Coua and
an exceptionally close pair of Red-shouldered Vanga; this species
was only described as recently as 1996. We also saw another Green-capped
Coua. We tried our spot for Madagascar Sandgrouse, but it was now
a bit too late in the day and we headed back for a late brunch which
was excellent with mini croissants and well earned coffee.
That afternoon we headed to the nearby Arboretum where we were introduced
to the fascinating botany of the area and had fantastic views of
the Madagascar Buttonquail.
Day 8 – 11 November 2006
With all the other birds in the bag we made an early morning start
for the sandgrouse and had fantastic success as the birds flew in
just over our heads. We then headed to the harbour as we were heading
south by boat to the island of Nosy Ve, however, the journey to
reach the boat from the harbour was quite the adventure in itself:
it involved climbing onto ox-carts and being dragged through the
muddy harbour all the way to the waiting boats.
Our first stop was the village Anakao where we found the locally
endemic Littoral Rockthrush, before having breakfast overlooking
the beach. We then made the short boat trip across to the island
of Nosy Ve where we were treated to the spectacle of the Red-billed
Tropicbird breeding colony. It was amazing to have these spectacular
birds hovering so close above us. Some of us then did some snorkelling
but it wasn’t long before Ben spotted a Sooty Gull and we
all rushed along to check the large roost of Lesser-Crested and
Swift Terns before having excellent views of this large brown gull,
the second record for Madagascar. Also interesting on the island
of Nosy Ve were Madagascar Cisticolas foraging along the seashore
and a selection of waders including White-fronted Plover, and Humblot’s
We then returned to Tulear, where we saw Saunder’s Tern, Greater
Sand Plover and Bar-tailed Godwit on nearby mudflats. Some inland
slat pans hosted an exciting Mongolian Sandplover and we saw yet
another Humblot’s Heron here as well as White-throated Rail
and Greater Painted Snipe.
Day 9 – 12 November 2006
This morning we head for Zombitse Forest, a unique patch of western
deciduous forest, which encompasses almost the entire world-range
of Appert’s Tetraka. As we arrived a male France’s Sparrowhawk
was spotted in a tree and we had excellent scope trees. Entering
the forest it wasn’t long before we located a pair of Appert’s
Tetraka at their nest. This rare bird is one of the most striking
of the Tetrakas, with its peachy underparts. We also saw many Long-billed
Greenbuls, the bill of the male looking impossibly long and excellent
views of Coquerel’s Coua, Madagascar Cuckoo Rollers displaying
and another Madagascar Crested Ibis on the nest. We also saw Hubbard’s
Sportive Lemur at its roosting hole and a large Oustalet’s
Chameleon. One of the main highlights eluded us until the very end
of the walk, a fantastic Giant Coua that climbed up into a tree
above our heads.
After this fantastic morning walk we then went to Relais de la Reine,
a luxurious hotel set among the dramatic runeiform standstone outcrops
on the edge of Isalo National Park. After lunch, we had a short
rest interrupted by the presence of Benson’s Rock Thrush among
our chalets. Our late afternoon walk yielded a Purple Heron on a
small lake and our major highlight target bird: a group of five
After a gourmet meal in the restaurant we departed for a short night
walk and were delighted with a White-browed Owl in our spotlight.
Day 10 – 13 November 2006
Today we drove north, encountering a striking adult Madagascar Harrier
in the grasslands on our route. This pied bird with black, white
and silver in its plumage was a major highlight as it can be very
elusive. We continued on to Anja Reserve, a community-run initiative
that protects a small patch of habitat where Ring-tailed Lemurs
occur. A major highlight of the trip was spending an hour watching
a family group of them an arm’s reach away and watching their
behaviour of the female dominated group as many of the mothers had
babies. We had a picnic lunch here before driving on to Ranomafana
National Park where we arrived in the evening.
Day 11 – 14 November 2006
Today started with a bang! A Meller’s Duck flew past us at
close range just as we departed from the bus to begin our birding,
taking us all by surprise. This increasingly rare duck is heading
fast towards extinction with many of the stake-out sites no longer
proving reliable. In high spirits we entered the forest. The first
bird party we encountered contained the scarce Pollen’s Vanga,
another highlight. We then went on to see Red-fronted Coua and very
close views, with some effort, of a Brown Mesite.
We then continued to a spot for Yellow-bellied Sunbird Asity, where
we had spectacular success with this difficult and endangered species,
not only seeing the bird but also finding a nest. This was our third
asity of the day having seen both Velvet and Common Sunbird Asity
en route, and with the Schlegel’s that we’d seen earlier,
we now had a clean sweep of all the Asitys! Not to be outdone a
Rufous-headed Ground-Roller called nearby and after some effort
we all managed to see this bird, as well as a Madagascar Flufftail
that also showed rather well. Back on the path a female Madagascar
Sparrowhawk flew past us and perched on a tree, and other highlights
included Dark Newtonia, Tylas Vanga, our first Blue Couas and Madagascar
Blue Pigeons, Nelicourvi Weaver and on the road at the end, Forest
Rock Thrush. What a fantastic introduction to the eastern rainforest
That evening on our night walk we were treated to point blank views
of Brown-mouse Lemur and the now famous Malagasy Striped Civie at
the nocturne point.
Day 12 – 15 November 2006
This morning we opted for a walk at medium altitude parts of Ranomafana
National Park, and had a walk packed with many highlights including
Pitta-like Ground Roller, Madagascar Wood Rail, Madagascar Pygmy
Kingfisher, another Velvet Asity, Wedge-tail Jery on the nest, Rand’s
Warbler, White-throated Oxylabes, Ward’s Flycatcher and at
the very end an eye to eye view with a Henst’s Goshawk.
That afternoon we went to a nearby marsh where we flushed our target
bird, Madagascar Snipe, a species that is becoming ever rarer as
rice paddy cultivation uses up every last bit of remaining habitat.
An unusual warbler, Grey Emutail, was seen in the surrounding scrub.
Heading back into the forest we had absolutely phenomenal views
of a pair of Pitta-like Ground Roller that refused to get off the
ground in front of us!
Day 13 – 16 November 2006
Today provided us with a choice of options, the more focused birders
headed back into the forest to search for Madagascar Yellowbrow,
a species that we had only heard. Despite much trying and having
them calling at close range in front of us, we were unable to see
the species as the rain started to fall. We did however, see Grey-crowned
Tetraka feeding young, Cryptic Warbler (only described in the late
90s) and Crosley’s Babbler.
The other option was to go on a lemur walk, led by Deirdre. That
was highly successful with views of Eastern Woolly Lemur, a nest
of Brown Mouse Lemurs, Red-fronted Brown Lemur, Small-toothed Sportive
Lemur and the highlight of the walk, close views of both Golden
and Greater Bamboo Lemur! The former was only discovered as recently
as 1986 and the latter holds a dubious distinction of being one
of the world’s rarest primates. Other mammals seen were confiding
Eastern Red Forest Rats and the striking Ring-tailed Mongoose, a
perfect combination of orange banded with black.
In the late morning we then drove northwards to end in the town
of Antsirabe where we stayed in the grand colonial hotel, which
even had baths!
Day 14 – 17 November 2006
Today was mainly a driving day and after breakfast we headed north
to Tana and then eastwards to Perinet, another very important site
for eastern rainforest specials. En route we stopped at a marsh
where we had fantastic views of the normally skulking Madagascar
Day 15 – 18 November 2006
Today we headed to Mantadia National Park, only relatively recently
opened to the public and one of the best places to get into primary
rainforest in Madagascar. We initially tried for Short-legged Ground
Roller, but it proved elusive and we were consoled with phenomenal
views of Scaly Ground Roller calling on a branch. Along the road
we added Madagascar Spinetail, Nuthatch Vanga, Forest Fody, Greater
Vasa Parrot, Madagascar Starling, Madagascar Blue Pigeon, Tylas
Vanga, and a Rand’s Warbler and Striped-throated Jery calling
to each other in the top of a big tree. We also encountered the
superbly camouflaged Collared Nightjar roosting on the forest floor.
We also heard the haunting call of Indri, Madagascar’s largest
lemur, booming whale like through the mist, but the animals eluded
sight. We did, however, see Diademed Sifaka, a major primate highlight.
After lunch we headed to the nearby Andasibe Reserve where our guide
showed us a roosting Rainforest Scops-Owl and as dusk fell, a Long-eared
Owl flew overhead, being chased by a Crested Drongo. On our night
walk back to our accommodation we saw a diversity of chameleons,
including Nose-horn Chameleon, and encountered Eastern Woolly Lemur
and Goodman’s Mouse Lemur.
Day 16 – 19 November 2006
Today was one of those fantastic catch up days. We headed back to
Mantadia and after some scrambling were rewarded with excellent
views of Short-legged Ground Roller that had eluded us the day before.
We now had a clean sweep of all 5 ground rollers! We also managed
to see Indri, another major highlight. Excellent views were obtained
of Madagascar Pygmy Kingfisher breeding in a roadside bank.
Later that afternoon our guide spotted a Leaf-tailed Gecko roosting
in a roadside bush, and we headed to the orchid garden where a number
of species were in bloom. We didn’t however, improve our views
of Long-eared Owl which is what we were hoping.
Day 17 – 20 November 2006
We spent the morning in Andisibe Reserve, being rewarding initially
with fantastic close views of Red-breasted Coua. We also spent some
time watching Indris, and had excellent refresher views of Madagascar
Pygmy Kingfisher and Spectacled Greenbul among others. On our drive
back to Tana that afternoon, we saw Madagascar Pratincoles foraging
over a large river.
Day 18 – 21 November 2006
Almost as if on cue, a Sooty Falcon, that had been discussed earlier
at breakfast, was waiting for us at the airport, sitting on a terminal
building as we arrived. Our goal today was to reach the remote Masaola
peninsula, the largest unspoilt area of primary rainforest found
in the north-east of the country.
It took three flights to get to Maroansetra, a consolation being
a House Sparrow in Tamatave in transit, a curiously localised species
in Madagascar. On arrival in Maroansetra we had a rather fun ride
in a taxi from the airport before we took an hour long boat trip
to get to our lodge. The boat trip to our lodge across the bay was
spectacular, huge mountains cloaked in rainforest descended sharply
into pristine beaches with aquamarine waters. Madagascan Pratincoles
were breed on small rocky islands along the way. Our lodge, consisting
of luxury African safari tents, was in an amazingly beautiful setting
on the beach surrounded by patches of forest and coastal lagoons.
We had a welcome lunch at the lodge followed by a short relaxing
swim before heading into the office in the late afternoon. The walk
was rather quiet with only a few relatively widespread rainforest
Day 19 – 22 November 2006
The major prize of the Masaola forests is undoubtably two species
of highly localised vanga. Bernier’s is all black, but Helmet,
one of the largest vangas has a rufous back and huge neon blue bill
and must rate as one of the top birds in the world to see. After
initially walking along the beach to access the best forest patch
we began our search along the forest trails, checking bird parties
along the way. Many eastern rainforest species that we had seen
before were present, but our targets proved highly elusive. David
got onto a male Bernier’s Vanga, but the rest of us only saw
it as it flew off and were unable to locate it for the rest of the
group. Deirdre, who had gone on a scouting walk looking for lemurs,
encountered a Helmet Vanga, and we all returned to the spot later
but the bird had disappeared. We will have to try again tomorrow.
The lemurs of the Masaola were excellent, and few can compare to
Red Ruffed Lemur, a large dog-faced lemur with fantastic rufous
fur. One particular individual was particularly confiding and we
all got excellent views. We also had great views of a party of White-fronted
Day 20 – 23 November 2006
The next morning we headed back into the forest with our target
firmly in mind. For the first few hours the bird proved frustratingly
elusive, we checked an old nest site with no results and we then
headed back to the spot where Deirdre had seen the bird. A large
shape moved in the mid-story and it wasn’t long before we
had all got on to a male adult Helmet Vanga, much to everyone’s
relief! We then encountered another, just a short distance further,
and obtained excellent photos. Our only regret was that David had
not been able to join us on this walk. His main consolation being
that he gripped us all off with the Bernier’s!
Other highlight birds on the walk included Madagascar Wood Rail
and Red-breasted Coua, but perhaps one of the most exciting findings
was a small Brookesia Chameleon, superbly camouflaged in the leaf
litter. We returned for lunch and a relaxed afternoon.
Day 21 – 24 November 2006
After breakfast we took the boat back across the bay towards civilisation.
We then took our three flights in reverse arriving in Tana in the
afternoon, just in time for some brief souvenir shopping.
Day 22 – 25 November 2006
The morning saw us heading off to Tana’s famous zoo which
consists not only of the zoological gardens but also an excellent
museum. One of the highlights was the recently constructed reversed
day-night centre, where normally nocturnal Aye-Ayes can be seen
during the day in especially darkened and sound-protected enclosure.
It was amazing to watch these animals through the one-way glass
going about their daily routines undisturbed by the visitors. Another
highlight in the museum was seeing the skeleton of the extinct Elephant
Bird and rather unnerving to think that this, the largest bird that
ever lived, might have survived as recently as 300 years ago in
Madagascar. The skeleton dwarfed the adjacent skeleton of an ostrich
next to it. The skeletons of some of the extinct lemurs were also
on display, including one the size of a gorilla.This rather sobering
experience brought the trip to an end and we caught our flights
in the late afternoon.