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Trip Report: Madagascar & Masoala Extension - October 2013

Short-legged Ground Roller © Richard Chandler
Short-legged Ground Roller

Trip Summary

Our comprehensive 2013 Madagascar tour once again showcased Madagascar's best birds and wildlife.
We found almost all available bird endemics, more than 20 lemur species and lots of other great critters.

Top 10 birds as voted by participants were:

1. Yellow-bellied Sunbird Asity, for its sheer dazzle at close range
2. Helmet Vanga, the beak with a bird
3. Rufous-headed Ground Roller, for great head-bobbing calling and a snazzy neck tie
4. Madagascar Pratincole, for neatness and elegance
5. Madagascar Yellowbrow, for bringing us to our knees
6. Short-legged Ground Roller, the Afrotropical puffbird
7. Nuthatch Vanga, for revealing its nesting secrets
8. Pitta-like Ground Roller, for sheer prettiness, and
9. Madagascar Flufftail and
10. Madagascar Jacana, for the great views.

Helmet Vanga photographed on a Birding Africa tour of Madagascar © Richard Chandler
Helmet Vanga

We commenced our birding with a pre-tour extension at Anjozorobe with Madagascar Rail, Red-fronted Coua, Grey Emutail, Rufous-headed Ground Roller, Madagascar Flufftail, Madagascar Snipe and brief views of Brown Emutail the highlights.

On the main tour we kicked off at Lake Alarobia where Malagasy Pond Heron showed briefly. Next on the schedule was Andasibe-Mantadia National Park, with Madagascar Pratincole en route. We had good views of Short-legged Ground-Roller, Scaly Ground- Roller and Red-breasted Coua. Meller's Duck, Madagascar Grebe, Madagascar Wood Rail, Madagascar Pygmy Kingfisher, Nuthatch Vanga, Madagascar Cuckoo-Hawk, Madagascar [Long-eared] Owl, Madagascar Sparrowhawk, Collared Nightjar and Blue Coua came more easily.

En route to Ranomafana National Park we notched up Madagascar Partridge and Madagascar Snipe. At Ranomafana the lower-altitude forest treated us to Brown Mesite, Pollen's Vanga, Common Sunbird-Asity and Henst's Goshawk, whereas the Vohiparara section produced Rufous-headed Ground-Roller, Madagascar Yellowbrow, point-blank views of a dazzling male Yellow-bellied Sunbird-Asity and a glowing male Velvet Asity.

We continued to the more arid south-west of the country and saw White-browed Hawk- Owl, Appert's Tetraka, Banded Kestrel, Giant Coua and fantastic Cuckoo Roller. At Ifaty we quickly found Madagascar Plover, Long-tailed Ground-Roller, Thamnornis, Archbold's Newtonia, Running Coua, Madagascar Buttonquail and Subdesert Mesite.

Then to the Tulear area where we easily found Red-shouldered Vanga, Verreaux's Coua and Lafresnaye's Vanga and other highlights included Littoral Rock Thrush, Red-capped [Green-capped] Coua, Verreaux's Coua and Red-tailed Tropicbird.

Madagascar Jacana © Richard Chandler
Madagascar Jacana

In the north-west, at the Betsiboka Delta we quickly found several Bernier's Teal and Malagasy Sacred Ibis, and our first Humblot's Heron. And at Ampijoroa forest station in Ankarafantsika National Park we soaked up good views of the three tricky endemics, Whitebreasted Mesite, Schlegel's Asity and Van Dam's Vanga (after some persistence)! Other memorable sightings included Madagascar Fish Eagle, Madagascar Jacana, Malagasy Pond Heron, Humblot's Heron, Rufous Vanga, Sickle-billed Vanga and Allen's Gallinule.

For those who stayed on after the main trip, the Masoala peninsula produced the goods once again. We soaked up fantastic views of Helmet Vanga and Bernier's Vanga. And enjoyed more White-throated Oxylabes, Red-breasted Coua and Madagascar Pratincole.

Detailed Trip report

Anjozorobe Pre-Tour Extension

Most of the group arrived a few days early and we had arranged some pre-tour birding at Anjozorobe. This short stay made for an excellent introduction to Madagascar. We immediately concentrated our efforts on the now-famous marsh where Slender-billed Flufftail is occasionally seen. The marsh was alive with activity when we arrived, with Madagascar Swamp Warbler, Madagascar Snipe, Grey Emutail and Madagascar Rail all seen with ease. However, the said flufftail was not even heard this year. Still, there was plenty else to make the journey worthwhile, especially in the forest. Rufous-headed Ground Roller entertained us with its head-bobbing calls. Madagascar Flufftail showed brilliantly.

Madagascar Flufftail © Richard Chandler
Madagascar Flufftail

We enjoyed good views of Madagascar Nightjar and spotted our first Madagascar Blue Pigeon. A Frances's Sparrowhawk circled overhead, a relaxed Redfronted Coua approached us and Brown Emutail posed briefly. And while returning to Tana, we had reasonable views of Madagascar Partridge.

Endemic Birds and Lemurs Main Tour

We started the main tour in our hotel garden admiring a lovely Sooty Falcon among more common species such as Malagasy Brush Warbler, Madagascar Bulbul, Madagascar Wagtail, Red Fody and Souimanga Sunbird. This was followed by a brief stop at Lake Alorobia where the heronry was in full swing. We tracked down Malagasy Pond Heron and watched good numbers of duck, including our only Knob-billed Duck of the trip. With lots of tricky rainforest species awaiting us we pressed on towards Andasibe. En-route, we much admired a Madagascar Pratincole with its fluffy chick.

Madagascar Pratincole © Richard Chandler
Madagascar Pratincole

We were now at Andasibe, gateway to the Andasibe-Mantadia National Park, arguably the most accessible patch of eastern rainforest. We first focused on the more remote Mantadia section of the park and did well enough on the key species to allow ample time at Andasibe. We started with some introductory birding in open areas and along the road with Madagascar Cuckooshrike, Madagascar Stonechat, Malagasy White-eye and Nelicourvi Weaver. The highlight of our first afternoon, was watching a lovely Rainforest Scops Owl on its day roost, only an arm's length from us.

Early the next morning, when small warblers like to sing from exposed bare snags, we had good looks at Rand's Warbler and Stripe-throated Jery. We enjoyed single sightings of Madagascar Green Pigeon and Madagascar Starling, and this year Madagascar Blue Pigeon seemed to be more common and conspicuous than before.

In the understorey we twice watched Crossley's [Babbler] Vanga and Collared Nightjar on their nests and a handsome pair of Red-breasted Coua. And elsewhere in the forest, we found Madagascar [Crested] Ibis on the nest, Madagascar Sparrowhawk at the nest and feeding young and a flying Madagascar Cuckoo-Hawk. We had brilliant views of mating Madagascar Pygmy Kingfisher. We saw Red-tailed Vanga, Tylas Vanga, Hook-billed Vanga, a male Velvet Asity, the unusual Ward's Flycatcher [Vanga] and excellent views of two Nuthatch Vanga.

Nuthatch Vanga on the nest © Richard Chandler
Nuthatch Vanga on the nest

More open areas added to our growing list. At a forest pond, we watched a pair of Meller's Duck, several Madagascar Grebe and the buff-vented subspecies of Common Moorhen. At a marsh, we watched Madagascar Rail and at a pine plantation, to everyone's delight, a roosting Madagascar [Long-eared] Owl.

The area's real specials are the forest ground rollers. We admired a Short-legged Ground Roller that seemed to have flushed off its nest. It sat still for ages, giving us time to observe it from every angle. Scaly Ground Roller took longer but eventually we tracked down a confiding individual for prolonged views.

Scaly Ground Roller © Richard Chandler
Scaly Ground Roller

Mammal highlights included Lowland Streaked Tenrec and a suite of lemurs including the tiny Goodman's Mouse Lemur, Common Brown Lemur, Crossley's Dwarf Lemur, the beautiful Diademed Sifaka and close up views of fantastic Indri, with its whale-like songs.

It was now time to pack our bags and start the journey south to Ranomafana National Park. En-route, we spotted Hamerkop and Dimorphic Egret in the rice paddies. We watched Madagascar Hoopoe, Madagascar Snipe and Baillon's Crake at our lunch stop. And Madagascar Cuckoo, Common Quail and Madagascar Partridge near our accommodation.

Having made good inroads into the forest birds at Andasibe-Mantadia, we could focus at Ranomafana. Given the number of tricky skulkers, this was a good thing. Highlights of the lower section of the park were Pitta-like Ground Roller, Wedge-tailed Jery, fantastic looks at a pair of Brown Mesite and brilliant views of Henst's Goshawk near its nest. We saw a pair of Madagascar Harrier-Hawk perch and flying near their nest.

Pitta-like Ground Roller © Richard Chandler
Pitta-like Ground Roller

Most of our time was focused on the higher altitude sections of the park around Vohiparara. En-route, we watched Malagasy Black Swift and Forest Rock Thrush, and a Ward's [Flycatcher] Vanga at the nest. Grey-crowned Tetraka welcomed us at Vohiparara, giving better-than-normal views almost as the first bird seen. Madagascar Yellowbrow got us down on hands and knees, but showed well in the end and was very much appreciated. A male Velvet Asity impressed everyone with its jet black feathers and dazzling green wattles. We tracked down superb views of another Pitta-like Ground Roller. White-throated Oxylabes and a male Forest Fody showed for some. Dark Newtonia showed for all. Cryptic Warbler was seen twice. We watched a Madagascar Flufftail bathing at a forest pool (well spotted!). We very quickly found Rufous-headed Ground Roller.

The undoubted highlight was Yellow-bellied Sunbird-Asity. We first watched the female at the nest. And then, after much patience, came our huge reward. An incomparable male came in, perched just above our heads and dazzled us with its luminous plumage. WOW!

Non-bird highlights at Ranomafana included a large Tree Boa, Golden Bamboo Lemur, Milne-Edward's Sifaka with its strikingly red eyes, Red-fronted Brown Lemur, Red-bellied Lemur, the nocturnal Rufous/Brown Mouse Lemur and Small-toothed Sportive Lemur, the very vocal and acrobatic Black-and-white Ruffed Lemurs.

Black-and-white Ruffed Lemur © Richard Chandler
Black-and-white Ruffed Lemur

We now had all realistically possible forest birds under the belt. It was time to head for the more arid habitats of the south-west. Our first port of call was the sacred site of Anjaha, where we walked among a community of Ring-tailed Lemurs and enjoyed incredible closeup views.

Driving towards Isalo, on one of our roadside stops, we approached a pair of Marsh Owl - they let us come surprisingly close. After dark on a short foray around our comfortable accommodation, we enjoyed great looks at White-browed Hawk-Owl before dinner and Torotoroka Scops Owl after dinner (a good day for owls)!

With Madagascar Partridge already under our belts we had the luxury of leaving Isalo earlier than normal, and as soon as we'd studied a male Forest [Benson's] Rock Thrush on the roof of our accommodation. This meant we got to Zombitse National Park while it was still relatively cool and enjoyed a productive walk through this "different" habitat with elements of spiny and dry deciduous forest.

A very obliging Banded Kestrel flew in a perched nearby, giving us ample time to study it in the scope before we set off on our circuit. Very soon we were rewarded with a confiding Appert's Tetraka that fed on the ground just a couple of metres from us. Next was the localised Giant Coua. It required a little more patience, until we tracked down a pair sitting in a tree. Other noteworthy birds included a couple of Rufous Vanga, Coquerel's Coua, our best views of Cuckoo Roller, White-browed Hawk-Owl on its day roost and an impressive display by a female Greater Vasa Parrot. We watched the localised Hubbard's Sportive Lemur peek out of its day roost and the dainty Verreaux's Sifaka.

Banded Kestrel © Richard Chandler
Banded Kestrel

After lunch we continued on towards the coast, with a short stop near La Table and spotted the characterful Lafresnaye's Vanga. The last section of road took more time and sweat than normal to navigate and we gladly arrived at our beach-side accommodation near the Spiny Forest.

We awoke early the next morning for an amble through Madagascar's most unusual habitat, with its Octopus Trees and own special set of birds: the famed Spiny Forest. On entering the reserve a friendly Running Coua instantly rewarded us. We quickly tracked down a couple of singing Thamnornis Warblers. Red-capped [Green-capped] Coua sat on the nest, just showing its tail, but the subtly-coloured (at least by familial standards) Long-tailed Ground Roller offered us superb views. The long tail made it hard for the big lenses to fit the whole bird in the camera frame.

Subdesert Mesite collaborated well too and quickly led us to a treed female. She froze for us to admire as long as we liked. The final local specialty was Archbold's Newtonia: a pair circled around us in full song. During our very successful walk we also enjoyed two excellent sightings of female Madagascar Buttonquail. We watched the impressive Sickle-billed Vanga, Crested Coua and Subdesert Brush Warbler.

At the coastal grass plains, Madagascar Plover was our target. It was hot during our march but we eventually located our quarry, and soaked up the views for a considerable amount of time, while the camera wielders among us could approach to within a few metres.

After a bit of down time and a relaxed lunch we returned to Tulear and birded the afternoon in the nearby coral rag scrub. Red-shouldered Vanga soon lured us with its clear whistles and a lovely male showed brilliantly. Lafresnaye's Vanga showed again, better views of Green-capped Coua were obtained and a Verreaux's Coua showed well, albeit a bit briefly. Our sandgrouse vigil produced excellent views of two Madagascar Sandgrouse drinking.

We then headed out on our boat trip for the sand dunes of Anakao where a male Littoral Rock Thrush took no time to find. After a short hop-and-a-skip, we landed at Nosy Ve and admired White-fronted Plover and many elegant Red-tailed Tropicbird.

Violet Dropwing of Madagascar © Richard Chandler
Violet Dropwing of Madagascar

Madagascar's north-west was our destination on the last section of the main tour. In the cool of the morning we headed up into the Betsiboka Delta. Our arrival at the first mudflats was aptly greeted by a pair of very confiding Bernier's Teal and two Malagasy Sacred Ibis. Once we had admired them we turned to a nearby Humblot's Heron, and made a wider study of the area seeing three more pairs of teal, several more ibis, Terek Sandpiper, Greater Sand Plover and several other wader species. A Madagascar Harrier-Hawk circled overhead.

With all the specials seen well, we turned for Mahajunga. En route, we were rewarded with a beautiful surprise: a pod of Indian Bottle-nosed Dolphin circled our boats.

By lunch time we were at our accommodation near Ampijoroa forest station in Ankarafantsika National Park. We had an afternoon ahead of us to become acquainted with some of the areas' wildlife. Some popular Coquerel's Sifakas lulled around the reserve entrance. We also admired Sickle-billed Vanga and Grey-headed Lovebird. Climbing up to the sandy plateau, we enjoyed good views of Coquerel's Coua and Red-capped Coua on the track. A pair of White-breasted Mesite showed close-up.

The next morning a heavy rain storm cooled things down and gave us a couple of extra hours of sleep. Once it abated we were out on the trails where we tracked down a male Schlegel's Asity in a tall, bare tree. We admired it preening in the scope. The less showy female sat nearby and kept an eye on her nest. White-breasted Mesite showed again excellent views before we turning our focus to Van Dam's Vanga. Red-capped Coua (renamed as Path Coua) hopped and skipped along in front of us, a handsome Rufous Vanga appeared nearby. Van Dam's Vanga was not given up easily and rewarded our persistence with good views of this bulky, dark-billed species.

Besides birding the dry forests at Ampijoroa we allowed ample time for wetland birding, focussing on Lac Ravelobe. Large numbers of Western Cattle Egret, Common Squacco Heron and Glossy Ibis challenged us to pick out Malagasy Pond Heron, but we succeeded in finding two of these smart birds. We added Allen's Gallinule, saw a single Humblot's Heron and enjoyed two good sightings of the very rare Madagascar Fish Eagle. At another wetland we enjoyed a pair of Madagascar Jacana a couple of metres with the added bonus of some lovely African Pygmy Goose.

Madagascar Fish Eagle

Mammalian highlights of Ampijoroa included the 'bearded' Mongoose Lemur, Common Brown Lemur, the nocturnal Grey Mouse Lemur, the very vocal Milne-Edwards Sportive Lemur with its white tail-tip and Western Avahi or Woolly Lemur with its white thighs roosting during the day. With some of the group now heading home we bade our farewells in Tana.

Masoala Extension

Most of us continued on to Maroansetra and joined the Masoala extension. An afternoon stroll along the beach from our accommodation turned up a few surprises, most notable two Crab-Plover and a single Saunder's Tern, plus Bar-tailed Godwit and lots of Lesser Crested Tern.

Early the next morning, we boarded two speedboats and headed out across the Bay of Antongil for the lush lowland forests of the Masoala peninsula. On the way two Artic Skua flew in as an unexpected bonus. By mid-morning we had already dropped our bags at our comfortable new lodge and were admiring the exquisite and localised Red-ruffed Lemurs. Soon after, we encountered the incomparable Helmet Vanga. It didn't stay very long and left us wanting more. We very successfully tracked down another pair of Helmet Vanga, which offered long and impressive views, winning second position on the "bird of the trip" competition.

Giraffe-necked Weevil © Richard Chandler
A female Giraffe-necked Weevil. The male's neck typically 2 to 3 times longer.

We had marvellous looks at a pair of scarce Bernier's Vanga, eventually at close range. Of all the birds in Madagascar, this one made us work the hardest! Other highlights were a couple of sightings of Red-breasted Coua, our best views of Madagascar Spinetail, more Blue Coua, White-headed Vanga, Blue Vanga, lots of Madagascar Starling, black morph Madagascar Magpie-Robin, Madagascar Cuckooshrike, Tylas Vanga, Cuckoo Roller, excellent views of White-throated Oxylabes, brief views of Brown Mesite and Crested Coua. We also enjoyed a few more mammals, such as White-fronted Brown Lemur, a new species of Mouse Lemur, Greater Dwarf Lemur and the localised endearing Masoala Woolly Lemur.

All too soon our time at Masoala and in Madagascar had come to an end and all that was left to do was to return to Maroansetra (with Sooty Tern and Brown Noddy on the return trip) and catch our flight back to Tana. Some of us flew out soon afterwards, and others joined for a final celebratory dinner before their flight back home.

Birding Africa Trip Report by Tour Leader Michael Mills.

Please click here for more information about our Madagascar Tours.
Please click here for photographs and trip reports from our tours in October 2011, November 2011 and November 2012.

Practical tour information
Focus For keen birders and mammal enthusiasts. The 17 day tour and 6 day Masoala extension are designed to see as many as possible endemic birds and lemurs, while en-route we also look for other unusual wildlife such as the myriad of chameleons, geckos, frogs and interesting plants. The 17 day tour and 6 day Masoala extension may appeal more to keen birders and the shorter tours more to the wildlife enthusiasts.
Photography Many participants on our trips are amateur wildlife photographers. When we get excellent views of a bird or mammal, some time is usually spent watching and photographing it. However, this is not a photographic tour and once the majority of the people have felt that they have absorbed the animal or bird to their satisfaction, then we move on in search of the next encounter. Thus, while the photographic opportunities are very good, the group will only occasionally wait for somebody who wants to spend even longer getting better photos.
Fitness A moderate level of fitness is required. The walks are generally in relatively flat areas with occasional inclines. At Ranomafana, one of the areas involves steep walks, although at the moderate pace. This walk can be treated as optional.
Group Size Maximum 10 participants on the 17-day tour and 6-day Masoala extension.
Accommodation A good standard of hand-picked guest houses, lodges and small hotels.
Timing We run all our tours from late September to mid December, catching early summer before the main rains.
Climate Hot in the western lowlands, where we bird mainly in the early morning, and cool in the eastern highlands, especially at night.
Clothing Comfortable, light, casual clothing to suit the hot temperatures in the spiny desert and the cool nights in the highlands. It may rain in the eastern rainforests, so bring a poncho or rainjacket and waterproofing for your equipment. There may be an opportunity to swim. Good sturdy footwear for walking on sometimes muddy mountain trails, and lighter footwear such as sturdy sandals for walking in the desert and travelling. A walking stick may prove useful in the steep eastern forests, but can be made locally.
Optical Equipment If you like to always have a scope around then we recommend bringing one. On our set-departure group tours, our tour-leaders often carry a scope while birding and when hey do, they're excellent at providing everyone scope views as best as possibly can. However, they sometimes don't take their scope, especially in the forest. We've found that some participants who bring scopes prefer to leave them in the hotel or the bus when a hot day or sloping forest trail makes them difficult to carry. Nevertheless, if you like to watch birds in close-up for longer amounts of time, or if you like to always have a scope handy, then it's best to bring it.
Top birds Helmet Vanga, Berniers Vanga, Red-breasted coua on the Masoala extension. Long-tailed ground Roller, Short-legged Ground Roller, Rufous-headed Ground Roller, Schlegel's Asity, Velvet Asity, Yellow-bellied Sunbird Asity, Cuckoo Roller, Van Dam's Vanga, Lefraysne's Vanga, Sickle-billed Vanga, White-breasted Mesite, Sub-desert Mesite
Top mammals Red-ruffed Lemur and White-fronted Brown Lemur on the Masoala Extension. Indri, Black-and-White Ruffed Lemur, Diademed Sifaka, Ring-tailed Lemur, Greater Bamboo Lemur, Golden Bamboo Lemur, Ring-tailed Mongoose, Fosa
Booking Your booking can be secured with a booking form and deposit. You will receive confirmation and our tour information pack with practical information on what to expect and how to prepare for the tour. The balance is due 150 days before the tour. Contact us to enquire about availability.

Many of the birding sites on this trip are described in detail in the Southern African Birdfinder which is widely available in South African bookshops and on the internet. (e.g., or

About Birding Africa

Birding Africa is a specialist birding tour company customising tours for both world listers and more relaxed holiday birders. We combine interests in mammals, butterflies, dragonflies, botany and other natural history aspects and will guide you to Africa's and Madagascar's most diverse birding destinations. Our guides' knowledge of African birds and birding areas is our greatest strength and together we have rediscovered species, shared exciting observations with the birding community and had a fun time exploring our home continent. We've even written two acclaimed guide books on where to find Southern Africa's and Madagascar's best birds. Birding is more than our passion, it's our lifestyle, and we are dedicated to making professional, best value trips filled with endemic species and unique wildlife experiences. Since 1997, we've run bird watching tours in South Africa and further into Africa for individual birders, small birding groups and top international tour companies. We've run Conservation Tours in association with the African Bird Club and work with and consult for a number of other top international tour companies and the BBC Natural History Unit.

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