Sunday, 6 March 2016

A MADAGASCAR ADVENTURE by Steve & Carol Popple


In November 2015 we participated in a month long tour of Madagascar, this was a package tour with specialist birding company Rockjumper Birding Tours. The first response we give when asked about the tour is that it was very tough with lots of steep walking through rainforest, it was hot and the general standard of accommodation and food was generally very basic. Our next response is that the birds and mammals (particularly the Lemurs) are amazing and well worth the very long journey.

In order to break our journey to Madagascar we flew from Perth to Mauritius for a couple of days. Mauritius has only 10 endemic birds remaining due to extensive land clearing and the introduction of rats, cats and shrews. Ile aux Aigrettes is a small island reserve well worth visiting which is home to a breeding centre for birds and endangered skinks and tortoises. Here we were able to see Pink Pigeon, Mauritius Olive White-eye and Mauritius Fody. Interestingly the Madagascan Fody has been introduced to the island and is more commonly seen than the Mauritius Fody. In the south of the island the forests of the Black River National Park are well worth visiting and we saw White Tailed Tropic Birds soaring on thermals in the canyons, Mauritius Grey White-Eye, Pink Pigeon and the introduced Rose winged Parakeet. Unfortunately we didn’t find the endangered Mauritius Parakeet.

Pink Pigeon - a Mauritius Endemic

Once we arrived in Madagascar our first destination was the Masaola Peninsula on the north east coast, this remote national park of 240,000 hectares contains the largest remnants of rainforest in Madagascar and as a result is the best place to see some very special birds and Red Ruffed Lemur. Travel to our lodge involved a two and half hour flight in a charter plane, a two hour journey in a small boat across the bay. From our lodge to reach the primary rainforest we travelled first by dugout canoe and then walked up and over many ridges and through numerous creek crossings. The object of our walk was to see Helmet Vanga a truly amazing bird and our local guides took us right to where a pair where nesting, seeing them at length made all of the journey worthwhile. Other bird highlights included Scaly Breasted Ground Roller, Red fronted Coua, Blue Vanga, Rufous Vanga, etc. Unfortunately our views of Red Ruffed Lemurs were fleeting with a group feeding high in the canopy on a very precarious slope.
Helmeted Vanga

Our next destination was Berenty Private Reserve which encompasses gallery rainforest along a river and adjoining patches of spiny forest. Berenty is home to Ring tailed Lemurs and the famous dancing Sifaka (Verreaux’s Sifaka) both of which can be seen right outside your room. Here it was very hot 42C so birding was restricted to early mornings and late afternoon. The dry rainforest is home to the very vocal Giant Coua, Grey headed Lovebird, Madagascar Paradise Flycatcher, White browed Owl, Madagascar Cuckoo Hawk and Madagascar Scops Owl.
Madagascar Scops Owl

The unique landscape of the Spiny forest dominated by waving Octopus Trees and Baobabs contains a diverse range of specialists including the Running Coua, Crested Coua, Madagascar Scops Owl, Sakalava Weavers and Carol’s favourite Mouse Lemurs.

Giant Coua
Verreaux's Sifaka

Moving on from Berenty we travelled to the west coast near Ifaty to another patch of Spiny Forest where the local guides have an intimate knowledge of where each bird is located and will often disappear into the forest to herd birds back right to your feet! This is where you can get great views of the striking Long tailed Ground Roller, Running Coua, Subdesert Mesite, Madagascar Button Quail, Sickle Billed Vanga and raptors such as Madagascar Harrier Hawk, Madagascar Sparrowhawk, Madagascar Kestral and Banded Kestral. Off shore from nearby Tulear we travelled by small boat to Nosy Ve (a small coral cay) which is the best place to view Crab Plovers and nesting Red tailed Tropic Birds. The beach here was amazing with white sand covered by seashells of every type and size you can imagine. Our views of Crab Plovers were distant as they were very shy, the Red tailed Tropic Birds however circled right up close and you could getting some amazing photos.

Long-tailed Ground Roller

Leaving the coast we travelled by road through the middle of island which is very tedious given the poor state of the roads and rather depressing looking given the wide scale clearing of forest for charcoal which is the main source of cooking fuel. Along the way we stopped off at several remnant forest areas to look for localised birds.
The highlands of Ramanofana were a welcome relief after the heat of the lowlands and the national park contains some extensive patches of protected rainforest dominated in many areas by extensive stands of bamboo. The trail network here was very good which made climbing the steep ridges a bit easier. This rainforest contains some mouthwatering birds including Pitta Like Ground-Roller, Velvet Astity, Sunbird Astity, Green Sunbird and mammals such as Bamboo Lemurs, Pygmy lemurs, Milne Edwards Sifaka and the spectacular White Ruffed Lemur. Nocturnal walks here featured Chameleons, frogs and Mouse Lemurs.
Pitta-like Ground Roller
Pitta-like Ground Roller
Sunbird Asity

Travelling back by road to the capital Antananarivo and then by air to the west coast city of Morondava we travelled inland to Ankarafantsika National Park. Here the deciduous dry rainforest is home to an assortment of very desirable birds including Van Dam’s Vanga, White breasted Mesite, Red capped Coua, Coquerel’s Coua, Greater Vasa Parrot and Schegals Asity with the adjoining wetland home to Madagascar Fish Eagle, Madagascar Jacana, Humboldts Heron and Allen’s Gallinule. Coquerel’s Sifaka a stunning chocolate and white Sifaka is common in the campground and can be readily seen.

Madagascar Paradise Flycatcher
Coquerel’s Sifaka

Returning back to the capital we then travelled to Mantadia National Park and adjoining Andasibe (Perinet) Special Reserve. The rainforest here is famous for Indiri or singing lemur and the haunting sound of their calls could be heard from our lodge and up close in the forest their calls are deafening. The beautiful Diademed Sifaka with it’s two toned coat was also encountered several times whilst walking through the forest. This is the best locality to see Short legged Ground Roller which is very cryptic and is located primarily by its call. If a bird is calling it means it is perched and necessitates a mad scramble through the forest before it stops calling, after a frantic race across creeks through vines and uphill we had cracking views. Madagascar Pygmy Kingfisher is a rainforest specialist and we managed to see several of these stunning Orange and white Kingfishers. Other highlights here included Nuthatch Vanga, Blue Vanga, Rainforest Scops Owl, Madagascar Crested Ibis, Madagascar Long Eared Owl, Madagascar Wood Rail and White Throated Rail. A nocturnal walk in the rain yielded some stunning tree frogs, assorted lemurs and beautiful Chameleons.

Scaly breasted Ground Roller
Madagascar Pygmy Kingfisher

Our final destination was the central highlands of Anjozarobe which lived up to its name with every walk straight up some very steep ridges. At the top of one of these ridges in what could be described as dwarf bamboo cloud forest we found the diminutive Brown Emutail. Only birders would travel so far to see a very tiny plain brown bird! Fortunately it responded well to playback and came out of the dense undergrowth long enough to give us a good look. Just around the corner we finished off our quest for all of the Ground-Rollers with a Rufous Ground-Roller with its necklace of blue with white spots giving us a real boost for the return walk. Our last nocturnal walk of the trip gave us our only leaf tailed Gecko of the trip and what an amazing Gecko they are so well camouflaged it’s no wonder they are so hard to find. We shared our room here with Pygmy Lemurs which emerged from the roof each night at dusk and returned dashing across our verandah each morning just before dawn.

The wetlands of Madagascar have been largely drained or transformed into rice paddies and as a result many of the wetland birds are struggling to find sufficient habitat to survive. We were lucky enough at our stops at several small wetlands to see Meller’s Duck, Madagascar Grebe, Madagascar Kingfisher, Malagasy Pond Heron, Black Heron, Greater Painted Snipe and Madagascar Jacana.

Overall we managed to see 175 bird species including nearly all of the endemic bird species possible on the tour and 21 species of Lemur and 9 species of Chameleon. Madagascar with its high number of endemic species is one of those destinations should be on any birders' bucket list.

Steve & Carol Popple


  1. Fascinating report and great images. What a trip! Thanks for sharing.

  2. Total agreement with John's comment above. A great and enlightening read and wonderful photos.

  3. Total agreement with John's comment above. A great and enlightening read and wonderful photos.