Although we previously lived in Africa and birded the region extensively, we had never been to Madagascar. With the lure of large numbers of endemics, the pull finally became too strong and we set about planning a trip. We decided on December for two reasons; firstly we needed to be in Africa around that time for family reasons, and secondly, it is after the time for commercial bird tours. The risk of going in December was increased likelihood of rain and quieter birding due to many species breeding. In the event, these factors were not significant and we were very successful, seeing 120 new species, only missing out on about 5 species which occur chiefly in areas we did not visit. We saw all the Ground Rollers, Asities, Mesites and Vangas, as well as most of the other endemics.
For identification we used Sinclair & Legrand, second edition (2013). Trip reports we found particularly useful were Matheve et al. (2012), Van der Woude (2010) and Merrill (2007).
After some research and communications with various companies, we finally settled on Ramartour (www.ramartour.com) to organize our itinerary. They proved excellent, and although not primarily a birding company, they modified and re-modified a schedule to meet our needs. They provided 4x4 vehicles, drivers and booked the hotels/lodges. Also included in their costings were National Park entrance fees and guide fees. For most of the trip our driver was Lucas (Jean-Luc) and he was first rate. Guides are obligatory at all the parks, and Lucas always found the best ones for birding, some of whom were really exceptional. Comments about the various lodges are given in the schedule section. We had one internal flight on Air Madagascar to Tulear (also originally planned to fly to Masoala after Christmas, but cancelled this when it became apparent we would do better near Mantadia) – this airline lived up to its reputation for changing schedules, our 7.30 am flight left at 6.00 am – fortunately we arrived at the airport early!
We obtained 90 day visas for Madagascar from the Honorary Consulate in Sydney. It is possible to obtain 30 day visas on arrival, but these cannot be extended.
The weather was good for most of the trip, hot and humid everywhere except the south, where it was very hot (40°C) and not as humid, and in the higher areas around Tana where it was cooler.
The main roads were variable in quality – the tar road going north from Tana (N4) is in good condition and traffic very light; the road to the east (N2) is also in good condition, but has large numbers of trucks moving fuel and goods from the east coast ports to Tana; and the road from Ranomafana to Tana (N7) is very pot-holed for long sections. Traffic in and around Tana is appalling, there are no bypasses or quick ways of getting anywhere. Most side roads and rural roads are in poor condition and require high clearance and/or 4 wheel drive. Supermarkets in the main towns were well stocked, and cold drinks and odds and ends could be bought in most villages. Electricity supply is a problem in many areas, either because it is erratic or there is none. Most lodges in the areas we went to had their own generators.
Schedule and lodging
7 December – Arrive Antananarivo on SA Airlink from Jo’burg. Ecole Lodge (Pleasant site with spacious rooms).
8 December – am: Drive to Andasibe; pm: birding Anamalozotra. Grace Lodge (well-maintained rooms in spacious grounds. Except for breakfasts we ate at Marie’s)
9 December – all day: birding Mantadia. Grace Lodge.
10 December – am: birding Anamalozotra; pm: Iharoka Swamp. Grace Lodge.
11 December – Drive to Tana, stopping at Mangoro River. Ecole Lodge.
12 December – Drive to Ankarafansika, birding en route. Blue Vanga Lodge (small fenced off lodge close to village – hot place – little electricity).
13 December – all day: birding Ankarafansika. Blue Vanga Lodge.
14 December - all day: birding Ankarafansika. Blue Vanga Lodge.
15 December – Drive to Tana, birding en route.
16 December – Fly to Tulear on Air Madagascar; pm: birding La Table. Auberge de la Table (Best accomm we had, stylish rooms and good restaurant, pool, adjacent to arboretum)
17 December – am: birding La Table; drive to Ifaty; birding Mosa’s Spiny forest; pm: salt pans near Ifaty; Mosa’s Spiny forest. Bamboo Club (on beach, good food and pool).
18 December – am: Mosa’s Spiny forest; sandgrouse sites nr Tulear; pm: La Table. Bamboo Club.
19 December – am: drive to Isalo, stopping at site near Sakaraha and at Zombitse NP. Les Etoiles d’Isalo (rooms comfortable but cramped for space).
20 December – am: birding Isalo NP. Les Etoiles d’Isalo.
21 December – all day; drive from Isalo to Ranomafana NP. Le Grenat (Great if you like pink! Spacious rooms and good restaurant).
22 December – all day: birding Ranomafana. Le Grenat.
23 December - all day: birding Ranomafana. Le Grenat.
24 December – all day: drive to Tana. Belvedere Hotel (comfortable old hotel with good restaurant).
25 December – pm: drive to Andasibe. Grace Lodge.
26 December – all day: birding Iharoka Forest. Grace Lodge.
27 December – am: birding Mantadia. Grace Lodge.
28 December – Drive to Tana. Belvedere Hotel.
29 December – Depart on SA Airlink flight to Jo’burg.
7 December – Arrived at Antananarivo (Tana) airport on time. Quick passage through immigration and customs and met by Jonah (managing Director of Ramartour). Changed money at the airport. A thousand euros gave us a wad of Aryary’s about six inches thick (the largest note – 10,000 – is only equivalent to about US$3) so not easy to handle! Jonah drove us to his home, which also doubles as “Ecole Lodge”. This lodge is just out of Tana on the N4 going north. Before getting to the lodge he dropped us about 1 km away so we could bird our way in. Although the landscape is primarily agricultural, with lots of rice paddies and intervening grassy hills, it is quite bird rich and we were able to pick up some of the common endemics straight away: Madagascar Wagtail, Banded Kestrel, Mascerene Martin, Malagasy Kingfisher, Madagascar Fody, Grey-headed Lovebird, Madagascar Lark, Madagascar Kestrel and Malagasy Stonechat. The road into the lodge is steep and requires a high clearance vehicle! The garden of the lodge is being planted with lots of trees and shrubs which attract quite a few birds.
8 December – Early morning birding around the lodge and rice fields produced Madagascar Cisticola, Madagascar snipe, Madagascar Mannikin, Souimanga Sunbird, Common Jery and Madagascar Cuckoo.
We were collected by Lucas at 7.30 for the drive to Andasibe, stopping at a supermarket (Shoprite) in Tana to pick up a few essentials. New birds seen en route were Madagascar Hoopoe and Madagascar Bulbul. We arrived in Andasibe in time for lunch at Marie’s restaurant. Here Lucas found Luc (the very best of our bird guides and brother of Marie) and we arranged to bird Anamalozotra in the afternoon. While eating lunch we spotted Chabert’s Vanga opposite the restaurant. Driving to the entrance of the park we stopped so Luc could show us a roosting Rainforest Scops Owl. At the office tickets were purchased for the next three days as we had some early starts.
The afternoon was an amazing introduction to the forest endemics with the following seen: Red-tailed Vanga, Madagascar Paradise Flycatcher, Madagascar White-eye, Lesser Vasa Parrot, White-throated Rail, Crested Ibis (on nest), Spine-tailed Swift, Madagascar Turtle Dove, Madagascar Wood-Rail (nesting), Red-breasted Coua, Collared Nightjar, Spectacled Tetraka, Madagascar Magpie Robin and Green Sunbird.
After we returned to the road to await Lucas, Luc took us up into a patch of pine forest to look for Madagascar Long-eared Owl and we had good views of this large species.
Returned to Andasibe and drove to Grace Lodge where we checked in to our comfortable chalet.
9 December – A 5 am start with packed breakfast and lunch. Approximately one hour drive to Mantadia. This was an even more spectacular birding day than yesterday, although it did involve about 20 km of walking, often in difficult terrain with few paths and lots of leeches, often to the backdrop of the haunting calls of the Indri – very reminiscent of gibbons.
On the dirt road in we got Madagascar Coucal, Stripe-throated Jery and Rand’s Tetraka. The first foray into the forest – up a steep slope through difficult terrain, produced Short-legged Ground-Roller, Crossley’s Vanga and Dark Newtonia. Returning to the road we found Pitta-like Ground Roller, Madagascar Pygmy Kingfisher, Madagascar Sparrowhawk, Blue Coua, Madagascar Brush Warbler, Long-billed Tetraka and Greater Vasa Parrot. The next hike into the forest was in pursuit of a mixed flock which contained: Ward’s Vanga, Tylas Vanga, Common Newtonia, Madagascar Cuckoo-Shrike and Nelicourvi’s Weaver. Eventually emerging from the forest on to a grassy track we saw Henst’s Goshawk, Hook-billed Vanga, White-headed Vanga, Madagascar Cuckoo Roller and Madagascar Buzzard. Continuing down the track we came to the lake where we rested and had lunch – and saw Madagascar Grebe, Meller’s Duck and Madagascar Swamp Warbler. Back to the car to assure Lucas all was going well. Then into the forest again – less activity in the heat of the day but we had good views of Forest Fody, Nuthatch Vanga, Blue Pigeon and Crested Drongo. Down in a dark, damp and leech infested gully, Luc heard a Madagascar Flufftail and it was not long before it came right in – almost running around our feet.
10 December – after the exertions of yesterday a later start – visiting the Anamalozotra forest again. After a slow start with not much activity, Luc heard a Rufous-headed Ground Roller and we set off in pursuit, up and down ravines in thick forest. Eventually located the calling bird and got to within 3 metres of it! This success was followed by a long hike up onto a high forested ridge where Luc was hoping for Common Sunbird-Asity – no luck, but we did find Forest Rock Thrush, three Red-fronted Couas, Green Jery and a White-throated Oxylabes. We then returned to Marie’s for lunch. Back to the reserve afterwards, but very hot and still with little activity. At about 4 pm Luc suggested we try for Madagascar Rail on the Iharoka road – this is an obscure turnoff signposted to Forest Lodge. After about a slow 1 hour 4x4 drive on a difficult track, we stopped at a marsh surrounded by mostly clear-felled forest regrowth. Soon had the Madagascar Rail responding to the tape, but we didn’t see it until our driver Lucas, who was still curious as to what all this birding was really about, came down the path and pointed out that it was standing behind us watching! Spectacular views thanks to Lucas! On the drive back to Andasibe we stopped at a patch of Eucalyptus where Luc taped in a Madagascar Nightjar, just before it got too dark to see. Luc also told us that if we carried on past the marsh for about another hour (not far but really slow) there is primary forest where he has seen Helmet Vanga! This information proved invaluable later on in the trip, and as Luc was such an amazing birder we took a great deal of notice!
11 December – Return drive to Tana. We stopped first at the Mangoro River bridge to look for Madagascar Pratincole. Just as we were giving up, having scanned all the rocks, a local turned up and told us the bird was just back around the corner and he could show us how to get there. This was quickly accomplished and we had nice views. The next stop was at the reptile park – where there is an important collection of many of the island’s chameleons (evoking fond memories for Tessa of her childhood). An hour or so was spent photographing many of these spectacular species, a few of which we had already seen in the forest. Then a slow drive in traffic through Tana to Ecole Lodge on the north side of the city. The next day was to be a long drive north to Ankarafansika. Lucas our driver was to set off to Tulear so that when we flew down there later on he could be there to meet us. We were introduced to Pascal who would be our driver for the trip to Ankarafansika.
12 December – After an early breakfast, set off for the long drive to the north-west. Much of the drive is over mostly uninhabited grassy highlands, but the N4 road is good and traffic very light. At the 160 km marker we were lucky enough to see Madagascar Partridge. Otherwise the only birds were Pied Crows, Yellow-billed Kites and Namaqua Doves. Further on, after stopping for coffee in a village, after crossing a famous iron bridge near the town of Maeyatana (reputedly the hottest place in Madagascar – it was 37°C) we passed through areas with large numbers of mangoes and soon spotted a colony of Sakalava Weavers. Late in the afternoon we arrived at the village of Andranofasika, about 3 km from the Ankarafansika Reserve, and checked into the Blue Vanga Lodge. Pascal went off to the Park to arrange for a good (bird) guide for the rest of the visit.
13 December – Arrived at the Ankarafansika NP HQ car park at about 6.30 where we due to meet Guy who was to be our guide. It was raining steadily and there was no sign of Guy. Pascal and one of the HQ staff drove back to the village to look for him, reappearing with him at about 7.30 – it was his birthday the day before and he had been celebrating. While waiting for him we found Sickle-billed Vanga to be common in the trees around the car park. We then drove to the deciduous forest just west of HQ where there is a grid network of trails. Despite the rain, we found Coquerel’s Coua, Green Pigeon and the speciality – Schlegel’s Asity. By the time we left this area, the rain had ceased and after coffee at the restaurant nearby, Guy took us on the trails behind the HQ. Here , after hearing the call, and using the tape we were rewarded with good views of Van Dam’s Vanga, as well as Rufous Vanga. This was followed by a pair of White-breasted Mesite foraging in the dry leaf litter and then a pair of Crested Coua landing in a nearby tree.
After lunch at the same restaurant Guy took us out on Lake Ravelobe where we easily secured Madagascar Fish Eagle – a pair sitting overlooking the lake – and Humblots Heron. There were no jacanas to be found here, so we drove to another lake behind Andranofasika village where a pair of Madagascar Jacanas obliged.
14 December – another visit to the grid trails west of HQ where we got much better views of Schlegel’s Asity. Another session on the trails behind HQ gave us Red-capped Coua and France’s Sparrowhawk, as well as more Coquerels Couas.
The afternoon was spent on the trails on the far side of Lake Ravelobe, but with very little seen, apart from good views of Banded Kestrel.
15 December – all day drive back to Tana on the N4. Only birds of note were a Green Pigeon at the Betsiboke River bridge and Alpine Swifts about 140 km from Tana. Overnight at Ecole Lodge.
16 December – Arrived at Tana airport at about 5.15 am for our 7.30 flight to Tulear. While checking in they told us the flight had been rescheduled to leave at 6 am – lucky we had arrived early! After an uneventful flight we arrived in Tulear at about 7.30 am, but had to wait for Lucas who was expecting the flight to arrive a bit later. Once he arrived we headed off for the La Table area. We checked in to the Auberge de la Table, which is adjacent to the Arboretum d’Antsokay. The staff at the arboretum gave us detailed directions for the La Table road. This is a turn-off about 12 km down the N7. We found it easily – the road was very rough, rocky and dusty. We stopped at various points along it within the first 3 km. The first new bird was Verreaux’s Coua, followed by Sub-Desert Brush Warbler, both easily taped in. No sign of Red-shouldered Vanga however.
By now it was extremely hot in the scrub and we returned for lunch at the hotel. During the afternoon, still very hot, we explored the arboretum and had good views of Green-capped Coua and Madagascar Button-Quail.
17 December – a dawn visit to the La Table road produced more Verreaux’s Coua and a Green-capped Coua, but again no Red-shouldered Vanga. After breakfast at the hotel we set off for Ifaty. During this drive along the rough and dusty coast road we checked all the pools for Madagascar Plover, but to no avail – lots of other plovers and waders, but none of the sought for endemic. After checking into the Bamboo Club Hotel, we returned to the village and the entrance to Mosa’s Spiny Forest. Mosa and his two sons Freddy and …… had us in the baobab forest by 10.30 am, but it was already getting quiet in the heat. Nevertheless, they guided us to Long-tailed Ground-Roller, Running Coua and Sub-Desert Tetraka. We left the forest at about 11.30, agreeing to meet up again at 3 pm after lunch at the hotel. We duly found Freddy at 3 pm and he took us to some salt pans about 5 km before Ifaty where there were several Madagascar Plovers. Next we spent two hours in the spiny forest, but it was extremely quiet, although we had great views of a Madagascar Harrier Hawk, its nest and chick. Arranging to meet at first light in the morning we returned to the hotel.
18 December – We spent from 5 am to 6.45 am in the spiny forest, with great views of Archbold’s Newtonia, Sub-Desert Mesite (male on nest), Lefresnaye’s Vanga and a Madagascar Cuckoo Hawk. After breakfast we picked up Freddy who had exact site information for the La Table area. We visited the Madagascar Sandgrouse sites, but nothing doing. After a long lunch at La Terrasse in Tulear we reached the La Table road at about 3 pm. The site for Red-shouldered Vanga was on the north side of the road only a km or so from the turn-off. After an hour or so of 40°C heat, unbelievably, Freddy located a nesting Red-shouldered Vanga and we had close views of both male and female. We were leaving the next day to drive north to Isalo, but as Freddy knew a sandgrouse site en route we arranged to have him accompany us for the first part of the journey.
19 December – Checked out of hotel, picked up Freddy and drove to the N7 via Tulear. About two hours was spent searching the savanna type habitat just south of Sakaraha for the sandgrouse, but nothing doing. We adjourned for lunch at a French hotel in Sakaraha, then saying goodbye to Freddy headed for our next stop at Zombitse NP. Lucas, on his earlier drive south, had arranged for two bird guides to meet us, which they did, they were at the roadside waiting for us. We spent 1.30 to 3.30 in Zombitse Forest, time enough to find Giant Coua, White-browed Owl and hardest of all, a party of Appert’s Tetraka foraging in the leaf litter.
We arrived in the late afternoon at Isalo and checked into the Les Etoiles d’Isalo hotel. The place was more or less deserted and it took time to sort out accommodation and for the manager to arrive. Lucas went to the NP HQ in town to arrange for a guide for tomorrow and later we drove back to the town to have dinner at
20 December – The morning was spent in the national park with a guide. The only target was Benson’s Rock Thrush which was found in the vicinity of the camp site – along with many Ring-tail Lemurs. Madagascar Button-Quail were also common around the camp site, but nothing else of note was seen.
21 December – long drive from Isalo to Ranomafana NP passing through Madagascar’s second largest city, Fianarantsoa. The road was in good shape until about 20 km before Fianarantsoa, when it degenerated into more potholes than tar. This continued until we reached the junction with the Ranomafana road which was in good condition. After passing through the forested park we came to the small town of Ranomafana and Le Grenat Hotel. After checking in, Lucas went off to the park HQ to organize suitable guides for the next two days.
22 December – The morning was spent on the trails in the forest behind the park HQ with two guides, Bertin and William – the latter really knew his birds and was shortly going to gain status as an official guide . Quite quickly he found Grey-fronted Tetraka, Wedge-tailed Tetraka and Velvet Asity. Climbing higher, the calls of Brown Mesite were heard and the birds tracked down in a very leech-infested area, but because of the herding abilities of the guides, a pair came within a few feet of us. In another area a mixed flock of vangas gave us the very localized Pollen’s Vanga.
As it looked like it would rain in the afternoon we elected to proceed directly to the next site – the Voloero area and the Amboditanimena circuit. This was accessed by driving to Vohiparara village and taking a right turn on a good, but narrow tar road. After a few km there is a parking area on the right and a path leading back towards the NP. This is all in an area of secondary growth and grassland that is regenerating into forest. After about 3 km we reached a swamp with a boardwalk across it. This is the site for Grey Emutail. They responded to playback and we soon had good views of this difficult species. This swamp also holds Slender-billed Flufftail and once its call was heard we managed to lure one to within a few feet of us – but despite all our efforts it failed to appear – perhaps the worst ‘dip’ of the trip. We returned to the car via several other swamps with thunder rolling around and rain beginning.
23 December – The whole morning was spent on the well-known Vohiparara trail. The first new species were Cryptic Warbler and Common Sunbird Asity. Continuing on to a ridge area with lots of bracken, Brown Emutail was located and we had good views as they flew back and forth across the path and hopped among the ferns and roots. As we were watching this unusual endemic, another mega-tick - Yellow-browed Oxylabes – appeared, seemingly attracted by the calls of the Brown Emutails. The next target was Yellow-bellied Sunbird Asity – we headed off up a long steep trail into thick forest – searching for the flowering creeper much favoured by this species. Location of these flowers at the third site, found by William, provided us with a much needed resting site to watch for the asity – for quite a while only Common Sunbird Asities and Souimanga Sunbirds frequented the flowers, but the vigil was finally rewarded with good views of male and female Yellow-bellied Sunbird Asity feeding on the nectar. Returned to hotel for lunch.
Later in the afternoon after the rain had dissipated we walked the tar road from about the Vohiparara path turn-off back towards parks HQ, with a deep gorge to the one side of for much of the way. We were hoping for Madagascar Starling, but nothing doing!
24 December – all day drive back to Tana, only stopping for lunch. Checked into Belvedere Hotel in the old French quarter of the city. We arranged with Lucas to pick us up the following afternoon for the drive to Andasibe.
25 December – Christmas morning in the hotel. Lucas collected us at 1 pm with the largest 4x4 in their fleet – a Pajero - and we set off for Andasibe on virtually empty roads. On arrival we sought out Luc, having arranged by phone for him to take us to Iharoka tomorrow and Mantadia the following day, for some of the missing species, particularly the iconic Helmet Vanga. He was as enthusiastic about these arrangements as we were. After lunch at Marie’s we checked in at Grace Lodge.
26 December – a five-o-clock start saw us on the track to Iharoka. Just at the edge of the village we stopped and Luc made arrangements with the custodians of Iharoka forest – a community based conservation set-up – for us to visit for the day. This entailed two extra forest guards accompanying us. The track is ill-defined in places and wet and muddy for much of its length. We became severely bogged a few hundred metres from the end of the track and we certainly needed the assistance of the extra staff to extricate the vehicle!
The track into the forest starts at the end of the ‘road’, first winding through secondary forest and finally into tall primary forest. When we reached an old camp area, Luc asked us to wait while he and the staff searched the ridge lines for vanga flocks – they could move much faster unencumbered by us. After about two hours a dis-spirited Luc returned – no vangas, but they had found the remains of a camp fire where a Crested Ibis had been consumed and also the tail feathers of a Helmet Vanga! Moving on for a while we reached very thick forest – Luc and the guards again left us. This time however, we heard shouting and soon Luc appeared saying they had located Helmet Vanga and he had left the guards to follow them if they moved. After a strenuous hike up through virgin forest (no paths) we reached a ridge and Luc was able to show us a male Helmet Vanga feeding about 10 feet away! Probably the best moment of the trip. This bird was accompanied by a female and two juveniles! After we thought it was all over, Luc casually mentioned that he had heard the call of Bernier’s Vanga and so we set off in pursuit – getting short views of this enigmatic species. It then started to rain hard and the two hour trek back to the vehicle was very wet, relieved only by close views of a Collared Nightjar on the track. We were concerned that the rain might prevent us getting out on the road. Fortunately it had not rained in the ‘car park’ or on the road so Lucas skilfully got us back to Andasibe by nightfall. An epic day.
27 December – A later start today – driving to Mantadia by 7.30 am. On the way in, a flock of 6-7 Madagascar Starlings was located – a species which had so far eluded us – so we had good views of several individuals on bushes adjacent to the road. We entered the forest on the right side of the road and it was not long before our target species, Scaly Ground Roller was heard calling. We spent a while following this bird through thick forest, obtaining several excellent views.
28 December – returned to Tana and the Belvedere Hotel.
29 December – Caught the 3 pm SA Airlink flight from Tana to Jo’burg.