Photos with this report (click to enlarge)
Scaly Ground roller
We arranged a private tour as we could not get into the group tours planning this destination. The arrangements were made through Ramartours, an agent based in Antananarivo (Tana). The arrangements all worked perfectly, ranging from the private charter flight required due to the cancellation of flights by Air Madagascar to the taxis and guides who accompanied us.
Tuesday October 31st: We flew from London with Air France and after a good 10hr flight from Paris, we arrived in Antananarivo at 11.55p.m.
Immigration was straightforward and we emerged into the crowds waiting to meet people off the plane, many of whom were holding signs with names on. We are glad to see a sign with our name held up towards the back of the throng. We push through the crowd to meet Luc our guide. We are driven to the Hotel Relais des Plateaux which is only 10 min from the airport. We are soon ensconced in our room which is spacious and comfortable.
Wednesday November 1st: Fly to Maroantsetra: After a good (and long) night’s sleep we find ourselves taking breakfast outside by the pool. We then head back to the airport to the entrance for the small charter flight company with whom we fly to Maroantsetra. The plane is a 2 engined Piper which holds 5 passengers. It’s tiny and cramped inside and after the initial excitement of the take-off, we are glad of the effective earphone mufflers that cut the roar down greatly. Quite soon we’re above the clouds for the 110 minute flight of just over 300 nautical miles. After the touch down, in which the pilot’s skills were very apparent with strong cross winds buffeting us about, the airport building really brings the phrase “one- horse-town” to life. We are met by a taxi that really feels as though it will fall to pieces around us – but it stays in one piece. We travel 5 or 6 km along the most viciously pot-holed and shell-holed road imaginable until we get to the Masoala Resort hotel. We are the only guests and we are put into a bungalow/cabin with 2 double beds. The whole place is pretty run-down with much of the fabric requiring work. The disappointing thing is that we don’t really see any birds around the place.
After lunch of Malagasy style fish with rice, followed by fruit (a slice of papaya), a French chap walks in and greets Luc – it turns out he is Olivier Fournajoux – the manager of the Arol Ecolodge on the Masoala peninsula, where we are to go next. First news is bad – the wind is very strong and completely uncharacteristic but it makes it impossible to get to the lodge by boat. So tomorrow we may go across to the island of Nosy Mangabe, or alternatively up the river to a National Park and farming community –at Farankaraina.
Thursday November 2nd - Nosy Mangabe: The wind seems to have dropped, the sea is calm and we are hopeful that we may be able to go to Masoala after all. But Olivier has rung through a message in which we are told that we aren’t going to Masoala but to Nosy Mangabe – an island in the bay. So we set off without any rain gear – but there are thick black clouds overhead! The same rickety taxi takes us the 1.5km to the port on the river. We meet Joseph Raveloson who is to be our bird guide for the tour – Olivier says he is very good. So we pile into the fibreglass hulled boat with a big outboard and head off down the river to the sea. The passage takes about 20 mins and we jump ashore onto the beach at the island. We climb the paths on the lookout for Lemurs – we have been told that Nosy Mangabe is not good for birds but is the home of some good lemurs and lots of amphibian and reptilian life. As we go up the path, Joseph stops to show us a tiny Brookesia exarmata chameleon – apparently the 2nd smallest on earth. Then we see various frogs, a beautiful Madagascar paradise flycatcher male and then we hear the lemurs screaming at each other. In no time we are getting some pretty good views of the Black and White-ruffed lemurs – very handsome. As we head down again we get a pair of Madagascan coucals in courtship. Now it starts to drizzle a bit – but we keep going. Then Joseph stops and says he has found a leaf-tailed gecko but now we have to see if we can see it. We are totally defeated so he shows us the strange creature clasping the trunk of a sapling tree – even knowing where it is it is hard to see – about 6-8 inches long, exactly the same colour as the tree bark except for the huge patterned eyes. No sooner have we finished looking than the rain gets heavier so we decide to head back to the landing spot and picnic hut. Good decision as the rain really belts down as we get there. We are fed a tasty lunch of carrot salad followed by spaghetti bolognese. After lunch the rain stops and we return along the path, stopping to look at a paradise flycatcher on a nest. We see another leaf-tailed gecko, lots of frogs and crabs. The weather is looking more threatening as we board the boat for the return and indeed, the wind is up, the waves are bigger and it is raining. We cower behind our tiny umbrellas as the boat pounds its way back through the waves. We are pretty wet and v glad to be back. As we are coming off the boat, we encounter Olivier on his 4x4 and he says we will leave at 7 a.m. tomorrow to be sure getting to Masoala while the wind is down. We get back excited and ready to go.
Friday November 3rd – Up the river to Farankaraina: We wake after a rainy night but the wind seems to have dropped a bit so we are confident we’ll be off to Masoala today. But no, the orders are for a boat trip up the Andrianofotsy river to Farankaraina – a park by the sea. The trip in an open boat, takes 2 hours of slow pottering seeing herons of various types (Black, Purple, Green-backed, Squacco & di-morphic (little egret in dark grey plumage with white splashes in the wings), as well as the standard egrets. We pause at a group of ducks that turn out to be Hotentot teal. Stretches of the river are so shallow the boat grounds and the motor struggles and has to be helped with paddles and poles. We arrive at a sandy bank where lots of people are waiting to catch boats to ferry them down the river. We walk about 1.5 km to the entrance to the Farankaraina park – various folk accompany us carrying baskets for the picnic lunch. We set off with Joseph on the trails around the “hospitality” building – a wooden shack where we will sit and eat.
First up is a red-breasted coua which answers Joseph’s amazing whistle – it shows briefly before skulking off into the undergrowth never to be seen again. Next up is an amazing short-legged ground roller. It is a bit coy initially and then suddenly flits onto an open branch although in rather gloomy light. We then move on into a fairly muddy area where Joseph detects Madagascar wood rails. Again, these are initially shy but after a while they relax permitting reasonable but brief views. We then get lots of Paradise flycatchers, crested drongos, followed by a difficult souimanga sunbird, nelicourvi weaver and red-tailed vanga. The last interesting bird is a Madagascar cuckoo shrike. On the walk back to the hospitality centre Joseph spots an enormous bright green chameleon up in a tree – it must be 70cm long – it is Calumma parsonii, the biggest chameleon species. After a good lunch we walk back to the boat and as the tide has raised the water level, we get back much more quickly. As we are taking our leave we get the news that tomorrow we will definitely be heading off to the Masoala peninsula.
Saturday November 4th Boat trip to Masoala (Arol Eco Lodge): We are picked up after breakfast by a rickety taxi at 6.45, for the drive to the boat harbour on the river. It is raining steadily and we are hugely grateful that we brought rain-proof trousers and our lightweight rain-jackets. All the bags are stowed under heavy plastic sheets to keep them dry and we head off down the river to the sea. We pick up speed – the sea is smooth but we are surrounded by heavy rain clouds and precipitation which makes it very hard to even see the land. Every so often a drizzly or rainy squall come up and we crouch behind my small travelling umbrella which does an excellent job of keeping some of the water from us. The course is straight down the bay about SW and apart from a small stretch where the waves were a bit more choppy, after just under 2 hours we pull up onto a sandy beach and disembark. We trudge about 150 yards inland to find ourselves in the Arol Eco- forest lodge. Our abode is a palm-thatched, timber bungalow with all mod cons. As soon as we have sorted a bit of unpacking we are summoned by Joseph and off we go into the forest. We start by going along the beach through a small village where a party is in preparation as they have killed a cow (called zebu here). The jungle is nice but very un-birdy! We start with White headed vanga, then get cuckoo shrike and then get a pair of Short-tailed ground rollers perched beautifully in an accessible spot. We are searching for the helmet vanga but the known nest is empty and looks deserted. So we climb up hill and down dale, spotting various things such as spectacled tetrakas and red-tailed vanga. Suddenly Joseph shushes us and points at a skulking dark shape picking its way through the undergrowth – Scaly Ground Roller. Not 1 but 2 – we pursue them as quietly as we can and after quite a long scramble through the short undergrowth, one heads off on a path allowing really good views and photos. This is great as we had brought torches in the expectation of having to view them at dusk in semi-darkness. Feeling greatly improved after this we head on upwards. Joseph knows a Rufous vanga nest and there is one on it allowing photos. We get to a sub-summit of the path and he pauses to whistle for Helmet Vanga. In a few moments his call is answered and a beauty emerges to see who is invading his space. He swoops really close to us and perches for a couple of minutes before heading off only to return and sit on an even better branch. Feeling really exhilarated we head back as it is now getting really gloomy and we don’t want to scramble down the trail using torches. Back at the lodge, we shower and clean-up ready for an early supper. Supper comprised delicious batter wrapped slices of aubergines and tiny pies containing meat, followed by beef skewers and superb chocolate mousse. Tomorrow we may head off early on quite a long trek in search of Bernier’s vanga.
Sunday November 5th: Birding at Arol Lodge: It has poured with rain in the night and we decide on a shorter excursion in search of Bernier’s vanga. We head out of the lodge grounds towards the local village where we encounter Callan Cohen’s Birding Africa Group, heading for the forest. We start with a blue pigeon, Common Jery and a Madagascar starling. Then as we get into the secondary forest we have to strip off our boots to wade through a chilly but clear stream. After much labour and grunting to get our feet dry and socks and boots on again, we move off into a mix of secondary forest, rice paddies and partially felled forest. We get Common Newtonia and White Headed and Blue Vangas. Then Joseph starts whistling and is soon answered by what turns out to be a Brown Mesite. This cute ground skulker about the size of a small partridge, comes closer and closer, getting braver and bolder, crossing the path back and forth and coming to within a couple of metres – but mainly staying perfectly un-photographable. In the end, Luc with one camera and me with the other manage to get a couple of reasonable shots. We move on into areas of partially chopped forest where a couple of Blue Couas show well, some lesser vasa parrots land in distant trees, a yellow-billed kite and some Madagascar Pratincoles soar high overhead. On the way back to the lodge for lunch, several pratincoles are swooping low overhead, calling as they fly, and a greater vasa parrot flies overhead. We are knackered and delighted to collapse at the lunch table. Lunch is a tasty onion tartlet, a thick tuna steak with mixed veg and a crepe to go with coffee. We thought we would have a rest this afternoon but Joseph comes by to say the Bernier’s vanga was sighted yesterday afternoon at one of the places we went this morning and we really ought to go out and try for it. So after a 90 minute rest we get ready to go again.
An unsuccessful outing – few blue vangas, white headed vangas and Chabert’s vanga, vasa parrots, kestrels feeding young and lots of bulbuls – but no Berniers vangas. So, it’ll be another 5.30 breakfast tomorrow for another bash at it.
Monday November 6th: Birding the forest round the lodge: After early breakfast, as we return to the hut, we spot a tiny Streaked Tenrec whiffling around on the path. I grab my camera and get some good pix. An extraordinary little creature – the photos show it is probably blind in one eye – anyway, it was remarkably unperturbed by our presence. We decide that going back up into the primary forest will be more interesting and profitable as at least there will be the chance of Lemurs as well as a wider range of birds. The sun is out and it’s warm as we set off up the rough path into the forest. Almost immediately we come upon a Red-ruffed lemur sitting in the sun. We get some of the common usuals (Bulbuls, white eyes, cuckoo shrikes) and then glimpse a wood rail. We try for the helmet vanga again but he’s not showing. Then Joseph hears Bernier’s vanga up the hill. So we set off scrambling up through the scrubby undergrowth. An interesting difference in the understory here compared with that in South America is that virtually all the trees and saplings are smooth barked instead of being covered in lethally sharp thorns and needles. So one can safely grab hold for support as one scrambles and we scrabble up the steep slope about 50 metres. Joseph is excited as the Bernier’s is really close and then we see a female leaping about among some palm leaves feeding. We get excellent views of her finely barred rich brown plumage but she is so active that I fail to get any useful photos. Pleased with that we move on seeing a blue coua in flight, we check in on the Rufous vanga on the nest and then later, get another pair of rufous vangas building a nest. There is also a long-billed tetraka in attendance. A bit further we track the call of Tyla’s vanga – again scrambling up a really steep slope through the understory. The thin creeper vines continually get caught round our legs and they are so tough they don’t break but have to be untangled by hand. Eventually we get close to the Tyla’s vanga – and get a glimpse. We finally totter back to the lodge after 5 hours of uphill and down dale.
After a good lunch of a delicious green papaya and cucumber salad, followed by spaghetti bolognese, banana fritters and coffee we have a rest on the bed. Once we feel a bit stronger we go down to the beach for a dip in the warm Indian ocean – lovely. We have decided to head back to Maroantsetra tomorrow as we daren’t risk a weather change preventing us from getting back to catch our flight on Wednesday.
Tuesday 7th November: Boat trip back to Maroantsetra: We wake to a lovely sunny and calm day. After the usual breakfast of bread, omelettes and coffee our stuff is loaded into the boat and we and 4 of the hotel staff embark. What a difference in the conditions compared with the trip out.
We are met by Olivier Fournajoux and we chat with him about his work on conservation and the struggle to educate the local people into not cutting down all the trees. He started the lodge up 16 years ago and is developing more eco-tourism including getting groups up to Makira – the most remote forest just north of the Masoala peninsula. It is apparently the most amazing place for all the exotic vangas etc.
Wednesday November 8th: Fly back to Tana: After a leisurely waking and rising, we finish packing, the taxi collects us at 10 and we are at the airport boarding our trusty Piper again. The flight is in clear conditions so we can see more of the land and we are pleased to touch down smoothly in Tana. This was a really remarkable tour and we count ourselves really lucky to have made it.
White-faced Whistling Duck Dendrocygna viduata
Hottentot Teal Spatula hottentota
Madagascar Green Pigeon Treron australis
Madagascar Blue Pigeon Alectroenas madagascariensis
Brown Mesite Mesitornis unicolor
Madagascar Spinetailed Swift Zoonavena grandidieri
African Palm Swift Cypsiurus parvus
African Swift (Madagascar) Apus barbatus
Red-breasted Coua Coua serriana
Blue Coua Coua caerulea
Madagascar Coucal Centropus toulou
Madagascar Wood Rail Mentocrex kioloides
Striated Heron Butorides striata
Squacco Heron Ardeola ralloides
Cattle Egret Bubulcus ibis
Madagascar Heron Ardea humbloti
Purple Heron Ardea purpurea
Great Egret Ardea alba
Black Heron Egretta ardesiaca
Little Egret Egretta garzetta
Madagascar Crested Ibis Lophotibis cristata
Long-tailed Cormorant Microcarbo africanus
Common Sandpiper Actitis hypoleucos
Common Greenshank Tringa nebularia
Madagascar Pratincole Glareola ocularis
Black Kite (Yellow-billed) Milvus migrans aegyptius/parasitus
Short-legged Ground-roller Brachypteracias leptosomus
Scaly Ground-roller Geobiastes squamiger
Madagascar Malachite Kingfisher Corythornis vintsioides
Madagascar Kestrel Falco newtoni
Greater Vasa Parrot Coracopsis vasa
Lesser Vasa Parrot Coracopsis nigra
Ashy Cuckooshrike Ceblepyris cinereus
Common Newtonia Newtonia brunneicauda
Tylas Vanga Tylas eduardi
Red-tailed Vanga Calicalicus madagascariensis
Chabert Vanga Leptopterus chabert
Blue Vanga Cyanolanius madagascarinus
Rufous Vanga Schetba rufa
Helmet Vanga Euryceros prevostii
Bernier's Vanga Oriolia bernieri
White-headed Vanga Artamella viridis
Crested Drongo Dicrurus forficatus
Madagascar Paradise-flycatcher Terpsiphone mutata
Madagascar Sunbird Cinnyris sovimanga
Madagascar Fody Foudia madagascariensis
Forest Fody Foudia omissa
Nelicourvi Weaver Ploceus nelicourvi
Madagascar Munia Lepidopygia nana
Madagascar Wagtail Motacilla flaviventris
Common Jery Neomixis tenella
Bernieria Bernieria madagascariensis
Short-billed Tetraka Xanthomixis zosterops
Plain Martin Riparia paludicola
Madagascar Bulbul Hypsipetes madagascariensis
Madagascar White-eye Zosterops maderaspatanus
Common Myna Acridotheres tristis
Madagascar Starling Hartlaubius auratus
Madagascar Magpie Robin Copsychus albospecularis
African Stonechat Saxicola torquatus