Madagascar Highlights Nov 07—22, 2015

Posted by Dion Hobcroft

Hobcroftdion

Dion Hobcroft

Dion Hobcroft has been working for VENT since 2001. He has led many tours (more than 160) to Australia, New Guinea, New Zealand, Bhutan, Indonesia, India, China, Southwest ...

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Our tour did not start exactly as planned, as the leader suffered the ignominious fate of a cancelled flight “due to mechanical issues” and arrived 24 hours behind schedule. As Ned Kelly lamented, “Such is life,” but thanks to our fabulous ground agent and good friend Fano, the group all arrived as expected and made it to the remote southwest coast of Madagascar to the town of Tulear. Here the local guide Freddy kicked into gear, and by the time I had arrived, the group had already amassed a list of Madagascan endemics including such special birds as Verreaux’s Coua and Red-shouldered Vanga in the coral scrub at “La Table,” while the Spiny Forest revealed such megas as Subdesert Mesite at a nest (with three birds in attendance), the scarce Banded Kestrel, and the sought after Long-tailed Ground-Roller. Relieved to have caught up with the folks on this tour, we headed out to a coastal salt marsh where, after a bit of searching, we located a fine Madagascan Plover, a rare species. Back in the Spiny Forest we had a bit of unfinished business that was resolved when a stupendous pair of Sickle-billed Vangas materialized. They allowed astonishing views as they probed Octopus trees at close range. On the walk out, a Madagascan Harrier-Hawk adopted an unusual posture, looking almost egg bound near a hastily constructed nest. A Lesser Hedgehog Tenrec was a big hit. These mammalian insectivores belong to a Madagascan endemic mammal family. Around our beautiful hotel we located more widespread species like the noisy Lesser Vasa-Parrot and luminous Gray-headed Lovebirds, while at night a Torotoroka Scops-Owl was located.

Sickle-billed Vanga

Sickle-billed Vanga— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

The next morning we headed south, making a few opportunistic stops at various coastal mudflats and near coastal marshes. Our first stop revealed the first Madagascan Cuckoo calling “coco-coco” in the scope. The Three-banded Plover, here of a distinctive chocolate subspecies (recently split by Birdlife International), showed well. Coastal mudflats turned up Terek Sandpiper and Greater Sand-Plover, and a freshwater marsh wowed us with a juvenile Greater Painted-Snipe, our first Madagascan Swamp-Warblers, and, for some folks who could peer into the reeds and get the angle, a Baillon’s Crake, a difficult species to encounter over much of its global range. In the late morning we visited the fabulous D’Antsokoray Arboretum, built by an intrepid Swiss botanist over several decades to showcase the extraordinary plant life in this arid region. As we walked through the gardens learning about the different applications the local tribal people used the plants for, we also spotted quite a few things of interest including several nesting birds. One of the most unusual sightings was a trio of Commerson’s Leaf-nosed Bats roosting in the roof of a building. Also seen at its day roost was a Gray-brown Mouse Lemur. Nesting birds included Common Jery, the flamboyant Madagascar Paradise-Flycatcher and, best of all, the supremely camouflaged Madagascar Nightjar. After a superb lunch we hit the road for the drive to Isalo National Park through the sapphire fields region. On this drive we had a really lucky break when we located a flock of Madagascar Sandgrouse that flew perfectly alongside the bus. Recent heavy showers meant this species was not coming into its traditional drinking pools. Eventually the sandstone pagodas of Isalo came into view, and we set up in the extraordinary hotel for a two-night stay.

Cuckoo-Roller, female

Cuckoo-Roller, female— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

Our pre-breakfast search for the Madagascan Partridge was made significantly easier when the leader, who arrived just a little before the schedule, found a fine pair of partridges cruising across the road. With everyone assembled, we did a quick pincer maneuver and enjoyed two flight views of this often very shy and arduous bird to locate. Exploring the sandstone, we enjoyed the “Benson’s” Forest Rock-Thrush with a supporting cast of more widely distributed endemics like the Madagascan Hoopoe, Madagascan Wagtail, and Gray-headed Lovebird. We headed to the deep sand vine forests of Zombitse and enjoyed an extraordinary procession of rare Madagascan wildlife. First we found a female Cuckoo-Roller perched down low and were amazed when the male flew in and fed her a stick insect. Our first Oustalet’s Chameleon was located at the same time. A troop of the stunning Verreaux’s Sifaka was, as ever, a big hit. Then it was down to business, as in quick succession we located Giant Coua, Coquerel’s Coua, a male Rufous Vanga on a nest, and had a classic Madagascan experience as the local guides shepherded a pair of the highly range restricted Appert’s Tetraka to within a meter of us. After lunch we trekked in to see a delightful White-browed Owl perched in a thicket. With our mission largely completed, we headed back to the hotel for a siesta. On dusk we were serenaded by a Torotoroka Scops-Owl that gave some brief bomb-over views, but refused to settle, and had some fun watching the frog-eating snake Madagascarophis.

Red-tailed Tropicbird

Red-tailed Tropicbird— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

 

 

 

 

 

 

The following morning we walked in to a sandstone gully with well-developed pockets of riparian forest. This location in the Isalo National Park is home to Madagascar’s best known lemur species, the Ring-tailed Lemur. Living in extended matriarchal clans, it took just a short while before we heard some guttural vocalizations, and soon we were perched amongst the troop and enjoying their antics. They were joined by a single Verreaux’s Sifaka. Poor Fano disturbed a wasp nest and was stung several times, each time accompanied by an ear-splitting howl! It took a little while to figure out what was going on, but luckily none of the group were stung. We found another three Oustalet’s Chameleons and rescued one off the road to prevent it from being hit. On the return drive to Tulear we made a return visit to Zombitse. The endemic Zombitse Sportive Lemur had reversed into its log hollow shelter site the previous day before everyone in the group had managed to see it. This time we had success for all.

The first priority of the following day was a boat trip to the island of Nosy Ve, best known for its protected colony of nesting Red-tailed Tropicbirds. They performed well, and we were able to get close to both adults and a fledgling. The leader was somewhat excited to spot a Great Frigatebird, the first of seven for the day. This large piratic seabird is seldom encountered on this itinerary. The usual scattering of terns and shorebirds included White-fronted Plover, Greater and Lesser Crested terns, and even a pair of Gray Herons and a rare, dark morph Dimorphic Egret (most in this country being white morphs). Unfortunately the Crab Plover was missing in action, although we had already been made aware that this was the case by previous visiting birders.  A short crossing later and we were ensconced in the superb Anakao Ocean Resort. After a rest and delicious lunch, we went for a walk in the nearby dune plant community. Here there were several Littoral Rock-Thrushes, and the Subdesert Brush-Warbler was also quite abundant.

Sooty Falcon

Sooty Falcon— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

 

What was largely a travel day had us returning by boat to Tulear. An on-time departure to Antananarivo by the famously erratic “Mad Air” was well-appreciated. In the afternoon we had time to explore the gardens of our hotel. We enjoyed a bunch of fairly common endemic birds, especially a cooperative pair of the often quite skulky Madagascar Brush-Warblers. A real bonus though, was a fine perched Sooty Falcon that was present for an hour or so. We could share our discovery with another arriving birding group and make more folks happy! Sooty Falcon is a cliff-nesting species in the Middle East that is a scarce migrant to Madagascar.

Having done so well in the Spiny Forest of the arid southwest of Madagascar, it was now time to turn our attention to the humid rainforests of the northeast. First though, we needed to visit Lac Alarobia, a large, privately protected wetland on the outskirts of the capital city. Here there are large numbers of ducks (White-faced Whistling, and Red-billed and Hottentot teal) and nesting herons (Great, Dimorphic, and Western Cattle egrets, Squacco Heron, and Black-crowned Night-Heron). The main quest is to find the rare Madagascan Pond-Heron; with its snowy white mane and cerulean-blue facial skin, this is a fine bird. We located some five individuals for extended scope views (even if they did play up and down periscope in the reed beds on many occasions!). Also well-received were five of the rare endemic Meller’s Duck. Unfortunately, this location that was often good for the giant Comb Duck seems to have suffered a steady decline in recent years, probably due to hunting pressure when they feed in ricefields at night. This year there were none! Putting Tana in the rear vision mirror and heading north and then east to Andasibe-Perinet, we made required stops that produced the first of about ten Hamerkops and then a pair of delightful Madagascan Pratincoles at the Mangoro River. Upon arrival at Andasibe we went straight to twitch a day-roosting adult Madagascan Long-eared Owl, and the results were spectacular. It had been a great day.

 
Oustalet's Chameleon

Oustalet’s Chameleon— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

Things were going to get even better as there was breaking news that a pair of Helmet Vangas had been located the day before. This, one of the rarest and most sought after of all endemics, had never been possible on this itinerary before. The typical location for this unique bird is the remote Masoala Peninsula, requiring a return flight, several hour boat trip, and a long search through often steep terrain! So the stars had aligned, but this bird does not give itself up easily, and it was going to be quite ambitious to get all the folks in and out of the remote forest site. With four “four wheel drive” vehicles, we made the ninety-minute drive crossing several rickety log bridges. Then we commenced our hike with all participants doing well on the increasingly narrow forest trail. The birding was spectacular as we began to find several new species including Blue and Red-fronted couas, Rand’s Warbler, a Madagascar Pygmy Kingfisher and, best of all, a stunning male Velvet Asity like a perched avian black hole with luminous emerald caruncles!  Eventually we made it to the site and held our breath when bang, in swooped a Helmet Vanga. Wow, and what a privilege to enjoy these rare birds. The participants were also thrilled to see both the comical Lowland Streaked Tenrec and the amazing Brookesia superciliaris, a diminutive forest chameleon that was amazingly spotted by our extraordinarily gifted local leader! Back at the vehicles, it had been a great result and there were a lot of smiles around as people realized their fortune in seeing this mythical bird. Many thanks to the local team who assisted us; it would have been impossible without their patience and skill.

Helmet Vanga

Helmet Vanga— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

Our next full day was focused on the Mantadia National Park, another beautiful rainforest site with some tall emergent trees and crystal-clear streams on a sand base. This is ground-roller country, and we were off to a great start when a Pitta-like Ground-Roller was located and perched up superbly on some curled vines for a lengthy study. After an extended search we located a stunning Scaly Ground-Roller that moved in and out of view like a forest ghost before settling for some exquisite studies of what is perhaps the most intricately plumaged of this endemic Madagascan family. Unfortunately, the peace and serenity collapsed with the arrival of a noisy photographic group who stampeded through the forest in wildebeest fashion, swinging their lenses and having little insight into bird behavior. Luckily the ground-roller slipped away across the stream for a bit of peace and quiet. We did the same. While having lunch, we had a strange encounter as we watched a Colubrid snake seize a large frog, and despite the frog’s desperate measures, consume it. Well, we all have to have lunch. Breaking news now of a Short-legged Ground-Roller and we were back in the forest, and after a short hike we enjoyed great views; a three ground-roller day, always a big event. With a hot day and unrelenting blue skies, we returned to the hotel for a siesta. In the late afternoon we did some roadside birding and picked up a Madagascar Green-Pigeon, two Madagascar Blue-Pigeons, a troop of Brown Lemurs and, best of all, a pair of the scarce Nuthatch Vanga that allowed scope studies and excellent photographic opportunities. On dusk we took a night walk and enjoyed the beautiful frog Boophis viridis following on from the psychedelic Mantella baroni we had encountered earlier in the day. Just at the end, we had a great view of a pair of actively foraging Crossley’s Dwarf-Lemurs.

 
Indri

Indri— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

   

 

 

 

 

 

A morning in the main reserve at Perinet worked out extraordinarily well, one of the best of the tour. As we walked in, we picked up a fine pair of White-throated Rails bathing in a stream. This was a catch-up species for many folks. Next we located a day-roosting Rainforest Scops-Owl perched less than a meter from our noses! Further into the forest we found first a rare Collared Nightjar nesting in an Asplenium fern. While taking in this gem, a pair of Madagascar Wood-Rails came foraging past us. Strange looking birds these. On a roll folks, on a roll! Next, a troop of the drop-dead gorgeous Diademed Sifaka, Fano’s favorite lemur to be sure, suspended themselves over our heads and leapt in acrobatic fashion for a superlative encounter. Then we strolled downhill and tried a new technique for me with the rare Madagascan Crested Ibis which is a forest species. With playback the bird strolled out of the forest and gave several decent views before, yet again, the bird photographers materialized like a rugby scrum and the ibis dashed away. Fortunately everyone saw it! We moved back up hill when we heard the powerful hooting territorial song of the Indri, the world’s largest surviving lemur and a must-see on any Madagascan tour. Our great luck continued with mum, dad, and baby Indri appearing overhead. They even vocalized for us, their incredible ear-splitting yowls one of the most extraordinary calls in the natural world. But wait, there was more—this morning was becoming like one of those TV commercials for a free set of steak knives! What is that moving in the foliage but a giant emerald-green Parson’s Chameleon. This discovery led to another, a family party of four Eastern Avahi, a nocturnal species of woolly lemur roosting in a vine tangle. Then there were sightings of Long-billed and Spectacled tetrakas, three more Nuthatch Vangas, a Red-fronted Coua, an adult Common Tenrec, and a Madagascan Tree Boa. What an incredible morning. The afternoon would be impossible to follow up after this.  We did have success with the elusive Red-breasted Coua, a cryptic species that can give you the slip. We also found another Madagascan Tree Boa, while a France’s Sparrowhawk perched in thick jungle proved difficult for the folks to pin down.

Short-legged Ground-Roller

Short-legged Ground-Roller— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

Our last full day in Madagascar arrived and we opted to visit Anturoturofutsy Wetlands, now protected under the RAMSAR convention for wetlands of international significance. On the previous year it had been too flooded to access, but conditions this year were much better. As we walked out we found a pair of Gray Emutails that indulged in some aerial display flights and gave extraordinary views, the humid, overcast conditions no doubt helping with this skulker. Several giant Madagascan Snipes were seen in flight, several at close range. The Madagascan Rail was frustrating for some folks, but obliging to others, and we flushed another Madagascan Partridge, saw a bonus male Little Bittern, and had good views of Forest Fody. Returning to Vakona we gave the Madagascan Flufftail a last roll of the dice, and it crept out and showed well if briefly several times, even calling in a shaded thicket for long views for some participants. After this we went to check out a captive lemur island where Black and White Ruffed, Brown, and the gentle Bamboo lemurs could be hand fed. Heading back to Tana we made a last stop after Coco and Marcella found a Mossy Leaf-tailed Gecko to show us. This master of camouflage was the last addition to our natural history notebooks for this tour. After a comfortable night we were outward bound.