The heaviest bird that ever existed, the Elephant Bird, lived in Madagascar and may actually have survived until only 300 years ago. The Musée de l’Académie in Antananarivo has the only complete skeleton, but the rest of this great red island is even today so full of strange and wonderful life forms that we’ll soon understand how something as astounding as the 1000-pound Elephant Bird could have developed here. To most of us, Madagascar is a place where evolution has run wild. Of the 198 nesting birds, 106 are endemic and another 25 are limited to the ‘Malagasy Region’. There are no fewer than seven endemic families and 32 endemic genera. It’s a mind-boggling degree of endemism.
Our trip will be oriented towards the endemic birds and mammals, and we’ll spend most of our time in the eastern rainforest, the western deciduous woodland, and the southern spiny desert. In addition to the birds, we’ll look at everything natural in Madagascar – plants, reptiles and insects – as well as experience Madagascar’s friendly and hospitable people and sample widely from its delicious cuisine.
Day 1: The trip begins this evening in Antananarivo (Tana). Night in Tana.
Days 2-3: We’ll depart early on day 2 for the airport (conveniently close to our hotel) and a flight to Mahajanga. On arrival we’ll transfer to Ankarafantsika Reserve, one of the last stands of western deciduous forest. Many bird species here are among the last of their kind. The bizarre endemic family of mesites, of unknown taxonomic affinity, is represented by White-breasted Mesite. Another endemic family, the remarkably variable vangas, is represented by White-headed, Blue, Chabert’s, Rufous, Hook-billed, Van Dam’s, and the extraordinary Sickle-billed. One of the rarest, Van Dam’s, may be found ripping into rotten wood with its heavy hooked bill. A third endemic family, the asitys, are present in the form of Schlegel’s Asity, but they are very scarce and difficult to locate. We’ll also be looking for the bizarre Madagascar Crested Ibis, Madagascar Fish-Eagle, Madagascar Buzzard, France’s Sparrowhawk, and Coquerel’s, Red-capped, and Crested Couas. A large dam nearby could produce Humblot’s Heron and Madagascar Jacana. In addition to birds, Madagascar is also renowned for its unique reptile and mammal fauna. We should be able to locate some fantastic chameleons, including Oustalet’s, the world’s largest, which can be up to a meter long. There are a number of lemur species, and with persistence we should see Brown, Western Woolly, Milne-edwards Sportive and the diminutive Gray Mouse Lemurs, but it would take much greater fortune to see the nocturnal Mongoose and Golden Mouse Lemurs. The agile Coquerel’s Siffakas are frequently in the camping area. Nights in Ankarafantsika.
Day 4: After a final morning in the Ankarafantsika Reserve, we’ll return to Mahajanga and fly back to Tana. Night in Tana.
Day 5-7: We’ll set off early on day 5 for the long journey toward the large university city of Fianarantsoa. Shortly before the city we’ll turn eastward to the magnificent Ranomafana National Park, arriving in the early evening. Ranomafana National Park will provide our first look at the eastern rainforest, the richest region in Madagascar for all forms of wildlife. We will have nearly three full days here, which will allow us to sample most of the area’s specialties. The Golden Bamboo Lemur was discovered here in 1986, and almost simultaneously the Greater Bamboo Lemur, once thought extinct, was rediscovered. These events led to the park’s creation. Birds have profited from these discoveries, and we’ll be alert for the huge Henst’s Goshawk, the timid Brown Mesite, Madagascar Wood Rail, the stunning Blue Coua, the secretive Yellowbrow,and mixed flocks containing Spectacled and Gray-crowned Tetraka, spectacular Pitta-like Ground-Roller, Green Jery, and (following recent taxonomic changes) Rand’s Tetraka. The more highland forest areas produce a different group of birds including Rufous-headed Ground-Roller, Brown Emutail, and the very elusive but stunning and sometimes very confiding Yellow-bellied Sunbird-Asity. In the nearby river and swamps we could find the greatly endangered Meller’s Duck, plus Madagascar Pratincole, Madagascar Snipe, and (with luck) Madagascar Partridge. Gray Emutails (now re-christened with the rather boring name of Madagascar Grassbird) hide in the rank marshy grasses of the swamps. In these highland areas the secretive Milne-edward’s Siffaka may be found. We will also have a night walk for the curious and varied frog fauna, and usually find a number of sleeping chameleons and quaint Rufous Mouse Lemurs. Butterflies can be spectacular if there has been good rainfall (and there usually has). Nights at Ranomafana.
Day 8: After another nearly full day in Ranomafana we’ll depart and drive for our overnight stay in the city of Fianarantsoa, from where we’ll get an early start the following morning to the Anja Lemur Reserve. Night in Fianarantsoa.
Day 9: Shortly after breakfast we’ll depart Fianarantsoa and drive to the Anja Lemur Reserve. Some enterprising locals, seeing that Ring-tailed Lemurs were fast disappearing from the region, set aside their rocky hill as a reserve, which now hosts several large family groups. This reserve brings these entrepreneurs a reasonable income and encourages them to protect the area.
Afterwards we’ll head for the Jaccaranda Restaurant, a small pleasant establishment run by the community. If the shop is open, we’ll be able to purchase special papier antaimora, paper with pressed flowers. We’ll pass through some stunning scenery with vast monolithic granite formations before crossing the flat Plateau l’Horombe. Here we’ll keep a watchful eye out for the dapper Madagascar Harrier, and we’ll eventually arrive at the exquisite Hotel Relais de la Reine in Isalo National Park. Night at Relais de la Reine.
Day 10: Often the local endemic Benson’s Rock Thrush is the first bird to greet us after our early wake up, as it has found the roof of the lodge to its liking. The dawn might also reveal Greater Vasa Parrot, Madagascar Lark, or Madagascar Cisticola. There is a seasonal pond that we will walk down to which in the past has provided birds such as Madagascar Little Grebe, Madagascar Pond Heron, Baillon’s Crake, and Madagascar Sandgrouse. Later, we have the entire day to explore Isalo National Park, including a visit to the beautiful “La Piscine Naturel,” where Ring-tailed Lemurs and Verreaux’s Siffakas can be found. Night at Relais de la Reine.
Day 11: After an early breakfast we’ll continue our journey to Zombitse Forest, where we’ll stop to look for Giant Coua and the endemic Appert’s Greenbul, found only here! Other birds may include Banded Kestrel, Cuckoo-Roller, and Madagascar Sandgrouse. The largest of all the diurnal green geckoes, the spectacular Standing’s, is found here. Sleepy Verreaux’s Siffakas might look curiously down on us and Rufous-tailed Dwarf Lemurs will peer at us from their tree cavities. After our picnic lunch we’ll continue to Tulear, stopping before reaching the city to have an initial search for the very local and scarce Verreaux’s Coua and the recently described Red-shouldered Vanga (the latest census of the species revealed only thirteen pairs known). Then we’ll continue another 40km to Ifaty, arriving at our lodgings in the early evening. Night in Ifaty.
Day 12: In the morning we’ll have our first look at the bizarre spiny forest for which the region is renowned. Among the stunted baobabs, sinister-looking didiereas, and assortment of sclerophyllous plants we’ll look for such birds as Sub-Desert Mesite, Running Coua, Kiritika (formerly Thamnornis Warbler), Archbold’s Newtonia, Sub-Desert Brush Warbler, and Lafresnaye’s Vanga. With a little luck, a search might yield the difficult-to-find Long-tailed Ground-Roller. Two butterflies attract attention here, firstly the giant swallowtail Pharmacophagus, a close relative of the New Guinea Birdwings, and the stunning Morpho Pansy, as bright a blue as there is. After lunch we’ll search extensive swamps that harbor widespread though secretive species such as Little Bittern, Purple Swamphen, and Greater Painted-snipe. There are frequent outbursts from other rails plus a variety of herons, ducks, and waders. Along the muddy bays, if the tide is low, we should see migrant waders: Greater Sandplovers trotting across the mudflats with Curlew Sandpipers, and maybe flamingoes. Near the salt fields there is often a pair of the increasingly rare Madagascar Plover. The sand dunes are surprisingly rich in reptiles, and the curious Three-eyed Lizard (with a primitive pineal eye on top of its head) will scatter before us. Night in Tulear.
Day 13: Depending on what we have not yet seen, we will have some early birding in the Tulear area before catching our flight back to Tana. The afternoon at the Relais des Plateaux will be at leisure but may include the option of a trip to the Artisanal Market for a souvenir shop! Night in Tana.
Days 14-16: On the morning of day 14 we’ll leave for Perinet, perhaps the best known of Madagascar’s reserves, as it is home to the largest of all the lemurs, the tail-less Indri. Our accommodation will be adjacent to the neighboring Mantadia National Park, where many species not found in Perinet/Analamazaotra can be seen with relative ease. The understory provides cover for all four species of rainforest ground-roller including Scaly and Short-legged. The extremely wary Red-breasted Coua is on the edge of its range here and lives in the shade of the luxuriant growth with Red-fronted Coua. Mixed flocks of vangas and flycatchers often contain the extraordinary Nuthatch Vanga as well as Ward’s (Flycatcher) Vanga and Nelicourvi Weaver. Both Velvet and Common Sunbird-Asitys are not uncommon, but the latter is often difficult to see well in the forest, and other birds here include Madagascar Rail, Madagascar Flufftail, and Madagascar Spinetail. In the nearby Analamazaotra Reserve, in addition to appreciating Indris, we’ll look for roosting Collared Nightjar (whose song is still unknown), Madagascar Long-eared Owl, Madagascar Crested Ibis, Wedge-tailed Jery, and Forest Fody. We will not forget the lemurs, with luck adding Greater Dwarf Lemur, Common Bamboo Lemur, Eastern Avahi, and possibly even Black-and-white Ruffed Lemur to our list. On night walks we should encounter a good variety of frogs and some more spectacular Chameleons such as Parson’s and Short-nosed. Nights in Mantadia.
Day 17: After a final morning birding in these rich forests we’ll have our last delicious lunch and bid farewell to Perinet. We’ll drive back to Tana, stopping along the way if opportunities present themselves. Night in Tana.
Day 18: This morning we’ll visit the private garden of Tsaratsaotra, where a lake protected by the resident Malgasche family holds a breeding colony of several species of heron. Among the more widespread Great and Cattle Egrets are numerous Dimorphic and Black Egrets, and with the abundant Squacco Herons are a few pairs of Madagascar Pond Herons. Along with the many White-faced Whistling-Ducks and Red-billed Teal we might find a few Fulvous Whistling-Ducks, Knob-billed Ducks, and the diminutive Hottentot Teal. Other endemic birds found here include Madagascar Kestrel, Madagascar Coucal, Madagascar White-eye, Madagascar Swamp Warbler, Madagascar Brush Warbler, Madagascar Red Fody, and Madagascar Mannikin. We shall have our lunch at a local restaurant and in the afternoon visit the nearby Tsimbazaza Botanical Gardens where apart from a few endemics in captivity we will hopefully get to see the only complete Elephant Bird skeleton in existence. Night in Tana.
Day 19: The main tour concludes this morning in Tana.
CAP MASOALA EXTENSION
Day 19: We’ll leave early for the airport and our morning flight to Maroantsetra in northeast Madagascar. Since we have to take a small boat from Maroantsetra to Cap Masoala, we’ll leave what we don’t require in storage in Tana. We’ll quickly depart from the docks and cross the Baie d’Antongil. If the tides are favorable we may see groups of Crab Plover shortly before we cross towards the unique but threatened Masoala National Park. If the winds aren’t favorable we’ll spend the night in Maroantsetra and leave early the next morning. Night in Cap Masoala.
Days 20-21: On arrival at our bush lodging we’ll have lunch and in the afternoon enter the forest for our first look. Many of the species we have seen at Perinet and Ranomafana are here as well and will be familiar to us. Species we’ll be looking for in the forest include Helmet Vanga, certainly the most bizarre-looking bird on the island; vaguely like a small hornbill but dressed in attractive black and tan. Its most spectacular feature is the enormous bill, impressive enough for its size but rendered unforgettable in fluorescent day-glow blue! Far rarer is the dowdy all-black Bernier’s Vanga, the barred female being more attractive. Two other very special species that are present here are Red Owl and Madagascar Serpent-Eagle. If the diligent researchers (seasonally resident on the Cap) have located territories, we may have a chance of seeing these two (but they are not found every year). The Scaly Ground-Roller, probably the most attractive of this endemic family, is not uncommon and can be absurdly indifferent in contrast with its behavior elsewhere. The colorful Red-breasted Coua is also quite numerous. We have two full days at this location and we’ll make a valiant attempt at finding many of these species.
One of the most impressive lemur species, the large Red-ruffed Lemur is only found here and hopefully during our stay we will encounter a family. The habitat here is lush, with heavy, regular rainfall. The herp fauna is impressive, and includes both the world’s smallest frog and the smallest lizard; a minute terrestrial chameleon. The spectacular butterflies and impressive plant life here are nearly all endemic. Nights in Cap Masoala.
Day 22: After a final early morning on Cap Masoala, we’ll again cross the Baie d’Antongil by boat for our return, but as the flight is not until mid-afternoon we will visit the island paradise of Nosy Mangabe. In this idyllic tropical lush setting we can appreciate the diverse reptile and frog fauna, have close encounters with lemurs, as well as birds. We will have a picnic lunch here, and afterwards complete the short crossing to Maroansetra to catch our flight back to Tana. Night in Tana.
Day 23: The tour extension concludes this morning in Tana.