Thursday 31 August 1995

MADAGASCAR August 1995 (part 3)

This is the final part of my blogged account of a trip to Madagascar with John Cooper, Nick Preston, Barry Stidolph and occasionally Terry (our driver).  This instalment even has some identifiable bird photos!

22 August.  The road to Mora Mora, 20 kms to NW, was too sandy for our fully loaded Renault 20 but we eventually persuaded Terry to take us two at a time and we all arrived without mishap and only a few hairy moments by late morning.  We wouldn’t need Terry for a couple of days so he returned to Toliara with instructions to return for us on 24th.  We checked into the Mora Mora Hotel but unfortunately their enquiries established that top guides Mosa and Masindraka were absent, apparently at a circumcision celebration in another village.  We wandered around the immediate vicinity of Mora Mora, seeing a tame Ring-tailed Lemur, and found another guide who took us into the dry spiny forest when the temperature started to drop mid afternoon.  We had no success finding Long-tailed Ground Roller but our guide did succeed in ‘treeing’ two male Sub-desert Mesites which gave excellent views, placing far too much faith in their camouflage.  We also had a superb Running Coua running.  The areas of spiny forest nearest the road were becoming badly hacked and it was easy to believe that it was the most threatened habitat in Madagascar. I saw  26 species, the other highlight being a pair of Banded Kestrels by the entrance to the forest almost opposite our hotel.  Disappointingly we didn’t seen them again during our stay at Moro Mora.  Also Red-capped and Crested Couas, 2 Madagascar Buttonquail, 2 Madagascar Bush Warblers and 2 Sickle-billed Vangas.
Amazing Baobabs in the spiny forest

just the sort of track I was hoping a ground roller would walk across, one never did
Baobab and spiny shrubs


more spiny stuff
Banded Kestrel

23 August.  Early in the morning we returned to the spiny forest with our guide but again failed to find Long-tailed Ground Roller.  Before it got too hot we did see our first Lafresnaye’s Vanga, Archbold’s Newtonia (2) and Stripe-throated Jery (3) and 2 roosting Madagascar Nightjars were also good.  We visited the saltpans to the south of Mora Mora where, under a scorching sun, we saw a pair of Madagascar Plovers (as well as the commoner Kittlitz’s and White-fronted) and 2 Thamnorinis Warblers.  We returned to the hotel to find that Mosa had returned and soon headed back into the spiny forest with him and our original guide.  Mosa quickly located some tracks crossing the path and told us to wait while he headed off to follow them.  He soon called us over and pointed out a Long-tailed Ground Roller half hidden under a bush.  A brilliant bird and Mosa made it seem so easy finding it!  After two earlier failures we knew otherwise! At dusk a Running Coua was seen flying up into a tree to roost.  A good end to what turned out to be an excellent day, but being Madagascar the species count was very low – an above average 37 for me today.  We also saw two Ring-tailed Lemurs, not quite in the forest but they appeared less tame than yesterday’s.

early morning in the spiny forest
Barry in the spiny forest
me and two amazing trees
more photographically irresistible Baobabs 
Lesser Vasa Parrot

Madagascar Turtle Dove
Crested Coua
24 August.  Another early morning sortie into the spiny forest, this time with Mosa and Masindraka,  who soon located a pair of Long-tailed Ground Rollers and later ‘treed’ a pair of Sub-desert Mesites that were also very approachable and saw the same or another male Lafresnaye’s Vanga.  Excellent.  Back at Mora Mora Terry had arrived and he returned us two at a time to Toliara.  Here we stocked up with some provisions including several tins of what we thought was fruit but turned out to be jam!  What a disappointment when we found out.  We also attempted to bring forward our return flight to Antananarivo although were not able to do so.  Terry drove us the 15 km to La Mangrove – a much better dirt road on which we encountered no problems – before he returned to Toliara.  La Mangrove was a good chalet style hotel with excellent food.  We spent the afternoon walking the dusty road south of La Mangrove through an area of coastal rag (scrub) getting excellent views of 2 Madagascar Green Pigeons and 6 Grey-headed Lovebirds.
Barry, Nick and John waiting for Mosa to tell us he'd tracked down another ground-roller

he had, and we had even better views

treed Sub-desert Mesite
better from the front!
quite a strange bird
and another stunning species
goat eaten scrub on the retreating edge of the forest
25 August.  The wind was unfortunately too strong to allow a visit to the small islet of Nosy Ve and/or Anakao, a village further along the coast, so we spent all morning in searing heat and no shade walking towards St. Augustine and back, not knowing a new Vanga had very recently been discovered on a nearby hillside!  We thought we had asked Terry to drop by at lunchtime in case we needed him but we must have got our wires crossed as he never showed up.  As a result we spent the afternoon around La Mangrove.  I saw 25 species including 2 very smart Verreaux's Couas and 3 Humblot's Herons on what was basically a ‘waiting’ day.

coastal rag along the St Augustine road
26 August.  The wind was still too strong to visit Nosy Ve.  Terry turned up rather sheepishly and we decided it would not be worth driving back to Antananarivo as it would take 2 days.  We therefore sent Terry back early, giving him money for the petrol to get him there.  We spent the day around La Mangrove (on mudflats, walking the road and generally loafing around – it was too hot to do much else).  I saw 24 species, my highlight being nice views of some charming Grey-headed Lovebirds and a Humblot’s Heron while a Madagascar Scops Owl did not call for long enough to enable us to track it down.

La Mangrove
at low tide
27 August.  The wind had finally dropped to allow a boat trip to Nosy Ve although the crossing was a bit rough.  We spent a couple of hours on the island getting amazing views of breeding Red-tailed Tropicbirds and four downy young (20+ in total).  Fortunately they are protected by taboo otherwise I’m sure they would have been eaten, they were so tame.  Also on the island were a White-fronted Sandplover, 20 Crested and 6 Lesser Crested Terns and a bit surprisingly 3 Common Jerys.  We returned via Anakao where an hour was spent in scrub immediately behind the beach.  Here a bit against the clock we found six males and a female Littoral Rock Thrush as well as a pair of Madagascar Buttonquail and a Madagascar Brush Warbler.  The day’s other highlight, out of just 20 species seen was a Madagascar Scops Owl spotlighted outside La Mangrove.
Nosy Ve
Red-tailed Tropicbird, the tail was really thin and hardly visible on this image
spot the tail ...

proud parent
the wire-like tail is visiblw in this image, held almost vertical
28 August.  All day was spent around La Mangrove - walking the road, on the mudflats and generally loafing around.  Very much a dud day that would have been better spent returning to Antananarivo (to give longer at Perinet) but that was not possible due to flight non-availability.  I saw 27 species but little of note with 5 Verreaux’s and 2 Red-capped Couas, a female Madagascar Buttonquail and superb views of Madagascar Magpie Robins the highlight.

29 August.  A final morning around La Mangrove where we had good views of the surprisingly nice Madagascar Green Pigeon (3) before getting a truck to Toliara airport.  We were early and the flight delayed somewhat so we walked to the airport pools where we saw 7 Kittlitz’s Plovers, Marsh and 3 Curlew Sandpipers and 2 Madagascar Bee-eaters.  We caught the late late afternoon flight back to Antananarivo arriving as it was getting dark.  We were met at the airport by Aventour and were taken to their office in town where we had a prolonged argument about their final payment before getting a reasonable reduction on the bill.   We had dismissed Terry early in Toliara when it became obvious there was no benefit in keeping him on (it would have been a smart move to have done this when we first arrived there and chartered taxis as we needed them) and he’d not showed up one day although wires might have been crossed.  His concept of time was quite different from ours although he was often on time, was certainly a good safe driver (very important on Madagascan roads) and we had no major hassles.  Had we the time to use public transport we could have done the trip for very much cheaper, although seeing some of the overcrowded buses it would have been with very little comfort!  We spent the first of two nights at the Hotel Oriental.

me checking the bill at La Mangrove (photo by John Cooper)

30 August.  We left Antananarivo soon after 05:00 heading for Perinet for the day.  We arrived at about 08:00 and soon found Patrice who fortunately had no clients and agreed to take us around for the day, one of the few advantages of being in Madagascar a month before the most other groups go.  The disadvantage was our guides telling us that if we had come a month later everything we were struggling to find would be calling and much easier to see.  We had another enjoyable day with Red-breasted (a last new bird) and 2 Blue Couas, Cuckoo Roller, 2 female Velvet Asities, 4 Nuthatch Vangas and a better view of a Madagascar Starling (and 2 in flight).  Despite excellent views our identification of two perched accipiters as Madagascar Sparrowhawks were, on subsequent information, probably Frances’s – not my favourite genus!  We left for Antananarivo late afternoon and stopped briefly at the marshes near Moramanga where we’d heard Madagascar Rail but drew a complete blank.  I saw 48 species during the day, the second highest on the trip.  Definitely a case of quality over quantity.  It made writing up notes easier too, or would if fewer species were prefixed Madagascar.  A final meal at the Hotel Oriental where my chosing steak was a mistake.  Two days later, and fortunately back home, I was suffering from a severe case of the runs.  Enough to restrict me to a vegetarian or fish diet whenever possible.

31 August.  I went out early and gave my remaining food, including a couple of tins of jam (how useful would that be?) and some old clothes to one of the young families living on the streets of Antananarivo.  A pretty empty gesture I know.  John, Nick and I then said goodbye to Barry and we got a taxi to Ivato airport seeing a Madagascar Kestrel on the way.  We stopped again at Mahe (5+ White-tailed Tropicbirds) and arrived in Moscow the following morning (a few Hooded Crows).  Despite some concerns Aeroflot had been fine and they got us back to Heathrow on time.  It had been a very enjoyable trip, made more so by having such excellent travelling companions.  The quality of the birds seen was almost unprecedented and we all commented that we'd never been anywhere before where such a high proportion of the species seen were absolute stunners.  For someone not usually too excited by mammals, the lemurs were brilliant too.

[blogged January 2014]

Monday 21 August 1995

MADAGASCAR August 1995 (part 2)

Part two of three, this blog continues my account of a trip to Madagascar with John Cooper, Nick Preston, Barry Stidolph and Terry (our driver).

14 August.   With another long drive in prospect we hoped for an early start but in the end we didn’t leave Antananarivo until 11:00 as Terry had to buy a replacement tyre.  We then drove steadily south though some depressingly poor towns and on a worsening road, eventually arriving at Ranomafana at 19:45, just as it started to rain heavily.  There we stayed in a new, but very basic, hotel, the best that I could say for it was that it was reasonably waterproof!  I saw just 13 species, the highlights coming at dusk with Marsh Owl and Barn Owl from the car in quick succession.

15 August.  At first light we set out to find Fidi, the recommended bird guide, but he had heard of our arrival and found us first.  He quickly agreed to guide us during our stay at Ranomafana but unfortunately it was still raining so we birded along the road and visited Vohiparara marsh in the morning.  If anything the rain got heavier and we made a brief excursion into the forest but saw very little and returned to our hotel for the rest of day.  I saw 23 species, the best being a Grey Emutail seen while wading through paddyfields after a Madagascar Snipe.  The others were reluctant to join me but I’d got wet feet anyway.
wet Ranomafana

16 August.  Another day of constant rain.  How long could it last?  We spent most of day guided by Fidi around the forest trails at Ranomafana.  Birding was extremely difficult with little or no vocalisations, bird movements hard to detect amongst dripping leaves and when a bird was seen one’s binoculars had invariably steamed up.  Despite this I saw 20 species including a very impressive male Crossley's Babbler and pairs of Yellow-browed and White-throated Oxylabes although a wet Madagascar Cuckoo-Falcon was not at its best.  We also saw a bedraggled Grey Bamboo Lemur.

superb forest at Ranomafana

17 August.  We woke to find the weather had finally improved and enjoyed an almost rain free day with Fidi on the well laid out (and distance marked) forest trails at Ranomafana.  Despite the greatly improved weather and Ranomafana finally starting to feel like the superb forest site it was I only saw 22 species although they included a brilliant Pitta-like Ground Roller (my most wanted bird in Madagascar), a pair of Madagascar Wood Rails and a Madagascar Pigmy Kingfisher.  The Cuckoo-Falcon hadn’t dried out and we saw Diademed Sifaka and Red-bellied and Grey Bamboo Lemurs.

the bridge at Ranomafana
lots of water in the river

Barry, John & Fidi looking unsuccessfully for Madagascar Flufftail
18 August.  A sunny day on the forest trails at Ranomafana.  We were now concentrating on some of the species we had not yet encountered and Fidi worked hard and skilfully to find most of them for us.  I saw 34 species including brilliant views of a superb Madagascar Flufftail, Rufous-headed Ground Roller and a pair of Brown Mesites.  The former was quite a relief after a couple of very close encounters where the species almost impossibly slipped away unseen.  The latter led us quite a dance but we eventually saw them very well too.  Other highlights were Henst’s Goshawk, 2 Cuckoo Rollers and 2 Velvet Asities while mammals included Diademed Sifaka, a Red-bellied and 3 Greater Bamboo Lemurs and Ring-tailed Mongoose.

Nick on the ridge trail waiting for Brown Mesite
Ring-tailed Mongoose
Red-bellied Lemur

19 August.  This was to be our last full day in the area.  In the morning we returned to Vohiparara, guided by Fidi, we spent the afternoon unguided on the forest trails at Ranomafana (we knew our way around them quite well by now) and were taken by Fidi to a picnic site in the evening for mouse lemurs.  Covering a range of sites I saw 43 species, the highlights three Pitta-like Ground Rollers and a pair of Crossley's Babblers while 2 Eastern Mouse Lemurs almost stole the show.  Amazingly cute!  Other good birds seen included 3 Cuckoo Rollers, Grey Emutail, Crossley’s Babbler, Forest Rock Thrush and Pollen’s Vanga but we failed to pin down a probable Yellow-bellied Sunbird-Asity.  Mammals included a Striped Civet, a pair of Red-bellied Lemurs and 2 Ring-tailed Mongooses and 2 Forest Rats!

Fidi on the lookout at Vohiparara
view over the forest at Vohiparara

Eastern Mouse Lemur tempted into view with half a banana
20 August.  We left Ranomafana at 07:00 and spent three hours on open moorland around a small reservoir northwest of Vohiparara.  We then drove south to Ranohira, arriving at 18:45 after a slight delay due to a section of the dirt road proving almost impassable with some trucks bogged down in mud.  We found a hotel in Ranohira and had a welcome meal.  I saw 29 species, mostly on the moorland where a pair of Reunion Harriers and 4 Madagascar Partridges were excellent.  Other sightings included Henst’s Goshawk, Madagascar Buttonquail and 20 Madagascar Kestrels including a dark morph apparently paired with a pale morph.
reservoir NW of Vohiparara
marshy area nearby

travelling south
Madagascar median age group

John, Nick, Barry and me

further south

roadside farm
the main road south, straight and empty

John reviwing chaos in aftermath of lorries getting stuck in the mud

21 August.  We spent the early morning looking around the 'oasis' where we found Benson’s Rock Thrush and 2 superb Cuckoo Rollers (best views so far) then Terry drove us south to Zombitse for late morning.  In the remaining forest by the main road we found Appert’s Greenbul, rather more pleasing than we’d expected, Crested and Giant Couas, another Cuckoo Roller and 5 Red-fronted Lemurs.  The Giant Couas were rather harder to see than we had anticipated with one walking quite quickly across the trail and another flushed at dusk.  We continued south a short distance to Sakaraha for provisions returning to Zombitse for late afternoon to prepare for an owling session.  We successfully spotlighted 2 White-browed and a grey Madagascar Scops Owl.  We considered finding somewhere to stay in Sakaraha and returning to Zombitse the following morning for better views of Giant Coua but the village hadn’t seemed very inviting and we were keen to get to the spiny forest at Ifaty.  We left Zombitse after dark and drove the couple of hours to Toliara where we stayed in unmemorable hotel.

The Oasis

weird plant

Benson's Rock Thrush!
Cuckoo Roller.  Stunning bird, rubbish pic
heading south again
Madagascar Bush Lark
isolated trees near Zombitse
forest trail at Zombitse
Madagascar Bee-eater