Sunday, 13 August 1995

MADAGASCAR August 1995 (part 1)

The following blog relates to a trip done with John Cooper, Nick Preston and Barry Stidolph.  John's more detailed and better illustrated report of the same trip, including photos of some identifiable birds(!!), can be found at

Barry arrived in Madagascar two days before the rest of us and his earlier arrival enabled him to start negotiations with tour firm Aventour who had not replied to faxes or letters sent from the UK.  We ended up hiring a saloon car and driver for just over 3 weeks plus 3 internal flights at a cost of approximately £650 each which we considered rather expensive.  The Aeroflot flight cost about £500 (half the price of Air France and we touched down at Mahe) and we spent another £250 each on food, petrol, accommodation, guides and boat hire.  Another British group (Jeff Blincow, Nigel Goodgame and Mark Piper) were in Madagascar at the same time (we went out and back on the same Aeroflot flights).  They visited all the same sites and had a 4WD vehicle, driver and courier.  Their trip was significantly more expensive than ours but was less hassle to organise from the UK and they did see more birds than we did, in particular by booking in advance they were able to spend longer at Ambanizana, our options there being restricted by reduced flight availability. 

Birding in Madagascar is brilliant.  The reserves are good with good systems of trails and excellent and very knowledgeable English-speaking bird guides.  The accommodation is basic (camping the only real option in some places) and the roads bad, although we got everywhere we wanted in a saloon car (fairly cosy for 4 + driver).  For someone with two young children I found the poverty in places quite upsetting.

1 August.  We flew with Aeroflot from Heathrow to Moscow where we had some initial consternation that none of the departure boards mentioned our onward flight to Antanarivo but we checked all the gates until we found it.

2 August.  We flew from Moscow to Antananarivo with stops at Dubhai and at Mahe in the Seychelles.  Here 25 White-tailed Tropicbirds were flying around the cliff face above the terminal building which got the trip off to a brilliant start.  We arrived in Antananarivo mid afternoon, were met by Barry Stidolph and went to Aventour with whom Barry had started negotiations to sort out travel arrangements (they had not replied to faxes or letters sent from the UK).  We decided to include a visit to Ambanizana for Helmet Vanga, very much at Barry's insistence, but flight irregularity allowed either 2 or 6 days there (4 would have been ideal).  We opted for the former but as it turned out the latter would have been better.  Aventour provided a package of 3 internal flights (to and from Maroantsetra and returning from Tulear) and a car and driver (Renault 20 and Terry).    It transpired that it was Terry's car and Aventour were subcontractors.  We paid 4,000 French Francs a week and petrol which we thought quite pricey for an old Renualt 20.  Terry paid for his food and accommodation although we fed him fairly regularly ourselves.  We felt if we'd had time we might have done better by arranging a 'private' charter with a taxi driver but the car was fine, if a little squashed, for driver plus four of us and luggage which was our main concern.  Once sorted and with the majority of the payment made we drove the 120 kms to Perinet as it was getting dark.  It was one of Madagascar’s better roads and took under 3 hours.  There we stayed in chalets at the Hotel Fion Nyala.
Mahe Airport, White-tailed Tropicbirds on the cliffs behind
our Aeroflot plane
Mahe runway
leaving Mahe
driving in to Antananarivo
3 August.  We were up at dawn, in Madagascar and full of expectation.  We moved our stuff to the rather old and a bit seedy Hotel de la Gare (the better Nyala was full, but it made little difference to us as we were out most of the day) and soon engaged recommended local guide Patrice for two days.  The main advantage of being in Madagascar earlier than most birding trips (October/November is recognised as the best time) was that the best bird guides were less likely to be booked.  Patrice had his own tapes of bird songs and was very sharp.  He took us around his ‘normal’ circuit seeing 36 new birds and several Lemurs including an Indri.  The trails at Perinet were very good and easy to follow but we were told that visitors were not allowed in the forest without a guide, although this may have been a ruse on their part.  In any event we were very pleased to have Patrice with us.  Highlights were brilliant views of Short-legged Ground Roller, Cuckoo Roller, 6 Vangas and our only Red-fronted Coua, Madagascar Little Grebe (on the lake near our chalets) and Dark Newtonias of trip.
Nick outside the Fion Nyala chalets
Lake at Perinet, we saw our only Madagascar Little Grebe here
John on a bridge at Perinet
a colouful chameleon

4 August.  We were guided again by Patrice, spending an excellent morning at Maromiza which was at a higher elevation.  In the afternoon we visited some marshes 16km east of Moramanga where we heard but could not see Madagascar Rail.  We returned to Perinet in the evening and wandering around seeing little in the rain.  I saw 45 species, the highlights being brilliant views of Rufous-headed Ground Roller, male Velvet Asity, Brown Emutail and Forest Rock Thrush (all at Maromiza).  Frustratingly I nearly trod on a calling flufftail without seeing it and we had no luck with Collared Nightjar.  Another night at Hotel de la Gare.
views from Maromiza

5 August.  We returned to Antananarivo making a brief stop at the marshes near Maromiza on the way but we failed to even hear the rail.  Terry dropped us off at the airport and we flew to Maroantsetra arriving early afternoon.  The very unimpressive terminal building there did not even have a road leading to it.  This rather set the standard for the town, as we found when we got a taxi into it.  We stayed at the inappropriately named Hotel Coco Beach (the recommended Hotel Tropical being closed) and found (non-birding) guide Augustine who arranged for a boat to take us to Ambanizana on the notoriously wet Masoala Peninsular the following morning and helped us buy food for our visit.  Fortunately a woman in the village there would cook it for us.  I saw just 16 species missing probably the best, the only Mellor’s Ducks of the trip, 2 seen flying over by Barry and John.  Highlights were a Madagascar Malachite Kingfisher at Perinet and a Striped Tenrec by the chalets at Coco Beach.
Maroantsetra Airport Terminal Building!
6 August.  Our boat left soon after dawn arriving at Ambanizana after an uncomfortably choppy three hour crossing (it could have been longer if it had been a full moon and stronger tides).  The early start was essential as the wind picks up during day making boat journeys across the bay more dangerous and ours felt risky enough as it was, especially as the boat had no safety or communications equipment.  I was very pleased and, with memories of being adrift off Sorong in 1993 fresh in my mind, quite relieved to arrive.  After putting up tents in a compound in the small village, and Augustine arranging a local woman to cook food for us, we headed for the main trail up into the hills.  We spent the rest of the day on the muddy trail, which climbed steeply up and along a ridge, but despite reasonable weather initially we saw very little and heavy rain in the afternoon and evening did not help.  Another day with just 16 species seen but they included a brilliant Madagascar Pygmy Kingfisher and a superbly disapproving rufous Madagascar Scops Owl spotlighted in the compound after dark.
passing Nosy Mangabe
arrival at Ambanizana
our boat
7 August.  We spent most of day on main trail at Ambanizana finishing in the clearing by compound.  It was raining heavily for most of the day but despite the weather I saw 36 species with obvious highlights being 3 Helmet and 3 Rufous and a White-headed Vanga in a mixed bird flock along the ridge in the rain.  John had bashed his toe which had swollen up making walking painful and he didn’t come out initially.  This caused us some consternation when we found the Helmet Vangas and we were about to return to let him know when he appeared coming up the trial, not having left much later than us after all.  We all enjoyed good views before they moved off.  Not a bird any of us had wanted to miss or really expected to see before arriving in Madagascar.  We were very grateful for Barry’s insistence in visiting Ambanizana to try for them.  Another night camping in the compound and a test on the waterproofness of our tents – we later learned that there was a chalet in the village that we could have arranged the use of through the Coco Beach Hotel in Maroantsetra!
heading to the forest trail
views from the forest trail during a pleasant break in the weather

8 August.  Better weather and an early morning around the clearing at Ambanizana prior to getting our boat back to Maroantsetra before the wind picked up.  Another choppy crossing and we were pleased when it was over.  We stayed around the Coco Beach Hotel for the rest of the day as there was little else to do.  Ideally we would have liked longer at Ambanizana but flight availability did not allow it.  In hindsight we should have made more of an effort to get a bird guide, little did we know how good they could be.  Scaly Ground Roller would have to wait for another time.  I saw 31 species, but with no new birds my highlight was a pair of Nelcourvi Weavers building a nest.
leaving Ambanizana

rainbow at sea
back past Nosy Mangabe
9 August.  More kicking of heels around the Coco Beach Hotel hoping the Mellor’s Duck might fly over again but they did not and Madagascar Malachite Kingfisher and Chabert’s Vanga were the most notable sightings.  We returned to the airport to catching the midday flight to Antananarivo.  The weather had closed in a bit and it had to make a couple of passes before putting down.  Perhaps we should have spent another night at Ambanizana but we did not want risk a delay causing us to miss the flight and mess up the rest of the trip.  Back in Antananarivo we stayed in the Hotel Rose and went to a nearby café to eat.  After waiting an hour for our ordered spaghetti bolognaise Barry nipped next door and came back with armfuls of baguettes to keep us going.  When the spaghetti finally arrived it was lukewarm, pity we’d not gone for baguettes from the outset.
leaving Maroantsetra
10 August.  Terry arrived on time and we left Antananarivo at 03:00 driving north to Ampijoroa.  The road was very spectacular, over the spine of the country, but dirt in many places making it a long drive.  We had a few stops on the way seeing Madagascar Harrier Hawks and Grey-headed Lovebirds but much of the drive was birdless.  We arrived at Ampijoroa Forest Station near Lac Ravelobe at 13:00, pitched our tents as there was no accommodation available and arranged for Charles, one of the rangers, to guide us for our stay.  We visited marshes 17-20 kms along the main road to the north, returning to the Lac Ravelobe for dusk.  There was a small café a short drive away that was to become our regular eatery.  Just as well as the only shop in the local village did not appear to sell anything we considered to be edible!  I saw 35 species including 5 Madagascar Jacanas (on the marsh), the pair of Madagascar Fish Eagles (with a downy youngster on a nest by Lac Ravelobe), 30 African Pygmy Geese and at dusk 8 Madagascar Nightjars.  A family of 6 Coquerel’s Sifakas, including a mother with baby, entertained us around the campsite.
dawn breaking on the Central Plateau

it appeared to be a fairly desolate habitat, presumably cleared of trees but with no Madagascan species able to take advantage of  impoverished grassland
Coquerel's Sifaka near the campsite at Ampijoroa

Madagascar Jacana north of Ampijoroa

Madagascar Malachite Kingfisher, quite like ours from behind
not so much from the front
Lac Ravelobe
11 August.  We spent all day at Ampijoroa, the morning on the grid trails on the plateau to the west of the Forst Station, midday at the shore of Lac Ravelobe and the late afternoon on ‘trail B’ to the north of the lake.  We were guided morning and late afternoon by Charles who knew the area and birds very well.  A superb day in dry forest with, unsurprisingly no rain, and just over 50 species seen.  The many highlights included two groups of White-breasted Mesites (the first, of three birds at the end of the grid trails, got highly excited in response to tape playback), Madagascar Crested Ibis (two pairs on the grid trails and a single on trail B), Madagascar Sandgrouse (a pair near the lake edge), Madagascar Buttonquail (easy to see at this site), White-throated Rail (a pair by the lake shore at dusk), 2 Coquerel’s and 3 Red-capped Couas and 9 Sickle-billed and 2 pairs of Van Dam’s Vangas.  Also 4 Coquerel’s Sifakas and 8 Brown and a Fat-tailed Dwarf Lemur.  Another night camping at the forest station with a Madagascar Scops Owl spotlighted after dark.  The ground was a bit hard but it was nice not to have any rain to contend with.
dry forest at Ampijoroa

chameleon at Ampijoroa

Fat-tailed Dwarf Lemur peering out of the bottom of the hole 
Madagascar Magpie Robin
Madagascar Sandgrouse

12 August.  Another enjoyable dry day at Ampijoroa, mostly on trail B, guided morning and late afternoon by Charles although not quite up to yesterday’s standard.  For me highlights of the 36 species seen were 3 White-breasted Mesites, another pair of Madagascar Crested Ibis, 2 non-adult male Schlegel's Asities and 20 Sickle-billed Vangas and of course the 4 Coquerel’s Sifakas.
Lac Ravelobe
Lac Ravelobe at dusk
13 August.  For our final morning we returned to trail B.  We were keen to see a male Schlegel’s Asity and after some searching Charles located a pair that gave excellent views.  Stunning birds that brought to an end a very enjoyable three day stay.  At 09:30 we said goodbye to the Madagascar Fish Eagle and its chick and left for the drive back to Antananarivo.  We arrived at 18:15 after another good piece of driving by Terry and again nowhere that seemed worth stopping on the way with nothing of note seen from the car.  I saw 30 species including the excellent pair of Schlegel's Asities, 2 Coquerel’s Couas and 10 African Pygmy Geese.
crossing the Central Plateau on our return to Antananarivo

local traders in one of the roadside villages

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