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]

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