Sunday 21 October 2018

MADAGASCAR 2018: 04-19 October

I visited Madagascar in August 1995 with John Cooper, Nick Preston and Barry Stidolph. 
It was a very enjoyable trip and one I've always looked back on with fondness (see and/or
Although we did very well, at least against standards at the time, we did not manage to find Scaly Ground Roller and it has been something of an open sore ever since. Nick and I decided to revisit Madagascar in October to do our best to rectify this and hopefully see a few other species we'd missed. We put together a trip giving us 15 days birding in the Southwest and Eastern Highlands and again had a great time, seeing all our realistic targets (we were too early for Sooty Falcon). Several blogs charting the trip will be published in due course when photographs have been sorted. For the time being a set of ground rollers, Madagascar's stand out family, follows:

Scaly Ground Roller at Manatadia (our bird of the trip)
Long-tailed Ground Roller at Mosa's Baobab Forest
Pitta-like Ground Roller at Ranomafana
Rufous-headed Ground Roler at Voihparara
Short-legged Ground Roller at Iaroka

Friday 19 October 2018

MADAGASCAR 2018: Perinet (13-19 October)

This is the third and final post covering a return trip to Madagascar with Nick Preston. We'd visited the spiny forest of the South West and rainforest at Ranomafana and had now arrived at Perinet. It was the last area we were visiting and held the reason for our return, Scaly Ground Roller.

Saturday 13 October 2018 (continued). We arrived at the Indri Lodge on the main road by the Perinet junction at about 14:00 where our guide Thierry was waiting for us. On our previous visit we had been guided very ably by Thierry’s father Patrice and were hopeful that his skill and knowledge had been passed onto the next generation. We were shown our chalet, welcomed there by a large Madagascan Emperor Moth on the bathroom window, dumped our stuff and made a quick plan for tomorrow with Thierry as he might need to obtain permits before the Park HQ closed at 16:00. Thierry was keen to take us into the Iaroka forest the next day where a nesting Helmet Vanga had been found. We impressed upon him that much as we’d like to see Helmet Vanga, and hoped to do so later in our stay, our main target was Scaly Ground Roller so he agreed to take us to Manatadia the next day. Driving to the park we made two quick roadside stops, the first to be shown a pair of roosting Rainforest Scops Owls about 50m form the road. The second stop had us walking over 200m from the road to see a roosting Madagascan (Long-eared) Owl high in a conifer that Nick and I would have walked past. Another target seen. We called in at the Park HQ for Manatadia permits and birded along the road and a parallel tail seeing Madagascan Starling and Madagascan Blue Pigeon and hearing a White-throated Rail. As we approached the old Hotel De La Gare in Perinet a Madagascan Flufftail ran across the road in front of us quickly followed by two others. Thierry played a tape and the male appeared on the roadside and ran back across. As the road was quite busy we left them alone and joined Jermaine who was parked outside the old hotel. Finally somewhere at Perinet that we recognised. With the sky darkening we postponed a night walk, unnecessarily as it turned out, and returned to our hotel for a forgettable meal. Hopefully Scaly Ground Roller tomorrow, the bird we had returned to Madagascar to see, so no pressure. 
Madagascan Emperor Moth outside our bathroom at Indri Lodge
Rainforest Scops Owl at Perinet
Crested Drongo at Perinet
Madagascan Wagtail at the Park HQ
Madagascan Girdled Lizard
roosting Madagascan Long-eared Owl at Perinet

Eastern Brown Lemur

Madagascan Starling, the only one we saw
Lesser Vasa Parrot

as well as the Emperor Moth which seemed to be resident outside our bathroom this rather attractive Day Geko lived in our room  
Sunday 14 October 2018. We left Indri Lodge at 05:30 after an early breakfast. Thierry was waiting for us by the road in Perinet and we drove for just under an hour to Manatadia. Thierry told us he knew of four places to see Scaly Ground Roller which was encouraging, as too was us being the first out that morning to look. At the first Jermaine parked beside the narrow track and we followed Thierry along a small river for 0.5km when he heard one calling. We continued towards to and soon even I could hear it calling. It was on the hillside above us but scanning failed to locate it and it was not responsive to playback. We started clambering up the hill but it stopped calling. We continued and Thierry saw it on a low branch but it dropped off out of sight when Nick joined him and I was a couple of paces behind. Bummer. We searched the area for at least 30 minutes without further sight or sound of it and decided to try Thierry’s second site. We were almost back at the road when a Pitta-like Ground Roller hoped out in front of us, normally a very decent consolation but not right then. We continued to the second site to find three other 4WDs parked there and Scaly Ground Roller calls emanating from another group within. Not good. We did a short walk in the opposite direction and saw a brilliant Madagascan Pygmy Kingfisher, another good consolation that went unappreciated. We returned to the car and Jermaine took us to Thierry’s third site. Maurice (Thierry’s uncle) was there with a group and had apparently flushed a Scaly Ground Roller without his group seeing it. They were following it but Thierry suggested heading for where it had been seen as he thought it might be disturbed back to where it had been. We wandered around for a while until Thierry saw it disappearing behind a tree trunk. Feeling very stressed by the whole experience it was with great relief that it soon appeared on the other side of the tree and we followed its progress for a couple of minutes as it gave good but always obscured views. It flew across the river where it landed in full view by the water on the opposite bank but I was unsighted and it flew before I could move. No Photos but a brilliant bird and well worth returning to Madagascar for. We continued up to a small lake where we had excellent views of a summer-plumaged Madagascan Grebe with three stripy young - almost a new bird compared to the one in winter-plumage we had seen previously. We returned to the Park HQ and had lunch on one of the handily placed picnic tables. We were not the only visitors doing so although most others appeared to be with general interest tour groups. For the first time for more years than I care to remember we were not the oldest foreigners around. We sat around for a bit before Thierry appeared and took us into the reserve and along a series of forest trails to an area where a pair of Collared Nightjars roosted. It was a somewhat tense affair as Collared Nightjar was now our most wanted species in Madagascar and we knew they could move roost sites if disturbed or due to bad weather. We need not have worried as the pair were in their expected place, on the darkest patch of ground under a low lying tree. They were endearingly sat so close together they were touching. Every so often one would briefly shuffle into the other which would shuffle back. It may have been a way of keeping contact as surprisingly they are thought to be completely silent as no vocalisation has ever been knowingly heard. They were brilliant and we could have watched them all afternoon but a somewhat noisy birding tour group arrived and we thought it best to move on. The only other mild disappointment being that the light was dreadful for photography. We continued along the trails seeing another pair of roosting Rainforest Scops Owls before returning to the road. We waited until disk and commenced a night walk along the road adding Greater Dwarf Lemur to the Indris, Eastern Woolly, Eastern Brown and Black & White Ruffed Lemurs seen earlier. What a brilliant day, even my teeth felt OKish.
Madagascan Magpie Robin at Indri Lodge
Madagascan Kingfisher at Manatadia
one of the world's best Kingfishers?

Black & White Ruffed Lemur at Manatadia

Eastern Brown Lemur
Madagascan Grebe
with two of its three youngsters

Madagascan Wagtail
Broad-billed Roller at Manatadia
Eastern Woolly Lemur at Perinet
the bizarre Giraffe-necked Weevil
roosting Collared Nightjars at Perinet
ideal camouflage when roosting amongsrt dead leaves

Indri in the forest at Perinet

a Rainforest Scops Owl that didn't appreciate the intrusion
it soon went back into relaxed mode
although still had an eye on us
our Day Geko patrolling the veranda
Monday 15 October 2018. After an early breakfast we left the Indri Lodge at 05:30, Jermaine having collected Thierry from Perinet. We were going for Helmet Vanga, an iconic species which until the previous year was only realistically seen by visiting birders at Ambanizana on the remote Masoala Peninsular. In 1995 we’d flown to Maranosetra and crossed rough seas to the peninsular in a small boat but that was then. Now we drove for over an hour into the Iaroka Forest along a rough and at times muddy track and through two short flooded sections, picking up a Mr Kray, a local guide, on the way. We stopped by a broken log bridge where we continued along the track on foot for an hour before Mr Kray led us along a narrow trail deeper into the forest. We were soon overtaken by Thierry’s dad Patrice with a small (younger!) birding group and a couple of guides. A few minutes later one of their guides reappeared having been sent back by Patrice to let us know they’d found a Madagascan Pygmy Kingfisher. We soon caught up with them and had excellent views of the kingfisher - a very nice gesture even if we were ex clients of his. We continued for almost an hour until we caught up with the other group at the Helmet Vanga area. They had just finished watching one on its nest. It hadn’t been there when they arrived but had soon flown in. We had good views of its head and back but it hardly moved during the time we were there. We dragged ourselves away and continued on a long loop back to the track. On the way we disturbed a photogenic Short-legged Ground Roller which gave excellent views and completed the Ground Roller set for the trip, something infrequently achieved at the time of our first visit although pretty-much expected now. We continued seeing a pair of Nuthatch Vangas, our only ones of the trip, to an area where Yellow-bellied Sunbird Asity might be nesting. We were instructed to sit down in a more open area while Mr Kray wandered off. He returned after about 15 minutes to say the nest was empty. Pity. Thierry went back with him to try some playback while Nick and I had an early lunch. Mr Kray returned and gestured for us to follow him, taking us to Thierry who had seen a male Yellow-bellied Sunbird Asity come in to tape. It was still about and we had a brief convincing view above our heads before it flew up into the canopy. We soon saw it again high in the canopy where it started adding to an almost built nest. It made several brief visits to the nest but without giving decent views as the light in the canopy was poor. Leaving the nest it always shot off out of sight. A female visited the nest too but was largely ignored by us in our impatience for better views of the male. They were not to be as neither showed well and the photos taken were poor. When we did see the female she appeared a very dull bird not showing the expected complete yellow underparts but the nest was high up, just below the canopy, and the light poor. Our initial views of the male had been convincing (bright blue above and bright yellow below) and we returned happy that we had seen the species (our last main target), that is until checking books and reviewing images on our return to the lodge. From what we’d seen our initial abiding image of the male looked good, although images of it at the nest were less so. The female looked decidedly like a Common Sunbird-Asity which presented a problem. It was possible the initial male wasn’t the male attending the nest but thaty seemed very unlikely as it had flown that way. Our elation was cancelled. Perhaps not entirely unconnected I felt really rough during the evening and couldn’t face eating anything. I went to bed at 20:00 but was up being sick twice by midnight. Continuing stomach pains and anxiety made for a long and disturbed night.
Chabert's Vanga at Iaroka

Madagascan Kingfisher in the Iaroka Forest

Helmet Vanga on nest in the Iaroka Forest
outrageous bird

this was as much of the bird as we saw, even then a third arm would have been useful to hang onto a tree-trunk with
Short-legged Gropund Roller in the Iaroka Forest
our final ground roller for the trip
and another brilliant bird

male Common Sunbird-Asity at nest, Iaroka Forest

female Common Sunbird-Asity, the image that revealed that the yellow underparts were restricted to the flanks 
male and female at nest
Madagascan Mannikin back at Indri Lodge
Tuesday 16 October 2018. Still feeling rough I had black tea and some rehydration salts for breakfast. I wasn’t sure I wanted to be up but we’d agreed a return to Manatadia with Thierry and I didn’t want to miss an opportunity to photograph Scaly Ground Roller. Again we were the first group to arrive at Manatadia and this time we went straight to the second site, walking in to the right where we’d heard the group on our previous visit. Thierry played some calls and soon heard a response although it was too quiet for my ears to pick up, not that I would have known from which direction it came. Thierry did and we headed that way, crossing a shallow river to approach it. By now I could hear it too and as we neared Thierry saw the bird on the ground ahead. We spent the next 30 minutes watching the bird as it hopped a pace or two then stood motionless, turned its head and then hopped again. An amazing bird, and despite poor light I rattled off over 100 photographs of it (all five Ground Rollers seen, all five photographed had been my hope for the trip even if poor light meant that several were pushing my bridge camera beyond its limits). We would have watched it for longer but it worked its way back towards the track and then, as another group approached from that direction, flew into thick cover where we lost it. The day was a bit of an anti-climax after this. We revisited the Madagascan Grebe lake seeing both adults with their three youngsters but again no Meller’s Duck which were sometimes there. We walked back through the forest following the river looking unsuccessfully for Madagascan Ibis, being shown a couple of old nests. We saw a Wedge-tailed Jery on the trail, new for Nick and improving on my Ranomafana views, and a male Tylas Vanga back at the road. We encountered two large and several small groups of visitors along the river so it shouldn’t have been too much of a surprise, but it was, to count 18 4WDs along the dirt road at the parking area! We returned to the Indri Lodge where I dozed/read to 15:45 when Jermaine took us back out, picking up Thierry on the way to Varona (a posh lodge/safari park on the road to Manatadia). Here we were told that Madagascan Rail used to be fairly easy from the road but not since the water level had been lowered by Varona and the birds had moved into a nearby marsh within the property. We spent an hour playing tapes and sneaked in 100m to the edge of the marsh. We elicited a response from two rails but neither moved, remaining hidden in the thickest reeds. We had told Thierry of our concerns about the previous day’s Sunbird-Asity and he thought we should return to Iaroka to revisit the nest. We were not too keen on the idea as we didn’t think we could learn any more from the birds wed seen preferring to try again for Madagascan Rail. I was still feeling weak but the thought of food wasn’t off-putting and I had an evening meal with no ill-effects.
Scaly Ground Roller at Manatadia
showing its colourful tail
an amazing bird
impressive underwing suggesting distant Zoothera ancestry

bird of the trip for me although all the other ground rollers provided stiff competition, as did Madagascan Kingfisher
Tylas Vanga at Manatadia
we were surprised not to see more
Madagascan Blue Pigeon at Manatadia

Wednesday 17 October 2018. We thought we’d arranged for a 05:00 breakfast again but it hadn’t materialised by 05:15 so we left to meet Thierry and return to Verona. We walked in 100m and soon heard the rails but were accosted by local workers and it soon became apparent that we would have to buy a ticket even for a short visit to the reedbed 100m from the road. The property had been bought by ex-pats who were running it as an upmarket lodge and lemur safari park – some way out of range Ring-tailed Lemurs sunning themselves in tree-tops were an indication of the latter. We visited the lodge seeing Malagasy Kingfisher, Wards’ Vanga and Madagascan Cuckoo-Shrike around the car park while Thierry bought us permits. Despite his hopes they were non-negotiable. We returned to the marsh and went in a bit further, 200m from the road, to a small bridge by a slightly more open area. Here playback brought in two Madagascan Rails, close enough to be visible, if very obscured, at the base of the reeds. We returned to Indri Lodge for breakfast and left at 08:00 to drive to Maromizaha where Thierry had occasionally seen Yellow-bellied Sunbird-Asity. We drove a few kms along the main road before Jermaine took a rough track up towards a ridge, stopping in what might have been a small quarry where the track became a trail. We walked up onto the ridge and followed it until it started dropping steeply, Thierry playing sunbird-asity calls almost continually. We were fortunate to see a Brown Emutail along the ridge as they were usually most active earlier in the day. We became concerned that we were dropping too low for the sunbird-asity and retraced our steps rather than continuing on a loop. We stopped at a viewpoint where two Italian lemur researchers were resting, it being the only place in their study area with a phone signal. We had a good chat with them before continuing on our way. After no more than 100m Thierry almost continual Yellow-bellied Sunbird-Asity paid off as an immature male came into the trees above us and zipped around before shooting off. I was too slow to get onto the early views but saw the last one which was just enough for me to agree with the ID. Relief to have seen it more than elation at so doing. We returned to Perinet where we saw several bird guides (including Patrice, Maurice and a Rockjumper leader) and asked them their opinion of my dodgy sunbird-asity photos from two days before. Views were mixed but more favoured Common and I couldn’t help thinking those unsure were more political. Thierry still thought we should revisit Iaroka but we didn’t see any point. We had another look at the roosting Long-eared Owl although it wasn’t showing as well as previously and soon after dark did another night walk seeing Goodman’s Mouse Lemur, 2 Parson’s Chameleons and a Giraffe Weevil. We had one full day left at Perinet and would have liked to try a more distant area where there was a slim chance of Bernier’s Vanga, now our only new bird in the area, but apparently the logistics involved in going there made it impossible (too long a walk for ageing foreigners we suspected). I was keen to revisit Maromizaha to try for better sunbird-asity views but Nick wasn’t keen so we settled for the Community Forest Reserve (VOI). I had a good evening meal but was up in the night with liquid insides.
Ring-tailed Lemurs catching the early morning rays in Varona Safari Park

wall covering in the Indri Lodge dining room
Indri at Maromizaha

Ward's Vanga at Maromizaha
Malagasy Paradise Flycatcher at Maromizaha
Nick and Thierry on the ridge at Maromizaha
forest trail at Maromizaha
Eastern Grey Bamboo Lemur
juvenile Souimanga Sunbird at Maromizaha
view from Maromizaha ridge, not much forest left over there
Patrice and Thierry at Perinet, father and son and our guides in 1995 and 2018. Both were excellent.
Tree Frog on our night walk at Perinet
roosting Spectacled Tetrakas
Thursday 18 October 2018. I woke feeling rough and Nick was worse. Perhaps a trip to the Community Forest Reserve (VOI) was for the best. I managed tea, toast and a fried egg for breakfast with no immediate ill effects. We met Thierry at the entrance to VOI when it opened at 07:30 and walked around playing tapes until late morning. We had excellent views of a White-throated Rail but had also hoped to see Madagascan Ibis, Red-breasted Coua and Crossley’s Vanga. Fortunately we’d seen them well on our previous visit. We returned to the Indri at 12:00 and sat/lay around until 15:00 when we’d arranged to go back out. It was just me this time as Nick wasn’t feeling up to it. Thierry and I spent another hour or so walking around at VOI making no inroads on the species we’d looked for earlier but I did see a Pitta-like Ground Roller as it hopped away. Perhaps not as blind as I usually feel as Thierry had walked past it unseeingly. Along the trail we encountered a Birdquest group led by Chris Kehoe, an old Liverpool friend Nick hadn’t seen for years. Keith Turner who both Nick and I knew were also in the group. I had a quick chat and learned they were staying in the Feon’ny Ala. Thierry and I stopped for a last look at the roosting Rainforest Scops Owls but only one of the pair was on view. We returned to the Indri and said a sad farewell to Thierry. We had expected a final morning birding around Perinet before leaving for Antananarivo but Jermaine was concerned about traffic given likely election propaganda in the towns in between and we wanted to have a decent amount of time at Lake Alarobia. I told Nick I’d seen Chris and that Keith was with Birdquest too so we decided to visit them. If I’d been more alive to this possibility we could have asked Jermaine to drop us off there when he took Thierry home, but it was only 15 minutes walk. We arrived and soon found them in the bar which overlooked the river. It was good to have a longer chat and it saved Nick and Keith a single-room supplement as unknowingly they were both booked on Birdquest’s 2019 SE China trip. We left just as the heavens opened and we were thoroughly soaked on the walk back to the Indri, despite having taken umbrellas and just about keeping them up in the gusty wind.
White-throated Rail at VOI

Diademed Sifaka at VOI

Rainforest Scops Owl (again)
Friday 19 October 2018. We woke feeling somewhat better, packed, had breakfast and I walked up the hill opposite for an hour. Nice views and a distant Indri calling but two Madagascan Bush Warblers and a male Madagascan Green Sunbird were the only bird of any note. We left with Jermaine at 07:30 and drove to Antananarivo. We were held up for 20 minutes in the only town of any size on route and saw only two election propaganda T-shirts during the whole journey, quite a contrast to seeing them being handed out when we arrived. Traffic was very bad/slow in Tana but we found our way through to Lake Alarobia, the last part through barriers closing the road by the entrance. Lake Alarobia was an oasis of calm in the madness of Antananarivo and we spent several hours there. There were hundreds of herons nesting on the main island and Nick soon picked out our first Madagascan Pond Heron. Once our eye was in we saw at least 15. They were outnumbered at least ten to one by Squacco Herons looking very elegant with their plumes while on the smaller lake and then back on the main lake we saw 16 Meller’s Duck amongst over 400 Red-billed Teal. The reeds held Madagascan Swamp Warbler and a pair of Madagascan Hoopoes, the only ones we saw, appeared briefly on the perimeter track making it an excellent place to finish the trip. Jermaine, who was wondering where we’d got to, appeared and drove us to the Combava Hotel near Ivato airport. We sat on a bank opposite the hotel overlooking paddyfields as the sun set. Hundreds of mainly Cattle Egrets flew over heading into Tana while four Black Herons turned into umbrellas as they fished in front of us. We had the use of the room until the early hours to pack and freshen up.
the main lake at Alarobia
Cattle, Great and Dimorphic Egrets at Lake Alarobia
Dimorphic Egret at Lake Alarobia
Great (White) Egret
Night Heron
the main island at Lake Alarobia
Squacco Heron

showing off its plumes

Madagascan Pond Heron and obscured Squacco

it didn't fare too badly in the plumes stakes either

the second lake at Alarobia held more duck
Hottentot Teal, Red-billed Duck and White-faced Whistling Duck
Red-billed Duck and Hottentot Teal
Red-billed Duck
Red-billed Duck
Red-billed and White-faced Whistling Duck

Red-billed and Meller's Duck

Meller's and White-faced Whistling Duck
Meller's Duck
not the most exciting duck

Madagascan Hoopoe by Lake Alarobia
paddyfields from the Antananarivo bypass

back breaking work
the field on the right doubling as a laundry

Ivato paddyfields
Black Heron at Ivato
umbrellas at dusk
Saturday 20 October 2018. Our lift to the airport arrived at 00:15 and we were delighted to see it was Maurice, our original driver. We drove to the airport but even in the middle of the night we encountered one holdup. Otherwise the roads were clear and we arrived in plenty of time. We checked in and the flight was on time although 03:30 is no time to catch a flight. We arrived in Nairobi just before 07:00 and had just over two hours to wait for our flight to Heathrow. From the airport lounge we saw Speckled Pigeon, Little and African Palm Swift, Pied Crow and Rock Martin. We arrived on time and I was soon on a tube to Victoria. There it seemed to be chaos as a result of engineering works on the mainline to Brighton. My train to Shoreham-by-Sea went via Littlehampton and took almost an hour longer than usual. Megan and Cookie met me at the station, the only welcome home I wanted.

It had been a very enjoyable trip, the few health issues now distant memories. I'd like to thank Nick for pushing for a return to Madagascar, making arrangements with Tiana (well recommended by Mike Catsis) and being an excellent companion, as usual. Our trip was made much easier by having reliable and careful drivers (Maurice and Jermaine) who were easy to travel with. Our success in seeing our target species and many of the others was almost entirely due to our guides with Mosa in the South West even better than we remembered him being in 1995. Special mention too for Thierry who expertly arranged access to and guided us around the sites at Perinet, carrying on the family tradition we had been so impressed with when guided by his dad Patrice (who it was nice to see guiding again).