Monday, 8 October 2018

MADAGASCAR 2018: Arrival and the Southwest (3-8 October)

Introduction. 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 great fondness (see and with more identifiable bird photos Although we were very pleased with what we saw, 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 - not helped by stunning photos appearing seemingly regularly in ABC bulletins. Nick and I decided to revisit Madagascar to do our best to rectify this and hopefully see a few other species we'd missed. John was sadly not in a position to join us. We put together a trip giving us 15 days birding in the Southwest and Eastern Highlands. It was expertly arranged by Tiana of the Madagascar Wildlife Tour Agency ( He had been highly recommended and we have no hesitation in doing likewise. We had been told in 1995 (more than once I recall) that if we came back to Madagascar in November we would see everything we had missed, including Scaly Ground Roller. In discussion with Tiana it became apparent that finding accommodation at some sites and more importantly the availability of guides could be an issue in November as it was the most popular time with tour groups. We settled on visiting in early October, flying south and working our way back. Although we would have preferred to have gone straight for Scaly Ground Roller, leaving it until later would hopefully make it easier to find. We had considered visiting other areas as well and might have done so if we'd found others to come with us but the birds we hadn't seen were widely spaced and to try for them all could have doubled our time away and the cost of the trip. Also all were species we felt we could live without, unlike Scaly Ground Roller. This blog, which is intended to be the first of three, is illustrated with photographs taken with a Canon SX60 bridge camera. It generally served me well although the light for some of the forest species made taking a shot any faster than 1/40th second very marginal. Still a great improvement on the film cameras of my previous trip.

Wednesday 3 October 2018. Like most trips this one kicked off with Megan dropping me at Shoreham station at noon for a train to Victoria (it was on time!) and tube to Heathrow where I met Nick. Our early evening Kenya Airlines flight to Nairobi departed a few minutes late. It was in a new looking 787 Dreamliner but uncomfortable seats restricted my dreaming despite having my eyes closed for most of the flight.

Thursday 4 October 2018. We arrived in Nairobi on time at dawn and settled in for a five hour wait for our connection to Antananarivo. A few birds were seen from the terminal namely Yellow-billed Kite, Three-banded Plover, Speckled Pigeon, Little Swift, Rock Martin, Pied Crow, Superb Starling and African Pied Wagtail. More than one usually sees from an airport and it was a shame we couldn’t wander around outside. Our flight to Madagascar was in an older but more comfortable Bombardier 190. We were a little late landing and disembarked just after another arrival. Possible as a result it was chaos in the arrivals hall. We had to queue for Health Security not helped by Kenya Airlines not having distributed the forms we needed to fill out first (they had apparently run out of them). Next we had to queue to pay the €35 Visa fee and then join a queue for immigration. This had taken over an hour but at least our bags had arrived on the carousel by then. We weren’t over with queueing quite yet as our bags were then X-Rayed by customs and finally we were out. It was with some relief that a guide was waiting to take us to our hotel. It was a short ride to the Hotel Orchid where we checked in. We paid the guide the balance for our trip, were given tickets for the morning’s flight to Toliara and told to be ready by 07:00 in the morning. Our room on the third floor had a nice view to distant paddyfields and a small lake and we saw a few of the commoner specialities from the balcony – Olive Bee-eater, Malagasy Kestrel, Mascarene Martin, Madagascar Stonechat and Red Fody. As the light went a Madagascar Nightjar started calling and a brief burst of playback enticed it to fly over the hotel. We had a meal and an early night. It was great to be back in Madagascar.
leaving Nairobi

crossing the west coast
approaching Antananarivo

Ivato Airport
view from our hotel window in Ivato
Madagascan Stonechat from our balcony in Ivato
Friday 5 October 2018. We were up at 05:30 to find it already light. A few of the species seen the previous evening put in an appearance but nothing different. We had breakfast and left for the airport at 07:00 where we quickly checked in encountering no queues at all. Our flight departed on time at 09:45 and took an hour. I had a window seat and saw very little forest from the air, just a few dried up river beds. It looked very arid. We were met at the airport by Maurice, our driver for the next nine days, and Mosa, our guide for the SW. Not that we recognised him but it was the same Mosa who had shown us Long-tailed Ground Roller in 1995 and then as now the top bird guide for the area. We were driven to nearby Hotel Victory where we arrived at 11:00. It was hot and bird activity would be minimal so we went along with Mosa’s recommendation to pick us up at 15:30, frustrating as that was, when we’d go to La Table. The hotel had no grounds worth wandering round and we had a decent room so we retired and relaxed. Maurice and Mosa arrived at 15:30 and drove us to La Table where we arrived at 16:00. This was the site in which Red-shouldered Vanga had been discovered in the late 1990s, a year or two after our visit. Mosa led us down a narrow trail playing tapes. After less than ten minutes a Red-shouldered Vanga responded and came in to investigate us, a superb male and our first target satisfactorily seen. Efforts to find Verreaux’s Coua were unsuccessful although we had nice views of Namaqua and Madagascan Turtle Doves, Common Newtonia, Crested Drongo, Madagascan Lark, Subdesert Brush Warbler, Thamnornis, Common Jery, Madagascan Cisticola, Madagascan Magpie Robin and Souimanga Sunbird. We returned to the hotel at dusk well pleased with how the trip had started.
Ivato at sunrise
leaving Antananarivo
approaching Toliara

Nick following Mosa as we look for  ...
Red-shouldered Vanga at La Table
a striking bird found within an hour from Toliara but somewhat surprisingly it hadn't been discovered in 1995
Madagascan Kestrel
Thamnornis at La Table
a member of the rather diverse Madagascan Warbler family

Sakalava Weaver nests
Saturday 6 October 2018. We were out at 05:30 and returned to a different slightly more degraded area of La Table. This time, after some effort, a Verreaux’s Coua responded to tape and gave good views. We also saw Running Coua, Madagascar Coucal and another Subdesert Brush Warbler. We drove back towards Toliara turning down the road to La Mangrove (where we’d stayed in 1995) but after a short distance we stopped by some small pools where Madagascan Sandgrouse came in to drink. The area was quite disturbed and I suspect we were too late in the day. None came in and we soon gave up and returned to the hotel for breakfast. We packed and left at 08:50 and were driven to Ifaty making several stops along the way. It was now a good metalled road all the way. In 1995 it had been a sandy track that our driver had only very reluctantly been persuaded to ferry us along in two groups of two for fear of his car becoming stuck. First we walked to a partially reed-fringed lakes were we saw Hottentot and Red-billed Teal, Baillon’s Crakes, 20 Kittlitz’s Plovers, 60 Curlew Sandpipers and 3 Madagascan Swamp Warblers. Stopping by some mangroves produced a Humblot’s Heron wading in the sea and some roadside pools a pair of Three-banded Plovers. We arrived at Hotel Nautilus, on the beach, at 12:00 and would be picked up again at 15:00. We rested, I paddled (not as refreshing as I’d hoped), read a bit and saw a few common birds without much effort. At 15:00 Maurice drove us to Mangily where we picked up Mosa and his sons Fredy and Manola at the entrance to the Foret de Baobab reserve. Birding in the spiny forest was excellent but Nick and I were soon reduced to Tour Lister status as Mosa and his sons found a succession of good birds most of which we would have walked past unknowing. We headed to an area where a Madagascan Sparrowhawk had a nest but inadvertently flushed the female as we approached. Mosa refound her sat in a nearby tree and soon the male soon appeared and they became intimate, not that the female seemed overly impressed. It was a species we thought we had seen on our previous visit until reviewing photographs showed otherwise. Target number two well and truly bagged. Manola found a Long-tailed Ground Roller and with Mosa’s help corralled it for us and herded it our way. It is hard to imagine a similar bird in Asia or South America being so obliging, not that we were complaining as it was a stunning species and one we were particularly keen to see again. Mosa had been showing birders the spiny forest specialities for at least 25 years. He had his brother Masindraka helping him when we visited in 1995 now it was his sons. We continued birding and during our visit saw Running and Brown-capped Couas, a roosting Madagascar Nightjar, Chabert's Vanga and Stripe-throated Jery. One of the best sightings was saved to last when Mosa received a phone call from Fredy who with Manola had tracked down a group of Subdesert Mesites and treed one. We headed that way and had excellent views of another stunning species as a female sat motionless at head height, convinced we couldn’t see it. After taking rather too many photos we left it and wandered back. We were back at the Nautilus at 17:30 and had a nice evening meal. It was still very hot and we appreciated the fan although the electricity went off at 23:00.
back at La Table
Running Coua at La Table. As its name might suggest it is more usually seen on the ground
Verreaux's Coua at La Table, rather ruffled by the wind

Verreaux's Coua had a very restricted range and La Table was the only place we saw it
Madagascan Coucal at La Table
Madagascan Swamp Warbler near Ifaty
'Three-eyed' Lizard near Ifaty with imitation eye on its nape
Kittlitz's Plovers near Ifaty
Humblot's Heron offshore at Ifaty
Three-banded Plover on pools at Ifaty

the Indian Ocean from our room at the Nautilus
Baobabs at Mangily. Nick was not carving his initials in its trunk although regrettably others had felt the need to do so
another arboreal Running Coua at Mangily
Stripe-throated Jery
one of the commoner birds at Mangily
more Baobabs
female Madagascan Sparrowhawk at Mangily
joined by her mate

Long-tailed Ground Roller at Mangily
a superb family we were very pleased to be reacquainted with
impressive forest at Mangily

Madagascan Magpie Robin
Madagascan Nightjar

Red Fody at Mangily
female Subdesert Mesite at Mangily
it seemed sure its camouflage rendered it invisible
it probably would have been to Nick and me

Sunday 7 October 2018. We left Nautilus at 05:30 and drove aback to Mosa’s spiny forest where he and Manola led us to another area. He started playing Lafresnaye’s Vanga calls and one soon responded, came in and showed well. The forest was very active with lots of song delivered from tree top perches - Stripe-throated Jerys being most plentiful. We had a good morning for vangas seeing Chabert's, White-headed, the top of a Hook-billed sat on a nest, a brief pair of Sickle-billeds when Nick was looking the wrong way and Archbold’s Newtonia. We also saw Madagascan Buttonquail, Crested and Running Couas. It soon became hot and bird activity significantly reduced so we left Mosa in Mangily and returned to the Nautilus stopping briefly at the saltpans on the way to see a closer Humblot’s Heron and some common waders. We were back at the Nautilus for an excellent breakfast soon after 09:00. We had nothing planned until 15:30 when Maurice was going to collect Mosa to take us to look for Madagascar Plover. Being unaccustomed to lengthy periods of down time Nick and I walked back to the saltpans and spent three hours there seeing a selection of herons including the Humblot’s and our only Striateds of the trip, 20 each of  White-fronted and Kittlitz’s Plovers, 40 Curlew Sandpipers, 2 Caspian Terns and 8 Madagascan Larks. Back at Nautilus I wandered along the beach seeing 2 Grey Plover, a Sanderling, 2 Whimbrel and 17 Turnstone. Almost home from home. Disappointingly nothing was on or moving over the sea although there was a reef offshore that it was hard to see beyond. A flock of 40 Namaqua Doves were drinking near the hotel swimming pool and an Olive Bee-eater briefly sat in a tree by our room. We asked Maurice to drop us by a small pool by the main road while he went to collect Mosa. It looked to be a slightly different habitat but only held Kittlitz’s Plover, Greenshank and Common Sandpiper. Maurice soon appeared with Mosa to take us to his Madagascan Plover site. I was interested to see where it was as I felt we'd covered the area pretty well. I was disappointed to find it was the edge of the saltpans where we’d stopped to look at the Humblot’s Heron with Maurice and an area we had scanned during our late morning walk! How had we not seen any on our earlier visits and why would this one be any different? It was as I almost immediately saw an interesting small plover on the track ahead of us and a quick scrutiny revealed it to be a Madagascan Plover. We only saw the one but it gave good views. We returned to the spiny forest at Mangily for a final session there. We saw a close Lesser Vasa Parrot, what were presumably the same two Sickle-billed Vangas that Nick had missed, saw the female Madagascar Sparrowhawk again near her nest (no amorous male this time) and had longer better views and photographs of the Long-tailed Ground Roller (or its mate). A brilliant end to an excellent day.
the entrance to Mosa's Foret de Baobab spiny forest reserve at Mangily
Thamnornis and Stripe-throated Jery using the same 'song post' at Mangily
Lafresnaye's Vanga at Mangily
Madagascan Magpie Robin
White-headed Vanga

colour-ringed Archbold's Newtonia, somehow more appealing now they are classified as vangas
Hook-billed Vanga on her nest
another amazing baobab
female Souimanga Sunbird
male Souimanga Sunbird

White-footed Sportive Lemur
living in the spiny forest didn't seem to present it with any problems
fast moving male Madagascan Button Quail in the spiny forest at Mangily
if anything the brighter coloured female was even faster
Sakalava Weaver near the entrance to Mangily
Madagascan Giant Swallowtail near Mangily

Curlew Sandpipers at Ifaty saltpans
Dimorphic Egret

Humblot's Heron and Great Egret on Ifaty saltpans
Striated Heron at Ifaty
in ambush mode
Madagascan Lark near Nautilus
Ifaty saltpans

Black-winged Stilt at Ifaty saltpans, their legs always seem unreal
one of two Caspian Terns at Ifaty saltpans
Kittlitz's Plover at Ifaty saltpans

White-fronted Plover at Ifaty saltpans
a different individual
and another

the beach at the Nautilus
Grey Plover on the beach
Whimbrel. Travel half way around the world but sometimes it is just like being at home
other times it certainly isn't - Olive Bee-eater from the Nautilus
Madagascan Plover

information board at Mangily. Mosa found everything depicted for us
spiny forest

a superb place to go birding
Sickle-billed Vanga in the spiny forest
one of the more spectacular vangas

Crested Drongo at Mangily
another or possibly the same Lafresnaye's Vanga, it was hard to keep track of where we'd been in the spiny forest
Lesser Vasa Parrot

quite an acrobat

Subdesert Mesite tracks
Long-tailed Ground Roller in the spiny forest
either the same bird as yesterday or its mate as it was in the same area

a final goodbye to Mrs Sparrowhawk
Nick and Mosa leaving the spiny forest
Crested Coua at Mangily

Monday 8 October 2018. We had breakfast in the dark at 04:30 and left at 05:00, Maurice having first collected Mosa. We were heading back through Toliara and north to Zombitse and Isalo but Mosa knew a good site for Madagascan Sandgrouse on the way and offered to come and show us for his bus fare home. We stopped 28km south of Sakaraha where Mosa had arranged for two locals to meet us. They led us a short distance across a dry valley to a rough hillside with rudimentary fields. Here we saw 2 Madagascan Sandgrouse although they soon spooked and flew off. Other groups of 2-3 and then one of six flew over although not all heading in the same direction which made them hard to count. A flock of 12 then flew over and dropped down a km or so away. We headed in that direction and eventually found a flock of 21. They were quite wary and flushed before I could approach to a decent photographic range. We dropped Mosa in the next town where he’d catch a bus back home. He had been excellent, if anything better than we had remembered. We continued on to Zombitse arriving soon after 09:00. We were allocated an English speaking guide Otilon who didn’t seem at all fazed by the birds we hoped to see, even breaking off conversation to show us a tame Giant Coua behind of the reserve entrance hut. A Cuckoo Roller briefly called from the opposite side of the road but didn’t show so we headed into the forest along a nice trail for a km or so to see a pair of roosting White-browed Owls, then to an area where playback produced a brief response from an Appert’s Tetraka. It took some time to track it down although we eventually obtained decent views of a rather secretive pair. We continued to a dead tree where a Torotoroka Scops Owl roosted but there was no sign of it. Another guide seemed a bit heavy handed in his searching almost climbing into the tree so it was perhaps no surprise it have moved somewhere else. A search of several nearby trees produced nothing but one could have spent all day looking and rather disappointingly we returned to the road. Back at the road we still had a couple of hours in hand and one of the other guides there told Otilon of a scops owl roosting off a trail on the other side of the main road if we wanted to look for it. We certainly did and he kindly led Otilon and us along a trail for 10 minutes or so before going in a short distance to a tree. There it was, a Torotoroka Scops Owl, peering at us almost at eye-level from a crevice in an old tree. It was excellent that the guides were readily exchanging information with each other as it helped us greatly. When we’d visited in 1995 there had been no guides at Zombitse and we’d only seen the owls by spotlighting at night, not something we had time for this trip. We saw two more Giant Couas and heard a Coquerel’s a couple of times but didn’t manage to catch up with it. We were also shown Zombitse Sportive Lemur and Vereaux’s Sifaka. We returned to the car at 13:30 by which time it was very hot and the forest very quiet. Maurice drove us to Isalo where we arrived at 16:00. We spent an hour near the airport seeing little, with a similar outcome near the museum, another Benson's Rock Thrush site. We continued to our hotel, the impressive and rather upmarket Isalo Rock Lodge. From our room/apartment we heard a Cuckoo Roller calling but didn’t reach the Oasis where it seemed to be coming from for 10-15 minutes by which time it had gone silent. No sign of any Benson’s Rock Thrushes their either although there was plenty of suitable looking habitat. We were thankful of umbrellas during a short period of heavy rain and some distant thunder and lightning. So far Isalo had been disappointing but we still had an hour or two in the morning.
Madagascan Sandgrouse south of Sakaraha

very well camouflaged against a stony background

the only snake we saw in Madagascar
south of Sakaraha
interior Madagascar on the way to Zombitse
Giant Coua at Zombitse

White-browed Owl at Zombitse
White-browed Owls at Zombitse

white morph male Malagasy Paradise Flycatcher at Zombitse
female Malagasy Paradise Flycatcher
Zombitse Sportive Lemur
Tototoroka Scops Owl at Zombitse
it didn't look pleased to be disturbed

Verreaux's Sifaka

a 600 year old baobab in Zombitse
another Giant Coua at Zombitse
Zombitse Forest
inland Madagascan landscapes

panning for gems

approaching Isalo
Locust at Isalo


very distant Greater Vasa Parrot at Isalo
rock formations at Isalo
view from our window at the Isalo Rock Lodge

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