Birding The Comoros – No Luggage Needed

After a quick 18 hour stop over in Malaysia and a change of airlines in Bangkok due to long delays, I finally arrived in the Comoros where Josh Beck and I planned to spend the next 10 days cleaning up all the endemic species and subspecies. Meanwhile Melissa was back in the States for two weeks. The Comoros, officially known as “The Union of The Comoros” is an archipelago consisting of three major islands and a few smaller ones found in the Indian Ocean off the eastern coast of Africa. Josh and I were visiting the four islands of Grand Comore, Moheli, Anjouan, and Mayotte during our time in the country. The Comoros have a reputation for notoriously tricky and unreliable logistics and this started off with a bang when my checked baggage never showed up on the carousel. Along with my missing bag, Josh’s passport wouldn’t scan so he was told that he’d have to stop at immigration in town to get an actual visa. Luckily they agreed that he just needed it before leaving the country and instead of worry too much about lost baggage or visa issues, we grabbed a taxi and headed to a plantation area south of town to look for our first target, Grande Comore Drongo.

As we walked the dirt road through the plantation, we picked up our first few endemics including Comoro Sunbird, Comoro Green Sunbird, and Comore Blue Pigeon. We finally arrived to a set of GPS points that we had from Markus’s report and soon Josh had a pair of Grande Comoro Drongos responding to the tape. The pair flew in close and allowed great views. After seeing the drongos we headed back to town to find a hotel, but for some reason everything was full. We visited five different hotels before finally finding one that had an empty room!

Early the next morning (0400 to be exact) we left the hotel to start the hike up the slopes of Karthala. We had been a bit too lazy to coordinate a taxi the night before and with no taxis around at 0400, we hiked the first few kilometers to the start of the trail at the small town of Mvouni and from there actually started the hike towards the top of Karthala. By this time it was starting to get light, but we headed further uphill instead of stopping to look at some of the more common endemics that were singing in the plantations. Surprisingly, after walking for about a kilometer along the trail, we encountered a dirt road heading roughly in the same direction as the trail. We were a bit confused as there wasn’t supposed to be a road here and no one had ever mentioned it in any reports. We decided to follow the road as it was easier to hike on and quickly realized that this road we were walking on was only a few months old. This made hiking up the side of the mountain very easy and we quickly made it to around 1000m where we began to enter some decent forest. It didn’t take long to catch up with the likes of Grande Comoro Cuckoo-Roller, Grande Comore Bulbul, Grande Comoroe Fody, Grande Comore Paradise Flycatcher, Grande Comore Cuckooshrike and a few Humblot’s Flycatchers. Having just spent the last month in West Papua where the birds are few and far between, it was nice to have some easy birding!

We continued to hike up the road and by late morning entered the heath slopes towards the top of the crater. We came across the construction crew that was building the dirt road and soon were back on a trail as the road is not quite finished to the top yet. The upper slopes were mostly grassland used for grazing, but not far from the trail some decent heath still remains. While hiking further uphill to 2000m we flushed a few Common Quail and saw many Comoro Stonechats. After reaching 2000m we headed off trail and soon found our target bird, Karthala White-eye. We enjoyed great views of a small flock while we took a rest and ate lunch in the shade before starting our descent back down to the forest where we planned to spend the night. Along the way Josh spotted a Reunion Harrier and as we entered back into the forest I found a few Comore Spinetails.

Although not technically a campsite, we set our tent up for the night in the middle of the road around 1300m. This was the flattest spot and after gathering a bunch of ferns and moss to cover the rocky road, we had a fairly decent spot to spend the night. Luckily Josh shared his tent with me as mine, along with all of my other camping gear, was lost with my luggage. As darkness fell, we gathered up our owling equipment and started playing tape. From the campsite we heard our first Karthala Scops-Owl and it wasn’t long until we saw the bird. We walked down the road to try for a few more and easily found at least four of this endemic owl.

The next morning we started our descent early since we had a few logistical matters to deal with (I needed to find out where my missing backpack was and Josh still needed a visa). The only bird we still needed to see was the local subspecies of France’s Goshawk and surprisingly, about halfway down the dirt road, Josh saw one as it responded to the tape and we had nice but quick views of a perched bird before it disappeared back into the forest. We also managed more good views of a few other common endemics including Grand Comore Thrush, Comoro Cuckooshrike, and Grande Comore Bulbul.

With everything seen, we headed back to Moroni. Josh headed to immigration while I went to the airport. Josh easily got his visa, but my baggage didn’t show up on the next flight. I was a bit frustrated, but luckily I had put all of my important gear in my carry-on so not having my main pack was only a huge inconvenience and didn’t really effect the trip too much. (One pair of clothes for a week. Who cares?!) It was also pretty apparent at this point that my bag was probably never going to reach me so I messaged Melissa to bring me new things when she meets up with us in about a week.

The next stop on our Comoren adventure was the island of Moheli. During the plane ride we found out that there was going to be a large wedding on the island and that the President of Comoro was also going to be on island. Therefore all of the hotels in the main town of Fomboni were likely to be booked. We prepared to have a difficult time finding a place to stay, but luckily the first place we checked agreed to let us camp out back since they didn’t have any rooms (upon our return later that night we were actually “upgraded” to an old room that they had). So with the hotel situation sorted out fairly quickly, we tracked down a taxi and headed to the other side of the island to spend the afternoon looking for one of Comoro’s most difficult endemics, Comoro Green-Pigeon.

After about an hour and forty-five minutes of driving, we arrived at our birding destination of Oullah. In the past most people concentrated on looking for the green-pigeon at higher elevations, but over the last few years it has become apparent that the pigeon is actually a lot more common at lower elevations near the coast along the west side of the island. We headed off up a trail through the plantations and began to pick up our first few endemics for Moheli including Moheli Sunbird, Moheli Green Sunbird, Pale Paradise-Flycatcher, and Moheli White-eye. After hiking for about an hour, we decided to turn around and work our way back down through the plantations. Along a small creek we found the Comoro subspecies of Madagascar Malachite Kingfisher and then finally had a pair of Comoro Green-Pigeons respond to the tape and fly in for good views. Success.

With our main target for the afternoon accounted for, we departed about an hour before dark to start the long drive back to Fomboni. On our way back we took the road counter clockwise around the island, which is in better condition but takes a bit longer (just over two hours). As it was getting dark, we were passing through some decent looking forest alongside the road and decided it would be worth a quick stop or two to try for Moheli Scops-Owl. As we neared a good looking area, we told our driver to pull over and it wasn’t more than two minutes later that we had a pair of Moheli Scops-Owls calling and perching above our heads. We were both excited to see the birds and excited that we could go back to the hotel and relax instead of our original plan of eating dinner and heading out for a long night of owling.

The next morning we departed at 0400 and heading back to the other side of the island to the small town of Mrinjoni where there is a trail that leads to the center ridge of the island at just over 700m. We originally planned to hire a trail guide to show us the way to le Chalet de Antonie (a diralect shack at the top of the ridge), but after the local demanded way too much money, we decided to figure out the trail ourselves. We figured we’d eventually find someone along the trail that would guide us for much less and this was partially true when we ran into a mother and her four small children along the trail. We asked about the Chalet and before we knew it, a small boy about the age of 5 was guiding us up the trail. Eventually we reached a junction and the mother explained that from there we should be able to find our way. We thanked them and they continued on their way along the other trail, presumably to their farm somewhere on the hillside. Just after leaving the family, we heard a few Comoro Green-Pigeons calling and soon found a few sitting very close in a nearby fruiting tree. So much for being a hard bird! We continued up the trail and finally reached the upper parts of the ridge by about 1000. The weather had made a turn for the worse with the wind starting to increase and the threat of rain looked imminent.

Despite the deteriorating weather, we started to pick up a few new birds with the biggest highlight being the moheliensis subspecies of Comoro Cuckooshrike, a very rare bird with few recent records. Along with the cuckooshrike we managed great looks at a pair of Comoro Blue Vanga, a few Moheli Bulbuls, and our first Benson Brush Warbler of the trip. We reached the crest of the ridge just as the weather turned for the worse and it began to pour. For the next two hours we attempted to find our last target, the endemic subspecies of Malagasy Brush Warbler, but the heavy rain and wind kept the birds quiet and we dipped on finding any. By early afternoon we headed back down the ridge as we didn’t have return transport coordinated. We eventually made our way back to Fomboni and attempted to figure out the boat situation for the next day as we planned to make a midday run to Anjouan after a final morning of birding Moheli. We met a nice gentleman in town who explained the boat situation to us and also said that it would be possible to take a private boat if we wanted. We prepared to take the public boat is it was much cheaper, but wanted to keep the private option available in case we spent too much time birding the next morning and missed the public boats. We told the guy that we planned on taking a public boat, but that if we called him before 1000AM the next morning then it meant we wanted to take a private boat.

For our final morning on Moheli, we headed to the nearby forest of Djando. This area is only about 15 minutes outside of Fomboni and provides access to decent forest along the main road. Our only remaining target was the local subspecies of Malagasy Brush Warbler, and despite dedicating an entire morning to finding it, we didn’t even hear it call. We did find a number of the other endemics though including a few Moheli Scops-Owls before light, Benson’s Brush Warbler, and a few Comoro Blue Vangas. By mid morning the wind had once again picked up significantly, so we admitted defeat and made a quick return to town so that we could still make one of the public boats to Anjouan. We arrived at the boat area along the beach by 0830 and attempted to sign up for a boat. Before we could leave, we were told we had to visit the police station where the chief singed a paper allowing us to travel to Anjouan by small boat (apparently only locals are authorized to travel this way and for us to do so we had to pay 10 euros each for a permit, complete B.S. but oh well). When we arrived back at the beach we were told that the boat would be leaving soon. There were two boats on the beach and a number of people waiting to board them. Eventually people started getting in the one boat so we followed suit, but we were told that we were in the other boat. There was a little bit of confusion and eventually we found out that the guy we had met yesterday had gone ahead and changed us to a private boat despite us never calling him. The public boat was now full (even though we were there two hours before everyone else) and our only option was to take the private for 200 euros! It was absolute bullshit, but despite our protest, there wasn’t really much we could do at that point. We bartered the boat price down to 150 euros and with no other options departed around 1030 for our boat ride to Anjouan.

To make a long story short, this 2 1/2 hour boat ride was one of the most miserable experiences of my life. For the entire ride we were continuously soaked by crashing waves as the boat bounced up and down and along with it, we continuously bounced off the hard wooden benches. We could barely use our binoculars and our hopes of seeing Moheli Shearwater were nil despite it being a fairly common bird in the area. During the ride we passed a number of Brown Noddies and eventually did see a single Moheli Shearwater although the look was absolutely abysmal. When we arrived on Anjouan, I realized that the ziplock bag that my phone was in to protect it from water had broken open and my phone drowned at some point during our ride. A rather appropriate way to end the worst boat trip ever. It really was 2 1/2 hours of complete misery. A trip neither Josh nor I will soon forget. Although we were both soaked and exhausted from the boat ride, we still had most of the day left to find some birds on Anjouan. The first task was to find a hotel and then we planned to spend the afternoon at a nearby lake, but I’ll save that for the next post! Stay tuned!