Madagascar: A place where you walk finely stamped trails and are shown birds at staked out locations. There is so little forest remaining that the animals are confined to such small areas that birding the country has a zoo-like quality. The birds (and animals) are so used to the presence of humans that they often sit still providing excellent views adding to the zoo-like feel.
That being said, Madagascar, when you are actually in the forest, is still pretty amazing. However, getting to the spread out patches of forest often requires long drives which are very much less than amazing. (And certainly the Tsingy Extension was no exception!) From Tsiroanomandidy we headed to Andasibe. Obviously our car was completely trashed from the Tsingy Extension (do read about that if you missed it) so we had no way to get to our next destination without stopping in town first to coordinate a ride. We did manage to find a driver for the following morning to take us 3 hours to Antananarivo and then onward to Andasibe, a grand total of 6 hours away.
Despite the long drives and misery of cramming into tight cars, coming to Madagascar has surpassed all of my expectations. Actually seeing these distinct and downright amazing creatures in real life is so, so, SO cool. Some of the creatures we saw were nearly unbelievable except there they were right in front of us. We had our first taste of the unbelievable in Andasibe and were out walking the trails when our guide pointed out a day roosting Mossy Leaf-tailed Gecko. It hides in plain sight during the day by becoming one with the tree it is sleeping on. Underneath its chin there are string-like filaments to blend seamlessly with the branch. The creature was so camouflaged that we, even after looking at it, still could hardly believe it was there.
Before I get ahead of myself talking about the likes of geckos and lemurs, let me start at the beginning. We finally arrived in Andasibe after a 6-hour drive and attempted to coordinate our next few days with the local guides in the area. It is mandatory to take a local guide with you as you walk through the national park and if you are caught without one, you can often be sent off with hefty punishments. Luckily these guides know where exactly where to look for certain birds or even have them staked out on a nest or day roost. So even though Ross was confident that he didn’t need a guide for help with ID, just knowing sites can make a world of difference. We first met Étienne who is in charge of the Iaroka patch of forest. We planned to go walk with him and search for Helmet Vanga and Bernier’s Vanga in a few days’ time. We look back and laugh on that first conversation because we attempted to coordinate in French not knowing that Etienne speaks English! Oops! That afternoon we managed to snag Patrice, a local guide who specializes in birds who just finished up a tour with Birdquest the day before we arrived and was starting another tour with Birdquest the day we left. We got lucky with having Patrice free on our dates. Our first afternoon we walked a trail in VOIMMA picking up a few specialties and managed to see Madagascar Ibis, Ward’s Flycatcher, and Nelicourvi Weaver. Our number one prize for the afternoon and the most wanted target for this site came in the form of a single Red-breasted Coua who was surprisingly cooperative and allowed nice views of its big blue eyes. We had only a first afternoon with Patrice and finished off our day with views of Madagascar Long-eared Owl at a roost.
Although we were pretty tired from a long day out, we still went on a short night hike that produced some goodies like Goodman’s Mouse Lemur, Crossley’s Dwarf Lemur, Weasel Sportive Lemur and a few chameleons. Our lodging for our few nights while at Andasibe National Park was in their nicely established campground which was not only super affordable, but also had electricity and small pavilions to place tents under to further protect from rain. (Those pavilions really came in handy as a matter of fact!) Honestly, I don’t think you can get much better value for $3 USD.
The next morning we picked up Patrice and started towards the Mantadia part of the Nationa Park stopping along the way at Vakona Marsh to try for Madagascar Rail. The previous afternoon we noticed that Patrice was very hyperactive and occasionally very loud, yelling at the top of his lungs when the ibis were close by. We were impressed by his energy but concerned that his birding manners weren’t as serious as we would have liked. While we were at the rail site waiting for the skulky birds to appear, Patrice starts talking. We kindly ask him to be quiet but he continues. Rails are shy and we didn’t want his loud behavior to scare them off so we make “shhhh” sounds with our fingers pressed to our lips. I guess asking him to be quiet was enough to push him over the proverbial edge because Patrice explodes with anger saying (very, very loudly) that we will no longer try for the rail. He begins yelling that he “is the chief” while pounding on his chest and telling us that we must listen to him and he will not listen to us. We are just the tourists. Who knows what the rail was thinking, but it comes out into the open while this fiasco is going on so not seeing the rail as Patrice suggested, wasn’t an option. Patrice storms off and Geoff follows behind while Ross, Josh and I stay behind to snag better views. Perhaps Patrice was unaware that we had our own means to call in the birds and didn’t need him to spoon feed us anything. Another play of the birds song and we had two Madagascar Rails come into the open and proceed to copulate right before our eyes. We had to laugh because they chose the least private area of the marsh to do so! There’s probably some kind of “rail” joke to be had here, but I’ll save that for another day.
As we walked back up to the car we discussed apologizing to Patrice and explaining that we weren’t your average Birdquest group– we were independent birders taking this very seriously. I approached Patrice to apologize and he immediately stuck his hand into my face. Still I explained that I was sorry and he just started to yell and I could hardly get a word in edgewise before he says “fine we will just go back to town.” All because I wanted to say sorry?! That escalated quickly. But perhaps he reevaluated the fact that we were paying customers and if he didn’t change his attitude he would be out of business. Luckily he hopped back into our massive 4WD vehicle and we continued on our way. We were concerned that the morning’s events would make Patrice not want to be cordial to us or show us birds, but the morning went surprisingly well and we suspect that Patrice was simply not expecting us to be as serious and prepared as we were. Once he noticed Josh and Ross using playback and identifying birds without his ID, his tune seemed to change and by the end of the day I think he was genuinely enjoying being out with us. Besides, his aptitude for spotting hard to see fauna was pretty good (although we do recommend using one of his brothers instead of Patrice, he’s a bit full of himself and talking to a few other tour leaders, we aren’t the only ones who have shied away from him in the last few years). The morning and afternoon in Mantadia brought nice looks at the arboreal and therefore rather oddly named Short-legged Ground-roller in addition to Nuthatch Vanga, Madagascar Pygmy Kingfisher, Scaled Ground-roller, Forest Fody, Madagascar Grebe and nice looks at Black and White Ruffed Lemurs and Bamboo Lemurs up in trees. It was a very nice morning.
We were debating how to best spend our afternoon and opted to take advantage during the heat of the day to visit Malagasy Scops-Owl on a roost as well as France’s Sparrowhawk on a nest. Geoff who was struggling to walk due to his recent injury (he was run over by our Tsingy driver in case you missed that) was doing amazingly well walking through the pain and “keeping up with the fast-paced Americans.” We ended our journey through the forest with nice eye-level views of Collared Nightjar on a nest with two little fluff balls sitting underneath of it. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the Madagascar Day Gecko that we had earlier in the day, keeping Ross’s need to see phelsumas at bay.
Geoff, who had been doing shockingly well given his circumstances, had officially decided that the following morning he too would give a go at visiting Iaroka to try for Helmet Vanga and Bernier’s Vanga. Knowing he wouldn’t be able to keep up with our speed we opted to bring Patrice along with Étienne so that one of them could take the three of us who weren’t injured and one could stay with Geoff so that he wouldn’t miss out on anything. The road to get up to the starting point in Iaroka requires 4WD and high clearance so we were very happy to have the vehicle that we did, even though the interior was turned into quite possibly the least comfortable, yet nicest-looking vehicle I’ve ever ridden in. (Seriously they took out all of the standard seats and replaced them with bench seats that were too far forward so that getting in through the doors was a challenge and once inside you couldn’t sit without your knees ramming into the seat in front.) Luckily it didn’t have to be comfortable to get the job done and we made it to the top of the muddy hill with no real issues.
Patrice had told us that Bernier’s Vanga, the rarer of our two target birds, was just seen four days ago by Birdquest (which we found out later didn’t seem to be the case). We weren’t sure if this was just Patrice answering yes to questions, as many local guides often do or actually true information, but either way we were hopeful because we knew people had seen our target vangas in the past at this location. Our morning in Iroka forest was nice, but we never saw either of our target vangas. Two dips?! We weren’t expecting that! Getting to the forest required a bit of a hike and along the way we had great views of a responsive Rufous-headed Ground-Roller, although recordings turned out much better than the photos. While we were out birding we came across several decent-sized vanga flocks to keep our hopes up. Seeing birds such as Tylas Vanga, Red-tailed Vanaga, Nuthatch Vanga, Blue Vanga, White-headed Vanga, and Ashy Cuckooshrike left us with enough hope leftover at the end of the day to do it all again the next day. Also, we sightings of Baroni Mantella and Brown Leaf Chameleon, the day definitely wasn’t a total wash! Not to mention we were told as we were leaving that locals had found a Helmet Vanga nest!
So the next day we collected Étienne and set off again hoping to find Helmet Vanga. Unfortunately we had a bit of a rough start to the morning simply because we ran into some selfish birders. The short of the story is that Ross, Josh and myself walked quickly to the main area and started looking for the birds. We were waiting for Étienne and Geoff (who was still nursing an injured ankle) when another group of birders showed up. We thought it was Geoff so we walked back to the clearing to meet up, but instead we found two British birders who were with their local guide. When we realized they weren’t the people that we thought they were we started back in the same direction that we had come from when the guide tells us to stop. We weren’t following them, we were simply heading in the same direction that we had come from. That’s when we explained that we knew of a nest and were searching for it. The guides suddenly had time for us. We like to share information (hence the blog and trip reports and details put into all eBird checklists) so we explained that if they wait for our guide we can all go. We asked if they knew anything about it but they said no and wouldn’t walk until we left the area. Strange. Funny then when Étienne arrived and we were taken to the Helmet Vanga nest that they were there as well. We simply had to call them out because not sharing information like that is completely selfish and definitely a very British birder type thing to do! (Honestly, why is it a competition?! We were English speakers out in the middle of nowhere looking for birds and instead of stopping to talk to someone who clearly has a similar interest, they snubbed their noses and turned their backs. We like to think it was their loss because Ross is a wealth of bird information not just for Madagascar, but Asia and South America.)
Once again, things were a bit mistranslated as the actual nest hadn’t been found yet (we would later see it on other visits), but the Helmet Vanaga was hanging out in the area and we managed great looks. Seeing this Madagascar star bird well was a nice start. It was even better then when I spotted a Henst Goshawk soaring above our heads! Unfortunately Geoff never got on it as he was sitting a bit of a ways away from us resting his injured ankle. The morning brought us two of our three target birds so it was hard not to say it was a success but we didn’t see nearly as many vanga flocks, so Bernier’s was still a no go.
Not wanting to dip a bird and because we are gluttons for punishment, Ross, Josh, and myself walked with Étienne through to Iroka Forest yet again while Geoff headed off to the hospital to get his ankle looked at—something he had been putting off considering there were life birds to be had. We walked through to some nice looking forest targeting Bernier’s Vanga the whole way. No such luck. Where on earth is this bird?! It wasn’t supposed to be that hard! A nice consolation prize however was a Madagascar Flufftail that was super responsive and did several circles around our feet coming within inches to where we were sitting! Super cute! We only did a morning walk but explained to Étienne that we were very interested in seeing Bernier’s Vanga and if he could tell the community people to search for a nest, we would pay a $100 USD prize to the finders. We figured what better way to show people to protect the forest than to incentivize with a bit of money?!
We left Anasibe with a slew of good birds in our pocket and a lifeline out for that last remaining bird. We left and hoped that Étienne would call us with some good news soon! For now we were headed back to Tana to catch a flight up north! Stay tuned!