Madagascar – Bemanevika – The Best Day of Birding of Our Lives (SERIOUSLY.)

If you were to stop and think about locations in the world where it is possible to see two different species of birds with a COMBINED population of less than 100 individuals, you probably wouldn’t be able to think of many. I know this because we sat down and tried to come up with another place whose bird numbers were so desolate. If Alagoas Foilage-gleaner isn’t already extinct then North East Brazil would be a contender. Other than that, the only other place we could come up with that would be close were the birds on the island of Sangihe in Indonesia. And that’s it. We couldn’t come up with any others (although I’m sure there’s a few other locations out there). It’s always hard to estimate the exact populations of rare birds, but the Madagascar Serpent-Eagle is estimated to have a population of less than 50 individuals. With Madagascar Pochard however it is a bit easier to get an accurate count of the population because the entire population nests on one lake. A single lake. This bird was actually thought to be extinct until a small population was found dwelling here. There are exactly thirty-three of these ducks remaining on the planet (40 if you include the 7 ducklings we saw.) Add in a rare and elusive Tyto that also has a population only numbering around 2,000-3,000 and it sounds like a good reason to me to include Bemanevika into our Madagascar itinerary. And at the conclusion of our trip to the area, we collectively agreed that our day birding the forest around Bemanevika was one of the best days of birding of our lives. It was THAT good.

Bemanevika, located in northern Madagascar, is one of the leading conservation sites in Madagascar for The Peregrine Fund. This international NGO specializes in conservation efforts for rare raptors and birds of prey around the world, and in doing so inadvertently does conservation work on a number of other species. “Today The Peregrine Fund works worldwide to prevent raptor extinctions, protect areas of high raptor conservation value, and address landscape-level threats impacting multiple species.” In this case The Peregrine Fund, in protecting Madagascar Serpant-Eagle, also protects Madagascar Pochard. The key to success at Bemanevika, like so many other successful conservation efforts, involves the local community. The local guides, researchers, cooks, and helpers all come from the small village located on the fringe of the remaining forest patch. The Peregrine Fund has established a very nice eco-tourism camp that is used by both birders and researchers alike who come to see the rare and endangered species that call the area home. During our stay, we met a group of Madagascar graduate students who were spending eight months in the area studying a number of different subjects including Madagascar Pond-Heron, Madagascar Harrier, Madagascar Buzzard, and Slender-billed Flufftail. The camp itself is quite nice with a number of pavilion style shelters to set up your tent under and a field kitchen that the local cooks will cook any food that you have brought along with you.

Although Bemanevika is an amazing place to visit, the number of visitors per year is minuscule compared to the rest of Madagascar. On average a paltry 30 people visit this site per year. The reason? Well the road to Bemanevika is atrocious. The drive from the main highway to the reserve takes about 7 hours and can only be completed in a 4wd vehicle. On top of using a 4wd, you need to be lucky and have dry weather. If it rains, good luck getting in or out. We of course were lucky, but not THAT lucky. We left Antsohihy at 0430 and started on the long drive to Bemanevika. Arriving in the town of Bealanana we first met local researcher/guide Lukeman who escorted us by leading the way on his motorbike. He was to direct us for the last 30 km to the Peregrine Fund campsite when the road becomes much worse. Overall the road to get there was in decent shape because it hadn’t rained much lately. Unfortunately our driver, the guy Eugene, supposed “birder transporter extraordinaire” brought along, was a bit of a slow driver. (But in saying that I’m trying to be nice, because we were finding out that Andry was extremely slow and even Lukeman commented how slow and inefficiently he was taking the road.) Our constant breaks were tiring, but I think Lukeman had it hardest because with every stream crossing or large hill to climb, he would have to jump off of his bike and direct Andry on how to drive as if he had never done anything like this before. (We figured that Eugene, a guy who had driven multiple birding groups in the past would know to bring someone adept to handle Madagascar’s road conditions.) Despite this, we were progressing towards camp in a timely manner so we wouldn’t complain. This all changed when we were about 6 km from the campsite. A large thunderstorm quickly approached and the rain started to fall. Game over. We had one last hill to make it up, but our 4wd Pajero was no match for the slippery clay. Although we attempted to push (with the help of a few extra locals), the car was going no where. It was already 2PM, but with no chance of getting the car up the hill until the road dried, we grabbed our small packs and started the 6 kilometer hike to the camp.

Lukeman went ahead on his motorbike and brought back reinforcements to help carry our large packs as well as our extra food and water, meanwhile shuffling Geoff via motorbike so he wouldn’t have to put undue excess miles on that injured leg. (If you missed what happened, read about that disaster here.) Luckily the rain stopped fairly quickly and we made it to camp about an hour before dark. We were happy to make it, but the original thought of getting any birding in the first afternoon had long disappeared. Unless if you count the Madagascar Harrier that Geoff and I saw as we rode in and the Sooty Falcon that Ross and Josh saw as they rode in. As dusk fell we did hear a single Madagascar Long-eared Owl and saw a few Madagascar Nightjars. After discussing a game plan for the following morning with Lukeman, we headed to bed excited for the opportunities to see some of the rarest birds in the world the next morning.

 

Logistics played a huge role in how our day played out and that’s why it’s always a good idea to assess the situation and attempt to be as efficient as possible. Ross, a logistics specialist, mentioned to Lukeman that it might be best if we started at the Madagascar Serpent Eagle location as it was the furthest from camp. Our car wasn’t at the top of the hill so instead of being driven the 3 km to the start of the trail, Ross, Josh and I walked. Meanwhile Lukeman transported Geoff on the back of his motorbike. We soon arrived and found that the trail to get to the serpent-eagle nest wasn’t too long and after 45 minutes of hiking in a rather beautiful forest, we arrived at the nest stake out. We were told that the adults were taking turns incubating eggs and that every morning around 0700 the male comes to trade places with the female. The Madagascar Serpent-Eagles’ exact numbers are not known but Lukeman estimates that 2-3 pairs can be found in this patch of forest. The Peregrine Fund is working to radio tag and monitor any chicks that are discovered in efforts to see where the birds will fledge. In 2016 a female was radio tagged and can now be located, but if that bird dies and no further birds are radio tagged, then good luck seeing this non-soaring, internal forest-dwelling raptor. Efforts are being made to radio tag any chicks but the last time a chick was tagged, it was monitored for only 3 months before it was found to have died. Lukeman is employed by The Peregrine Fund, but brought along two local men, one as a ‘guide’ and the other as the ‘radio tag technician.’ He then pays them with the money we pay to him, so that the villagers can make money in their community and show that protecting the forest can be worth it! We arrived at the nest site and set up our scope hoping to catch a glimpse of the male before he swapped onto the nest. We’d been scanning the nest for about thirty minutes but the sitting bird was completely obscured by the large nest. While looking in the scope Ross notices that the “nest” was now moving. It turns out we could see parts of the bird all along, she just blended in so much! Eventually she stood up and started looking at the eggs as if things were happening. Soon she flew off without the male even approaching! We began to suspect that the chicks might be beginning to hatch! The female returned and perched nicely in a neighboring tree allowing better views than we could have ever expected before she hopped back on the nest to see how the eggs were making out. Being there as the babies were hatching was a better start to our morning than we ever expected! After a few more minutes the male came in and the female once again flew off the nest. This time though, the male didn’t hang around either and not wanting to put pressure on the pair and it’s new born chicks, we decided it was time to leave. We then talked with Lukeman about making our way over to the other side of the reserve to try and see Madagascar Red Owl and Madagascar Pochard, as the locations for those two birds are quite close to each other. He agreed that it would be possible so we set back towards camp, had a quick bite to eat, and started walking a mile in the opposite direction towards a new patch of forest.

As we made our way up we had a fantastic panoramic view of the whole area. On one side we could overlook Lake Matsaborimena, aka the only lake that Madagascar Pochard nests on, and on the other side, a marshy field where we hoped to later see a skulky swamp bird, Slender-billed Flufftail. To get to the known roosting site of the owl, we walked down a steep trail stopping for any worthwhile birds along the way. We then were escorted to the day roost and had perfect views of a roosting Madagascar Red Owl whose numbers seem to be hanging somewhere in the 1,000-3,000 range. It’s hard to know for sure but this tyto is considered to be a rare one and even though Ross typically hates seeing owls during the day (you know, because they are so much better at night) it was still really cool to see. Since it was roosting so low and conspicuous, we decided to add it to the ‘Owls we’ve taken a selfie with’ list (which also includes Oriental Bay Owl and Long-whiskered Owlet.)

From there we walked only 100m to the edge of the “Pochard Lake” where we found the marsh along with an elevated rickety wooden platform, built to stand on so visitors could get a nice view. Ross and I climbed up while Geoff and Josh were taken out via canoe with Lukeman. It wasn’t long before we all had excellent views of Madagascar Pochard. Ross and I managed to count the birds out on the lake and in doing so saw a small family group with 7 ducklings in tow. Apparently these ducklings were brand new and Lukeman hadn’t seen them yet. He says only 33 Madagascar Pochards remain but if you count these ducklings, the population total now reaches 40! Yes, 40 is an abysmal number, but better than nothing! Along with the pochards, several Madagascar Grebes and Mellers Ducks were spotted. Ross and I swapped places with Geoff and Josh and were taken out by canoe where we had up close and personal views of a few male and female Madagascar Pochards. The birds never called so even though Ross had lugged his parabolic microphone onto the canoe, he was unable to obtain the first recordings of the species. Some excellent photos were to be had however!

It was only mid-afternoon and we had ticked our three biggest targets!!! We walked through beautiful forest, spent time viewing multiple rare species and had an opportunity to see an isolated lake containing the rarest duck in the world from both a lookout above and up close from a canoe on its waters, with welcoming company and excellent weather. We were thoroughly enjoying our time in Bemenevika. The day birding would have been enjoyable in and of itself, but to make it even better, it was a fun day where we had excellent views of three super rare species rather handily. Now the only thing left to do was simply walk around and wait until later when we could try for the rather elusive Slender-billed Flufftail. We took the long way around to the marsh and simply birded with no pressure to see anything. It’s nice when you can do that. We saw several vangas on our walk, including Blue, Tyla’s, and Red-tailed before we arrived at the edge of the large marsh. Almost instantly after arriving, Ross called in a Grey Emutail that we were able to get scope views of before we headed over to yet another rickety bridge, this one overlooking the grassy marsh. The four of us, along with Lukeman and our 2 local guides, piled on the rickety bridge and sat for the next two-ish hours periodically playing tape for Slender-billed Flufftail. A Madagascar Rail was spotted before Josh points out a single Slender-billed Flufftail that had come out into the open. Miraculously we all spotted it before it found its way back into the reeds. To the layman, this might not seem that great but this was HUGE since in previous trip reports people have missed this altogether or have had to put in several attempts before seeing it. The fact that we had just seen the serpent-eagle, red owl and pochard along with this flufftail all in one day was pretty epic. Before we left, another TWO Slender-billed Flufftails flushed up and were seen well by everyone, I even managed to get my bins on them in flight showing the rufous head and rump and non-streaked brown body. On our walk out we asked if Lukeman and a local guide would walk through the reeds hoping that in doing so they might flush a Madahascar Snipe. Don’t you know it worked and a single Madagascar Snipe was seen and heard really well as it flushed up and flew around us! Seriously just when we thought the day couldn’t get any better, it did!

Ross had been talking about seeing Madagascar Red Owl at night so he and I opted to stay behind in the forest while everyone else headed back to camp. When we told Lukeman our plans it went surprisingly well and nobody seemed to mind that we would be out in the forest after dark. We explained that we had a GPS and couldn’t possibly get lost and set off to turn our long day out in the field to an even longer one out after dark.

Ross and I headed close to the roost site and never even had to use playback. We were distracted by a Tororoka Scops-Owl call and were in the process of trying to see/record that when we heard the disctinct screech of a tyto above our heads. We quickly forgot about the less important owl and soon had our flashlight on the beautifully red-toned Madagascar Red Owl. The bird perched somewhat vertically on the side of a large tree branch as tytos often do, and allowed excellent views and top-notch photos. (Trip reports say that this bird is nearly impossible to see unless it is on a day roost, but we suspect that more often than not, birders don’t want to put in a significant amount of effort and walk back to the forest patch after dark. After all most people are content looking at day roosting owls so when Lukeman finds a roost site, they leave it at that. I guess it all boils down to the fact that not everyone is as obsessed with seeing owls at night as Ross Gallardy.)

Our night walk was rather enjoyable and as we walked back we simply spot-lighted for chameleons along the way, seeing several more of the same species that one of the local guides spotted during the day and a new species, Perinet Chameleon (or something similar) which was bright green and absolutely adorable. We found a few frogs and a species of Dwarf Lemur before we called it quits and high-tailed it back to camp for a night of sleep!

We weren’t exactly expecting to clean up all of our major targets in one day so our second day we opted to bird the early morning and then get going mid-afternoon and use this extra time elsewhere. (Although staying up at Bemanevika longer would have been fun we didn’t want to risk rain and be stuck!) That following morning we headed back in the direction of the Pochard Lake and walked the road looking for a few targets that had eluded us thus far. Even though we had trolled for it for hours the day before, we finally caught site of Crossley’s Vanga on our morning walk. Another highlight for sure was finding a Madagascar Cuckoo-hawk nest! We were poaching birds from other sites left and right! (Crossley’s Vanga is typically found at Andisibe and the cuckoo-hawk often is most often found at Berenty).

We came back to camp, and took down our tents and thanked Lukeman for all of his hard work! Luckily our driver had managed to get the car up to the campsite and for that we were extremely thankful. We got down the mountain just in time and as we pulled into Bealanana’s city limits the skies opened up and the rain began to fall! We were so happy to not be stuck again! Bemanevika sure was good to us!

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