Madagascar – Ankarafantsika, Kinkony, & Ampitsopitsoka – Good Birds and Bad Drivers

Birding in Madagascar is equal parts walking around neat forests and equal parts sitting in a car driving through all of the deforestation to get to those neat forests. When we finished up in Bemanevika, we headed further south to check off a few other well-known Madagascar birding sites. Next on the agenda? Ankarafantsika National Park, a dry tropical forest with some sandy scrub and savannah areas mixed in. One hundred and twenty nine species of birds have been recorded in Ankarafantsika and more than half of them are endemic to Madagascar. It’s a place you don’t want to miss any targets! We wanted to be in Ankarafantsika early morning and were told it would take 3 hours to get there from where we spent the night so we left accordingly. We were routinely being quoted a time but were consistently not making that time because Andry, our ‘driver’, was a lot slower than expected. Needless to say we arrived in the dry forest of Ankarafantsika National Park (number 6 on the map below) at 9AM. AKA well after our expected arrival time and definitely after prime birding time. A dry forest in the heat of the day? What could go wrong.

Luckily prior to visiting Ankarafantsika we had asked a few well-known tour guides that we knew if they recommended any local guides over the others and Romain was among the names recommended to us for Ankarafantsika. Remember, one must have a local guide to enter the national parks but not all “guides” are created equal and we definitely didn’t want another Marcus to happen to us! Although Romain was nice and knew a lot of the bird calls, he wasn’t as knowledgeable about specific birding sites as I’m sure other local guides are, but he certainly knew enough to inform us that the best birding is early morning and that we should have been here hours ago! Thanks, but we knew that one already! We let him know our driver was a bit slow and hoped that despite the hour we could still pick up a few of our targets.

We walked along the dry trails and surprisingly did very well with the skulky ground birds we were searching for. We had excellent looks at a pair of Red-capped Couas before getting a response from a White-breasted Mesite, arguably the most difficult of our targets. We also managed great looks Coquerel’s Coua, Van Dam’s Vanaga, and an adorable day-roosting Sportive Lemur nestled in his tree cavity. Within two hours in the heat of the day we had picked up all of our biggest targets!

We asked if Romain had a site for Green Pigeon or Banded Kestrel but he didn’t know of any. We left Romain after our morning hike and figured that our time scanning the nearby lake for Madagascar Fish Eagle would be equally productive with or without his help and since it was cheaper to do it on our own, we bid him adieu. While scanning the lake and nearby marshy area, we had countless Squacco Herons, Cattle Egrets, and White-faced Whistling Ducks but as for our target raptor, no such luck. Ross, Josh and I took a bit of a walk while Geoff snagged the vehicle to rest his bum leg. (Definitely read about what happened to him if you missed it.) When we all met up at the other view point of the lake we learned that Geoff had a Madagascar Fish Eagle sighting without us! Darn! So we opted to hang out where Geoff had his sighting and scan the lake for a bit longer to relocate it! It took a bit of time (about 3 hours), but finally the Madagascar Fish Eagle was spotted sitting on the shore! It definitely hadn’t been there before and must have flown down to the shore when we weren’t looking. With that one in the bag we headed back to the park grounds to hopefully see Madagascar Green Pigeon or Banded Kestrel. For the next four hours we walked around the park with no such luck with our two remaining targets. Just before dusk, I spotted a local guy with binoculars around his neck (likely a different guide) and suggested that we should ask him if he knew locations of either of our two targets. Unfortunately he looked to be leaving so just as I was walking over to ask, I gave up but Josh didn’t and chased him down before he left. We walked up to Guy, his name as we learned, and asked about Madagascar Green Pigeon. He probably thought that was a silly question because he simply pointed right above our heads! The bird was sitting on a nest only about 50 meters away! Guy located the nest and we all had perched views of a Madagascar Green Pigeon! If only we had known about this earlier! Romain dropped the ball on that one! As for Banded Kestrel, we had to leave without so much as a response.

From Ankarafantsika we got on the road and headed to the town of Mahajanga for the night. We snagged a pretty cheap and basic hotel but managed to find a delicious ex-pat restaurant and had a rather enjoyable meal! The following morning we planned to take the ferry across the delta to get to our other birding sites. One can only bring a vehicle across the delta on the big ferry which runs but once a day. (The main reason why you couldn’t do this small extension in only a day.) Needless to say we didn’t get in any birding that morning but got our vehicle across and headed straight for the small town of Mitsinjo, where we picked up a local “guide” for our trip to Lake Kinkony, number 7 on the map above. Kinkony is arguably the best site to tick Sakalava Rail and Madagascar Jacana, the former being restricted to just a few large lakes in western Madagascar and the latter being a bird that has become increasingly more difficult at other known locations. Luckily Birdlife’s Asisty is working with the local people in Kinkony and the habitat next to this small village should remain. From the small town where we paid our entrance fee and picked up the local guide, it was a two-hour drive along a VERY DUSTY dirt road.

We reached the more remote village at a pretty nice time of day and our local guide took us straight to the little boats we would be using. Since there were four of us, we took out two small wooden boats, each one operated by three local men using hardly a half-decent oar. Despite the missing handles and half-rotted blades, the men navigated the wooden canoes rather proficiently. We soon turned into the large phragmites marsh where a pair of Sakalava Rails were among the first birds we got on! (One seen, one heard-only.) We continued on our little canoe trip around the marsh and the whole area was full of birds. The high reeds and muddy banks looked like very nice habitat and we had excellent views of Madagascar Jacana, African Spoonbill, Yellow-billed Stork, Black Egret, and many more. We hoped to find a Madagascar Pond Heron before heading home but couldn’t find any birds that were convincing enough to differ from the ever-numerous Squacco Heron. In total we spent two hours out on the marsh and had a very enjoyable experience floating through the reeds enjoying our close-up views of the birds. (But a Madagascar canoe trip wouldn’t be complete if there wasn’t a sighting of a naked man, or four, bathing in the river!)

From Kinkony we rode on the dusty dirt road back out to Mitsinjo, picked up Eugene and started searching for accommodation for the night in the nearby town of Namakia. Apparently there is only one “hotel” in the town but calling it a hotel would be an enormous stretch. The accommodation was nothing more than a local home with a few open rooms comprised of mattresses on the floor and a single bathroom, where the shower was simply a bucket of cold water to pour on your head and dirtiest toilet we’d ever seen. It was feverishly hot and humid, even at night, and only one of the rooms had a fan. Ross and I were prepared to sleep outside in our tent save for the fact that the room with the fan did not have mosquito nets over the beds and Geoff and Josh would much prefer to sleep behind the safety of a bug net, so Ross and I took the room with the only fan. (Be reminded that the standards for living space in third world countries are drastically different from the comforts westerners enjoy on a daily basis. Staying in places such as this are an experience that I think everyone should have so that they never take running water or air conditioning for granted.)

In the morning we headed to the edge of the river with the goal of visiting Ampitsopitsoka (number 8 on the map) to look for Bernier’s Teal, a duck endemic to Madagascar and found only along small patches of the west coast. Ampitsopitsoka — Say that 5 times fast! This river estuary is supposed to be a much better site for Bernier’s Teal than the previous known site of the Betsiboka Delta, the mouth of Madagascar’s largest river and one of the world’s fastest changing coastlines. Nearly a century of extensive logging of Madagascar’s rainforests and coastal mangroves has resulted in nearly complete clearing of the land and fantastic rates of erosion. It’s not hard to believe then that the birds along the delta have started to become rather unreliable in recent years so to Ampitsopitsoka we came. Ampitsopitsoka is the location that Eugene had recommended so we decided to trust Eugene on this site and had him arrange transportation for us the day prior while we had headed to Kinkony. This relatively new and little-known location has just recently been set up for Eco-tourism.  Along with Bernier’s (Madagascar) Teal, we hoped that we could pick up a few other birds including Madagascar Sacred Ibis and Madagascar Plover. Eugene dropped us off at the port and while we were waiting for the boatman to arrive, Josh decided to do a bit of scanning and just like that he spotted a pair of Bernier’s Teal! So before ever setting foot on the boat we already had our #1 target! Not only did we have them from shore, but they were close, likely much closer than we could have gotten otherwise! If only we could have a few Madagascar Sacred Ibis as well, we could cancel our boat trip altogether and move on well ahead of schedule!

We set off on the river and started scanning the sandy banks on either side of us. Birds such as White-faced Whistling Duck and Crab Plover were commonly seen before spotting a few more Bernier’s Teal! We made a turn and stumbled onto a large group (500+) of Lesser Flamingos! These were a life bird for me and Ross and just like that we officially had cleaned up all of the world’s flamingo species! (There are only 5 species of flamingo in case you are wondering.) As we turned back around to check a different part of the lake, we noticed two large white birds off in the distance. It isn’t hard to identify a Madagascar Sacred Ibis from far away. There were only two ibis and they flushed relatively quickly but we still managed sufficient views and decent enough photos. Last on our target list was Madagascar Plover, a bird most often reported from the south but by no means a guarantee when you get there. Several groups that we bumped into at various places informed us that they never saw a single Madagascar Plover during their entire time in the south! Originally we thought we might be able to do the whole morning boat trip via boat, but soon learned that water leading up to and surrounding the sandbar we hoped to scan was simply too shallow for our boat to float through. We disembarked and walked barefoot through the soft sand-mud combo, scanning through White-fronted Plovers but never managing to find a Madagascar Plover among them. It wasn’t until we headed back towards our drop off point and were re-scanning the shores, that Josh spotted a single Madagascar Plover on a sandbank. It was definitely not there before! Once again we hopped off the boat and snuck up to get much closer views. We brought the scope so our close views were magnified that much more! On our ride back we continued scanning the shores and soon enough Ross spots another group of seven Madagascar Plovers! Who knows where they had all been this morning but by 10am they seemed to be around in relative abundance!

We were out on the boat for a very successful four-ish hours and found all three of our big targets and a few bonuses! In fact we had a total of six Bernier’s Teal on this trip and arrived back to the port earlier than scheduled. We had to call Eugene to come back to pick us up early! From Namakia we headed back in the direction of Katsepy, arriving by early afternoon. Since the car ferry only goes in the morning, we were going to have to wait until the next day to move on with the trip. Instead of spending the night in the relatively crappy town of Katsepy, Ross, myself, Geoff and Josh left Euguene and the driver and hired a small private boat to drive the four of us across to Mahajanga so we could have a half-decent shower at a somewhat comfortable hotel. We spent the rest of the evening and following morning relaxing until our vehicle and drivers finally made it across the bay. And please note the photo below of the patch-work sail that was being used to cross the river. Isn’t it amazing what can be done with so little?!

From here we once again drove to Ankarafantsika NP, hoping that we might get lucky enough to see a Banded Kestrel. We spent the entire afternoon scanning the skies but with no luck. We did find a Hook-billed Vanga which was new for the trip. I also scanned the lake again and this time spotted a Nile Crocodile which we hadn’t seen before. (Unfortunately it disappeared before any of the guys could see it.) We waited in the park headquarters enjoying the sun-bathing geckos until early evening but eventually had to call it quits.

Despite the lack of Banded Kestrel, it was a successful few days for sure! We were so successful in fact that we were now TWO full days ahead of schedule! Eugene, our driver, was contracted for another two days so we explained that we wanted to spend these two days back in Andasibe NP to try again for that pesky Bernier’s Vanga that we missed on our first visit. (This was supposed to be a clean-up trip after all so we didn’t want any misses to get away!) Unfortunately when we asked Eugene, he threw a bit of a fit. He said he would not drive us but still wanted to be paid for all of the days. Not wanting to upset Eugene, Josh talked to him about how we had contracted to have him for another two days and as we were the ones paying for the gas anyway, it would be fine. It was decided then, much to Ross’s dismay simply because he would have preferred to just get a cheaper driver in Tana, to give Eugene the option of taking us to Anasibe and being paid the full amount of days we contracted, or to part with us in Tana and we would prorate two of the days. When he learned he wouldn’t be getting paid for the two days if he wasn’t driving us, he agreed that visiting Andasibe was fine and we started on our way. Oh, but “fine” it was not.

It was a long day of driving, but we passed through the capital Antananarivo and made it to Andasibe. Like I said at the beginning, Madagascar is equal parts driving and equal parts birding. We were excited to finish this long drive and get on our way up to the Iaroka Forest section of Andasibe and find our target vanga! Again we met with Etienne and again we woke up early, drove up the steep bad road, and hiked back in to where the decent forest remains. We spent the whole morning, afternoon and part of the evening walking around. Going on a birding trip with us basically means lots of walking will be involved. But how can you not love simply hiking with binoculars spending time in forests so very unique to their home country?! We walked through and through Iaroka forest searching for this darn Bernier’s Vanga but at the end of the day turned up empty. We had probably clocked 13 kilometers when it was all said and done. We had again seen some good birds such as Pollen’s Vanga, but the biggest highlight was that the locals had finally found a Helmet Vanga nest. We opted to finish our hike at the nest and were taken down one of the most precarious trails to get there. We had excellent views of this Madagascar classic. It was a long day but when we made it down the hill to the restaurant to eat, Eugene was there waiting.

With yet another day left before our flight south, we explained to Eugene that once again we’d be heading back up to Iaroka to look for that silly Bernier’s Vanga. But unexpectedly, Eugene started to throw a fit. He didn’t like us going up there as the road is very muddy and he said it was hard on the vehicle. Well, duh. The reason we hired a large 4×4 was because we’d need to get up rough roads. Plus, the road was bad, but it wasn’t THAT bad. After all, a few vans had made the trip the same day as us. Still even after explaining that to Eugene he refused to let us take his vehicle back up there. He kept saying that we had “seen everything” and there was no reason to go back. Trust us, we wished we had seen everything including the Bernier’s Vanga and had earned a day off, but that was definitely not the case!

Since Eugene wasn’t going to budge, and planned to leave us stranded at the bottom of the hill, we told him that we’d end the contract a day early and find someone else to take us up to the forest the next morning. We let him know that since he wasn’t fulfilling his contract of driving for the last day, we would not be paying for the last day. Although he was still angry, we left and headed the 1 km up the road from the restaurant to our campground at the National Park. In hindsight this was a bad idea as no one was staying at the campground but us and about 30 minutes later Eugene showed up with a few “friends” from the nearby village and they started threatening us that we need to pay Eugene or there’d be “trouble.” It was a bit frightening, and after telling them how he wasn’t fulfilling his duties and was refusing to drive, they didn’t leave us alone until we said we didn’t have any more money and that we had planned to pay Eugene the rest when we got back to Tana. Long story short, we had to hire a different driver to take us up to Iaroka the next morning. We once again birded Iaroka for the entire morning and once again dipped the Bernier’s Vanga. We headed back down to the village and headed straight back to Tana via our different driver since we didn’t want to have to see Eugene again. DO NOT use Eugene if you travel to Madagascar. Although he was helpful when it came to finding Bernier’s Teal, he was also a huge pain in the ass. He took up way too much room in an already crowded car, had a short temper on more than one occasion, and was downright frightening when he threatened to hurt us. There’s plenty of other local outfitters in Madagascar so I’d definitely use someone else!

But since I’d hate to end this on such an unhappy note, here’s a photo of Ross staring at a Phelsuma (Day Gecko) during our time in Ankarafantsika. There’s plenty to love about Madagascar, even if a few little/big things don’t go exactly right!