If you need to get around in a foreign country using a driver, there are two ways to go about it. You can plan ahead of time and book a driver, usually someone who has driven birders before with a phone number that ends up in subsequent trip reports. Or you can just show up at the airport and wing it.
Prior to our visit to the south of Madagascar, we had been booking drivers ahead of time and/or using drivers who had escorted birders before and unfortunately it wasn’t going well for us. So taking the latter of the two options, we arrived in Fort Dauphin after a flight from the north (#8 on map) of the country to the south (#9 on map), and seamlessly found what turned out to be one of the best drivers of the trip, Happy, simply by showing up and asking if he’d like to drive us around. Happy was not his real name, but rather the “7 dwarves” name we liked to refer to him as, because he did whatever we asked with a smile. (We may have had other nicknames for our grumpy and sleepy drivers as well, but I digress.) The method of showing up in airports and finding a random driver works well in many countries, especially those where the economy is poor and many people are unemployed. After we explained to Happy where we wanted to go, Happy informed us that the road was bad. Correct. Hence the reason we turned down the many drivers who offered to drive us in their sedans and off we went in Happy’s 4WD vehicle. Sure, we drove on a “bad road,” but to us, having seen some of Madagascar’s actual bad roads, this wasn’t so bad. We were heading to Andohahela, a national park in the southern Madagascar, known as the most reliable spot for Red-tailed Newtonia.
On our two and a half hour drive down a relatively “decent” road (still unpaved and loaded with potholes) we passed thousands upon thousands of lychees! The trees on either side of the road were loaded with the delicious round red fruits! Clearly these were in season and despite the likelihood that everyone craving lychee just goes and pick the fruits themselves, people were still on the sides of the roads selling them. But back to birds. Eventually we made it to the final village and attempted to find someone to take us into the forest which wasn’t hard to do. A local man whose name I cannot recall escorted us directly to a trail that we had known about from previous trip reports. We had been doing so well finding birds that coming to the southeast we really only had a few possible targets. Poaching birds up north left us with only two, the range restricted Red-tailed Newtonia and Banded Kestrel, a tricky bird throughout Madagascar. The newtonia had been seen along this trail before so we figured the man must know what we were looking for. The forest we were walking in was absolutely picturesque and the Collared Lemurs we spotted only added to the ambiance. It might have been a lush and beautiful forest but it was a moist environment along a stream after a recent rain and unfortunately loaded with leeches! In between scanning trees we were constantly bending down to pick the little blood suckers off. We never found our target newtonia and had to leave empty handed. Before driving back down to the village we decided to check out what the areas along the road looked like. The trail, while beautiful, was hard to walk and the road looked equally promising. We ended the night FINALLY seeing a Madagascar Wood-rail, a bird we were starting to worry a bit about! This individual was on the move and we watched as it ran a 100m sprint from one side of the road to the other and then all the way down the hill!
We drove back down to the villages to drop our guide off and hoped to get something to eat. Being foreign, we were such a show in the villages that at any given time we had 30-40 locals surrounding us to the point where we could hardly move. Ross and Geoff wisely stayed in the car from the start but eventually Josh and I had to recede back to the vehicle just to get some space. Eventually we conceded to eating out of our grocery bags for fear that any food the people served us, however good-intention, would come with a side of gastrointestinal distress. Madagascar is a very, very poor country and rural areas lack all but the absolute necessities. People live in shacks made of mud, huts with straw roofs and the water they drink often comes directly from streams contaminated with the feces of the large game they keep around. We saw the water source of this tiny village first hand along with the half dozen cows standing directly next to it. The only decent food was what we had brought along with us and luckily that was enough. We drove back up the mountain a bit and simply camped along the road. We thought about sleeping in the village but after having all of those people constantly bombarding us, we figured a bit more remote might be best, not to mention it was much closer to the birding location! The next morning we started walking up the road and before long Ross got us all on a Red-tailed Newtonia! We thought this scarce bird would have been way more difficult but here it was responsive as could be right on the side of the road in very degraded habitat. Ross snapped a few photos (although he can’t find them now, sorry!), snagged a half-decent recording and we continued on our way. With no other new birds to target, we simply birded. We ran into a nice vanga flock containing the likes of Nuthatch, White-headed, Blue, and Tylas Vangas and then as we walked further uphill we found another pair of Red-tailed Newtonias! Maybe this bird isn’t as hard as people make it out to be! After a full morning of birding we opted to drive towards Berenty and hoped to bird some dry forest along the way.
Having so many hard birds out of the way, we were beginning to wonder what to do with all of our extra time!! Although there aren’t many records, we still needed Banded Kestrel and reading about a spot called Mangatsiaka, an area of dry forest, we figured it seemed like a good place to find it. The habitat is supposed to be very similar to the dry forest of Berenty so, even though we were going to Berenty soon, we figured it would be a good place to look just in case we didn’t see one elsewhere. Truthfully we didn’t know that where we were going was considered part of Andohahela National Park and would require entrance tickets so we didn’t stop in the office on our way. We figured it was simply a good place to bird. Unfortunately we were turned around at the gate by a real stickler for the rules, sending us back in the direction we had just come from to buy our passes for the following morning despite our pleas to buy directly from him at the gate. Thankfully the road outside of the NP can be good for birds of prey just as much as inside the park, so on the first day we periodically stopped and scanned the dry, spiny forest along the main road seeing a slew of Madagascar Kestrels as well as a Peregrine Falcon but no Banded Kestrel. That night we slept in surprisingly comfortable accommodation, for a town that we were sure wouldn’t have much in the form of comfort. Either way, our modest accommodation was still a huge step up from the very basic places we had stayed in the north. (But in hindsight Ross and I wish we would have just camped at the national park because then we could have MAYBE had a chance at seeing Fosa, a cat-like carnivorous mammal endemic to Madagascar that we ended up missing for the trip!)
The following morning we headed to the park and, armed with the tickets we purchased the evening before, hoped that now that we could make our full day in the park worthwhile. We met local park “ranger” Ferdinand the evening before when he turned us away for not having tickets, but this time he happily accompanied us through the trails. Apparently there is a “normal tourist” circuit, but since we really only had one real target, we explained that we weren’t your average tourists and would much prefer being taken to a high point in order to scan over the valley. Luckily Ferdinand knew of a spot and took us to a rock gully that had a bit of an overlook. There wasn’t a close hillside to scan by any means, but there was half decent visibility. Before long the guys (aka everyone but me) had picked up on a rather stout flying raptor and determined it to be Banded Kestrel! Unfortunately for me I was up the hillside a bit further scanning a different direction and by the time I ran down to where they were standing, I never got on the bird. However, that being said, now that Ross, Geoff and Josh had a good look at a true Banded Kestrel, they were more convinced than ever that the kestrel we all saw fly over while in Ankaranfansika was in fact banded. But at the time no one wanted to count a bird as a lifer if they weren’t 100% sure so it simply went down as a kestrel sp. Lucky for me, they were now quite certain and I had in fact seen the bird in Ankaranfansika so missing this flyover wasn’t as big of a deal! (Judge me if you want, but I was more than prepared to count a bird that I had seen if everyone else in the party was certain that it was the target we needed!) We scanned the hillside a bit more before me, Ross and Josh walked with Ferdinand to get to another view. While walking we either had the same bird that they saw earlier, or another individual but sure enough a Banded Kestrel was above our heads. Ferdinand was the first to spot the bird and it was so high above our heads that we had no idea how he saw it because he didn’t even own a pair of binoculars! This was the fourth time that he impressed us with his laser-like vision and we had no idea how he was finding these distant raptors! Madagascar Kestrel outnumbers Banded by at least 30 to 1 but in our morning we managed to see at least one, maybe two, individuals! Along with that we all crossed Lafresnaye’s Vanga off of the list and joked that we surprisingly had managed more than one new bird for the day! It was funny because lately we had been struggling to see anything new, which becomes typical when you reach the end of your trip to Madagascar where there is such limited diversity. We were however enjoying this unique dry, spiny habitat, seeing several iconic baobab trees and the Didierea madagascariensis, commonly known as the octopus tree, were beginning to green up during the start of the rainy season.
A major highlight from our morning at Andohahela was watching a snake capture, suffocate, and eat a Three-eyed Lizard! Ross and I watched as the snake grabbed the swift and the battle that ensued. The lizard was attempting to bite at the snake but with no such luck. We called for Geoff and Josh and they came up just in time to see the lizard as it was squeezed to death and the snake was victorious. We laughed though because the tiny snake caught such a big swift that it was going to take forever to get that thing down! We proceeded to watch as the snake struggled to swallow its prey whole! Oh, the trouble of not having any arms…
On our walk back out we hoped to bump into a Verreaux’s Silfaka but had to settle with views of two White-footed Sportive Lemurs (which really wasn’t settling at all!) The forest at Andohahela was very whimsical with the newly green ocotopus trees from last week’s first rain and beautiful large boababs, but desert habitat sure get hot quick so not wanting to melt, we opted to spend the hottest hours of the day lounging under a small roof, eating lunch, intermittently napping and talking about other places we hoped to visit! (Ross is currently hell bent on seeing 6,000 birds before turning 30 in February 2019 and is scheming of ways to make that happen!)
After passing the hottest hours we headed back out to the trails with no real agenda other to just enjoy one of Madagascar’s most unique habitats. Geoff stayed back to do his own thing and allow his still healing foot to rest while Ross, Josh and I walked around with Ferdinand a bit more. We really enjoyed this spiny forest had a few sightings of Madagascar Kestrel, Alpine Swift, Archbold’s Newtonia, and even a Warty Chameleon but surely the highlight was another Banded Kestrel which soared directly overhead offering fantastic, but quick views. We quickly played tape to see if it would come back in and despite it calling back a few times, we never saw it a second time. Luckily Ross is quicker and had his camera up before the bird was out of sight. Identifiable by photo? Yes. An amazing photo? No. We messed around with the bird a bit longer but no such luck. By early evening we called it quits.
Originally we hoped to stay until after dark and do a night walk specifically looking for the rare and elusive Fosa, Madagascar’s largest land mammal which looks like a mix between a wild dog and a puma. Ferdinand explained that without a night ticket that was not possible. We soon thought that the “night ticket” was a made up ploy to get us to drop the idea but with a lot of back and forth and for the right price, eventually Ferdinand agreed, but our driver was not keen on the idea and lobbied that it could not be done because of police safety checks on the roads. Eventually we conceded to not going out and I think Ferdinand was a bit disappointed to lose out on the extra (significant) income. I don’t think a lot of tourists visit Andohahela and if they do, they definitely aren’t asking to go out at night, so we might have been some of the first people with these kinds of requests. For anyone else hoping to visit Andohahela, I would recommend simply camping in the park so you can stay until after dark. Lucky for Ferdinand, in an act of kindness, Josh decided to give him his copy of the Birds of Madagascar book! Now those laser eyes will be able to identify the birds he sees and can (hopefully) pass this information down for generations to come!