Ifaty – Madagascar – Finally, The Spiny Forest!

The spiny forest that makes up a lot of the southwestern zone is quite possibly one of Madagascar’s most visually distinct habitats. The large (and small) bottle-shaped baobabs, spiny octopus trees, and other species found in Madagascar’s arid, scrubby habitat that make up the “spiny forest” are especially apparent around Ifaty (number 11 on the map below). We were coming to the arid southwest towards the end of our trip because increased rain in the “rainy season” would only make the area greener and not impact much of our birding. (The rainy season, which goes from November to March was only just beginning down south but could have been detrimental at this same time if we were still in the north.) Because our trip was nearing the end, we didn’t have many targets left. Our main objectives around Ifaty included Subdesert Mesite, an often skulky ground bird, Long-tailed Ground-roller, a rather secretive bird that looks and acts similar to a roadrunner, and Thamnornis which is quite frankly a rather boring LBJ. All of these birds were endemics and all of these were high on the priority list.

We arrived in the southwest via the small airport in Toliara and it was there that we met Tina, our final driver of the trip. The Honda Star XL that we were to use for transportation felt like a palace on wheels compared to practically every other car we’d had in Madagascar. For once we actually had space to spread out, something that we hadn’t had yet! (Now we understood how groups could actually have 5 people and get around this country!) Tina seemed like a nice guy and spoke decent English and before long we were on our way to Ifaty, specifically to Park Mosa. The flight we had to take didn’t arrive until 1630 so it was nearly 1730 by the time we made it to Ifaty where we met Freddie and his younger brother Rafia who would accompany us the following morning. We did stop briefly to scan the salt pans and watering holes for Madagascar Plover but already having seen this bird in the north, we weren’t that concerned that we didn’t see any. We found a small bungalow for the night and enjoyed a low key evening sipping on what were actually decent mojitos (and only $1.30 a pop!) and having a rather delicious meal.

The following morning we met back up with Freddie and Rafia and had a very enjoyable morning walking around the spiny forest where the boababs were especially prominent. We were equal parts distracted by the unique desert-like habitat as we were the birds that call it home. The local guides seemed to have a method of wandering around and cornering the target birds so we let them do their thing. Our first bird of the morning was a very responsive Thamnornis. And soon after they found us a Long-tailed Ground-roller, and Subdesert Mesite. Overall the birding was very enjoyable in Park Mosa. Along with our main targets we also had great looks at several birds on nest including the likes of Madahascar Cuckoo-hawk, Madagascar Sparrowhawk, and Hook-billed Vanga as well as Madagascar Nightjar and Running Coua. We left the park around 8AM and were quite sad we had to leave so early, as we easily could have spent several hours meandering the trails. Of course, we might have been singing a different tune had it not been slightly cloudy, therefore keeping things a bit cooler and more enjoyable!

From Ifaty we made our way back to Toliara hoping to catch the 9AM ferry over to Anakao. Anakao is not an island, but because Madagascar’s roads are horrendous it is faster to go by boat than to attempt to drive. We seriously considered attempting to do the Anakao trip in a day, but hiring out a private boat would have cost an arm and a leg so we opted to save some money, go by boat, and have a small relaxing time on the other side. Visiting Anakao is a bit of a tourist destination and there are several guesthouses ranging in price located on the other side. Oddly there is no port so in order to get to the boat one must ride in the back of an ox cart! We hopped on the speed ferry and in an hour’s time were dropped off on the beach. Geoff and Josh continued onward to Nosy Ve to see Red-tailed Tropicbirds but because we’ve seen RTTB so well in Hawaii, including up close on nests, we opted to just stay behind and scan them from the shore which proved to be effective and several Red-Tailed Tropicbirds were seen flying over the small island. The whole reason for coming to Anakoa is to tick Littoral Rock Thrush, but because it is supposed to be extremely common in the area we weren’t so concerned that we had to see it right away. We dropped our bags off in our guesthouse and were about to go for a swim, but before doing anything Ross decided we better make sure to see the bird just in case things got weird. It took all of 30 seconds and we had a Littoral Rock Thrush perched up on the top of a nearby building. Easy. Now time for that swim. Except that the beach was rather rocky so we never went any further than waist deep before deciding that was enough and we should just go drink mojitos. So that’s what we did instead. A few tasty mojitos later and we walked back to our guesthouse where we were kept entertained by the pair of Madagascar Hoopoes that were nesting in a cavity directly across from our front porch. We watched as a single bird, presumably the male, would come in, perch at the top of a tree and call to which the female would come out, sit next to him, eat the worm and then go back to the nest. We know they were on a nest because we opted to peak into the crevice and sure enough we were looking directly at a rather angry nesting hoopoe! From there we took another quick walk behind our building and saw a few more Littoral Rock Thrushes. It’s funny that only 20km of water separates Toliara from Anakoa and yet the bird is only found over here, but when you see the habitat, it is easily recognizable as very different.

Apparently it is a ‘thing’ for locals to approach tourists and ask if they want to come to their restaurant for dinner. Such was the case when we were approached by Stephan. He wanted to know if we wanted dinner, but at the time it was mid-morning. Apparently he wanted us to make a decision because, with no refrigerator to speak of, he needed to go out and catch our fish. Great, a fresh seafood dinner. We agreed and ordered two fish and a lobster along with sautéed potatoes on the side and planned to meet back up at 6PM. When 6PM rolled around Stephan was exactly where he said he would be and led us off to his restaurant where we enjoyed a parrotfish, a grouper, and three slipper lobsters! It was quite the feast and after a nice meal we walked back to our guesthouse stopping of course to appreciate the nice sunset. Sometimes birds take you to remote areas that aren’t all that pleasant but sometimes they take you to beaches where, after you see the bird, there’s nothing better to do than relax, drink a few mojitos and eat a fresh fish dinner.

The next morning we hopped on the 7AM speedboat back to town and drove straight to La Table, a sight where we hoped to find Verreaux’s Coua and Red-shouldered Vanga. It was already quite hot when we arrived in the desert scrubby habitat, but we spotted a Verreaux’s Coua pretty readily. Soon thereafter Ross heard a call that sounded different than our recording of Red-shouldered Vanga, but with the right pitch so we decide to investigate. The bird wasn’t responding to tape but as soon as Ross recorded it singing and played it back to it (perks of carrying recording gear) the bird came zooming in and immediately we had excellent views of a male Red-shouldered Vanga. The female wasn’t far behind and soon joined her male counterpart out in the open. Two more Madagascar targets down.

After La Table it was on to Zombitse National Park!