Zombitse – Madagascar – Did Anyone Say Zombies? No, Zombitse! And Yay for Gamebirds!

At this point we were nearing the end of our trip to Madagascar. We had just finished up a few nearby birding locations and were systematically working our way through the interior southwest of the country before finishing up back in Tana. At this point in the trip we really only had three more stops to make. Next up, Zombitse-Vohibasia National Park, number 13 on the map below. Our time in Zombitse was short, but again, because we were nearing the end, we only had one target to see. Zombitse-Vohibasia National Park is found in south-west Madagascar and when you visit you can walk finely stamped and gently undulating trails through sandstone forest.

The main reason to visit, is a small, rather unexciting little bird known as Appert’s Tetraka. Tetrakas are an interesting family of birds, endemic to Madagascar but superficially acting a lot like warblers. It was after 4PM when we arrived in the park but we were still required to pay a full days’ entrance fee ($15 USD per person — $30 in total for us) as well as a guide fee. We would have liked to have had more time in the park, but with Tina, our driver, driving on the slower side to get there, we simply couldn’t do much about the time we arrived. The guides again informed us that mornings are best for birds. It’s pretty adorable because this wasn’t the first time that a guide has told us “mornings are best” so confidently and as if we didn’t know it already. You just have to laugh, say yes, and get on the trails ASAP. We walked the loop of the main trail north of the road, then got sidetracked off of it to be shown a day roosting White-browed Owl before going back to the trail. Some of the baobab trees that we passed were enormous and our local guide pointed a specific baobab out and told us that someone once told him that the tree was 800 years old!! When you think about all of the fauna that no longer exists that walked under, climbed up, flew into, or roosted on a tree that is 800 years old, it is pretty humbling. That tree probably saw extinct megafauna like Gorilla Lemurs and Elephant Birds climbing in and running around it. Anyway, it was hot and fairly quiet but with the right amount of perseverance, birds can still be found despite the hour. Our guides were in the process of showing us a nesting Rufous Vanga when Ross spotted a chameleon dangling from a vine before finding the nest of the Rufous Vanga. We all took some time to photograph the nest/chameleon before moving on down the trail, but don’t you know the spot proved to be even better because even though our guides, Geoff, Josh and myself had moved on down the trail, Ross thought he might have heard something interesting so he stayed behind and soon called us all back so we too could get on an Appert’s Tetraka, our target bird! We finished walking out the trail before stopping at the park entrance building to check for Standing’s Day Gecko, Phelsuma standingi. We’d been making sure to look for these brightly colored geckos endemic to Madagascar everywhere we went (post on just Phelsumas to come) and these uniquely striped blue and green geckos were a favorite of the genus for sure!

Since we still had some time left before dark, Josh and Ross went south of the road on another trail and searched for a few other birds. Again the guides said it would be too late in the day to see a Coquerel’s Coua so Ross called in two birds to show them that it doesn’t always have to be a specific time of day to see birds. They also had nice looks at a female Cuckoo-roller while I stayed behind to read my book, accidentally finding another small chameleon roughly the size of my pinky fingernail and Geoff scanned the skies for Banded Kestrel but only ever turned up Black Swifts and Black Kites.

From Zombitze we got back on the road and were pleasantly surprised to find that road into the town of Isalo was now completely paved. It was flat and straight and we made good time, shortening what we thought our time would be by over an hour despite Tina continuing to drive on the slow side. We didn’t exactly mind as we were stopping if we saw anything interesting perched but eventually had to tell him it was okay to drive faster. We arrived in under 2 hours, passing through beautiful sandstone mountains knowing we would be returning in the morning to actually walk around and bird the area. The Orchidee Hotel in town was comfortable and for a good price so we enjoyed a nice dinner and a good night’s sleep before returning to the mountains to try for Madagascar Partridge and Benson’s Rock Thrush.

Walking around through waist-high grass is always more fun when doing so during sunrise with a beautiful mountain backdrop with the possibility of flushing a Madagascar Partridge. So that’s how we spent our morning. Our first 10-15 minutes didn’t turn up any target birds but we still couldn’t help but be mesmerized by the breathtaking landscape. We worked through the grass until we reached a small pond where we had White-faced Whistling-duck and Red-billed Teal, but soon turned away in hopes we could actually turn up a good bird. I don’t think any of us ever expected that good bird to be a Marsh Owl but sure enough that’s what happened and we had great looks at this asio species as it circled above us a few times. If only the sunrise wouldn’t have been obscured by a cloud because we would have had him in perfect light for photos! That owl can be found all throughout Africa but is notoriously difficult and only really reported from a few reliable spots. This was a bonus bird of all bonus birds, because owls are the best and this one is tricky! We continued on our partidge quest noting a perched Benson’s Rock Thrush but it flew without us ever knowing because the sound that we thought it was making was acutally a Madagascar Lark flying overhead (oops). Eventually we did flush a Madagascar Partidge and then another. And then another. We ended up having some nice looks at both the male and female before we hoped to find another rock thrush to photograph. Who knew it would be so difficult though and for the next few hours we couldn’t find a single rock thrush. All of the birds we saw perching at the tops of the cliffs turned out to be Common Mynas. Luckily we had nice landscape along the way. Ross and I split off from Geoff and Josh who didn’t want to climb up the rocks. In doing so we made our way to a point of elevation and had beautiful views over the valley and the two Madagascar Partidges that were walking up along a dirt path. Photos are horrendous but views were nice.

We circled back and still no dice with another rock thrush. Another 40 minutes and at least a kilometer of walking and we were in the same place as we started. Looking at eBird however, Ross noticed that behind the museum is another place to check so we headed that way. Sure enough two birds were perched up on the cliffs so we settled with scope views of Benson’s Rock Thrush before heading back to town, planning to stop once for Harlequin Quail if we saw any suitable habitat. Anyone who has ever hunted game birds or attempted to see game birds knows that they flush when you get too close and enjoy hanging out in the thick grass. Needless to say, seeing a Harlequin Quail was a long shot. We were driving back to town and Ross simply picked a spot near the top of a hill (about a km from a previously known sighting) and asked our driver to stop. Although Harlequin Quail is not endemic to the region it’s always nice to try to see game birds when presented the opportunity so we tumbled out of our Star XL and continued tromping though tall grass as we had become so accustomed to this morning. Almost immediately we flushed a game bird but it was too small and happened to be a Madagascar Buttonquail that occurs alongside our other target. I am not sure that I expected another quail sighting in this little outing but it proved to be very fruitful when Ross spotted a few gamebirds running on the ground. They were too far to get a good look despite being in a more open section of agriculture, so we ran after them hoping to flush them into the air and sure enough it was a covey of Harlequin Quails! We flushed the birds three times in total and actually had surprisingly good views of the cute birds. Don’t believe me that we saw these difficult to see birds? Then note the photograph that Ross managed to snag of a flushing male Harlequin Quail! It’s not a great photo, sure, but the skill needed to even get the camera on a flushing bird, let alone focused and take a photo in the 2 seconds available is pretty impressive to me. (But maybe I’m just biased…) We continued on our way to town, grabbed a quick fried eggs breakfast from the hotel restaurant and started on our way to Ranomafana National Park, a full 6 hours drive away! Stay tuned!

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