Ranomafana – Madagascar – The Last Hurrah

It’s always funny when you picture in your head how a place is going to be and then you show up and it’s vastly different. Honestly I had no expectations and didn’t know what to expect but Ross had pictured in his mind walking wide, flat trails similar to the ones we ventured down in Andasibe. Sure, there were wide trails, but flat they were not. In fact to get to all of the areas we visited, climbing in elevation was absolutely necessary. Madagascar is nothing if not unique. We had been all over the country and had seen a lot of very unique creatures, and yet the last park on our list, Ranomafana National Park, number 15 on the map below, still had a slew of fauna we had not yet encountered. Several birds were on the docket along with a few new mammals and reptiles.

Originally when we arrived Ross and I planned to camp while Geoff had given up on our “budget” lifestyle and was determined not to spend another night in a tent and Josh opted to join him. But I suppose it was a combination of the less-than-ideal rainy weather and the past 3 weeks of intense birding that sent us to have a nice night in a hotel as well. We showed up at our final park and our driver, Tina, knew the phone numbers of the two bird specialists and quickly called up Stephan who was free to guide us the following day. We don’t usually use guides but guides are madatory in the parks of Madagascar.

We started the day early (0400) as we often do and the 100+ stairs we had to climb in order to search for Brown Mesite were a nice surprise. Ranomafana is definitely not flat! We opted to follow Stephan’s lead as he is the one who often tracks and finds these difficult-to-see birds so we started in the area of the park that he thought was best. In fact, Brown Mesite was likely the most difficult bird we had remaining in Madagascar so we wanted to try for it first. The first area we tried did not pan out so we walked around to another area and occasionally Ross would play the call and after only an hour we were lucky to have one respond! We stopped and waited but Stephan, who is so used to just chasing the birds as soon as they call down did not want to go that route. Ross and I practically had to beg him not to just run after it. Ross continued playing the tape and the bird was clearly coming closer. Patience is not a virtue many local guides abide by and Stephan was getting antsy. He is a good bird guide and knows the calls, sure, but he is not a true birder and lacks some of the finesse that only comes with knowledge and experience. So when he beckoned for us to follow him up the hillside multiple times and began pointing erratically, we knew that the bird would not be coming any closer any more. He had definitely scared it off. That was a bit frustrating, but we knew it was in the area and while he may not have the know-how to call in a Brown Mesite, thankfully Stephan and crew are experts when it comes to corralling the birds and soon we had excellent views of a family group of Brown Mesites! To see these endemic and endangered birds only required scaring them half-to-death and running up a steep hillside instead — something apparently only Ross and I wanted to avoid. The female was sitting on a chick (that only Stephan saw) while the male stayed a few yards away. Still, we couldn’t believe how little time it took for us to find this bird. Typically groups have to put in hours of work chasing one down and can still miss it. Ross and I felt horrible about having to disturb a family group like we did because simply having them come to us would have been much easier for everybody. Oh well.

Brown Mesite

We continued walking the trails following Stephan’s lead. Ross started to play tape for Brown Emu-tail, another target, but every time he did Stephan would tell him to stop because “there was nothing to worry about” or “that bird is easy where we are going.” Unfortunately our other big target, Yellow-bellied Asity required a bit of a drive over to a different trail so we climbed back down the steep steps and spent the rest of the morning climbing up another steep trail searching for Yellow-bellied Asity, a bird that Ross managed to see while in Iaroka forest but that the rest of us were missing. In the past all you had to do to tick this bird was walk up to the nest and take a look but Stephan informed us that a few months ago the tree that the birds always nested in was struck by lightning and part of the forest was burned down. This year Stephan has not seen the bird at all and wonders if they moved on or died in the fire. We walked up to an area on the trail that one Frenchman claimed to have seen it and staked it out but no such luck. Early in the afternoon Stephan informed us he was rather hungry and while we were more than able to continue birding subsisting on peanuts and apples, we agreed to go back down so he could eat something a bit more substantial. Ross heard a Brown Emu-tail call at least once while we were up the trail and wanted to go after it, but again Stephan said it would not be a problem. After lunch we planned to go to see a Henst Goshawk at a nest and were indeed rewarded with nice views of a perched bird meaning we had now effectively seen all 10 of Madagascar’s endemic raptors perched!! The only exception being Banded Kestrel which only provided in-flight views.

It was as we were walking in to this location that we had nice views of two flushing Madagascar Snipe and a Grey Emu-tail and it was leaving this location that we learned Stephan is not as passionate about conservation as we initially thought. He told us how he hates coming to this section of the park because it was recently added on as protected and the marsh that we saw the snipe in should be a field for rice instead. He went on and on about how terrible it is that the marsh was not a rice paddy and hardly let us get a word in edgewise. Perhaps all of the money that eco-tourism brings in is not getting through. The fact that the land is NOT a rice paddy is exactly why we were here in the first place, paying our money, supporting his ability to feed his family! I tried to explain the importance of eco-conservation but it was hard to do so tactfully and sometimes you just have to let someone, while blatantly wrong, go on believing what they believe. So Stephan is a great guide who knows his birds, but he definitely is only in the guiding business for the money, not the love for nature. It was only 1530 when we were leaving this section of the park so we knew we had plenty of time before dark to try for the supposedly “easy” Brown Emu-tail back at the last spot. It was then that Stephan informed us that you aren’t allowed into the parks after 1600! We completely forgot about this crazy rule, as all the other NPs except Andisibe didn’t seem to abide by it. It was certainly frustrating to be told we could no longer try for our last remaining target especially because as we were leaving the goshawk nest, we passed a very slow moving group of birders going in. They were definitely going to be in the park well past the 4PM deadline as most of them were moving quite slow to begin with! We had three targets for the day and only managed to see one of them which was super maddening and further proved the point that sometimes you should leave logistics to the expert (in this case Ross) and not always trust the local guide to know how to call the shots.

With bad weather once again moving in, Ross and I opted to go with a hotel over camping. Clearly the effects of a 6-month, all-out birding trip were getting to us! The following morning we were forced to again pay the 55,000 ariary per person entrance fee and the 200,000 ariary guiding fee, setting us back another $60ish. Super frustrating because we really wanted to bird the road and if we had seen Brown Emu-tail the day before we would definitely not need to go back in to the park! The road seemed to be the best place to possibly get this sunbird-asity we were searching for and you do not need to pay an entrance fee to walk the road, but we bit the bullet and again and followed Stephan into the forest. But honestly, I can think of worse things than spending another day walking around Ranomafana National Park. The Brown Emu-tail proved to be much more difficult than we ever thought and required a few hours of walking, playing tape, walking, playing tape before Stephan spotted a bird but only Geoff and I manage to have brief views of it. Not a bird I would want to count that’s for sure! A while longer of playing tape and walking before everyone had great looks at the skulky Brown Emu-tail. With that out of the way we hoped to try for the Yellow-bellied Asity near the stone bench where we were the day prior. At least this time we told Stephan to come prepared with a lunch because we would not be going back down to eat at any restaurants. After staking out the “picnic bench” spot with no luck, coupled with the fact that not a single other person had seen it from that spot all year (except one possibly erroneous sighting), we decided to head to the road and try our luck. Ross was pretty certain that the road would be our best bet to see this bird, but since we did pay our entrance fee, we opted to spend some time searching for some of Madagascar’s other goodies, namely Satanic Leaf-tailed Gecko one of the most unique creatures found at Ranomafona. I guess these masters of disguise are often seen, but it took us quite a bit of searching, and climbing a few hundred more steps before Stephan’s son managed to find one! These fancy creatures disguise themselves as a dead leaf and often hang on a branch among other dead leaves, so it’s a wonder his son found one in the first place! Seeing Satanic Leaf-tailed Gecko was a highlight for sure! Finding this little bugger took longer than expected so we didn’t have nearly enough time to walk the road. Not unsurprising, we didn’t turn up a single sunbird asity during our efforts, but Ross, who has proven to be a master of searching through satellite imagery and topographic maps for the best looking forest patches, still believes the road into the park will be the answer to finding this bird, since the bird is clearly no longer being seen at the “old location.”

For our final night, we just went directly to the hotel, officially not camping at Rano a single time. Ross ate two plates of roast Zebu and then another for dessert confusing the adorable waitresses who were certainly wondering where all of that food was going. We got up early to hit the road and were fortunate to stumble across Grey Bamboo Lemurs crossing at the highest point. This area is well outside of the entrance gate and although the forest along either side really looks promising, and clearly is intact enough to support lemurs, I highly doubt it gets much birding. Unfortunately we didn’t have enough time to thoroughly check for birds even though we would have liked to! Hint, hint to future visitors– CHECK THE ROAD!

Along our drive we stopped at a marsh and successfully tracked down a Baillon’s Crake and a few Madagascar Snipe. Directly across the street is a small eco park so we walked up the trails and had two beautiful Jeweled Chameleons. We checked the forest for sunbird asity but no such luck. The forest was simply not big enough and did not have mature enough trees.

Ranomafana was our last stop on our Madagascar tour, but as had become custom, we were a few days ahead of schedule so we decided to head back to Iaroka for one last shot at Bernier’s Vanga before officially admitting to dipping this bird. Geoff, who could hardly keep up with our fast-paced itinerary opted to just give up and spent his last 2 ½ days at a hotel in Tana. Josh was feeling very sick with some intestinal woes so he stayed behind as well. Ross and I went onward to Andasibe alone for one last chance for the last remaining endemic.

I’ll spare you all of the details but it was deja-vu as Ross and I once again met up with Etienne, hired a vehicle to take us up the treacherous road, and hiked the two miles back into Iroka forest. It was exactly as we had done the five times before, but this time the locals had built small railings to hold on to as you crossed the logs over the gaps! The nesting Helmet Vanga was bringing a lot more tourists to this section of the park and the improvements were showing! And this time Ross and I had decided to go all out and spend the night in the forest to maximize our time searching for the vanga. Despite finding a few large mixed feeding flocks of vangas, we were once again unable to find the Bernier’s. After six attempts over the past month, we finally had to admit defeat. Surely Etienne, our favorite guide of the trip, thought we were crazy! (Pictured below.)

Overall, it was a fantastic trip to Madagascar. Although the plague was going on in Tana during the duration of our trip, we decided not to let fear control us and headed boldy to the country despite the media’s propaganda to stay away. We managed to see all of the endemics except Dusky Tetraka and Bernier’s Vanaga and had seen more lemurs, chameleons, and day geckos then we could remember. If you want to see these creatures too, I highly recommend a visit!

Even on our last morning at our hotel in Tana we found Chameleons!