"Madagascar... everything, almost without exception, can be seen so well; it is difficult to think of a country where so many totally stunning birds and mammals can be viewed so brilliantly."
Thus wrote birding traveller extraordinaire Ian Merrill in 2007, and Madagascar was immediately added to the list — that's my list of must-visit countries that I muse over during dreary winter evenings or on the bus to work. In November 2012, I was fortunate enough to follow in Ian's footsteps and I describe here two contrasting but eventful days from the trip.
On Saturday 3rd November 2012 our intrepid crew of four, in very high spirits, boarded a small motor boat in Maroantsetra, a rural port in the northeast corner of the island. Richard Allison, Dave Gibbs, Phil Hansbro and I had flown up from the capital, Tana, and were heading for the fabled Masoala Peninsula. We'd successfully teamed up with Joseph, who would guide us around the rainforests of the peninsula for the next four days. We'd purchased 30 litres of drinking water from ramshackle roadside stalls and transferred to the quay in fantastically dilapidated taxis from the charmingly basic airport. The boatmen carefully covered our luggage with tarpaulins and we set off, eager to scan the reeds and mudflats bordering the Antainambalana river mouth before hitting the open water of the bay. Antainambalana, meaning 'town of the Mbalana tree', turns out to be a fairly run-of-the-mill name by Madagascan standards. Why make do with one or two syllables when you can use six?!
Masoala (Richard Allison).
The next two hours quickly deteriorated into one of the most unpleasant boat trips I've ever experienced. We found ourselves on a choppy sea and under a stiff breeze, and our craft pounded every oncoming wave sending sheets of salt spray everywhere. A few squally showers were added to the mix and before long, we were all comprehensively soaked to the skin. Concerned shouts fell on deaf ears to me as I was now struggling to keep a horizon in view and my breakfast down. I later discovered that the other guys had no way to keep passports, money and field guides dry in their pockets — it would be days before their kit dried out. My sunglasses were lost in the watery chaos but we were finally deposited on the beach just below the tranquil Arol Lodge. I'll gloss over the rest of the afternoon, which was abandoned to recuperation while the heavens opened in truly tropical style. Things only began to look up when the rejuvenated team were served an excellent dinner and effortlessly called out a Rainforest Scops-owl just metres from the rustic open-air restaurant.
At dawn on Sunday 4th, a fine mist hung across the luscious lodge grounds. As we pensively finished breakfast, a few unfamiliar, liquid phrases of birdsong drifted across the clearing, their sources unseen. A few pigeons were already perched up on snags — Madagascar Blues and Madagascar Greens — like us, they seemed pleased to be drying out. Hawking over the emerald-green paddies that nestled between the forested slopes were scrappy Madagascar Spinetails. Hmm, a pattern seemed to be developing — every bird we'd seen so far had been both endemic and a tick...
Greater Vasa Parrots called raucously as Joseph led us along the pristine beach — picture perfect now — and energy levels palpably rose. The mist was lifting, soaked possessions were forgotten and we all realised that within minutes we'd be in the hallowed realm of creatures such as Helmet Vanga and Fossa. A Dimorphic Egret picked across the rocks just offshore and a Madagascar Pratincole glided high above our heads. Leaving the beach, we swiftly embarked on a shady, damp trail that twisted and turned up and through a dripping gallery of magnificent trees.
Madagascar Pratincole, Madagascar (Photo: Richard Allison)
Moments later, I heard a sharp whisper, "There!" Following Dave's line of sight, I saw that he was looking no more than four metres to our left, and a barely perceived movement gave away a Red-breasted Coua slipping craftily through the ground cover. We all saw it well, and noticed a second bird. Only a few of Madagascar's endemics have a reputation for being very shy, and Red-breasted Coua is one of them. It was a great bird to see so early in our trip.
Some 200m further on, a quiet song tickled our ears — or was it just far away...? The bird came closer and it was indeed a quiet song; an odd mix of short, tuneless whistles and muted trills. It was also a song we'd taken the trouble to learn. After an anxious minute of scanning the canopy, Phil had the bird, just a murky shape against the cloudy-white sky. But look at that bill! This was the one, the star of the show, a Helmet Vanga! We took our time, and eventually all achieved views. In one way, our Masoala visit was now officially a success. I checked my watch, and with dawn on Madagascar being ridiculously early, it was now just a little before 7am!
Helmet Vanga, Madagascar (Photo: Richard Allison)
Moving on, and another ripple of whispers along the line soon brought us to an abrupt halt. We were told by Phil that a Madagascar Ibis had just run around the corner. A speedy stalk gave some of us views on the ground before it took flight for all to see and sailed through the foliage in an unlikely blaze of huge, white remiges. A few minutes later, we spotted it perched on a distant, massive bough, its peculiar red-skinned head peering quizzically down.
Trailblazing (Richard Allison).
Joseph then told us that he was targeting Short-legged Ground-roller and we began to filter every avian sound for the thick, short 'cuh' that we knew would herald the bird. The ground-roller would have to wait, however, as we now had lemurs! They were White-fronted Browns, and our first lemur encounter had us enthralled. Inquisitive, golden eyes peered at us from sooty black faces fluffily framed in white. They moved briskly between trees, a close-knit family party allowing us wonderfully intimate views.
It was not long before we heard the call that we were after. But no, Joseph frowned, "That is Scaly." Well OK, we'd take that! A five-minute route march and a ten-minute scramble had us closer to the bird, but the slope was getting steeper and the undergrowth denser, and we were starting to flag. Joseph pushed on, promising to fetch us if he found it. The calling suddenly moved and we realised that the bird was now perhaps closer to us than to our guide. More scrambling, and pulses raced. I was at the back and suddenly stumbled into Richard. Picking myself up, I couldn't help but notice that everyone except me was intensely staring through their bins. I panicked, "Where's the bird?! Ah, I see..." It was perched out in the open, 2 metres off the ground and 5 metres in front of us — and it was the size of a Jay!
We spent a long time drinking in views of the Scaly Ground-roller, a veritable beast of a bird. It had something of a large pitta about it, perching fairly upright on long, strong legs, sporting a hefty bill with just that ample tail belying its non-pitta roots. Its plumage was intricate and very beautiful, and it boldly held court as we quietly edged around for different viewing angles. I was simply blown away, and this would prove to be bird of the trip for me.
We finally picked our way slowly back down the slope, and rejoined the trail. Relaxed, congratulatory conversations were interrupted, however, because a Short-legged Ground-roller really was calling now. Route march — scramble — a little help from Joseph — and we were watching another extraordinary bird. Two in fact, a pair quietly perched in the lower canopy. More perfect views, more astonished birders, and the morning was going rather well!
Short-legged Ground Roller, Madagascar (Photo: Richard Allison)
As we reached one of Joseph's favoured areas for Collared Nightjar, brollies went up as he headed back off-trail to search. The light shower passed and when Joseph returned, he was cradling something delicately in his hands. Our first chameleon, Brookesia superciliaris, was placed gently onto a small branch where it walked with a slow, curious, pulsing gait. The animal quickly seemed to relax and appeared convinced that we could no longer see it. Just a few centimetres long, it was a rich, rusty brown with small 'horns' flaring above each swivelling eye. Prolonged viewing was eventually interrupted when Joseph carefully collected the chameleon and clambered back into the undergrowth to return it precisely from whence it came. The Nightjar would have to wait.
A little further on Joseph made a minor announcement that we could make a quick and surreptitious detour to a Helmet Vanga nest. He kept that one secret! We were soon thrilled to be peering directly into the beady eye of an adult Vanga; the nest was in the fork of a tree in a shallow gully and just below eye level. It was tempting to linger, but the eggs were recently laid and we were keen to cause minimal disturbance. We snatched a photo, nodded respect to the bird and quickly moved on.
Not far from the Vanga nest, a wave of crooning notes announced that Brown Mesites were close by. This is another of the shyer Madagascan endemics: we were all intrigued to see what these birds were really like but also wary of a potential dip. Sure enough, they proved extra elusive and only by luck did I manage a nice view of one crossing the trail. Tension built as we reluctantly moved on but the birds were moving fast and before we knew it, our paths crossed again. This time, a little audio coaxing encouraged the birds closer and then one of the most unexpected events of the whole trip unfolded: two walked directly in to us and calmly spent the next 20 minutes within 3m of our crouched ensemble. It was a quite remarkable experience!
Late in the morning we ran into our first feeding flock. Vanga mayhem ensued and we clocked up eight species over 30 minutes. The only Masoala vangas missing were Bernier's and Nuthatch (and they would keep us on tenterhooks for another 24 hours). Our third Helmet of the day completely gave itself up at eye level while dismembering an unlucky frog and we felt that we had now seen this species as well as one could wish. Non-vanga species were also coming thick and fast and we added Common Newtonia, Madagascar Cuckoo-shrike and others to the phenomenal roll call of endemics.
Our last significant sighting of the morning was perhaps the most spectacular. A group of five Red Ruffed Lemurs called unfeasibly loudly together, performing amongst the highly evocative moss and orchid-infested upper canopy. These lemurs are large, charismatic and endangered, but we were fortunate enough to see them regularly during our time on the Masoala.
White-fronted Brown (left) and Red Ruffed Lemurs were both seen in Masoala on a few occasions (Richard Allison).
Lunch was taken in something of a daze and we struggled to recall a better six hours' birding that any one of us had had anywhere on the planet. It was steaming hot now but we were all eager to get back out with the birds. We headed off through the local village and quickly reached an area of secondary forest. Afternoon activity was initially low and we worked hard to catch views of a few interesting species. A Cuckoo Roller called and flapped oddly above the canopy while graphically marked Nelicourvi Weavers busied themselves nest building. It was some time before a high-pitched whistle had Joseph truly animated.
A Crossley's Babbler was calling. Its ventriloquial timbre had us up and down the trail but we gradually homed in on the source. Half an hour passed and only Richard had managed any kind of a view. We were beginning to resign ourselves to failure when the bird moved some 30m — still unseen — and our enthusiasm was renewed. We all moved in closer and Joseph uttered a subdued exclamation. He appeared to be looking for the babbler while pointing to the ground a few metres in the other direction: he whispered "Collared Nightjar!"
As we peered at the leaf litter, one by one we saw it. This is a contender for most amazing leaf-mimic in the bird world, and it was truly mesmeric: quite a large nightjar with gorgeous, ochrous mantle patches and collar set among a range of subtler brown and grey feather tracts. I don't think any of us were prepared for this very striking bird.
Collared Nightjar — can you spot it? (Dave Gibbs).
I quietly resumed the babbler search and noticed that Joseph was now 10m away but anxiously pointing in my direction. I became aware that the Crossley's whistle was now very close. I crouched down and the bird finally materialised just a few metres in front of me. The others gathered behind me and everyone got onto this elusive mega. The babbler walked quickly across the shaded forest floor with its stripy head bobbing back and forth. Just a few seconds later, it had melted away and we headed off too with thoughts drifting towards cold beer.
As we neared the forest edge late in the afternoon, the strident, pained whining of a White-throated Rail started up. It was emanating from deep cover but a small, marshy pond was close by and perhaps the bird would venture out onto its banks. Tantalising glimpses turned to nothing and a good bird appeared to be slipping away. It was getting dark, but the White-throat completely changed tack and strolled out onto a broad muddy margin giving lovely views to all...
Comparing notes that evening after copious Sprites, a couple of Three Horses Beers and a good meal, we discovered that we'd actually seen just 41 species on the day. Thirty-nine were endemic, however, and a good number would make the top 10 of any Madagascan bird tour. Reading trip reports, it seems that it is easy to see a stack of great birds in Madagascar, and as Ian commented, so many tend to show well. Our first full day's birding on the Masoala peninsula was amazing and, together with our traumatic arrival, has left me with unforgettable memories and perhaps my best birding day ever.
Masoala, 2007 (Ian Merrill).
Early on Thursday 8th November, a boat skimmed effortlessly across a sunlit, glassy sea from Maroantsetra to collect us. We reluctantly dragged ourselves away from the lodge, loaded the bags once more and clambered aboard. And there, improbably perched on the edge of one of the seats, were my sunglasses. I chuckled to myself and put them on.