21/03/2013
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Remoter Madagascar

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For any serious world birder, Madagascar is one of those destinations that simply must be visited at least once. In 2012, I finally made it there as part of a team of four and had a very successful and enjoyable tour around the classic sites (seeing almost every endemic bird that we could hope for), part of which is recounted in Andy Mears' recent article. However, I was in the fortunate position of having an extra 10 days to head off in search of a few more species that are difficult or impossible to see at the sites we had already visited.

Through Sam The Seing of The Peregrine Fund, I arranged the hire of a 4×4, driver and guide to join me at Ampijoroa campsite on the final day of the main tour. On 25th November my guide Sam, driver Mamisoa and I set off on the long drive to Bealanana, the small highland town that is the jumping-off point for the now-hallowed site for Madagascar Pochard. The road, having been recently upgraded thanks to EU money, was good as far as Antsohihy. Once off the main road the surface started to break up and there were frequent stretches of native soil and rock, but these were fortunately dry — the end of November is the beginning of the rainy season and we had already experienced some torrential downpours near Mahajanga. The road to Bemanevika is notoriously bad, so dark clouds on the distant hills were a worrying sight as we gained altitude.

The following day dawned bright and cloudless with no overnight rain, so we had every reason to think that the road would be driveable. After buying supplies for my two days at the Peregrine Fund camp in the forest near Bemanevika we set off, but immediately broke down! The clutch had gone, and after half an hour under the car Mamisoa's assurances were wearing thin. Fortunately Sam seemed to know everyone, and soon managed to organize alternative transport: two rather battered and underpowered motorcycles! Having not ridden pillion since my school days I was unprepared for just how uncomfortable it was; with legs folded up underneath me, perched on the broken stumps of the foot-rests, I could only bear about 20 minutes at a time. As it happened the bike could not carry both of us up the steeper slopes, so I frequently had to get off and walk while my driver, Loukman, struggled up with the machine. After nearly three hours, we arrived at the Peregrine Fund camp, a collection of tents and tarpaulins in a small patch of forest.


Peregrine Fund camp near Bemanevika, Madagascar (Photo: David Gibbs).

Keen to get into the field to see the Pochards, I set off with Loukman across the extensive upland grasslands towards a larger forest patch. Not far from the camp we met another Peregrine Fund worker, Berthin, who told us he had just seen the radio-tagged Madagascar Serpent Eagle! Rather than go back for his lunch, he kindly took me straight to the forest patch where he had left it. The battery on this bird's transmitter is now almost dead so a signal can only be picked up once already very close, and then so faintly that I could not hear any difference in the beeps coming from the direction finder. But Berthin persisted, and we moved through the understorey as quietly as we could. Suddenly a large bird appeared from ground level just in front of us and perched up on a large vine, and there it was: a huge female Madagascar Serpent Eagle! After too short a time it dropped off and floated through the forest, disappearing almost instantly. We managed to track it down twice more over the next hour, eventually watching it perched on a sub-canopy branch uttering the call that we had all been desperate to hear back on the Masoala Peninsula. It is hardly surprising that the species is so rarely seen; although it appears to be genuinely rare, this bird's ghost-like progress through the forest and tendency to keep very low, remaining motionless for long periods, suggests that it would be very elusive even if commoner.

We then headed down a very steep slope to an open marshy area and started searching for a roosting Madagascar Red Owl. Over the swamp, a stunning male Madagascar Harrier quartered back and forth while a pair of Madagascar Buzzards scolded us from a forest-edge tree. As we searched the forest edge a Madagascar Crested Ibis flushed and tiny Madagascar Mannikins fed on the seeding sedges. Finally a signal was picked up so we headed into the forest, back up the steep slope we had just scrambled down. An exhausting ten minutes later, we came to a sub-canopy tree smothered with scrambling vines. Here, Berthin soon found the owl fast asleep and very difficult to spot, even when pointed out to me. Eventually I managed to get in position to see it well; all of this crashing about not appearing to elicit the slightest response from the owl: it stayed firmly asleep.


Madagascar Red Owl, Madagascar (Photo: David Gibbs).

The day had already turned out far more successfully than I had dared hope, and we had still not reached the lake! Making our way out of the forest, up over a steep ridge and down through another forest patch we eventually reached 'Red Lake'. Scanning across I could see numerous Madagascar Little Grebes, but all the ducks were very distant and not identifiable. My telescope was still with the broken-down jeep; it looked as though I was going to have a harder time seeing the pochard than either the eagle or the owl! But Loukman and Berthin had a plan: rather than walk back to the other side we would take a canoe. On the way we had splendid views of about one third of the world's population of wild adult Madagascar Pochards. We returned to camp for a very late lunch, greatly satisfied with the morning's work.

Madagascar Pochard
Madagascar Pochard, Madagascar (Photo: David Gibbs)

The mammals of Bemanevika have not yet been surveyed, but signs of Aye-aye had been found so I was keen to have a look. At dusk we walked across a large expanse of desolate grassland to another patch of forest. This proved very productive, with many Greater Dwarf Lemurs, a pair of Gray's Sportive Lemur and a superb and confiding Sambirano Woolly Lemur with infant.


Sambirano Woolly Lemur with infant, Madagascar (Photo: David Gibbs).

The next morning, we returned to the lake and connected with two broods of Madagascar Pochard before seizing a dry window in the weather to return to Bealanana. The road, again on motorbikes, was even worse on the return, and it may have been impossible for Mamisoa's jeep to make the journey.


Madagascar Pochard family, Madagascar (Photo: David Gibbs).

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The following day we set off on the long trip to Mahajanga, breaking the journey at Anjiamangirana Forest, a small mosquito-infested Aye-aye reserve. Although we found signs of Aye-aye, no animals were seen, but Fat-tailed Dwarf Lemurs were common and five Danfoss' Mouse Lemurs were compensation for all the mosquito bites. Arriving in Mahajanga, we discovered that the ferry to Katsepy was out of commission with no expectation of it running in the foreseeable future. Just to dampen the mood further, a full-scale tropical storm was underway. Even if we managed to cross the Betsiboka estuary, would the roads be negotiable?

November 30th dawned very cloudy and wet, though the night's downpour had lessened to a continuous drizzle. Without much hope we went down to the harbour to see what transport could be found: it was clear that no vessel would be available to carry the jeep across, so we boarded a dilapidated old boat, together with about a hundred other passengers, and set off. With no jetty at Katsepy we had to scramble onto small boats to reach the beach before heading in search of further transport. A local guide by the rather splendid name of Mihajamanana Randrianarisoa (shortened to Mihaja!) fixed us up with places in a Toyota Land Cruiser taxi brousse with 17 others and their luggage. As we set off for the town of Mitsinjo, the jumping-off point for Lake Kinkony, the rain abated and it looked as though the sun was trying to break through the low cloud. Our taxi charged headlong down the muddy road, often sliding and occasionally ploughing into the adjacent scrub to detour round some particularly deep mud hole. By the time we arrived in Mitsinjo the roads were drying out and it looked as if we might reach our destination after all!

But there was another twist in the tale: no wheeled transport would consider attempting the road after the recent rain. Apparently the road south of town was flooded, rendering it impassable. My guides were not put off; after much negotiation a boat was procured, price agreed and three strong young men found to power it (no outboards being available). By this time it was after 4pm, and it took nearly an hour to walk the muddy track to the river, load up the tin boat (which looked as though it was made from old oil drums!) and set off upriver, the three boatmen punting against the strong current. Although the Mahavavy River was quite high, there were still numerous sandbanks and on one of these was a small party of Madagascar Sandgrouse, one of the few birds I had failed to see further south.


Madagascar Sandgrouse, Madagascar (Photo: David Gibbs).


Transport along the Mahavavy River, Madagascar (Photo: David Gibbs).

The extraordinary journey continued; after 90 minutes of punting we entered a tributary and switched to rowing. It had become dark and I lay in the boat trying to sleep, occasionally being showered with insects as we ran into the vegetation. Two hours later, as the moon rose, we emerged onto the lake only to endure a further 90 minutes of rowing before we eventually reached Makary village at 10pm!

Early on December 1st we set off from Makary into the dense stand of three-metre Phragmites to the west of the village. There were birds everywhere: large flocks of Glossy Ibis, White-faced Duck, Knob-billed Duck, 12 species of heron including the endemic race of Little Bittern and several of the endangered Madagascar Sacred Ibis flew over. As we rounded a corner, a splendid African Swamphen stood unconcerned as we quietly drifted past, but there was no sign of the Sakalava Rail. My guides intermittently pointed out distant calls and we set off in pursuit, but the water level was high and the lack of exposed mud meant little rail habitat. Eventually and quite suddenly, a black shape in the Phragmites developed in to a Sakalava Rail, clinging to the bases of the reeds at the water-line just a few metres from the boat! It clambered through the reeds and came out onto a dry mud island where its mate joined it and there they started preening, allowing our boat to drift to within a few feet.

Sakalava Rail
Sakalava Rail, Madagascar (Photo: David Gibbs)

The time came all too soon for the return journey to Mitsinjo, again taking five hours, but we were able to stop along the Mahavavy River to see Von der Decken's and Crowned Sifakas. On arrival in Mitsinjo we were told that it was forecast to rain, so transport to Katsepy was leaving at midnight on what might be the last taxi brousse for days. That meant no sleep on a cramped four-hour journey in the back of a lorry converted into a bus. I was utterly relieved when we arrived back in Mahajanga at 06:30, less than 48 hours after leaving!


Von der Decken's (left) and Crowned Sifakas, Madagascar (Photo: David Gibbs).

My ten-day trip in remote northwest Madagascar had been more successful than I could reasonably have hoped for, despite attempting it in conjunction with the arrival of the rains and the facing the realistic possibility of the trip being a write-off. If you are thinking of visiting these sites it would be far safer before the end of October, and hope the ferry across the Betsiboka is running. Hiring Sam proved to be a great move — despite the mechanical and weather-related obstacles, he was determined to get me to the birds, which he did very successfully.

Written by: David Gibbs