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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative


2023 Narrative

Madagascar ranks high on birders’ list of places to visit and for good reason! On this three-week tour, we visited the dry tropical forests of Ankarafantsika, the baobab-dotted spiny forest of the southwest, succulent woodlands of the interior, and lowland rainforest of the east where we targeted all of the endemic orders and families that occur on the island. We were quite successful, to say the least, having seen all of the mesites, ground-rollers, and the monotypic Cuckoo-Roller, in addition to three of the four asities, and nine of the eleven Malagasy warblers. Vangas, which are no longer considered an endemic family (recently paired with helmetshrikes and allies), were well represented with twenty species recorded. On top of this, we saw a host of chameleons and fourteen species of lemurs, from the tiny Brown Mouse Lemur to the impressive Indri along with the iconic Ring-tailed Lemur. Overall, it was a very successful tour! 

The tour began in the capital of Antananarivo at our comfortable lodge near the airport. The garden offered a small selection of the frequently encountered species of Madagascar with Red Fody, Madagascar White-eye, and Malagasy Bulbuls being common along with a pair of Madagascar Wagtails and a Malagasy Brush-Warbler also making an appearance. After a tour briefing, introductions, and dinner, we set off to bed in preparation for an early flight the following morning.

Our short flight to Mahajanga fast-tracked us towards the Ankarafantsika Forest Reserve in the north, one of the last stands of western deciduous forests on the island. In this area, we would direct our focus towards species that we can’t find elsewhere including Van Dam’s Vanga and the remarkable Schlegel’s Asity. Along the drive we started adding our first birds of the tour namely Malagasy Palm-Swift and Madagascar Lark while an area of rice paddies and a lake provided Black-winged Stilts, Great, Little, and Cattle Egrets, Black, Squacco and Striated Herons, Glossy Ibis, and a small raft of Red-billed Ducks.

Once settled in our local lodging, we headed out on a short boat trip after lunch to search for our first big target of the tour, the critically endangered Madagascar Fish-Eagle. Our first bird on the boat trip was a cooperative Malagasy Kingfisher soon followed by White-faced Whistling-Ducks, African Darter, Long-tailed Cormorant, and a Nile Crocodile. We worked our way around a point when someone quickly shouted “fish-eagle!” What followed were extended views of this majestic bird as it sat out on a bare branch, oblivious to our presence. The rest of the boat trip added Purple Heron, Madagascar Buzzard, Madagascar Bee-eater, Crested Drongo, and Madagascar Magpie-Robin.

With time to spare before dinner, we walked a short circuit where we had our first vangas: White-headed and Chabert’s, along with Crested Coua, Lesser Vasa Parrot, the ever-present Souimanga Sunbird, and Torotoroka subspecies of the Madagascar Scops-Owl at a day roost. On the mammal front, we found our first of many lemurs of the trip, the diminutive Milne-Edward’s Sportive Lemur and much larger Coquerel’s Sifaka.

The next morning, we covered a short circuit at another location within the reserve. Here we were quickly greeted by a couple Hook-billed Vangas, which were calling frequently but never did make an appearance. Here, we picked up Malagasy Paradise-Flycatcher, Common Newtonia, and soon after a pair of Madagascar Green-Pigeons. Continuing our loop, we stumbled upon a pair of Frances’s Sparrowhawks sitting up in the canopy of a tree and closer to ground level, an Oustalet’s Chameleon, one of the largest species in the world. Further along we found a fruiting tree alive with white-eyes, sunbirds, and others including Schlegel’s Asity! There were at least three individuals, including males showing their multi-colored facial skin patches.

As the morning was still young, we loaded up the bus and headed to another trail system and spent the next 2.5 hours birding a different section of the forest. Upon alighting from the vehicle, some of us had four Gray-headed Lovebirds zip overhead, but the main target at this spot was the endangered Van Dam’s Vanga. First, we found a Chabert’s Vanga and eventually found a Van Dam’s hanging out close to a pair of Rufous Vangas, offering excellent views! We continued adding new birds including Red-capped Coua, Madagascar Cuckooshrike, Cuckoo-Roller, the only member of its order, and the bizarre Long-billed Bernieria.

After lunch and a short break, we ventured further inland to a series of lakes and rice paddy fields. The road condition deteriorated but after a while we arrived and instantly found a pair of the endangered Madagascar Jacana. Despite there being a lot of human disturbance, we also managed our first Eurasian Moorhens, Madagascar Cisticola, and Malagasy Pond-Heron, but still no Humblot’s Heron. Determined, we checked another area. Still nothing. Eventually we had to turn back, but we made one last stop at our first area of rice paddies where someone spotted one flying over in the distance. Phew! This endangered species has declined drastically in recent decades, as have many of Madagascar’s endemic species.

Mammals, particularly lemurs, didn’t disappoint today either. Between our day walks and a night walk we had Golden Mouse, Milne-Edward’s Sportive, and Common Brown Lemurs.

After a much-needed sleep, the following morning we headed back out into the forest with White-breasted Mesite being the main bird on the agenda. Although they were quiet yesterday, we found two different pairs and had an excellent showing by one of them as they went back and forth across the footpath. It was quiet otherwise, but we did manage to add Malagasy Sunbird and a heard-only Malagasy Coucal to the growing trip list. We birded a little longer adding Madagascar Hoopoe and Crested Coua. With all of the specials in the bag, we packed up and made the long journey back towards Mahajanga for the night.

Not far from our hotel, we boarded a couple small boats and headed up the Betsiboka River estuary to target two endemics: the Malagasy Sacred Ibis and the Bernier’s Teal. Heading upriver, we picked up Lesser Crested Tern, large numbers of “Dimorphic” Little Egrets, and soon some Lesser Flamingos. We followed the flamingos to a large mudflat where we quickly found both targets. There were many shorebirds present as well, with Curlew Sandpiper, Whimbrel, and Common Ringed Plovers being the most common with fewer Greater Sand-Plover, Common Sandpiper, Common Greenshank and a single Marsh Sandpiper. We continued working our way around the large mudflat adding Black-bellied and White-fronted Plovers, a group of Terek Sandpipers, and just before heading back to shore, a pair of Crab-Plovers, always a crowd pleaser! After lunch we packed our bags and caught a late afternoon flight back to Antananarivo.

The following day we made the long journey from the capital to our lodge near Ranomafana National Park. Along the way we broke the drive up for lunch and a visit to a community-run reserve, which protects a small wetland. Here, with help from a local, we had two Madagascar Snipe, the only ones of the trip. We also had a couple Madagascar Stonechats and a surprise Malagasy Harrier. The latter saved us a lot of time and effort later in the trip. Pushing on, some of the group spotted a surprise Banded Kestrel…not an easy bird to find!

The next morning, we added a few more new birds before and during breakfast including Mascarene Martin, Forest Fody, Madagascar Munia, and Madagascar Starling. We then set off into the forest where we spent the morning slowly birding a couple-mile circuit. A pair of Rand’s Warblers greeted us on arrival which were soon followed by Nelicourvi’s Weaver, Stripe-throated Jery, and excellent views of Pitta-like Ground-Roller. Madagascar Cuckoos were singing from all directions and are certainly heard far more often than seen, but we did eventually see one very well. Quietly walking the trails, we observed Red-fronted and Blue Couas, a couple stunning male Velvet Asities and their close relative the Common Sunbird-Asity, in addition to a couple new vangas: Red-tailed and Tylas. Lower down, the secretive White-throated Oxylabes and Spectacled Tetraka put on a show. We also had the opportunity to compare Peacock and Side-striped Day Geckos, two of the more common species in the forest.

After lunch, we headed back out into the forest to explore a new section where we were greeted right off the bat by a gorgeous Madagascan Sunset Moth, one of the most impressive moths in the world. We continued deeper into the forest and, after a lot of effort, we obtained great views of a Rufous-headed Ground-Roller, which crossed the trail in front of us a couple times. Gray-crowned Tetraka was also new. At dusk, we walked the main road for a while where we had large numbers of Madagascar Swifts overhead and, closer to ground-level, a Forest Rock-Thrush singing along the road’s edge. The highlight however goes to the diminutive and highly localized Brown Mouse Lemur, which came in to feed on some banana, providing the group with excellent views. This added to the already growing list of lemurs seen today, which included Golden Bamboo and Greater Bamboo Lemurs, Black-and-white Ruffed Lemur, and the Milne-Edward’s Sifaka. 

Back at it early the following morning, we retraced our steps along one of the forest loops where we added Madagascar Blue and Ward’s Vangas, Green Jery, and the cryptic Brown Emutail along with the large O’Shaunessy’s Chameleon and the vulnerable Red-bellied Lemur. Following lunch and a short afternoon break, we checked on another part of the park where we had more views of species such as White-headed Vanga and several of the unique Long-billed Bernieria. It was off to bed early in anticipation for tomorrow’s search for two difficult species!

We were out and ready right after sunrise to spend the morning tracking down Brown Mesite and Yellow-browed Oxylabes. Along the way we heard a Pollen’s Vanga, but it never did make an appearance. However, we did manage to stumble upon our first target: a pair of Yellow-browed Oxylabes. As they skulked all around us from deep within the vegetation, we eventually obtained quick but great views in the shadows. This is not an easy bird to see and was only the second time it has been recorded on eBird this year. We then turned our focus on the Brown Mesite deeper in the forest where the terrain was steeper. They prefer these steep slopes and after a bit of playback, we finally had a response. Hearing them is one thing but seeing them is a whole different challenge. A local guide made a wide detour to encourage the mesites to walk by us, which they certainly did, but even just meters away, only some of the group managed to get a view. After a mostly successful morning, we worked our way back down the slopes to the vehicle and had lunch, packed our bags, and headed off to our next accommodation.

After several days in the forest, the following day was mostly a travel day with a couple stops along the way to break up the drive. First up we paid a visit to a paper making factory run by the Antaimoro people. Here they hand press paper often with flowers to create notebooks, postcards, and other crafts. We then stopped by the Anja Community Reserve. This reserve hosts the largest concentration of Ring-tailed Lemurs in Madagascar and employs the local community as guides. Aside from up-close interactions with the lemurs, we also had a Madagascar Buttonquail, a small flock of Gray-headed Lovebirds, and a Madagascar Tree Boa.

We eventually arrived at our elegant lodge nestled among large boulders and a stunning garden on the edge of Isalo National Park. After dinner, a very short walk behind our rooms yielded two Madagascar Nightjars, which called every evening and morning during our two-night stay, incredible views of a White-browed Owl, and a calling ‘Torotoroka’ Scops-Owl.

Picking up our local guides the next morning, we drove into Isalo National Park while they shared the history of their people and their relationship to the land that is now the park. Upon arriving, we began our several hour hike into the Namaza Canyon in search of the “Benson’s” Rock-Thrush, which some authorities already split from the Forest Rock-Thrush. Along the way we passed Ring-tailed Lemurs and spotted a pair of White-throated Rails in the stream, all the while enjoying the panoramic views of the rocky outcroppings. We eventually made it to the ‘spot’ for the rock-thrush and quickly obtained excellent extended views. On the way back down the trail we had a Red-fronted Brown Lemur, a near-threatened species, and a roosting White-browed Owl.

After lunch, we had an extended afternoon break after several days of intense birding to enjoy the lodge, pool, and extensive gardens. Before dinner we did a short walk around the area where we tallied quite a list of species including our first Helmeted Guineafowl, an introduced but established species. We also had great views of the Malagasy Coucal, Madagascar Pond-Heron in breeding plumage, a flyover Peregrine Falcon, and a couple dozen Gray-headed Parrots feeding on the lawn between our rooms.

The following morning, we continued our drive west towards the coast stopping at Zombitse-Vohibasia National Park. This protected area appears out of nowhere after a long drive through heavily degraded habitat. It protects a unique transition zone between the spiny forests to the west and the dry deciduous woodlands to the east and houses an impressive variety of succulent plants. With this transition zone comes high levels of endemism; it is considered an Important Bird Area by Birdlife International. We met up with a couple local guides who know the forest better than anyone and began our search for a couple targets. A Greater Vasa Parrot flew overhead while a Frances’s Sparrowhawk perched conspicuously just begging to be photographed. Further along the trail we found an Appert’s Tetraka, a vulnerable species, which occurs almost exclusively in this patch of forest. We watched it for a while as it walked along the forest floor and low branches, never straying above waist level. Later, we successfully tracked down a couple Coquerel’s Couas and, after a bit of effort, we finally had great looks of their larger cousin, the Giant Coua.

After lunch in the forest, we completed our drive to our accommodation north of Tulear at the coast. Along the way we stumbled upon a grassland burning and, with that, no fewer than sixty Yellow-billed Kites taking advantage of prey fleeing from the flames. It was fun watching the kites acrobatically flying around and it was hard to ignore the fact that in Australia, Black Kites are known to pick up burning branches and drop them elsewhere to create new fires, ultimately catching more prey! Further west we employed the help of a couple locals who successfully tracked down a flock of nine Madagascar Sandgrouse. This species is hunted in some areas, but here the local community instead gets paid to show them to birders. A great conservation success story.

After a good night’s rest, we birded one of Madagascar’s most recognizable habits, the spiny forests near Ifaty. The southwestern region of the country sees the least amount of rain and this area is dominated by impressive baobabs. We spent the morning birding a private reserve owned by a local family who protects it, where we fruitfully tracked down all of our targets. Sickle-billed Vanga was an eye-pleaser and was followed by the localized Archbold’s Newtonia. Immediately after that, a Thamnornis made an appearance, which is a tetraka restricted to this southwestern arid region. We then turned our focus to a couple couas: the Running Coua and local “Green-capped” subspecies of Red-capped Coua. After looks of these two species, we then tracked down an incredibly cooperative Long-tailed Ground-Roller. This vulnerable species is restricted to this small area of Madagascar and offered extended, unobstructed views resulting in enough photos to fill a memory card. Next up we had a Subdesert Mesite sitting motionless in a shrub, probably relying on camouflaged rather than fleeing. This was our third and final mesite, completing the entire family. On our walk back towards the vehicle, at the very moment a couple of us were discussing harrier-hawks, someone shouted “Madagascar Harrier-Hawk!” as one circled over our heads. A welcomed coincidence!

After lunch we packed our bags and worked our way towards our next accommodation making a couple stops along the way. Our second Humblot’s Heron was quickly followed by two Madagascar Plovers at some salt pans, which were joined by several Kittlitz’s Plovers. By now the coastal winds were howling so the traditional Baillon’s Crake spot was quiet, but the nearby wetlands produced large numbers of Black-winged Stilts along with the usual suspects of Curlew Sandpipers, Common Greenshanks, and egrets.

Our final morning in the southwest was spent at an area of good habitat where we tracked down our final targets in the region. Working our way around spiny bushes along a maze of trails we had the large-billed Lafresnaye’s Vanga, several Subdesert Brush-Warblers, and a gorgeous Red-shouldered Vanga. This vanga is extra special as it was the last bird seen by the late Phoebe Snetsinger. Our walk back towards the vehicle yielded an unexpected Madagascar Cuckoo-Hawk. Lunch was nearby next to the Antsokay Botanical Gardens, where we relaxed and birded the grounds until our late afternoon flight back to Antananarivo.

Right in the heart of the capital city of Antananarivo is Parc de Tsarasaotra, a private lake and productive birding area. We paid a visit here before departing the next morning to Andasibe-Mantadia National Park. Red-billed Ducks and White-faced Whistling-Ducks were abundant, totaling over 3,000 individuals combined. Careful scanning pulled out Knob-billed Duck, Blue-billed Teal, and the endemic Meller’s Duck. There was also a large rookery consisting of Little and Cattle Egrets, Black Herons, Black-crowned Night-Herons, Squacco Herons, and a couple breeding-plumaged Malagasy Pond-Herons. After spotting several Madagascar Swamp Warblers, we worked our way back out not before stumbling upon several cooperative Malagasy Kingfishers.

The rest of the day was spent heading east towards Andasibe arriving in time to spend a couple hours in the forest before checking into our comfortable lodge. This gave us a good introduction to this primary rainforest, which sees over 200 days of rain a year. Owls were the highlight of the walk with views of the “Rainforest” subspecies of Madagascar Scops-Owl and a Madagascar Owl, the long-eared owl of the island. We also had a Parson’s Chameleon, one of the largest species in the world, and our first of many Indris to be seen (or heard!) in the forest. One of the largest lemurs, it’s classified as Critically Endangered, so it was extra special hearing small groups communicating between each other with their drawn out ‘roars’ which can travel great distances.

With a full day in the forest ahead, we packed our lunches and set off to target two challenging ground-rollers: Short-legged and Scaly. Along the way we had Madagascar Spinetail, Diademed Sifaka, and heard a Red-breasted Coua. Once in the right area, we stumbled our way up a hillside until we eventually heard a Short-legged Ground-Roller. After a bit more stumbling up the hillside, we eventually had prolonged views of a pair sitting higher up in the mid-story. On our way back down, we found a Scaly Ground-Roller, which played hard to get as it would sing nearby out of view only to fly to another location. We followed it back and forth obtaining brief views as we went.

After a successful run with ground-rollers, we had lunch and worked our way back, targeting a few species along the way. First up was a small pond that traditionally hosts Madagascar Grebe, which didn’t fail us and good views were had by all at this stop. We then tried for Madagascar Rail in a marsh transected by the road. We obtained excellent views of two birds that would occasionally come into the open only to dart away again.

The next morning, we set off for a challenging hike in search of the Helmeted Vanga, which is a very difficult species in this region. Leaving the lodge, a couple of us had the ‘black-bellied’ subspecies of the Madagascar Magpie-Robin, which is always neat to see. Along the way we spotted a Greater Vasa Parrot flying over. Shortly thereafter, we came upon some difficult muddy roads. After one of the 4x4s got stuck, we had to start walking early. This delayed us a bit, but we were soon in full birding mode and quickly picked up our first new bird, Cryptic Warber, which lives up to its name. We did, however, manage to get good views of this skulker.

We spent much of the day traversing these stunning forests and crystal-clear streams running through it. Although we had some good birding, a Helmeted Vanga never made an appearance, only offering a quick and distance call. The highlight, however, was a Nuthatch-Vanga. As its name suggests, this species forages much like a nuthatch by clinging to the sides of trunks, a behavior that is unique among vangas. On the drive back to the lodge, we stopped by a small stand of palms where a Barn Owl was roosting.

We spent our final day cleaning up on the final few birds before heading back to the capital of Antananarivo. First up, we detected a Crossley’s Vanga and soon enough had one working the canopy floor just a mere couple yards from our feet offering exceptional views. This vanga is brown overall with a striking white malar stripe contrasting sharply against a dark face. We turned up empty handed regarding Collared Nightjar, as their usual roosting spot was currently hosting a family of Indri, which meant a number of tourists were frequenting the area, causing the nightjars to vacate their roost. However, we did enjoy excellent views of Indri including watching one pounce from trunk to trunk with enviable ease.

Eventually it was time to hit the road but, on our way out of the forest, we picked up our final new bird of the tour: a Henst’s Goshawk, which teed up in a tree, and passed several Gray Bamboo Lemurs along the trail. An excellent end to a successful tour. We headed back to the capital and enjoyed a lovely final dinner together.

- Ethan Kistler

Updated: May 2024