Participants: Bill Bouton, Joseph Brooks, Garry George, Tony Morris, David Powell, Adam Winer. Private group organized by David Powell.
Guide: Pete Morris for BirdQuest
|Day 1||Fly to Antananarivo from Los Angeles via Paris (30 hours)|
|Day 2||Arrive Antananarivo|
|Day 3||Fly Majunga, drive Amboromalandy Lake & marshes (1.5 hours)|
|Day 4||Drive to Ampijoroa Forest (3.5 hours), Lac Ravelabe, Amboromalanday Lake & marshes|
|Day 5||Boat to Betsiboka Estuary (3 hours), Majunga|
|Day 6||Lac Amboromalandy & marshes, Lakes by airport, Majunga, Fly Antananarivo|
|Day 7||Drive Antananarivo to Ranomafana (9 hrs, Marsh 10 km N. of Vohiparara|
|Day 8||Ranomfana National Park|
|Day 9||Ranomafana National Park,Vohiparara|
|Day 10||Vohiparara, Drive to Isalo Massif stopping at marshes (10 hrs)|
|Day 11||Isalo Massif, Zombitse Forest, Tulear, Coral rag scrub 20 km NE of Tulear|
|Day 12||Tulear, Boat to Nosy Ve (1.5 hours), Anakao Island (addl. 5 hours), Dry lakebed and mudflats near coast, Tulear|
|Day 13||Drive to Ifaty Spiny Forest (2.5 hours), Ifaty Spiny Forest|
|Day 14||Ifaty Spiny Forest|
|Day 15||Drive Ifaty to Tulear (2.5 hours), Fly Antananarivo, Zoo in Antananarivo|
|Day 16||Lac Alarobia, Tana, Fly Maroantsetra (2.5 hours)|
|Day 17||Boat to Masaola National Park (3 hours) passing Nosy Mangabe|
|Days 18-20||Masaola National Park|
|Day 21||Boat to Maroantsetra (3 hours), Fly to Antananarivo (2.5 hours)|
|Day 22||Fly to Fort Dauphin (1.5 hours), Travel to Berenty Reserve (3.5 hours)|
|Day 23||Berenty Reserve|
|Day 24||Travel to Andohahela National Park (2 hours), Travel to Ft. Dauphin (1.5 hours), Fly Antananarivo|
|Day 25||Drive to Perinet Reserve (2.5 hours), Marshes 10 km toward Moramanga|
|Day 26||Mantadia National Park (1 hour), Night in Perinet Reserve|
|Day 27||Travel to Antananarivo (2.5 hours), Fly Los Angeles via Paris (30 hours)|
Madgascar first came up as a real possibility three years ago in Mexico. I was relaxing after a day of Military Macaws and Lesser Ground-Cuckoos on the Mirador near San Blas talking with a fellow traveler named Jim Hully who had just come from seeing Tufted Jays in Durango. As birders always do, we traded maps and sites and began talking of trips we wanted to take. The conversation as it always does came to Madagascar. Jim had a friend who was organizing a private trip with the author of a new field guide as leader and in a few emails we had committed.
Now I find myself back in Los Angeles after a month long adventure through the fourth largest island in the world. While recovering from malaria I'm trying to sift through the experiences, impressions and lists, and present them in some way to others who might have an interest in going to Madagascar or at least hearing about it. All of my trips have been greatly enhanced by the information and excitement generously shared by other adventurers who have gone before me. In the case of critically endangered habitat such as the island of Madagascar my hope is that this report will inspire even one other person to spend eco-tourism dollars and show some enthusiasm for the wild life thereby encouraging the government and people of Madagascar to save their amazing natural heritage from imminent disaster.
Our trip was planned to maximize sighting of endemic species with the exception of Sakalava Rail, Slender-billed Flufftail and Amber Mountain Rock Thrush, which were out of our range of exploration, and Madagascar Pochard and Alaotra Grebe which are considered extinct. Pete Morris's co-author Frank Hawkins apparently rescued the last male Madagascar Pochard from fishing nets in 1986 and sheltered it in his bathtub in the hopes that a female could be found. It is the last sighting. We also did not see Dusky Greenbul, and much discussion centered around this species. Pete feels that the bird, which shows up on many trip lists, is generally a misidentified Spectacled Greenbul or juvenile White-throated Oxylabes. In the Masaola we saw and videotaped a strange dark greenbul with an unusual alarm call. We were thinking it might be Dusky Greenbul. We met with Frank Hawkins during one of our stopovers in Antananarivo, the capital where Frank lives and bases his research. Frank has seen Dusky Greenbul in the far North - once. We showed him the videotape of the dark greenbul we had seen in Masaola, but he identified the bird as a dark Northern subspecies of Spectacled Greenbul, pointing out that the tail was not short enough. Later, Pete sent us photos of the skins at the British Museum of Dusky Greenbul next to skins of Spectacled Greenbul. The tail of Dusky Greenbul is considerably shorter, almost stubby, and cannot be mistaken in the field. The illustration in Sinclair and Langrand's Birds of the Indian Ocean Islands of a Dusky Greenbul is most certainly a Spectacled Greenbul, adding confusion. Compounding the problem are the local guides who point out and identify Dusky Greenbul to eager birders. Both Hawkins and Morris believe that Dusky Greenbul is rare and exists, but not in any of the traditional birding destinations. Also confusing were identification of male Madagascar Goshawk and male Frances' Goshawk. Females are hard enough to tell apart although the slate-gray barring on the Madagascar is distinct from the more reddish barring of the Frances'. Males are virtually indistinguishable in the field. We missed Madagascar Serpent-Eagle and Madagascar Red Owl especially at Masaola. There was an active nest of the Serpent-Eagle studied by the Peregrine Fund, seen by previous groups according to the local workers, but we could not get access to it. The study of the Red Owl by Peregine Fund is finished, and there are no radio collared individuals left.
Most of our time was spent in the forests of national parks or in small patches of forest that hoped to be designated national parks. Our tour guides used local guides, and we always purchased local goods when they were available. Local guides were outstanding especially Moosa at Ifaty, Patrice at Perinet and Fidy at Ranomafana. The success of the local guides in the growing eco-tourism economy is causing serious problems with other locals. A particularly talented and therefore resented guide was murdered a few years ago (see David Quammen's fine book Song of the Dodo). When we were in Ifaty in the spiny forest, Moosa spent the day finding a pair of Banded Kestrel on a nest, which he showed to us and the next tour group. We heard two days later that the Kestrels had been killed. It was rumored that the local people still mistakently believed that the Kestrels eat their chickens, but later we were told that an envious guide had killed the pair in order to compete with Moosa. In any case, we had a tough time justifying exposing these endangered birds to harm just so we could tick them and spent the long drive from Ifaty to Tulear in silence. Vehicles and drivers were outstanding on the long trips on bad roads. We observed a moment of silence when we passed the spot where Phoebe died and another when we saw Red-Shouldered Vanga, her last life bird.
The accommodations ranged from luxurious (Isalo Massif) to basic camping (Masaola) and mostly simple "motels" with a bed and a door. We brought mosquito netting and used it nightly. Food was minimal - usually French bread of various ages at every meal, and sometimes only French bread for breakfast with jam or mustard, and especially minimal (tongue, beef and rice) while camping in Masaola. Seafood especially shellfish was fresh and delicious on the the West Coast. Everyone had stomach upset for at least a couple of days from the food, and some brought back parasites. Some took Larium as a malarial preventative, and we took Doxycycline. Mosquitos were not very present so I stopped taking Doxycycline two days before the trip ended. That was a mistake, as I contracted a vicious species of malaria (Plasmodium farciparum) during the last two days at Perinet and spent a miserable week before Christmas in the hospital recovering from the disease. Luckily I escaped serious harm and am in complete recovery. Weather was cooperative, and we only lost one morning in the Masaola to rain.
We saw 200 species (more for those who used Sibley & Monore taxonomy instead of Clements). Bird sighting highlights included 65 Bernier's Teal and 6 Madagascar Sacred Ibis on a mangrove mudflat 3 hours boat ride from Majunga (never before seen by a group); Red-tailed Newtonia by a stream and waterfall on a special expedition early one morning (never before seen by a group); nesting Red-tailed Tropicbirds on the island of Nosy Ve; and of course the legendary Helmet Vanga.
As for mammals, we saw 18 species of lemur, 2 of which are ripe for splits (Ruffed Lemur to Red Ruffed and Black-and-White Ruffed; and Brown Lemur to Red-fronted and White-fronted), and 7 other species of mammals including Commerson's Leaf-nosed Bat flushed by Pete, Madagascar Flying Fox (endangered from hunting), Greater Hedgehog Tenrec (and two other species of dead tenrec sold roadside for food), Fanaloka (Striped Civet) and Ring-tailed Mongoose. We never saw the large predatory civet/weasel with retractable claws called Fossa but heard from Nick Garbutt that the best time is October at Kirindy on the West Coast when the females are in estrus and call from the tops of bare trees, generating a group of noisy, competing males beneath.
Herps are fantastic on Madagascar, especially the true chameleons and geckos. There are no poisonous snakes and mostly boas, which exist only in Madagascar and South America. How did that happen? We saw 17 species of herps including the rare Satanic Leaf-tailed Gecko (Uroplatus phantasticus).
Madagascar nestled between Africa and the Indian subcontinent in one big chunk that broke off from the super-continent of Gondwanaland over 200 million years ago. Around 160 million years ago around the end of the Jurassic Period and the age of dinosaurs, Madagascar and the Indian subcontinent broke from Africa and began drifting eastward. 80 million years later Madagascar was in position, and the Indian subcontinent broke away along a fault line that forms much of Madagascar's remarkedly straight east coast. It headed northeast for around 40 million years until it collided with southern Asia and formed the Himalayas.
Evolution of life on the tropical island of Madagascar in those millions of years is a fascinating puzzle. There is no evidence that there were any early ancestors of Madgascar's present-day mammal fauna on the landmass when it became an island, although fossil deposits certify the presence of dinosaurs. Well before the appearance of most modern birds, the mammals had to get to the island somehow. But how? In his recent fascinating Mammals of Madgascar (Yale University Press and available almost everywhere) Nick Garbutt articulates the theory that Madagascar's mammal ancestors arrived on rafts broken from the continent of Africa during storms, flooding or erosion - a dispersal lottery. There is geological evidence of land bridges to the African continent until around 45 million years ago, but the carnivores and ungulates so widespread in the continent of Africa never colonized the island. There is subfossil evidence of five species of ungulates including three dwarf hippopotamuses and two false aardvarks but they are suspected to be relatively recent arrivals after the land bridges had submerged, and possibly introduced by man. Garbutt theorizes that small mammal species would be favored in a raft dispersal lottery due to their ability to become dormant, lowering their metabolism during periods of low food availability and their ability to store fat. The odds against a raft with living creatures on it surviving the crossing of the Mozambique Channel are millions to one, but in the course of a hundred million years such possibilities become reality. Only five orders of non-introduced mammals colonized Madgascar: Chioptera (bats) with seven families; Insectivora with two endemic families of tenrecs; Rodentia with one endemic family; Carnivora with two endemic families of civets and mongooses; and Primates represented by five endemic families of lemurs, the prehistoric ancestors of apes that exist now only on Madagascar. There are no other native mammals. No monkeys, no lions, no zebra, no gazelle, no giraffe, no cheetah, no lions, no hyena, no hippos, none of the mammals you would see on the continent. Only introduced pigs, goats and cattle (zebu) (from Mammals of Madgascar, 1999, Nick Garbutt, Yale University Press)
Not only Madagascar's mammals and birds but also the poorly known families of reptiles, plants, insects, fish and invertebrates have the highest rate of endemism in the world (98% for reptiles and plants) and a great biodiversity, all of which present more evolutionary questions than answers. Why are there no poisonous snakes on Madagascar? Why are boas found only there and in South America? Why is there only one large civet-like predator (Fossa)? Why is there only one predator with retractable claws?
Birds, being more mobile, show a lower degree of endemism but one that is unique in the world. There is an unprecedented level of higher-order endemism. Depending on the taxonomy, there are anywhere from four to six endemic families of birds on Madagascar and the neighboring Comoros Islands. These include such taxonomic oddities as the mesites (variously considered rails, cranes, pigeons and passerines), the enigmatic monotypical Cuckoo-Roller, the elusive four species of ground-rollers and the 15 species of vanga, 14 of which are endemic (Blue Vanga occurs on other islands near Madagascar). There are 37 regionally endemic genera, many of which are monospecific. Of the total of 204 breeding species, 120 are endemic (including those in the Comoros Islands). A very striking aspect of the specialization of these endemic species is their dependence on forest. Eighty of the 120 endemic species and 33 of the 37 endemic genera are found only in forest. Of the 88 forest-limited species, 80 (91%) are endemic. (from Birds of Madagascar, A Photographic Guide, 1998, Pete Morris and Frank Hawkins, Yale University Press)
E = Endemic
ESSP = Endemic sub species
Threatened Classifications are from BirdLife International: CRITICAL, ENDANGERED, VULERABLE, NEAR THREATENED
After the long flight from Los Angeles-Paris-Antanananarivo (32 hours total) we landed 1 a.m. The rest of the group and our guide connecting from London had missed the flight, and we weren't sure what would happen. Sure enough, Rivo, our local guide, met us and the three of us flew out the next morning on schedule without our group to Majunga on the Northwest coast. We arrived Majunga and drove 1.5 hours to very dry Lac Amboromalandy and hiked to the edge to scan with a scope. Humans had created a small village of wooden shacks by the lake and they gathered under the only and biggest tree in the area to dry and winnow grain and distribute and sell goods. There were trails worn by human feet in the dry lakebed to the edge of the water. The bright blue and orange colors of the Malagasy Kingfisher stood out like a jewel in the dry brown landscape. Ducks and shorebirds fed at the edge of the water. We drove to the nearby marshes and birded from the levee where there were lots of humans bathing, planting rice and hunting and fishing.
The next morning we met up with the others. They had driven from Antananarivo for 12 hours and then camped exhausted at Ampijoroa Forest, a three hour drive East and inland from Majunga. They had managed to see Reunion Harrier and Eleonora's Falcon on the way. Introductions were interrupted by flocks of noisy Sickle-billed Vangas and a family of Verreaux's Sifaka leaping through the trees. We entered the sandy soil incline of the dry, deciduous forest and all of the exhaustion from the travel began to leave our bodies, as if we were sweating it away. We covered two locations in Ampijoroa Forest, one for the Schlegel's Asity.
After the morning in the forest and lunch, we walked the banks of nearby Lac Ravelobe stopping to look at species in the scope. Three Mad. Fish-Eagle were perched in a dead tree and to our delight one flew down into the marsh and actually walked around. We heard stories of crocodiles eating children at the edge of the lake, and spotted a Nile Crocodile in the middle of the lake. There were children and adults cautiously bathing at the edge of the lake but no harm came of them.
We started the day wading to a chartered motorboat with a canopy for the four hour trip to Betsiboka Estuary, mudflats and mangroves along a river feeding into the Bay at Majunga. It took time to maneuver the boat in the shallow water to get close enough to the mudflats to get good looks at the birds, and some participants waded into the water for closer looks. We put the scope in the water outside the boat for stabilization and got close looks at the rarely seen Bernier's Teal dabbling in the mud at the edge of the mangroves. There was a population of about 65 teal at this site. We also got good looks at an endemic subspecies of Sacred Ibis that is morphologically different from the Sacred Ibis on the continent (a light eye, white wing tips) and also has a very restricted habitat unlike its continental cousin. Some taxonomists have elevated this subspecies to Madagascar White Ibis (Threskiornis bernieri) or Madagascar Sacred Ibis. Three Saunder's Terns in winter plumage flew next to our boat giving us a real challenge of identification from sometimes conspecific Little Tern, which might occur in Madagascar in austral summer. But the dark on the outer primaries and the lack of any recorded sightings of Little Tern in Madgascar much less in winter led us confidently to our ID.
1 Endemic species, 1 Endemic subspecies
More coastal mudflats in Majunga and birding around the hotel in the afternoon gave us some more species.
We stopped by a lake near the airport in Majunga in the hopes of finding a Madagascar Little Grebe but no luck. We weren't sure they weren't Little Grebes, even though we spent an hour on them. We flew back to Antananarivo for an overnight to prepare for the long drive the next morning.
It took us 9 hours of driving to reach Ranomafana National Park, the last three hours in a bad road. But stops along the way at marshes and small lakes gave us some new and expected species.
We went to a marsh 10 km from Ranomafana near Vohiparara which is a traditional site for Reunion Harrier. Unfortunately, the marsh had been drained to make rice paddies, and the fields had been burned. The Harrier is no longer seen there, although we did find Grey Emu-tail in a small patch of high grass which remains.
Ranomafana National Park was established in 1986 when primatologists discovered the Golden Bamboo Lemur in that forest. It is one of the best models of eco-tourism in action, as the local Malagasy have been involved in the economic benefits of the park by sharing in the entrance fees, acting as paid guides and researchers, and benefiting from the improvements. One of the primatologists who described the Golden Bamboo Lemur is Patricia C. Wright of SUNY, whom we were lucky to meet there on our first morning in the park. She had just returned from the Santa Barbara Film Festival where Michael Apted's newest documentary Isaac Newton and Me was screened. The film features seven scientists including Dr. Wright who are on the scientific edge. She had just read Pete's book on the Birds of Madagascar and ordered 20 copies for her research staff, so the two of them had a lot to say about taxonomy. We spent the afternoon studying a family of Diademed Sifaka with her and her researchers. We asked her our favorite question: "Have you ever seen fossa?" "They are eating my lemurs," she replied with a laugh, knowing that they had been committing that crime for millions of years. She explained to us that Diademed Sifaka are particularly vulnerable to predators with a 70% loss rate mainly to fossa and Henst's Goshawk. Fossa apparently follows a family for months, climbs a tree silently at night, grabs an individual by the throat, then drops to the ground immediately to eat the heart and internal organs. The remainder of the carcass is consumed over the next few days. Ranomafana is a well-studied location where it is easy to see some species that are almost impossible in other rainforests in Madagascar, and the birds and mammals are exceptional not only here but in Vohiparara just down the road.
Here we would see our first of the endemic family of Ground-Rollers. Like colorful South American puffbirds but horizontal and low on a branch, not vertical, they call by gathering their bull-head in, extending their neck and gulping. All members of this family do this, and it was unexpected. The incredible color combinations were expected but still surprised us, especially since the birds were fairly elusive in the dense forest.
We began to notice the pattern of turquoise and cobalt eye-skin patches in the couas and wondered why these patches were the same colors as the Mozambique Channel. Many of the birds in Mad. have two toned eye skin patches, and we wondered what the function is. Breeding? Vision? Feeding?
After the three hour rocky road exit from Ranomafana to the highway, we drove South all day through the center of the country through panoramas of termite mounds, blue skies and red sandy roads. We were headed to the Isalo Massif, the lunar rock outcroppings situated in dry, grassy plains. But on the way, we would pass through a two month old town of wooden storefronts on either side of the only road, hastily built shacks for human habitation behind to a depth of half a mile. This instant town of 30,000 inhabitants sprang up after the discovery of sapphires in a riverbed. The Sapphire Rush of Madgascar is on, and new arrivals who had sold all their belongings in their hometowns are fair game in this lawless frontier in the middle of nowhere. This Sapphire Fever is affecting the entire country. We saw miners with plastic bags full of sapphires negotiating with Chinese and Korean buyers in the hotel lobby in Antananarivo, met tribesmen in Berenty who were selling their silver arm jewelry to buy a bus ticket to the Sapphire riverbed and their fortunes. The entire country was under the spell, much like the California gold rush.
During the drive we saw nothing new except at one marsh where we stopped and managed to flush a pair of
We arrived at our fancy hotel Relais de la Reine carved out of the rock outcroppings in the late afternoon and immediately set out in the nearby grasslands to find birds, waking early the next morning to a breakfast outdoors and a search for Benson's Rock-Thrush. Most memorable was our first sighting at dawn of three Ring-tailed Lemurs walking across the rocks, sitting back on their haunches with their front paws on their knees like three meditators, taking in the sun on their skin.
In the late morning we drove to Zombitze Forest, the only site for the critically endangered Appert's Greenbul, several of which were seen easily.
In the afternoon we drove toward Tulear, passing the site where Phoebe Snetzinger lost her life, and we observed a moment of silence. We headed to the coral rag scrub 20 km NE of Tulear opposite La Table to see Red-Shouldered Vanga, Phoebe's last life bird.
We drove three hours in coastal sand in four-wheel drive vehicles from Tulear past seaside shacks, pigs, goats and zebu to Ifaty and a seaside motel with fresh seafood in the restaurant and cold beer to fight the intense heat. Thirty minutes up the road was the most amazing habitat I have ever walked through: spiny forest. Full of gigantic baobab trees and octotillo-like octopus trees reaching toward the sky, cactus and scrub, the forest is the most endangered forest habitat on the earth. Vangas and mesites perch on thorny branches, and Long-tailed Ground-Roller, the favorite bird of the trip, inhabits the red, sandy ground. The vegetation is a favorite for production of charcoal, and the land is being purchased by Sapphire Rush newly rich and burned before it can be declared a nature reserve or national park.
It was here that we got our first taste of the competitiveness and envy of the guides. Moosa, our guide who looked like Jimi Hendrix and is well known throughout the world, found us a pair of Banded Kestrel on a nest one afternoon after a great deal of searching. After we left, the Field Guides tour also saw the birds. After that, the birds were found dead. It was initially suspected that the locals, who still believe that the Banded Kestrels eat their chickens, had killed them. We felt guilty that we had exposed their location. Later we found that a waiter in our hotel had actually killed them, jealous of Moosa and his status as the lead guide and moneymaker in the area.
We flew back to Antananarivo airport and as we scanned the skies around the airport found
Back in the capital we spent the morning before our flight at Lac Alarobia hidden in the middle of Antananarivo, a refuge mostly for Cattle Egrets and a ruined summer house of royalty long deposed. We searched in vain for a Madagascar Hawk-Cukoo rumored to be in this area, but no luck. We did, however, add a Whistling-Duck to our growing list.
A two hour flight to the town of Maronsetra was our gateway to the largest parcel of unbroken forest in Madagascar - the newly set aside Masoala National Park on a peninsula in the Northeast. We would wait overnight in Maronsetra before our three hour boat ride to the camp in Masoala. The boats only leave in the morning while the bay is calm and before the winds come up. Our six passenger vessel dwarfed the dugout canoes we passed with one or two fishermen and a pile of nets onboard, and our trip took us past Nosy Mangabe, an island in the Bay currently serving as a refuge for introduced endangered species, most notably Aye-aye, the strange nocturnal grub-eating lemur that looks like a cross between Edward Scissorhands and an opossum. We debated camping on the island for a night, but recent reports had indicated that the small population had moved inland from the camp since the cyclone two years ago and hasn't been seen since. This was verified by the Italian film crew who spent three weeks on the island hoping to film an Aye-Aye with no luck.
From our boat we saw:
We camped at Ambanizana village on a beach, four in tents and two in thatch huts with concrete floors. The envy of the tent people toward the hut people subsided with the daily reports of nightly attacks by rats on suitcases, toothpaste and clothing buttons by rats in one hut and an attack on our leader by a centipede in another. We bathed in the river nearby along with the village citizens, and finally understood the laughter when we realized that we had been bathing in the area usually reserved for women. A tin shack with a fire pit served as the kitchen and dining room, and one latrine with a particularly large spider in residence served all of us. After two weeks of Madgascar food consisting primarily of French bread of various ages flavored with either mustard or jelly depending on the hours, mostly beef including tongue and bulimic chicken, there wasn't a solid stool in the group.
Most days we waded to our boat for the one hour ride to Andronobe Camp, where the Peregrine Fund has set up camp in the six bungalows to study the rare endemic Madagascar Serpent-Eagle. There was an active nest, and other birdwatchers before us had been taken to see the nest by local researchers, but we had no such luck or permission, and try as we might we could not get any information about a nest from any of the researchers, our local guide, or the French film team who kept telling us they were studying plants while building a canopy platform for a film camera. I am convinced they were filming the nest.
A short ride in a dugout from our vessel to shore and a long hike up a steep trail into a healthy montane humid forest brought us all back to life. This is fantastic unspoiled Eastern humid forest, and it's alive. It was here and on the trail through clove plantations behind the village of Amabanizana that we would see some of our rarest endemic birds including the mythic Helmet Vanga. We searched all the vanga flocks and all the palm-like plants for the rare and elusive Bernier's Vanga but no luck. It was our only Vanga miss. Here we completed the Ground-Rollers with great views of Short-legged Ground-Roller looking like a large Puffbird perched high in a tree, the only Ground-Roller we saw perched higher than four feet off the ground. A dark subspecies of Spectacled Greenbul had us excited for while but when we reviewed the videotape back in Tana good looks at the tail revealed that the bird was not Dusky Greenbul as we hoped.
We stopped at Tamatave Airport to pick up one species for the list
We landed in Port Dauphin and picked up one impending split
Port Dauphin is a crowded noisy coastal city in the South with rusted shipwrecked freighters and tankers lining the beautiful turquoise beaches.
From here it is a three hour drive through cactus forest and agave fields to Berenty Reserve, a private reserve established some years ago and famous for the Ring-tailed Lemurs. It is a small piece of property on a river with very little habitat overrun with species of lemurs and birds looking for refuge from the agricultural fields surrounding. Two years ago a cyclone heavily damaged the vegetation, and it has had an impact on the species. I found Berenty somewhat pathetic. The Ring-tailed Lemurs did not look healthy, they were thin, and patches of fur had fallen out compared to the healthy ones I had seen at Isalo Massif in the wild. The Verreaux's Sifakas, famous for those pictures of dancing across the red dirt trails, do so because there is so little habitat for them to jump from tree to tree like they normally do. Birds are so dense that there must have been a roosting Malagasy Scops (possible split here to Torotoroka Scops-Owl) or White-browed Owl every twenty feet.
Still the accommodations were comfortable, and there were some species we wouldn't see elsewhere so I was glad we went here, and glad we didn't spend too much time.
One night after searching in vain for a Gray Mouse Lemur in the forest near Berenty we exited the trail to find a man and a woman on the ground playing musical instruments. One was a box with a hole cut out and steel strings on either side, and the other a shaker. On this dry, moonlit night with all of the stars of the galaxy shining overhead, I was transported to hear the circular rhythms this duo were playing, surely for our benefit. It is one of my favorite moments in travel.
We awoke at 2 a.m. and left Berenty for a three hour journey through the incredible cactus desert to arrive at the junction to Andohahela National Park where we switched to four wheel drive vehicles. Then two hours up the road to rice paddies, and a two hour hike through the paddies into the forest, up the mountain crossing waterfalls and streams. It looked like the expedition was a bust until Pete heard a Red-tailed Newtonia calling away and we all had incredible looks - the first time a group has ever seen this species known from one specimen until recently. It was a well organized expedition and worth the hike.
After resting by the waterfall, we hiked out and drove in our vehicles back to Port Dauphin to celebrate with a leisurely lunch at a great hotel overlooking the ocean while we trained our scopes on a Humpback Whale mother and calf in position upside down with tail in the air. What was it doing?
Our flight took us back to Antananarivo, now a familiar destination.
We drove three hours at night to Perinet to arrive very late and hike up to our chalet. It was not difficult to sleep, and we were awaken by the gibbon-like sounds of Indri in the distance. It was a joy to lie in bed and listen for twenty minutes before arising.
Perinet is well-known as it is the closest reserve to Antananarivo and most tourists find their way here on any trip to Madagascar. It was here we would meet well-known guide Patrice and spend dinners with Nick Garbutt, author of Mammals of Madagascar and his group of mammal people. We were the bird people.
We went to a marsh about 10 km toward Moramanga near a railroad station.
We spent a great deal of time in Perinet Reserve itself where we did night walks along with lots of others. The forest was full of flashlights. This was the best location for the most amazing true chameleons and the very strange Leaf-tailed Geckos especially the super rare Satanic Leaf-tailed Gecko which we were lucky enough to come across. Aye-Aye had been seen there a few months before, and we were shown the tree where the Aye-Aye had scraped for grubs, but alas no Aye-Aye. We saw the most interesting insect, Giraffe-necked Weevil, here. Truly a natural paradise.
About one hour drive from Perinet is an expanse of humid forest which is being groomed as Mantadia National Park. Here we found our last Ground-Roller with great looks. High in the canopy I discovered an Angraecoma orchid that I had been looking for the entire trip. I've grown this orchid at home and didn't realize it came from Madagascar. This species is white with long spurs on the bloom, and when Darwin studied a specimen brought to him, he hypothesized that there must be a moth with a 9" proboscis to pollinate this orchid. Not only did we spot the orchid high in the tree, but someone else spotted the very comet moth that pollinates this orchid elsewhere in this forest, and we all had a great look, hoping that the moth might actually pollinate an orchid, but no luck. This was the most exciting botanical experience for me to study this orchid in the wild.
November 6-December 3, 2000
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