28 November–15 December 2014
Extension to 20 December
Madagascar's uniqueness is legendary, and is nowhere better reflected than in its birds. Of the 270 species recorded on the island, no fewer than 140 are endemic or near-endemic, and these special birds will form the focus of our tour. But the wonder of Madagascar extends well beyond its avifauna and we will experience up to 27 species of lemurs and other mammals from civets to strange tenrecs (the planet's most primitive mammals) and dozens of species of chameleons, geckos and other incredible reptiles and amphibians alongside some of the world's strangest insects.
Day 1 Flight from London to Antanarivo (Tana) with an overnight stay in the capital.
Day 2 We will fly from Madagascar's capital city to the otherworldly south for three days' birding in the spiny desert, the mudflats and the coastal 'coral-rag' scrub. With splendid aerial views over the southern coast, we will land at the airport of Toliara and drive to the southwest coast, the Ifaty area. On the drive, scanning the mudflats could deliver Crab Plover, Madagascar Plover if we are lucky, and many other Palaearctic wader species. The beach resort town of Ifaty is a popular place for birders. Its famous spiny dry-forest is a landscape of interwoven baobabs, octopus trees and euphorbias so unique and wonderful that you might think that you are on a different planet. This area is loaded with extravagant semi-desert endemics which we will explore our first afternoon and the next day. This ecologically diverse wonderland, the 'Spiny Desert', is dominated by 3-metre tall cactus-like plants. We'll carefully wind our way among these Didierea, avoiding the sharp spines, but looking for Madagascar Green-pigeon, Green-capped and Running Couas, Archbold's Newtonia, Thamnornis Warbler, Sub-desert Brush-warbler, White-headed, Sickle-billed, Lafresnaye's and Hook-billed Vangas and Sakalava Weaver. The real stars of the show are the highly localised and spectacular Sub-desert Mesite and Long-tailed Ground-roller and we will make a special effort to find them. The elusive Banded Kestrel would be a good bonus! The middle of the day will be very hot, and we'll retreat to our accommodation for a welcome break (and perhaps even a refreshing dip in the ocean!).
Day 3 This morning we'll explore more of the spiny desert, in search of any target birds that we may have missed. We'll also visit a nearby site in search for the localised Madagascar Plover. From Toliara, in the afternoon, we'll explore the surrounding area. Arid hillsides surround the bay and are home to Madagascar's most recently described endemic, Red-shouldered Vanga. We will also search for Grey-headed Lovebird and Verreaux's Coua. We may even be lucky with Madagascar Sandgrouse at one of their regular drinking points. The mudflats around Toliara are great for all sorts of waders, Saunder's Tern and possibly Humblot's Heron.
Day 4 If time permits this morning, we will again search for Madagascar Sandgrouse before boarding a boat to the island of Anakao. At Anakao, we'll have breakfast and a short birding walk in search for the Littoral Rock-thrush. We'll then make the very short boat trip across to the iconic tropical island paradise Nosy Ve with long white beaches and aquamarine waters, where we'll be able to enjoy splendidly close views of Red-tailed Tropicbird as they hover overhead. We'll check the roosting seabirds for Lesser Crested Tern, White-fronted Plover, and if we are lucky Crab Plover. We've even seen the vagrant Sooty Gull here for two years running, the only records for Madagascar. Optional snorkeling can also be arranged in advance. We will return by mid-afternoon (depending on wind conditions). We stay overnight at Toliara.
Day 5 We will depart early for Zombitse National Park, in order to arrive before it gets too hot. Cuckoo-rollers displaying over the canopy is one of the highlights here. Males of this huge forest endemic engage in flapping displays and loops accompanied by their shrieking whistles. This forest's speciality, Appert's Greenbul, is one of Madagascar's rarest endemics. This highly threatened species is restricted to Zombitse and a small adjacent forest patch. Here we could also find Coquerel's and Giant Couas, Rufous Vanga and Stripe-throated Jery. The forest is a very special transition zone between the south's flora and the western deciduous forest (which we will explore in Ankarafantsika National Park). Similar in appearance as the latter, it contains baobab species of the former. We will continue on the long drive to Isalo's remarkable landscape: eroded 'ruiniforme' sandstone outcrops, with hints of silver and green reflections of sunlight and interspersed with endless palm savanna. Surrounded by the spectacular mountains of the Isalo massif, we will stay at one of Madagascar's most scenic places. Key target birds this evening and the following morning will include Madagascar Partridge, Torotoroka Scops-owl, White-browed Owl and Benson's Rock-thrush (although noticeably different in plumage and structure, this species is now often considered to be conspecific with the Forest Rock-thrush from further east).
Day 6 This morning will offer another chance to target our key birds, before traveling northwards towards Ranomafana's rainforests. On this spectacularly scenic long drive, we'll search for the elegant Madagascar Harrier then have a picnic lunch at Anja, a protected and sacred forest which may offer us splendid photographic opportunities of the very social and charismatic Ring-tailed Lemur. Our drive during the late afternoon will progressively be through more forested terrain until we'll reach our first rainforest destination: Ranomafana National Park. We'll arrive at our accommodation just before dark and take a stroll around to prepare for the next day's early start.
Days 7–9 We'll have two full days and one morning in this very important rainforest area. Ranomafana was set aside to protect one of the largest remaining rainforest patches of eastern Madagascar. It is a superb area, holding 39200 ha of mid-altitude rainforest and higher-altitude mountain cloud forest. A new species of lemur, the Golden Bamboo Lemur, was discovered here as recently as 1986, and this is the best place to seek one of the world's rarest primate species, the Greater Bamboo Lemur! We'll explore the excellent network of paths through the forests and dense stands of giant bamboo. Birding is excellent, and we'll see a lot of new species as this is the first time that we'll be exploring this rich habitat, home to most of Madagascar's endemics. Good birds that we may well encounter include, Pitta-like Ground-roller, White-throated Oxylabes, Crossley's Babbler, Green and Wedge-tailed Jerys and Tylas Vanga. We'll also search for the more retiring Madagascar Wood-rail, Brown Mesite, Madagascar Ibis and Henst's Goshawk. We will also explore Vohiparara, a nearby high altitude site of mossy cloud forest that includes forest trails and a small marsh. This is the best site in the world to get to grips with asitys, a brightly-coloured family of birds endemic to Madagascar that are related to the broadbills. The undisputed special here is the threatened Yellow-bellied Asity, which will be a major focus of the walk. We'll prick our ears for sign of its soft call, and search special places along the trail where its favoured flowers will be in bloom. We'll also look out for Sunbird Asity and fruit-eating Velvet Asity (with its bright green head wattles). Rufous-headed Ground-roller and Cryptic Warbler (discovered in 1996!) occur here as well. Other excellent birds are Pollen's Vanga, Grey-crowned Greenbul, and Forest Rock-thrush. Yellow-browed Oxylabes and Brown Emu-tail are highly secretive and we'll have to work hard to get a good view of these mega-skulkers. Marsh restricted specials such as Grey Emu-tail and Madagascar Snipe could be found in the ever smaller patches of habitat. We have even seen the declining Meller's Duck here a number of times, but we'd need to be very fortunate to see this declining species as it dwindles towards extinction. A nearby river holds Madagascar Pratincoles and we've been lucky enough to discover a breeding site. This is a hotspot for lemur diversity and Ranomafana sports 12 species, including the spectacular red-eyed Milne-Edwards's Sifaka and the endangered Golden and Greater Bamboo Lemurs. During our evening visit to the nocturne, we'll likely get very close views of Brown Mouse Lemur. If we are very lucky, we may see Malagasy Striped Civet whilst we often see Ring-tailed Mongoose during the day.
Day 10 After our last morning in search for any specials that may have eluded us, we'll head north for a necessary transit to our next birding area. We will overnight at Antsirabe, a very picturesque and interesting town historically known as the "place of much salt". It is renowned for its warm springs and thermal bath, its cool climate (at about 1500m altitude) and having hundreds of registered rickshaw taxis.
Day 11 After a good night's rest, we will head on further northwards, via Antananarivo (Tana), to the Andasibe- Mantadia National Park. The journey will take much of the day, with several stops for snacks and birding. We will arrive in the afternoon at our accommodation nearby the park's entrance and may do a short stroll in search for nocturnal lemurs and chameleons.
Days 12–13 We will have another two full days to explore this spectacular wilderness. The protected area consists of the Anamalazaotra Special Reserve (also named Andasibe or the colonial name Perinet) and the larger Mantadia National Park. Together, these protect one of Madagascar's most important primary rainforest areas. We have ample time to explore the area thoroughly, on various trails and with local guides. The list of birds we can see is very long, but some highlights may include White-throated Rail, Madagascar Flufftail, Madagascar Blue-pigeon, Lesser Vasa Parrot, Red-breasted, Blue and Red-fronted Couas, Madagascar Long-eared Owl, Madagascar Spine-tailed Swift, Madagascar Kingfisher, Cuckoo-roller, Sunbird Asity, Ward's Flycatcher, Dark Newtonia, Rand's Warbler, Madagascar Blue, Nuthatch and Pollen's Vangas, Madagascar Starling, Forest Fody and Nelicourvi Weaver. We may also be fortunate enough to encounter Collared Nightjar roosting almost imperceptibly on the forest floor. Mantadia is also the very best place in the world for Ground-rollers. We'll need some luck and perseverance, but we've seen all four rainforest species in a single morning: Pitta-like, Scaly, Rufous-headed and Short-legged Ground-roller. Despite this long list of bird endemics, there are few natural history experiences that can compare to the Indri's morning calls echoing through the misty forests. More than anything else, these echoing calls from the world's largest lemur sound like whales! The park also forms the ideal habitat for the iconic Black-and-white Ruffed Lemur and Diademed Sifaka.
Day 14 After our last morning walk near Andasibe, we will head back to Tana to embark on exploring another of Madagascar's very diverse habitats in the northwest: the Betsiboka Delta and Ankarafantsika National Park. From Andasibe, we'll drive to Tana's airport and fly to Mahajanga, Madagascar's second most important seaport. We'll settle in for some good French cuisine and a relaxing evening, before our boat trip in the morning.
Day 15 The Betsiboka River spills into the sea at a huge delta; one of the last refuges for some of Madagascar's most endangered endemics. This morning, our boat will take us along the coast and deep into the delta, in search of Bernier's Teal and Madagascar Ibis. Although numbers are low, we will hope to find both of these species feeding along the edge of the mangrove swamps in this area. Other possible species may include Crab Plover and Terek Sandpiper. Around midday, we will drive to Ankarafantsika National Park. En route, we will stop at wetlands where Madagascar Jacana is often seen then continue to the Ampijoroa Forestry Station. After we settle in, we will start introductory birding around camp and, if time allows, head onto our first evening walk.
Day 16 Ankarafantsika National Park protects Madagascar's western dry deciduous woodlands on a gently undulating area of 20000 ha. It also contains Lake Ravelobe, where we'll search, on foot or by boat, for the critically endangered Madagascar Fish-eagle; far less common than its African counterpart (fewer than 50 pairs still exist!). Other species here include White-throated Rail and Madagascar Jacana. We will spend most of our time stalking through the woodlands, where top target birds will be the stunning Schlegel's Asity, White-breasted Mesite and Van Dam's Vanga. We also hope to find Madagascar Ibis, Madagascar Buttonquail, Madagascar Green-pigeon, Grey-headed Lovebird, Greater Vasa Parrot, Coquerel's and Red-capped Couas, Madagascar Scops-owl, Madagascar Pygmy Kingfisher, White-headed, Sickle-billed and Rufous Vangas as well as Madagascar Cuckoo-shrike. Night walks with local guides in search for nocturnal lemurs, owls and chameleons will be an exciting after-dinner activity. We often see a staggering 8 species of lemurs on the night walks here, including the recently-described Golden-brown Mouse Lemur and the localised Mongoose Lemur. Some of the largest specimens of Oustalets's Chameleon can also be seen here! Our accommodation will be at the Ampijoroa Research Station, in either simple bungalows or tents (subject to availability). As this accommodation is rather basic, our special catering team will time and again surprise us with excellent fresh and tropical meals.
Day 17 During our last morning in Ankarafantsika National Park, we will search for any species we may still be missing. From a position as luxurious as our breakfast table, we may even stand a good chance for a last glimpse of Coquerel's Sifaka. This charismatic large lemur has a mixed white and rufous coat, humanlike inquisitive faces and family antics that vote them as a regular favourite. In the afternoon, we'll drive to the airport for our evening flight to Tana where we will catch our flight back to the UK early next morning or spend the night if we are going on the extension.
Days 18–20 This morning we'll fly from Tana, transfer to the port and board a small boat heading to the peninsula sheltering the "Baie d'Antongil". It's a spectacular journey across the bay. The voyage passes nearby the island of Nosy Mangabe, with the peninsula's thickly forested mountains as a dramatic backdrop and if we are lucky we may see dolphins or whales. Once we've settled into camp, we'll start exploring the camp's idyllic surrounds and its birdlife. While we will stay in rather basic bungalows with shared bathroom facilities, our strategic location will maximise birding opportunities. We will stay overnight to the sound of the sea and the forest, which both border to our camp. We have another two full days to explore the wonders of the Masoala Peninsula. The peninsula holds some of the rarest birds in Madagascar, including Helmet and Bernier's Vangas, Madagascar Serpent-eagle and Madagascar Red Owl, but we'll need to be extremely lucky to find the latter three! We'll explore the forest trails looking for bird parties which may hold the vangas. The area holds the largest primary rainforest tract in Madagascar and we'll reacquaint ourselves with many of the eastern rainforest specials that we might have seen earlier on the trip. We'll all be hoping to lift our binoculars and be dazzled by the huge electric blue bill of the Helmet Vanga, which will be the focus of our searches. The Peregrine Fund is doing research on the Madagascar Serpent-eagle and if they have been able to locate a nest, on occasions they allow birders to join them. This would be a unique opportunity but please note that it cannot be guaranteed. While birding, we'll stand a good chance of encountering one of the most spectacular lemurs endemic to the area: the noisy Red-ruffed Lemur with its orange and black fur! The area also offers fair chances to see the localised and handsome White-fronted Brown Lemur as well as the locally endemic Masoala Woolly Lemur and Masoala or Scott's Sportive Lemur.
Days 21–22 After breakfast, we'll make the return boat voyage to Maroantsetra where we can relax in the afternoon at a pleasant beach-side hotel. The next day's flight may be early and will bring us back to Antananarivo, where our tour ends with an early morning flight back to the UK on day 23.
General Information The temperature will generally be warm to hot, and rain may be experienced, despite the fact that we will be travelling during the dry season. Humidity can be high. The pace is easy, but the heat can be uncomfortable at times, and there are some long walks. Some days we will split the birding into two sessions, with a break at the hotel in the middle of the day so you can relax. There are a number of health requirements and you must consult your GP in this respect. Insects are not a major problem. Accommodation varies from comfortable hotels with private facilities to two nights' camping.
Group Size Minimum number for tour to go ahead: 7; maximum group size: 11 with 2 leaders.