20 November–8 December 2015
Extension to 12 December
Madagascar's uniqueness is legendary and this 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; 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). There are also dozens of species of chameleons, geckos and other incredible reptiles, many amphibians and some of the world's strangest insects.
Day 1 Flight from London to Antanarivo (Tana).
Day 2 On arrival we will connect with an internal flight to Toliara. This will provide us with splendid aerial views of the southern coast. From the airport we will drive to Ifaty for a two-night stay.
Day 3 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. The area is full of extravagant semi-desert endemics which we will look for early before it gets too hot. This ecologically diverse wonderland, the 'Spiny Forest', is dominated by three-metre tall cactus-like plants and is home to Madagascar Harrier-hawk, Madagascar Kestrel, Green-capped and Running Couas, Archbold's Newtonia, Thamnornis, Sub-desert Brush-warbler, Lafresnaye's and Sickle-billed Vangas and Sakalava Weaver. The real stars of the show, however, 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 will retreat to our accommodation for a welcome break, lunch and perhaps even a refreshing dip in the ocean or swimming pool! Later in the afternoon we will visit nearby mudflats and saltpans where, by stopping at a number of sites, we should locate our target bird: the rare and declining Madagascar Plover. The mudflats are great for all sorts of wintering Palearctic waders together with Crab and Kittlitz’s Plovers and possibly Saunders’ Tern and the endemic Humblot's Heron.
Day 4 If we missed any target birds yesterday we can revisit the nearby spiny forest for a short time. Alternatively, we will make an early start to drive back to Toliara, revisiting sites for Madagascar Plover if necessary. The arid hillsides around Toliara Bay are home to Madagascar's most recently-described endemic, Red-shouldered Vanga, and we will search for this species and for Verreaux's Coua. Other endemic birds we may encounter include Madagascar Buzzard, Crested Drongo, Chabert’s Vanga and Stripe-throated Jery. After taking lunch in Toliara we will drive to a regular drinking spot for Madagascar Sandgrouse. Other birds we may encounter here include Greater Painted-snipe and the endemic Madagascar Coucal, Madagascar Lark, and Madagascar Cisticola. In the late afternoon we will drive the short distance to our magnificently located hotel in Toliara. The birding is not finished, however, as Madagascar Nightjar is regularly seen around our rooms.
Day 5 Early-morning risers will have another chance to look for Madagascar Nightjar just before dawn and we will spend a little time before breakfast around the hotel, where the endemic Grey-headed Lovebird, Madagascar Magpie-robin, Madagascar Bulbul and Madagascar Munia can all be found. We will then depart for Zombitse National Park, stopping at the Madagascar Sandgrouse site en route if necessary, 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, the highly-threatened Appert's Tetraka, is one of Madagascar's rarest endemics and is restricted to Zombitse and a small adjacent forest patch. Here we could also find further endemics including Coquerel's and Giant Couas, Red-tailed, Blue and Rufous Vangas and White-browed Owl. 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); it resembles the latter yet contains the baobab species of the former. We will continue on the long drive to Isalo's remarkable landscape of eroded 'ruiniforme' sandstone outcrops, with hints of silver and green reflections of sunlight, interspersed with endless palm savannah. We will stay near Isalo at one of Madagascar's most scenic hotels, surrounded by the spectacular mountains of the Isalo massif. This evening we will look for the endemic Torotoroka Scops-owl, several pairs of which breed in the trees along a nearby stream.
Day 6 Before breakfast we will look for several more endemics: White-throated Rail, Benson’s Rock-thrush and Madagascar Starling. Benson’s Rock-thrush is at present only a sub-species of Forest Rock-thrush from further east but occupies a totally different habitat. We will then travel northwards towards Ranomafana's rainforests. On this spectacularly scenic long drive we will stop to search for several more endemics including Madagascar Harrier, Madagascar Partridge and Madagascar Swamp-warbler. Madagascar Bee-eater and the endemic sub-species of African Stonechat will be quite common all along our route. We will stop for 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. In the late afternoon we will pass through progressively more-forested terrain until we reach our first rainforest destination: Ranomafana National Park, where we will arrive at our accommodation just before dark for a four-night stay and take a stroll around to prepare for the next day's early start.
Days 7–10 Three full days and one morning will be spent in this very important rainforest area. Ranomafana was established 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, 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, Greater Bamboo Lemur! We will explore the excellent network of paths through the forests and dense stands of giant bamboo. Birding is excellent and we will see many new species in this rich habitat, which is home to most of Madagascar's endemics. Good birds that we may well encounter include the very vocal but difficult-to-see Madagascar Cuckoo, Pitta-like Ground-roller, White-throated Oxylabes, Common and Green Jerys and Crossley’s, Hook-billed and Tylas Vangas, while the more retiring Brown Mesite, Madagascar Ibis and Henst's Goshawk are possible. 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 speciality here is the threatened Yellow-bellied Asity, which will be a major focus of the walk; we will listen carefully for its soft call and search special places along the trail where its favoured flowers will be in bloom. We will also look out for Sunbird Asity and the 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 Tetraka and Forest Rock-thrush. Yellow-browed Oxylabes and Brown Emu-tail are highly secretive and we will have to work hard to get a good view of these mega-skulkers. Marsh-restricted specialities such as Grey Emu-tail and Madagascar Snipe can be found in suitable habitat. We have seen the declining Meller's Duck here a number of times but we would need to be very fortunate to see this species now as it dwindles towards extinction. Ranomafana is a hotspot for lemur diversity; it supports twelve 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 may well get very close views of Brown Mouse Lemur; if we are very lucky we may see Malagasy Striped Civet; we often see Ring-tailed Mongoose during the day. After our final morning in search of any specialities which may have eluded us we will return north to Antanarivo, where we will stay overnight.
Day 11 After a good night's rest we will head west to Andasibe-Mantadia National Park. We will take a packed lunch with us and should arrive in time to eat it in the grounds of the National Park Office while our guide buys the tickets. We will then search for several species in the locality including Madagascar Long-eared Owl, White-headed Vanga and Madagascar Wood-rail. After a good afternoon’s birding, we will make the short drive to our hotel, where Mascarene Martin, the endemic Madagascar Wagtail and Red Fody all breed in the grounds; we will stay here for three nights.
Days 12–13 Both days will be spent exploring 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, they protect one of Madagascar's most important primary rainforest areas. We will have ample time to explore the area thoroughly, on various trails and with local guides. Highlights may include France’s Goshawk, Madagascar Sparrowhawk, Madagascar Cuckoo-hawk, Madagascar Flufftail, Madagascar Blue-pigeon, Lesser Vasa Parrot, Red-breasted, Blue and Red-fronted Couas, Malagasy Scops-owl, Madagascar Swift, Malagasy Spinetail, Madagascar Kingfisher, Madagascar Pygmy-kingfisher, Ashy Cuckooshrike, Ward's Flycatcher, Common and Dark Newtonias, Rand's Warbler, Madagascar Brush-warbler, Pollen's Vanga, Nuthatch-vanga, Grey-crowned and Spectacled Tetrakas, Madagascar White-eye, Madagascar and Souimanga Sunbirds, Forest Fody and Nelicourvi Weaver. We could also be fortunate enough to encounter Collared Nightjar roosting almost imperceptibly on the forest floor. Mantadia is the best place in the world for ground-rollers; luck and perseverance have enabled us to see all four rainforest species in a single morning: Pitta-like, Scaly, Rufous-headed and Short-legged Ground-rollers. In addition, there are few natural history experiences that can compare to the Indri's morning calls echoing through the misty forests; these echoing calls from the world's largest lemur sound more like whales than anything else! The park also has the ideal habitat for the iconic Black-and-white Ruffed Lemur and Diademed Sifaka.
Day 14 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 leave to explore another of Madagascar's diverse habitats: the Betsiboka Delta and Ankarafantsika National Park in the northwest. From Andasibe we will drive to Tana's airport and fly to Mahajanga, Madagascar's second most important seaport, where we will enjoy some good French cuisine and a relaxing evening and stay overnight.
Day 15 The Betsiboka River spills into the sea at a huge delta which is 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 the endemic Madagascar Teal and the endemic sub-species of Sacred (Madagascar) Ibis. Although numbers are low, we will hope to find both species feeding along the edge of the mangrove swamps. Other species may include Dimorphic Egret, Crab Plover, Terek Sandpiper and Greater and Lesser Crested Terns. Following lunch back onshore we will drive to Ankarafantsika National Park, stopping en route at wetlands where Madagascar Pratincole is often seen. After settling in at the Ampijoroa Forestry Station we will start introductory birding around camp including looking for Madagascar Jacana and, if time allows, we will set off on an evening walk.
Day 16 The gently undulating 20000ha Ankarafantsika National Park protects Madagascar's western dry deciduous woodlands. It contains Lake Ravelobe, where we will search, on foot or by boat, for the critically endangered Madagascar Fish-eagle which, with fewer than fifty pairs in existence, is far less common than its African counterpart. Other species here include the endemic Crested Coua together with Humblot’s Heron and Banded Kestrel. 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 will also hope to find Madagascar Ibis, Madagascar Buttonquail, Madagascar Turtle-dove, Madagascar Green-pigeon, Grey-headed Lovebird, Greater Vasa-parrot, Coquerel's and Red-capped Couas, Madagascar Pygmy-kingfisher, Madagascar Hoopoe, Long-billed Bernieria and Madagascar Paradise-flycatcher. A night walk with local guides in search of Torotoroka Scops-owl, nocturnal lemurs and chameleons will be an exciting after-dinner activity. We often see a staggering eight species of lemur on a night walk 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! Our accommodation will be at the Ampijoroa Research Station in simple bungalows. Although the accommodation is rather basic, the restaurant staff will time and again surprise us with excellent fresh, 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 of a last glimpse of Coquerel's Sifaka. These charismatic large lemurs have mixed white and rufous coats, humanlike inquisitive faces and family antics that make them a regular favourite. In the afternoon we will drive to the airport for our evening flight to Tana, where we will spend the night at a hotel close to the airport.
Day 18 We will not have to get up too early this morning as our flight is not until early afternoon, so we will have time for the first leisurely breakfast of the tour! After checking in at the airport and catching our flight we will arrive back in London in the early morning of Day 19.
Days 18–20 TThis morning we will fly from Tana, transfer to a port and, on a small boat, head to the peninsula sheltering the "Baie d'Antongil" on a spectacular journey across the bay. We will pass close to 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. We will soon be exploring the idyllic surrounds and birdlife of the camp which has rather basic bungalows with shared bathroom facilities but a strategic location between the sea and the forest which will maximise birding opportunities. On all three days we will enjoy the wonders of the Masoala Peninsula. It holds some of Madagascar’s rarest birds including Helmet and Bernier's Vangas, Madagascar Serpent-eagle and Madagascar Red Owl, but we will need to be extremely lucky to find the latter three! We will explore the forest trails seeking bird parties which may hold the vangas. The area has the largest primary rainforest tract in Madagascar and we will reacquaint ourselves with many of the eastern rainforest specialities seen earlier in the tour while hoping to be dazzled by the huge electric blue bill of the Helmet Vanga, which will be our main target. The Peregrine Fund is researching the Madagascar Serpent-eagle; sometimes, if they have been able to locate a nest, they allow birders to join them. This would be a unique opportunity but please note that it cannot be guaranteed. While birding, we will 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 21–23 After breakfast we will make the return voyage to Maroantsetra, where we can relax in the afternoon at a pleasant beach-side hotel. Next day we will fly to Tana and stay there overnight before catching an early morning flight back to the UK on Day 23.
General Information The temperature will generally be warm to hot, with rain to be expected at some locations despite the fact that we will be present during the dry season. Humidity can be high. The pace will be easy but the heat may be uncomfortable at times and there will be some long walks up steep and muddy paths. Some days we will split the birding into two sessions with a break at the hotel in the middle of the day for relaxation. Insects are not a major problem. There are a number of health requirements and you must consult your GP in this respect. Accommodation is generally very good and mostly with private facilities.
Group Size Minimum number for tour to go ahead: 7 with one leader; maximum group size: 12 with two or three leaders.