Monday, November 13, 2017

It Takes A Village

The last leg of our epic trip to Madagascar was without the rest of our group as they had different return flights to the States. Susan and I planned to do an extension for a few days and it was just us and our guide JJ. We returned to the Andasibe area in the rain forest a few hours east of Antananarivo. On the way we got great looks at the endemic subspecies of Hammerkop. 

We arrived at the Eulophiella Lodge in the afternoon and after check-in went for a short walk to a nearby pond. A short while later our guide pointed to the sky and suggested we skiddadle back to the lodge. We made it with minutes to spare as the sky opened up. 

Eulophiella Lodge

All was not lost as the rain quit at dark, just in time for a night walk. With the rain comes frogs, and we saw a bunch. Very cool. 

Leaf-tailed Gecko

Mating Stick Insects
The next morning we were off on a hike through the rain forest for one of the most sought after birds in Madagascar - the Helmet Vanga. This species is uncommon, even in its range. We missed our best chance for them when our Masoala segment was cancelled due to Air Madness' ineptitude. This particular vanga had been most recently seen deep in the forest only three days before, and we had to give it a try. The hike was spectacular, in a boot sucking muddy sort of way. The rains of previous days had made the marginal trail a slippery, gooey mess. But we were up to the task with our mud shoes and expert guides. We trekked 4 miles into the forest, loving every minute of it. 

When we reached the locations, our two local guides - Nestor and Abraham, left us to scour the untrailed forest while we waited... and waited. No vanga. After a couple of hours we all gave up and trudged very disappointed back to the car. After a nice lunch by the river we all piled in to the car. Our driver Andre turned the key - nothing. Uh oh. It's unclear exactly what ran the battery down, but dead it was. And we were miles from civilization. Luckily it was a clutch vehicle that can be bump started if you can get it moving fast enough. The four of us tried to push it up the hill but couldn't get it moving. Andre knew there was a small village close by and ran off to enlist some help. 15 minutes later he was back with a bunch of strapping young Malagasy fellows who made short work of pushing the car up the hill. Andre let it roll back down, dumped the clutch, and she started! Whew!

The rest of the day was lost to another epic rain forest rain storm (it takes a lot of rain to get 250 inches of rain per year). Even our night walk had to be scrubbed because the rain wouldn't give it up in time. 

The decision was made to give it another try for the vanga the next day. Local guide Nestor knows this forest better than anyone, living and guiding here his whole life. He was certain the bird was there and could be found. Why not, we may not get another try in this lifetime. We made the walk on even muddier trails in the morning, this time joined by at least two other birding groups. Nestor said that at one point there were 10 guides and spotters in the forest looking for the vanga. We made it to the spot first. While Susan, JJ, and I waited, our guys went looking. An hour later we heard some yelling from up the hill. Nestor and Abraham had spotted the bird in a brief fly-by. Up the hill we went, splashing and thrashing through the forest. Nestor put us in the spot they saw the bird and we waited while they went and looked around some more. After about 10 minutes of patient scanning I saw a bird come in and perch above my head. I put up my bins and WOW!, a Helmet Vanga!

We had the pleasure of viewing this incredible bird for over 15 minutes as he ate a cicada and preened on this perch. It was pretty amazing. The hike back was very upbeat! Our last evening walk produced lots more frogs too.

Our last day had us at a highland marsh searching for great birds and a very rare amphibian. The tiny Madagascar Golden Frog is one of the rarest amphibians on the planet.

The rest of the morning was spent slogging around the marsh in search of Madagascar Snipe (a very large snipe), Madagascar Flufftail (an awesomely colored secretive rail), and Grey Emu-tail (a hide-and-seek swamp warbler). 

Madagascar Flufftail
And now we make our way back to North America. Hopefully our return journey goes better than our trip this direction so long ago...

Wednesday, November 8, 2017


A while back Susan had me read "Lords and Lemurs," by Alison Jolly (the Jane Goodall of Lemurs). The story revolves around Jolly's life studying lemurs at Berenty in the south of Madagascar, but also about the saving of natural habitat, politics, and history of the area from the 1930's to the end of the 20th century. Little did I know at the time that I would spend most of three days there. Berenty is a working Sisal farm (agave used for fiber) and a nature reserve. There is a lodge now doing a thriving eco-tourism business as well. And it is a beautiful area with native spiny and gallery (riparian) forests full of birds and lemurs. 

To get to Berenty there is a 90 kilometer road that takes all of three hours to negotiate. It was paved in 1950 and hasn't been maintained since. I will never again complain about potholes on a road in the US. 

The bridge is patched together by the local villagers with tree branches

The ring-tailed lemurs are the stars of the show with their antics and semi-habituation to visitors. As strict no-feeding policy helps to at least keep the appearance of wildness. But the little buggers are just so cute, especially when lounging in the shade of the deck chair on the back porch of our bungalow. Also of special interest are the "Dancing Lemurs" or Verraux's Sifaka. This lemur is not capable of walking, so when moving from one tree area to another they jump, or dance, in a most hilarious fashion. We never tired of watching the lemurs and will miss them immensely. 

Local guide Olivier and tour guide JJ

Adult stage of Antlion, a really big one!

Brown Mouse Lemur

Hook-billed Vanga adult and juvenile

Lesser Vasa Parrot

Madagascar Kestrel

Madagascar Scops Owl

Red-capped Coua

Red-fronted Brown Lemur

Red-fronted Brown Lemur

Ring-tailed Lemur

Ring-tailed Lemur

Ring-tailed Lemur

Ring-tailed Lemur

Ring-tailed Lemur


Verreaux's Sifaka

Verreaux's Sifaka

Verreaux's Sifaka

Verreaux's Sifaka

Verreaux's Sifaka

Verreaux's Sifaka

White-browed Owl

White-footed Sportive Lemur

Yellow-billed Kite

We are back in Fort Dauphin to fly to the capital city in the morning. If all goes properly we will leave the next morning for our last segment of the tour, a few more days in the rain forest.