Written by Steve Braine
A wonderful trip with exceptional folks started in Antananarivo eventually came to a rather abrupt end after 19 days. Although an extensive area was covered by vehicle on pretty decent roads we also had three separate internal flights, the first from Toliara back to Antananarivo, the following day from Antananarivo to Morondava and the last leg was a flight from Antananarivo via Toamasina to Maroansetra. From Maroansetra an exciting 2-hour boat ride to Masoala peninsula was undertaken. On returning from Masoala we had another 2 hours boat drive to Nosy Mangabe where we spent the last night camping on the island. Although the camping and ablutions were basic, this night proved to be the most exciting with Brookesia Chameleons and a welcoming party of White-fronted Brown Lemurs as we arrived. A most productive night walk that evening with many Leaf-tailed Geckos, Mouse Lemurs and to top it all, the rare Aye Aye was the biggest surprise, this will remain as one of the many highlights of a wonderful trip.
I have re checked several of the Mouse Lemur species and compared distributions and photographs to verify some of our sightings. On several occasions the incorrect species names were given and these have been corrected especially those with good identifiable characteristics etc. I have taken information from The Handbook of Mammals of the World – Volume 3, Primates (2013). Here certain species are given different names such as the Common Bamboo Lemur has been named Grey Bamboo Lemur but the genus and species remain the same.
Taking the above into consideration we saw four different species of Mouse Lemurs with identifiable photographs of three of these. There were also a couple of others that could have been of another species such as the brief views and shining eyes of those seen way up in the canopy at Masoala and elsewhere.
The Grey Bamboo Lemur Hapalemurgrisensis divided into three subspecies which were given as full species in other literature. We saw them on Lemur Island as Common Brown Lemur. Another interesting fact is that in 1966 4 males and 5 female Aye Ayes were captured and released on Nosy Mangabe as an effort to conserve these species, at that stage thought to be on the brink of extinction. 51 years later we were privileged to see the animal on the island.
A list of the Lemurs and Birds are given below as well as the reptiles positively identified.
After our meeting in Johannesburg and the following morning flight, the tour started at the Ivato Airport, Antananarivo (Tana) where we were met by our guide and chaperone for the entire trip.
The following day to day breakdown of the tour with accompanying photographs starts at about 14h00 on the 28 April 2017 at the Tana airport.
After completing all the airport formalities and exchanging Euros to Ariarys we headed through the Tana traffic and drove south to the town of Antsirabe where we had dinner and overnighted in the Le Royal Palace, this was a bit of an unexpected quality of the hotel that none of us were expecting after traveling through the poverty-stricken rural areas.
En route we admired the continuous green fields and rice paddies with the people seemingly all at work. No natural vegetation was evident, and birdlife seemed minimal with only Pied Crow, Great White & Dimorphic Egrets and the occasional Hamerkop being seen from the vehicle. Malagasy Red Fody’s were common as were the ever-present introduced Common (Indian) Minors.
After breakfast we went for a short walk through part of Antsirabe, the third-largest city in the country, also known as the poussepousse city of Madagascar with hundreds of colorful rickshaws. After visiting the local food market which comprised of a huge variety of fresh fruit, vegetables, herbs, spices, rice, etc and open-air butcher shops, an eye-opener to all of us we continued with the long journey on to Ranomafana. Along the route, we stopped a couple of times to stretch our legs and at one stop we saw our first Madagascan Buzzard flying overhead as well as Malagasy Kestrel, Pied Crow, a pair of Malagasy Bulbuls and a good view of a male Forest Rock-thrush. Along the route, the fields and rice paddies continued as before with the same bird species as seen the day before.
Not long after our lunch stop, we encountered a large truck that had “jackknifed” and blocked the entire road. Here again, Ernest came to the rescue, he not only orchestrated but helped with the unloading of 15 tons of soap powder! After this, the truck could be pulled over so that traffic could continue to flow. This, unfortunately, caused a four-hour delay; the weather was damp and wet and after dinner, with a few glasses of sleeping “muti” we all retired for the night.
The rain had not abated for the whole night and continued through breakfast, we, however, managed to see a drenched Madagascan Coucal before departing to the Ranomafana National Park entrance. Here we were to meet our local guides for the morning walk in the park, we were all pretty much drenched on the start of the walk but this did not deter us. Shortly after commencing the walk the guides pointed out a curious-looking Giraffe-necked Weevil which took a while for all to see.
Shortly after this, we saw two Velvet Asitys but unfortunately no colorful males. After a steep and slippery hike the guides pointed out our first lemur of the trip a Greater Bamboo Lemur.
Afterward, we observed the rare Golden Bamboo Lemur feeding on bamboo which was obviously put out for them. Nearby the amazing Satanic Leaf-tailed Gecko (Uroplatusphantasticus) was pointed out to us and fantastic it was an absolute perfect replica of dried leaves, an evolutionary wonder.
Birding in the incessant rain was not rewarding at all, although we had a good look at a perched Madagascan Buzzard just before commencing on the walk, generally, the birds were lying low in the rain. We saw Spectacled Tetraka a little further along the route, and after the walk being thoroughly drenched we returned to our accommodation for lunch. At the hotel we also saw our first of the Phelsuma Gecko group; these are often bright green while other species have red spots in total contrast to our species of the Namib. Before dinner, we picked up our guides and traveled up the mountain and spent about 1.5 hours on our first-night walk in Madagascar. We managed good views of Rufous Mouse Lemur and three species of Chameleon, the largest being Oustalet’s which we were to see a lot more during the tour. Many other smaller species were also seen but not identified.
Once again, we left after breakfast for a long drive to Isalo where we were to spend the next two nights. We passed through Fianarantsoa for tea and some shopping. This was the start of much retail therapy which kept some of the party from withdrawals while on tour.
We also stopped in at Ambalavao, the location of the largest Zebu market in Madagascar where herdsmen come to trade their cattle after walking their herds from virtually every part of the country. We had an interesting visit to the Antaimoro open-air paper making factory. Here we could enjoy a little more retail therapy at the shop on the premises before leaving for the Anja Reserve where we enjoyed our picnic lunch before going on a short walk to look for birds and lemurs.
The Anja Community Reserve is a woodland area with a nearby freshwater lake, situated at the base of a large cliff. Shortly after commencing we came across yet another Oustalet’s Chameleon and a group of feeding Ring-tailed Lemurs. There were Malagasy Bulbuls in the trees and at a nearby lily-filled lake the first Malagasy Kingfisher. We heard another group of Lemurs and shortly afterward came across a playful group playing in the open fields alongside the lake. Here we spent some time enjoying their presence and everyone took numerous pictures as the animals played and frolicked in front of us. After this we continued with our journey towards Isalo, only reaching the Isalo Ranch in the dark.
The scenery changed after climbing up a winding pass to open grassland savanna where we saw large flocks of Pied Crows and several Madagascan Larks flying up next to the vehicle as we rushed along. After booking in we had dinner and spent our first of two nights at the Isalo Ranch near the village of Ranohira.
After breakfast we headed for the Isalo National Park. We had a brief stop at the Ranohira Village, the entrance to the Park. Here we also met our guide for the day, Maki. The bus stopped at the bottom of the massif and we started our walk in an awe-inspiring landscape with quirky eroded sandstone outcrops as well as some interesting vegetation including the unique bulbous Elephant’s Foot plant, (Pachypodiumrossulatum), one of the many endemics to the country.
Lunch was prepared by the local community at a campsite, our first and only barbeque for the trip and the Red-fronted Brown and Ring-tailed Lemurs kept us entertained leaping through the trees with fantastic views for all to see.
Interesting birds included Malagasy Bulbul, Grey-headed Lovebirds, Common Jery, Forest Rock Thrush, and at the campsite Madagascan Buttonquail, a Cuckoo Roller as well as some colorful butterflies. The only Lineated Chameleon for the trip was also seen on the hike as well as the only snake an unidentified sand snake.
On our return we dropped the guide as well as our lunch hosts at the Rinohira village, talking about taking everything but the kitchen sink (which they also had)! They certainly did an outstanding job with the catering. We then returned to Isalo Ranch and after a delicious dinner we all turned in to prepare for another long day towards Toliara and on to Ifaty where we stayed in Bamboo Lodge on the shoreline.
After leaving the Isalo Ranch we traveled through some spectacular scenery with exquisite rock formations and open plains which eventually became scattered with palms.
We then passed through a few Sapphire mining towns and briefly stopped at Zombitse forest where we saw our first Greater Vasa Parrots and some great butterflies before heading on to Toliary for lunch. Just before Toliary we did a short walk to try and find the rare Verreaux’s Coua without success, but we found another Oustalet’s Chameleon and a Malagasy Coucal.
After lunch we continued onto the Bamboo Club for the night. A short walk into the spiny forest gave us views of Crested Drongo, Crested and Green-capped Couas, Madagascan Magpie Robin, Madagascan Hoopoe and Sakalava Weavers out of breeding plumage, also a very well camouflaged Madagascan Nightjar.
After dinner, some of us did a short night walk and found a few Grey Mouse Lemurs and 2 species of Chameleonalso several Madagascan Nightjars flying and calling in the campgrounds.
An early morning walk through the same spiny forest delivered good birds included smashing views of the elusive and rare Longtailed Ground Roller, Subdesert Mesite, Running Coua and Common Newtonia. Other species included Chabert’s Vanga, a female Red-tailed Vanga and several Crested Drongos and Namaqua Doves.
The spiny forest vegetation comprising of Baobabs, Didierea(Octopus plant), Aulluaudia, Euphorbias, Pachypodiums and other interesting plants will stay with us for a long time.
After leaving the spiny forest we stopped along the way at some saline pools to search for the Madagascan Plover without any success we, however, saw several Kittlitz’s Plovers, a few Black-winged Stilts, Malagasy Kestrel and the normal Pied Crows. We then traveled on to Toliary to catch our flight back to Tana where we spent the night in the Gassy Hotel. In the gardens, we recorded Madagascan Wagtail, Madagascan Red Fody, Madagascan Bee-eaters, Malagasy Green and Souimanga Sunbird and Madagascan Stone-chat, Striped-throated Jerry, Madagascan Nightjar and Madagascan Bulbul. We also photographed an Oustalet’s Chameleon.
We learned from Ernest our guide the night before that our flights today were changed and the group was split into two, with a very early departure for some and ours departed around 11h00 for Morandava.
On arrival we met up with the rest of the group and headed off straight away for Kirindy. En route we stopped at the Avenue of Baobabs, this cluster of towering Grandidier’s baobabs is one of Madagascar’s most famous tourist and photographic spots, here we had lunch on the first trip through and photographed late afternoon on return while having lunch we saw several Sooty Falcons and Malagasy Kestrel. These Boababs are made up primarily of (Adansoniagrandidieri) and a few(A. ruprostipa). From here the Baobabs continued and we saw about 30 Sooty Falcons in total, Malagasy Kestrels, many Pied Crows, Namaqua Doves as well as Crested Drongo’s and Greater Vasa Parrots.
On arrival at the Kirindy Eco Lodge, operated by the Malagasy government through their national parks services department, we were welcomed by the rare and nocturnal Fossa, the largest carnivorous mammal on the island of Madagascar. We followed it and were led to another. These were the only two of these species seen on the entire trip. A late afternoon walk into the night delivered the only Labord’s Chameleon of the trip. We also saw Red-tailed Dwarf Lemur, Fat-tailed Dwarf Lemur and Grey Mouse Lemurs. The night walk gave us superb views of roosting Blue and Rufous Vangas and several nocturnal Lemurs before returning for Dinner.
Just after going to bed Ernest, our guide called to say there was a Giant Jumping Rat in the grounds. Some of us jumped up and by the time we arrived the animal had disappeared. We then decided to call up White-browed Hawk Owl and after a while had splendid views of the bird. Soon afterward we photographed a mouse lemur which turned out to be Madam Berthe’s Mouse Lemur, the smallest primate in the world.
After a short walk along the road, we returned to go to bed and found not one BUT two Giant Jumping Rats in the campgrounds. A full and exciting day had ended, and it was “now” time to retire, however, the snorts and grunts of Giant jumping Rats and Fossa’s made it difficult to fall asleep.
Another morning walk was extremely productive with excellent views of Verreaux’s Sifaka, a snoozing Red-tailed Dwarf Lemur and more red-fronted Brown Lemurs. Birds included Chabert’s, Blue and Chestnut Vangas, Giant and Coquerel’s Couas and the elusive White-breasted Mesite. We left after lunch and visited the Baobabs Amoureux, the entwined Baobabs near the Avenue of Baobabs and arrived at the avenue at sunset for a photographic session, the following pictures tell the story. We arrived well after dark in Morondava where we enjoyed a late dinner and then prepared for the next leg.
During breakfast we had good views of Dimorphic Heron, Madagascar Manikins in the garden and Madagascan Swamp Warbler in the surrounding mangroves, mudskippers and Mangrove Crabs were also observed here. We bought lunch for the road and proceeded on another long days’ driving to Antsirabe. We traveled through some spectacular Borassus Palm copses and had our lunch under huge Mango trees. While having our lunch we had a group of Grey-headed Lovebirds, Red Fody and six Madagascan Sandgrouse fly by. We then traveled on to Antsirabe stopping a couple of times to stretch our legs once again arriving at the Hasina Hotel after dark.
After breakfast we departed for Andasibe passing nearby Tana again. We enjoyed a picnic lunch along the way arriving in Andasibe in time for a night walk. The walk was not very productive, and we saw some lemur eyes and Goodman’s Mouse Lemur, some frogs and a few chameleons. We heard Rainforest Scops Owl but were not able to locate and see the bird.
After breakfast we walked in the forest to search for Lemurs and Indri at the Perinet Reserve. After hearing the eerie call of the Indri some animals were located and good views were obtained.
A while later a group of Diademed Sifaka were located and some time was used to observe these beautiful primates in their natural habitat. Birds seen while on the walk included Ward Flycatcher-Vanga, Red-tailed Newtonia, Crested Drongo and several Malagasy White-eyes. We returned to Feon’ny Ala for lunch and then proceeded to Lemur Island in the Vakona Reserve, here we had intimate encounters with Brown Lemurs, Grey Bamboo Lemurs as well as Black-and-White Ruffed Lemurs before returning to our accommodation and dinner.
After acquiring some avocados and fruit for lunch we proceeded towards Tana, stopping at the Exotic Park en route not only to have our picnic lunch but included a short hike up a mountain to observe some semi-habituated Coquerel’s Sifaka, one of the most stunning of the group originally brought in from the west but free ranging and not caged.
A very interesting visit to some of the reptile enclosures with a local guide provided us with close-up views and excellent photographic opportunities of several rare Madagascar reptiles was had with the largest Parson’s Chameleon and one of the smallest Brookesia species being some of these. Other species such as the Tomato Frog and Red Mantella Frog were also shown to usas well as Common Tenrecs were seen up close.
On arrival in Tana we were once again informed about a change in our flight schedule the next day.
Due to the delay in our flight, we spend most of the morning in the gardens at the IC Hotel. We were then transferred to the airport for our flight to Maroantsetra. We were then transferred to Hippo camp our hotel for the night which turned into a very festive night with some rum tasting.
A quick stroll to the beach before leaving for Masoala delivered a Madagascar Coucal and Common Moorhen.
We were then picked up by vehicle and had a boat transfer to Masoala and on to Dounia Forest Lodge. We traveled from the port upriver to the Indian Ocean and passed Nosy Mangabe and observed hundreds of Great Egrets and Purple Herons at a roost on the island. From there we traveled onwards to Masoala, en route we observed many Lesser Crested Terns, a few Wilson’s Storm Petrels and Brown Noddy, some distant dolphins were seen but the species not determined.
We arrived in the rain at Dounia Forest Lodge, our accommodation for the next 3 nights. After checking in and having lunch we commenced with a late afternoon/night walk and found Madagascan Pygmy Kingfisher and saw some distant Lemur eyes, which were not identifiable, a slight drizzle pursued and on returning we had views of Blue Coua in the campgrounds.
An early morning walk with a few of the birders proved to be successful in locating Scaly Ground Roller before returning to breakfast with the rest of the group. After breakfast a similar route was followed to locate the localized and enigmatic Helmet Vanga. Not only was the Vanga found in wonderful light but we had brief views of the rare and secretive Brown Mesite then after a successful and rather wet morning we returned for lunch.
After lunch we continued our activity in a different direction to look for the rare and localized Red-ruffed Lemur. After climbing a fair distance through the forest, the guides searched for these rare animals without success however on a few locations we had excellent bird watching opportunities with further good sightings of Helmet Vanga and views of Ring-tailed Mongoose. Other interesting birds included the rare and difficult to see Berniers, White-headed, Blue, Tylasand Chabert Vangas were also seen, Grey-crowned Tetraka and White-throated Oxylabes were also called in. En route back to the camp Red-breasted Coua and excellent views of Short-legged Ground Roller were had. At the same time on of the group noticed a movement in the canopy and there were the Red-ruffed Lemurs in all their glory. Three individuals which gave us all very good views for about half an hour as well as they frolicked and fed on fruits and leaves in the canopy above us. The Blue Coua once again greeted us on arrival back in camp. On returning to camp we thought it could not get any better and before dinner another night walk provided us with sightings of Masoala Sportive Lemur, Fat-tailed Dwarf Lemur, Greater Dwarf Lemur and Rufous Mouse Lemur as well as close views of Rainforest Scops Owl.
Most of the day was spent by walking a forested area from a beach a distance from the lodge, where we were transported by short boat trip. Some fold spent time on the beach while other walked sections of the forest. The day was not all that productive although one group had a sighting of Red-fronted Coua as well as more Helmet Vangas. Some enjoyed the beach and sun while others enjoyed some swimming and snorkeling in the clear waters. A picnic lunch was enjoyed on the beach and we all returned by boat to our lodge mid-afternoon. We enjoyed our last dinner at Masoala and prepared for camping at Nosy Mangabe the next night.
We were ferried by boat to Nosy Mangabe passing a small island with Flying Foxes.
After lunch and finding our respective tents and campsite we all enjoyed the White-fronted Lemurs welcoming party. These endearing lemurs spent most of the time entertaining us while in the camp. We did an afternoon walk and saw Madagascan Pygmy Kingfisher, white morph Madagascar Paradise Flycatcher and some interesting flowers.
An evening walk provided us with no less than 11 leaf-tailed Geckos Uroplatusspand the smallest reptile in the world, the Brookesia Chameleon, frogs of various kinds and near the end of the walk the strange and most rarely seen the Aye Aye.
On our return, we had dinner and prepared for leaving the island the following day. The camping proved challenging as everyone was pretty tired and the inflatable mattresses were not inflated, this proved a bit of a challenge with inflating with pure lung pressure, this together with associated grunts and other noises caused some intense laughing for a short while, needless to say all got some sleep and will no double not forget their night out camping on this remote and exquisite forested island.
A boat transfer after breakfast to the awaiting bus then took us to the Maroantsetra for our return flight to Tana. Our road transfer from the airport to the hotel took us through the noisy and chaotic traffic of Tana. This being a constant reminder of the peace and tranquillity of the island life and Masoala for the past 4 nights.
The morning was spent in the city looking at some of the historic features of the city. The queen’s palace and associated history with a well-informed guide. A Peregrine Falcon and bright green Phelsuma geckos have observed on the ruins a distant reminder that these have been forests a hundred years prior.
We could only hope that the few remaining pristine areas we had visited with their uniquely adapted fauna will still be around for our grandchildren to enjoy as we did.
The flight back to Johannesburg ended our memorable stay in Madagascar and I have no doubt that some of us will return someday in the near future.
Systematic list of mammals and birds seen while on the trip in Madagascar
Order Lypotyphla Family Tenrecidae
Common Tenrec Tenrec ecaudatus
Lowland streaked tenrec Hemicentetessemispinosus
Order Chiroptera Family Pteropodidae
Madagascar flying fox Pteropusrufus
Unidentified small bat
Order Primates Family Cheirogaleidae
Grey mouse lemur Microcebusmurinus
Brown mouse lemur Microcebusrufus
Northern rufous mouse lemur Microcebustavaratra
Goodman’s mouse lemur Microcebuslehilahytsara
Pale fork-marked lemur Phanerpallescens
Red-tailed sportive lemur Lepilemurruficaudatus
White-footed sportive lemur Lepilemurlaucopus
Golden bamboo lemur Hapalemur aureus
Greater bamboo lemur Hapalemursimus
Ring-tailed lemur Lemur catta
Common brown lemur Eulemurfulvus
White-fronted brown lemur Eulemuralbifrons
Red-fronted brown lemur Eulemurrufus
Black-and-white ruffed lemur Varecia variegate
Red ruffed lemur Vareciarubra
Diademed sifaka Propithecusdiademae
Coquerel’s sifaka Propithecuscoquereli
Verreaux’s sifaka Propithecusverreauxi
Indri Indri indri
Ring-tailed mongoose Galidiaelegans
Giant jumping rat Hypogeomysantimena
Wilson’s storm petrel
Malagasy pond heron
Madagascar crested ibis (seen only by two persons)
White-faced whistling duck
Lesser crested tern
Madagascar turtle dove
Madagascar blue pigeon
Greater vasa parrot
Lesser vasa parrot
Madagascar scops owl
White-browed Hawk Owl
Madagascar spine-tailed swift
African palm swift
Madagascar black swift
Madagascar pygmy kingfisher
Madagascar magpie robin
Madagascar swamp warbler
Madagascar paradise flycatcher
Madagascar green sunbird
Madagascar crested drongo
Madagascar red fody