17 November–7 December 2017
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 and we will see the majority of them. But the wonder of Madagascar extends well beyond its avifauna and we will see lemurs, chameleons and other incredible reptiles, some of the world's strangest insects and many endemic plants. A post-tour extension is available.
Day 1 Overnight flight from London to Antanarivo (Tana).
Day 2 Arrival in Tana mid-afternoon where there may be a chance for some local birding before overnight at an airport hotel.
Day 3 Early morning internal flight to Toliara. This will provide us with splendid aerial views of the southern coast. From the airport we will drive into the arid hillsides north of the town that 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 lunch, we will drive north towards the beach resort town of Ifaty birding en route. 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’s Tern. In the evening, as it gets dusk, Madagascar Nightjars can be seen around the hotel.
Day 4 Ifaty is a popular place for birders. Its famous Reniala 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, and 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 can either revisit the spiny forest if we still need any endemics or the nearby mudflats and saltpans looking for Madagascar Plover and other waders, herons and terns whilst back at the hotel Grey-headed Lovebird, Madagascar Magpie-robin, Madagascar Bulbul and Madagascar Munia can all be found.
Day 5 To ensure we get there before it gets too hot we will make a very early start to drive back to Toliara, and then on to Zombitse National Park, stopping at the Madagascar Sandgrouse site en route. Both Madagascar Larks and Madagascar Cisticolas are common here. Arriving at Zombitse, one of the highlights are Cuckoo-rollers displaying over the canopy, 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, ruiniform 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, Madagascar Coucal, Madagascar Starling and Benson’s Rock-thrush. 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 that 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 7–9 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 hectares 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, and Cryptic Warbler (discovered in 1996!) occurs 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.
Day 10 After our final early morning in search of any specialities that may have eluded us we will make the long return drive 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 Madagascar Grebe, France’s Goshawk, Madagascar Sparrowhawk, Madagascar Cuckoo-hawk, Madagascar Flufftail, Madagascar Rail, 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, Nuthatch-vanga, Grey-crowned and Spectacled Tetrakas, Madagascar White-eye, Sunbird Asity, 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, and 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. 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 Early morning we will drive to the reserve of Antavolobe where Helmet Vanga has recently been discovered. After searching for and hopefully seeing this spectacular species we will drive back towards Antananarivo stopping en route at a restaurant for lunch before arriving in the late afternoon. Overnight in Antananarivo.
Day 15 With flights to Mahajanga frequently overbooked or cancelled at the last minute (we experienced this ourselves on a previous tour), we have little option to make the very long drive northwest to Mahajanga. It is a long drive but we will make regular comfort stops or stop if we see interesting birds. We will arrive in Mahajanga, Madagascar's second most important seaport, in the evening where we will enjoy some good French cuisine and a relaxing overnight stay.
Day 16 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, Terek Sandpiper and Great 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 park including looking for Madagascar Jacana and, if time allows, we will set off on an evening walk. Although the accommodation is rather basic, the restaurant staff will time and again surprise us with excellent fresh, tropical meals. Three nights Ampijoroa Research Station in simple bungalows.
Days 17–18 The gently undulating 20000-hectare 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 found around the lakes include the endemic Humblot’s Heron, Madagascar Jacana and Crested Coua. We will spend most of our two full days here 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 Buttonquail, Madagascar Turtle-dove, Madagascar Green-pigeon, Greater Vasa-parrot, Coquerel's and Red-capped Couas, 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!
Day 19 During our last early 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. We will then start the long drive back towards Antananarivo breaking the journey wherever we see any interesting birds. Overnight Antananarivo.
Day 20 After a more leisurely breakfast to which we are used to, we will visit the nearby Tsararasaotra reserve. This is really like a city wetland park and literally teams with birds. This is probably the best place to see the declining Madagascar Pond-heron in with its more numerous cousins, Squacco Heron, and be able to distinguish the finer plumage details as they are often almost indistinguishable in non-breeding plumage. Ducks may include White-faced Whistling-duck and Hottentot and Red-billed Teal. After lunch, we will drive to an airport hotel where day rooms are available for us to wash and change before dinner and departing for the airport late evening flight back to London arriving on Day 21.
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. Some days will include long drives.
Group Size Minimum number for tour to go ahead: 7 with one leader; maximum group size: 13 with two leaders.