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Forest of the Sifaka

Forest of the Sifaka Birding in North-western Madagascar

Waking slowly, stretching languidly and reaching out their arms to take in the warmth of the early morning rays of sun, beautiful with their clean white fur contrasting with deep russet arms and thighs and ridiculously cute black “teddy-bear” faces with bright, burning amber, eyes. The Coquerel’s subspecies of Verreaux’s Sifaka is truly a beautiful animal and a wonderful vision with which to start any day. Daybreak in a new land is always exciting for the species hungry foreign birder, to wake a dawn in such a wonderfully bizarre location totally exhilarating. So it passed on August 4th, 1995 that Jeff Blincow, Nigel Goodgame and Mark Piper emerged from their tents amongst the western deciduous forest of Ampijoroa reserve, Northern Madagascar.

Madagascar is an island continent that broke away from Africa more than 120 million years ago with the result that it’s flora and fauna has developed in isolation to achieve an incredible level of endemism. It is a huge island 994 miles long by 360 miles broad at it’s widest point with a moist eastern escarpment rising to 2800 metres. Flora and fauna statistics are breathtaking, no fewer than ninety percent of it’s forest species are endemic, out of a total of 200000 living species no fewer than 150000 are unique to this island. There are 8 species of Baobab tree as opposed to only one in Africa, 450 species of frog, 260 species of reptile, 180 species of lizard, the figures go on and on. No fewer than 105 species of bird are endemic to the island with another 25 species endemic to the Malagasy region ( Madagascar, the Comoros, Mauritius, Reunion and their satellite islands ), more impressively no fewer than six endemic families occur – mesites, couas, ground rollers, cuckoo rollers, asities and vangas. The total figure of 256 species recorded on the island is poor not only in comparison with African bird diversity at the same latitude but when compared with other large tropical islands such as Borneo. However the level of endemism is very high and the island is a must for birders keen to sample as much of the planet’s bird diversity as possible.

Ampijoroa forestry station lies 71 miles south of Mahajanga in the north of the island. This station covers 49,500 acres of western domain deciduous forest on sandy soils at altitudes of 75-390 metres. Conservation of this forest is vital not only in the protection of it’s unique flora and fauna but also as a water-catchment area, it’s destruction would ruin productive rice growing areas downstream. Habitat consists of western deciduous forest, dense but with a low canopy, with sparse ground cover. We were present in the dry season so most of the trees had shed their leaves enabling relatively easy bird and mammal watching. This site can only boast a list of 103 species, as all Madagascar sites the avifauna is impoverished when compared with nearby East Africa, nevertheless what it lacks in quantity it more than matches in quality. Key target species at this site, species restricted to western domain forest, are Madagascar fish-eagle, White-breasted Mesite, and Van Dam’s Vanga. Needless to say we were extremely keen to encounter these birds and it was three very enthusiastic birders who had arrived the previous evening with just enough daylight to secure views of Madagascar Fish-eagle.

Ampijoroa forestry station lies 71 miles south of Mahajanga in the north of the island. This station covers 49,500 acres of western domain deciduous forest on sandy soils at altitudes of 75-390 metres. Conservation of this forest is vital not only in the protection of it’s unique flora and fauna but also as a water-catchment area, it’s destruction would ruin productive rice growing areas downstream. Habitat consists of western deciduous forest, dense but with a low canopy, with sparse ground cover. We were present in the dry season so most of the trees had shed their leaves enabling relatively easy bird and mammal watching. This site can only boast a list of 103 species, as all Madagascar sites the avifauna is impoverished when compared with nearby East Africa, nevertheless what it lacks in quantity it more than matches in quality. Key target species at this site, species restricted to western domain forest, are Madagascar fish-eagle, White-breasted Mesite, and Van Dam’s Vanga. Needless to say we were extremely keen to encounter these birds and it was three very enthusiastic birders who had arrived the previous evening with just enough daylight to secure views of Madagascar Fish-eagle.

Initial exploration of a nearby lake, a known site for the Eagle, had quickly delivered views of an adult perched and in flight. Follow-up visits to the lake over the next two days gave excellent studies of this imperious raptor, similar to it’s African cousin but with a dingier brown plumage and grey head. Direct persecution and habitat alteration has reduced the population of this proud bird to just 40 pairs restricted to the lakes, rivers and shorelines of the north west corner of the island, not surprisingly this species has an I.U.C.N. status of critical. Other birds around the lake included good numbers of Madagascar Bee-eater hawking insects and what was to become a regular Malagasy Kingfisher, almost identical to Malachite Kingfisher but for it’s dark bill and greener crest. As you can already see not much imagination was employed in naming many of these endemic birds!! Lazing Crocodiles in the shallows and busy Kittlitz and Three-banded Plovers evoked memories of Africa, Common Sandpipers and Greenshanks a particularly good day at Hollowell Reservoir in Northamptonshire!!

Back at the campsite we began to familiarise ourselves with the commoner endemic species – cheeky Grey-headed Lovebirds , rather dull Long-billed green sunbirds, beautiful Madagascar paradise flycatchers and bold Crested Drongos with their “punk” forehead feather tufts. All these species, like most of Madagascar’s, have Afro-tropical affinities, not surprising with the island only some 186 miles off the coast of Mozambique. However another common species around the campsite, the Madagascar Bulbul, has affinities with the Oriental region illustrating the complexity of colonisation, evolution and isolation in the formation of any island avian community. That evening we observed our first Vanga of the trip, Chabert’s Vanga, a beautiful little pied bird with bright blue orbital eye ring.

Spotlighting for lemurs is a must on any visit to Madagascar and a brief foray into the darkness revealed several Milne-Edwards Sportive Lemurs and a Western Grey Mouse Lemur. The sportive lemurs are smallish grey-brown creatures with a small round head, flattish face, sticky-out round ears and a long bushy tail. It has large goggling eyes giving what has cruelly been described in various books as a “vacant expression”. The mouse lemurs are amongst the smallest primates in the world, sensitive pointed noses, large eyes, long thin tails and a body slightly larger than a mouse, both these lemurs are nocturnal. The lemurs are a fascinating group of mammals and the most famous feature of this island, for most eco-tourists Madagascar means lemurs. Many millions of years ago there were lemur-type creatures all over the world, evidently some individuals managed to cross a young and still narrow Mozambique channel to the island where lack of competition and a variety of habitats lead to a flourishing diversity of forms. Back on the major landmasses, some 30 million years ago, monkeys evolved and, with their greater intelligence and physical attributes, they quickly upstaged the lemur-like primates. Thankfully no monkeys made it across the by then wide Mozambique channel so lemurs were left unhindered in their own evolution. Today some 30 species, depending on which taxonomy you choose to use, survive with incredibly 3 species discovered in the last 10 years. Alas some 12 species have become extinct, we can only imagine what the gorilla-sized Megaladapis looked like.

Dawn next morning found us stumbling in the halflight, eyes strained, ears trying to make sense of every unfamiliar sound. Busy little Common Newtonias, grey above with a rosy tint below, probing the canopies with companion yellow-green Common Jeries. These two species were very much the mainstay of mixed feeding flocks in the forest, so unfamiliar before but destined rapidly to be exclaimed as “just another ……”. A beautiful song, linked phrases of melodic trills, and out pops a Madagascar Magpie-Robin. This is a common and widespread forest bird and yet another species with affinities to the Oriental region. “Wa-ahh, wa-ahh, wa-ahh””, a choir of babies screaming from the treetops, what the hell!! Wow, look at that, unbelievable!! One of our most eagerly anticipated birds, a flock of excited Sickle-billed Vangas. A foot in length, white head and underparts, dark upperparts and a preposterously long and decurved bill. One second they are in view howling from the canopy, the next gone and just a memory. Magical moments like this explain the lure of birding, precious segments of time, unexpected chance encounters of pure magic. Family groups of Coquerel’s Sifaka watched us from the safety of the treetops, we encountered good numbers of this extraordinary animal. Slow methodical scanning of the forest floor eventually gave views of Red-capped Coua moving slowly and deliberately through the dry leaf litter. The couas are a subfamily within the cuckoo family with a total of nine species endemic to the island. All are medium-sized birds ranging from 38 cms to 62 cms in length with short rounded wings, long, stiff tail, and fleshy skin around the eyes. The majority of species are terrestrial. Red-capped Coua is a typically smart coua with rufous head, ultramarine blue skin around the eye, pale throat, maroon neck, light brown upperparts and rufous-tan underparts with maroon chest. Yet another stunner with an unfamiliar family name, how exciting to be proclaiming birds such as “Vanga”, “Coua”,”Newtonia” and “Jery”!

Slowly we headed towards the low plateau area of forest, a known area for White-breasted Mesite and Van Dam’s Vanga. With each step the avifauna jigsaw of this site is slowly pieced together, Madagascar Turtle Doves preening on exposed branches, Namaqua Doves flushed from sandy trails, lumbering Madagascar Coucals in the thickets, gregarious Long-billed Greenbuls and active little Souimanga Sunbirds. Binoculars are kept busy with encounters with yet more Madagascar Paradise Flycatchers including some dazzling white morph males, lots of Madagascar Bulbuls and Common Newtonias and a smattering of Crested Drongos and Long-billed Green Sunbirds. As we started our ascent of the plateau an unfamiliar shape in a low bush betrayed itself to be a Coquerel’s Coua, similar to Red-capped Coua but with an olive-green crown, much richer coloured underparts and a pink spot on the bare blue eye-patch. A good spot this as this species is restricted to the dry forests of the north-west. Onwards we trod until we reached the higher plateau, a strange low-canopied forest of eerie silence. In hushed silence we stood, waited and watched, ever vigilant. And then they appeared, two birds, almost mechanical in motion, crossing the leaf litter of the forest floor and traversing the trail right in front of us, White-breasted Mesites!! Absolutely superb birds, one of an endemic family of three species, primitive terrestrial rail-like birds. The White-breasted Mesite is a particularly handsome bird, white head with rufous cap, eye stripe and moustache, white throat, black spotted breast , chestnut underparts and grey mantle. Secretive in it’s habits, quietly probing the leaf litter and almost comical in it’s motion – body held horizontal with an emphasised to and fro motion of it’s head. A rare species restricted to just four sites and listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List. A repeat second performance by these birds gave unbelievable views, I can not find enough superlatives to describe these birds.

We methodically worked the grid pattern of trails within this higher forest until we chanced upon an Ashy Cuckoo-shrike, a species indicative of mixed feeding flocks. Mixed multispecies feeding flocks are a feature of most tropical forests around the world and Madagascar is no exception, when you find one you need to keep with it. Sure enough the cuckoo-shrike was part of a tiny flock, only five birds of three species but what wonderful species – two Rufous Vangas  and two Van Dam’s Vangas!! Rufous Vanga, a beautiful Vanga with black head and throat, white underparts and rich rufous upperparts and tail. Van Dam’s Vanga with black head, white underparts, grey upperparts and stout grey bill, our other target species known from only two sites and an IUCN Red List status of vulnerable. Excellent birding in superb surroundings, more excitement with two Crested Ibis flushed from the trail, prehistoric birds with bare red face patch, head and neck greenish, rufous upperparts and conspicuous white wing patches. Refused to fly choosing to run down the trail instead, every twist in the track revealed the birds just disappearing around the next corner, how bizarre these birds are, a forest-loving Ibis. Elated at the ease at which the plateau forest had revealed it’s rewards we descended back towards the campsite.

Crested Couas were spied in the treetops, arboreal couas unlike most of their relatives. Attractive with grey head and crest, light blue skin around eyes, grey upperparts, white underparts with orange breast and blue tail, a little reminiscent of a Turaco. Something scurrying around in the leaf litter, a plump little Madagascar Button-Quail showed briefly. Yet another Vanga, a stunning flash of bright blue head and upperparts against clean white underparts revealed the aptly named Blue Vanga and one of my personal favourites. The Vangas comprise 14 species which display a radical variety of bill shapes and sizes, a similar result of evolution as demonstrated by the more famous finches of the Galapagos Islands, Darwin would surely have developed similar theories on evolution had he landed on these shores. Back at the campsite we came across a group of Brown Lemurs, these of the fulvus subspecies, a brown creature with a black foxy face.

Afternoon now and the forest was very quiet, exploration of the lake area revealed a number of interesting raptors. More views of the Fish Eagle, a couple of Madagascar Buzzards and a group of Mascarene Martins, brown and streaky hirundines, mobbing a Madagascar Kestrel. A large grey bird revealed itself to be a Madagascar Harrier-Hawk, a species very similar in appearance to it’s African cousin. Out of a personal trip list total of 13 species of raptor no fewer than 11 species are endemic to this region, rich pickings for the raptor connoisseur and sufficient to send Blocker Blincow into a raptor-glut delirium. Examination of an area of marshy grazing land produced lots of kids, a sprinkling of zebu cattle and quality views of three Madagascar Sandgrouse. The existence of an endemic savannah species indicates that the island formerly had natural savannah zones and was not totally covered in forests, the vast majority of endemic species are forest birds. Two tiny Madagascar Mannakins were flushed from weedy vegetation whilst lots of Madagascar Bee-eaters were entertaining. Other denizens of the lake included Squacco Herons, Black Herons employing their umbrella method of fishing, Great White Egrets, Purple Heron, White-Faced Whistling Ducks, loitering Black Kites and a variety of waders. Evening approached and with an increase in bird activity we inspected forest either side of the main road dissecting the reserve. Views of Madagascar Cuckoo were well received, this species is supposed to spend the austral winter in East Africa and we did not expect to see it. Big and ugly Lesser Vaza Parrots croaked from the treetops, all-dark plumage with pale bills and a bare eye-patch. With the advent of dusk the nightbirds appeared, Madagascar Nightjars hawking in the half-light above the forest and a Madagascar Scops Owl tape-lured at the campsite proved a fitting finale to a wonderful day.

First light next morning found us in an area of deciduous forest close to the lake, slightly different in character to forest types explored the previous day with a taller canopy. Birds were extremely scarce with just a few sightings of the commoner species – Common Newtonias, Crested Drongos, Souimanga Sunbirds, etc. Unconcerned we continued, we were looking for one very special bird, a rare and localised species that we did not expect to see. Diligent scanning of the canopy eventually gave it’s reward, necks aching, eyes straining and bodies contorted in order to get a reasonable view of the jewel in the treetops. Schlegel’s Asity, first an immature male quickly followed by a full-plumaged male. These were brilliant birds, small Greenfinch-sized, the adult exhibiting a black head with a bright blue and green wattle, bright yellow underparts and green upperparts. This species has a scattered distribution in the dry western forests of the island and has only been recorded from a total of twelve sites. The asities were until recently considered an endemic family, some authorities now believe them to be a subfamily within the Broadbill family. All possible target species for this site had now been observed and we ambled back towards the road in a relaxed state of mind. Two more Madagascar Crested Ibis were a bonus, yet again intent on “legging it” as a means of escape, this species can be hard to catch-up with so two sightings in as many days was good going. A brief daylight sighting of a Milne-Edward’s Sportive Lemur sitting outside it’s sleeping quarters in a hollow tree was a memorable mammal record. Excellent studies were made on more Crested and Red-capped Couas whilst back on the road we observed a single Madagascar White-Eye in a mixed feeding flock. A last look at the lake gave much the same species as seen previously, the glorious Madagascar Fish-Eagle, the regular Madagascar Harrier-Hawk, another Madagascar Sandgrouse and lots of herons and waders.

One of the most important conservation projects at Ampijoroa is the Angonoka tortoise programme managed jointly by the Department des Eaux et Forets of the Malagasy Government and Jersey Wildlife Preservation Trust, we were lucky enough to be invited into the breeding compound close to the forestry station. The Angonoka Geochelone yniphora is the rarest tortoise in the world being confined to fragments of bamboo forest along the coast 120 kms south-west of Mahajanga, as a species it’s greatest threat comes from habitat destruction although it is also collected as a pet. A peculiar species in appearance with the adults displaying a long upturned projection from the front lower base of the shell, hence it’s popular English name of the ploughshare tortoise. We were shown several of the large adults and were allowed to handle a couple of the tiny offspring. The Malagasy man who invited us in and gave us a tour of the compound spoke no English but you could sense his genuine pride and excitement in the project, the breeding programme was proving successful and this coupled with local education, study of the ecology need of the tortoise and consideration of the needs of the local people encouraged one that this was one species that could be pulled back from the brink. The Jersey Wildlife Trust are very evident when it comes to conservation throughout the island and almost all the locals we spoke to seemed to know of the late Gerald Durrell. We purchased several t-shirts and with a lot of hand gestures bid our farewell.

Attention during the afternoon switched to the plateau forest, sightings of a Madagascar Sparrowhawk were welcome as this species is surprisingly scarce. A roosting Madagascar Nightjar was discovered amongst low scrub beside a wide sandy trail, typically cryptic camouflage. The forest itself, as one would expect this time of day, was very quiet but an unfamiliar but distinctive liquid “ dree-oo, dree-oo, dree-oo ” call revealed brief views of an adult male Cuckoo-Roller circling

And so passed our time at the first site on our grand tour of the island, next day was to find us on the long drive back to the capital with the even longer name, Antananarivo. Boneshaking “Indian Jones-style” flights would take us to the rainforests of the remote Masoala Peninsular where their avian prizes such as the totally awesome Helmet Vanga with it’s huge hornbill-like bill. And we would travel on to other sites, so many wonderful places, so many wonderful memories – breaching Humpback Whales just offshore and bizarre Striped Tenrecs running around our feet, beautiful Red-tailed Tropicbirds above our heads as we stood on an island of gleaming white sand, the unearthly dry spiny forest of the south-west with it’s equally bizarre Subdesert Mesites and Long-tailed Ground Rollers, the ultra-rare Yellow-Bellied Sunbird-Asity in the flowering tree at Ranomafana, so many stunning orchids, chameleons of all sizes and shapes at the entrance to Perinet, the large black and white “teddybear” Indri lemurs of Perinet with their amazing trumpeting calls, a whale-song from the trees. I could write and write about our encounters in this magical land but a million words could never convey the sense of wonderment at the complexity of the flora and fauna we observed. So many memories, such a multitude of images fill the mind, let us hope such memories may be shared by future generations as the wildlife of Madagascar is under serious threat from overpopulation and habitat destruction. The loss of any species, no matter how humble, is the ultimate crime humanity can commit, we must prize diversity of life as the greatest gift.