Birdwatching in Madagascar

Words & pics: Barrie Cooper

Collared Nightjar

Collared Nightjar

If Charles Darwin’s ship HMS Beagle had made a diversion and arrived in Madagascar before the Galapagos Islands, it’s quite possible he may not have bothered moving onto the archipelago off Ecuador.

After separating from the African land mass 165 million years ago, Madagascar developed amazing examples of evolution. Some species arrived after the separation and subsequently evolved into several species as different habitats were colonised, requiring different adaptations.

For example, the world’s largest bird, the flightless Elephant Bird, grew to a height of more than three metres and is the largest known species of bird to have existed. Madagascar is famous for being the only place in the world for lemurs and, incredibly, some became as large as gorillas.

Sadly, as is often the case on islands, once people arrived extinction for the elephant bird, the huge lemurs and several other species inevitably followed. Nevertheless, Madagascar is still a truly unforgettable place for the modern birder and wildlife enthusiast to visit with an incredible range of endemic fauna and flora.

Another group of animals Madagascar is famous for is its reptiles and amphibians. There are around 400 species with more than 90% being endemic, with the most spectacular probably chameleons and geckoes. It has the World’s largest chameleon at more than 350mm and the smallest at just 30mm.

The satanic leaf gecko resembles a dead leaf so much that it’s difficult to see it from a couple of feet away. Insects are well represented with about 300 species of butterfly and 4,000 moths including the huge comet moth with a wingspan of 25cm. And I challenge you not to be impressed by the spectacular giraffe-necked weevil.

Birds in Madagascar

If your main thing is birds, you won’t be disappointed. Although there are only about 210 regularly breeding birds, half of these are endemic, including five endemic families. To see a good range of endemics it’s necessary to visit three key habitats: spiny forest in the south, western dry deciduous forests and eastern rainforests. Each habitat holds a range of interesting species in addition to endemics.

For most members of a group tour I recently led, the spiny forest was the one they selected as holding the most memorable birds. For some, the Sub-desert Mesite was bird of the trip. We watched a female for more than 10 minutes as it sat motionless and fully alert in a spiny tree with its tail cocked upwards and its head below.

Our local guide told us it was acting as a lookout for the other members of its group that may consist of more than 10 individuals. This small area of spiny forest held species from other endemic families, one of which is the couas, which are related to cuckoos but build their own nest and raise their own young.  Running and Green-capped Couas are around 42cm long, but the Giant Coua is much larger at 62cm but more difficult to find.

Another target endemic family for birders are the ground-rollers, with the Long-tailed Ground-roller being the only one of the five species found in the spiny forest.

Perhaps the most interesting family are the vangas and if Darwin had studied them rather than his finches, they’d now be famous. This family has an even more incredible range of beaks than the Galapagos finches. Vangas evolved from a single population to fill various niches and habitats, but several are similar to shrikes with strong, hooked beaks, perching at the top of bushes and trees looking for their food.

The spiny forest holds one of the best examples of niche filling with the splendid Sickle-billed Vanga and it’s quite a highlight when you see one of these black and white birds perched at the top of a tree with its long grey curved beak.

One of the most noticeable characteristics of the spiny forest is the baobab tree. With their swollen trunks and stubby branches, they’re one of the features of this part of Madagascar. They add a real atmosphere when walking through the spiny forest and you cannot fail to be impressed by the size and shape of specimens several hundred years old. Unfortunately, like many of the key habitats, the spiny forest is threatened with destruction for agriculture and charcoal making.

There are a few wetlands on the eastern coast where you will hope to find the endemic Madagascar Plover as well as migrant waders, Hottentot’s Teal, Madagascar Lark and Madagascar Cisticola.

In the north is a lake where, in 2006, the presumed extinct Madagascar Pochard was rediscovered with a population of just two dozen. The WWT are now involved in an important conservation programme to bring this species back from the brink of extinction.

Moving inland from the spiny forest, the Zombitse forest is an example of dry deciduous forest and is one of only three sites known to hold Appert’s Tetraka, a warbler-type bird that moves through the understory in small groups.

Fortunately, it is relatively easy to find with the help of the local guides. The forest also holds Greater and Lesser Vasa Parrots, plus various lemurs and other endemics.

Continuing eastwards takes us to the wetter parts of Madagascar and this is where we find the rainforests with a whole new suite of endemic fauna and flora that would take another article to do justice to. In terms of birds, there are more species of raptors, ground-rollers and couas to be found.

But, for me, the Nuthatch Vanga is one of the prizes here. Everything about this bird, shape, size, behaviour (apart from not climbing down tree trunks) is a nuthatch! Watching one of these moving along a branch as part of a mixed flock and you could be back in Europe for a moment.

Another highlight of the rainforest must be the sight and sound of the Madagascar Cuckoo Roller displaying over the canopy as you strain your neck trying to get a good view of this unique bird.

You really do need to visit Madagascar to understand the true magic of an island that Darwin would have loved.

Other wildlife in Madagascar

I’m a keen birder with experience in more than 60 countries, but I have to admit that the lemurs are the highlight of Madagascar for me. How can you resist taking lots of photos of Ring-tailed Lemurs? Or the beautiful Diademed Sifaka? Or the dancing Verreaux’s Sifaka? I’m glad we don’t have film cameras these days, it would cost a fortune!

But perhaps one of the main highlights of a visit to Madagascar is to hear the wailing calls of Indri. To be underneath the trees where the World’s largest lemur is calling is a true wildlife experience to linger long in the memory – it’s the sound of this amazing country and a privilege to hear such a charismatic animal, as indeed are most of the lemurs.