By Derek Schuurman
The region where Mitsinjo is based contains a number of rainforest and marsh sites which offer mind-blowing birding – a true ‘O.O.E.’ (Orgasmic Ornithological Experience in birder speak), to put it mildly. I remember a comment to this effect during my last visit to the site, incidentally the same day I met up with Rainer Dolch there. A birding tour-leader friend, Callan Cohen of Birding Africa, was visiting with one of their groups. ‘This place just never fails to deliver’, Callan beamed as his group was enthusiastically ticking off birds left, right and centre, on both sides of the road. But it wasn’t only birds that were in fashion that sunny November morning: a group of Indri had come to the trees right by the roadside, providing an unexpected and memorable treat.
You might wonder why Andasibe-Mantadia is included in all Madagascar birding itineraries. Well, for starters this is where you can seek the bulk of Madagascar’s rainforest-dependent endemic birds, as well as a select band of marsh-dwelling species unique to the eastern domain. Rather than rattle off a grocery list of the what you may spot in this wonderful area, I’ll relate some of the birding highlights I’ve had the privilege of enjoying there through the years.
Topping the wish lists of most visiting birders is the 5 bird families endemic to Madagascar. Nationally rare and cryptic, the wary Brown Mesite Mesitornis unicolor may be seen in Mantadia with luck and usually, some hard work. The 3 mesites are terrestrial and rail-like, with one species inhabiting each of the island’s 3 main ecotypes. In some rainforest sites, the Brown Mesite is protected by a ‘fady’ (taboo) so strong that even mentioning its name is forbidden.
A peculiar and unmistakable endemic, the vociferous and crow-sized Cuckoo-roller Leptosomus discolor, is far more conspicuous in suitable forests around the island. Sexually dimorphic, this oddity feeds largely on reptiles and is quite often seen conducting elaborate aerial displays. I had my best ever views of it in Analamazaotra, when a pair perched some 3 meters away from us for more than half an hour, sunning themselves. Studying its features, you can’t help but notice that it seems as if the bird’s eyes are set abnormally far back on its skull. Their sweeping, whistling calls, along with the whale-like vocalizations of the Indri, are among Madagascar’s ‘hallmark’ sounds.
Then there are the Couas, a family related to the Asian Malkohas and well represented in Andasibe-Mantadia. Three of the species are arboreal and behave rather like Africa’s turacous, while the rest are terrestrial and you might say somewhat reminiscent of ornamental pheasants. All have naked blue facial masks and long, broad tails.Fortunately common and widespread, it is the flamboyant Blue Coua Coua caerulea which most visitors want to glimpse. You can find it all over the area, even in degraded secondary growth and in plantations. Andasibe-Mantadia is also the best place in which to seek the terrestrial Red-fronted Coua Coua reynaudii, which is often seen scuttling along forest paths. Another terrestrial coua of which I had corking views during one trip, is the much darker Red-breasted Coua Coua serriana.
Arguably the most bizarre endemic Malagasy bird family is the Asitys, two of which vaguely resemble squat broadbills, while the other two look like tiny sunbirds, and indeed for decades, were called ‘False sunbirds’. What all four have in common is that males in breeding regalia sport naked facial skin with caruncles which could be turquoise or emerald and almost fluorescent. I learned during my first Velvet Asity Philepitta castanea sighting, that rainforest birding is just as productive in inclement weather as it is in dry weather, so I always tell prospective visitors that if they are inside the rainforest and it starts raining, just stay put, because the birds are used to such weather so are no less active. In an area of secondary growth, I once also enjoyed an awesome, prolonged sighting of a group of three Common Sunbird-asitys Neodrepanis coruscans, which guides normally tend to seek around the parasitic, mistletoe-like Bakerellaplants high up in forest trees.
Madagascar’s most famed bird family – and one which recently, following taxonomic investigation has been added to considerably following the inclusion of the Ward’s Flycatcher Pseudobias wardi, Crossley’s Babbler Mystacornis crossleyi and the Newtonias (which resemble Africa’s tit-babblers) – the Vangas, abound in Andasibe-Mantadia. It is the site for seeking one of the smallest species, the Coral-billed Nuthatch VangaHypositta corallirostris, which superficially resembles the true nuthatches.
The more ‘shrike-like’ Vangas, such as Hook-billed Vanga Vanga curvirostris, Rufous Schetba rufa and Pollen’s Vanga Xenopirostris polleni, are more often located by their distinctive calls which often include duets. It was again in secondary shrubbery that I had my best ever views of a pair of Crossley’s Babbler Mystacornis crossleyi, now known to be the only terrestrial Vanga. (Previously, I had found it’s nest on a Pandanus leaf).
The seemingly bland roadside herbage around Andasibe is well worth investigating: this is particularly the case when it comes to calling out various species of rail present in the area. We found the White-throated rail the most trying of the lot to coax into the open, despite its loud and impressive vocal repertoire. I attribute their elusive and wary behaviour around Analamazaotra possibly due to persecution. By contrast, I once followed a pair of Madagascar Wood-rails Canirallus kioloides around the forest interior along a stream for at least 20 minutes during which they showed no signs of timidity and reminded me a little of a pair of bantams. One of my all-time birding highlights on the island, was calling out the almost ventriloquial Madagascar Flufftail Sarothrura insularis, of which many pairs have territories in the rank roadside growth. To attract them, guides just flatten a small area of grass, take a few steps back onto the road with you, and play the calls on tape or MP3. Soon enough, males and sometimes even female flufftails, enter the clearing to investigate. Even more responsive to taped calls is the extremely territorial Madagascar Rail Rallus madagascariensis, which inhabits patches of marshy vegetation and which in my experience, would be virtually impossible to see unless you have its recorded call handy.
One of the ‘holy grails’ of Madagascar birding, which has its stronghold in the marshes around Andasibe, is the Slender-billed flufftail Lemurolimnas watersi. It is one of a handful of rare and enigmatic Malagasy endemics which went AWOL for a good few decades until its rediscovery at Ranomafana by ornithologist Lucienne Wilme. Its call, first recorded by Wilme, differs markedly from that of other flufftails. Recently, it was accorded its own genus, Lemurolimnas. Following drier than usual weather in late 2010 and 2011 and marsh draining activities around Torotorofotsy, a RAMSAR site where Association Mitsinjo is active, Rainer Dolch recently told me that never before had they noticed so many Meller’s Duck Anas melleri, Madagascar Snipe Gallinago macrodactyla, Madagascar Rail Rallus madagascariensis, Slender-billed Flufftail Lemurolimnas watersi and Grey Emutail Amphilais seebohmi aggregated where patches of marsh still remained intact.
One can only hope that for the sake of the unique assemblage of often endangered species such as Greater Bamboo Lemur Prolemur simus, Slender-billed Flufftail and Golden Mantella Mantella aurantiaca (the island’s flagship frog) the government and conservation organisations will muscle in and give Andasibe-Mantadia – and more specifically Torotorofotsy Marsh – the attention it now needs more than ever.
Station Forestière d’Analamazaotra is the only site in the region where night walks are permitted. For any visitors this is a magical experience: aside from the chance to see a variety of nocturnal lemurs, reptiles and frogs, birders can look for Madagascar Long-eared Owl Asio madagascariensis, Madagascar Scops Owl Otus rutilus, Madagascar Nightjar Caprimulgus madagascariensis and the uncommon Collared Nightjar Caprimulgus enarratus. During one night walk, I had the good fortune of seeing a roosting Pitta-like Ground-roller Atelornis pittoides, the most attractive member of what is possibly the most sought-after endemic family on birders’ lists. With some work, you have a chance of finding the other three rainforest-dependent ground-rollers in Andasibe-Mantadia, particularly during spring and summer months when they are calling.
Among the long list of other species present, is the country’s largest forest-dependent bird, the impressive Madagascar Crested Ibis Lophotibis cristata. A good place to look for it is the ‘Orchid Garden’ called Parc à Orchidées, a clearing at Station Forestière d’Analamazaotra. Although they are skittish, it is not too difficult to see them foraging on forest paths. Other memorable highlights include the Madagascar Blue Pigeon Alectroenas madagascariensis, part of a genus of frugivorous pigeons regionally endemic to the western Indian Ocean islands. With its deep red facial ‘mask’, dark blue upperparts and maroon tail, it is a beaut! Look around flowering plants for the iridescent Madagascar Long-billed Green Sunbird Cinnyris notatus, the smaller Souimanga Sunbird Cinnyris sovimanga, Madagascar White-eye Zosterops maderaspatanus and Madagascar Starling Saroglossa aurata. They are all common and not shy. Around the hotels, pretty Madagascar wagtails are even more confiding and allow close approach, while high above the canopy, people usually see Madagascar Spinetails Zoonavena grandidieri wheeling about.
A phenomenon often encountered inside the rainforests and something which leaves a lasting impression on any visiting birder, are the loose, mixed-species flocks which one might suddenly happen on after not seeing anything for some time. Watching a wave of birds like this passing by slowly, is unforgettable. The last such flock I remember, contained – among others – Spectacled and Grey-crowned Greenbuls (Bernieria zosterops &Bernieria cinereiceps), Madagascar Paradise Flycatcher Terpsiphone mutata, White-browed Oxylabes Oxylabes madagascariensis, Common and Green Jerys (Neomixis tenella & Neomixis viridis), Dark and Common Newtonias (Newtonia amphichroa & Newtonia brunneicauda), Blue and Red-shouldered Vangas (Cyanolanius madagascarinus & Calicalicus rufocarpalis), Ward’s Flycatcher Pseudobias wardi, Thamnornis WarblerThamnornis chloropetoides and Red Forest Fody Foudia omissa – in all a stunning selection which just animated the rainforest.
I could enthuse for pages more about the exceptionally rewarding birding to be had in the Andasibe-Mantadia area – as mentioned in the opening paragraph, the location simply never fails to deliver. Armed with one of the field guides published on the island’s birds, and accompanied by a knowledgeable guide, I would recommend spending at least 3 days in this area for any birder fortunate enough to make it to Madagascar
Originating in South Africa, Derek now works for Rainbow Tours where he uses his ornithological skills and general wildlife knowledge as part of his work all over the world. He is also the co-author of two Madagascar Books: Madagascar Wildlife: A Visitors Guide’(Bradt) and Globetrotter Guide to Madagascar (New Holland) and contributor to several other Madagascar books.