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madagascar trip report part 3: masaola

2007-12-10 - 5:38 a.m.

all photos copyright 2007 by elaine radford

tsarasoatra parc in tana

Note: Here's part 3 of my Madagascar trip report. To start with part one, Ranomafana, click here. To continue with part two, Ampijoroa, click here. Here's the bird list, and here's the lemur list.

November 18, 2007

Tsarasoatra Park "Bird's Island" in Tana. A wetland preserve actually within the capital, with gardens, egret rookeries, and a small forest. Reminiscent of nothing so much as Avery Island sans alligators. A busy rookery with Cattle Egret babies in the nest, Black Egrets "tenting" to hunt fish, White-Faced Whistling Ducks and Red-Billed Teal sailing by. We walked right past a cute pair of Madagascar Kingfishers, and the younger Black-Crowned Night Herons weren't hard to approach either. New trip birds include Long-Tailed Cormorant, Knob-Billed or Comb Duck, Common Moorhen, Red-Billed Teal, Madagascar Little Grebe, Barn Owl.

The afternoon was supposed to be free for shopping but, er, it was Sunday, and the pharmacy turned out to be closed, while the grocery store was closing even as we walked in the door. Fortunately, the relaxed Malagasy attitude toward time meant that nobody chased us out and when I said we'd finish quickly, the guard smiled and said, "No hurry." (Yes, in English. Would I have understood if it was in French?) No protein bars, but I loaded up on chocolate bars just in case I encountered any more occasions where it made more sense to grab emergency rations than to sit around waiting in a restaurant. We also discovered that large bottles of Eau Vive were around the equivalent of 60 cents when purchased in the ShopRite instead of the hotel. Hmmmm.

November 19, 2007

In the morning we caught an Air Mad flight to Maroantsetra. It was quite a bumpy landing if you ask me. Then three taxis to the boat launch, where we had two boats waiting for our boat ride to Masaola in the rain. I had my rain gear, including my Mandalay Bay rainjacket and my rain poncho, so I didn't really get that wet, and neither did my equipment, which ended up in the computer bag, which in turn ended up wrapped in the jacket.

However, one of my two watches -- the one that went snorkeling in Costa Rica -- finally gave up the ghost. Considering it was a cheap $7 Wal-Mart dive watch, I don't think it got that wet either. I just think that after two years, the battery finally gave out. I wish Wally's World still manufactured this product, because it's one of the best items for the money I ever purchased there, but the last time I looked, they'd stopped carrying them.

We speed-boated across a mostly empty ocean, although we passed a couple of what looked to me distinctly like Chinese dhows (on the airport side of the bay) and a couple of small wooden pirogues (on the park side). Mostly though, we had the blue waters and gray skies to ourselves.

twilight over the indian ocean at masaola

I think they were trying to impress us at lunch, since there was a chocolate mousse for dessert, something that wouldn't happen twice. The bungalows were roomy and atmospheric, with pineapples planted in the yard. But the big deal is that we soon set out for a hike to find the Madagascar Serpent-Eagle.

Yes, we set out for a hike in the afternoon. And I admit to a few uneasy flashbacks as we forded rocky streams and scrambled up (a few) inclines that might have daunted me before the excitement of the Henst's Goshawk's nest. But, in the end, we got to the site at a (fairly) reasonable hour and observed the female around the cleverly concealed epiphyte nest before it was time to turn back. My first sighting was from the back and was mostly an impression of a very long tail. My second sighting was from the front to show the barred underparts. However, I didn't fully feel that I'd had a terrific sighting of the bird, so I was glad to know that we'd have time for another visit.

Other highlights along the way included terrific views of a Crested Drongo hitting the back of a Madagascar Buzzard to drive it along and our first sighting of the impressive Blue Coua.

madagascar sparrowhawk

November 20, 2007

We didn't go straight back to the Serpent-Eagle nest, since we wanted to give the bird a rest. Therefore we instead took a 7 kilometer boat ride to a different site. Part of the hike went through pretty dark forest, where we encountered a very patient Red-Breasted Coau fledgling.

Near the research station, we found a Madagascar Sparrowhawk clutching on her headless prey, a former Madagascar Kingfisher. We had a great view and took plenty of photos, until we were sated, and B. asked for one of the technicians to flush the bird so he could grab an in-flight shot. (I started to type "guide," but the local assistants here were not "guides" but rather scientific technicians who had been working in the field with birds of prey like Madagascar Serpent-Eagle for a minimum of ten years each.) So when the technician approached the bird and she didn't fly, he picked her up and brought her over to get banded, blood drawn, and the various measurements taken. I've never seen anything like it. I would have assumed that she was ill, and L. did say that she was a tad underweight, but her eyes were clear and bright, and she didn't look the way that sick birds who have given up all hope of fighting look -- you know what I'm talking about, how they just sort of half-close their eyes in an expression of exhaustion or pain? She looked just fine, if a little exasperated. So I'm curious to know, although I probably never will, how it all turns out.

That's her in the photo above, after considerable handling and measuring, so you can judge for yourself.

Back at the lodge for lunch. The Greater Vasa Parrots were my favorites here -- singing, kissing, leap-frogging, courting, "almost" copulating. We heard a Kestrel and discovered that it was one of the Crested Drongoes doing a fake-out. At some point, Lesser Crested Tern, Madagascar Starling, and Madagascar Spinetail (Swift) joined the trip list. We also noted an all black-backed race of the Madagascar Magpie-Robin. Don't know if it's realistic but here's hoping for another split one day.

Three of us devoted the afternoon to studying a Gymnogene nest that was about an hour's walk away. Honestly, if I had to pick out any single individual as my favorite bird of the trip, this female Gymnogene would take the cake. She was anything but a shy bird and she was happy to keep the entire forest jumping with her demands. She called constantly, frequently duetting with her mate. He got chased by Drongoes but he let himself be called over and, at one point, he brought prey to the nest -- whereupon the bratty female fluttered and asked for the food for herself. Oh, and in case you were wondering, a technician climbed the tree to check and there was an adorable fluffy white hatchling in the nest. Between his mate and his baby, I'm sure the poor male will be kept hopping for weeks.

November 21, 2007

There was a small goat rodeo first thing in the morning. I woke at first dawn and was just standing around in my black PJ's checking out the Vasa Parrots, when one of our group passed by and scolded me to hurry, because the Helmet Vanga walk was taking place, like, immediately. Hmmm. It didn't seem to be what I'd been told the day before, but there is a language barrier, so I threw on my sandals and dashed over. Not to say that I'd become a little bit skeptical, but I'd talked to the owner of the lodge on the first day (he'd come over on the same boat I was on) and I knew the Helmet Vanga to be a short walk away from the dining hall. So I set my watch and when it went off 30 minutes later, which was more than twice as far away as the nest was supposed to be, I asked if we were SURE that we were headed for the nest.

"What nest?" was the answer.

Oh, great. So here I was wandering around in the rainforest in my black PJs like an over-aged member of the Viet Cong, and there was no Helmet Vanga nest in prospect. I immediately asked to have one of the technicians take me back, and I was assigned one who didn't speak any English. (How much English do you need to lead a middle-aged chick in her pajamas back to camp?) However, a few minutes from the end of the trail, he got very excited and pointed out something, which after hearing "blah, blah, blah, Frances's, blah blah blah Mr. Bill" and inspecting closely, I found to be the female Frances's Sparrowhawk. So he sat down to mark the spot, and I scurried to the dining hall to fetch "Mr. Bill," who immediately dropped all plans for coffee when he heard what we had found. (How do you like that "we?" Considering how quiet the bird was and how carefully she concealed herself in the high branches, I'm sure I would have breezed right by it on my own.) In any case, it turned out that there was a nest nearby, with an egg in it, so the female wasn't going anywhere, and we ended up with some very nice views, especially once the scope was put into play.

At some point I even had a chance to get out of my PJ's and into my real hiking clothes, before I'd gotten them too sweaty.

beach at masaola

The two of us who desired better views of the Madagascar Serpent-Eagle hiked back that way while others parked by the Frances's Sparrowhawk nest in hopes of seeing the male. I was a little nervous at the perch L. found for us to wait on -- a large mossy log that I was constantly afraid of falling off of. However, it certainly did provide a good place for watching for the Serpent-Eagle when she flushed, and I did get much better views of her each time she circled before entering her nest. Mission Accomplished!

L. seemed quite worried that we did not have good enough views, and after awhile we had to persuade him that we were happy and that it was time to let the bird sit on her nest in peace. I finally realized that he was worried because we took no photos. My camera simply wasn't up to the job of taking such a photo in a dark forest canopy, and I preferred to focus on enjoying the bird with eyes and binoculars, and the other guy felt the same. I'm just not willing to invest the dollars and especially the weight involved in carrying around serious equipment like B's. Once we realized the concern, we assured L. that all was well and we were ready to move onward. Heck, I could have parked there a hundred years and my (relatively) small camera wouldn't have ever gotten the photo in the darkness of that forest. But if I had to do it again, I'd probably shortcut the entire conversation and just pretend to snap a shot. I just didn't think of it on the fly.

I added White-Fronted Brown Lemur (mom with baby) to the lemur list in the PJ's walk and Long-Billed Green Sunbird during the Mad. Serpent-Eagle walk. I also got some fantastic views of Blue Coau during that same walk.

In the afternoon we took another boat ride to a vanilla and clove and just-all-around-neat-stuff-growing village. The goal was to find a better Banded Kestrel, a goal we did not achieve, but we did find an awfully cute baby Madagascar Kestrel peeping out of a nesthole. Oddly, as we were watching the sky, something crept up behind me and made me scream, "Vole!" (Everyone heard this as "mole.") As it turned out, it was a tiny baby Lowland Streaked Tenrec, although I hope I'm excused for thinking vole when I noticed the small size and pointy nose. I have no idea where the rest of the family was. Maybe this was a case of one of the 32 babies for only 28 nipples or something.

bossy female gymnogene, lowland streaked tenrec youngster, baby red-breasted coua, and a frog that attached itself to my ankle, some of the weird critters of masoala

November 22, 2007

We were not to leave Masaola without actually dining on some of the fresh pineapple. Mine was very sweet, although I'm told that this isn't necessarily the case, and that some weren't sweet at all. Nor did I leave without (finally) being led to the Helmet Vanga's nest, which was indeed only a few minutes away. The male was patiently guarding the territory, and he made a wonderful show in the dark forest, with his bright blue bill that seemed designed to catch the light.

We also easily tagged the male Frances's Sparrowhawk, who had now returned to the nest area.

I went on a short solo hike to find the atmospheric rare fungi that another member of our tour had discovered. I'm told it's very, very rare, and that no one knows when or why they bloom, but I don't know the name of it. I almost wonder if it is a fungi, since the spores were the size of watermelon seeds -- and really much thicker. I took a lot of photos but I'm still not sure that I truly captured the weirdness of this particular life form.

orange mystery fungi, masaola

Somehow on the boat out, I ended up on the boat with the baggage and the technicians, and speaking no Malagasy at all, other than the single phrase "mora mora" ("slowly, slowly!"), I really only knew that we'd run out of gas when we coasted up to the other boat to get more.

We did pass a large rookery, and I think the other boat glassed it, but I was afraid of getting motion sick if I tried to use binoculars while boating along, so I didn't. Fairly close to town, where we were starting to get into cultivated fields, I did see a Whimbrel though, with no need to use my binoculars to add him to the list.

twilight, footbridge over river between coco beach resort and the town near the airport, the vehicular bridge had collapsed a couple years previously, hence, why we had to cross over by foot or by boat

Our resort was called Coco Beach, although the "beach" was rather token and seemed to have a lot of glass or quartz washed up on it. I ordered a whiskey in the bar, and the owner actually found a teeny tiny ice cube tray in the teeny tiny freezer but when she asked me if I wanted one ice cube or two, she looked so sad when I said "two" that I quickly changed my request to "just one, please!"

I relaxed for awhile not on the beach itself but on a grassy bank while I read one of the few remaining paperbacks I'd brought. A Madagascar Kingfisher came up and caught a fish from a twig a few feet away. Cute as heck but the light was failing and I couldn't grab a photo.

Note: This photo of the ankle frog has been moved up to the collage of weird critters
one day in my cabin at masaola, i was minding my own business and using the little girl's room when what to my wondering ankle should appear but a feeling of stickiness, yeah, somehow someway this FROG jumped on my ankle, you gotta have a sense of humor in the rainforest, i tell you what

November 23, 2007

Ah, adventure. The flatboat got caught in the mud just crossing the river. If I had known that we had time to use the footbridge, I would have done so, as two members of our tour actually did. They may deny it, but I noticed them swallowing their chuckles as they watched the rest of us come over by boat. Then it was into the taxis and on to the airport. All along I'd noticed the large numbers of people who carried heavy weights on their head, and today I especially noticed the women carrying entire boxes of milk bottles on their heads. And, yeah, I do mean glass milk bottles.

Our flight number was scratched on a chalkboard, and there was only token security, which is understandable, since I doubt the evil-doers have even heard of this country, much less this airport. Of the flights themselves, the less said the better. There was a 20 minute flight, then a 55 minute one, then a 40 minute one. In other words, we were either ascending or descending at all times, and I was getting pretty motion sick.

flight du jour at maroantsetra airport

Air Mad has a doubtful reputation for delays and our leader had pretty much allowed all day for travel. Despite the unexpected addition of an extra stop (I think that's why we had the 20 minute flight) we really weren't delayed to any real extent, so we had some time in the afternoon to just hang out in Tana. I went to the pharmacy and bought extra motion sickness pills and then to the post office, where I purchased a cheap postcard and a pretty orchid stamp, to send a postcard home. (Which was just delivered the day I'm writing this, December 8.) I also picked up a small bottle (maybe pint sized) of their dubious local rum. At 2,200 ariary -- 1,720 ariary is one U.S. dollar -- how could I go wrong?

Note: You have just read Part 3 of my Madagascar Trip Report. Click here to read Part 4.

forest stream, masaola

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