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madagascar trip report part 2: ambohitantely and ankarafantsika

2007-12-09 - 6:30 a.m.

all photos � 2007 by elaine radford

Note: Here's part 2 of my Madagascar trip report, in which we commit various acts of derring-do whilst in search of the rare and endemic raptors. To start with part one, click here. To inspect my bird list, click here. For my lemur list, go here.

November 14, 2007

Onward to Ambihotantely. A rolling grassland area of much interest to the otherwise difficult Madagascar Harrier. Some highlights of the day:

  • Two adult Mad. Buzzards attempting to escort a younger one out of "their" territory, he would only be escorted so far, though
  • A charming scene of a romantic Mad. Harrier pair, which included a food exchange and finally copulation
  • More harriers, including one with a long-tailed prey, perhaps a lizard
  • The male Mad. partridge who paced us on our path

  • New trip birds included such soon-to-be regular charmers like Lesser Vasa Parrot and the striking Broad-billed Roller
  • Along the road, a valley of Eleanora's Falcons, some six or more birds playing on the wind, including some dark morphs

Unfortunately, due to a lack of available motel rooms or cabins, we ended up staying in a highly dubious town -- the kind of place where there's no mosquito net and even the "best" motel in town has free condoms thoughtfully placed on your coffee table for your use. The room was huge and had a full-length mirror, but that's about all I can say in its favor.

So far on the trip, the Canadian and the Netherlander (is that what they're called, Netherlanders?) had been responsible for all communications in French. However, at dinner, I set off with the other two American ladies in search of the restaurant and soon was forced to use my limited French: "Bon soir. Ou est la restaurant?" The amused local took me by the hand and pointed, so I don't think I fooled anyone.

Oh, and the full horror of my room did not become apparent until around 2:30 AM in the morning. Which is when the roosters started crowing. A lot of roosters. A whole lot of roosters. Some people said they weren't bothered. Hm-kay. But my room was at one end of the building -- apparently the end nearest the chicken coop. Yikes.

butterflies doing the dirty at ankarafantsika

November 15, 2007

We had to return to the same restaurant in the morning. Supposedly, it was the only game in town, but after waiting 45 minutes for coffee, my nerve broke and I left in search of my own refreshments. I soon learned that we'd passed at least three espresso stands between motel and restaurant, so grumble and mumble, we could have been on the road much earlier. But what do you do? I'm sure the tour leader was afraid of a rebellion from the others if we had breakfast at an espresso stand, which as the name implies, involves standing. The coffee's already made and the price is right though -- if there was any gringo tax involved, it sure wasn't noticeable. The sometimes leisurely attitude toward meals is OK for lunch or dinner, but for a birder, to be sitting around at breakfast...well, let's just say that I muttered darkly that if I return on my own, I'll bring a supply of caffeine pills and South Beach protein bars to get me started in the morning.

Eventually we did get underway to Parc Ankarafantsika -- also known as Ampijoroa, which is the name of the nearby village and which is at least somewhat easier for non-Malagasy tongues to say than Ankarafantsika.

Along the way we passed over a bridge over a large red river -- the red of clay rather than blood, but still very dramatic. Unfortunately, for reasons I don't understand, my photographs didn't come out.

Anyhoo, Ankarafantsika is truly one of the jewels of the park system.

However, it's as good a place as any to point out that the restaurant -- and here it really did seem to be the only restaurant -- was independently owned. There seemed to be a personality clash between our French-speaking Canadian, a high-powered and highly educated businesswoman, and the local women running the restaurant, who seemed to me to be indulging in a certain amount of passive-aggressiveness against a type of woman they can't understand. Frankly, at times, I was happy to blow off meals and dig into my stash of protein bars, but for those who didn't have any protein bars, it got to be a tense situation. Hint for visitors: If you think you may be in a hurry to get to the birding or the lemur night walk or anything, I cannot stress too highly the value of bringing along some of your own food.

Beer and water were easier, as I just went to the window and asked (and paid) for these separately. The huge glass bottles of THB were way too big for me, but if I couldn't get anyone to share (the Netherlander -- Hollander? -- was my usual victim), I simply emptied some of the beer into a plastic water bottle and carried it along for the entire evening. Wheee!

Today's written notes cover simply pages, so I'll just hit the highlights bullet-style:

  • Even the parking lot was "hot," as we drove up and almost immediately spotted Madagascar Fish-Eagle and a Gymnogene being mobbed by Crested Drongoes directly overhead
  • Other "WOWs" in the parking lot included close-up looks at the dramatic Sickle-Billed Vanga and Crested Coau
  • WOW birds at the open-air restaurant included both morphs of the winning Madagascar Paradise-Flycatcher
  • Great views of a dust-bathing/anting Broad-billed Roller
  • Great views of our first Common Brown Lemurs just outside the village
  • lots of "good stuff" around the lake including a pair of Mad. Fish-Eagles, Humbot's Heron, Gray-Faced Lovebird
  • entertaining views of Lesser Vasa Parrots copulating, with a third interloper watching the fun and perhaps hoping to join in
  • Van Dam's Vanga nesting, with the male sitting on the nest and the female nearby, perhaps getting ready for an exchange of duties
  • Red-Capped Coau running around like a road-runner

  • a pair of Rufous Vangas, with the male trying to show the female a spot he'd picked out where they could start a nest, soooo cute
  • a Sooty Falcon overhead, a Banded Kestrel way off in the distance in the scope -- the Banded Kestrel is the only raptor I have to report as a "better view desired" but there's one in every trip, isn't there?
  • a Common Jery subspecies that was dramatically golden in the sunlight, instead of drab, like a previous subspecies, heh heh, maybe one day they'll separate the two and I'll get an extra species for my life list
  • our first of many, many, many Coquerel's Sifakas
  • the famous bird-species discoverer from LSU was there leading a (large) tour, and we'd run into them again along the path
  • Other new trip birds include Common Newtonia, Madagascar Turtle-Dove, Cuckoo Shrike, Souimanga Sunbird, Striated Heron, Black Heron, Mad. Pond-Heron, Glossy Ibis, White-Faced Duck, Squacco Heron

Of course some of us clamored for a night walk, and, as I've said before, whenever you have an opportunity to do one of these, DO IT, no matter if you're still a bit stiff from scrambling up the vertical face of several mountains. Hey, if it's in the dark, it will be on a (reasonably) level path, right? Not all of us went for it, but I couldn't resist. And here's the highlights:

  • Cute as pie, snoozing Madagascar Pygmy-Kingfisher, sleeping on a perch right over the path
  • other cute sleeping birds included a Broad-billed Roller and a female Paradise-Flycatcher on the nest
  • Common Tenrec -- sort of a hedgehoggy type deal, but unique in that it can have something like 32(?) babies and 28(?) nipples
  • Western Woolly Lemur
  • Coquerel's Chameleon -- our first chameleon!
  • Milnes-Edwards Sportive Lemur -- check for the white tip on the tail
  • a sleeping Grey Mouse Lemur that tolerated being photographed, for that matter, if you inspect the photo closely, it seems as if it's tolerating a large spider pretty close to its sleeping face, but maybe that's all its craft and artfulness and moments after we left, the spider was caught and consumed?

grey mouse lemur asnooze

November 16, 2007

A full day at the park. Highlights:

  • Western Scops Owl sleeping in a log and tolerating all sorts of attempts at photography
  • New Vangas such as Blue (better view desired, though, the blue didn't show well with the highly contrasting light behind it), White-Headed Vanga, Chabert Vanga
  • New doves -- Namaqua and Madagascar Green-Pigeon
  • Did I mention that our cabins overlooked a huge Cattle Egret rookery, which could be easily inspected for new birds such as Madagascar Coucal?
  • good looks at Nile Crocodile (!)
  • Night Walk # 2, where we added Fat-Tailed Dwarf Lemur and Mongoose Lemur to the list

what's an old hollow log without a western scops owl snoozing in it?

November 17, 2007

I somehow managed to crawl out of bed extra early for the bonus early morning bird walk. Here, the guides made a point of finding the White-Breasted Mesite, since the mesites are a group endemic only to Madagascar, and there was no telling if we'd have time to find others. It was a larger bird than I expected, singing a strange almost insect-like hissing spitting song from cover. After some searching, the two of us who actually arose in time for the walk got fantastic views, as the bird turned out to be surprisingly close to the path.

Nearby was a better, daylight showing of Common Tenrec.

Somewhere along the trail, we encountered a Mad. Buzzard considering a humongous hog-nosed snake in the path. Our arrival startled the Buzzard, who took off, so we saved that rather indolent snake's life. The other snakes we'd seen in the area were equally huge but rather bland, beige-colored items, so I was happy to try a few snapshots of this one.

i doubt "clueless" the hognosed snake has any idea that we saved his life from the machinations of hungry madagascar buzzards

After breakfast came the boat trip. Atmospheric Purple Herons on floating purple rafts of water hyacinth. Nile crocodiles. African darters, Allen's Gallinule, Madagascar Jacana, Buzzard nest with adult and young fluffy white baby, confiding Yellow-Billed Kite just begging to be photographed, youngish Madagascar Fish-Eagle who had rather bad light but who also posed patiently. Clouds of hundreds of some black and white swallowtail butterfly species mud-puddling on the shore.

And then the road back to Tana. Along the way, the disturbing picnic spot where the kid ate the raw tomato I dropped on the ground -- it was probably perfectly safe, but I was making a point of avoiding any raw food outside of Tana unless I peeled it myself. I dropped it thinking it was organic, that some bird or animal would eat it, not one of the children bathing in the nearby creek. And the kids were just thrilled, grinning from ear to ear to get handed empty plastic water bottles. When will they get angry about being grateful for what everybody else already has? Passive-aggressive restaurant help aside, I was constantly amazed at the friendliness and good humor of the Malagasy people. If I still lived in a mud hut with thatch roof in 2007, without electricity or clean water, I think I'd be fairly grumpy.

Note: Click here to read part 3

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