Sunday, 2 September 2018

Madagascar Blog Post 6 - Days 21 - 26

Our birding trip was organised Madagascar Tour Guide (, who were really well organised. Our guide for most of our the trip was Julian, who was brilliant at digging our the birds as well as sorting things out for us along the way. The company is owned by Andre who came to meet us as we passed through Tena. I would highly recommend them and  the prices were modest.

Day 21 - 28/08/2018

On Tuesday 28th August 2018, we had a very early taxi to the airport after a 4 am breakfast in our room at the Saka Manga hotel.  

We had two flights to get us to the tiny town of Maroantsetra, which was on the North East coast of Madagascar, surrounded by rainforest and as we found out, with high amounts of rain. We changed in Toamasin, which was bigger and further down the coast. After we arrived, we were approached by a French local Oliver. He told us that he owned the lodge we were travelling to and got us a taxi to the quayside where he introduced us to Joseph, our local bird, and Marie, our cook. By this time, it was 9.30 am.

We set out on a speed boat with a few warnings that it might get wet,  as it bucketed down. We curled up deeply into our macs and hoped for the best. 

We were soaked through almost immediately and soon gave up on our mission to stay dry. Instead we stretched out and enjoyed the bumpy ride across the very rough sea. We were crossing a large inlet to get to remote forests on the other side.

After an hour had passed and just as the waves had begun to be monotonous, to our great excitement we spotted a humpback whale breaching in the water. It was a mother and her calf barely 20 metres away. The lowness of the boat in the water highlighted just how close we were.

From that point in we had another 10 encounters with mother humpback whales and their calves. Here, like South Africa and Eastern Australia, they come to the warm, shallow waters to give birth and nurture their babies.

By the time we reached the shore, we were incredibly excited.

We carried our bags up to our hut and discussed our game plan with Joseph, our local bird guide. We were surrounded by the most incredible primary rainforest, which was beautiful but did make everything in our wooden building damp/wet. Our target birds were Helmeted and Bernier’s Vanga, both rare and tricky to see. We had already been warned by the tour company that there was a high chance we would not see Bernier’s Vanga.

We were here four nights to give us time to have a good go at trying to see both birds.

There were two single beds downstairs and a double bed in a mezzanine bedroom upstairs. The ladder was pretty steep, so mum decided to sleep downstairs with me.

Mum was complaining because the bathroom looked dirty. There was unidentifiable stuff on the bathroom mat and table. So she then swept and cleaned it.

After lunch and a rest, we went out birding  for the afternoon, seeing very little. Joseph had warned us it would be quiet, but we had to at least try going out, to be seen to be eager.

The generator came on at 6 pm with a few dim lights and one socket. Good job we always bring an extension lead to power up everything at the same time.

Then we could hear squeaking. Mum is completely phobic about rodents so locked herself into a bed with a mosquito net tightly tucked in.

Then we realised that the muck in the bathroom had been bat poo. Dad had 6 bats flying around his tiny room and we had an equal number roosting in our bathroom and then flying around our room.

After this excitement, we went across for a simple dinner before returning to our room and having the lights go out half an hour early at 8.30 pm.

Getting into bed, we realised how damp the beds were. It was pretty disgusting but eventually I started to drift off.

I was just falling asleep when mum starting calling me in a loud whisper. She had heard something scurrying around upstairs. A whole section of our hut was open to the elements so she wasn’t going to be reassured easily. She then started shouting up to dad. He moved around enough for us to realise that the noise was the floorboards moving and making a strange noise.

Mum had psyched herself into a frenzy by this point and then remembered about the two apples left out on the table. The first rule of rain forests is never have food in your room as it attracts rats. She shouted up to Dad and asked him to come down the steep ladder and chuck the apples out but that was just never going to happen. So then she asked me to get out of my damp bed, open the door, throw the apples as far as possible from our hut, all for a quiet night. Whilst it was the last thing I wanted to get up and do, I knew that I wasn’t going to get any sleep until the apples were turfed out!

Despite the damp bed, I did then fall asleep for the rest of the night.

The next morning, on Wednesday 29th August 2018 we were up early, though feeling refreshed as we’d got a good night sleep. We had breakfast in the dark and then went  out into the forest pre dawn, with Joseph whistling for Helmeted Vanga.

The first hour was really quiet. Joseph said he hadn’t heard anything at all. Suddenly, he indicated that he had maybe heard something. Almost immediately he was pointing above his head, where there was a huge Helmeted Vanga  sitting on a branch right above our heads. It was a stunning bird with a huge blue bill.

After watching this, Joseph reminded us that Bernier’s Vanga was incredibly difficult to see and he doesn’t often see them. He said that he had seen one following a flock of Helmeted Vanga the week before and so that was our best chance.

So we carried on tracking Helmeted Vanga, eventually finding the same flock Joseph had found last week. Just as we were enjoying a group of 8 birds, our guide motioned that we had heard a Bernier’s Vanga. We couldn’t believe our luck, when suddenly one was sitting out in front of us on a branch. As we watched this female, a male flew in and sat out as well. It was the most fantastic scene, knowing it’s rare to see both.

On our way back to the lodge, we saw White-faced Brown Lemur which was small and cute.

There was a really rare Lemur, Red-roughed Lemur that you only get here, but Joseph said he couldn’t look for it and the birds at the same time. Fair enough.

Having been out birding for the morning, we returned to the camp just as it started pouring with rain.

The rain set in, so we decided to have a well deserved afternoon off.

Mum and I watched Pride and Prejudice on my phone (the film version with Keira Knightly). I had finally finished the book, so it was great to watch the film and compare.

The rain had cleared up and so we went down to the beach to see if we could find a Sanderson’s Tern, but it was too early still for them to return from Africa. We did see a lot of Roseate Tern and Lesser Crested Tern on the rocks just off the shore. 

That evening was a repeat of the one before. However, this time Mum managed to negotiate dinner that I would eat. However, I think there was a breakdown in communication as mum and dad got chips (French fries) but I got 2 boiled potatoes and a boiled carrot! They must have thought I wanted veg, not, didn’t want veg!

Tonight we made sure we were in bed before the lights went out and the bats came out.

Thursday 30th August 2018, we were due to have breakfast at 6 am.  However, there had been torrential rain non stop from 8 pm the night before. We were so happy that it was just the Lemur to see as the idea of marching around the rain forest was not appealing.

We eventually got up from our lie in, to have a 7.30 am breakfast.

We agreed with Joseph that the Lemur would be taking shelter in the rain but that we would go out later, if the rain cleared for long enough.

A German couple and a Switz couple arrived drenched at lunch time and were interesting to talk to. 

By about 4 pm it had dried up enough to try for Lemur. Mum decided that the trails would be rivers and stayed in. Dad and I decided we would try, as it was getting a bit much staying in all day. 

We didn’t see any Lemur but about 20 minutes up from the lodge we heard a bird of prey calling. We followed the squarking, to find something astonishing; it was a Madagascar Serpent Eagle. Something that hadn’t been seen in this entire peninsular for more than five years. We spent about an hour watching it, taking photos and tracking which tree it ended up roosting in. We were hoping that we could come back at dawn tomorrow and show the bird to mum. The whole time the bird, which was an adult, carried on calling. Dad also recorded the call on his phone and when he played it back, it did respond.

By the time we got back to mum, she knew that we had seen something. She was trying to be stoical, but was relieved that the bird had gone to roost.

At dinner, we exchanged stories with the other couples which was nice, as we’d hardly spoken to anyone the whole trip.

Joseph came into dinner, to let us know there was an East coast Scops Owl in a tree next to the kitchen. We all ran to the tree and were pleased to see the owl. We had seen one before but it was good to see one exactly where they are meant to be.

We decided to get to bed straight after dinner. There was a bit more excitement on the bat front as Dad asked me to go up and help get the bats out. As I opened the bedroom door, a large fruit bat flew into my face, followed by three of the tiny cute bats we had downstairs.

Mum had decided that it was best to just get to bed early, tuck herself into her mosquito net and get into bed with warm clothes as they seemed to absorb the dampness from the sheets, pillow and blankets.

Friday 31st August 2018, we had arranged a 5.30 am breakfast so we could try and find the eagle from the afternoon before. Then just before 6 am, Joseph came running into the dining room. One of the other guides had just called Banded Kestrel in a tree above the kitchen. This time we really did run, very fast, but got there literally seconds after it had flown off out of view.

We then quickly finished our drinks and then walked around to the huts where the staff and locals lived. We searched the area with no sign of the Kestrel. It was really disappointing as we had been trying nv for Banded Kestrel our whole trip, as it’s a difficult bird of prey to catch up with, as there are not many specific sites.

It was interesting that this marshy area was infested with mosquitoes and probably had lots of malaria. The 
mosquitoes were vicious and the bites were also nasty, swelling ones. 

We had to give up on the Kestrel and head into the rainforest. As we reached the spot where we had left the eagle, Joseph got excited and got mum onto a perched bird of prey. Then Dad started saying it was too small and didn’t look right. He knocked Joseph’s confidence but then he came back explaining why it wasn’t anything else and how it was definitely a young Madagascar Serpent Eagle. After much discussion, they decided that the female adult was calling last night because it had a young bird close and this was the young bird. That would explain why this bird was so much smaller than the one the evening before. Looking at the close up photos we could see the feathers at the back of its neck, though they were lying flat on the young bird. Mum was ecstatic!

We then carried on looking for Lemur and found a pair of Red-roughed Lemur and a Parson’s Nose Chameleon which were fantastic.

Then our minds went back to the Banded Kestrel from the morning and we raced back down the hill.

There, in the dead tree where it had been sitting this morning was a Banded Kestrel. We just couldn’t believe our luck!

That was 4 new birds for the trip, taking us up to 124 new birds for the trip.

That in turn took me to 4,960 on my IOC world list.

After another simple lunch, it started raining again. Joseph came to tell us that we had to leave early tomorrow because of changes in flight times.

So we lounged around in the afternoon whilst it continued raining non stop and got an early night.

Saturday 1st September 2018

This morning we had to dodge the bats at 4 am, get our bags out and be at breakfast for 4.30 am. Joseph came with us on our 5 am speed boat. It was pretty rough and probably too early in the morning for the Humpback Whale.

By 7 am we had a day room in a local lodge. After hot showers and warm, dry clothes we did feel better. I spent the morning in bed, reading and relaxing.

After lunch we were at the airport for our afternoon flights back to Taba. It was 7pm when we got back to the Saka Manga hotel for dinner, a regroup and then off to get our flight home via Nairobi.

About the Author

Birdgirl Mya-Rose Craig in Antarctica
Photograph copyright Young Birder Birdgirl Mya-Rose Craig

Mya-Rose Craig is a 16-year-old young British Bangladeshi birder, naturalist, conservationist, environmentalist, activist, writer and speaker. She is based near Bristol and writes the successful Birdgirl Blog, with posts about birding and conservation from around the world. She loved seeing Mountain Gorillas in East Africa and Penguins in Antarctica over Christmas 2015, her 7th continent. She is looking forward to visiting Tanzania, Kenya and Madagascar birding in 2018 and hopes to see her 5000th bird species in the world.

Mya-Rose was a Bristol European Green Capital Ambassador along with Kevin McCloud, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, Tony Juniper, Simon King, Miranda Krestovnikoff and Shaun the Sheep! See the full list of Bristol Ambassadors. She has also been listed with the singer-songwriter George Ezra and actress Maisie Williams from Game of Thrones as one of Bristol's most influential young people
She is an Ambassador for See It Her Way and a Charter Champion for The Charter for Woods, Trees and People. She has given over 50 talks, speaking at conferences such as being on a panel with George Monbiot and Caroline Lucas on Sustainability and the Future of Cities. She has also appeared on TV an dis particularly proud of being in Silent Roars, a short film which was part of Listen to Britain 2017 organised a conference, Race Equality in Nature, in June 2016 aiming to increase the ethnic diversity in nature and plans to run her fifth Camp Avalon camp in 2018. She has also set up Black2Nature with the aim of working with organisations to increase the access to nature of Black Asian Minority Ethnic people. Please connect with her on LinkedIn (Mya-Rose Birdgirl Craig) so that she can invite you to join the Race Equality in Nature LinkedIn Group and be part of the change. She has been awarded the Bath and West Show Environmental Youth Award 2017 for Bristol for her Black2Nature work EYA 2017Please also like her Birdgirl Facebook Page and follow her on Birdgirl Twitter.

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