An island home to a host of endemic birds and other great wildlife, including lemurs!
It’s endemic birds aplenty at this exotic location, just off the coast of Africa
IF CHARLES DARWIN’S ship HMS Beagle had made a diversion and arrived in Madagascar before the Galápagos 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 also for the general wildlife enthusiast. 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. 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. Another target endemic family for birders are the ground-rollers. 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 Galápagos finches. 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. 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 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 24. 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. 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, for me, the Nuthatch Vanga is one of the prizes here. 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.
SAVANNA Madagascan savanna in the Menabe region of western Madagascar
GIANT COUA Relatives of the cuckoos, the couas are strictly birds of Madagascar
SCALY GROUND-ROLLER An endemic beauty of a bird from a family restricted to Madagascar
BLUE COUA It is not hard to see where the Blue Coua gets its name from...