Bird­ing Mada­gas­car

An is­land home to a host of en­demic birds and other great wildlife, in­clud­ing lemurs!

Bird Watching (UK) - - Contents - WORDS: BAR­RIE COOPER

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...

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