I spent two months in Madagascar in 1999 as part of a team attempting to assess the effect of proximity to human habitation on the population densities of various diurnal lemur species in Sector 4 of the Zahamena National Park, which lies in the rainforest belt running along the eastern side of the country. Our survey site was at mid-altitude and though we were there in the austral winter and had no sound recording equipment we saw a good number of birds. Indeed when we compared our sightings to the list for the area, compiled from survey data collected by Frank Hawkins, we had succeeded in finding most of the birds we could have hoped to. I have wanted to return ever since and finally made it this November courtesy of a trip organised by Zack Weber and advertised on Bird Forum (whereby Adam Hudson and Steve Greenfield had joined). Ground arrangements and guiding were handled by Madagascar Tour Guide and the trip cost around 3000 Euros for what became a fairly extended itinerary.

Our very first birding excursion involved a 4.5 hour hike in to the edge of the Tsitongambarika Forest, the most significant tract of rainforest in the south-east. Our principal reason for this trek, which is seldom made by visiting birders, was the presence in the forest of Madagascar Red Owl. This species is a peculiar one. It went unrecorded between 1934 and 1973 and has generally only been seen by visiting birders who are taken to day roosts located during radio-tracking work undertaken by the Peregrine Fund in the NW of the country. It is classified as Vulnerable with a population estimated at around 10 000 in a range of some 52 200 km². I always thought of it as a rainforest bird and it has historically been regarded as  such, occurring in undisturbed growth between 800-1300 m. It does however have some facility to utilise degraded habitats and was recently discovered in dry forest in the far north. There was little light left by the time we had set up camp on day one and though we heard the Red Owl on our first attempt along the trails that night the first good bird seen was a Madagascar Scops Owl which came in right above the tents.

Tsitongambarika campsite.

The highly recommended Tsitongambarika Restaurant. 

Next morning we began birding in a clearing above the campsite from which, over the next two days, we ran up a list of vangas that included Tylas, Pollens, La Fresnaye’s, Red-tailed, Chabert’s, Hook-billed and the super attractive Nuthatch and Madagascar Blue. Other species recorded here included Madagascar Green Sunbird, Madagascar Cuckoo-shrike, Stripe-throated Jerry and Nelicourvi Weaver. Red-tailed Newtonia was calling but we couldn’t locate the bird so we dropped down to a fairly open area of forest close to camp. I took the view that having climbed all the way up the hill we wanted to make sure we saw those species we couldn’t encounter elsewhere and after some dedicated effort and a bit of trawling we eventually got good views of this species, which Zack subsequently saw pass right by his tent. There followed a long walk which yielded very little save for our first Long-billed Tetraka. After lunch I had just collapsed in my tent when I heard a magical name being spoken, Scaly Ground-roller. I headed in to the forest with my shoelaces flapping, desperately fighting the urge to simply run towards the source of the sound as fast as possible, for fear I may scare the bird off. I need not have worried for it was on territory and in no hurry in the mid-day heat and I cursed myself for not having brought my camera as the bird hopped up on to a log a short distance away. I went back with the camera later but the light had gone and it was Zack who secured the best results.

Scaly Ground-roller. Photo by Zack Weber. 

Scaly Ground-roller. 

The highlight of an afternoon walk was a Short-legged Ground-roller, the one species that we saw regularly in Zahamena but one I was more than pleased to see again after all those years.

Short-legged Ground-roller. Photo by Steve Greenfield. 

By that evening Zack had become ill but Steve, Adam and I made the second trek for the Red Owl. Steve and I had stopped for a break not far from where we heard the bird the previous evening and Steve decided he would not continue as a long-standing knee injury was causing him some trouble. I went on and soon became aware that something was happening ahead of me. What was happening was that an owl had swooped right over Adam’s head in the dark. We settled down, turned off all our torches and urged the guide to use playback sparingly. It is both ethical and effective to use playback economically and best with night birds to wait until you think the bird has come in before commencing the search by torch. The bird called back then went quiet, Adam waited, turned on the torch and rapidly located the bird perched on the other side of a slightly open area adjacent to the trail. A radio tagged bird on a day roost would afford better views but I was delirious to have seen one at all, especially after all the effort it took. I will hold my hands up here in that I thought it was a hopeless task. The guides however, reckon they can find the owl regularly.

Returning to camp we discovered Zack was seriously ill but after long discussion it was decided that with just 5 hours or so till daybreak the porters would not attempt to carry him out in the dark. Heroically he walked out the following morning, a task which damn near finished me!  He did not even miss out that badly bird-wise as he was booked on to an extension for the Red Owl and the Serpent Eagle. Blue Couas around the campsite and a Red-fronted Coua on the walk down were the stand-out birds of the final morning.

The forest is marvelous, surveys there have recorded most of the country’s rainforest birds and the presence of the Red Owl and Red-tailed Newtonia are testament to the quality of the habitat. Numerous discoveries have been made among the plants and herptiles occurring in the area and may yet be made among it’s birds as the higher elevations remain unsurveyed. Until recently the forest had no conservation designation but an application has been put forward to accord it Protected Area status. It cannot be granted too soon, there has been total clearance of the lower slopes on the walk up and we witnessed selective logging going on inside the forest throughout our 2.5 day visit. We were told that timber was being taken for house building but that seems unlikely given the amount of felling activity occurring. An explosion of illegal logging, fuelled by demand for Rosewood from China took place in Madagascar following the 2009 coup and we were also told that the problem is far from over.

Red-tailed Newtonia habitat in Tsitongambarika Forest, close to our campsite.

A forested ridge at Tsitongambarika, of the type utilised by Madagascar Red Owl. 

Pristine lower slopes, Tsitongambarika Forest.

Cleared lower slopes, Tsitongambarika Forest.