Thursday, 29 November 2012

Emotional black-and-white-mail

Whenever I return from a long trip on which I've worked hard, I ponder what life would be like if I didn't rove the globe and live out of a suitcase. Today, during a long conversation with Naturetrek, I jokingly announced I would not be going back to Madagascar. No sooner had I hung up the phone than by email I received this photo, which cruelly preys on my weakness for all things sad-eyed and, especially, for the black-and-white ruffed lemur.

I have been outmanoeuvred this time. Nothing for it, I shall have to go back to Madagascar.

Black-and-white ruffed lemur by a dastardly blackmailer


The many jackdaws get up an hour after me, each dropping his sharp call to earth like a dart. There is frost on my car windscreen and the deeply flooded meadow is a scrum of ducks. Two magpies - for joy - row on round wings across a rain dark sky and, coffee in hand, I sit to my laptop to work: mind backwards to Madagascar, mind forwards to Burma, and an eye, always, to the starling scattered sky above my common.

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Hanging around

A few days ago, on this very blog, I gushed over black-and-white ruffed lemurs. As I stood watching the lemurs in Mantadia, extolling their virtues to my group, my charming Naturetrek colleague Kerrie (who, though an old-Madagascar-hand, had never before seen this most glorious of species) fell for their many charms and became a ready convert to Varecia worship. Kerrie took lots of photos of wildlife, landscape and people during our Madagascar's Lemurs tour and these will appear on the Naturetrek website and blog. She has also kindly allowed me to use them here, for the purposes of marshtittery.

Here then, as a taster of the Malagasy delights to come, is a black-and-white ruffed lemur, just hanging around.

Black-and-white ruffed lemur by Kerrie Warburton


My hairdresser is a lovely young woman with a startling pink streak through her bottle-blonde hair. Emerging scruffily from the forest, I went to see her yesterday.

Hairdresser: Didn't you have all your hair cut off last time you was here?

Marsh tit: Yes, I was travelling again.

Hairdresser: Where was you going?

Marsh tit: I've been in Madagascar for six weeks.

Hairdresser: You're kidding me; I love that film.

This mammal fauna is exceptional for two major reasons. Firstly, every native terrestrial species (a total of approximately 148) is endemic, i.e. they occur naturally nowhere else. No other island or place on Earth boasts such a combination of species richness and endemism. And secondly, these mammals have evolved an extraordinary diversity of both forms and lifestyles often displaying significant convergence with continental forms but also at times evolving utterly unique features […]. The reason for this is simple: Madagascar has been an island for a very long time, which has allowed its mammals to evolve along totally different lines from anywhere else.

Nick Garbutt
Mammals of Madagascar: A Complete Guide

These Austronesians, with their Austronesian language and modified Austronesian culture, were already established on Madagascar by the time it was first visited by Europeans, in 1550. This strikes me as the single most astonishing fact of human geography for the entire world. It’s as if Columbus, on reaching Cuba, had found it occupied by blue-eyed, blond-haired Scandinavians speaking a language close to Swedish, even though the nearby North American continent was inhabited by Native Americans speaking Amerindian languages. How on earth could prehistoric people of Borneo, presumably voyaging in boats without maps or compasses, end up in Madagascar?

Jared Diamond
Guns, Germs and Steel – a short history of everybody for the last 13,000 years

Saturday, 24 November 2012

Babakoto, Bizet and a brute

Unbeknown to me DTH and Gav have been plotting while I've been in Madagascar. They are my oldest birding friends and theirs is a very benign plot, for they've been planning my path to 1,000 birds before the year is out.

I'd agreed before I left that I'd stay with Gav and his girlfriend Amy in London when I got back, in part just to spend time with them and in part to pick up any good birds which could be seen around town. Gav and Amy are both professional singers so I was asked on arrival whether in the evening I'd like to attend ENO's production of Carmen in which Gav is currently performing. Thus it was that after thirty-six hours without sleep, the last music I'd heard being the rainforest wail of of the indri the day before, and dressed in a new style known as just-out-of-the-jungle, I tipped up at the Coliseum to see the show. I had a splendid time and was very grateful for the privilege.

From opera our exploits turned back to birds and early morning today saw us on the beach at Dungeness looking for the site's regular glaucous gull. This trip was smilingly presented to me as a fait accompli, part of DTH and Gav's master-plan for nudging me past the thousand mark. The gulls at Dungeness were good: among the many great black-backs and herrings was a tidy adult yellow-legged and over the sea were an adult kittiwake and a first winter. I love both yellow-legged gulls and kittiwakes, but I've already seen them this year. I also loved the snazzy adult gannets that were over the moody grey water and the many great crested grebes that were on it, but I've seen tons of those this year too. What I hadn't seen was a glaucous gull.

For some time I continued not to see it, until Gav picked up the handsome, hulking ice-winged brute over the fishing boats. From green jery in the Malagasy forest to glaucous gull on a drizzle-damp beach in wintry Kent in two days. What a world this is.

With the gull on the list we sat in the RSPB hides and watched wigeon, goldeneye and kingfisher until cold, wet and hunger harried us back to London. This afternoon I reached my home in Norfolk where, with DTH and Gav's plot to guide me, I hope to see eight more species of bird before December's done.

New today on a cold, wet beach


glaucous gull
Larus hyperboreus

2012 Totals
Mammals: 129
Birds: 992
Reptiles: 76
Amphibians: 23
Fish: 12

Sparrows are big
Amy Wood, singer

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Fotsy fe

22nd November

On our last walk in the lovely forest of Analamazaotra my group saw their first eastern avahis. Three adults, in an exposed huddle on a dead tree, stared at us with dopey eyes; they even allowed us to coo over their tiny round-faced infant. Hubbard’s sportive lemur was almost knocked from his popularly-voted position as cutest lemur seen on the tour.

We left the forest without having seen any of the last-minute birds I’d hoped we’d find. I resigned myself to leaving Madagascar on 990 species. A tour leader is always busy so I was late getting back to my room at Vakona Lodge to pack. As I rushed past a flowering Callistemon I heard the seven bright chips of a green jery, which I last heard here more than a year ago. The tiny olive bird was poking his sharp beak into the bristly red flowers above my head. I stopped to watch and had even less time for packing as a result, but I leave Madagascar on 991 birds for the year. Nine more to find in Norfolk before 2012 is out.

Tonight we reached Tana and in the wee small hours of tomorrow we’ll leave Madagascar, courtesy of Air France, bound for Paris and the UK.

New at the eleventh hour today


green jery
Neomixis viridis

2012 Totals
Mammals: 129
Birds: 991
Reptiles: 76
Amphibians: 23
Fish: 12


21st November

The clouds were telling the truth: our night-walk was rained off, though not before my group had seen another Crossley’s dwarf lemur and their first short-nosed chameleon. Given that we’ve also seen short-horned and nose-horned chameleons on the tour, it’s no surprise I prefer the scientific names.

Tomorrow morning we visit Analamazaotra for a last walk in the forest; my last walk in a Malagasy forest until who knows when. My last lemurs and my last chameleons. I love them all, when the rain falls and when the sun shines, and it has been a blessing to visit them again.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012


21st November

The black-and-white ruffed lemur has always been my favourite of all. It’s rare (all three subspecies are, tragically, listed as critically endangered by IUCN); it lives in remote and wonderful forests; it’s acrobatically arboreal, preferring the tops of mighty rainforest trees; it’s strikingly beautiful, in pattern and pelage; and it’s hard to see. I love black-and-white ruffed lemurs and I was secretly very disappointed that we failed to see them on my last tour.

Things didn’t bode well for our seeing them on this tour either. When my current group reached Andasibe I asked Naturetrek’s brilliant local guide, Maurice, about the ruffed lemurs and he replied that they hadn’t been seen by anyone in more than a week.

Today we made the long journey to Mantadia’s beautiful primary forest and I whispered to Maurice and our lemur tracker Marcelin that, having seen indris and diademed sifakas superbly yesterday, the ruffed lemurs were our main priority here. Shortly after our arrival, after stops for a pair of white-throated rails and their night-black chicks, and for a pair of intricately lovely short-legged ground rollers, we heard the unmistakable snarling calls of the ruffed lemurs on the ridge above us. We bee-lined up the ridge, naturally, stopping to admire a placid indri chewing leaves and to let Maurice and Marcelin go ahead to scout for the lemurs.

Marcelin found them and called to us across a forest valley. My intrepid Naturetrekkers took the steep slope, the gnarled roots and the tangled vegetation in their stride and soon we were watching magnificent black-and-white ruffed lemurs as they fed on fat fruits at the top of a tall tree. But these were not just any ruffed lemurs; these were the same parents I saw in October last year and their four young who were then tiny infants, just learning to scamper through the treetops. The young are big and strong now and showed their strength and agility by tumbling down lianas until they were just in front of us and leaping effortlessly from one tree to the next.

We were ecstatic and my group agreed with me that these were among the finest of lemurs. More was to come though, in the shape of two startling Baron’s mantella frogs, two eastern grey bamboo lemurs, and pairs of Meller’s ducks, Madagascar little grebes, Madagascar starlings and broad-billed rollers.

Tonight is my last in Madagascar this year. If the rainclouds don’t defeat us (they did two nights ago but not last night) we’ll take another walk in the forest in the hope of finding chameleons, dwarf lemurs and leaf-tailed geckos. For now I’m typing on my rainforest verandah, a crested drongo singing in the trees above me and a brush warbler weaving through the undergrowth. I shall greatly miss Madagascar, as I miss every country in which I'm privileged to work, but part of me too will be very glad to be home. Slavonian grebe (and frost), here I come.

New today


southern black-and-white ruffed lemur
Varecia variegata editorum


white-throated rail
Dryolimnas cuvieri
short-legged ground-roller
Brachypteracias leptosomus


Baron’s mantella
Mantella baroni

2012 Totals
Mammals: 129
Birds: 990
Reptiles: 76
Amphibians: 23
Fish: 12

A note for the linguistically minded: The title of this post is the word used by Maurice, who has lived all his life in Andasibe, for the black-and-white ruffed lemur. My superb Naturetrek co-leader Claude, who is from the north of Madagascar and who has travelled the island’s length and breadth many times, uses the word varikandra which seems to be a more widespread name for the species. Just thought you’d want to know.


20th November

A conversation today about Lantana and its colonisation of forests all over the tropics (as we waited for a Madagascar rail to appear):

Marsh tit: Tigers in India love to sleep under Lantana and it was all over Mount Lewis when I saw the blue-faced parrot-finch there.

Charming birder from Queensland: You’ve seen the blue-faced parrot-finch?

Marsh tit: Yes.

Charming birder from Queensland (with a big smile): Bastard.

He, it would seem, has not.

In my bathroom at Vakona Lodge in Andasibe there is a large and beautiful male lined day gecko. In the forest this morning there were singing indris, diademed sifakas just metres from us (including an adorable youngster born in June), and a male Henst’s goshawk on a bough. Just twelve birds to go before New Year.

New today


Henst’s goshawk
Accipiter henstii



Guibemantis (liber) perineti

2012 Totals
Mammals: 128
Birds: 988
Reptiles: 76
Amphibians: 22
Fish: 12

Sunday, 18 November 2012


18th November

From long-tailed ground-roller, subdesert mesite and thamnornis warbler this morning, in the weighty heat of Ifaty, to a bedgraggled sooty falcon on the roof of Tana airport in a downpour this evening. Today was a day of travel.

New this evening in a Tana downpour


sooty falcon
Falco concolor

2012 Totals
Mammals: 128
Birds: 987
Reptiles: 76
Amphibians: 21
Fish: 12

From a hot hotel in Toliara

18th November

New in the past three days in Zombitse and Ifaty


Appert’s tetraka
Xanthomixis apperti
thamnornis warbler
Thamnornis chloropetoides
greater flamingo
Phoenicopterus ruber


Dumeril’s ground boa
Acrantophis dumerili
four-lined plated lizard
Zonosaurus quadrilineatus

2012 Totals
Mammals: 128
Birds: 986
Reptiles: 76
Amphibians: 21
Fish: 12

Friday, 16 November 2012


16th November

In Isalo today the Verreaux’s sifakas looped through the trees around us and cocked their heads to peer at us, strange white primates, with their quizzical yellow eyes. Their young, born three or four months ago now, are big and strong and often confident enough to leave their mothers and come pinging through the forest to investigate the visiting vasas. Nearby a fandrefiala coiled effortlessly up a liana. This beautiful, near-harmless snake is thought by local people to stiffen itself and drop like a deadly dart from trees to kill hapless people and their zebu. All of my group survived the encounter.

A Benson’s (forest) rock thrush quivered its tail on a boulder in a dry stream, rosy periwinkles bloomed, a locally endemic frog shone day-glo yellow from a bright leaf, and, as we left the Canyon des Rats, the low cloud hurled its thunder and its lightning and its striking rain at us. We trudged through the heavy clay, pelted by the rain, and smiled big smiles for the lemurs we had left in the forest and for all the Malagasy creatures we are yet to see. Tomorrow Zombitse and on to Ifaty.

New today in Isalo


Ithycyphus miniatus



Heterixalus luteostriatus

2012 Totals
Mammals: 128
Birds: 983
Reptiles: 74
Amphibians: 21
Fish: 12

Thursday, 15 November 2012


15th November

Today we visited the lovely Anja community reserve where infant ring-tailed lemurs played at our feet, Grandidier’s iguanids toasted themselves on granite outcrops, and a Madagascarophis colubrinus snake devoured a hapless Oustalet’s chameleon. This reserve is community conservation at its best. I hope the model can be replicated elsewhere in Madagascar. The need is great.

New today at Anja


Madagascar cat-eyed snake
Madagascarophis colubrinus colubrinus
Grandidier’s iguanid
Oplurus grandidieri

2012 Totals
Mammals: 128
Birds: 983
Reptiles: 73
Amphibians: 20
Fish: 12


14th November

Yesterday’s long walk in Talatakely was hard work for our clients so, having seen seven species of lemur in Ranomafana already (in chronological order: golden bamboo, small-toothed sportive, Milne-Edwards’ sifaka, Peyrieras’ avahi, red-bellied, red-fronted brown, and brown mouse), this morning we resolved to go in search of the greater bamboo lemur and, having succeeded or failed, to head for home and have a restful day. When you set out to see one species of lemur, you see five, naturally. When we entered the forest our spotter, Bako, had already found Talatakely’s last two greater bamboo lemurs and, after a good walk, we saw them astonishingly well. They hopped through the trees just two metres from us and came down to the ground to feed on fallen bamboo shoots. It was the encounter of a lifetime; quite literally as Claude had never seen them like this in fourteen years of visits.

Leaving the greater bamboos we passed a red-bellied female with indecent haste as we’d heard that Bako had found the rarely-seen Ranomafana grey bamboo lemur nearby. (This is a subspecies of the eastern grey bamboo lemur I saw recently in Andasibe.) We reached the trail to hear that the grey bamboos had been lost, though we were consoled by a couple of golden bamboos passing by in the tops of the trees. A call went up: the grey bamboos had been found again, and in moments we were watching these lovely little animals and comparing them with the greater bamboos we had been watching at point-blank range just moments before. The subspecies here seems browner than the eastern grey of Andasibe-Mantadia and, of course, much slighter than the greater bamboo. It also lacks the greater’s strong muzzle and big teeth, for tearing into tougher bamboos, and its diagnostic white ear tufts.

We were, our guide Berthin told us, the first Naturetrek group, of eight this season, to see the grey bamboo and thus all three of the park’s bamboo lemurs. We saw them all within the space of an hour. Jolly chuffed we were too.

On the way home, well, we stopped to admire a basking tree boa by the roadside. And in the hotel garden on our return the gardener showed us two magnificent and very obliging chameleons: a male belted and a female Parson’s. It's a good place, Ranomafana.

A new mammal subspecies in Ranomafana today


Ranomafana grey bamboo lemur
Hapalemur griseus ranomafanensis

2012 Totals
Mammals: 128
Birds: 983
Reptiles: 71
Amphibians: 20
Fish: 12


13th November

New today in the rainforest of Ranomafana


small-toothed sportive lemur
Lepilemur microdon


red-fronted coua
Coua reynaudii
tylas vanga
Tylas eduardi



Mantidactylus lugubris

Mantidactylus melanopleura

Boophis tephraeomystax

Platypelis barbouri

2012 Totals
Mammals: 128
Birds: 983
Reptiles: 71
Amphibians: 20
Fish: 12


12th November

This evening we reached Ranomafana. The five-day rain has stopped for the time being and the local power cut, which in turn put paid to the water supply, ended just as we arrived. These I take to be good omens for our stay. Tomorrow we make our first foray into the forest, where I hope we will have even greater success than we did on our last tour. This evening, miraculously, I have time to read the pages of notes I scribbled while in the forest with my two wonderful guides in Kirindy earlier in the week.

My guides were Nambina, a young man of twenty from near Antananarivo who had come to Kirindy to learn to be a professional guide with a view to a career in tourism, and Doliste, a man in his forties from the nearest village who had lived all his life in the forest. Nambina belongs to the Merina culture of the highlands. Doliste identifies himself as Tetsaka but broadly belongs to the Sakalava culture of the west; he has had very little school education, and speaks little French (why should he?) but he knows the chip of every bird, the quiver of every leaf and the chirp of each insect. He also breaks readily into a big smile, especially when it occurs to a scrawny westerner to act out the foraging behaviour of a buttonquail.

I like language, I like wildlife and I like people; so wherever I go I jot local names for animals and plants. The following list, for many reasons, doubtless contains numerous errors. I speak no Malagasy, one of my guides and I had no language in common, and the other was a newcomer from another culture. Some of the names I cite below may be wrong, others may be locally inappropriate, still others may apply in only a small area of west Madagascar and, let’s face it, I may have got the wrong end of the stick. Nonetheless, here are some names I was given for plants and animals which my guides and I saw (or in some cases heard) together in the forest.

Malagasy or regional dialect name
English or scientific name
magpie robin
broad-billed roller
baobab (in this case Adansonia rubrostipa)
harrier hawk
ray lovy
reo reo (meaning: two two)
cuckoo roller (an onomatopoeic rendition of its song)
sianga, voromanga
souimanga sunbird (the latter name may also be used colloquially to mean a pretty girl)
Pandanus screw palm (known in Mantadia as vakona)
katsatsa bato
Karsten’s plated lizard
lemur (in this case red-fronted brown)
tsidy, tsitsidy
mouse lemur (in this case grey mouse lemur)
tsidy kely
Madame Berthe’s mouse lemur (literally: little mouse lemur)
lesser cuckoo (an onomatopoeic rendition of its song)
big-eyed grass snake Mimophis mahfalensis
Coquerel’s coua
bush pig
skink (in this case Trachylepis elegans)
red-tailed sportive lemur
common newtonia (an onomatopoeic rendition of its song)
Sakalava weaver
trango draky
weaver nest or colony (literally: the weaver’s house)
crested coua
vasa parrot
paradise flycatcher
Delonix decaryi tree
lavaky vitsiky
ant hole
turtle dove
androngy hazo
iguanid lizard
Coquerel’s giant dwarf lemur
kely be hohy
fat-tailed dwarf lemur (local Kirindy name)
wild vanilla (Vanilla madagascariensis)
Xanthoxylum decaryi tree (literally, on account of its spikes: fosa can’t climb tree)
kina kina (Sakalava people of west Madagascar), dondozy (Merina people of highlands around Tana)
Pachypodium elephant’s foot plant
kily (Sakalava), vomadilo (Merina)
tamarind tree