Ny Vorona eto Madagasikara: the Rainforest Birds of Madagascar

Madagascar transformed me into an incidental birder: I was constantly on the lookout for avifauna, but seldom did I set out specifically to go birdwatching. Most of the wonders I saw remain unphotographed. While working in the rainforest, I felt like I was operating at "Max Nina," meaning I was handling as much as I could and there was no room, mentally or physically, to add one more thing, even a camera.

A rare morning when I left camp with a birding purpose. Up the mountain and through the mist!

Picture this. It's 3:30 pm, time to start your afternoon routine of setting traps to catch mouse lemurs. You pull on rain pants, rain jacket, and rubber boots (if you are lucky enough to have them; many of our guides went barefoot and shirtless.) You struggle along a muddy mountain slope in the rain, thorns snagging your skin, spiderwebs clinging to your face, leeches inching up your legs, mosquitoes piercing your socks in the thin spots, a dozen metal traps under one arm and a folded leaf full of banana slices in your hand. When you fall, don't grab the tree ferns! They leave nagging splinters. Avoid the Pandanus, too! Those trunks are covered with thorns sharp enough to rip your palms open. But hurry! Your guides are almost out of sight ahead of you. When you finally find the pink plastic flag wrapped around a branch, you are ready to set your first trap. Just avoid the column of ants streaming across the neighboring tree. And when you pull a string out of your pocket to tie up the trap, make sure you don't lose all the other strings! If anything falls, that means a long, slippery crawl down the slope and back up to your "trail," which is actually just dense undergrowth with a few machete slashes through it.

When I did go birding, I brought Birds of Madagascar and the Indian Ocean Islands by Hawkins, Safford, and Skerrett. This book was a going-away gift from my mom. (Thanks, Mom!) I loved that it was a complete illustrated guide, but I didn't love all the pages dedicated to each Indian Ocean island (Reunion, Comoros, Seychelles, etc.) because they added weight that I didn't need. I left the book as a gift for my guide, Zaka, who was thrilled to study it whenever we had downtime in camp.

I thought I might get used to the work. "After a couple weeks, this will get easier and you can bring your camera!" I told myself. Wrong. Although I did learn some tricks for navigating the jungle (when walking down a slope of pure clay in the rain, dig your heel in first to make a small step!), I never got fast enough to justify a heavy object swinging around my neck or a minute diverted to photography while my guides did all the work.

I'm currently reading The Malay Archipelago by Alfred Russel Wallace, co-discoverer of evolution by natural selection along with Charles Darwin. In this passage, Wallace gets me: "Everything grew zigzag and jagged, and in an inextricable tangle, so that to get through the bush with a gun or net or even spectacles was generally not to be done, and insect-catching in such localities was out of the question." Photography, my modern substitute for insect-catching, was similarly out of the question. So now you know why I have more memories than photos from Madagascar!

Enjoy these vorona eto Madagasikara, birds of Madagascar---the ones I did manage to photograph. As usual with this wild island, most species are oddities found nowhere else on Earth.

The hamerkop is a strange waterbird. It wades like a heron but soars like a raptor, and it has a hammer for a head. (Check out this photo of a hamerkop at rest.)

Hamerkop are known for building massive, spherical nests the size of small cars. We encountered this one in a tiny hillside fragment of forest surrounded by a sea of rice paddies. Hamerkop are a species that do well in human-made ecosystems, but they still need at least a small patch of trees to build their nests. If this fragment is cut, hamerkop won't be able to breed here anymore, even though they manage to eat and live among rice paddies.

An incredible find! Two young Madagascar long-eared owls (akana in Malagasy), still in their puffy white juvenile plumage. Owls of this age are called "branchers" because they don't fly yet. They just sit in branches are stare you down.

For me, stumbling upon a bird is much more special than coming upon one with a guide or hunting down a known resident. Team Tsitsidy, the mouse lemur research crew, was setting out a transect when these two birds came into view. We all stopped in amazement to admire them.

Zaka said these birds are powerful, and seeing them was a sign that we would have good luck with our work that week.

Olive bee-eater, or kiriroka in Malagasy. Although the Malagasy language is shared by all ethnic groups across the nation, there are lots of regional differences. I noticed that animal names differ radically from village to village! So be aware that the Malagasy name I provide is just one of many possibilities.

African stonechat, zanaka fitatra. A little bird above Ampitavanana.

Madagascar green sunbird, deonga. Larger and darker than the more-commonly seen Souimanga sunbird.

An old nest, skillfully lined with fluff and fur. Zaka thinks it was made by a Souimanga sunbird.

Red-tailed vanga. Another twittering bird above Ampitavanana.

The ubiquitous chicken, akoho! Not native, but certainly a staple of any human-influenced ecosystem in Madagascar (or most of the world.) These chickens had the same long-legged look of Brazilian chickens, giving credit to the theory that long legs helps dispel extra heat. (Excited to look for red junglefowl, the wild ancestor of domestic chickens, in my next destination: Indonesia!)
Madagascar mannikin, tsipiritka. If you want to know how a bird's call sounds, just say its Malagasy name out loud!

Madagascar bulbul, horovana or tsikirovana. It looks like a great thrush from Ecuador and sounds like an American robin, but it's not related to either. The bulbul family, Pycnonotidae, is restricted to the Old World (Africa and Asia), so I'd never seen one before.

Broad-billed roller, harakaraka. A bird like a pack of Crayola crayons! Our hillside sugarcane camp at Antavindalona was graced by this individual every day, perched on his bare branch in the open, rain or shine.

Cuckoo roller, forondreo. The same Antavindalona camp was visited by a pair of cuckoo rollers one day. These distinctly Malagasy birds have comically oversized heads. This gray bird is the male.

Cuckoo roller. This mottled brown-blue bird is the female.

Madagascar kestrel, hitskitsika. These little falcons look and act like an orange version of our American kestrel back home. I stood alone on a bare saddle of a knife-edge ridge between two patches of forest in Antavindalona, watching this kestrel through my binoculars. Suddenly, it turned and flew toward me, getting bigger and bigger in my lenses until finally I had to throw down the binoculars and look with my eyes. As it got closer, its speed became incredible. Aiming for the saddle, it whizzed right over my head, maybe eight meters above me, like a bullet through the air.

That kestrel was one of a pair that returned several times to this snag, probably to a nest.

Here is a view of the kestrels' snag (in the middle of a somewhat-fallow sugarcane field) and a typical dried-mud house with thatch roof in the background, on the border with the remaining stand of rainforest.

Nelicourvi weaver female. I had to turn my back on a troupe of red-fronted brown lemurs to capture a photo of this lemon-headed bird.

A male Nelicourvi weaver hangs from his woven nest.

That little bird on the left is a Madagascar white-eye. He was pestering the Nelicourvi weavers around their nest. I don't know why---I don't think weavers are predators worth mobbing. Maybe the white-eye just wanted to pick a fight.

This Malagasy kingfisher was perching next to the Centre ValBio lawn, contemplating the Namorona River from an overlooking cliff. Its Malagasy name, vintsy, means "few." Despite several attempts by Zaka to explain the origin of this name, I still have no idea why it's called that.

Here's another vintsy sleeping on a thin branch at night. It refused to move even when touched. Maybe because it wouldn't be able to see in the night, or maybe it had gone into torpor?

Black kite. I thought this bird was one of the usual raptors, the Madagascar buzzard or Madagascar cuckoo-hawk, until I uploaded this photo to iNaturalist yesterday. Much to my surprise, I've added a new species to my life list a month after I actually saw it! Ahh, the magic of the cameras, the internet, and crowd-sourced natural history.

Madagascar coucal, toloho. We heard these birds calling from every camp, but I seldom saw one because they hide in the underbrush. They even sing from their hiding places. The one thing that makes a coucal emerge is the rain. More than once, I watched a bedraggled coucal spread its wings and tail, trying to dry its wet feathers.

One morning, I was walking past a mud-clay house among sugarcane fields when I noticed a scraggly bundle of feathers clinging to the wall of the house. I peered closer, and my guide grabbed the bird to give me a better look. It was a coucal, feet tied by a piece of vine and wings clipped. The family was proud to show me their catch, which they planned to cook for dinner.

The tail was clipped too. I'm not sure if this prevented its escape or just made it look even more miserable. I was sad to see this beautiful endemic bird cooked as bushmeat, but I couldn't blame the family for adding a bit of protein to their diet of rice when they got the chance.

Crested drongo, railovy. The forked tail looks like an elegant gown, but the forehead feather reminds me of Alfalfa from Little Rascals.

Common myna. An invasive species from India. I also saw this species in South Florida and South Africa, where it has also invaded.

Mascarene martin, firirina. These stripe-bellied swallows nested under the roof in front of Centre ValBio.

Madagascar magpie-robin, fitatra. On one of my first walks through the forest, I heard an elegant, cascading song. In accented English, Mahery told me the sound came from a "magpie robin." Neither magpies nor robins live here, so I thought there must be some confusion. The only confusion was my own, because the bird is indeed called a magpie-robin! (You'd think ornithologists could have been a bit more creative.)

White-headed vanga. I took this photo from the hallway of Centre ValBio, when Rasolo noticed a black-and-white bird through the window. Turns out, it was the only white-headed vanga I saw! Lesson: always take a photo when you can.

On my second-to-last day at Ranomafana National Park, I splurged on a full-day birding tour with Menja and her boyfriend, the renowned birding guide Rodan. After two months poking around the forest fragments on the edge of the national park, this was my chance to explore one of Madagascar's last intact rainforests and meet its shy avian inhabitants.

Rodan and Menja looked like a fashionable couple in the midst of the greenery.

I, on the other hand, looked like a cross between a cowgirl and the Crocodile hunter.

I knew Rodan was a serious birder after I asked him how many species of bird he'd seen. "All but 34 of Madagascar's 257 species," he told me. But he's not satisfied with that. A minute later, he amended his count. "Well, I've probably seen the other 34, but I just don't know it," he explained. "Sometimes I guide people who don't like birds and don't want to take the time to check. That is the problem." The way Rodan said it, you'd think that people who don't like birds are society's number one problem. I appreciated his focus.

Menja was an excellent platform for the Bluetooth speaker, which Rodan used to play specific birds' songs from his phone.

Velvet asity. This is a male in breeding plumage, and doesn't he look fine? That green eyebrow really gets me (Collin, take note.)

Madagascar blue pigeon. If only our city pigeons looked this glamorous.

Tylas vanga. The only member of its genus, Tylas.

Ashy cuckoo-shrike. Another instance of ornithologists running out of ideas and sticking two unrelated birds together to name a new one.

Madagascar cuckoo, kakafo. More often heard than seen.

Madagascar turtle dove. A handsome, pink-chested fellow.

A hanging nest woven of mosses. I don't know who built it, but I'd love to move in!

Forest rock thrush. Once thought to be in the thrush family (hence the common name), it is now considered an Old World flycatcher. Seriously, is there anything about Madagascar that's not confusing?

Common newtonia. A flitty grey bird that reminded me of North and South America's gnatcatchers.

A female rufous vanga sits on her nest, and a hungry chick pokes out. A mama bird's work is never done.

After a whole post on birds, I think it's time to bring back...

Dad's Daily Bug

Especially because it's my dad's birthday today! Happy birthday to the one and only Russ Finley.

Can you tell which one is Russ?

Just before I left for the Watson in July, I took this photo of Russ looking out over the Lizard Hill pond, where I first learned to love bugs.

 Here's your present, Dad! Hope you like him!

A male giraffe weevil, Trachelophorus giraffa. The male's long, hinged neck is used to roll up leaves for the female to lay her eggs in. Of course, a bug this weird is endemic to Madagascar.