One hundred and seventy million years ago, Madagascar was a landlocked part of the supercontinent Gondwana. Madagascar separated from the land that would eventually become Africa and South America, Australia and Antarctica, and finally, India through movements of the earth’s crust. As a result, Madagascar has been isolated from any other land mass for 88 million years. This long period of geographical isolation has led to the evolution of many species that are endemic, i.e. they are not found anywhere else in the world.
With a land area of 587,000 km2, Madagascar is the fourth largest Island in the world. It lies almost entirely in the tropical zone, approximately 400 km east of mainland Africa. It has two distinct seasons—a cool, dry season from May to October and a hot, rainy season from November to April. The climate varies considerably across the Island, with the west being significantly drier than the east due to the combined effects of the prevailing winds and offshore currents. The large size of the Island and its varied climate means it supports several distinct biomes, including four types of tropical forest: Rainforest in the east, dry forest in the west, spiny forest or thicket in the South, and mangrove forest primarily along the north and west coasts. In addition, grassland covers much of the highlands, while wetlands include rivers, lakes, swamps and marshes throughout the Island. This range of habitats has allowed Madagascar’s flora and fauna to radiate into multiple species adapted to different environments.
Video of the Helmet Vanga (Iroka Forest)
Madagascar has around 307 bird species (209 breeding, 52 non-breeding migrants, 40 vagrants, and six non-native introductions). Of these, 115 are endemic to the country: 44% of the regularly occurring native species. This number of endemic species relative to land area is unrivalled by any other large island. Many of Madagascar’s birds are forest specialists, and the proportion of endemics within this group is exceptionally high (91%). In contrast, compared to other large tropical islands or countries of similar size on the African continent, Madagascar’s avifauna is characterised by a relatively low species richness. Long duration of isolation is the most likely cause for both the high endemism and low species richness (Warren et al. 2013). Evidence from living species and fossils suggests that all of the birds found in Madagascar today are descendants of species that colonised the Island from other landmasses after the break-up of Gondwana (Yoder & Nowak, 2006). Many are most closely related to species found in Africa and Asia, with a few cases from Australasia.
Four surviving families of birds are endemic to Madagascar:
Malagasy warblers or tetrakas (Bernieridae)
Cuckoo Roller (Leptosomidae)
Madagascar shares the family Leptosomidae (containing only one species—the Cuckoo Roller) with the Comoro Islands.
It was until recently considered an endemic family; however, new research has shown that some African and Asian species should be included in the same family (Reddy et al. 2012). The vangas of Madagascar are an excellent example of adaptive radiation. Soon after colonising Madagascar, the single ancestral species showed an explosive burst of diversification, evolving a range of morphologies and feeding styles that allowed exploitation of the Island’s highly varied climatic conditions and habitats (Reddy et al. 2012). This led to the evolution of vangas resembling birds from other families that fulfil similar ecological niches elsewhere, such as shrikes, warblers, wood-hoopoes, and woodpeckers. The elephant birds (Aepyornithidae), whose largest species weighed around 650 kg and stood 3 m high (Hansford & Turvey 2018), were an endemic family that went extinct around 1000 years ago, or perhaps less.
Madagascar has many seabird breeding sites of regional importance, and bird populations have significantly increased at several of these thanks to protection from disturbance and egg collection. However, the coastal and oceanic habitats of Madagascar’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) are also crucial for non-breeding seabirds, including eight globally threatened species. Five marine I.B.A.s have been identified in Malagasy waters, the largest of which is in the southern parts of the EEZ, where the seamounts attract seabirds, particularly from the Southern Ocean, and a range of large marine mammals. The main threat to these seabirds is by-catch from industrial tuna and swordfish fisheries.
Cuckoo Roller 1
Ground Rollers* 5
Owls (incl. Western Barn Owl). 7
Malagasy Warblers* 11
Raptors (incl. Buzzards, Sparrowhawks, Falcons) 16
BIRDS IN MADAGASCAR
- 310 species (L.O.C. taxonomy)
- 108 endemics + 2 breeding endemics
- 38 globally threatened species
- 309 spécies (Clements)
- 108 endemics + 2 breeding endemics
- 38 globally threatened species.
309 species (eBird)
- 139 endemics + 2 breeding endemics
- 40 globally threatened species
MAMMALS IN MADAGASCAR
241 species (dependent on recent phylogenetic updates and discoveries)
All 148 native terrestrial species are endemic.
5 Major Mammal Groups Represented in Madagascar
Chiroptera – Bats
Lypotyphla. – Tenrecidae – Tenrecs
Rodentia. – Muridae – Rats and Mice
Carnivora. – Eupleridae – Herpestine-like Carnivores
Primates – Lemuriformes – Lemurs
Having researched Madagascar’s bird lists and birding families, we realised it would be the endemic we needed to focus on. As mentioned, we had already established our travel itinerary, which covered the three most critical birding habitats. So, by creating a checklist and a better understanding of these birds, along with the various and distinct bird calls, we were ready to take on this challenge to see how many endemics we would get to tick off.
After mapping out the various endemic bird families and possible locations to find these bird species, it soon became apparent that the number one bird of choice would be the Helmet Vanga(Euryceros ptevostii). After that, the Dinosaur Bird, the Cockoo Roller(Leptosomus discolor), would be our second highest priority bird, followed by the Couas and then the Asities.
After a few days in the field, we soon realised that birding in Madagascar was tough; you could travel for miles and hardly see a bird. However, when you entered a birding hotspot, you were rewarded with some fine endemics of the Red Island.
Video of the Cuckoo Roller (Perinet Special Reserve)
We did have one more uncharted area to cover, the tropical paradise beaches of Ile Sainte-Marie and Ile Aux Nates, but this was scheduled for the last portion of our adventure. Much of the original forest of Madagascar has been removed with slash-and-burn practices all over this tropical Island. Rice paddies now dominate the landscape, providing the exploding population with most of their staple diet. Madagascar is one of the world’s poorest countries, so it’s challenging to persuade families to nurture the environment when they need more food to go around.
Climate change and cyclones that batter this fourth-largest Island in the world don’t help either. This has resulted in only a few small national parks being established to protect the natural fauna and flora before its lost forever. Our first notable birding location was Kirindy Forest Reserve, a dry, humid forest home to unique lemurs and a fantastic array of endemic birds.
We were privileged to spend a glorious three hours chasing after Giant Coua, searching through the canopy for Crested and Verteaux’s Coua. Unfortunately, white-breasted Mesites eluded us as we searched in vain, and the Schlegel’s Asity did not return to her nest as we waited patiently. Nevertheless, this magical forest would prove to be the most productive of all the Biomes we visited, yielding countless endemic birds, much to our delight as we captured the moments.
We were scheduled to head further South; unfortunately, our travel plans changed dramatically, and we didn’t see the Spiny Forest in the southwest of Madagascar. A prominent bridge had washed away, and we could not travel further South than Morondava. Naturally, this removed the towns of Tuliar and Ifaty, Ramanafana and Isalo National Parks were lost, and this would now remove a large chunk of target birds we had hoped for.
Ultimately, this all worked out quite well as our itinerary needed to be more ambitious, and the travelling took far longer to every destination due to the deplorable conditions. However, our new itinerary was more manageable, giving us more time at crucial locations like Andasibe and the remarkable Rainforests in the area. Mantadia National Parks became our backyard as we stayed at the renowned Vakona Lodge.
We had the good fortune of securing a local guide(Claudia Gilberte) for this Rainforest section of our tour. Visiting the V.O.I.M.M.A. Visit Park, we saw our main target Lemur, the Indi-Indri and witnessed these world-famous Lemurs calling one another. The Singing Lemurs of Andasibe did not disappoint, along with some unique Chamelions like the Parsons Chameleon (Female) and the Brokesia Chemelion, the smallest in the world.
Madagascar Ibis and a Collard Nightjar family, owls and, of course, the Cockoo Rollers had us in awe, to name a few. Visiting the Perine Special Reserve for a few more Vangas, Red Tailed and the Chuberts Vanga, and the Red-breasted Coua.
Undoubtedly the Highlight of our travels to Madagascar and my Birding career was our planned visit to the Iroca Forest Reserve. It was here that we had hoped we would find the Helmet Vanga. The Masaola National Reserve would be 100 km from our last destination when we visited Ile-Sainte Marie. However, on Madagascar travelling times, we would require a whole day for this visit. Therefore, Masaola would have been our best option to find the remarkable Endemic Helmet Vanga.
The Iroka Forest Reserve would be our only other option, and it was way more achievable given its proximity and the time constraints we were under. So, as luck would have it, we visited while the female was still on her nest. So, trudging through Virgin Rain Forest, crossing countless streams, we finally arrived as the queen was on her throne. Six hours of bundu bashing, dogged determination, endless planning and negotiations were all well worth it, as we had achieved this remarkable feat. Celebrations all around for finding this top 100 Bird of the world as we sat and enjoyed this special occasion with the female looking after the next generation of Helmet Vangas.
A huge debt of gratitude must go to our guides, who all contributed to finding this Top 100 Bird of the World; with the combined efforts, we would have had the privilege of witnessing the remarkable endemic Helmet Vanga.
Driving Guides: Tahina Angelmann and Dany Machel (Morondava)
Local Guide: Claudia Gilberte (Andasibe)
Local Headsman: Gregoire (Iroka Forest)
Leaving the Rainforest, we headed further north to the small Island of Ile-Sainte Marie via the Condor ferry out of Mohambo. Tuk-Tuk loaded, and we bumped along yet another severely potholed road to the southern tip of the Ile Sainte-Marie. It was only a short time before we boarded our designated Pirogue and crossed the 50m channel that separated this exclusive Island of Ile aux Nattes from the Main Island.
Here we were surrounded by crystal clear waters, ideal for swimming and snorkelling. The Island has lush tropical vegetation, coconut palms that sway in the light trade winds and white sandy beaches with colourful shells and corals. We strolled between the charming fishing villages enjoying unforgettable encounters with some wildlife and idyllic tropical scenery. Every day brought stunning views encompassing varying colours of a blue horizon over the turquoise sea, constantly dotted with the sails of outrigger canoes and dhows. Preserved for mass tourism, Ile Aux Nattes has retained its authentic character and charm. We were in paradise; however, the mainland was on fire across the ocean as the slash and burning of the forests continued unabated.
Local birding guides had warned us that there wasn’t any birdlife on this Island and how wrong this proved to be. However, our experience was the contrary as we found some beautiful birds adding to our growing list. No endemics but memorable moments with a very obliging Madagascar Pratincole, a close encounter with an unfortunate cadged Greater Vasa Parrot, and so much more.
Hiring a motorised Pirogue, we ventured off to the secluded sand banks of Ilots aux Sables. Three isolated sandbanks about 15 km from the South Eastern shores of Ile Sainte-Marie. This was one of the most memorable moments of our Madagascar adventure. Hundreds of sea birds roost on these exposed sandy shores. We beached our Pirogue on a protected bay. We marvelled at the pretty Lesser Crested terns, admired the elegant Brown Noddy, and how gracefully the Lesser Noddys glided past with effortless ease.
After our struggles with the endemic forest birds, it was a welcome change to have hundreds of Sea Birds within 20 meters and not one tree or branch in our line of sight. The birds were most accommodating, and we spent a few memorable hours capturing images, exploring the sandy shores and snorkelling the tropical coral reef. Witnessing this kaleidoscope of colours and the underwater marine display is one of the greatest shows on earth.
Madagascar proved to be a challenging tourist destination, with expensive flights(three in total) to get to this Island. Poor infrastructure delayed our travelling, terrible roads, traffic and congestion, and even exchanging dollars for the local currency proved challenging. Damaged infrastructure made it practically impossible to complete our planned itinerary. On the positive side, we loved every minute and marvelled at this Eighth continent’s diversity. Would we recommend this location to others? Yes, for sure but with a clear understanding of how best to manage road travel and not to travel in the rainy season.
In the end, we achieved almost all our goals for this adventure. We captured some remarkable scenes at the Avenue of the Baobabs, we celebrated finding the Helmet Vanga, and we listened to the whale-like calling of the Indri-Indri. This wealth of extraordinary treasures of fauna and flora, so unique to the world, captivated our attention and is now etched in our memories forever.
Species endemic to Madagascar