To: "birdchat" <>
Subject: madagascar
From: "Wim Vader" <>
Date: Thu, 15 Nov 2007 13:14:47 +0100


Last month I had the opportunity to flee the rather dreary and dark autumn 
months in Tromsø and take part in a Madagascar trip with the S.African company 
Rockjumpers, and with Glen Valentine and Rainer Summers as able leaders. I had 
in many years dreamt of visiting Madagascar, as the island is a show-piece of 
evolution, the subject I have lectured about for many years. Nor did the 
experience disappoint, in spite of the fact that our group laboured with some 
people-trouble, which now and then distracted quite heavily from the enjoyment 
of this very special island.

It is not my intention here to give a report of our trip and all we saw; I 
suppose most Madagascar trips see basically the same things, even though ours 
was among the more successful ones. (I have an annotated bird list, which I can 
send to people who are interested). What I want to do here, is reflect on the 
differences between this trip and most others I have taken part in (not all 
that many, I found out when I compared with my much-traveled companions on this 
trip), and the reasons why this may be the case. I also have to add, that I go 
on these specialized and quite expensive trips mainly for two reasons: I get to 
the best places without having to find out myself where these are, and 
competent and always helpful leaders (and companions) help me to spot and watch 
the birds, which I often am unable to find myself---my eyes are definitely 
substandard and now my ears are slowly failing me too, so I get to see much 
more, and that much better, when on an organized trip.

During most of my birding experiences, including the pre-trip to the Kruger 
Park this time, one gets to a good spot and there watches all the birds that 
are there, concentrating on the rarer ones. Kruger is a place where one most 
places is confined to the car, which makes for a skewed picture: one sees far 
more large birds than small ones and probably misses the real skulkers 
altogether. There are usually a few stake-outs, where rare birds are known to 
hang out (have their territory, maybe), but in most cases one sees a lot of 
birds and chooses which ones to concentrate on. Not so most places in 
Madagascar! Oh there are places that offer the normal sort of birding here too; 
wetlands of course, but also e.g. the 'campsite' at Ampijoroa, where lots of 
birds can be seen almost from the breakfast table. But most places the birding 
is entirely different, and this picture is further strengthened by the fact 
that so much nature on Madagascar has been largely ruined, so that there is 
comparatively little to see during the often long bus drives from place to 
place. (Few birds, that is; of course the landscapes and peoples are a constant 
source of interest also during these long hauls).

But birding many places , and especially in the rainforest, consists of getting 
up very early, meeting op with the local guide (and these guides are nearly all 
extremely pleasant as well as very competent), and marching of in single file 
along the narrow and slippery paths, with the local guides very much in charge. 
So we walk for 20 minutes or half an hour, during which time there is scarcely 
a bird to be heard most of the time (maybe besides the tjoeke tjoeke tjoeke of 
the Common Newtonia, which lives up to its name); of course the forest itself 
is most impressive, but one can not really see it well, as one (at least I) 
constantly need to look down in order not to slip or catch one's foot in a 
liana. After that time the guide stops, says 'you wait here', and often asks 
the leader to play the tape of one special bird, which he (or she, there were 
also female guides) knows to have its territory here. Often there is no 
reaction, and we walk on after a while, but often also the guide hears the bird 
some distance away, after which he and his helpers slink off into the forest, 
and try to coax the bird gently in the direction of the birders, who stand and 
wait either on the path, or away from the path in the forest itself. If we are 
lucky, we get to see the bird, and then we march on for a while, until the next 
bird to be tried out. As I said, the guides are very very good and this enables 
us to see many birds we never would have found on our own (And in fact it is 
not permitted to enter the rainforest without a local guide), but it is a quite 
different sort of birding from what I have experienced before, and it took some 
while for me to get accustomed to it.

And I still wrestle with a number of questions afterwards. The first is: Why 
are there so few birds in these forests? I understand that Madagascar, however 
large, is an isolated island, and thus that the diversity of organisms, among 
them birds, will be lower here than on the continents (Our list closed below 
200 species, mine on 186). And I also understand that much of nature on the 
island is sadly ruined so that the wonderful nature areas we visit are just the 
remnants of a once much larger and continuous forest. But those remnants are in 
many cases (e.g. the Masoala peninsula) still very large indeed. And still 
there are few birds there, not few species, but few individuals. I can not 
understand why this should be the case. There must be plenty of food both for 
frugivores and insectivores; in fact I was struck by the fact that all leaves 
more than one month old looked partly or completely 'moth-eaten', although it 
is true we saw few of the culprits themselves---but they must be there. I don't 
understand this paucity of birds in such a rich environment!

Nor do I understand why so many birds on Madagascar need to be such extreme 
skulkers. From the Mesites to the Ground-Rollers, and from the Emutails to the 
Oxylabes, a very large part of the birds we tried to watch did its utmost to 
prevent us actually seeing them. But why?? It can't just be to annoy birders! 
And it can't be , I think, because there are so extra-many predators here they 
need to hide from; as far as I can judge, there are rather fewer than more 
predators here than other places Again, I do not understand this at all, and 
will be very grateful for any explanation you may be able to give.

Madagascar was an utterly fascinating place to visit, and I am very glad I got 
the opportunity. I am also very grateful to Rockjumpers for organizing this so 
well, to the leaders for always trying to get everyone to see every skulking 
bird in the end, and to my companions for their patience with somebody, who 
never spotted a bird himself, but always had to rely on the others to find the 
birds first. And no, I have no financial interest in Rockjumpers at all, I'm 
just a content customer.

                                                Wim Vader, Tromsø Museum
                                                                9037 Tromsø, 

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