Monday, September 21, 2015

Madagascar 2015

I visited Madagascar in 2004 and saw all the owls, except for Madagascar red owl. At the time, the bird was a mythical creature that had been seen by very few. I spoke to several great guides about this bird and none had seen it.

Years later my friend Shaun went to Madagascar and gloated that the Red owl was easy-that it was radio tagged at a Peregrine Fund Reserve. I checked out Shaun’s claim, and true enough there were a couple of radio tagged birds at Bemanvika in northern Madagascar: Over the last year I received a lot of help from Russell Thorstrom from the Peregrine Fund.

Given the scarcity of information about public transportation and the distances involved I choose to hire a 4wd in Antananarivo (Tana) and share it with a couple of other birders-Rob Ulph and Dave Ward. This may not have been the best way, as our 4wd (a Nissan Patrol) didn't make it all the way to Bemanvika. In retrospect hiring a 2wd car in Tana and driving to Bealanana, then leaving the car at a hotel and chartering a motor cycle for the last 40km would have been cheaper and easier.

Sep 3rd. I have a 6am departure from Portland, so left home the night before and took the last light-rail out to the airport. It’s a cool slightly autumnal night. I check in, clear security and sleep soundly at the gate.

Sep 4th. I catch a flight to Atlanta on Delta, then change to an Air France flight bound for Paris. It's an uneventful flight. Probably because I slept well at the airport, I barely sleep on the plane.

Sep 5th. Charles de Gaulle is an orderly sort of place. I find my gate and have only an hour to kill before boarding my Air France flight to Tana. The flight is on time. It’s great to disembark onto the runway on a cool night, like two nights ago in Portland, except for the smell of wood smoke. It's just a twenty minute walk to La Manoir Rouge-my hotel. I decide to walk through Ivato, which as soon as I hit the deserted unlit road I regret. Dogs bark, other dogs retort, and on and on. I ask the way, and a helpful guy walks with me. We find the gate is locked and the buzzer broken. I scale a tall wall, and delicately cross the iron-spiked guard rail. It takes a while to find the night clerk-he's very confused how I got in over the wall.

It's great to be in a room and have my own bed.

I am awake before my alarm goes off. After eating I meet up with Rob and Dave. Minutes later we meet Donet, our driver from Aventour.

We drive to a nearby market and buy rice and vegetables-there are no stores at Bemanvika, and we were instructed to be self-sufficient.

It’s a long fairly fast drive to Antsohihy. We see a Madagascan Harrier in the grassy hills north of Tana, which is a new bird for me. 

Just as it starts to get dark we get a flat. The tires on the Nissan are really bald, and a 1" rock has punctured the tire. It takes a little while to get orientated to where all the necessary tools are. We don't make it into town until 830pm. Donet tries to get the tire fixed, but the repair shop has closed for the night. We end up staying at a pretty fancy hotel and eat well. 

Sep 7th. I sleep fitfully and wake early. I am worried about the owl. I have never spent close to this much money on seeing one bird! We spend most of the morning waiting around for the tire to get fixed. It's a hot dusty sort of place, so after taking a walk with Dave, I cool off in the hotel's pool. 

It was pretty much destroyed by the rock, so now there is a big wad of a patch and rubber cement holding the whole thing together-to be honest it does not look like it will hold. 

The 100km drive to Bealanana takes about 3 hours up a long winding potholed road. At the entrance to town we find a Peregrine Fund sign indicating the way to Bemanvika. We arrive to find a dusty market town surrounded by mountains. We find a crap restaurant and are served hard to eat bits of zebu heart and chicken pelvis. 

Initially Donet does not want to take the Nissan to the reserve, but after a call from his boss he decides to go ahead. We meet Maurice, a tall thin tech from the Peregrine Fund. He speaks very little English or French, and will guide us along the reportedly terrible 40km track to the reserve. 

The first part of the drive is along a pretty good dirt road. The things get worse. The road's dry, but deeply rutted, chaotic and challenging for Donet. 

Then we get to a 50 yard stretch of mud, where a broken irrigation ditch has flooded the track. The hulking 5000lb Nissan, with its bald tires rapidly gets stuck. Upstream we divert the path of the irrigation ditch, then dig out a lot of the wet mud, then fill the substantial hole with dry dirt, wood, rocks and palm fronds. Donet gets back in the Nissan, revs the engine and makes a run for it. Amazingly he gets most of the way through. We all push, and after lots of tire spinning the massive car pulls itself out of the hole and up the hill.
Donet seems pretty much broken at this point, and at every challenging point stops frets and usually gets stuck. After a couple more miles we come to another flooded stretch. It’s about 2’6” at the deepest point and 70 yards long. “That’s it, no further” declares Donet, “the water will get into the motor”. He’s probably right, and I don’t try and talk him into crossing. I check the odometer and it’s 22km to the camp. We have just 90 minutes before it gets dark. I talk to Dave, who agrees to try and get to camp on foot tonight. He’s clearly not thrilled at the idea of such a long walk. Rob, who is in better shape, but probably less motivated, decides to stay with the driver. Donet tries to tell us it’s dangerous to walk at night. I change the course of the conversation by offering our guide $30 to walk us to camp tonight. It’s a month’s wages for a farmer here, so there is no debate. The first hour is rough-we climb about 1500’, past a steady stream of farmers returning home after a day in the fields. “Salama”, “Salama”, we exchange greetings-evidence of the Arab influence here. Soon the sunsets, buzzards cry from the hills. Other unknown creatures call. Dave talks about quitting, I think the big hill is killing him, but in the end he perseveres. After the big climb, we level out and enter a vast rolling grassland.
It’s a beautiful night, with no moon. A billion stars, brighter than ever before entertain me. It’s achingly beautiful. Rainforest scops owls sing to us from the scraps of forest that have survived in the steeper gullies.
We reach Bemanevika, the village next to the reserve much sooner than I anticipated. Maurice is a fast walker-several times along the way he asked in broken English “what is wrong”. I don’t think he could understand why grown men could walk so slowly. Just past the village we cross a shallow rocky river and enter camp. We are warmly greeted by a crew of Malagasy techs from the peregrine fund.  We drink tea and eat Ramen noodles and wet rice. Ah, it’s so good to be here. We are offered a couple of mattresses in an open wooden building.
I am too excited to sleep-I know the owl is nearby. Dave wants to talk, so we stay up for ages talking about this and that. Native rats runs through the cabin, fearlessly climbing over us.
Sep 8th. Around midnight I drift off to sleep. I wake at five and great the dawn. I am excited and nervous to go look for the red owl. The techs tell us they have two radio tagged birds that they can usually track down in the remnants of dense forest. I can’t wait to get out into the forest but first it’s mugs of steaming hot tea, plates of wet rice, and something made with dozens of tiny salted fish, pungent and a challenge to stomach at this hour.

We leave with five techs and march across the grassy plain onto a ridge. From there we see a beautiful dark blue crater lake ringed with dense forest. 

I follow the lead tech’s heals, staying close in case he flushes the owl as we descend into the forest towards the lake. We cross a creek and reach a wet bottom-land by the shore. And there it is. An exquisite red owl, roosting low in a small palm. What a gorgeous creature. Small, for a barn owl, but with a big horn colored bill and long talons. A real rat-eater. I watch the owl for a long time, soaking it in. At long last. I have been thinking about this bird for many years!
It has a beautiful buffy pink heart-shaped face. Black eyed, that when near closed angle sharply towards the big horn-colored bill. The breast is also buffy-pink, sparsely spotted with fine black spots. Above it’s a wonderful orange-pink, like the red earth of Madagascar. Its crown is decorated with very fine black spots and so are the wing coverts. The primaries are barred. The tail is unmarked. Nails are long-about 20mm and dark gray. Feet are whitish gray and unfeathered.
Everything is going to be OK. What a wonderful, wonderful owl.
Dave wants to see other birds. We check out Madagascar Pochard and Meller’s ducks on the lake. Then we hike over to another crater, this one filled with a marsh. We rapidly find Madagascar snipe, gray emutail, Madagascar Harrier, and then start looking for slender billed flufftail-a very elusive little rail. I am not that motivated, and soon give up to bask in the intense sun, dry my wet feet and think about the owl. The techs are really determined, and after a couple of hours they track down the flufftail. We encircle it in a patch of wet grass, and eventually get a great view as it emerges at the top of the grass and flies for cover.
Much to our relief we find Rob at the camp when we arrive. He explains that he and Donet found a room in a village to sleep in. This morning Donet had a tractor pull the big Nissan through the water hole. After a couple of rough kilometers they came to a long stretch of mud. Rob encouraged Donet not to try, and at first it seemed they were in agreement. Then Donet decided to attempt a crossing. In the midst of the mire the front of the Nissan plunged into a hole, leaving a back tire helplessly spinning helplessly in the air. 
Rob was lucky enough to run into a Peregrine Fund tech who brought him to camp on a dirt bike. Donet was last seen trying to track down the tractor to pull the Nissan out.
Fully satisfied we walk back across the grassland to camp. A rooster was killed to celebrate, and we enjoy a chicken lunch. Rob spends the afternoon chasing down the birds I saw this morning. I am exhausted and sleep.
Dinner is great, beans and onions with rice, served with sweet tea. After dinner I plan on owling, but it’s breezy. I venture out, but am defeated by the wind and don’t see or hear any of my targets: barn owl, Madagascar long-eared owl and rainforest scops owl.
Back at the cabin it’s a big rat party. We are tormented by them running up and down the floor, fighting and falling from the rafters. I try and burry my face under my bag, but invariably wake claustrophobic and overheated. I wake with a rat licking my face. Rabies, rat herpes, Hanta virus?

Sep 9th At 230am my alarm goes off, it’s raining and I decide to stay in bed. I toss and turn the rest of the night, tormented by rats. Dave wakes me to point out a distant calling rainforest scops owl. Lazily I ignore it. (This is a bird I saw well back in 2004).
Breakfast is fries, omelet and wet rice. I head out with Maurice to look for the other radio tagged red owl. Rob and Dave have other plans.
Maurice is in fine form, and lopes across the grassy plain at great speed. After the rats and torment of last night, it’s wonderful to be out in the sun, striding. We climb up to a grassy ride overlooking another crater lake, then descend past a tiny hut made of clay and branches, cross a small rocky creek and enter the forest. It’s the dry season, and the forest is near silent. Shortly Maurice brings out the radio antennae, which beeps weakly. We home in on a big fig tree, that’s surrounded by lovely red owl feathers. 

Despite much scrutinizing we fail to find the owl. We follow the beeps to four more big trees, but find nothing.
At the last and biggest tree Maurice volunteers to climb it in search of the owl. With considerable skill and fearlessness he climbs the big tree that leans, hanging by an arm he checks the holes on the overhanging side of the tree. My heart is in my throat, fearful that he will fall. We don’t share a common language, so I watch in mute helplessness. After a long ten minutes Maurice returns to the safety of the earth. We laze around under the tree for a while, then Maurice casually points out the owl, staring from a hole in the trunk! It’s a lovely bonus to see this bird, especially after the extra effort Maurice had braved. I soak up the experience in peace-sometimes it’s nice to be with people you can’t talk to.
It’s another brisk walk across windswept grasslands to camp. 

I enjoy endless cups of tea to hydrate as there is no portable water at camp. Dave and Rob return and we eat lunch together. Dave and Rob hitch a ride on dirt bikes back to Donet and the Nissan. There are only two bikes, so I volunteer to walk the 22km. I walk with Maurice. It’s a warm windy afternoon. The suns’ intense at this elevation and my arms burn.
After an hour we come across the bike that Dave was on. My excitement, that I am getting a ride, turns to disappointment when I realize that the throttle has broken. After another hot dehydrating hour we catch up with Dave. We talk birds for most of the rest of the way, until Rob’s rider shows up and picks up Dave. He even returns for me and gives me a ride for the last 2km.
Donet is in fine form. The Nissan has been pulled out of the mud hole and has been washed. The drive back is pretty rough, twice we tear off skid plates from the bottom of the Nissan as it grinds over rocks. Along the last leg we get another flat. Experienced now, we change it in ten minutes.
We end up at the same shit restaurant we ate at two days ago. It’s run by children. Only the Three Horse beer is worth consuming. We sleep above the restaurant with the mosquitos and big spiders. Content sleep comes easily.
Sep 10th I waken at 2am with a raging thirst. Hot and flushed, my mouth tastes terrible. Dehydrated by the long hike and strong lager. I sterilize tap water, impatiently waiting for the iodine to take effect. Twenty minutes passes very slowly. It’s worth the wait, even after treated, the water tastes delicious, and feels wonderful.
At 445am Donet starts up the Nissan and revs the motor hard. Outside it’s cool, a beautiful and starry sky, vivid and lovely. The generator is off, so the whole town is completely dark. A low moon hangs above the town, Venus keeps it brilliant company.
A few minutes down the road, Donet treats us to hot coffee and little fried, unsweetened rice cakes. Delicious. Zebu herders pass by, and rice farmers are already in their fields. An ancient Peugeot   504 rumbles by, held together by wire and string. Cat eyed. Stacked with luggage. Packed with people. The original bush taxi.

It’s a long winding drive out the mountains to the hot grassy plains below. At Antsohihy we pick up another tire, left at a hotel by Aventour. Down the road we get another flat, and try the “new” spare. It’s a steel-rimmed wheel, and the lugs don’t quite fit. Donet gets pretty upset about all this, and we end up swapping it for a heavily damaged spare, with bits of wire fraying perilously where there was once tread.

At the next town, Boriziny we stop for lunch. Donet works on getting the tire repaired. The restaurant is big, and sort of grand from afar. Inside small black flies cover everything. The food’s prepared in a fire pit out back on an earthen floor and there is no running water. We eat chicken in orange oil and rice. It’s surprisingly good. A cold Coke helps.

After a long wait Donet returns, a lot happier with a repaired spare tire. We reach Ankarafantsika National Park by late afternoon. I had visited the park in 2004. It seems busier today, with more facilities. I want to see a Torotoroko scops owl-an endemic dry forest scops owl that I saw on my last visit. But my big goal is to find the endemic subspecies of barn owl, that most cosmopolitan owl. Periodically island forms are reclassified as separate species, and for this reason I want to see the Madagascan race.

I ask the guides about Barn owls-they seem confused, it’s probably the last species that birders ask to see. (Typically birders will ask about the endemic dry forest birds of the park). Thery tell me the barn owl is occasionally seen around the camp ground, but it’s hard.

Dave and I spend the evening walking the lake side in search of Jacanas. We don’t find any, but do find a big crocodile. Later we enjoy a sign explaining that “crocodiles bite”. On the return back to our bungalow we hear Torotoroko scops singing spontaneously. They are not particularly tape responsive, but despite this we track one down. It’s a small, but not tiny scops, gray-brown, like bark with a black streaked breast. It has bright yellow eyes and small ear tufts. It’s hoarse four note call is quite different from the sweet ringing call of the rainforest scops that lives to the east.

Dinner is really good. After that I sleep-it’s great to be comfortable and well fed.
Sep 11th. My alarm beeps at 230am. I walk over to the camp ground and tape for barn owls. I wait around for a while, but nothing happens. I am not that enthralled by the site-there is no open country-which is the habitat favored by barn owls. Still I walk east along the main road through the park. Evert ¼ mile I stop and tape for barn owls.

Given the hour, the road’s amazingly busy. Also unexpected are the mouse lemurs, my head torch catches their brilliant eyes. Some trees have half a dozen spread through the canopy. To avoid traffic, I hike a side trail into the dry forest in search for the owl. Under a big tree, a long-winged owl flies in. I spotlight it-beautiful! Tyto owls are just the best. It’s a very pale bird. I am thrilled, I had not expected to find one tonight. Triumphantly I walk back along the road to the bungalow.

I sleep wonderfully until ten. I don’t really have any agenda for the day. (Dave and Rob are off looking for birds with a guide). I enjoy a slow breakfast and a lot of coffee. I finish “Mountains beyond mountains”, and really enjoy it.

Dinner is memorable for the celebratory beers. After which I sleep well.

Sep 12th. I wake at dawn. Again I have no agenda. I enjoy breakfast, read and listen to Sixto Rodriguez. Donet lets me know his boss wants more money, due to the damage done to the Nissan. This really bothers me, although I should be cool about it. I tell him I will talk with Rob and Dave.

After lunch we leave the park, and leave for Maevatanana, en route for Tana. It’s a straightforward drive. We arrive to a bustling town on market day. Clogged with taxi brouses and shoppers.

We stay at a decaying, hotel, which once has aspirations to be grand. I take a walk around town, in search of an internet cafĂ©. I find none. Still it’s a wonderful evening and it’s great to walk among all the people.

Back at the hotel I eat a fried fish for dinner. A cat gets the head and tail, to the chagrin of the waitress who whisks it out the restaurant.

Donets boss calls me and asks for 60 euro for the Nissan’s damage. I am relived he is asking for a small amount. None of us feel obliged to pay-especially that the vehicle had such shite tires.
We enjoy a few beers and go to bed early.
Sep 13th. We get up early at eat breakfast. It just four hours to Tana. It’s a sort of quiet ride, none of us really talk much. The scenery is beautiful, big bare mountains. But depressing too. Devoid of trees, barren and unproductive.

Ivato is busy, in total contrast to my late night arrival a week ago and stolen into a hotel. We say “goodbye” to Donet. At the Manoir Rouge we eat a pretty good lunch. Rob and Dave spend the afternoon organizing a car for the rest of the trip. It’s a long negotiation-Rob’s a lawyer and Dave’s cheap. Eventually a driver arrives and we say our goodbyes.
It’s great to be able to email Tui.

Sep 14th. I catch a very early flight-around 1am for Paris. The whole day goes well and I reach Portland before sundown.

It’s been a strange trip. I have never traveled so far, and spent so much. Red owl was one of my most wanted owls to see. It’s strange to have seen it so easily, to have had it handed on a plate.