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Madagascar Birds

This page highlights some of the Birds of Madagascar.
Copyright © HackingFamily.com with photo credits to Amanda Hacking 2007

As a large island, geographically isolated for millions of years, Madagascar has the sort of bird diversity one would expect: a relatively low number of species, but a high number of endemics (birds found nowhere else but here).  Compared to some of the countries in Africa which have hundreds of species (e.g. Zambia has over 600), Madagascar has 250 species, but a full 40% of them are endemic.

A lone Brown Boobie in flight with Frigatebirds, Madagascar
Frigatebirds and a booby in flight

The best places to go birding in Madagascar are along the coast and in the National Parks and Reserves in the interior.  Tours can be arranged from either the capital of Antananarivo ('Tana) or from the island of Nosy Be.  International flights service both Antananarivo and Nose Be.  Don't leave home without a pair of good binoculars and a field guide to the birds of Madagascar.  An excellent book is Birds of the Indian Ocean Islands by Ian Sinclair and Olivier Langrand.

There are many bird species that live in the rainforests, but finding them and identifying them in the deeply dappled, shaded forest is difficult.  Amanda used a digital Canon Rebel XT camera with a 480 mm lens to capture these bird photos.

Seabirds and Water birds of Madagascar

Sailing around the off-shore islands of western Madagascar we were accompanied by many birds.  Some were sea birds such as Terns, Frigatebirds and Boobies, but we also saw coastal birds such as herons and sea eagles.  In the photo above, 5 Lesser Frigatebirds Fregata ariel with their forked tails and sharply angled wings soar together with a lone Brown Booby Sula leucogaster (top, center with white breast and underwings - Click the photo for a larger version.)  Boobies dive for their fish, but also sometimes harass even larger birds like the Frigatebirds to get them to drop their fish.  Brown Boobies are brown on their back and heads, with a white chest and underwing.  They have a wingspan of 132‑150 cm (52‑59").

Lesser Frigatebirds have a wing span of 175‑195 cm (5.3‑6 feet) and wheel above the ocean in search of their favorite food, squid.  They do occasionally gather surface fish, but often will pirate fish from other seabirds.  They use their tail like a rudder to control their acrobatic turns and twists in the air.  At times, they soar effortlessly, only occasionally using their strong wings to maintain their altitude over the sea.  Male frigatebirds inflate a bright red throat pouch to attract females.   The birds nest in colonies in mangroves or other coastal shrubs.

Out at sea, to the north of Madagascar, Red Footed Boobies Sula sula and Juvenile Red Footed Boobies flew in search of food.  They swept low over the water, scooping up small flying fish near the surface or just above the surface.  Red Footed Boobies also plunge dive into the waves in search of squid or flying fish.  Near the shoreline they often lose their prey to Frigatebirds, but far at sea they are not harassed by the aerial pirates.  Boobies often perch on the masts or bows of boats, watching for the flying fish which scatter in the bow wave.  Red Footed Boobies have a wingspan of 90‑100 cm (35‑45"). An adult Red Footed Booby off Madagascar
A dark Dimorphic Egret, Moramba Bay, Madagascar South of Nosy Be, on the western coast of Madagascar we spent several days in Moramba Bay which is known for its many limestone karst islands.  On young baobab trees on the islands were colonies of Dimorphic Egrets Egretta dimorpha.  These birds are fairly unusual in that they have two different color morphs.  They are either black with an all-dark bill, white throat, black legs and yellow feet (left) or pure white with a yellow lore, black bill, black legs and yellow feet (in flight, right).  Both dark and white morph adults have long plumes from the nape.  Some birds are pied, with a mottling of black and white.  Mating pairs most often include one dark and one white morph, but the gender of each may differ from pair to pair.  At the beginning of mating season the lore may turn bright red and the legs take on a reddish color.  These birds are not endemic to Madagascar, but are found also on the coast of East Africa and in the Seychelles Islands.  They are gregarious and noisy and live almost entirely near the sea. White Dimorphic Egret in flight, Madagascar
Madagascar Sacred Ibis in trees, Moramba Bay Also in Moramba Bay, on trees near the Dimorphic Egrets, was a small colony of Madagascar Sacred Ibis Threskiornis (aethiopicus) bernieri.  These large 70‑85 cm (27‑33") birds, like all ibises, have long down-curved bills.  Although they closely resemble the Sacred ibis of Africa, they are distinguished by their fully white wings (the Sacred Ibis has a black trailing edge to the wings).  A set of black plumes lies over the tail.  The head and neck are pure black and devoid of feathers.  The Madagascar Sacred Ibis feeds on crabs it plucks from the mud, plus snails, crickets and insects.  They make a low groan sometimes when perched, and in flight make a harsh croak.  They also occur in the outer islands of the Seychelles, to the north of Madagascar.  Their existence is threatened in Madagascar due to predation by humans.

Other Birds

  We found the Greater Vasa Parrot Corocopsis vasa with its white bill and all black/brown body in both Ankarana Reserve and along the coast in Moramba Bay.  Both the Lesser Corocopsis nigra and the Greater Vasa Parrots are found in forests throughout Madagascar where they are endemic.  With their dark coloring, they are often hard to spot when perched among the branches.  The Lesser Vasa reaches a size of about 35 cm (15"), whereas the Greater is somewhat larger.  Like other parrots worldwide, the Vasa parrots are gregarious and noisy. Greater Vasa Parrot, Madagascar
Madagascar Scops Owl It was early evening as we continued to explore the outer borders of Réserve Spéciale de l'Ankárana in northern Madagascar.  Darkness had come with the speed of the tropics and we were still adjusting to the lack of light when our naturalist guide whispered, "Ici.  Over here."  Perched on a branch at about head level was a calm but alert Madagascar Scops Owl Otus rutilus.  This relatively small owl (22‑24 cm or 8.5‑10") is nocturnal, and we must have caught him (or her) at the beginning of the night hunt.  The Madaagascar Scops Owl is found in many habitats from sea level to high altitudes throughout Madagascar. Its call is a repeated “broo broo broo broo broo”.  
Male Madagascar Paradise Flycatcher
One of Madagascar's most magnificent endemic birds is the  Madagascar Paradise Flycatcher Tersiphone mutata.  The male (left) has 2 different major plumages.  It may appear either black and white (as on the left) with a dark head with a conspicuous pale blue eye ring, streaked white and brown back and long white tail streamers with black tips.  Or it might be rufous with a black head and eye ring, and black wings.  There is also an intermediary phase where it is white and rufous.  The male is 18‑20 cm (7‑8") with a 12 cm (5") tail.  
Femle Madagascar Paradise Flycatcher
  Perched nearby was the female Madagascar Paradise Flycatcher (right).  The female is always rufous and black with the same pale blue eye ring as the male, but lacking the long tail feathers.  The females are 18‑20 cm (7‑8").
Sckle Billed Vanga Endemic to southern, northern and western Madagascar is the Sickle Billed Vanga Falculea palliata.  These birds are distinctive with their black and white plumage and long gray decurved bill.  Taking the ecological niche filled by woodpeckers elsewhere in the world, these birds cling to branches and trunks, probing the bark for insects with their long bills.  They live in deciduous dry forest and thorn scrub.  They are about 32 cm (6") tall and are often in groups.  When flying their wings make a soft wooshing sound.  
  Found in many habitats, the Madagascar Bee Eater Mersops superciliosus is a lovely bird with its green breast, russet neck and crown, and black mask across a white face.  It lives on a diet of not only bees, but also butterflies, insects, wasps, and grasshoppers.  Although field guides say this bee eater prefers wetter climes such as mangroves and rainforests, we saw these birds hovering about their nests in arid sandstone cliffs in northern Madagascar.  The birds are also found in the Seychelles and East Africa.  They breed in Madagascar and the Comoros Islands. Madagascar Bee Eater
Crested Drongo The Crested Drongo Dicruruius forficatus is 26 cm (10") long and is endemic to northern Madagascar and the island of Nosy Be.  Crested Drongos often mob other birds.  They have a variety of calls and whistles and have an  unmistakable jizz -- all black with a high crest and forked tail.  
  The lovely small Stone Chat (left) Saxicola spp. is quite at home in the harsh environment of limestone tsingy of northern Madagascar.   Unafraid of humans, this small bird hopped about trying to get closer to our picnic lunch.  Distinctive with its black head and back, white shoulder and russet chest, it is related to the Stone Chats of Africa. Madagascar Stone Chat in limestone tsingy
No ID bird. Madagascar A lovely bird, with its black and white suit of feathers.  But alas, we have no ID on it because we were unable to use a field guide shortly after leaving the mountains of Northern Madagascar.  The photo was taken in October, in Réserve Spéciale de l'Ankárana in northern Madagascar.  Please contact us if you can help with its identity.  

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