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
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
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 FrigatebirdsFregata ariel with their
forked tails and sharply angled wings soar together with a lone Brown BoobySula 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 BoobiesSula
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").
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 EgretsEgretta 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.
Also in Moramba Bay, on trees near the Dimorphic Egrets, was a small colony
of Madagascar Sacred IbisThreskiornis (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.
We found the Greater Vasa ParrotCorocopsis
vasa with its white bill and all black/brown body in both Ankarana
Reserve and along the coast in Moramba Bay. Both the LesserCorocopsis 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.
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”.
One of Madagascar's most magnificent endemic birds is the Madagascar
Paradise FlycatcherTersiphone 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.
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").
Endemic to southern, northern and western Madagascar is the
Sickle Billed VangaFalculea 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 EaterMersops 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
The Crested DrongoDicruruius 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
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.
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.