Bird Spotting In Madagascar

Posted on: 24 September 2008 by Gareth Hargreaves

Twitcher David Alston, takes a nautical extravaganza up the Mozambique Channel in search of elusive pelagics.

“Still need Red-tailed and White-tailed Tropicbirds for your Southern African lists?” asked the flyer invitingly. “Of course we do,” we responded – after all, our life lists did need perking up a bit, our most recent addition – and you’d better believe it – being the yellow morph of the Crimson-breasted Shrike in Madikwe but that was months ago, and my pencil has been poised ever since.

So it came to pass that, along with nearly 200 other birders, we stood among a mound of state-of-the art GPS’s, depth sounders, telescopes, binoculars and cameras in Durban harbour in the last week of November, waiting to board the Good Ship MV Madagascar, fresh from her trials following a refit, which didn’t sound to have been too successful as apparently she’d never got further than Richards Bay.

Significantly, little had been said about the Good Ship by the tour organiser prior to departure, and we were only partially reassured by its description as a ‘tropical floating island’ with ‘endless party nights’ in the brochure that awaited us in our cabin.  Nor were the promised ‘Meet The Captain’ with canapes forthcoming on the first evening.

But with Igor Kosaryer as Captain and Goran Rodojicic as Cruise Director, it probably wouldn’t have been a riot of fun anyway,

After an enthusiastic start with the mega-twitchers getting to grips with seagulls and cormorants even before we’d passed the Bluff, the decks began to empty ominously as the Umhlanga Rocks’ lighthouse disappeared into the murk, and our 3,000 tonner began to shake, rattle and roll as it headed out into the Indian Ocean and up the Mozambique Channel.

It was only when the decks started filling up again a good two days after we had set sail that we realised just how many passengers had fallen victim to mal-de-mer, giving a new dimension to the well-known nautical expression ‘Heave-ho my not-so-hearties’ - and kept to the relative safety of their cabins. So much for the ‘endless party nights’.

Little EgretOnce sea-legs were screwed on and we reached the first seamount - which are undersea mountains where upswellings bring nutrient-rich waters to the surface, thus attracting fish and birds. Birding began in earnest and 200 souls were running across the deck as someone with binoculars pointed skywards in response to a cry of “booby on the port bow” -  a sight not easily forgotten.

The turning point of the excursion, somewhere between Beira and Madagascar, was Europa Island, which is listed in The Important Bird Areas in Africa Handbook – so breaths were suitably baited. Apart from numerous breeding seabirds, we were promised sightings of resident Dimorphic Egrets and Madagascar Squacco Herons, and you don’t get them too often in your back garden.

It was at this point however, that communication with the Captain, which had been faltering along the way, broke down completely and despite the pleas of the tour organiser, he rounded the island at maximum knots and set off back to Durban as though in pursuit of Moby Dick, leaving all birders virtually empty-handed and life lists static.

At this point something has to be said about our guides, whose combined expertise could easily spawn yet another edition of Roberts, and who were able to identify any pelagic dots on the horizon without binoculars, while most of us were still struggling to get them focused.

These worthy souls disported themselves between the fore and aft decks and communicated via walkie-talkies which resulted in wild scrambles fro and to from where something was spotted.  The scramblers inevitably arriving after or before the bird in question had flown.   

The guides recorded every sighting on the trip and its exact location. They also recorded the time between sightings, the longest stretch being 94 minutes, during which we had to survive on flying fish, dolphins and the odd whale, all of whom were photographed from fin to foot as a substitute for something more feathery.

Purple SwamphenFor the record, and for the twitchers, we saw among others the Subantartic Skua, Bridled Tern, Sooty Tern, Red and White-tail Tropic birds, Red-footed Booby, Greater and Lesser Frigate Birds, Great-winged Petrel, Indian Yellow-nosed Albatross and - wait for it mega-tickers – Barau’s and Jouanin’s Petrel, apparently last seen by Bartholemeu Diaz just before he realised he was meant to be looking for India and turned right.

The Tropic and Frigate Birds undoubtedly won the Beauty Prize, while the Boobies in flight were particularly awesome, and one graced us with his presence for an entire day on top of one of the masts, boosting sales of Kodak film but also causing a number of stiff necks that bewildered the Ukrainian only-speaking doctor on board.

A final word of advice: if you’re ever invited to cruise on the Good Ship MV Madagascar – don’t go.  A cruise ship she is not, with some cabins, the dining-room situated below the water-line and scant room on deck to ‘discover places made out of dreams, fun and laughter’, unless up-ending into the swimming-pool, which was never filled to avoid stampeding twitchers drowning, while pointing skywards falls into that category.

The fact that her port-of-origin appeared to be Dubrovnik suggests that she might have coped better on the Black Sea, but that’s another flight of the imagination.

By David Alston

Have you been to Madagascar? Are you planning a cruise? Are you an avid bird watcher?

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