Monday, 27 August 2012

Madagascar: Winter versus Summer by Markus Lilje

Madagascar, the world’s fourth largest island, is often described as ‘a laboratory of evolution’; due to it splitting off first from Africa and later India, 135 and 88 million years ago respectively, there was a lot of time for the fauna and flora of the island to evolve in isolation. The resulting variety of unique species makes Madagascar a must-visit destination for any serious birding or wildlife enthusiast, with around 90% of all plant and larger animal species occurring nowhere else on the planet. Endemics include all 100-odd lemur species, well over 100 birds, two-thirds of the world’s chameleons, and masses of frogs, invertebrates and the majority of the island’s plants.

Short-legged Ground Roller by Markus Lilje

So then: when should you visit this fascinating island? In the past, all tours that specifically targeted birds were run exclusively around October and November, when it starts heating up and the birds are getting into the swing of calling, displaying and nesting – generally being more visible and easier to find. But there are many people who are unable to travel during these months and only a limited number of folks that can be accommodated within Madagascar’s existing infrastructure. With this in mind, Rockjumper recently started offering tours to the country during the drier and cooler southern winter, and we are now often asked what the differences are between the two seasons. Here then are some pros and cons of visiting Madagascar over the October/November period (referred to as spring from now on) as opposed to the period around July/August (winter).

 Velvet Asity (female) by Markus Lilje

The total number of species seen differs to some degree. The Palaearctic and Intra-African migrants that we would hope to see in spring are not around; this includes a number of shorebirds, with Crab-plover and Madagascar Pratincole being the more important ones among them. Raptors that migrate to breed further north are Sooty and Eleonora’s Falcon, both of which arrive back on the island during the spring period. The biggest loss during a winter tour, however, would be the Ground Rollers – of the 5 species endemic to the island, only Long-tailed Ground Roller in the dry south-west would be likely; any of the rainforest species would be very unlikely as they are rarely seen without their calls first betraying their location. (On our 2012 tour, we were fortunate to obtain great views of Short-legged Ground Roller as well.) Even in spring these birds need a lot of time and effort to find – they are still there in winter, but would require a huge of dose of luck to see! A few species are also only likely if a nest site is found, being very difficult at other times; for example, Crested Ibis and Madagascar Cuckoo-Hawk.

Red-fronted Coua by Markus Lilje

Torotoroka Scops Owl by Markus Lilje
Madagascar is well-known as being one of the tougher birding tours due to the very hot temperatures, particularly in the southern and western parts. In addition, long days and fairly difficult terrain at the rainforest sites all adds up to a tiring tour if you include the numerous night walks and long travel days to various parts of the island. Temperatures (in Celsius) often reach high 30s (around 100F) on a daily basis in the hotter parts in November, while they remain around 10 degrees cooler in the winter, making the whole experience more pleasant and easier to deal with. Furthermore, the days are shorter in the winter, meaning that night walks start and end earlier, with the result that the days are not as long as they would otherwise be. We also don’t lose a lot of birding time in winter because the cooler temperatures mean the tour participants as well as birds can remain more active for longer in the mornings and there is less of a lull in activity.

Verreaux's Sifaka, Berenty by Markus Lilje

Other species
The larger mammals are all active throughout the year and can be found with the same likelihood during either time period. Some of the smaller mammals, however, are totally inactive in the dry winter, when they estivate and are highly unlikely to be found. These include mainly the Tenrec and Dwarf Lemur species; while it is never easy to find these, they are certainly far more likely later in the year. Madagascar is also often a place where some very special and sometimes bizarre reptiles and frogs (herps) are searched for – both of these groups are better represented in the spring, when it warms up and is more likely to rain. Chameleons, however, are around throughout the year, as are the amazing Leaf-tailed Geckos, while a few snakes and other lizards can be seen in winter, but are far more numerous in spring.

Chameleon (Furcifer lateralis) by Markus Lilje

 Indri by Markus Lilje

So, to sum up: it really depends on what you are after and what you hope to get out of your visit to Madagascar. If you are trying to maximise birding numbers, the way to go is definitely in the spring, where you should get around 15 more species on the shorter Rockjumper tours (Highlights and Budget) and maybe 20 more on our Comprehensive Madagascar Tour. If you are after endemic families and other important groups (Ground Rollers, Mesites, Vangas, Malagasy Warblers, Cuckoo-roller and Asitys) it really makes very little difference, as during both periods you should find members of all these groups – it is mainly the Ground Rollers where you would have better chances for more species in the spring. For people that are worried about extreme heat or very long days, the winter tour is highly recommended, with very pleasant conditions at all sites that are visited: cool nights and warm days in the higher forests and mild nights and fairly hot days in the southern parts. The cooler temperatures also make the forest walking less strenuous and enjoyable. As for the numbers of people visiting Malagasy parks, these are also fairly similar during both periods due to the European school holidays in winter and most of the natural history tours to the island being in October and November.

Lesser Hedgehog Tenrec by Markus Lilje
Whatever your choice, we look forward to seeing you on one of our future tours through this truly fascinating and rewarding destination, where we expect to share some of the planet’s most interesting birding and wildlife viewing with you! (For more information on our exciting range of Malagasy offerings, click on the following link: 

 White-footed Sportive Lemur, Berenty by Markus Lilje

Nuthatch Vanga by Markus Lilje