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accidental birding

With nearly 300 bird species, half of them endemic to the island, Madagascar is one of Africa’s premier birding destinations. We, however, are not birders and passed up Anjajavy’s bird walks for a chance to sleep in. Our interest in ornithology is solely photographic. We won’t forgo sleep for a chance to add a new bird to our collection, as a committed ornithologist would, but if we encounter one with distinctive plumage, we’ll photograph it.

Madagascar bulbul; the bulbuls in Kenya have a ball of yellow feathers at the bottom of their undersides.

Madagascar bulbul; the bulbuls in Kenya have a ball of yellow feathers at the bottom of their undersides.

On this score, S found Madagascar’s avian specimens somewhat disappointing. She had been expecting extravagant colors, like the ones birds flaunt in the Galapagos and was surprised at their largely pedestrian plumage.

The Madagascar kingfisher is one definite exception to the above.

The Madagascar kingfisher is one definite exception to the above.

Although we mostly eschewed birding on this trip, it was impossible to completely ignore Madagascar’s winged denizens, particularly because some of the island’s endemic species made such bizarre sounds that they commanded our attention even when we were otherwise occupied. Two birds in particular were guilty of this offense – flocks of sickle-billed vangas, which sounded like a warren of female cats in heat, and the magpie robin, which made a sound that evoked visions of malfunctioning electrical appliances whose circuitry had been fried by water.

Fish eagles in Kenya have much lighter plumage.

Fish eagles in Kenya have much lighter plumage.

We also saw the endangered Madagascar fish eagle, couas, crested drongos, paradise flycatchers, grey-headed lovebirds, red fodys, the spectacular Madagascar crested ibis, as well as Madagascar varieties of birds found elsewhere, such as bulbuls, bee-eaters, hoopoes, wagtails, cuckoos, egrets, kingfishers, buzzards, and harrier-hawks.

Red fody; the Malagasy pronounce their O's the way we'd say the O's in "food" so until we looked it up we thought this bird was called the "red foodie."

Red fody; the Malagasy pronounce their O’s the way we’d say the O’s in “food” so until we looked it up we thought this bird was called the “red foodie.”

The most notable birds we came across were a pair of collared nightjars, which our Andasibe guide found nesting under a bush while he was looking for bamboo lemurs. The bird book we borrowed listed these birds as so uncommon that their song has never been heard. We spent a solid half hour comparing the nightjars in our photos to the ones in the bird book before satisfying ourselves that we had indeed seen the rare collared nightjars, as our guide had insisted, and not their more common Madagascar cousins.

In addition to a few centimeters in size, the main difference between the rare collared nightjars and the more common Madagascar ones is a band of brown plumage at the back of the neck. A glimpse of it can be seen in this photo; the band is clearer in another picture we took, but the lighting in it was not as good.

In addition to a few centimeters in size, the main difference between the rare collared nightjars and the more common Madagascar ones is a band of brown plumage at the back of the neck. A glimpse of it can be seen in this photo; the band is clearer in another picture we took, but the lighting in it was not as good.

Despite S’s oft-proclaimed aversion to birding, which owes largely to the need to wake up early, she purchased D a comprehensive East Africa bird guide. It hasn’t yet made ornithology any more appealing a hobby, but it’s definitely helped us identify the birds that we do occasionally photograph. Previously, our photos would include titles along the lines of “tiny yellow bird” or “pretty red bird.” Being able to accurately name our photos is a definite improvement.

Hoopoes are unmistakable; the ones in Madagascar are lighter and quite a bit more orange than the ones we've seen flitting around East Africa.

Hoopoes are unmistakable; the ones in Madagascar are lighter and quite a bit more orange than the ones we’ve seen flitting around East Africa.

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