I woke up in that daze created by flying for 10 hours and waking up in an unfamiliar bed.
“Leaping lemurs — did you hear that, Flip?”
“Yes, if we weren’t in Madagascar I would swear it was a turkey,” he replied.
We had arrived in Tana (short for Antananarivo), the capital of Madagascar, at 11:30 p.m. so the drive to the Hotel Colbert was in pitch black. We had collapsed after opening the door to the small porch off our room for some real air — not airplane fare — and pulled the drapes.
“Gobble, gobble, gobble” — it was too much for me. I leapt out of bed, pulled the drapes and stepped out on the porch. We were in the big city but I was pleasantly surprised by the view. The sun was shining on a myriad of beautiful lavender jacaranda trees which were in blossom everywhere I looked.
And yes, down in the courtyard of the church below our hotel was a single Tom turkey gobbling his heart out. We had hoped the first bird we saw on Madagascar would be one of the exotic endemic species such as vangas, mesites, cuckoo rollers, ground rollers or coucals. No such luck.
The island of Madagascar is 400 kilometers (about 250 miles) off the east coast of Africa between 12 degrees south and the Tropic of Capricorn. It is the fourth-largest island in the world after Greenland, New Guinea and Borneo. We had chosen a trip to Madagascar to see the numerous endemic bird species, the famous and fascinating lemurs, and the collection of strange chameleons that inhabit Madagascar and, in most cases, nowhere else in the world. In the end, we were not disappointed even though the turkey was the first bird we heard and spotted.
By the end of our three-week visit, Flip had seen 153 species of birds and I only 151. (I swear in my next life I am coming back as a six-foot-tall woman with perfect hearing!) This seems like a small list after our Central and South American trips where we racked up more than 300 birds in the same period. But, although we spotted a handful of birds we had seen before, including black-crowned night heron, sanderlings, whimbrel and common tern to name a few, the 135 new species were mainly those we would never see again unless we return to Madagascar. Where else can one see couas, mesites and vangas or Madagascar sparrow hawk, buzzard, harrier hawk, nightjar, grebe, pond heron or turtle dove? No place.
The vangas were the most fascinating. This family of birds could have been the Darwin vangas instead of Darwin finches. If Darwin had visited Madagascar, not the Galapagos, he would have come to the same conclusions. The vangas have evolved with incredible diversity. Some resemble nuthatches, some woodpeckers, others shrikes, tits or treecreepers. None of the aforementioned species occur on Madagascar.
The vangas have evolved to fill the niches these birds inhabit elsewhere in the world, a classic example of divergent evolution. My favorite of this group was the sickle-billed vanga, which has a weird call resembling someone being sick to their stomach and sports a huge down-curved bill that is used to probe into the crevices of tree bark for insects. Other vangas have petite bills and hunt just like nuthatches, or heavier stout bills to hunt chameleons and lizards much like our shrikes.
We visited several different habitats including rainforest, open country, mangrove, mud flats, salt marsh, lakefront, coastal scrub, semi-desert and the strange spiny forest which boasts the weird baobab, the octopus trees and several species of lemurs.
Ah, the lemurs, now that is another whole story — and to think it all started with a turkey gobbling. Happy Thanksgiving.