2. Ankarafantsika National Park

Our three a.m. wake-up call the next morning came all too early. Mark had arranged for passable breakfast snacks for the bus ride, and most important, coffee. We drove southeast from Majunga, located on the western coast of Madagascar, and inland about 64 miles toward Ankarafantsike National Park.

Before humans inhabited Madagascar, tropical dry forests dominated the northwestern coast and inland for several hundred miles. However, civilization has destroyed 97 percent of these forests. In an attempt to save the last remaining section of dense, dry deciduous forest in Madagascar, the government designated this shrinking area a national park in 2002. The dry season in the tropical forests ends in October, so most of the tall thin trees and sparse understory were leafless during our visit, leaving the bare ground exposed to the harsh sun.


Umbrella Birds & More

When we arrived at the park, I noticed six backpacking tents set up under a grass roof over a concrete pad near the parking lot. The tents were so close together everyone would know if someone turned over. These tents were the extent of tourist accommodations at the park. For people like us, we wanted a bit more comfort, thus the early three-hour drive. Since our visit, the government has built better accommodations at the park allowing birders to arise fully rested for dawn bush walks.

My favorite bird that day was the Black Heron, a medium-sized wading bird that feeds in groups along the shore of the park’s fresh-water lake. On the hunt, they spread their wings around their heads to shade the water. Fish are attracted to the shade, making them easy targets for the hungry birds. This is called canopy feeding. At first, the herons looked like several black umbrellas opened, but abandoned, at the water’s edge. In an instant, one umbrella became a heron with a long neck and legs. Then another unwrapped himself and then another. The herons walked a few paces and with a swish became umbrellas again. The black herons assume this position so quickly that it is difficult to see the transition. I have seen that same graceful movement in modern dance performances, the dancer bent forward, arms gracefully forming an arc overhead. Could some choreographer have seen one of these birds?

More than a decade later, I still chuckle when I recall that day. During the first days of any birding trip, there are so many new birds to see, it is easy to get overwhelmed. Even now, with more than fifteen years experience as a birder, my head still spins with the abundance of birds and wildlife in a new place. Looking back, I remember the moment in Ankarafantsike National Park when Mark pointed to the right side of a large bush and said, “Look at the bird over here! This is a difficult bird to see, so catch a glimpse now! We will see lots of those other birds later!”

I don’t think many of us knew enough to take Mark’s advice. At the time Mark said this, I thought, But the ones over here are prettier!

On that particular day, the bird Mark wanted us to see was a Vanga, a name that stuck in my head as a new family of birds to me. It could have been the Van Dam’s Vanga, truly a difficult bird to find and the reason for Mark’s excitement—someone who is generally quiet and subdued. He kept a list of what we saw and the Van Dam’s vanga was on the list. I glanced at the vanga, white and grey, but not as eye catching as the other birds, so I returned to observing them. We saw a lot of vangas on the trip, but never another one of that species.

Numerous times I have thought about that lesson and now, I always pay attention to the guide’s judgment of where my focus should be, even giving up some lovely eye candy for a plainer but rarer bird. At that point in my birding career I did not understand the importance of “the personal bird list” to some birders, so I just absorbed with pleasure the birds I saw. I don’t regret that. Now that I do keep a list, I don’t take it too seriously like some birders who have a celebration for every milestone, though I don’t mind the libations that accompany someone else’s party.

We saw the Madagascar Crested Ibis with its rusty brown body, a red face, a black crest, and the curved ibis bill. We also saw White-breasted Mesite, Coquerel’s Coua, Red-capped Coua, and a Squacco Heron. I loved that name right away. This heron is stocky with a short fluffy neck, a thick body, and a buffy-brown back. I’ve seen squacco herons several times since, and they always make me smile. Some bird names just make the bird all the more special.


My First Lemurs

I went to Madagascar to observe lemurs as well as birds. While at the park, I got my first glimpses of lemurs—ever. At a frustrating distance, we saw a few lemurs called Coquerel’s Safika and a troop of Brown Lemurs, but not close enough for me to enjoy. However, these were my first lemurs, worth a cheer even at the distance. At that point, the nuances among the lemur species were lost on me but they were lemurs, and that was exciting. After that, I kept telling myself, I saw lemurs! I wanted more, and Mark assured us, we would see plenty of lemurs, and up close.

By the end of our visit at Ankarafantsike National Park, I felt too overwhelmed with the abundance of wildlife encounters to absorb the finer points of all the new animals and birds. By any count, I certainly enjoyed that fabulous day. What a start to the trip!


How to Grow Rice

On our return trip from the national park back to Majunga, we got our first daytime look at rice fields and farmers planting the tiny shoots in their flooded fields. The first settlers brought rice with them from Borneo and now rice is the staple of the Malagasy diet. Our driver pulled the bus over and we climbed off to watch the farmers. They all waded with effort through knee-deep water and muck as they went about their work.

Women planting rice near Majunga

After Rivo explained what the fieldworkers were doing, he asked the women in the closest field for permission to photograph them. They laughed and even posed for our cameras. The women were transplanting the chartreuse rice shoots grown from seed in the nearby nursery fields. In another field, a man skimmed a huge paddle over the flooded mud surface to level it for planting.

Brick worker

Rivo explained, “All the farmers in a village plant their rice at the same time so that when it matures, the hungry birds are dispersed among all the fields and no one farmer’s crop is stripped. They keep the paddies wet until just before harvest to keep down weeds and to allow the plants to absorb the dissolved nutrients. Then they drain the fields and let the paddies sit for a few days for the soil to become firmer. After that, the farmers cut the rice near ground level and leave the roots in the earth to decay and nourish the next crop. They can grow one to three crops of rice a year.”

During our rice growing conversation I learned that after harvesting several crops of rice, the soil could be used to make bricks, a process we watched at another location. The residual roots provide organic matter for the brick making and if needed, more straw can be worked into the mud. Workers mold bricks into the desired shape then leave them to dry on the field.

Brick kiln

Once the bricks harden, the workers stack them loosely, up to eight feet high with spaces for air vents and a fire. After baking for two or three days, often using rice husks for fuel, villagers use the bricks to build the two- and three-story houses common in and around Tana (Antananarivo). When workers take the soil off the fields for bricks, it leaves only the laterite clay, which means the farmer must weigh the economic advantage of rice over bricks.

Farmers’ fields surround their homes. Typically, the farm animals occupy the ground level of the home and the families live in the upper stories. There are few chimneys because people let the smoke from their cooking fires fill their houses to protect against mosquitoes. As a result, lung disease is a serious health problem for people living in these houses and medical care is poor in rural areas. However, the threat of malaria carried by the mosquitoes is more worrisome than lung cancer, a disease that may or may not be contracted after years of breathing smoke.

That day when we looked around the paddy-filled valley, I found it difficult to imagine that thick forests had ever covered those valleys, as it had before the first humans arrived.

Back at our motel, we prepared for our next day’s journey. We would take a flight south the next morning to the absolute opposite end of Madagascar, Fort Dauphine.