Alan van Norman, a neurosurgeon from Bismarck, North Dakota, spends much of his spare time traveling the world to photograph owls. In November 2014, he excitedly boarded a flight destined for some remote Indian Ocean islands off the east coast of Africa. Not only did he want to find and photograph the Madagascan Red Owl, a Barn Owl look-alike except for its overall red-tinged coloration, but he also wanted to try and photograph some of the tiny owlets endemic to even more remote parts of this planet: the various forested islands of the Comoros archipelago. These volcanic islands lie between northern Mozambique and Madagascar and form part of the broader Malagasy region. The Malagasy islands consist of the vast “Eighth Continent” of Madagascar itself, combined with a number of much smaller islands including the Seychelles, Mauritius and the Comoros. The Malagasy region’s birds, mammals and plants are completely and absolutely different from anywhere else on our planet. Despite being a stone’s throw from the African mainland, Malagasy is other-worldly: this distinct faunal region has been isolated from the rest of the world for aeons. Madagascar and India were once joined (after the massive Gondwanaland split up), but then Madagascar and India broke apart. India, moving northeastwards, eventually collided with Asia, while Madagascar gradually drifted towards Africa, yet never got quite close enough to significantly share its fauna with this continent (or anywhere else!).
Justin Nicolau had already been guiding a series of standard set departure trips through Madagascar for about a month, before he excitedly met with Alan in Grande Comoro to assist with this Malagasy owl photography tour that had been planned (not an easy process in this part of the world) for over two years! While we may have planned the trip for a very long time, being at the mercy of the chaotic flight “schedule” of Malagasy airlines is never easy. Despite the airline challenges, remarkable success was achieved and, almost unbelievably, Alan eventually managed to photograph all his owl targets for the trip (along with some other super-rare birds)!
The first target was Karthala Scops Owl, a bird of the main island in the archipelago, Grande Comoro. It’s a Critically Endangered species with its entire global population (estimated at 1500, but declining) restricted to the forested slopes of an active volcano!
The next owl to try and find was the even rarer Moheli Scops Owl, with its world population of 260 (and declining!) restricted to a single mountain ridge. And, here it is, photographed by Alan!
Anjouan Scops Owl, also with a population of just 250 (and sadly also declining), was rediscovered in 1992. With great delight, Alan managed to photograph this one as well!
Finally, Mayotte Scops Owl, the only Least Concern species of the four Comoros owlets Alan was targeting, also played ball and here is a photo to prove it:
Finally, after “smashing” the Comores, Alan and Justin were set to fly to the vast island of Madagascar but instead of going to all the usual spots, they were to go “off the beaten track” where few other birders ever venture: to a site crawling with the rarest of the rare – the likes of Madagascan Pochard, Slender-billed Flufftail and of course that weird Madagascan Red Owl!
After Alan photographed his final target, Madagascan Red Owl, he still had time to look at some other rarely-seen birds. He managed to get not one, but two, flufftail species photographed! To put this in context, flufftails must be, by far, Africa’s most skulking birds, and while Madagascan Flufftail is one of the easiest of these “pygmy crakes” to see, Slender-billed Flufftail has only ever been seen by a small handful of privileged birders. This current trip allowed Alan to actually photograph this “thin on the ground” species, though!
And, last but not least, as a by-product of the owling, Alan managed to get photos of one of Planet Earth’s rarest birds, Madagascan Pochard!
This mega-exciting trip was a Birding Ecotours “Owls of the World” tour . This set of birding tours also includes “Owls of Peru”, “Owls of Southern Africa”, “Owls of India” and many others.
– Chris Lotz
To learn more about Chris and his Birding Ecotours, check out their website.