Arjan's Biggest Year

In 2016 I will attempt the ultimate in global birding, to break the world record in birdwatching, this involves observing more than 6000 species in a single year!
Like my predecessor Noah Strycker I will count heard-only birds, but I will differentiate between heard-only- and seen species to make sure my list stays comparable.

During my 'Biggest Year' I will raise money for the groundbreaking Birdlife Preventing Extinctions Programme in a collaboration with Vogelbescherming Nederland and the Dutch Birding Association. This programme aims to prevent the extinction of all globally threatened bird species by applying an active, innovative and highly effective methodology.

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May 17 - 21

25 mei 2016  ·  Arjan Dwarshuis  ·  7506 × bekeken


At 02:30 AM I had cleared Malagasy customs and was greeted by a calling Madagascar Nightjar – my first Malagasy endemic - driver Zizi and Mamy Randriamanantena, my guide for the next 4,5 days on Madagascar. Especially for my Biggest Year, Madagascar Wildlife Tour Agency (MWTA) had put together a mental 4,5 days custom tour across this fantastic island, incorporating both the dry western and the wet eastern part of the island.

I had always dreamed of going to Madagascar, surely one of the most exciting destinations for any self-respecting naturalist since the island holds 156 true endemic birds and another 21 species that are only found on Madagascar and some nearby islands. Among these are 5 bird families that are found nowhere else on earth. In addition to this bird extravaganza are some very special endemic mammals, most renowned being of course the Lemurs, with a staggering 101 species. Madagascar is also a paradise for herpetologists with more than 30 species of Chameleons. Naturally I was very excited when I finally set foot on Madagascar's peculiar red soil for the first time ever…

Our destination was the fabled Ankaranfantsika NP, located in the north-western part of Madagascar. This park hosts the largest remaining track of Malagasy deciduous dry forest and is home to a very special set of birds. The drive from Antananarivo is a long one, but thanks to Zizi’s Dakar Rally-like driving skills we arrived before midday. En route we had picked up Madagascar Lark, Madagascar Cisticola and Greater Vasa Parrot in the grasslands that make up 90 % of this journey, a disturbing thought if you consider the fact that most of this very species-poor habitat used to be lush forest packed with beautiful endemic birds, mammals and other unique wildlife. As I travelled through this habitat it became even clearer to me that we must do everything we can to preserve what’s left.

After a quick lunch the fun could finally start and with Jacky – the best local guide there is – I was in very capable hands. We had barely set foot in the forest when we stumbled upon our first of many Coquerel’s Coua, one of 10 species belonging to an amazing genus found exclusively on Madagascar. Later on we would also find several Red-capped- and Crested Couas. Suddenly there was the sound of birds scurrying through the dry leaf litter and moments later I was looking at a beautiful pair of White-breasted Mesites, one of the specialties of the park.

The absolute highlight for me was an obligating pair of Cuckoo-rollers – one of my all-time most wanted birds - that gave walkaway views, they strangely reminded me of a huge over-the-top version of a Wryneck. Our rarest find was a female Schlegel’s Asity, a bird that is often missed and another highly desired new family.

And I almost forgot the Vanga’s… We saw Malagasy Blue-, White-headed-, Chabert- and the absolutely amazing Sickle-billed Vanga!

To conclude this mesmerizing day we had a night walk along the edge of the park where we saw several fantastic species of Chameleon and both Grey- and Golden-brown Mouse Lemurs. Wow! This day will stay in my mind forever.

Chameleon sp. (Arjan Dwarshuis)

Home of the Schlegel's Asity! (Arjan Dwarshuis)

Madagascar Cuckoo-roller Leptosomus discolor (Arjan Dwarshuis)

Schlegel's Asity Philepitta schlegeli, female (Arjan Dwarshuis)

Coquerel's Sifaka Propithecus coquereli (Arjan Dwarshuis)

Sickle-billed Vanga Falculea palliata (Arjan Dwarshuis)


At 6 AM Jacky, Mamy and I set off into the forest again, our target bird being the Van Dam’s Vanga, a rare and very cool bird bearing the same name as my childhood hero, Jean Claude van Damme :)

After walking for half an hour Jacky picked up the call and the chase began… We sprinted through the dry forest closing in on the peculiar sound, but every time we got close the bird decided to fly off to a next tree. This went on for about half an hour before the bird stopped calling, leaving me with just some fleeting glimpses… 

We continued birding and within two hours’ time we saw several White-breasted Mesites, Madagascar Buttonquails, exquisite looking Rufous Vangas, the weird Sakalaka Weaver and best, a roosting Torotoroka Scops-owl, but still no Van Dam’s…

Just before it was time to head back to the visitors centre – we had another 9 hour drive ahead of us – we stumbled upon a large mixed flock. At the same time I found another female Schlegel’s Asity suddenly a Van Dam’s Vanga popped up in front of it! The bird gave an amazing show as it foraged 2 meters in front of me, amazing. If the bird would have done an epic split between two branches he would have made the show complete ;-)

Now it was time for a relaxing boat ride, necessary to see the critically endangered Madagascar Fish Eagle since a pair of these impressive birds holds territory around the lake opposite the visitors centre.

We had barely left the jetty when a Fish Eagle swooped overhead, caught a fish and flew into a large tree on the opposite side of the lake. We rushed over there and moments later we watched an amazing Madagascar Fish Eagle that devoured its prey just 20 meters away from us, a magical moment.

Now there was one target still missing, the Madagascar Jacana. Jacky took us to a lily-covered pond east of the park and after some searching we found one of these stunning birds. Mission Completed!

We said goodbye to Jacky and headed off towards Antananarivo. Tomorrow part two of this crazy trip starts!

Coquerel's Coua Coua coquereli (Arjan Dwarshuis)

Torotoroka Scops-owl Otus madagascariensis (Arjan Dwarshuis)

Crested Coua Coua cristata (Arjan Dwarshuis)

Van Dam's Vanga Xenopirostris damii (Arjan Dwarshuis)

Rufous Vanga Schetba rufa (Arjan Dwarshuis)

Madagascar Fish Eagle Haliaeetus vociferoides (Arjan Dwarshuis)


I had my breakfast at 4 AM today so that we would reach Mantadia NP – about 4,5 hours’ drive from Antananarivo – around 9 AM, leaving us with enough time to do some proper birding at this fantastic site.

What a change of scenes! Yesterday I was still birding in a hot and bone dry Ankaranfantsika NP and now I found myself in a cold and wet rainforest. The ‘wet’ part is of course something you expect when thinking of a rainforest, but the ‘cold’ part definitely not and with a 10 degrees drop in temperature over the course of the last two days and a constant drizzle conditions were far from ideal, especially considering the fact that my main target here – the elusive Scaly Ground Roller – is a notorious forest floor inhabitant.

Despite this major setback the experience of walking through this absolutely stunning forest was a treat. My local guide Patrice turned out to be almost extra-terrestrially sharp and he picked up on literally everything that moved or called. Even without a pair of binoculars he managed to identify everything spot-on correctly (even with the cryptically coloured and skulking Tetraka family he made not a single mistake). This meant that we still saw a lot of good birds with the absolute highlight being a pair of Madagascar Ibises that Patrice found by their poop on the forest floor (he even identified this small whitish puddle as belonging to the ibises, I still don’t know how since it looked like any other bird poop out there :)). We missed the – or, as a matter of fact – any species of Ground Roller which means that after 3 days in Madagascar, there is still one endemic bird family that managed to elude me…

In addition to 21 new bird species there were of course the Lemurs, 5 gorgeous species in total, one even more amazing than the other. We stumbled upon a family of Indri’s, bearing resemblance of Asian Gibbons with their black-and-white plumage, huge size and bizarre calls. Watching these pseudo-primates looking down at us from the canopy will stay in my mind forever. In addition to these Indris we saw Black-and-white Ruffed Lemurs, Diademed Sifakas, Grey Bamboo-lemurs and Red-bellied Lemurs, Wow…

Blue Coua Coua caerulea (Arjan Dwarshuis)

Black-and-white Ruffed Lemur Varecia variegata (Arjan Dwarshuis)


If there is one particular bird that has been on top of my list of most wanted birds than it is the Helmet Vanga. Now I had a chance to come face-to-face with this bizarre bird since recently a territory of this rarity had been found in a remote corner of Andasibe NP. In addition to the Helmet Vanga the rare and little know Bernier’s Vanga holds territory in this forest.

So it began… Around 5 AM I was in a land cruiser going 5 km/h across a road that you won’t believe. Half a meter deep puddles, rocks the size of footballs and meter high grass in the middle of the track. After an hour of swinging from side to side we finally arrived at the end of the road, from there on it was walking. The first 500 meters were on a muddy trail, but from that point on we went off-trail and up-hill through thick wet rainforest understory following a local trekker – on flip-flops (!!) - hacking his way with a machete. Meanwhile rain was drizzling down and it was misty, cloudy and cold and every time the weather seemed to clear it started raining again. Half an hour in I was already soaked to the bone…

Because of these horrible conditions birding was tough, tougher than any day of my entire Biggest Year so far. We battled on, now and then playing the calls of both Vangas, but we never got a response. The first 5 hours I was still hopeful, but after 5 km of climbing, slipping and sliding I began to lose all hope, but not Patrice, Mamy and the local trekker, they kept pushing until even they knew that this just wasn’t our place and time.

Defeated by the rainforest we headed back. I asked Patrice how far to the car. ‘3 more kilometres’. Holy £%&$, 3 more kilometres of green hell… around 5 PM we arrived back at our car. Tired, wet and cold. Luckily Patrice and Mamy still had some fight left in them because despite the weather we tried for Madagascar Swamp Warbler and Madagascar Rail and yes there is a happy ending to this story, we managed to see both :). The hot shower that night was one of the best I ever had.

That night I couldn’t sleep despite being very tired, somehow I suddenly – I don’t know why – started to feel the stress of this whole undertaking. Maybe it was because this whole day of working so hard with so little result or maybe it was because of the realization that I calculated too much time for Africa, time that I could have spent in Asia… or maybe it was because of the humongous planning that layed ahead… Tomorrow I will redeem myself and push extra hard…

Indri Indri indri (Arjan Dwarshuis)


When the alarm rang at 5 AM it was still raining, definitely not the weather I needed for this day of redemption, especially considering the fact that I had just 3 more hours before we had to drive back to Antananarivio so I wouldn’t miss my flight to Lilongwe, Malawi. I decided to make a target list. No more chances for Ground-Rollers or Helmet Vanga, I guess I will have to come back to Madagascar one day to settle that score… In total there were about 9 or 10 possibilities, I was hoping to see 6, but half expected to get 3 or 4 new species in those 3 hours. Luckily I had Patrice…

At exactly 6 AM we raced into the forest and just 5 minutes later I watched 2 beautiful Rainforest Scops Owls that had just come into their roost. 1 down. As we continued we encountered a mixed flock that by some miracle held a Stripe-throated Jerry, not the most enigmatic of birds, but 2 down nonetheless. It took Patrice some searching but by 7 AM I was feasting my eyes on a roosting pair of Collared Nightjar, huddling close together on the forest floor. 3 down. The Red-breasted Coua and Madagascar Wood Rail took another stressful hour, but we managed to connect with both despite the now pouring rain. 5 down, this was going much better than expected! On our way out of the forest and on to the next patch we stumbled upon a Forest Fody. 6 down. Now there were 40 minutes left. We tried hard for Crossley’s Vanga, but weather condition were definitely not ideal for this skulker. Time to head back, 6 new species within 3 hours, not bad at all. Than it happened, a high pitched sound as we flushed a bird from a branch overhead. A Madagascar Pygmy Kingfisher! Yessss! I gave myself 5 minutes to enjoy this red-and-white little wonder before it was past 9 AM and time to dispatch. 7 down. I gave Patrice a big fat hug and we drove off. However there were two more species still on my target list and amazingly we managed to find both in unexpected good numbers during our drive to Tana, Malagasy Black Swift and Mascarene Martin. 9 down in one morning. That’s a well deserved beer to go with my in-flight meal :).  

 Arjan Dwarshuis


Jurgen van der Meer  ·  25 mei 2016  11:06

Jaloers op de arend. Hang in there man!

Wim ten Have  ·  25 mei 2016  18:31

In Madagascar wederom een fantastisch resultaat; 10 soorten meer dan Noah in 3 dagen minder. Het daggemiddelde zal de komende tijd omlaag gaan, dat kan niet anders. Dat je het record breekt is voor mij geen vraag meer. In termen van auto-racen: de ronde-tijden zullen omlaag gaan. Geen probleem als je de motor maar niet opblaast. Succes.

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