Day 213: The Van Dam’s

Stalking an elusive super-endemic.

August 1, 2015, Ankarafantsika National Park, Madagascar — My most-wanted bird in western Madagascar was the Van Dam’s Vanga—not just for its awesome name, but because it’s a super-endemic representative of a whole endemic family (the vangas, which are found nowhere but Madagascar). The Van Dam’s is smart-looking, as the Brits would say; roughly robin-sized, black and white, with a massive beak and crisp plumage. You can’t mistake it for anything else, and it’s critically endangered—the species is known to exist now at only two sites, one of which is Ankarafantsika National Park.

Jacky and I heard a Van Dam’s Vanga in the distance yesterday but we focused today’s mission on laying eyes on one. He knew their usual hangout in a patch of dry, sandy forest and we spent a couple of hours this morning tiptoeing around the area, listening for the birds’ distinctive calls. We had some other good sightings including a pair of Schlegel’s Asity, some White-breasted Mesites, and several Cuckoo-Rollers (representing three more Madagascar-endemic bird families) as well as a sleepy-looking Madagascar Scops-Owl, but no luck on the Van Dam’s. Jacky and I gave up and went for lunch.

In late afternoon, Jacky and I hiked back into the forest to try for the Van Dam’s again. The area where the vangas live is accessible by a gridded research plot; straight transects have been cut every 100 meters within a one-kilometer square so that scientists can study the plants, animals, and ecology of the park. We were within this grid when Jacky stopped short and listened for a moment. “That’s the call,” he said quietly, and started walking very quickly. The research plot made it easy to track down bird calls, because trails led in every direction. We zigzagged toward the sound and eventually located the pair of vangas with a clear view, perched in a treetop. Well, I’ll be Van Dammed!

New birds today: 10

Year list: 3800

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