Friday, April 10, 2015

Seychelles - last days. The vanishing point

My first two days on the Seychelles had proven so successful that there was only one endemic species I needed to see to complete my "not on Mahe" set before heading back there, and so, on day three, I headed over to La Digue.

Even against the dizzying standards of rarity set by birds I'd seen over the previous two days, the Seychelles Paradise Flycatcher (Terpsiphone corvina) sits in a league of its own. It is, apparently naturally, restricted to the two islands of La Digue and Marianne, and has been introduced, as an insurance policy, also to the island of Denis. The two first-mentioned islands have a combined surface area of 11.27 square kilometres, which sounds pretty comfortable set against the range of the Seychelles Warbler (Acrocephalus seychellensis). But, remarkably, the Paradise Flycatcher is so picky that it is largely restricted to lowland habitats on the islands on which it occurs, and that is a considerably smaller area. In fact the Paradise Flycatcher is the first of the birds I'd attempted to see on the Seychelles that is classified by Birdlife International as Critically Endangered. It's a bird that is at the vanishing point in terms of its global survival. No wonder they've transferred a few to Denis, because the only protected area it enjoys on La Digue is the tiny Veuve Reserve - a place so small that it's barely larger than an overgrown English village green.

A view of La Digue from the sea. Almost the entire global range of the Seychelles Paradise Flycatcher is visible in this picture, in the tiny area between the sea and the fringing hills.
My ferry from Praslin took around 15 minutes, and I was immediately impressed by La Digue. There are barely any cars or lorries here; only what's strictly necessary for deliveries. All other travel is by bike or on foot, and overwhelmingly the former. I think people thought I was crazy for walking, but you can't use binoculars from a bike. I've tried. It's a bad idea.

I'd already added a year tick and a new subspecies before even getting off the ferry; a Green-backed Heron (Butorides striatus) of the degens subspecies limited to the inner islands of the Seychelles, showing a lot more rufous and chestnut than you'd see in Africa. But walking along the baking streets there was nothing out of the ordinary - Common Mynas (Acridotheres tristis) everywhere, an occasional Seychelles Sunbird (Nectarinia dussumieri) flitting between trees, quite a few Seychelles Bulbuls (Hypsipetes crassirostris) scattered around in family groups, Zebra Doves (Geopelia striata) crooning all over the place, and Fairy Terns (Gygis alba) overhead. So it continued as I got to the edge of the Veuve reserve, and so it continued, to my mounting consternation, as I walked into the "forest" (it seems a grand word for so small an area). A Madagascar Turtle Dove (Nesoenas picturatus) wandered along the path, and the trees were full of Seychelles Fruit Bats (Pteropus seychellensis).

But where was my widow? The Seychelles Paradise Flycatcher is known as a the "widow" (vev, in Creole, veuve, in French, hence the name of the reserve). It is so-called because of the jet back plumage of the adult, alleviated only by a pair of electric blue glasses in the form of a loral stripe and half eye ring, setting off the pale bill. But it's a misnomer, because it's the adult male that sports these colours, not the female. The female, as I was about to see, is much like her counterpart in mainland Africa - a black hood, a chestnut mantle an tail and a white underside. She fluttered into sight on hanging vines a few metres away. I got my views, but my camera was in my bag and she'd scarpered by the time I had it out.

I wandered on. In this case global scarcity and local scarcity did seem to equate. It was another 15 minutes before I saw my next bird and both it and the one after it (my last) were males. And stunning. Since a picture is worth a thousand words, here he is, and I'll say no more.

The male Seychelles Paradise Flycatcher. By far and away the rarest bird I've ever seen.
I was affected by this bird's rarity in ways I wasn't affected by other species I saw here. We could really be on the way to losing this gorgeous creature from the planet - or having it as little more than a precarious zoo exhibit on the tiny island of Denis. La Digue is developing quickly, and flat land good for building is not in great supply. The Veuve Reserve may survive, but it's pitifully small - even smaller than those tiny islands that host the last remnants of much of the rest of the Seychelles' avifauna. It's clearly insufficient to provide a meaningful refuge to an entire species. And, as for providing an 'ark' on Denis, who knows if this species can even thrive in the long term when transferred to other islands? The lesson of the Seychelles Magpie-Robin (Copsychus seychellarum) on Aride is that these islands, despite their similarities, are not much of a muchness ecologically-speaking. Birds survive on one where they wither on others, and the reasons are often obscure. If the Seychelles Paradise Flycatcher is to survive it can only be on its remaining native habitat - the almost absurdly small lowland forest of La Digue Island.

Wandering back to the ferry my thoughts were lifted from the infinitesimally small to the vast - to birds that span the globe on fat reserves that would fit into a teaspoon. The first delight was a small flock of Lesser Crested Terns (Thalasseus bengalensis), to add to the Greater (Thallaseus bergii) I'd seen the previous day. But this was as nothing to the sound of a sudden "tseep" that drew my attention to a fine, healthy and active Tree Pipit (Anthus trivialis), strutting around like it hadn't a care in the world as it pecked away behind a beach a thousand kilometres from anywhere, and 10,000 from its breeding grounds. These birds astonish me. I've seen them passing through the Balkans in vast numbers - the passage migration we see in North-Western Europe is a pale imitation of the urgent, almost frenzied press you see further South. And now, here one was, "an annual visitor" as the book says, and preparing, presumably, to launch itself across the Indian Ocean while its local cousins here won't cross a stretch of water wider than 2 kilometres.

I called it a day after returning to Praslin, and read a book instead. But on the Sunday morning I roused myself for a last effort. The Lemuria Golf Club, on the Western tip of Praslin, is a manicured environment, of course. But it has water hazards, and those harbour Yellow Bitterns (Ixobrychus sinensis). This is not an island endemic, but an outlying and beleaguered population of a species which is otherwise Asian, rather than African, in its distribution, as the taxonomic name indicates. And it's therefore living proof that the population of islands by birds is as much a matter of chance than anything else. Why Yellow Bittern and not Little Bittern (Ixobrychus minutus)? Golf courses are generally good for birding, in my experience, though it's probably unfashionable to say so. And in addition to the Yellow Bittern I was also secretly hoping that the greens and fairways would play host to one of my bogey-birds. A species I've sought and missed across two continents: Pacific Golden Plover (Pluvialis fulva).

It was a hot walk, but I'd phoned ahead and there was no problem getting permission to walk around the course. Moorhens (Gallinula chloropus) abounded (again) and there were waders too; Grey Plovers (Pluvialis squatarola) and Turnstones (Arenaria interpres) in good numbers, and the year's first Common Sandpipers (Actitis hypoleucos) and Curlew Sandpipers (Calidris feruginea). There was a juvenile Green-backed Heron too. But no Yellow Heron.

An orientalis Moorhen at the Lemuria Golf Club. This photo doesn't show it to best advantage, but the frontal shield is noticeably bigger than on European birds.
I returned to the clubhouse for a coke to recover from the heat and wondered what to do. The second nine holes were uphill, and seemed poor habitat for the species I was after. And I wasn't sure I could handle the heat. So I wandered back along the first nine, concentrating on the water edges as I did so. With a sudden flap a Black-crowned Night Heron (Nycticorax nycticorax) exploded from one of the stream edges, followed by a smaller, much paler bird behind. These Night Herons are recent immigrants, having naturally colonised the islands in the course of the 1990s, and this was my first of the year, so I was happy enough. But I was sure that the other bird was an Ixobrychus. I backed up and around, approaching the same stream from the other side, and there it was. An immature Yellow Heron. Nice. And nice that it was an immature, indicating that they're still breeding here. No Pacific Golden Plovers, though. For those I'll have to continue waiting, and working.

My last LIFER on the Seychelles. An immature Yellow Bittern on the Lemuria Golf Course.
I headed back to Mahe that afternoon, and I should now be writing about the adventures of tracking down the Seychelles Scops-Owl (Otus insularis) and the Seychelles White-Eye (Zosterops modestus) there, to complete the royal flush of Seychelles endemics. But the truth is that I had work to do, and the weather changed, and I was tired, and I ended up spending three nights and days in and around my hotel with little to show for it except my work output and good views (at last) of the Seychelles Blue Pigeon (Alectroenas pulcherrimus). The chances are that I'll never be back to the Seychelles, but if I do come back I'll put the effort in for these two last endemics. Or at least one of them. I have such a dreadful record in seeing owls that I'd already written-off my chances of seeing that bird before I even got there.

Seychelles - Day 2: The High - Praslin and Aride

One of the advantages of being kept waiting at the airport the previous day (see last post) was that I'd had time to arrange today's activity - a visit to Aride Island. Without revealing too much, it didn't come cheap, but on the other hand, having come all this way, was I really going to miss such a visit for the sake of a few tens of Euros? No.

Aride from a distance

I was picked up from my hotel and boarded the boat from a nearby beach before we tooled-out through the bordering reef, passing Cousin Island and slowing for our passage past Booby Island before approaching Aride. There were seabirds, of course; the Fairy Terns (Gygis alba), Lesser Noddys (Anous tenuirostris) and Bridled Terns (Onychoprion anaethetus) of yesterday, but also my first LIFER of the day - a bedraggled Tropical Shearwater (Puffinus bailloni), barely able to fly. My boatman, Georgie, who had previously worked on Aride, told me that this was due to the seeds of the Pisonia tree sticking to its feathers, and indeed when we got to the island one of the passtimes while we walked was removing these incredibly sticky seedheads from the feathers of affected birds. But the tree is native, and the period of seeding is short, so this is merely another of the many annual hazards the birds must face as they come to breed here.

Aride - the close approach, waiting for the dinghy to pick us up.

To get onto Aride you have to be met by a boat that picks you up from your own transport (no close approaches or landings are allowed for fear of introducing rats). It's a little dinghy and it hurtles out from the beach, and hurtles back in again with you on it, not letting-up speed until you run aground. Whilst exciting this was not much of a challenge when I visited, because the sea was pretty calm, but I'm told it's quite an exercise during the South-East Monsoon later in the year, when access is often impossible for days on end (a shame, for the birder, because it's the main breeding season for the seabirds). In any case it's worth it, because you come here to see some of the rarest birds in the world.

Aride is one of five islands managed by the Island Conservation Society - a fantastic organisation that has almost single-handedly saved several of the Seychelles' endemic bird species from extinction. They have volunteer programmes, by the way, if anyone is interested. In any case on Aride they have a small research station and about 8 staff, part of whose job, on the weekdays when people visit, is to show them around. I was lucky enough to be shown around by Melinda, a softly-spoken and passionate conversation expert from, of all places, Portsmouth (the one in the UK).

The smallness of the range of some of the bird species endemic to the Seychelles is a bit mind-boggling. The total land area of the inner islands (the so-called "granitics") is only 272 square kilometres. That's considerably smaller than the smallest British county, Rutland, which has an area of 382 square kilometres. All of Seychelles' endemic species are crammed into this tiny area, but even that doesn't do them justice, because only a few of them are found on all of the inner islands. Some, such as the Seychelles Scops-Owl (Otus insularis), long considered extinct until its rediscovery in 1959, are restricted to single islands, in this case Mahe, and are not generally distributed even there.

Others, such as the three main species I was looking for on Aride, were in the past more widely distributed, but have been forced back to tiny strongholds by the inroads of rats and other ecological pressures. The species in question are the Seychelles Fody (Foudia seychellarum), the famous and iconic Seychelles Magpie-Robin (Copsychus seychellarum), and the Seychelles Warbler (Acrocephalus seychellensis). If my rough calculations are correct, the entire global distribution of these species is approximately as follows: 14.76 square kilometres, 4.86 square kilometres, and 2.66 square kilometres, respectively. To put this in perspective, you could comfortably fit the global range of the Seychelles Warbler into Central Park, New York, and it's roughly the same size as the combined areas of Hyde Park and Kensington Palace Gardens. That's pretty small.

But as I quickly discovered, global scarcity doesn't necessarily equate to local scarcity. The first bird I saw on the island was the frankly rather dull Seychelles Fody, which was abundant around the research station and readily perched within a few of metres as we sat waiting for the various visitor groups to assemble. Meanwhile over the sea I had my first Brown Noddys (Anous stolidus), which had recently started to arrive in low numbers for the breeding season.

A Seychelles Fody near the research station. This one showing a bit of the yellow that the males show in the breeding season. For the most part, though, they were pretty brown and dull.

One big surprise around the research station was the Moorhens (Gallinula chloropus). Moorhens, for God's sake?! They are a different subspecies here (G.c. orientalis), but still. Overhead was more like it - Great Frigatebirds (Fregata minor) in the thermals, and White-tailed Tropicbirds (Phaethon lepturus) and Fairy Terns gliding a perfect white against the perfect blue of the sky. And then there were the Lesser Noddys in the trees, which took some getting used to. On the non-avian side the ground was alive with lizards - Melinda told me that there are more reptiles per unit area on the Seychelles than anywhere else in the world, and I can well believe it. The main ones are two species of Skink - Seychelles and Wright's (Mabuya seychellensis and Mabuya wrightii) - but we saw a fine Bronze Gecko (Ailuronyx seychellensis) later as well.

Aride - the forest habitat, and just an atmospheric photo.

As we walked, you had to start getting your eye in. Many of the seabirds, nesting willy-nilly on the ground (White-tailed Tropicbirds), in shallow holes (Tropical Shearwaters), or in trees (Lesser Noddys and Fairy Terns) were surprisingly difficult to see at first and the Fairy Terns in particular seemed to blend into the background colour, taking on the green of the forest light.

White-tailed Tropicbird on its nest

Soon, though, came my second endemic - the Seychelles Warbler, advertising his presence with a pleasantly familiar-sounding Acrocephalus tuneful rattle. A big bird, by warbler standards, and with a fine long bill too. See for yourself.

Seychelles Warbler

We trudged up, passing the carcasses of huge dead millipedes on the path, and finding Shearwaters covered in Pisonia seeds here and there. I glanced up to see a falcon mobbed by Fairy Terns. A Seychelles Kestrel (Falco araeus)? No, this was long-winged with a black trailing-edge to the wing. What, then? I asked Melinda. It's apparently been around for around three months and was identified by Adrian Skerrett (of Birds of Seychelles fame) from a photo; Amur Falcon (Falco amurensis). A real surprise, and a LIFER for me.

A little higher and my first, brief glimpse of one of the "commoner" Seychelles natives - the Blue Pigeon (Alectroenas pulcherrimus). But by now it was midday and we still hadn't seen the last of the Aride specialities. The Seychelles Magpie-Robin was introduced from another small island a few years ago to spread the population and increase range size. But the Magpie-Robin has not thrived on Aride. There are only 12 birds left on the island. Not 12 pairs - 12 birds. Nobody really knows why they're not getting on here, but Melinda's theory is that it could have something to do with the absence of tortoises, since there's nothing to stir up the leaf-litter for them. And suddenly, there they were. Two of them. Unlike all the other native species I'd seen here, the Magpie-Robin is the only one to show that lack of fear of humans that island species are famous for. They were happy to flit around within a metre or two of us, and are beautiful, to be sure. We eventually saw half the island's population of this bird - six, in total, all in predictable fixed territories. But I wonder how much longer this can last. They're not doing well and 12 birds is a pitifully small population even by the rarefied standards of island endemics. The future of this bird as a species may be assured, thanks to the Island Conservation Society. But its future on Aride looks fairly bleak.

Seychelles Magpie-Robin - one of the twelve
After a brisk lunch I left Aride, loaded with dreadful photos, fantastic memories, three T-shirts (proceeds to the ICS) and a lot of sweat. But my day wasn't over. After a pit-stop at the hotel on Praslin I headed up to the famous Vallee de Mai reserve in the centre of the island. It's an odd place. A palm forest, with a proper primordial feel, and it's home to another of those astonishingly restricted species, the Seychelles Black Parrot (Coracopsis barklyi).

The Vallee de Mai itself is actually rather small, but it's surrounded by a larger buffer reserve, so the total area of protected forest on Praslin is fairly large in comparison to the size of the island. One of the main roads runs through it, but that's less of a problem for birds than it would be for mammals, and, besides, with a total island population of only around 7000, plus visitors, it's not the busiest of thoroughfares.

The weird forest of the Vallee de Mai reserve.

I elected to take the circular path within the reserve, which the laconic ticket inspector had told me would take around 2 hours to walk. She must have been a slow walker. It took me 45 minutes, including stops. The forest is impressive, but it's also overwhelmingly quiet. I didn't have the impression of a place dripping with birds, and began to worry. I needn't have done.

Within 10 minutes I had my first endemic. A family group of Seychelles Bulbul (Hypsipetes crassirostris); much bigger than Bulbuls in Africa, about the size of a Jackdaw (Corvus monedula), in fact, and with a song that at times was very reminiscent of a Great Reed Warbler (Acrocephalus arundinaceus).

Seychelles Bulbul

But still no parrot. I walked on in the sepulchral silence, but then - falling fruit, and whistles. These surely must be Black Parrots. And, yes, there they were. Again, a small family group, but very difficult to get good views of. I whistled until my lips cracked, and managed to get one bird into a position to photograph. I had expected this bird to look a bit more prehistoric, but it was, in truth, a fairly standard-looking, if rather colourless, parrot. But its behaviour was interesting. It was much more like a pigeon than a parrot in its movements, and if I hadn't been looking for it I honestly wonder if I would have noticed it much at all.

Seychelles Black Parrot

I decided to walk back to the hotel from the Vallee de Mai. A brisk 35 minutes that produced another LIFER in a single Seychelles Swiftlet (Aerodramus elaphrus) overhead, and three nice year ticks on the beach; Greater and Lesser Sandplovers (Charadrius leschenaultii and Charadrius mongolus) next to each other, with a Great Crested Tern behind them (Thalasseus bergii).

The Greater Sandplover in the foreground, with the Lesser out of focus to the left.
Even the Seychelles Sunbird (Nectarinia dussumieri) obliged in the end, with this female posing for me on the hotel fountain as I got back, and there were Barking House Geckos (Hemidactylus frenatus) all over my balcony ceiling as I wrote up my notes over a beer an hour or two later. Altogether a very satisfying day.

A female Seychelles Sunbird.

Saturday, April 04, 2015

Seychelles - Day 1: Mahe and Praslin

I told a lie in my post of yesterday. White-tailed Tropicbird (Phaeton lepturus) was not the first bird I saw in the Seychelles. That was a Zebra Dove (Geopelia striata), also known as a Barred Ground-Dove, an introduced species from South-East Asia, and a LIFER for me. I'd not put it on my target list because it's introduced, but there it was, looking a bit scraggy, to be honest, on the apron of the airport. I thought it would be rude not to count it. Along with Common Mynas (Acridotheres tristis) - a species I hadn't seen since I was in Sydney in the late 1990s - the Zebra Dove is the most noticeable of the birds of the Seychelles. Far more so than any of the native species. That's not a surprise - think House Sparrows (Passer domesticus) in New York or Rose-ringed Parakeets (Psittacula krameri) in Brussels - but it made me wonder if my endemics were going to be as easy as I'd hoped.

Zebra Dove - a poor photo taken later on the visit, and not at the airport, which doesn't have habitat like this, needless to say.

Added to this I was pretty tired by the time I got to Mahe. Even when you're on leave, international politics can intrude on your life. I'd been due in to Victoria at around 0830 after a night flight from Dubai, but after our plane had described four strangely pleasing loops over the Southern Coast of Oman, we had to turn back to Dubai before trying a much longer route out over the Indian Ocean to the Seychelles. The Saudis and their allies had that night started their bombing campaign in Yemen, and our intended flightpath over Socotra, within Yemeni airspace, didn't seem the wisest in those circumstances.

Our cat's-cradle tour of Southern Oman on the first, abortive attempt to reach the Seychelles

I've mentioned it in my previous post, but just to reiterate - the Seychelles are hot, and I had a bit of a wait at the airport before moving onwards. It was rather trying, honestly, sitting their and sweating over my luggage with the mountains of Mahe rising behind me no doubt full of Seychelles White-Eyes (Zosterops modestus) and Blue Pigeons (Alectroenas pulcherrimus). But the airport is pleasant - an airy structure with a plaque proudly stating that it was opened by "THE QUEEN", without further elaboration. Because there is only one, isn't there?

And, inevitably, the birds began to come, starting, as I can now reveal, with that Tropicbird - the first native species I saw. But the big surprise to a birder coming to the Seychelles is that the most noticeable flying creatures aren't birds at all - they're bats; huge Seychelles Fruit Bats (Pteropus seychellensis), to be precise, hanging in the air much like Black Kites (Milvus migrans) would in, say, Kenya.

But there were other birds too. My next LIFER was a Great Frigatebird (Fregata minor), which I'd somehow conflated with Magnificent Frigatebird (Fregata magnificens), a species I've seen before, and therefore, again, neglected to add to my target list.

But where were the endemics? And what was that insistent "kikikikiki" sound? Two small, brightly-coloured birds flew in under the rafters calling loudly to each other: Seychelles Kestrels (Falco araeus). They're really pretty small - probably half the size of their namesakes, and honestly much closer in size and colouration to the African Pygmy-Falcon (Polihierax semitorquatus), in my view. They clearly either nest, or roost, in the rafters here, so if this is the only bird you want to see in the Seychelles, you need go no further than the airport. I didn't take a photo. I was tired, and, besides, if I'd seen them within an hour of arriving, I was bound to see more later, right? Wrong. As it happened these were the only birds of this species I saw while in the Seychelles, though I gather that's pretty rotten luck.

At last the time came for my bus to the ferry, up the North-East coast of Mahe and through the suburbs of Victoria. On the way we flushed a few Cattle Egrets (Bubulcus ibis) of the local seychellarum subspecies, a first, of course. There was a Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea), of all things, in one of the mangrove creeks, and I glimpsed a Seychelles Sunbird (Nectarinia dussumieri) flitting between trees. As we arrived at the port a couple of Madagascar Turtle-Doves (Nesoenas picturatus) pottered around on the grass. Two more LIFERS.

Madagascar Turtle-Dove. This picture taken on Aride, meaning it could be the native subspecies,  N.p. rostratus.

The ferry terminal was crowded, but worth investigating. A couple of Turnstones (Arenaria interpres) on the pier and a winter-plumage Common Tern (Sterna hirundo) bobbing about over the water. The peerless nature writer, Carl Safina, in his unutterably magnificent The View from Lazy Point, uses Turnstones as a leitmotif for his discussion of migration, and its hazards, describing how they pitched-up everywhere on his travels around the world, from Belize to the Arctic, during the year in which the book was set. I'm beginning to think the same. As later days revealed, these Turnstones in Victoria weren't outliers, and I saw groups of twenty or more on Praslin and La Digue, so this is clearly on their migration route despite being 1000km out in the middle of the Indian Ocean. The more I see of migration, the more amazed I am.

Meanwhile a repeated "zreet" drew me to some bushes behind the terminal and a red bird with a black Zorro mask popped out to show off to me: Madagascar Red Fody (Foudia madagascariensis). Yet another LIFER.

The ferry between Mahe and Praslin moves at a fair clip. Around 30 knots, which is around 55kmh. It's not easy holding binoculars steady at this speed, to say nothing of the movement of the sea. And it means that the birds you see need to be viewed quickly before they pass by. But despite this the clear waters held a surprising number of birds, some of which allowed close views, and all of which were LIFERS, bar one species. That species was Wedge-tailed Shearwater (Ardenna pacificus), which I'd seen before in the Gulf of Aden (it's a long story), but the others were all new: Bridled Tern (Onychoprion anaethetus), Lesser Noddy (Anous tenuirostris) and Fairy Tern (Gygis alba). In an act of unspeakable literary vandalism, Birdlife International have now renamed that last species as "Common White Tern", which is about the least poetic description imaginable for this faultless porcelain figurine of a bird and which I point-blank refuse to use. And note the weasel-word "Common". Common where? In Belgium?

A Bridled Tern

My spirits were lifted from this grave reflection by the site of a pod of Dolphins - Indo-Pacific Bottlenose Dolphins (Tursiops aduncus), I was later told, breaching gently and showing some subtle spotting on the flanks. Wonderful.

By the time I reached Praslin I'd been on the road, with only about an hour's sleep, for 28 hours and was pretty much exhausted. My welcoming hotel did their best to take me through the features of my standard hotel room in painstaking detail, but I eventually managed to persuade them that all I wanted was to shower, get changed, have a beer, write up my notes, eat, and sleep - in that order. And that's what I did, rounding off a day that had produced 10 LIFERS on the bird side and two on the mammal side. A good start.

Clearly time to write up my notes and go to bed.

Friday, April 03, 2015

Paradise - Seychelles

You know those photos you see promoting tourism to the Seychelles? The perfect white coral sand beach? The azure and turquoise ocean beyond? The swaying coconut palms on the coast, and the verdant forest rising behind? The weirdly-weathered granite boulders strewn willy-nilly from seashore to mountain top? Well, let me tell you something. They're accurate. It really is like that.

See what I mean? The beach at Grand 'Anse on Praslin

The islands are almost preternaturally paradisiacal. The plants are thornless. Invertebrate life seems harmless. The sea is just the right side of warm to be refreshing. There are dogs, but they don't chase and don't bark. The driving is good. There is barely any litter. Food consists of varieties of curried fish. Perfection, it would seem.

It's bollocks, of course. The Seychelles have problems like everyone else. They're increasing in significance as a transshipment point for heroin. There's lots of dodgy money sloshing about. Crime is a problem on the main island, Mahé. But to the casual visitor, none of this is apparent. What you notice is the following. The islands are beautiful. They're a very long way from anywhere else. And it's hot.

The fact that the islands are beautiful is, alas, largely irrelevant to the birder, though it makes for a nice background to writing up your notes in the evening. But the other two points have important knock-on consequences for us. On the "far, far away" point, isolation equals endemism. The inner "granitic" islands of the Seychelles have twelve land bird species that are found nowhere else. There used to be fourteen, but two are extinct. There are also several endemic subspecies. It's also worth noting that unlike any islands of equivalent isolation, the Seychelles are continental in nature, being the last remnant of a drowned land that broke off from Africa at about the same time that Madagascar did. Still, oceanic isolation, whatever its origin, also means seabirds, and plenty of them. Millions breed on the islands of the Seychelles every year, including a good proportion on the "inners".

Birds over Booby Island, near Aride. The name seems a clue, but there are no Boobies on this Island.

But from a human perspective, isolation means something else; expense. Everything here is expensive - it goes without saying that importing things to a place as out of the way as this doesn't come cheap, so the baseline is bound to be quite high. But the consequence is that even if you take a self-catering apartment and never eat out, this will still not be a budget visit.

And then there's the heat. I can't exaggerate this. As I've said in previous posts I've birded in Equatorial East Africa, in Australia, in the Sahel and in the Amazon, but the heat here is as exhausting as anything I've experienced before. It's not that high - the low 30s celsius - but the humidity is intense. So here's a warning. You can bird here every day, but not all day. I managed about 2 or a maximum of 3 hours per half day. Much more than that and you're starting to run the risk of sunstroke. No joke. Lots of water. Coke at least once a day, and don't neglect the salt requirement when you eat.

To what I suspect will be my lasting wonderment, I had to go to the Seychelles for work. A conference, which started on the Monday and ended on the Wednesday before Easter. This was, I presumed then, and presume now, my only chance ever to visit the Seychelles, so I was determined to add a couple of days to these three to try and see at least most of the endemics. I had intended only the weekend - Saturday and Sunday - but it transpires that two of the most important birding locations (Aride and Cousin Islands) are only open on weekdays, which meant I had to come out on the Thursday in order to visit at least one of them on the Friday. Poor me, as I'm sure you're thinking.

Another bloody perfect day in paradise. This taken on Aride, but it could have been any of the islands.

Having said this, I'm convinced that two days is enough to cover all the islands except Mahé and I would have been happy with only that time. But bear in mind that visits to some of the outlying islands are dependent on the sea-state, so it's as well to have a flexible programme to allow for this, if possible. 

Next tip: buy Skelton and Disley's Birds of Seychelles. It may seem an extravagance for a visit of a few days, and with a limited number of species to see, but it contains invaluable advice on places to visit. And, more to the point, if we don't buy these books, people will stop writing and publishing them.

Final advice. If you want to have a chance of seeing all the endemics, you must visit at least four of the following islands: MahéPraslin (pronouned Prah-lin, as opposed to Praz-lin, as I discovered just in time), La Digue, Cousin, Cousine, Aride and Denis. Of these the first three are large islands with regular ferries. The last mentioned are usually visited by appointment, and sometimes are tricky even then (like Cousine which is an inconceivably luxurious resort but compensates for this by maintaining a small research and conservation programme, meaning it allows visits from birders, but  only if its not full of actual, paying guests).

I chose to base myself on Praslin for the days before the conference, and it was a good decision. On its own it has one species that no other island has - the Seychelles Parrot (Coracopsis barklyi) - and it's a good base for an easy visits to La Digue and either Cousin or Aride, or both. I had time for only one of those last two, and chose Aride, because it has more species, including more seabirds. It also, generally, has fewer people and you get to stay for longer. Good choice, as it turned out.

Once you get the hang of things its easy to use local buses or walk, rather than take the expensive taxis, though it's worth finding a driver you trust, just in case. On La Digue there are virtually no cars, so it's all by bike or foot. And on Aride, its shanks' pony only. But don't ignore my earlier comments on the heat. These are not leisurely strolls.

A distant view of Aride, with Booby Island in the foreground. Beautiful, but try walking up to the summit at midday.

So, how did it measure up? Well, I of course hoped to see all twelve endemics. In addition I had high hopes for around eight species of seabird that I'd not seen before. So, let's make the target species total 20. Well, without giving too much away now (I'll give a blow-by-blow account over the coming days) the outcome, in the end, was as follows: I saw 38 species, 35 of which were year ticks, and 22 of which were LIFERS. There's overlap in these figures, of course. But as to my target list: well, I got 10 of the available 12 endemics, and 6 of the seabirds I'd hoped to see. This is, far and away, the highest proportion of target species I've ever seen, anywhere in the world, and as you'll have noticed there were a couple of species that I saw that I hadn't included on my target list, or hadn't expected to see. The islands were, I found, surprisingly surprising.

So was it all worth it? Answer, in short, yes.

At last, a recognisable bird. This was, in fact, the first species I saw on the Seychelles: A White-tailed Tropicbird (Phaethon lepturus), and it's every bit as stunning as the islands themselves.