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.

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