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.

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