Friday, April 10, 2015

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.

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