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.

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