Monday, July 4, 2016


If you do a google search on the internet, you will hit two 'bird islands'. The first one is actually a misnomer. A place in Minnesota derived its name from an erstwhile  rookery that existed in the marshes nearby. The marshes have since been leveled out and the birds driven away, but the village still carries its old name -- 'Bird Island,' quite like our own 'Dhobi Talao' (washermen's pond) in Mumbai or the 'Santra Gachhi' (orange tree grove) near Kolkata. The other 'Bird Island', (and possibly the only one justifying its name), is a small, privately owned island way out in the far flung Indian Ocean. I was there several years ago with my brother and his wife Anne. It was an unforgettable trip and images of this breathtakingly beautiful island are still fresh in my mind. 

Main Street in Victoria, the Capital of Seychelles

My personal life at that time was passing through a period of turbulence. An invitation from my brother to visit him in Seychelles for a couple of weeks came as a welcome reprieve. The idea of exploring the virgin islands of Seychelles for the first time was exciting enough, but the highlight of the trip was to be a two day trip to the 'Bird Island'. I was then a novice  bird watcher and carried with me a small 4x digital camera and a cheap set of heavy binoculars. On reaching Seychelles, I supplemented these with a useful book 'Birds of the Indian Ocean Islands' picked up from a local book shop in Victoria, the capital city of Seychelles.

SEYCHELLES-- A Land of Islands, Beaches & Sunshine

Seychelles is an archipelago made up of 115 scattered islands in the Indian Ocean north of Madagascar. Till the middle of 17th Century, these islands remained uninhabited, visited occasionally by seafarers and pirates as stop-over resting points. After a short period of control by the French, Seychelles became a British colony in the year 1794 and remained so, till its independence and simultaneous membership of the commonwealth in 1976. Interestingly, presence of these islands was known to ancient sailors and some even link them to the proverbial Garden of Eden mentioned in the Bible. Be as it may, it is indeed true that there are no snakes or carnivorous land animals in Seychelles, nor are there any crows. In absence of these predators, birds in Seychelles are a friendly lot, spending a good part of the time wandering fearlessly or feeding on the ground. 

LOOK WHO'S COME FOR DINNER: A friendly female Madagascar Fody (Foudia madagascariensis); The male is bright red or sometimes flavistic yellow 

With a little bit of coaxing, the doves, the terns and the colourful sparrows will readily pick up crumbs from your hand.

A Male Fody on the Go!

With a population of less than 100,000, Seychelles is a small country with unspoiled beaches and breathtaking natural landscape. Residents are mostly Indian and African settlers who speak a French based Creole and live a relaxed life fishing or farming. Apart from Mahe, Islands like Praslin and La Digue are extremely popular with the tourists. An extensive ferry service, including some luxury high speed boats, connects the islands scattered over a vast sea area. The island of Aldabra is a kind of a mini Galapagos, where entry is restricted.

The Beach at Praslin

Seychelles has rich sea life and is home to a number of endemic birds, many of which are different from the species seen in the neighbouring Madagascar or on the African mainland. 
Bird Island is one of the smallest islands located on the northern fringe, some 100 km away from the main island Mahe. We boarded a short commercial flight of Air Seychelles from Victoria in a small 20 seater plane to get there. Just as we were landing, a breathtaking view of the island and its surrounding blue sea opened up before us.

Bird Island as seen from the plane

The Bird Island is much smaller in size than you would expect, with a perimeter of only around 5 miles. Number of species of birds on the island are not too many, but their numbers are simply mind- boggling. Around 700,000 pairs of sooty terns come here every year to breed, not to mention a fair number of other terns, which together make up to one million or even more. Quite naturally, the bird density on this small island is several times higher than that of humans who are limited to around two or three dozen tourists and a team of conservation support staff who are busy all the time looking after the needs of avian as well as human guests. 

On alighting from the plane, we were greeted by the members of the management staff who are responsible for the island's excellent upkeep since 1967. From a modest beginning, the Bird Island has emerged as one of hot spots in the world for eco-tourism. Sir David Attenborough visited the island in 1997 along with the BBC crew to film two episodes of his famous film 'The Life of Birds'. and in 2006, BBC Wildlife Magazine named the Bird Island as one of the seven best destinations to travel to in the world for genuine eco-tourism.

Bird Island

The history of Bird Island is in itself a story of ups and downs in preservation and conservation. Sighted for the first time by a passing ship in  1771, the island was described as one having "innumerable birds and sea cows (dugongs) on the beach". In 1895, Guano or Phosphate Mining operations were established on the island employing over 100 people. All the 17000 tonnes of phosphate was excavated within 10 years, after which all the staff left for Mahe. In 1931, there were 12 people on the island who started a plantation of coconuts and papayas. Over the years, these human activities took a heavy toll on the breeding population of sooty terns visiting the island and by 1955, barely 18000 birds were left from a million pairs historically. The new management which took over in 1967, first restored the breeding activity, controlled plantation, removed all rodents from the island, introduced turtle conservation under the guidance of an eminent expert and thereafter built up eco-friendly chalets away from the breeding area for terns. Over the last several decades, the island has evolved into a conservationist's dream, winning several international awards and attracting, apart from sooty terns, several other tropical species such as the tropic birds, brown & lesser noddy and  the all white 'fairy tern' which all now breed here. Accommodation at the island consists of functional, but reasonably comfortable cottages surrounded by a colony of assorted birds and turtles. 

Day Gecko (Phelsuma sundbergi)

We were delighted to find on the wall of the cottage, a small day green gecko with red spots! The Giant Day Gecko is endemic to Seychelles, growing upto 20 cm in length. It is a diurnal species, feeding during the day and resting in the night. It is typically found on coconut palm trees and also in residential dwellings. 

After a refreshing cup of tea, it was time to visit the star attraction of the island, the massive breeding ground for sooty terns. You could view the colony from a platform, without the risk of disturbing the nesting on the ground.

The Colony of Sooty Terns at Bird Island

Nearly 700,000 pairs of Sooty Terns(Onychoprion fuscatus) land at Bird Island every year in March, lay their eggs, rear the young and are ready to fly off again by end of October. The nesting activity is carefully monitored by the island authorities and you are not allowed to do anything that could disturb the nesting birds. 

The Sooty Tern (Onychoprion fuscatus)

Ringing of some birds has revealed that on an average, the same birds visit the islands once in four years. Where exactly they spend the intervening period is not fully understood. Like many other birds of the sea, Sooty Terns sleep on the wink while flying in the night and possibly for this reason, are also known as 'wide awake terns' in some areas.  

The Viewing Platform

Entry to the nesting area is restricted. Managing the vast breeding area is a Herculean task. The island has an efficient service team attending to the birds. 

We were shocked to find the next morning that there was a choice of regular eggs or terns eggs on the breakfast menu! We were explained by the wardens that being a massive colony, there are several abandoned eggs which will not hatch and which must be regularly removed from the breeding area. These are the ones that turn up on the dining table. We politely declined the offer for tern omelettes, even though these are considered a delicacy by some locals.

Sooty Terns flying on the island

Apart from sooty terns, Bird Island is also known for its breeding population of Brown and the Lesser Noddy, though these birds can be found in larger numbers on several other islands of Seychelles. Noddies prefer to breed on islands which are devoid of rats or cats and the Bird Island now meets this criterion. 

Brown Noddy (Anous stodilus)

Lesser Noddy

Noddies are part of the tern family. Out of the three varieties of 'Anous' found in the world, two- the Brown and the Lesser Noddy are abundantly found on the islands of Seychelles. There are subtle differences between the two; Lesser Noddy is smaller in size, has a sharper narrow beak and the pale part of its head is larger in area as compared to the Brown Noddy. These birds are quite indifferent towards humans and are known to be easy targets for shooters.

Lesser Noddy with Chick

Fortunately,Bird Island is a safe breeding ground for these birds. Noddies make their nests on low hanging branches of trees or sometimes also on the ground. Historically, islands of the Indian Ocean islands were also abundant in giant tortoises, but over the last two centuries, indiscriminate killing has virtually brought them to extinction. Bird Island has had the distinction of having 'Esmeralda', the world's heaviest tortoise weighing 298 kilos. In 1995, the island started its turtle conservation project under the guidance of Dr. Jeanne Mortimer, an expert on the subject. Today, the island has its own family of these giants, their backs covered with droppings from noddies on the trees. 

Probably the most graceful bird on the island is the Fairy or the White Tern (Gygis Alba) which is the only all-white tern in the world. It breeds all over Seychelles and there are many pairs on the island. It is a beautiful, friendly tern whose comparison with a white fairy is quite understandable. 

A Fairy Tern in Flight

The Fairy Tern does not build a nest, but instead lays its solitary egg on joints of tree branches or sometimes on whatever convenient location is on hand. We found one tern incubating the egg laid in an empty coconut shell!

A Fairy Tern Hatching its Egg

Juvenile Fairy Tern

Next day in the morning, we were greeted by a juvenile fairy tern sitting on our windowsill. We were amazed by the friendliness of the bird. And soon after, relaxing in the sitting room after breakfast, we found Anne with a group of Fodies and Ground Doves picking up crumbs right out of her hand, while a flavistic yellow fody seemed to be busy picking up tit-bits from the adjoining dining table. Outside the building, a group of Ruddy Turnstones were feeding in the backyard. 

Fodies & Barred Ground Doves  Feeding from Hand

Friendliness of birds in Seychelles and in the Bird Island is disarming and infectious. In absence of any predators and with limited experience of interaction with humans, these birds instinctively see us as allies and friends. It is a wonderful feeling, almost like walking into a Kipling like world where elephants dance and wolves give you a smile as they pass by.  

Flavistic Yellow Madagascar Fody

Not far from the wooded area dominated by the noddies, we discovered the nesting colony of the White Tailed Tropic Birds (Phaethon lepturus). There were half a dozen nests at the base of the trunks of large trees, quite open and without any camouflage. Under normal circumstances, such nests would be quite vulnerable, but not so on Bird Island where every creature roams free!

A Brown Noddy visiting a Tropic Bird's Nest

We found the noddies walking in and out of Tropic Bird's nest and no one seemed to mind! The Tropic Bird is a beautiful bird to watch as it flies with its antenna like tail fluttering in the wind. But seeing this lovely bird at close quarters on the ground with its chicks in tow is equally fascinating. The sight of the unwieldy parents descending from the sky onto the trees with their beaks full of food for the chicks, quickly feeding them and then flying off again into the sea for more food, kept us spellbound. We were told that nesting of white tailed tropic birds was possible only after the island was completely cleared of rabbits, rats and other rodents. 

White Tailed Tropic Bird

Group of Frigate Birds (Fregata minor)

 On a walk in the morning on the all pervading seaside, we met other birds of the island, a solitary crested tern, scampering sanderlings & ruddy turnstones, curlew sandpipers  and a group of whimbrels sauntering on the air-strip. On branches of  a tall tree, we spotted a gang of Great Frigate Birds, the giant pirates of the avian world. It is a huge bird with a wing span of 220 cm. This bird frequently indulges in stealing food picked up by other birds through what is known as 'kleptopasitism'. Typically, it raids birds returning from the sea, carrying fish in their beaks. It gives them a chase till they drop the fish, which it promptly catches in mid-air. The sea around the island is also known for its abundant population of Wedge tailed shearwaters (Puffinus pacificus) but you can get close to them only if you venture into the sea in a boat.

Jitendra, Anne & Suren Bhatia

As we packed our bags to wait for the plane that was to take us back to Victoria,  we wished we could thank, in addition to the management of the island, all the unique, wonderfully friendly birds of the island who seemed to love our presence, as much as we enjoyed being with them on this wonderful trip. 
(All pictures in this post were taken on a Nikon 4X digital camera) 

                                                                                  Jitendra Bhatia
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Wednesday, December 30, 2015


Antananarivo Railway Station


The central railway station in Antananarivo, bang opposite our hotel, was a modest colonial structure with hardly any activity. The pavement outside, however, bustled with a familiar crowd of peddlers, squatters and casual onlookers. The railways came to Madagascar at the beginning of the twentieth century, mainly for transportation of local sugarcane crops. The solitary passenger line runs between Fianarantsoa and Mankara. In words of the official railway guide, " (The journey) theoretically is about 8-12 hours but practically could take much longer. It is risky to organise a tour around it, unless you are ready to skip the train ride at the worst case!"  The Indian trains, perpetually running late, could take a tip or two from this candid railway guide.  

Fortunately, our itinerary required us to take a plane to Tuliara, the southern-most airport and port of Madagascar. Getting off from the plane at Tuliara (Tulear), we were greeted by an intense sun and a strong desert-like dry wind. Not surprisingly, Tuliara is called the 'City of the Sun' due to its arid climate and less than 400 mm of annual rainfall. The new spelling of the city, adopted in the 70s after freedom from the French in 1960, is akin to our own renaming of Mumbai/ Bengaluru/ Kolkata/ Kochi and others in India. Tuliara is today an important national hub for export/import of commodities such as sisal hemp, peanuts, cotton and rice. 

Our destination was a location 12 km. from Tuliara known as Arboretum d'Antsokay, a treasure-land of endemic shrubs and succulent plants of Southern Madagascar. The botanic gardens of Arboretum were set up around 1980 on the initiative of Swiss amateur botanist Hermann Petignat to house the most threatened species of Madagascar with special emphasis on plants thriving in the arid climate. 

Madagascar ocotillo (Alluaudia procera)

Today the garden, collaborating closely with with Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, WWF etc. has over 900 species of rare plants. It also provides a natural abode for several endemic birds and reptiles, and has, among other things, a lovely restaurant for the visitors. 

The Restaurant at Arboretum d'Antsokay

No talk on trees of Madagascar would be complete without the mention of the magical baobab, variously called the 'boaboa', the 'bottle tree', 'the tree of life', 'upside down tree' or the 'monkey bread tree'. The tree has a very long life; just how long, nobody knows exactly but a tree with carbon dated life of around 6000 years has been reported! Among the eight species of baobab found in the world, six are endemic to Madagascar.

A Young Baobab (Adansonia grandidieri) at d'Antsokay

The baobab is truly the tree of life. Every part of the tree is useful. The tree can store hundreds of litres of water in its trunk 'which is an adaptation to the harsh drought conditions' in arid parts of Madagascar.

Radiated Tortoise (Astrochelys radiata)

At the arboretum, we were fascinated to see the beautiful radiated tortoise which is endemic to southern Madagascar but has now been introduced in a number of adjoining islands including Mauritius.

A walk through the red earth of the botanical park also brought us face to face with a large unfamiliar brownish-grey bird having a prominent blue eye-strip and a reddish-brown cap. This was the Red Capped Coua which is endemic to Madagascar.

Red Capped Coua (Coua ruficeps)

Couas are large terrestrial birds from the cuckoo family endemic to Madagascar.The name 'coua' is derived possibly from the phonetic notation of the call of the bird.

Blue Coua (Coua caerulea)

More than a dozen species of Couas are found in the world, of which, four are reported to be extinct. At least six different species of couas are endemic to Madagascar. All of them have large feet and a reversible third toe for scrambling through plants and shrubs for food-- akin to all members of the cuckoo family. The Coucas also feature bright blue coloured patch around the eyes, a little bit like the species of wanga birds found locally. The blue coua has a light greyish blue coat while the crested coua, as the name suggests, has a prominent crest.  The giant coua, the largest among all,  is upto 60 cm in length.

The drive from Toliara to the Isalo National Park took us through varying terrains of  cultivated areas, sandstone formations, rocks and canyons of strange shapes and sizes. As the sun descended into the horizon, the landscape turned into a fantastic natural stonehenge spread over several miles. This was the 'la fenetre de I'salo' or the window of Isalo.

Images of 'La fenetre' at Isalo National Park

A long trek through the Isalo National Park under the scorching sun can be tough on the body. However, it was rewarding for the variety of shrubs, plants and birds we encountered on the way. The most striking among the birds was the Cuckoo Roller which is sexually dichromatic and the two sexes are distinctly different in appearance from one other-- unlike most other rollers having identical male and female sexes.

Cuckoo Roller of Madagascar (Leptosomus discolor) - The flying bird is Male and the sitting Female 

 The cuckoo roller is an amiable bird and the locals reciprocate its friendliness by protecting it. Killing a cuckoo roller is a bad omen. It is regarded as a harbinger of good weather and a symbol of love, as it is often seen in pairs.   

The Male Cuckoo Roller

The dominant inhabitants of Isalo are the Bara tribe who have an unusual custom of reburying their dead, often after a gap of several years. In the first funeral after death, the body is buried in a temporary or a 'provisory' grave, usually in the crevice of an accessible sandstone hill and marked as such. 

A Provisory Grave for a Bara Dead

The tribal Malagasy  believe that the spirits of the dead, after complete decomposition of  the body and fulfillment of  certain family objectives, join the ancestors of the tribe. This is an occasion of rejoicing and celebration. After the death of a member and after a certain period, extending upto several years, if the family does not witness any adverse event, the successful transition of the spirit is announced. It is the second funeral, called the 'turning of the bones' or Famadihana.

A Coffin being Taken Out 

On this occasion, bones from the old provisory graves are taken out, wrapped in fresh silk wraps around a hand made ladder and taken out in a second funeral procession. There is rejoicing with wine, lavish food/meat, music and dancing to mark the celebrations. The remains of the body are then buried again in a second, more permanent, decorated tomb. As Bara tribesmen say, " We do not come from mud, we come from these bodies!"

A healthy Zebu

From Isalo we move on to Ihosy, the capital of the grass raising Bara tribe. Heads of cattle, particularly bulls or 'zebu' are regarded as a measure of wealth and prosperity among tribesmen. Very few are slaughtered, unless there is a big occasion like 'famadihana'. As a result of increase in numbers of zebus over the years, precious forests have been cleared and converted into vast grasslands for grazing of cattle, particularly in Southern Madagascar. After continuous and repeated grazing, most of these grasslands become unfit for cultivation or for any other use.

Innocence Personified: A Bara Child

Bushy grasslands are home to a number of local endemic birds. The most striking among these is the local variant of sparrow, locally called the 'Madagascar Fody' or the Cardinal Red Fody. The female fody is in appearance similar to our common house sparrow, but the male is striking cardinal red in colour.

Madagascar Fody Pair (Foudia Madagascariensis)

One that Came to the Table: Flavistic Fody

Fodies are quite fearless in the domestic environment, very much like the common sparrow. One also comes across flavism in Fodies. Non breeding male fodies are canary yellow in colour. A hoard of them came down to our breakfast table in the resort, looking for crumbs. Interestingly, a number of endemic birds of Madagascar are distinguished by a dark patch of varying colour around the eye. The male fodies have a dark black patch around the eye, while Couas have a blue patch and the wangas have a white patch. Even the white eye of Madagascar has a much broader ring around the eye. It is not clear whether this commonality is related to a unified genetic origin. 

Nelcourvi Weaver (Ploceus nelicourvi)

Saklava Weaver

Weavers are close cousins of the sparrow. The grasslands of Madagascar are home to two of these weavers, the Nelcourvi and the Saklava, both of which have the canary yellow as their base colour. Very much like our Indian 'baya' bird, the males make exotic nests, which require to be approved by the female before it decides it to be suitable for raising the family. Interestingly, the name Nelcourvi has its origin in the Tamil word for Finch- nellukuruvi. Sakalava derives its name from a tribal clan of the island in the 17th century, which was later merged with the French Madagascar. 

Approaching the city of Ambalavao, we stop for a unique co-operative effort in conservation at the Anja Park. In the early nineties, one of the most beautiful species of lemurs- The Ring Tailed Lemur was on the verge of extinction due to indiscriminate hunting and loss of habitat. The last 100 odd numbers remained in the region of the 'Three Sisters'; an area where three huge granite boulders protect forests at the base. The area has numerous caves formed by the winds which serve as burial grounds for the local betsileo tribes. Here too, the destruction of forests was pushing the lemurs and other endemic creatures to a virtual path towards extinction. In the nineties, the government stepped in, and with the help of  local people, decided to create a small haven for ring tailed lemurs, now known as the Anja Reserve. 

Ring Tailed Lemurs (Lemur Catta) at Anja Reserve

At Anja, the guides and forest keepers are all local people who have learned to look after the lemurs as a new way of life and livelihood.

Double Decker Ride 

The lemurs at Anja Reserve are a happy lot. Protected by the community and accustomed to the admiring looks of the visitors at close quarters, they move around in families, hopping from tree to tree with acrobatic ease.

Posing for the Camera

The Anja Reserve is also known for a variety of endemic plants and orchids. The mountains in the area offer one of the most stunning landscape in the entire island.

Mountains in the Anja Region

Continuing our travel further north, we reached the well known Ranomafana National Park, a primary tropical rain forest spread over an area of over  160 square miles and famed for its various species of bamboo lemurs.

Bamboo Lemur (Hapalemur aureus)

Greater Bamboo Lemur (Prolemur simus)

Namorona River at Ranomafana

There are three sub-species of bamboo lemur; Golden Bamboo Lemur, Greater Bamboo Lemur and Lesser or Gentle Bamboo Lemur. All three co-exist together in Ranomafana Park. Bamboo lemurs are critically endangered species found only in the thick forest cover of the Park, much of which has already been lost in the past due to deforestation. In 1986, Dr. Patricia Wright discovered the Golden Bamboo Lemur here for the first time. This expedited the need to have a National Park at this avenue, which was formally opened in 1991. It is learnt that this step, to a large extent, arrested the destruction of bamboo habitat in the park for construction, fishing, baskets and furniture. However, progress, eternally in conflict with the environment can only be checked up to a point and no further. Namorona River bisecting the Ranomafana National Park is also a source of electricity through its hydroelectric power station located at Ramonafana. 

The Golden Bamboo Lemur survives on a staple diet of growing bamboo shoots, which contain a very high percentage of deadly cyanide (150 parts per million, to be precise). An adult lemur, on an average, consumes half a kilo of bamboo shoots every day, containing enough cyanide to kill a man three times over! Till date, no one has been able to understand how the metabolic system of the lemur quite naturally neutralizes this deadly poison. It is indeed ironical that lemurs, which have a natural metabolic immunity for these and other strange elements, ultimately find themselves helpless at the hands of the greatest destroyer of all time--the man!

The Road to Fanarantsoa

  From the tropical forests, we gradually move on to the urban suburbs and towns of this large island. Fanarantsoa, the island's fourth largest town is also its nerve centre in more ways than one. It is the cultural and intellectual capital of Madagascar and also the focal point for activism and political turmoil in the region. The World Monuments Fund in 2008 listed it as one of the 100 most threatened historic sites of the World and the city proudly displays this distinction in a plaque. Interestingly, not only the various monuments of the city, but the plaque itself is also in urgent need of repair!

Ambozontany Cathedral at Fianarantsoa

From Fianarantsoa, we descend on to Antisarabe, the Island's third largest city-- a non-descript town with very little to write about-- and then back to Antananarivo, where a plane waits for us for our final flight out of Madagascar.  
It took me a long time to assimilate what I had seen on this 'bewitching' island, during my two week stay. An island that once had a tryst with evolution of nature, and which, to my mind, is in urgent need for restoration and preservation of its natural treasures, much more than the relatively trivial task of refurbishing the man made buildings of Fianarantsoa. Unfortunately, the population in Madagascar, in the first fifteen years of this century has been growing at close to 3 percent every year--a rate among the highest in the World. According to one report, 90 percent of primary forests in Madagascar have already been lost. The current explosion in the population does not auger well for the remaining ten percent. Man needs grains to stay alive. So who eventually wins in this mad race between forestation and cultivation? No prizes for the right answer! 


(This travelogue is based on a trip to Madagascar organised by the Bombay Natural History Society)
(The views expressed are the author's own)
Jitendra Bhatia
copyright 2015 Jitendra Bhatia