Monday, July 4, 2016

MEMORIES OF BIRD ISLAND (SEYCHELLES)

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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jb.envirotekindia@gmail.com
 

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