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|A Report from birdtours.co.uk|
Mauritius, 15th-30th November 2008,
These notes are intended to provide some ‘up-to-date’ assistance for birders who, like us, would hope to see all the endemics while enjoying a conventional beach holiday. We managed all the Mauritian and Mascarene endemics (except the Round Island Pterodroma species) but not without some hard work. Rather than detail the sightings of all birds seen these notes concentrate on the endemics and summarise the others. We assume that the reader will already have done some homework on the island and its birds.
A scope is vital if you intend to sea-watch but is otherwise excess baggage. Use a good map such as the IGN 1:100,000 available at most of the better hotels. Our printing was 2007 but is based on a 2001 survey and a number of roads have been upgraded since then. The National Parks & Conservation Service sell an excellent and ridiculously cheap map of the Black River Gorges National Park. This is available at the Petrin Information Centre and at the main Visitors Centre.
Make the effort to know the calls of the endemics before starting on the trails. The ever-present Red-whiskered Bulbuls and Mynahs seem to have countless calls and being able to identify the endemics will be invaluable. Get your birding under way as soon as possible as this will enable you to focus later on anything that proves elusive and will hopefully avoid last day panics! Getting started quickly should also minimise the chances of rain and low cloud impacting on your birding. The weather, particularly in the mountains, can be dreadful and birding in heavy rain is a complete waste of time as well as being uncomfortable.
Our Birding Itinerary
We stayed in the Blue Bay area (south-east corner of the island). This was an easy 40-minute drive to the Petrin Information Centre in the Black River Gorges NP (BRG). A summary of our birding, some of which was merely incidental to other trips, is as follows: 15th-18th local area including mangroves at Pointe Desny; 18th Isle aux Aigrettes (five minutes away by boat); 19th local; 20th Ile aux Cerfs (by cat from Blue Bay – within the reef, no sea-birds); 21st BRG/Mare Longue Trail and late afternoon sea-watch at la Roche qui Pleure; 22nd circular drive round island (no birding); 23rd BRG/Macchabee Trail from Petrin to Kiosk/Macchabee viewpoint and return. Do not waste your time walking this trail on a Sunday (and probably not Saturday either). The noise from school parties is horrendous. Savanne Trail, Black River Visitor’s Centre (short visit late afternoon), brief sea-watch la Roche qui Pleure; 24th Bassin Blanc, Savanne Trail, Mare Longue Trail; 25th la vallee de Ferney; 26th Savanne Trail; 27th cat trip from Grand Baie to Ilot Gabriel via Coin de Mire; 28th Savanne Trail (first seriously poor weather of trip – a complete waste of time); 29th Bras d’Eau; 30th local.
The Mauritian Endemics
Mauritius Kestrel: For us this proved to be the most difficult bird to find in spite of taking much local advice. Notwithstanding walking several trails in BRG and scanning from watch points we did not see the Kestrel until eventually we got one good but brief view of one bird at la vallee de Ferney (near Mahebourg). This involved taking a 90 minute guided hike through the foothills of the Montagne Bambous (near the Domaine du Chasseur/Anse Jonchee area that other reports mention) which are said to contain 45 pairs of Kestrels. Kestrel sightings on these hikes are however a matter of luck and we discussed our chances with the guides before setting out. There are four daily hikes and we took the first at 0900 on the understanding that we could remain in the restaurant area (the starting point in the hills) after our group had finished its walk and then come down at our leisure with a later group. Having failed to see the Kestrel during the hike the guide put some bait on a post-top and after about 90 minutes a male bird flew in, ignored the bait, and perched in a nearby tree and then disappeared. Happily it had displayed for a few moments in the clear area in front of us before doing so.
Pink Pigeon: This is an easy find in the BRG area, particularly on the Savanne Trail, and, of course, on the Ile aux Aigrettes. Two were also seen during the vallee de Ferney hike. Best photography opportunities are on the Savanne Trail for reasons that will be obvious once there!
Mauritius Olive White-eye: The Ile aux Aigrettes breeding programme is well under way and we were told that eight pairs are on the island. We saw one pair and a third bird on the nest which enabled us to get great views of the eye ring. Those who would need to see more genuinely wild birds would probably need to seek advice from the rangers at Petrin as we did not see any other birds on our travels although we continued to investigate all the parties of Grey White-eyes throughout the trip. That said we did not deliberately attempt to find more of these birds after the Ile aux Aigrettes visit.
Mauritius Grey White-eye: This cheerful and active little bird can be found in small parties almost anywhere on the island that there are trees or low vegetation. It responds very well to pishing and that may be the easiest way to get good photographs.
Mauritius Fody: This is another bird that is the subject of a breeding programme on the Ile aux Aigrettes and there are now good numbers on the island. The birds are easily seen and are confiding. Although we took a regular tourist visit to the island (which fortunately comprised only four people) we were told that a phone call a few days in advance should enable the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation to arrange a birds-only tour which would avoid time spent on the lecture about the Dodo and his extinct friends and limit the meeting with the introduced Aldabra Tortoises. Elsewhere in Mauritius we saw two very smart male Mauritius Fodys on the Savanne trail. The adult male is an easy spot and any birder, once familiar with the abundant Madagascar Fody, should have no difficulty separating the two species.
Mauritius Cuckoo Shrike: This bird has a distinctive call and song and this is how we found them. We saw three male birds on the Mare Longue/Macchabee Trails although this could have been the same bird three times as they were all in the same general area on different occasions. Views were good by bins but photography would have been difficult (we didn’t try). Missing the female was perhaps our biggest disappointment.
Echo Parakeet: If you put the time in on the BRG trails from Petrin this becomes an easy bird but you will need luck to find a perched bird with clear views (we saw one female which happily chose a brilliant perch just in front of us on the Mare Longue loop – all others were fly-bys or awkwardly perched in tree-tops). For those familiar with the Ring-necked Parakeet, of which there are many in the same area, you are unlikely to confuse the two. The Echo Parakeet is chunkier, darker, has a noticeably shorter tail and sounds very different. The call is obviously harsher than that of the Ring-necked.
Mauritius Bulbul: This smart bird proved difficult although eventually we found one off the Mare Longue Trail by doing exactly what the ranger told us – going into a specific area just off the trail. The Bulbul moves through the wooded slopes rather than across the open trails and appeared to us to prefer mature trees. The historic local name is apparently ‘Blackbird’ and that’s rather what it looked like, appearing more black than olive with a bright orange bill. We subsequently found another pair during our vallee de Ferney hike. This pair was not at all disturbed by the chattering tour group that passed beneath them, indeed they appeared inquisitive. The vallee de Ferney base-camp storyboards told us that the Mauritius Bulbul has responded well to protection measures and is flourishing in the BRG and Bambous mountain areas. According to the valle de Ferney guides there is always a good chance of seeing Mauritius Bulbul on the hike (a better chance than that of seeing the Kestrel) and that was our experience.
The Mascarene Endemics
Paradise Flycatcher: These gorgeous birds proved elusive on the Savanne Trail in spite of three serious attempts, two of which were on the ghastly Pigeon Wood Loop (do not take non-birders here!). According to local Brits working with Mauritian Fody and Pink Pigeon programmes there were a few pairs in the locality but they were more likely to appear in the heavily wooded areas of the ravine sides rather than on the open trails. The rangers were more optimistic about the main Savanne Trail but it seemed to us that it would take more time or luck than we had available. Thus on our penultimate day on the island we were obliged to go for the ‘nuclear option’ of Bras d’Eau. This necessitated a visit to the National Parks station situated on the coastal B15 just north of the fork about 3 kms north of Poste de Flacq. On our unexpected arrival one of the junior staff was summoned from his desk by his superior and told to help us. After about an hour of increasingly anxious strolling through woods and along broad trails our man was able to provide close views of an adult pair, a young male and more distant views of two other adults that might just have been the earlier pair. These birds were noticeably brighter than the Reunion birds (as illustrated in Sinclair & Legrand), the male bird having a beautiful bright blue eye ring. Our guide, declining a gratuity, told us that the rangers would prefer that those wishing to see the Flycatchers (of which they are very proud) should always ask their help. That way birders will invariably see the birds, won’t get lost and the rangers are reassured that their visitors are not up to mischief. Apparently illegal trapping is still a problem.
Mascarene Martin: We saw rather few of these Martins on our travels but the most obvious and regular sightings were around the Petrin Information Centre (they pass by your nose as you get out of the car).
Mascarene Swiftlet: In contrast to the Martins we saw the Swiftlets on many occasions in and over woodland at all elevations including coastal areas. Probably the closest and best views were along the BRG Macchabee Trail and at Bras d’Eau where we were often approached head-high and close.
Seabirds and Sea-watching
November is not the best of months for sea-watching but we had some good moments at sea while travelling between Grand Baie and Ilot Gabrielle. If a serious expedition to Ile Ronde (Round Island) and Ile aux Serpents is not on your agenda then you might consider a cheapie catamaran trip out of Grand Baie which should produce good views of dolphins as well as the more common local seabirds. The downside of such trips is the temptation to get very drunk and then dance with scantily-clad foreigners to the detriment of your birding thus making an even bigger fool of yourself in the eyes of the crew. Although most birds kept clear of the cat a few made very close passes. There were good views of Wedge-tailed Shearwaters, Sooty Terns and Brown and Lesser Noddys and fairly good views of the Red-tailed Tropicbirds on Coin de Mire, an island passed en route to the Ilot Gabrielle. Ilot Gabrielle has good numbers of approachable White-tailed Tropicbirds and with an hour or so on this island there were plenty of photographic opportunities. We scoped Round Island from Ilot Gabrielle but saw nothing at all through the mid-day shimmer. We saw no Pterodroma Petrels at any time.
We spent two late afternoon sessions sea-watching from la Roche qui Pleure near Souillac on the southern coast. Although this was a pleasant enough place to watch from everything was very distant and, frankly, anything other than the previous mentioned ‘common’ sea birds would have been dangerous to call (not that anything looking unusual was seen). Ageing eyesight and an elderly 60x scope were simply inadequate but good luck to anyone who fancies this. All birds, and there were plenty of Noddys, Wedgies and Sootys between 1600 and 1900, passed from west to east presumably returning to Round and Serpent Islands. Nothing, absolutely nothing, passed close notwithstanding a fairly stiff SE wind.
Other Mauritian birds, many of which are introduced, are generally easy to see and a few of them could be fairly described as abundant. Among the more obvious are Red-whiskered Bulbul*, House Sparrow*, Common Mynah*, Madagascar Fody*, Madagascar Turtle Dove*, Zebra Dove*, Feral Pigeon*, Village Weaver* and Common Waxbill. Striated Heron* and Whimbrel* were also daily sightings in coastal and wetland areas. Other birds seen in lesser numbers were Grey Francolin (two road-side pairs), Common Moorhen, Grey Plover (one), Common Sandpiper (one), Turnstone* (several small parties and singletons), Spotted Dove (one on Ilot Gabriel), Ring-necked Parakeet (small numbers over open country, woods including BRG area and the Pamplemousse botanical gardens), House Crow (one) and Yellow-eyed Canary (one on Ile aux Cerfs). Those marked * were regular sightings from the breakfast table and the first six of them were regular visitors to the table. This was a great opportunity to see the Bulbul and the Fody, both of which are very attractive birds, at very close quarters but watch out for your bacon.
Other Sites and Some General Comments
It’s worth mentioning that we were aware of the considerable expense and difficulty in organising a charter boat to Round Island and we had previously decided not to attempt this. Having sailed by cat from Grand Baie as far as the Ilot Gabrielle it was obvious that the swells increase noticeably once beyond Coin de Mire even on a fine day and we were told that this often leads to cancelled or truncated trips at the skipper’s tactical discretion. It’s therefore easy to envisage the termination of a Round Island trip. At the risk of being unreasonably cynical it’s equally easy to envisage the guy taking your money and then telling you halfway that the sea-state is too dangerous to continue regardless of reality.
We had read trip reports that suggested that Bassin Blanc near Petrin was a good spot and that one could walk round this old volcanic lake or simply bird from the lay-by close to the crater rim. Well, things appear to have changed. The wooded crater sides may well be as good as ever for the endemics but access is difficult. There are no trails published on the official maps from any direction and none obvious down from the road and in fact it looked a hazardous climb down. The road has been upgraded in recent times and the lay-by area is now devoid of any trees. Birding from a vehicle is pointless and although a short scramble up the rocks behind the lay-by provides panoramic views of the lake we suspect the only chance of the rare endemics would be early morning or late afternoon. During the heat of the day it was just Red-whiskered Bulbuls.
The signage on the BRG trails has been improved and in some cases changed from that mentioned in previous trip reports. It’s important to use the current BRG National Park map unless you enjoy guessing!
It’s also worth mentioning that Mauritius is an expensive island for tourists. While access to the BRG and Bras d’Eau areas are free this is not the case elsewhere and you can expect to pay in the order of UK £15 per person for short visits to the Ile aux Aigrettes, la vallee de Ferney and doubtless other sites so make your trip count and do your best to minimise interference from the general public.
We saw no other birders on any trails or trips. Your probable best source of advice will be from the rangers at the forestry stations and visitors centres. Go there first, ask specific questions and follow their advice. Without exception everyone was extremely pleasant and helpful. If you are lucky you may be guided to areas that are normally off-limits to the public. Consider telephoning the Petrin Information Centre to check their local weather before leaving the comfort of your beach lounger.
Have a great time!
The Director of the National Parks and Conservation Service (part of the Min of Ag) can be emailed at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org Phone (230) 464 4016/2993 and Fax 465 1184. The Petrin Centre phone is 507 0128
The Mauritian Wildlife Foundation (who manage the Ile aux Aigrettes among other projects) are at email@example.com Phone 697 6097 and Fax 697 6512
The vallee de Ferney Forest and Wildlife Reserve is managed by Ciel & Nature (www.cieletnature.com) and their email addresses are firstname.lastname@example.org and for reservations email@example.com Their phones are 433 1050 and 729 1050.
Colin Smith, December 2008