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|A Report from birdtours.co.uk|
The Seychelles ~ Tropical Paradise 6th – 17th July 2008,
“Welcome New Horizons Group” proclaims the posters, decorated with freshly picked red Hibiscus flowers, on our arrival at the Villa Flamboyant on the island of Praslin. This rustic beachfront old plantation house would be home for the first five nights. After welcome drinks, unpacking and a lazy afternoon around the Villa gardens, our list has notched up four of the world’s rarest endemics in one afternoon! Namely, Seychelles Swiftlets, darting silently back and forth below tree height, lively Seychelles Sunbirds, flitting between the flowering shrubs, black-crested Seychelles Bulbuls, with deep orange beaks and legs to match, and stunning red, white and blue Seychelles Blue Pigeons. In addition there were Barred Ground Doves, little bigger than Sparrows and so tame one could step on them without realizing, plus deep coppery Madagascar Turtle Doves, red-speckled Madagascar Fodies and noisy Common Mynas, strutting around the short grass in flocks like our Starlings back home. I also spotted some large ‘raptors’ gliding above the canopy of the wooded slopes, rather like Bateleur Eagles, but then remembered that there are no such things in the Seychelles, realizing they were Fruit Bats! These amazing ‘flying foxes’ have four-foot wingspans and vividly rich golden fur.
From first light for well over an hour, literally thousands of seabirds head south along the Praslin coast, in a constant stream at a rate of up to 30 Wedge-tailed Shearwaters and 500 Noddies per minute, which makes about 1800 Shearwaters and a staggering 30,000 Noddies per hour! I have never seen such a concentrated passage of birds anywhere as this Noddy rush hour to work. Both Noddies and Shearwaters look uniformly dark brown, but the Shearwaters make those characteristic long sweeping turns.
After breakfast, we board a catamaran for an exhilarating ride out to Cousin Island and soon see Bridled Terns flying alongside as well as the large dorsal fin of a Whale Shark, which breaks through the heavy swell not far offshore. Overall, the outline beneath the surface could have been at least 20 feet in length! Another ‘fisherman’s tale’ is the 3 foot Barracuda landed by one of the crew, while trolling behind the ‘cat’. Once ashore on this special island, we quickly encounter sparrow-like Seychelles Fodies and Moorhens at close range! Meanwhile the tree branches are laden with Brown and Lesser Noddies as well as pristine white Fairy Terns with nice blue bills. White-tailed Tropicbirds, with big yellow bills, and elegant tail streamers at least as long as their bodies nestle in the leaf litter with the cutest fluffy white chicks imaginable. Stepping between Giant Tortoises over a century old, our next bird is the perky Seychelles Magpie-robin, as tame as our own garden Robins, followed by glimpses of the exceedingly rare Seychelles Warbler, which is reminiscent of a grubby looking Reed Warbler, but foraging in the tree branches with an extra long bill. Warblers excepted, all of these birds were incredibly tame and oblivious to our visit, providing wonderful photo-opportunities and marvellous memories. The return to Praslin was equally unforgettable, and an unexpected bonus courtesy of Mason’s Travel. “There might be some showers”, warns the boatman, but bouncing along against a strong headwind in a turbo-charged rowing boat is far better than the log flume at Alton Towers, and it soon feels like we have been draughted into the Special Boat Squadron, as we career full pelt towards the beach, ready for an amphibious landing! Not entirely sure where we have been deposited by the boatman, now heading for the horizon, a quick recce of the area reveals a superb Seychelles Kestrel perched up on a dead branch. As we train the scope on this nice little falcon, a second Kestrel arrives with a lizard, and so we get great views of both birds tucking in to an afternoon snack!
The breezy weather prevents our planned day trip to Aride and so we make do with a stroll along the west coast of Praslin for a light lunch in a local café in Grand Anse. The jetty here is a popular resting site for Greater Crested Terns, one size down from the mighty Caspian and with a heavy yellow bill. A Lesser Crested Tern, the size of a Sandwich but with an orange bill, also makes a brief appearance. Along the shore we also spot Greenshank, Sanderling, Turnstone, Grey Plover, two Greater Sandplovers and a Green-backed Heron, but there is no sign of the Crab Plover seen the day we arrived.
Next morning starts wet but soon clears up in time for our visit to Vallée de Mai National Park. No sooner have we arrived than we see first one and then three more Black Parrots fly by. We then spend the rest of the morning exploring the trails within this prehistoric palm forest, thick with enormous palm fronds, including the unique Coco de Mer, with the world’s largest nuts, weighing 44 pounds and bigger than balloons after seven years maturation! Part way round the trail, we come upon some Seychelles Bulbuls, which are tame enough to take a share of our packed lunches from our hands!
The 9am ferry from Praslin to La Digue is another high speed white knuckle ride, with spray sweeping across the upper deck each time we hit the surf, but once on La Digue the pace slows right down as we board an ox cart drawn by a magnificent five year old red bull. Alighting at the Veuve reserve, we stroll through the tall forest, alive with the squawks of roosting Fruit Bats. Veuve is Creole for the Paradise Flycatcher and it is this rare endemic we are hoping to see. Staking out a favoured spot we eventually enjoy fantastically close views of a family of these fabulous star birds. The sexes are so drastically different that each could be worthy of a separate tick. The little female has a black head, white underparts and rich chestnut back and wings, while the all black male has a lovely pale blue beak and matching eye ring plus a long flowing tail, at least twice the length of his body. This was top quality birding followed by a lazy afternoon on the beach.
“Welcome aboard ladies and gentlemen. It’s 30 minutes to Bird at 5,000 feet” announces the Captain before handing over the controls to his trainee co-pilot. Judging by the artwork on the fuselage of the little 20 seat Twin Otter, we were flying by flower power. Landing on an airstrip of grass, we were now well and truly marooned on a desert island and ‘away with the Fairies’. Bird Island is absolutely amazing. That rare sort of place where there is no need for a watch, shoes or a telescope, as the birds are so close. The Lodge here offers five star service and first class meals, but you have to swat the Barred Ground Doves off the breakfast table if you want any toast and marmalade left! The simple yet luxurious airy chalets, which are completely open to the elements as well as bright green Geckoes, allow visitors to listen to the sounds of the sea and the birds all day and throughout the night. This tiny island really is a paradise for anyone wanting to immerse themselves in nature. Outside each chalet Lesser Noddies and Fairy Terns nest in many of the trees, White-tailed Tropicbirds nest on the ground, Wedge-tailed Shearwaters nest in sandy burrows down below and at one end of the island, is a colony of Sooty Terns estimated to be a million strong! The apparent chaos must have some order as every bird must know its nest site and partner, and yet there are birds everywhere, in Hitchcock proportions, and the sound of this bedlam is utterly deafening. During our magical two night stay we also saw both Great and Lesser Frigatebirds and a variety of migrant waders including Grey Plover, Turnstone, Whimbrel, Curlew Sandpiper, Sanderling, both Greater and Lesser Sandplovers and even Pacific Golden Plover in breeding plumage, and Terek Sandpiper, looking like a small Redshank but with an upcurved beak. After dark we enjoyed the experience of listening to the eerie wailing calls of Wedge-tailed Shearwaters in their burrows, while others came swirling around our heads on their return from a day at sea. We even managed to catch one for a closer look, thanks to the resident naturalist guide Robbie, who seemed to know everything there was to know about the wildlife of the Seychelles. On top of all this there are Giant Tortoises lumbering around the chalets, including Esmeralda, the world’s largest at over 6 hundredweights and thought to be well over 200 years old! What a privilege it was to be able to sit next to such an awesome world record holder and tickle his chin, which has the texture of a well-worn old leather armchair. (Despite the name he is a male).
With just two of the Seychelles endemics left to find, we returned to Mahé, the main island of the archiplelago, for three nights of excellent half board at the delightful Fairyland Hotel, which overlooks a secluded and picturesque little bay with Green-backed Herons flying to and fro while Fruit Bats glide overhead. To find our two most difficult target species, we enlisted the help of a local guide called Perley, but when he arrived in a six seater car, I wondered where the other vehicle was, as we were a group of eight! We looked at the car, he looked at us and after a lot of squashing and squeezing, we all managed to get in, by keeping the windows open so that various heads and arms could dangle outside. (Lucky we weren’t a bunch of Americans). Once Perley had forced the doors closed after us, we set off like a tin of sardines on wheels in search of the tiny Seychelles White-eye, but with only fifty on the island it didn’t look promising, and at the first site we drew a blank. Nevertheless Perley still looked confident and sure enough after a few minutes wait at his second site, two appeared and landed in the bushes right in front of us giving brilliant views. By now it was approaching 6pm and time to head for the hills, so we all piled back into the car and it crawled its way up a winding road into the densely forested mountains. Waiting at the roadside until dark, Perley plays the call of the Seychelles Scops-owl. Almost instantly, the strange groaning sound echoes back from the black forest and then we spot the little owl perched on a low branch right next to us. By holding it in the beam of a torch, we all marvel at the inquisitive starring yellow eyes and rufous face, while it puffs out its throat as it calls. It shows so well I even manage to grab a couple of nice portraits of the owl, which is so rare it had been thought extinct and was only rediscovered as recently as 1960! What a tremendous climax to a superbly productive, yet relaxing time in ‘paradise’.