Saturday, 12 November 2016

Seychelles Paradise Part 1 27th-28th October 2016



We looked once more along the wide expanse of white sand that swept in a gentle concave curve to embrace a sea of exquisite turquoise and a gentle frill of white surf where sea met sand. Instead of the expected unsullied sand there was now a rounded olive green object on the shimmering white beach some two hundred metres away just clear of the surf. It was wet and glistening in the sun and it had a head beautifully depicted with golden edged squares, a turtle........................


Let me go back to the beginning.

My wife suggested it would be nice for us to go on holiday together for a change and to somewhere exotic. Our favourite destination is usually southern Africa but after  much discussion and thought we finally settled on The Republic of Seychelles a country unknown to both of us and previously dismissed by me as a place with a reputation for exotic celebrity weddings and high end expensive holidays. It is not really a destination much favoured for purely birds as you will be lucky to see much more than fifty species but this total does include ten endemic species and also the sheer numbers of birds and their confiding behaviour more than compensates for the lack of a long list of species.  We accepted that by going to the Seychelles it would certainly test our budget but it would combine our desire to experience for once in our lifetime sandy beaches, palm trees and blue tropical seas under endless sunshine whilst allowing me some reasonable birding opportunities plus provide an additional bonus for both of us with the chance to see turtles and any amount of colourful fish swimming around the coral reefs. The fact we would be experiencing two weeks of endless sunshine and warmth whilst the UK would be sinking into the short dark days of winter also had a considerable influence on our decision. We handed over the responsibility for organising our trip to Audley Travel who specialise in custom made journeys such as this and who by chance are located at Witney in Oxfordshire just a few miles from our home. It is serendipity that they are located right by the River Windrush where I went to see a Dipper, a rare bird in Oxfordshire, a few years ago.

The Seychelles are a group of 115 islands covering an area of 450 square kilometres and are situated just south of The Equator some 1500 kilometres east of mainland Africa in the Indian Ocean. Only thirty of the islands are inhabited whilst the rest are home to countless birds and other wildlife and the climate is hot and humid throughout the year. We decided to base our visit around two islands, spending seven days on Bird Island which provided the ideal compromise between wildlife, sandy beaches and tropical warm seas and Praslin where we could make excursions to two smaller islands, La Digue and Aride which both harboured endemic species of birds and also provided an opportunity for my wife to enjoy the local culture and scenery. In order to get to the two islands on which we were to stay we first had to fly to the main island in The Seychelles, Mahe and its capital, one of the smallest in the world, Victoria. Rather than transfer immediately to Bird Island my wife agreed we could spend one day on Mahe so I could get time to see three of the ten must see endemics of The Seychelles, namely Seychelles Scops Owl and Seychelles White Eye plus the smallest member of the falcon family in the world, Seychelles Kestrel.

Mid morning on October 27th found us in an unromantic part of the West Midlands at a long term off airport parking facility. The adventure had begun. A twenty minute courtesy bus ride found us deposited at Birmingham Airport and we were soon through the de-humanising experience of security checks and partaking of a coffee in the departure lounge as we awaited the call to our flight. To get to The Seychelles we were travelling on Emirates via Dubai and our first flight was seven hours and then another of four hours from Dubai to Mahe. 

We travelled on the upper deck of a huge, modern, quiet aircraft  and with surprisingly extensive leg room, in some comfort. A bewildering variety of films were available and I watched a couple as the hours slipped by before we landed at Dubai at just after midnight local time. The sheer size of Dubai Airport and its garishly lit, gargantuan duty free halls dedicated to mammon is breath taking. There is no subtlety here just  brazen unabashed commercialism  and a blatant appeal to temptation from bored and weary, flight bemused travellers. We survived a nightmare test of chrome and marble walkways, traversing crowded lifts, transit trains and yet more security checks in the middle of the night to get to the gate for our flight to Mahe, and finally at just after 2am we were in the air and The Seychelles were now but four hours away.

We landed in the early morning at Mahe and as the aircraft doors opened the carefully controlled atmosphere of the cabin was overwhelmed by the inrushing warmth and humidity of the world outside. We stepped into a temperature somewhat similar to that when you open an oven door to check on the cooking.The relief of leaving the aircraft and being able to freely walk in sunshine and heat was a sheer delight after eighteen hours of cocooned existence but not so welcome was the interminable wait in line to clear Seychelles immigration. It took almost an hour but then we were through and there waiting to greet us was a representative from Creole Travel that work in conjunction with Audley Travel and who guided us to a private lounge where we were given a long cool drink and told to take our time and relax. Once settled and suitably revived we were taken to our air conditioned car and met our driver who would drive us to our hotel. Thoughtfully there were two complementary bottles of iced water available in the car for us to drink on the journey to our hotel, The Double Tree by Hilton some thirty minutes drive away at the south end of the island.

As part of the compromise with my wife I had got Audley to book us into a luxurious hotel with its own private beach at the less busy southern end of the island  It would be ideal for us to recover for a day and night after the long journey from the UK and before we travelled on to Bird Island.

Later in the day I would meet up with a pre-arranged local bird guide, Perly Constance who would take me to see the Seychelles Scops Owl and White Eye as well as the Seychelles Kestrel.

Thirty minutes later we were deposited at the hotel and after a short wait our room was available and we found ourselves in air conditioned luxury with a verandah overlooking a classic palm fringed beach of white soft sand and beyond an ocean displaying a bewildering variety of shades of blue.


Our hotel room
My wife decided on catching up on her sleep but I was now in birding mode and slipping into shorts and tee shirt took the camera and set about recording some of the commoner birdlife frequenting the hotel gardens. By far the most colourful of the inhabitants was the Madagascar Fody. The males are small and bright red with variations in shades of red, orange and yellow depending on presumably age and moult. The females in direct contrast are totally drab brown with darker brown striped upperparts and look not too dissimilar to a female House Sparrow although much smaller. Like most birds in The Seychelles they are confiding and allow close approach which is ideal for photography.


Madagascar Fody -male
A Striated Heron was fishing in a pond, the surface of which was carpeted in bright green weed and as I watched, caught an enormous fish which it had great difficulty in swallowing but eventually managed it, the fish's progress down its neck clearly visible as the tiny heron took on various grotesque postures to facilitate the swallowing process. 





Striated Heron
Moorhens, apparently identical to those we have in the UK were ubiquitous and did not seem confined to just wet areas, freely walking about on lawns and underneath trees. A gardener came up to me enthusiastically pointing at them and saying to me 'Do you like our chickens?'

A Madagascar Turtle Dove perched on a vine. This species is or was divided into three subspecies inhabiting The Seychelles but is subject to much conjecture as to whether there are any pure individuals left on the islands they inhabit as there has been much inter breeding between the sub species.The ones on Mahe are meant to have grey heads so this one looked as good as any to be typical for Mahe


Madagascar Turtle Dove

A Grey Heron was the only other inhabitant of the gardens so I retreated from the searing heat into the air conditioned cool of the hotel and rejoined my wife, now suitably recovered, for an alfresco lunch on the hotel terrace.



Seybeer the local brew
During lunch we were entertained by ridiculously tame Barred Ground Doves that wandered around the tables at our feet picking at crumbs and the antics of Common Mynas, always to be found in pairs and behaving very much like our Magpies. A male variant of the Madagascar Fody with orange yellow feathers replacing the red perched high in the shade of a palm tree, colour coordinated with the palm nuts before flying down to join us briefly.


Barred Ground Dove


Common Myna


Madagascar Fody - male with the less common yellow variant plumage
After lunch we returned to our room and sat on our verandah and gazed at the splendour of the Indian Ocean, pale turquoise near the shore where the water was clear and shallow then turning to a deeper hue beyond the coral reef whose presence was betrayed by a white line of breaking waves. 



Above, the sky was the purest blue with just the occasional white puff of cotton wool cloud high in the heavens and stretching away to the distant horizon. Paradise indeed and the stresses of the arduous journey from our home in Britain slowly slipped away as a warm breeze blew in off the sea and the waves broke gently on the sand. Two white birds high in the sky passed before us. Long white, ribbon like tail feathers and black wing flashes on otherwise all white wings told us we had seen our first White tailed Tropicbirds. Now I could really believe we were in The Seychelles.

My wife decided she would pass on coming to see the Seychelles Scops Owl and would remain to sample the delights of the hotel so I took a taxi into Victoria, named after Queen Victoria as the island was a British colony until 1976 and still has a British Consulate there. I was to meet my guide Perly Constance at 'The Clock Tower,' a local landmark and a replica of  the clock erected in 1897 on the corner of Victoria Street and Vauxhall Bridge Road in London, yet another remnant and reminder of former colonial times. Three languages are spoken in The Seychelles, French, English and Seychellois Creole and most locals are fluent in all three. Driving is on the left just as in the UK, as the first car arrived in the islands when they were occupied by the British and to go with the cars the islands have now also inherited congested roads just as in Britain. The road from the hotel to Victoria is just one lane each way and a mile from Victoria we came to a halt and slowly crept in a long line of slow moving traffic towards The Clock Tower in the centre of Victoria.

Perly was there to meet me as promised and I swiftly transferred my gear from the taxi to his car and we were soon climbing up and away from the town into the mountainside that dominates Victoria. Various twists and turns brought us to an elevated location and parking we disembarked and Perly played the tape of Seychelles White Eye. Seychelles White Eye have recovered from formerly being thought to be extinct to now having a population estimated to be between 50-250 individuals scattered over five islands, Mahe, Conception, Fregate, North Island and Cousine. They have been classed as Endangered by the IUCN but their population is slowly increasing so there is cause for optimism about their future.  Perly told me he rarely failed to raise the birds from here but today it looked like it was no go despite persistent playing of the tape and waiting for some considerable time. A female Seychelles Sunbird came very close to us. Hardly the most colourful plumaged bird you could wish to see, being an overall drab brownish grey with a long curved bill but that was all we saw apart from a single Seychelles Swiftlet that flew low over the trees before disappearing. However both were new birds for me.


Seychelles Sunbird - female
We drove a little way further on and played the tape again. The result was instantaneous and dramatic as a pair of Seychelles White Eyes appeared right above our heads in response, perching on telephone wires and nearby vegetation and calling loudly. They are virtually featureless with regard to plumage appearing, depending on the light, a non descript overall grey on their upperparts and a buffer tinged grey on their underparts.The only strong feature are the prominent pure white eye rings on both sexes





Seychelles White Eye
Perly became quite excited and exhorted me to get some photos, pointing and gesturing as the birds came close. Clearly not a photographer himself it was pointless telling him that you just cannot point and shoot but need to be in certain positions reference light etc before you could hope to get anything acceptable. It turned out that  these two birds had fledged young hidden in the vegetation but it was a bit of a nightmare trying to get a decent image as the adults were rarely still for more than a few seconds. Perly would point to a bird but always it had moved before I could get it in focus. In the end I filtered out Perly's shouts of encouragement and did my own thing and somehow got there with some reasonable images in the gently failing light of evening. A very good bird to get. One down and two endemics to go.

It was now time to go for the Seychelles Scops Owl whose population of between 245-284 individuals are all found on Mahe in 159 territories covering just 33 square kilometres. A very rare bird indeed but whose population is now thought to be stable and is therefore classed as only Endangered by IUCN. As we drove up the constantly curving mountain road Perly told me he knew of a nest site at the entrance to a reserve where we could wait until the owl left its hole to go hunting. Time however was against us as the unexpected delay in finding the white eyes had put us well behind the clock. Getting stuck behind a very slow moving truck with no opportunity to overtake on the endlessly winding road up the mountain did not help and meant we arrived at the owl's nest site in almost darkness, where we waited but there was no sign of the owl. We waited and waited but it was obvious we had left it just too late and the owl had already departed the nest to go hunting.We heard at least two scops owls calling distantly, a gruff growl so very different to the metronomic one note call of a European Scops Owl.



I was downcast as this was my only chance to see the scops owl for it was highly unlikely I would ever visit The Seychelles again. So close but at least I had heard one although that was scant compensation. We gave up on this particular owl and Perly guided me a short way up a track with his torch to an open fronted visitor lookout and shining his torch into the rafters told me he was looking for a Seychelles Kestrel that usually roosted here. We had covered most of the roof's interior before we found it, tiny and fluffed up, perched in the join between roof and wall, my first ever Seychelles Kestrel. 


Seychelles Kestrel - roosting
So that was it, two out of three was not so bad but Perly had other ideas.We drove back down the road and stopped. The darkness was so intense under the tall overhanging trees you could not see a hand in front of your face and no artificial light of any sort permeated here. Perly played a tape of the owl but there was no response. We drove on and stopped again. Perly played the tape and an owl called distantly, only once but then there was just  silence. We waited for a long time but nothing more was heard from the owl. We then drove back up the hill past the reserve entrance  and stopped again much further up the hill. Getting out of the car we heard an owl calling close to the road. Perly played the tape and the owl responded. It was now very close, calling from almost above our heads in the darkness. We shone our torches up into the branches and Perly located the owl high in a tree, perched crossways on a branch peering down at us. It was too dark and distant for a photo so I just looked at it in my bins as Perly shone his torch on a tiny owl with rich brown plumage and darker markings and my mind went back to another unforgettable night when I viewed a European Scops Owl perched high in a tree and also illuminated by flashlight, that had turned up unexpectedly and caused a mild sensation at a place called Thrupp in Oxfordshire. That time there were many people but tonight there was just the two of us. 

The owl moved and we lost it in the tangle of branches.We played the tape again but it did not call and then when it finally did was much more distant. I was content and happy with my experience as I finally had seen my Seychelles Scops Owl. The long journey from Britain and the fact we were still on a Seychelles mountainside at ten in the evening, having spent two and a half hours seeking the scops owl was beginning to catch up with me. 'Thanks Perly, I am happy with this so let's go. 'Are you sure, we could still try and get a photo?' 'No really Perly it is all good, let's go back to the hotel'.

Perly drove me back to the hotel, collecting his family on the way as they were all going to the Creole Festival in Victoria. Perly also told me to look out for a pair of Seychelles Kestrels that frequent the small, open air, airport terminal. I could look for them when we went there tomorrow morning to catch the flight to Bird Island.

I rejoined my wife and we had a sandwich and a local beer in the hotel, sitting overlooking the beach in the warm night air and then it was blessed bed and the sleep my body had been craving for so long, under crisp white sheets as the air conditioning quietly did its job.

Tomorrow we were going to Bird Island, far out in the Indian Ocean and the furthest island in the northern archipelago of the Seychelles,  


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