Wednesday, 16 November 2016

Seychelles Paradise Part 2 29th October-5th November 2016


We awoke refreshed after a long sleep and slipped out of the hotel before any of the other residents were awake to walk along the deserted beach. Even at 6am the water was warm and inviting and we let the sea wash over our bare feet, such a pleasant sensation, as we wandered along. A single Whimbrel flew away before us, its familar tittering alarm call coming to us from along the beach. We were totally alone on a beach of the softest white sand overhung by the occasional palm tree and the sea was a gentle blue. 


As is usual in the tropics the sun was already well up and it would not be long before the heat and humidity would gather strength as we realised we were walking in a real life version of those impossibly inviting adverts you see on holiday brochures or in travel agents windows.

A Ghost Crab scuttled away before us, running on tiptoe, its two eyes held on top of two periscopic appendages. It looked so comical and incongruous as it ran at incredible speed over the sand to dive down its hole in the sand only to then cautiously partially emerge  just to check what we were up to. Another crab, a Velvet Crab, slightly larger and darker scuttled into the detritus under the palms but did not retreat to a hole but faced us with one enormous club shaped claw dwarfing the other smaller one, almost as if saying 'Come on then if you fancy your chances'. We left it in peace.

We walked half a mile or so by the edge of the ocean and then retraced our steps to the hotel which was now waking up. Towels had already been spread to reserve sun loungers around the infinity pool although no one was in sight. We just had to laugh at such silliness.

We walked straight from the beach to a buffet breakfast on the hotel patio and after breakfast it was time to get the bags packed and await the arrival of our Creole Travel courtesy car and driver which would take us back to the airport to catch our flight to Bird Island.

We duly arrived at the airport which really is tiny and even smaller is the domestic terminal, no more than a large room and hardly the most sophisticated in terms of facilities or comfort. Creole told us the domestic flights were delayed as two of the small aircraft used for inter island flights had technical problems so the flights were being apportioned accordingly amongst the remaining aircraft. The short inter island flights, ours was thirty minutes, are handled by ageing turbo prop aircraft that can take a maximum of fifteen or so passengers and clearly had seen better days.

Whilst we waited I took the opportunity to check out Perly's advice about the Seychelles Kestrels at the adjacent 'international' terminal. I walked the hundred metres to the terminal and there perched on the metal roof was a small bird hardly bigger than a thrush.   Surely not? I looked in the bins and it was a Seychelles Kestrel, large as life. Such a pretty bird with its blue grey head and rich chestnut upperparts. I walked round to get a better angle for photography ignoring the curious looks from the ranks of taxis and their drivers and fired way. The kestrel did not remain here long before diving off the roof and flying across the road into some trees. This was a splendid result and I returned suitably triumphant to my wife who was guarding the bags.


Seychelles Kestrel
Eventually we were called to the desk and our bags were checked in, we were given two enormous yellow plastic boarding cards and went though the minimal security to find ourselves in another large air conditioned room that served as the departure lounge. It was crowded as everyone's flight was delayed but there was nothing to do but just wait. An hour passed and finally we were called and joined our fellow nine passengers for our flight to Bird Island.

We clambered into the tiny Twin Otter plane, the door closed and I watched through the open cockpit hatchway as the pilots prepared for take off, consulting a bewildering array of dials and instruments. With little ceremony we lined up on the runway and with an increased roar from the two engines as they were opened up we made a short sprint down the runway and lifted up into the blue sky and Mahe receded below us.


The ocean below was a deep ultramarine  betraying the depths we were passing over as we headed out north and thirty minutes later we circled over Bird Island, a coral island surrounded by waters of physchodelic electric blue inside the reef that encircles one half of the island and deep blue water beyond, where the reef drops into the abyss.


The plane, swaying from side to side came into land on the grass runway, straightening up at the last possible moment to make a perfect landing and then taxied back to where today's departing group of passengers from Bird Island were waiting in the shade. The door opened and we clambered out, assembled and were led to the central reception area by Robbie Bresson the Conservation Officer.




The Bird Island plane that lands once a day at around 1100am
Bird Island is some 100km north of Mahe and is rightly famed for its birdlife, turtles and other marine life. Combine this with some of the best, virtually deserted beaches in the world and you have a pretty good place for a holiday. The island is very small, being 1.77km long and 0.75km wide with a circumference of 4.46km and the accommodation consists of 24 individual chalets spread out equally each side of a central reception and eating area.




Map of Bird Island.
The Chalets are marked in red
You are nowhere more than ten minutes walk from any of the beaches which run continuously around the island in a belt of white powder soft sand and indeed our chalet was less than three minutes walk from West Beach, allegedly one of the top ten beaches in the world and never with more than two or three people on it, if that. Bird Island used to be known as Ile aux Vaches (Isle of the Cows) due to the numerous dugongs (sea cows) that lived in the ocean nearby but they are long gone. Between 1896-1906 17,000 tonnes of guano were removed from the island and exported to Mauritius as fertiliser. The island has also been a coconut plantation and used for growing cash crops such as papaya and cotton. 

Since 1967 it has been privately owned by the Savy family with the two brothers now running it as an eco resort and conservation measures have been put in place to protect the prolific birdlife and turtle nesting sites. Much of the island was covered with coconut trees but these were cleared to allow nesting birds such as the Sooty Terns to reclaim habitat and increase. Rats and rabbits have been eradicated and the Seychelles Sunbird has been successfully translocated to the island in 2006. 

The island can accommodate only eighty people at one time and the open roofed chalets are situated in the centre of the tiny island in the former heart of the coconut plantation where most of the trees have been removed but a few have been allowed to remain. Meals are served three times a day in the open air restaurant and there is a bar where visitors can congregate each night before dinner. If you desire luxury accommodation and all your needs attended to then maybe Bird Island, very much an eco lodge is not for you as although comfortable its charms are simple and basic. Alex Savy one of two brothers who inherited the island from their father says 'A client who accepts no air con is a client who accepts nature.' 

However if you want to be in a place that is idyllic, where you feel the interloper amongst all the wildlife, enjoy pristine beaches, do not worry about lizards and geckos in your room, even the occasional bird, can survive for a few days without air conditioning, TV,  mobile phones and wi-fi and just want to relax in your own space then this is most definitely for you.



The grass strip and trees running between the chalets and
the beach some two hundred metres distant
The trees and bushes around the runway where we landed were inundated with Brown Noddys, they were everywhere you looked whilst others flew and called overhead. 


Brown Noddys by the runway
I got very excited about all the birds as we left the plane but first we had to follow Robbie to reception where he gave us a brief introductory talk about the island, where and where not to go snorkelling and what and what not to do for our own safety. A blackboard, behind Robbie and updated every day held information about turtle nests and tide times. Then we were allocated our various chalets, ours being at the extreme northern end, our bags already having been deposited there by the staff

The heat and humidity was intense but I could not wait to get started as birds were literally everywhere you looked. Our chalet, as with everyone else's had Brown Noddys perched on the verandah rail sheltering from the sun in the shade cast by our roof, so confiding you had to move them out of the way. I sat with a cold drink on our verandah eyeing our very own courting pair of noddys no more than two feet from me on the verandah rail completely at ease with my presence. 






Others formed little congregations in the full sun, spreading  out a wing to flush out mites and parasites. There were many such groups scattered at random over the dry grass in front of the chalets


Brown Noddys
Fairy Terns flew around in pairs, their syncronised flight part of their mating ritual as they weaved in and out of the trees and White tailed Tropicbirds flew higher overhead in the clear blue sky but it was the waders that fascinated me. There is no area of standing freshwater on the island so many of the waders rather than inhabit the beach seemed to prefer the wide grass strip in front of the chalets, keeping sensibly to the shade under the scattered trees. Turnstones were the most prolific, busily fussing along but I also found Curlew Sandpipers, Sanderling, Lesser and Greater Sandplovers, Whimbrels, a Common Greenshank, a Common and a Wood Sandpiper all happily feeding in the grass and dead leaves. Even stranger were the Moorhens, behaving more like birds of open fields than traditionally aquatic inhabitants. Like all the birds in The Seychelles the waders seemed to know they had nothing to fear from us so you could approach them very closely apart from the ever alert Whimbrels and it was unique for me to be able to walk within a few feet of a sleepy Greenshank, normally such a wary bird


Common Greenshank
Curlew Sandpiper


Lesser Sandplover
Sanderling
Our visit to Bird Island was also perfectly timed as at the end of October there is a huge potential for the arrival of Eurasian migrants as Bird Island's location makes it the first landfall for lost migratory Eurasian birds and it has an enviable and extensive list of mega rarities turning up over the years. This was to be graphically illustrated to me in just a couple of hours

We went for lunch and sat in the open wooden eating area and enjoyed a three course meal with copious amounts of fruit juice. Then it was back to the chalet with a thermos flask of iced water for a siesta until 4pm when Robbie was leading a nature walk and would be pointing out all things natural on the island.This we could not miss.

However I decided against a siesta and elected  on the 'Mad Dogs and Englishmen' strategy and took camera and bins and headed for the north end of the island. Here is where, in the peak time from March to October an incredible 700,000 Sooty Terns nest and raise their young and even though we were at the end of October there were still getting on for a thousand or more Sooty Terns  present, mainly young ones but with a good smattering of adults, some still feeding their full grown young. 

Sooty Tern-adult
The mortality amongst the young is very high and corpses were liberally scattered around the breeding area with other young birds destined to soon die from lack of food as their parents had abandoned them or from injuries such as broken wings. It was all very sad but that is the way it has always been.

I made my way back to the chalet and at 4pm we went with a few others to meet Robbie at the central reception area. He told us about the trees and plants that had colonised the island as seeds drifting on ocean currents, borne on the wind or brought by birds, and of much more interest to me told us how a lady who was not really a birder had found a small brown bird yesterday
 right by the restaurant that she thought looked different to the abundant female Madagascar Fodys, and that turned out to be a Red headed Bunting, which was a first for The Seychelles. Five minutes later Robbie pointed to a small non descript bird with pale yellow flanks and brighter yellow undertail coverts hopping around in weeds behind the kitchen area. It was the bunting. Fantastic, a mega rarity and not only that but a lifer for me. 


Red headed Bunting-possibly a female

Robbie then pointed to a Fairy Tern incubating her single egg  on a wooden post right against the wall of the restaurant. They lay a single egg in a depression on a branch and build no nest.When the egg hatches the young tern has to sit very still on the branch until it fledges. One slip and it is the end.

Fairy Tern

Young Fairy Tern on its perilous perch, that we saw on Robbie's walk
The Fairy Terns when seen very close are incredibly beautiful with a plumage that is so white it almost dazzles. Their eye is a fathomless black and the bill is also black but the base is a beautiful shade of deep blue only visible at close quarters.Their demeanour is also very appealing as they pair for life, seem to be devoted to each other and have a gentle almost angelic presence that is both charming and irresistible

We walked on and came across an Aldabra Giant Tortoise of which there are twenty that roam the island with one, a male misleadingly called Esmeralda being the largest in the world but he was in a different part of the island so would have to wait for another day before we could go and find him.






Aldabra Giant Tortoise
A Pacific Golden Plover and a Grey Plover ran across the grass between the trees as Robbie continued to pour forth facts and figures and answer questions. We walked on and stopped at the base of a large tree. In between the roots was an incubating White tailed Tropicbird, allowing us to walk right up to it and showing no alarm whatsoever. Robbie told us that in the space of eleven years, with protection and no introduced predators on the island the number of breeding pairs has risen from one to eighty nine.

Robbie (in white shirt) showing us the tropicbirds nest at the base of a tree
What a place this is! Tropicbirds only lay one egg and we were shown several tropicbird nests, all at ground level and placed in a cleft at the base of a tree, some with a fully grown youngster and another with a just hatched youngster covered in thick greyish white down.



White tailed Tropicbird-almost fully fledged juvenile
White tailed Tropicbird-recently hatched youngster

White tailed Tropicbird-adult
We were shown Lesser Noddys nesting in a tree, the subtle difference in size (smaller) and increased amount of grey on their head and neck from  the more numerous Brown Noddys being the main distinguishing features.





Lesser Noddys
Another tree held some Bridled Terns that do not nest on Bird Island but come to the island to roost each evening.


Bridled Tern
Brown Noddys were also everywhere you looked, building nests, squabbling and courting mates. Such beautiful birds when seen so close, the subtle shades of graduated grey on their forehead and crown shading from palest grey, almost white on the forehead to almost blue grey on the crown, complementing their overall chocolate brown plumage. A delicate semi circle of white below the eye adding an understated beauty to their appearance.

Brown Noddy
All the while we were looking at the birdlife there was the constant background cacophony of various bird calls, mainly from the Brown Noddys. The island as we were to learn is never ever quiet.

A Seychelles Blue Pigeon, another endemic species was clambering around in a small Frangipani Tree. Although a pigeon it behaves more like a parrot walking around along branches and twigs seeking fruit. Its appearance when seen close is spectacular with a livid red warty face, pale grey head and breast and wings of deep, glossed, midnight blue.



Seychelles Blue Pigeon
The walk was now almost over but Robbie pointed overhead and there high in the sky were massing frigatebirds arriving from their ocean wanderings and preparing to go to their roost in some tall trees near to our chalet. Robbie said they would be up there for a couple of hours yet and slowly the numbers built up until there were around 300-400 birds milling around. Scanning with my bins I distinguished both Lesser and Greater Frigatebirds, the latter more numerous and the circling flock was also being joined by a number of Red footed Boobies which would join the frigatebirds in the roosting trees. The flight of the frigatebirds is effortless and the flock circled endlessly with hardly a wing beat, riding the wind and moving as  one from one end of the island to the other. I read somewhere that Greater Frigatebirds can stay airborne for weeks and sleep on the wing just like Swifts and can well believe it, having observed their flight skills and mastery of the air.

We made our way back to the chalets and as we did I got talking to a British couple who told me how they had been sitting quietly by the beach and had seen a turtle come out of the sea right beside them and make its way up the beach to lay her eggs, after they had spent all last night unsuccessfully looking for one. I was deeply envious as this more than anything is what I wished to encounter but was learning that it was truly a matter of luck if you got to see such a thing and quite a number of people who visit the island are disappointed and fail to see any turtles.


We ended the day sat, overlooking West Beach and the spectacular sunset that ensued far out over the trackless Indian Ocean. The next land in the direction we were looking would be Somalia some 1500km away. As the sun set below the horizon the sky was ignited with a fiery afterglow as thousands of Brown Noddys came flying in from their pelagic wanderings to roost in the trees on the island and around the chalets. The noise from the terns was incredible and rose exponentially as more and more birds arrived for the night.







We went to dinner and I learnt from three fellow guests who had also been on the beach with us earlier in the evening that had we stayed just ten minutes longer we would have seen a Hawksbill Turtle  come out of the sea, and up the beach to lay her eggs. I could not believe my luck or lack of it but that is the way it goes sometimes. We tried checking the beach after dinner with a torch but of course we saw nothing.

So to bed, tired but elated after an unbelievable day. What a truly magical place it has turned out to be. I lay on my bed and listened to the incredible noise of the countless roosting Brown Noddys bickering and arguing all night long. Two or three were roosting on our verandah and when they called, which was frequently it sounded like they were in the room. With no air conditioning but just a noisy fan, the heat and noise from the terns combined to make sleep very difficult so I just lay on the bed under the mosquito net and told myself that this experience was once in a lifetime so make the most of it. A pink House Gecko ran up the whitewashed wall and gave his stuttering call as the sweet scent of frangipani came on the night air and filled the room


Frigatebirds

We rose with the dawn at 5.30 and were out and about by 6am and had the island to ourselves as no one else was stirring. I  planned on going to the nearby frigatebird roosting trees to check on them and the boobies, just a five minute walk from our chalet. My wife preferred a walk on the beach so we agreed to meet back at the chalet at 8am before going for breakfast.

I assumed the frigatebirds would leave their roost at dawn but need not have worried as many remained in the trees until well into the morning whilst others did indeed head out to sea. I also assumed they would be wary but I  forgot this is The Seychelles and I soon learned I could walk right up to them and they and the boobies took not one iota of notice of me. They sat on the thin branches of the tall trees and lazily preened their feathers or just sat indolently doing nothing. Others cruised around the trees effortlessly, flying on huge narrow wings and forked tails before clumsily landing once again in the trees much to the annoyance of those already perched there. Their bills were extraordinary, long, pink and substantial with a big bulbous, primitive looking hook at the end.

Frigatebird roosting tree




Greater Frigatebird - female
Most of the birds were immatures with distinctive white heads or females but I found one or two adult males amongst them, completely glossy black with the distinctive red pouch that is inflated in display clearly visible below their chins.

Immature Greater Frigatebird

Adult male Lesser Frigatebird

Adult female Greater Frigatebird
Red footed Boobies were also present in smaller numbers, noticeably perching higher than the frigatebirds at the top of the trees but again seemed in no hurry to depart. Most were immatures of various ages but I did find one adult amongst them. Their huge, red webbed feet were very distinctive wrapped around the thin branches they were incongruously perched on as they preened or bickered amongst themselves.They make their nests in trees and one or two birds were flying around carrying sticks in their bills as if practicing their nest building skills.



Immature Red footed Boobies of various ages


Adult Red footed Booby
At times I had to almost pinch myself that here I was standing below four large trees festooned with upwards of two hundred Greater and Lesser Frigatebirds  as well as smaller numbers of Red footed Boobies.

We saw the frigatebirds and boobies throughout our seven day stay on Bird Island, not only amassing to go to roost when the sight of them is so spectacular but also during the day when we often saw frigatebirds as they cruised around singly or in small groups. Looking out to sea in the early evening, occasionally you would see a group of them, black and white chasing an unfortunate Brown Noddy or Sooty Tern and looking for all the world like giant Pomarine Skuas chasing a Kittiwake.


Another memorable moment was standing alone in the early morning on the beach at North Point as a rain squall far out on the ocean created a huge rainbow and a lone frigatebird crossed its path.



I met my wife back at the chalet who told me that while I had been admiring the frigatebirds she had watched a turtle come out of the sea and up the beach she was walking on. She even had pictures on her phone! Ouch!

Hawksbill Turtle courtesy of Mrs U
We went for breakfast and sat watching the myriad Madagascar Fodys and Barred Ground Doves hustling for crumbs and scraps from the tables. Completely fearless they would land on your table and feed contentedly on anything left unattended. A Moorhen stole a slice of bread and ran off across the grass with it being chased by several others.

Barred Ground Doves cleaning up at breakfast
A French lady complained to the staff about the birds and said they should be controlled.The staff just laughed and shooed them gently away. It's not called Bird Island for nothing. The Red Headed Bunting put in another cameo appearance feeding in the weeds alongside the eating area and I did not even have to move from my seat to watch it but no one seemed very interested apart from me.



Sooty Terns

As I mentioned Bird Island plays host to up to 700,000 of these birds but now at the end of their breeding cycle all but a thousand were left but that was more than enough.They nest in and under bushes at the north end of the island so it was just a five minute walk for me to the colony. It is protected from unwitting incursions by unaware human visitors by extensive  barriers of brushwood and signs but many of the terns choose to nest outside the main protected area anyway.


There were both adults and fully grown young scattered around on the grass, the young birds forming groups that sought shelter from the sun by hiding under the bushes in the shade. It was only when you got closer to the juvenile birds that you realised all was not well.The majority although looking healthy were incapable of flight as they were so weak from lack of food. They had literally been deserted by their parents and their fate was sealed as they would die a long and lingering death by starvation. Robbie told me many of the guests got upset at this but it was entirely natural at the end of the breeding season and there was nothing to do but let nature take its sometimes cruel course.


I watched a couple of adults displaying to one another totally ignoring the beseeching calls of presumably one of their juvenile progeny. So smart in their dark brown almost black and white livery, their calls are not too dissimilar to a Mediterranean Gulls, although lighter and less yodelling and they can be distinguished from far out to sea by their distinctive calls.







Juvenile Sooty Tern




I walked along the edge of the colony most days and young birds through weakness teetered and flopped from me along the ground  and I stepped away at least to give them some peace in their final days. Other single birds wandered disconsolately over the dry grass or sand unaware that soon they would be dead and the crabs would come to feed on them. So paradise had another harsher edge after all. 


Fairy Terns


These birds are the one's visitors find adorable as their whole demeanour and appearance is gentle and benign. Snow white with a large black eye and a bill whose base is a deep ultramarine blue with matching legs and webbed feet they fly like small angelic apparitions through the trees and around the island. Usually to be found in pairs, often indulging in synchronised courtship flights which involve flying incredibly close to each other mirroring each and every move of their partner. Sometimes they are joined by a third interloper as they swoop and glide through and around the trees and bushes and sometimes far out over the ocean. 




They do not nest colonially but each pair finds its own small branch on which to lay a single egg. You can spot them in the trees perched high up or lower down on bushes appearing as a distinct white splashes amongst the pervading green.










Fairy Terns
Whilst walking to the North Point pairs would come up to investigate me. Hovering in an angelic pose right in front of me uttering a peculiarly explosive electronic sounding burp. Completely un-tern like and not quite in keeping with their elegant appearance 






Red headed Bunting

Found unknowingly by a non birder this was identified by Robbie and thus became the first for The Seychelles. It looks to me from the photos like an adult female in partial moult but as I have never seen one before I am circumspect about making a definite diagnosis. Also on reading up about this species I find that female Black headed Buntings can be virtually indistinguishable from Red  headed Buntings so until I can find someone more qualified to look at the images I have to go with Robbie's identification of which he seemed pretty convinced. I looked at the images I took and it would appear that the one diagnostic feature to distinguish female Red headed from female Black headed Bunting namely the number of primaries visible beyond the tertials equalling four looked to be present on this bird.


The bunting was remarkably confiding but then virtually every bird in The Seychelles seems to be so and looking at blown up images there would appear to be no abrasion to the flight feathers or blunting of the claws which would indicate a possible formerly caged bird.


So a first for The Seychelles and a lifer for me. The bunting would put in sporadic appearances each day around the chalets and eating area feeding on black seeds it found on a low growing clover like plant called Bohavia that grew in profusion alongside the walls of the various buildings. Not the most charismatic and colourful of birds  and most guests lost interest when they could see there was no sign of a red head. Not that this mattered to me!



















North Point





This rapidly became our favourite area as it was near to our chalet at the northern end of the island and was generally devoid of any human presence as most guests would take the easier option of a walk of a couple of hundred metres to the beach opposite the chalets.

In the early morning I would walk down to North Point either along the sand and around the corner of the island disturbing the Ghost Crabs or past the Sooty Tern colony on the grass inland of the beach.


Ghost Crabs
North Point is a huge area of soft white sand coming to a point some hundreds of metres from the trees with white sand beaches sweeping away on either side. Evocative, romantic, wild and always with a slight sea breeze you were surrounded by the warm waters and ever changing greens and blues of the Indian Ocean. Stand on the very tip of the point where the sand shelved into the ocean and you were on the very northernmost point of Seychelles land and the next land was 1500 miles away in Somalia to the West. Trees brought by the ocean currents from who knows where were embedded in the sand and formed weird and wonderful convoluted natural sculptures, blasted to smoothness by the wind, waves and sand.

Being such a lonely and beautiful spot we took to it immediately although by 8am it got very hot as the sun shone relentlessly on the sand but for the couple of hours prior it was magical. Great stretches of white sand, the grains so fine they were almost like powder and a sea invariably showing differing shades of turquoise and that was warm and inviting. If you got too hot you just walked into the sea, felt the sand between your toes and cooled off in the tepid waters.


Relatively undisturbed it was also favoured by some very desirable birds. A flock of up to one hundred Saunders Terns spent their time at the very tip. They are almost identical to Little Terns but can be told by the more extensive black colouring on the outer primaries. Tiny and petite, all in winter plumage they stood on the sand and by the white surf, ever alert and would rise at the least provocation flashing silver white in the sun before 'disappearing' as they tilted over to show their grey backs and then back to flicker white like stardust against the blue ocean. They would soon settle and by careful stalking you could get relatively close to them. It was whilst stalking them that another small tern flew down, settled on the sand and revealed itself to be a White winged Black Tern - quite a pleasant surprise.





White winged Black Tern








Saunders Terns
Far more confiding were the half dozen Great Crested Terns that allowed you to virtually walk up to them, standing stoically on the sand on short black legs with their huge yellow bills and shaggy black crests they looked the very image of solidity.




Greater Crested Terns
We came here virtually every morning and evening and rarely saw another soul. Robbie did his rounds here every morning to check on turtle nests as this seemed a favoured spot of the turtles. Any new nests were marked with a long pole. You could easily see the tracks the turtles had made as they heaved their laborious way up the beach and follow the tracks to the nests which would be a circle of slightly depressed sand well above the normal high tideline.

Turtle Tracks
Robbie told me that a Black winged Pratincole had taken up temporary residence here and I went to look for it. I not only found it but found another! A day or so later a Collared Pratincole arrived on the airstrip.






Black winged Pratincole
A small flock of Grey Plover were usually around as were the occasional flocks of Whimbrel whilst on one day a couple of Greater Sandplover were by the sea's edge and every day there were one or two Sanderling and the ubiquitous Turnstones running along the sand.


Greater Sandplover
I think it was on the third day that I hit for me a personal landmark when I discovered a Crab Plover amongst the Saunders Terns. Over the next few days the number increased from two to three and then to five, of this most elegant of waders. Sporting a huge black bill enough to deal with any sizeable crab and a large head to support its bill, the whole bird was made elegance personified by enormously long, blue grey legs giving it a uniquely graceful presence.When they ran it was with that stiff legged grace of a ballet dancer, athletic and perfectly balanced almost bouncing along as they loped over the sand. I was overjoyed as it has been years of longing to see this bird and now it had been achieved.


Crab Plover with Saunders Terns





Crab Plovers

Turtles


I was getting increasingly frustrated at my lack of success in seeing a turtle. Both Hawksbill and Green Turtles nest on Bird Island but I had seen neither. Virtually every one I spoke to had enjoyed some encounter with a turtle and some were even blase about it and said they really did not worry if they saw one or not. Even my wife had seen one but for me fate was so far dealing a duff hand. I seemed to miss them by minutes or as happened on one occasion turned back when if I had walked just another hundred metres I would have found one. It is just luck I know but by the fourth day I was approaching breaking point.


Where is that turtle?
I am sure Robbie would prefer that the fewer people that saw a turtle laying eggs the better which is fair enough as the turtle and its welfare must come first. So I was unlikely to get any real help or direction from Robbie. This therefore required some serious thought and planning. If I was a turtle I surmised that it would be sensible to wait until high tide as then I would have less sand to drag myself over. Also I would want to arrive during the early morning or late part of the day as it would be cooler. I also knew that the turtles on Bird Island are not worried about coming ashore in daylight as they are not persecuted. Robbie kept an updated blackboard in the reception area that gave the times of high and low tides, more for the benefit of snorkellers than the likes of me turtle hunting, but I could use this information to my advantage. The board also gave a running total of Green and Hawksbill turtle nests which kind of rubbed it in a little as I  had yet to see either.


So on the fourth day with high tide at just after 6am we made our way at 5.30am to North Point and found ourselves entirely alone on the wide  expanse of sand,  apart from the odd Crab Plover, until we were joined by a French couple, Philippe and Aurelie

This is the beach a Hawksbill Turtle came onto at around 8am
We got talking and it transpired we were both on the same mission - to see a turtle. For  Philippe and Aurelie it was make or break as they were leaving the island tomorrow. My carefully worked out theories seemed however doomed to failure yet again as the time slowly passed and the sun relentlessly burned down and there was no sign of any turtles. There was also no shelter from the sun out here so we made the best of it. I sat on one of the pieces of driftwood, smoothed and sculpted into fantastical shape by the elements and waited. 


I scanned constantly along the shimmering white stretches of sand but nothing untoward gave any reason for optimism. Bored we started looking for fish in the clear pale green waters at the point and found some Eagle Rays swimming along in formation. Philippe swam in to get a closer look but they disappeared to be replaced by a large shoal of silver grey fish swimming so close to the surface their dorsal fins stuck out of the water.

Tired of lugging around a heavy lens in the heat on previous days I had left it in the chalet bringing a lighter lens of my daughters. I took a photo and the lens promptly failed. Great, so no pictures, not that a turtle will turn up anyway.

We separated from Philippe and Aurelie and I went for some more Crab Plover action whilst the French couple sat and looked out to sea and my wife went looking for coral and shells. Time drifted on and we realised we really had to concede defeat as the heat from the sun was now getting uncomfortably strong. 'Oh well there is always tomorrow'.

Crab Plover tracks
We commenced our walk back and looked one more time 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 200 metres distant and just clear of the surf. It was wet and glistening in the sun and it had a head beautifully depicted with golden edged squares and pentangles.

We both realised what it was at the same moment. Turtle!!!!

I shouted to Philippe and Aurelie who came running and we approached what turned out to be a Hawksbill Turtle. Remembering what Robbie had told us we ensured we only approached it from behind as then they cannot see you. Approach suddenly from the side and you can easily spook them and they head back for the sea which is the last thing anyone wanted as this critically endangered turtle has enough to contend with already.

It was only then I realised I had no camera or at least a lens that worked. Typical! I had no choice. I just had to go back for the big lens, so imploring my wife to keep an eye on the turtle I ran up the sand which is easier said than done, carefully avoiding a group of doomed juvenile Sooty Terns and headed at some pace for the chalet. The increased temperature and humidity away from the sea was a nightmare but I ran as much and as fast as I could. Fifteen minutes should get me there and then fifteen minutes back. My throat was dry with inhaling the hot air and my clothes stuck to my body with sweat but I ran, fuelled on adrenalin.  I hurtled into the chalet, took a quick gulp of iced water and then was out again with the camera and lens. A young couple were just coming out of their chalet next to ours. 'Are you busy?' I gasped. 'Not really' the young man replied in a northern British accent. 'There is a turtle down on North Point just come ashore to lay her eggs. Follow me if you want'. 'Sure we are on our way.' I noticed that Philippe had also followed me to get his two sleeping children from their chalet. I did not look back again but just ran, jogged and walked as fast as I could back to North Point. I was overheating badly but the turtle was still there and now was digging a nest chamber in which to lay her eggs right out in the middle of the sand and well away from any shade.

Too bad, this was what I had been waiting for and anticipating and nothing was going to deter me now. The young couple that had followed me turned out to be visiting from Praslin, a nearby island and Dan was studying Green Turtles there, so fortuitously he could provide answers to a host  of question about turtles and guide us on how to approach the turtle that was before us on the sand. While we watched, Dan told us that when she finished laying her eggs she would return to the sea and sleep for a while, she could remain submerged for up to forty minutes and fed on mainly coral and jellyfish.  He suggested we wait and remain well clear of her until she had fully dug her nest chamber and then when she commenced laying her eggs we could approach as close as we liked as she would go into a trance while laying her eggs and would be oblivious to anyone or anything.

This turned out just as he said and Dan took the opportunity to check her flipper for a tag which we made a note of for Robbie's benefit. It was now about an hour since the turtle had come ashore and we watched as she strained to lay her  eggs - up to eighty according to Dan, in a number of batches. 


Being so close to the turtle it was easy to see how the name Hawksbill Turtle came about as her profile was definitely aquiline and I could well imagine that hard pointed beak like mouth tearing at coral and slicing into jellyfish.



She looked in quite a state, with sand in her eyes and dribble falling from her mouth but she kept at it. I felt distinctly unwell due to the heat and the strain of running up and back from the chalet in such conditions. Frankly I had overdone it and there was only one thing to do. I walked down the beach and into the sea fully clothed and submerged myself. It was utter bliss as the water cooled me and I re-emerged wet, cooler and feeling much better and walked back up the beach to continue watching the turtle's progress.

Finally with one last gasp she laid her last eggs. It was done and she commenced to fill in the nest chamber flipping prodigious showers of sand back with her fore flippers and manoeuvering herself round so that the chamber was filled equally. I noticed how the inner edges of her fore flippers were uneven with curls and indentations looking a bit like seaweed. It took the turtle some time to complete the task of re-filling and covering the nest chamber with sand and the effort required was obviously telling on her. She took frequent rests but eventually was satisfied and turned for the sea. We all felt nearly as exhausted as she was just by watching this herculean effort of hauling herself up the beach. digging the nest chamber, laying her eggs and filling in the nest chamber. Now she had to haul herself down the beach using mainly her fore flippers and again had to stop to rest at regular intervals. She ploughed on after each rest and the sea came ever closer and the soft hot sand above the tideline gave way to firmer wetter sand. Just a few more metres and she would feel the caress of gentle waves. She lowered her head and with one final heave made the sea and a wave washed over her shell removing the last vestiges of sand. We all raised a slight cheer as she slowly eased into deeper water and we followed her dark outline below the water as she headed out to the open ocean. She raised her head once and then she was gone.

Nothing could top this. Nothing, and we will never forget it






The Hawksbill Turtle in a trance like state as she lays her eggs



She laboriously fills in the nest chamber after egg laying






She makes her way back to the sea








Hirondelle

By way of variety we decided one day to go out of the back of our chalet and make the ten minute walk to the beach on the eastern side of the island via Hirondelle, which is the name of a smallholding raising vegetables and a few pigs and chickens to supply the island restaurant. The other main food source is fish such as Red Snapper and Barracuda caught directly from the surrounding sea. Our favourite waitress in the restaurant, Chennifer lived here with her partner Danny but there was no sign of life as we passed by although we admired the Tree sculpture with shells and coral hanging from it and various other wood workings in front of the house. 



Hirondelle and its decorated tree and assorted driftwood
It was cool under the huge palms shading the track to the beach and here we came across Esmeralda. He was immense and is the now largest Aldabra Tortoise in the world. His age is thought to be well over one hundred and like a huge boulder he was stationed immobile by the side of the track in the shade of the palms. So still was he that a lizard was taking advantage by sunning itself on his shell. Apparently he can remain virtually static for days on end and when we returned hours later he had not moved an inch and looked to be fast asleep 



Esmeralda

As we walked back past Hirondelle in the late afternoon Chennifer was at the door and greeted us. I was trying to get some images of the prolific numbers of Madagascar Fodys that were hanging around the farm in anticipation of grabbing some food when Danny fed the pigs and chickens. Danny noticing my interest in the birds got some rice and put it on a bird table which was then engulfed by a swarm of red male and brown female Madagascar Fodys. It was bedlam as they fought and squabbled amongst themselves for the rice grains. Even better there was one of the scarce yellow plumaged variant males amongst them. He was the only one in the flock of about eighty. Chennifer invited us into her house to see her four poster bed made by herself entirely from tree trunks and drift wood collected from the beach. It was a superb and unique piece of furniture. Put this in John Lewis or any other up market department store and you could ask thousands for it.


Madagascar Fody - male with less usual yellow plumage


Madagascar Fodys- males and females


Madagascar Fody - male

Chennifer had an interesting history being half British half Seychelloise. She had been raised in London and married there, subsequently got divorced and had returned to The Seychelles and now lived with Danny on Bird Island. She had the habit of adding 'innit' as a suffix to many of her utterances which made us all laugh.She also had a passion for Cadburys chocolate, and as she would say, 'Its really good, innit?'

Selfie with Chennifer

Selfie with Mrs U.



Seychelles Sunbird

As sunbirds go this one hardly sets the pulse racing with colourful iridescent plumage and in fact can be fairly described as drab. The male does have some dark blue iridescent feathering on its chin and breast and sports either a yellow or orange tuft at the bend of its wings that is usually invisible but that is about it. The female is just dark grey and if you do not catch the male at the right angle he appears very much the same. They are however doing very well on Bird Island having been introduced in 2006 and every morning a male was singing loudly right outside our chalet. They feed on the nectar of the many flowering bushes and have the charming habit of calling a short sharp sweeeet as they leave each flower almost as if they are commenting on the quality of the nectar. I found a nest hanging from a bush between two chalets with the female incubating her single egg and on another day watched as a group of them used a water pipe as an impromptu way to have a bath.They are never really still, constantly on the move and the epitomy of nervous high octane energy.

Seychelles Sunbirds



Seychelles Sunbird-male
Seychelles Sunbird nest

Each day passed very much in the same sublime routine of an early morning walk along the sands, birding or looking for turtles, maybe a swim, breakfast and then another swim or just sit on the sand under a palm tree until lunch. Then maybe a siesta for a couple of hours in the heat of the day before another wander around from four onwards as the heat of the day abated. As evening approached we became accustomed to just sit on the beach perhaps with a bottle or two of  beer and watch the sun go down. Our favourite spot was at the southern end where we rarely met anyone else and we could look far out over the trackless ocean as the sky turned technicolor and on one memorable evening became really wild, pressaging a spectacular storm of thunder and lightening later that night. 




It was never dull and usually a turtle would swim past prospecting the beach, its dark outline clearly visible in the clear shallow water just off the sand's edge. They often put their head up above water and one evening a Hawksbill Turtle actually came ashore twice but then decided better of it and returned to the sea. All the while countless numbers  of noddys were coming back from their wanderings out at sea to roost on the island and frigatebirds circled lazily above, spiralling on unmoving outstretched wings awaiting the time to descend for the night into their roosting trees.

Frigatebirds coming to roost

Every day was different and every day brought renewed interest and fulfilment. Little things often make a holiday such as this memorable and two things especially stick in my mind. The first was sitting on a sandbank looking down on the azure waters a few feet below me when my wife pointed out a huge black shape moving through the shallow water just a few feet from the shore. It was immense and black with a long tail strung out behind. My wife likened it to a stealth bomber and she was not far wrong as we watched it, the size of a small kitchen table pursuing its sinister, silent and

inexorable progress, never wavering from its course. It was a Sting Ray. 




On another occasion my wife came back to the chalet to find a Common Myna  having a long and noisy sing off with its reflection  in the mirror on our table and it was quite unperturbed at my wife's presence so intent was it on seeing off its perceived rival. The chalets are built in an open style to keep them cool with all windows and doors in our case being left open and the roof is raised from the walls so anything can and does wander in.We are fine with this and entertained various rodents and reptiles, said Common Myna and even a couple of errant Brown Noddies that lost their way one night. Velvet Crabs had made their home in small holes by the chalet walls and would be there to greet us each morning sidling furtively though the grass but never straying too far from the security of their holes.

Our fellow guests were an eclectic mix of various nationalities mainly French, British and  German and many had been here before. One English couple were on their eighteenth visit. We made friends with a number of British couples who like us were here for more than a couple of days, meeting in the bar before dinner, where we would congregate to mull over the day with a gin and tonic, wine or beer and just chat generally. It was all very laid back and easy going. If you wanted to be sociable fine but if you wanted to just be on your own that was fine also and you could go virtually anywhere and hardly see another soul despite the island being so small. Most visitors had come just for the experience and I would say I was the only 'serious' birder on the island during our stay. There was another English couple with big lenses but they said they were just photographers interested in nature and not really birders.

The food although simple was of a high standard with exotic dishes such as palm heart stew, curried fish in coconut sauce and patal cabbage salad with always a fish or a meat dish available.The heat took away a lot of my appetite which probably was no bad thing and I found myself drinking copious amounts of water to replace the fluids lost by sweating profusely every day. An ice cold beer in the evening was just divine.


One morning I rose extra early at 5am and went to the southern end of the runway to see the Wedge tailed Shearwaters leaving their burrows by the side of the runway. Strange wailing, owl like oooings indicated they were already, in the half light of dawn, heading off for another day at sea and I  saw a couple, no more than shapes as they left the land and headed for the ocean. Almost as remarkable were the numbers of Brown Noddys heading out to sea. Lines of them in their hundreds as far as you could see in any direction crossed the surface of the sea all determinedly heading directly away from the island as the dawn rose pink and grey over the sea.








Walking to dinner in the evenings the myriad stars of the southern hemisphere turned the night sky into an endless, bounteous pattern of bright twinkling lights, so much brighter than anything we see in the northern hemisphere and the huge expanse of the Milky Way stretching away in the heavens was somehow humbling even awe inspiring. Such beauty both by day and night set one thinking how wonderful our planet Earth is with all its natural variety and yet we persistently seek by greed, selfishness and irresponsibility to destroy it.  

























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