“Birds innumerable and many sea cows (dugongs) on the beach,” was reported in the ship’s log by the captain of the cruiser ‘Eagle’ when it sailed by the island in 1771, known at the time as ‘Ille aux Vaches’ (island of sea cows). In the late 1960’s the island was bought and privatised.
The late 1960’s marked the end of a long exploitation of coconut and cotton, the removal and export of a huge amount of guano as well as the sale of Sooty tern eggs. Up to that time almost the whole population of birds was confined to the northernmost part of the island. Today it is an ornithological paradise where all energy is directed to the conservation and monitoring of the flora and fauna of this small remote piece of land. Even Sir David Attenborough visited the island to film the Sooty Tern Colony for two episodes of the BBC series ‘The Life of Birds’.
This small coral island which barely rises above the surface of the Indian ocean, with an area of less than a square kilometre, is located on the equator 100 km from Mahe island to the south. To the west a distance of 1600 km separates it from the african continent, while to the north the ocean stretches as far as the Arabian peninsula. Because of it’s location on the northern edge of the Seychelles archipelago, it is the first bit of land sighted by many migratory birds on their long and tiresome journey south. Aside from the migrants, every year a great many vagrant species visit the island, and rarities are always a treat for birdwatchers.
The island is reachable either by plane or boat. I decided on the former because I desired to experience the arrival from a bird’s perspective, even though the small De Havilland Twin Otter aircraft did not instil confidence. Unbroken fine white coral sand beaches encircle the cay with a lush green interior, except for a grassy elongated patch which is the runway and the area where the Sooty tern colony is nestled. The moment your feet touch the ground you realise that man is just a visitor here and that the birds are the absolute rulers of the island. They are everywhere, on every tree stump, rock or branch. They occupy every nook and cranny on the island. I was at first assailed by an unbearable clamour from all sides. Because one can only stay for a limited number of days on the island (great care is taken to limit the number of people at any one time) I decided not to lose a moment and upon landing made my way north to the famous tern colony.
The dirt road took me through the rainforest where I had the chance to spot some of the more shy inhabitants of the island. Seychelles sunbirds (Cinnyris dussumieri), with their long curved bills, flew from one flower to the next in search of the sweet nectar while the striking red males of the Madagascar fody (Foudia madagascariensis) sang their song. Moorhens (Gallinula chloropus) constantly crossed my path, and here and there a Seychelles blue pigeon (Alectroenas pulcherrima) would fly through the canopy.
After a short walk the humid forest opened on a clearing where upon looking up at the high trees on the far side I sighted numerous large birds perched on every possible branch. They were Lesser and Greater frigatebirds (Fregata ariel and Fregata minor). With a wingspan of over two meters they resemble corsairs of the sky. All day they circle the island, occasionally descending to the surface of the ocean in search of fish and often even attack other birds in order to steal their catch of the day, and prey on juvenile terns and noddies. It is no wonder then that among the locals they are also known as pirate birds.
I noticed while scanning the trees with my trusty Leica Televid 82 that there were ‘intruders’ among the many frigatebirds. The hilarious movements and comic countenance they exhibit reveal them to be the remarkable Boobies (Sula). Indeed these were Red footed boobies (Sula sula). Suddenly I became aware of a noise in the background which became louder and louder as I made my way toward the northern most tip of the island. In the end it evolved into a cacophony of sounds so loud that I became dizzy and disoriented. It was the Sooty tern colony (Onychoprion fuscata).
To be continued….
Below are links to a couple of videos: