Highlights of the tour to Seychelles
On 29 August 2013, eight of us embarked on a 13-day trip to the spectacular Seychelles, an archipelago in the Indian Ocean that encompasses 118 islands. The islands are known primarily as a holiday destination for the rich and famous and perhaps they are not that popular as wildlife viewing destination. However, what a lovely surprise we had. We visited six islands: Mahé, Praslin, Cousin, Curieuse, La Digue and Bird Island, all distinctive in their own right and all boasting rich and unique wildlife.
It is difficult to pin-point a single highlight of the trip, because there were so many.
Altogether, we recorded 52 species of birds. A trip to Seychelles does not generate a long list of birds or huge diversity. Instead, the list grows steadily and every day one to three new species are added. These though, are quality birds. Seychelles host 12 endemic species of birds and we saw them all, except one. The one that we missed was the Seychelles Scops-owl, which although not seen, provided us with one of most exhilarating memories. We were in the Morne Seychellois National Park where at least one pair holds its territory and waited in anticipation for the birds to call, but without using a lure. Our patience was rewarded, because suddenly, we heard the most amazing duet of two birds directly above us. Their calls were very distinctive, a kind of loud rhythmical rasping, resembling nothing like the owl calls that we are familiar with. Two birds were calling to one another and kept us amused for a good while. However, although very close, they were high in the canopy and, under the cover of the night, it was impossible to see them. Nonetheless, the experience left us amazed.
As for other endemic birds, they were all exciting to see because some of them are so rare. The Seychelles White Eye, for instance, is a critically endangered species, with a population of less than 50 individuals on Mahé, where we were hoping to see it. Not only that we saw it, but one individual showed itself beautifully on a nearby bush and for long enough for everyone to take good record shots. Other rarities included the endemic Seychelles Fody, Seychelles Magpie-robin and Seychelles Warbler. All three were seen on Cousin Island, which was declared a special nature reserve to save the last remaining population of the Seychelles Warblers. Seeing these three birds, still endangered and vulnerable, in one location was an absolute privilege.
Another critically endangered bird, the Seychelles Paradise Flycatcher, was perhaps the most attractive of them all. We had to take a boat to the small and colourful La Dique Island, which holds a population of less than 200 individuals. Here, we saw at least three females, four males and a youngster being attended by a female. The black, white and brown females were slightly overshadowed by the males’ jet black plumage and their iridescent flashes between the trees in the dappled sunlight. We also had a stunning view of the nest with both male and a female busily finishing it off. We simply could not get enough of excellent views at close proximity to the nest.
Great excitement was also generated by the sighting of the Seychelles Black Parrot. Considering that this species is critically endangered, with the overall population estimated as 200-300 birds and confined to the endemic Coco de Mer palm forest on two islands of the Seychelles, we felt pretty lucky to see them at all. Not only did we see the birds, but we witnessed the most amazing spectacle of a feeding frenzy by seven of these birds on one Casuarina tree, totally oblivious to our presence and in company of two other Seychelles endemics: five Seychelles Bulbuls and seven Seychelles Blue Pigeons.
The biggest bonus, however, was seeing the Seychelles Kestrel, which is confined only to a few islands in the archipelago and still classed as vulnerable. This is not an easy species to see, but we had our own “resident” bird that we saw every night. We discovered on our first day that a male had a roost site on a window frame above the main entrance to our villa. We could not believe our luck! What’s more, on one of the nights, we witnessed our kestrel consuming a Long Island Day Gecko for dinner!
Apart from the endemic birds observed in the Seychelles, there was a plethora of other more common species, all equally interesting. In fact, the most abundant species and maybe not the best looking one that we encountered, the Sooty Tern, was voted the best bird of the trip. It was its sheer numbers that completely overwhelmed us. These birds are the most numerous seabirds in the western Indian Ocean, with an estimated breeding population of 6.2 million pairs. Breeding colonies are scattered throughout the Seychelles archipelago, with an estimated 500,000 pairs on Bird Island. And, it was here, where we viewed the colony from close proximity and were astonished by its magnitude. The breeding season was over, but the chicks were still present, begging for food, occupying every available space and making a most unbearable noise.
Our three-day stay at Bird Island, the most northerly of all the islands in the Seychelles, was most memorable, because of the close proximity of wildlife. We were virtually surrounded by Common and Lesser Noddies, nesting on almost every available tree around our chalets, beautiful Fairy Terns balancing on the tiniest of branches, White-tailed Tropicbirds nesting at the bottom of the Casuarina trees and attending almost fully grown chicks, Madagascar Fodies dazzling in the sun in their red plumage (males that is), Seychelles Sunbirds incubating in their intricate nests and Frigatebirds soaring high in the sky. The beaches were dotted with foraging migratory Grey Plovers, Whimbrels, Curlew Sandpipers, Lesser and Greater Sandplovers and even a spectacular Crab Plover. It was a truly magical island.
Apart, from birds, we also saw 59 other wildlife species, including five mammals, 19 reptiles and amphibians, and 16 species of insects. Endemism is high on the islands and some of the skinks, geckoes and chameleons are confined only to isolated pockets of habitats and single islands. Perhaps most memorable were our encounters with huge endemic Seychelles Fruit Bats, which foraged in trees within the compound of our lodge on Praslin Island and could be viewed every night while we were there.
The flora was equally attractive, and in fact, none of us had ever seen such accumulation of exotic plants and spices in one country before. Altogether, we recorded 153 species of plants. There were three species which particularly stood out: the endemic Pitcher Plant, Coco de Mer palm and the Seychelles Vanilla Orchid. The former, though, won the status of the best plant of the trip.
The Seychelles Pitcher Plant is a carnivorous plant and found only on two islands in the Seychelles. It traps prey in its pitchers and consumes it using a powerful digestive acid released from the pitcher walls. We found it on the hills in the Morne Seychellois National Park on Mahé, where it grows in profusion and sprawls a few metres along the ground, on the trees and shrubs as a vine.
The Coco de Mer, on the other hand, a strong second contender for plant of the trip, is a must-see plant for any serious botanist. The palm is native only to two islands of the Seychelles and produces the largest seeds in the world, which can weigh as much as 20 kg and measure up to two feet. The magnificent Vallee de Mai on Praslin hosts the world's largest population of Coco de Mer together with another six of Seychelles’ endemic palms. This is a unique remnant of a prehistoric forest which existed when the Seychelles were part of Gondwanaland, so walking under the canopy of shimmering huge leaves and swaying palms felt as if we were taken back in time. In addition, we encountered endemic and rare creatures that are associated with this forest and are thought to play a significant role in pollination of the Coco de Mer palms. These included the Coco de Mer Snail, White Slug, three species of brown geckoes, Sundberg’s Day Gecko and Seychelles Chameleon.
What made this trip unique and memorable was the rare combination of endemism and close proximity of wildlife, in the idyllic setting of the powder-soft sandy beaches, blue sky and the azure waters. This helped to maintain a relaxed pace and holiday mood throughout the tour. It was a privilege to be part of this unique experience.