SEYCHELLES, MAURITIUS & RÉUNION BIRDING TOUR: DETAILED ITINERARY
Seychelles, Mauritius & Réunion Birding Tour: Day 1 Our tour begins this morning on Mahé, where we will stay overnight. The island of Mahé is the largest of the Seychelles group and boasts the world’s smallest capital city, Victoria. The friendly Creole population have a carefree manner characteristic of these gentle islands. This happy-go-lucky attitude is infectious and visitors soon become accustomed to the rhythm of island life. The Creole influence on local food has produced a wonderfully varied and exciting cuisine, much of it based on fresh seafood. Mahé has beautiful beaches, mangrove swamps and extensive areas of mountain forest on the central ridge which rises to around 500m. Some of the peaks are covered in cloudforest which harbours endemic tree frogs and chameleons. The main avian prizes of Mahé are the endangered endemic Seychelles Scops Owl, which currently appears to have a stable population of 80-160 pairs, and the endangered endemic Seychelles White-eye. The population of the white-eye on Mahé is thought to be only around 30-40 individuals and may still be decreasing, although fortunately a population of about 300 birds has now been found on the uninhabited islet of Conception. The majority of the other nine bird species endemic to the Seychelles occur on Mahé and as we explore the mountain forests we will easily find Seychelles Kestrel, Seychelles Blue Pigeon (a spectacular deep blue pigeon with a white head and neck and a brilliant scarlet wattle on its crown), Seychelles Bulbul and Seychelles Sunbird. The white-eye and the scops owl will probably require a bit of effort to locate. Among the introduced species that occur here are Malagasy Turtle Dove, Zebra Dove, Indian Myna and Red Fody. Western Cattle Egrets are found commonly in the lowlands and at the coast we should see a selection of shorebirds, including Grey (or Black-bellied) Plover, Whimbrel, Common Greenshank, Common Sandpiper and Ruddy Turnstone.
Seychelles, Mauritius & Réunion Birding Tour: Day 2 After some more birding on Mahé we will take a flight to Praslin for a three nights stay. Praslin is sparsely populated and is the epitome of a tropical island paradise. This afternoon we shall visit the beautiful Vallée de Mai National Park where stands of the unique Coco-de-Mer, which produce the strange double coconut that is the largest seed in the plant kingdom, occur alongside other endemic palms. The main birding interest is provided by the very distinctive endemic Seychelles Black Parrot.
Seychelles, Mauritius & Réunion Birding Tour: Days 3-4 From Praslin we will take a short boat trip to the low-lying, mainly wooded island of Cousin. This tiny uninhabited isle only a kilometre across is a BirdLife International reserve which safeguards one of only four populations of the Seychelles Warbler. Once considered to be critically endangered with a world population of only 30 individuals, the species has now increased to a stable population of around 2500 birds. We will also be looking for the Seychelles Magpie-Robin, the most endangered of the Seychelles endemics with a total population of only about 170 individuals. The magpie-robins are currently the subject of a BirdLife International conservation project to try to ensure their future.
The Toq-Toq or Seychelles Fody is quite numerous here and its catholic diet not only includes fruit, seeds and insects but seabirds eggs as well! Some of the Malagasy Turtle Doves here may be pure-bred Seychelles race, untainted by hybridization with the introduced Madagascar race (something which has occurred on most of the other islands). Seabirds will be a feature of the day and we can expect to see White-tailed Tropicbirds, Brown and Lesser Noddies, and Bridled and Common White (or Fairy) Terns. Wedge-tailed Shearwaters nest in cracks in the granite boulders and although they only fly into the colonies at night we may be fortunate enough to see a few individuals even in the daytime. The island is also home to some introduced Giant Aldabra Tortoises, which we should find leisurely chewing on some vegetation, or lumbering slowly through the more open areas of forest.
The small island of La Digue, which we will also visit, is likewise only a short boat trip from Praslin. This quiet island with its scattered settlement is the home of the most beautiful of the endemic birds of the Seychelles, the Seychelles (or Black) Paradise Flycatcher. The males are a rich, velvety blue-black and have improbably long tail plumes which stream out behind as they flit amongst the shady takamaka trees. La Digue also has one of the few known Seychelles breeding colonies of Seychelles Swiftlet and we may be able to climb up to their cave to inspect the diminutive nests that cling to the bare granitic rock. Seychelles Sunbirds are particularly common here and introduced Common Waxbills are frequently encountered.
We shall visit a small marsh where Yellow Bitterns, a species that probably colonized the Seychelles naturally, can be found, and we may also find the Seychelles race of the Common Moorhen. The coast of La Digue often has a few migrant Crab-Plovers, a remarkable wader which is placed in its own family. We may see these unusual birds sitting on their haunches with their legs folded beneath them.
We will also make a boat trip to the seabird island of Aride, looking out for Wedge-tailed and Tropical (split from Audubon’s) Shearwaters during the crossing. The rocky hills of this small island are covered in woodland which provides nesting sites for a variety of seabirds. The island is owned by the Royal Society for Nature Conservation and has some of the largest colonies of tropical seabirds in the Indian Ocean. Pride of place must go to the quarter of a million nesting Sooty Terns, closely followed by twenty thousand White-tailed Tropicbirds. The largest colony of Lesser Noddies in the Seychelles is found here as well as smaller numbers of Bridled Terns, Brown Noddies and delightful Common White Terns. There is a spectacular roost of both Greater and Lesser Frigatebirds on the island. We may be fortunate enough to find one or two vagrant seabirds such as Brown Booby or Red-footed Booby. The experience of the sight, sound and smell of such vast numbers of seabirds at such close range is quite overwhelming and will provide a host of unforgettable memories.
Seychelles, Mauritius & Réunion Birding Tour: Day 5 After a last morning in the outer islands we will return by air to Mahé for an overnight stay and will have another chance to look for Seychelles Scops Owl or Seychelles White-eye if we failed to find either during our previous visit, or anything else of interest.
Seychelles, Mauritius & Réunion Birding Tour: Day 6 Today we will catch a flight to Mauritius for an overnight stay. On the way to our hotel we shall drive through the coastal lowlands passing fields of sugar cane dotted with the strange black pyramids of volcanic rocks that have been painstakingly cleared from the soil over the centuries. The journey provides us with our first real chance to take a look at the colourful Mauritians, an attractive blend of Asian, African and European peoples with a similarly mixed culture. Our hotel is beautifully situated on the beach and provides an ideal place for relaxation after exploring the forest trails. We may arrive in time for some initial exploration.
Seychelles, Mauritius & Réunion Birding Tour: Day 7 This morning we will catch a flight to the remote island of Rodrigues for an overnight stay. Rodrigues is a rather barren island surrounded by coral reefs and has several tiny outlying islets which provide a safe haven for breeding seabirds. The island has suffered at the hands of man as well as from cyclones and much of the island’s natural vegetation has been destroyed. The lowlands, like those on Mauritius, are heavily cultivated but the slopes above are dotted with pandanus palms and scrub with a few remnant native trees. In some of the higher valleys tiny patches of native forest occur, albeit mixed with mangoes and other exotics. Here two endemic landbirds, the Rodrigues Fody and the Rodrigues Warbler, still cling to a precarious existence, although numbers have now increased. Few birdwatchers have ever seen these rare species, both of which have small populations (both now numbering around 1000 pairs). We should also find a roost of the endangered Rodrigues Flying Fox, which was the subject of successful captive breeding programmes in Mauritius and Jersey.
Seychelles, Mauritius & Réunion Birding Tour: Day 8 This morning we will take a flight back to Mauritius for a two nights stay. Later today we will have a first chance to explore the remaining areas of native forest in search of some of the world’s rarest birds.
Seychelles, Mauritius & Réunion Birding Tour: Day 9 The forests on Mauritius are confined to the mountains of the southwest of the island, where the scenery is spectacular. The volcanic ridges and peaks are dissected by deep valleys cloaked in lush forest where White-tailed Tropicbirds float over the green canopy and the white plumes of waterfalls cascade over cliffs to the valley floor far below. Since the island was discovered by man in 1598 the natural vegetation has suffered greatly with the result that many of the native island birds have dwindled almost to the point of extinction through a combination of habitat destruction and some unfortunate introductions of both birds and mammals. Some species became extinct, notably the Dodo which has since become a symbol of man’s failure to live in harmony with nature.
Nowadays the surviving but endangered birds of Mauritius are subject to intense conservation efforts in an apparently successful effort to save the species concerned. Amongst the birds we will be searching for are the lovely Pink Pigeon, the beautiful Echo (or Mauritius) Parakeet and the extraordinary, short-winged Mauritius Kestrel. We will need plenty of time hiking the forest trails to search out these specialities, but with just a little luck we will see all three.
The Echo Parakeet is the rarest of these three species. Ousted from many areas by the very similar introduced Ring-necked Parakeet, it was for many years thought to be only a subspecies of the latter and its plight consequently ignored. The Mauritius Kestrel has made a remarkable comeback in recent years, having also reached the brink of extinction. This remarkable falcon is a forest dweller and has evolved short wings and a long, manoeuvrable tail more typical of an accipiter than a falcon to cope with its woodland environment. Its main prey are the tiny green geckos that live on the leaves of the Traveller’s Palm and some other trees.
As we explore the remaining forest, Mascarene Swiftlets flutter over the canopy and Mauritius Grey White-eyes flit from tree to tree, but we will have to work quite hard to get to grips with Mauritius Cuckoo-Shrike, Mauritius Bulbul, Mascarene Paradise Flycatcher (the local form is sometimes treated as a single-island endemic), Mauritius Olive White-eye and Mauritius Fody as all five are still declining. The white-eye in particular has suffered more than any other passerine from predation by introduced rats, cats and monkeys, so we will need to spend some time in order to find this rare endemic.
We will also have time to look at the birds of the cultivated lowlands, the majority of which are introduced species, such as Striated (or Green-backed) Heron, Malagasy Turtle Dove, Zebra and Spotted Doves, Mascarene Martin, Red-whiskered Bulbul, Village Weaver, Red Fody, Yellow-fronted Canary, Common Waxbill, Common Myna and House Crow. Close to our hotel the sandy beach and mudflats are attractive to migrant waders including Greater Sand Plover, Grey (or Black-bellied) Plover, Curlew Sandpiper, Eurasian Whimbrel and Ruddy Turnstone.
As well as exploring the native forests, we will drive to the northwestern corner of the island and embark on a boat trip to Round Island and Serpent Island. These two small uninhabited islands lie to the north of Mauritius. Once we have passed through the reef we will see the first Sooty Terns and Brown Noddies. Wedge-tailed Shearwaters pass alongside and, if we are lucky, dolphins will play in the bow wave whilst glittering silver flying fish explode from the sea and glide over the crests of the waves. As we approach Serpent Island we will see clouds of terns rising above the barren rocky slopes. Here Lesser Noddies nest alongside Sooty Terns and Brown Noddies. White-tailed and Red-tailed Tropicbirds hang in the updraughts above the sheer cliffs and a small colony of Masked Boobies huddle together on the windward side of the island. Round Island has been in the news recently due to the successful efforts of conservationists to exterminate the island’s rat and feral rabbit population in an attempt to save both the native vegetation and allow smaller seabirds to breed more successfully. The island is home to several species of endemic reptiles, including skinks, geckos and a sand boa, as well as two endemic palms. Overhead we should see the two morphs of the Trinidade Petrel (split from Herald) indulging in their high speed aerial chases, which are a delight to watch.
Seychelles, Mauritius & Réunion Birding Tour: Day 10 After spending much of the day on Mauritius we will take a short flight across to the island of Réunion for a two nights stay.
Seychelles, Mauritius & Réunion Birding Tour: Day 11 The dramatically mountainous, volcanic island of Réunion has the status of a department of France, rather curiously misplaced in the middle of the Indian Ocean. The way of life is very French with pavement cafés and a distinctly French cuisine. The red-tiled houses that dot the slopes would not look out of place in Provence and even some of the scenery could have come straight from the south of France.
The natural forest cover on Réunion is much more extensive than on Mauritius and it is a delight to walk along the peaceful trails through the luxuriant vegetation rich in tree ferns and epiphytic orchids. Here we will look for the endemic birds of the island. The Réunion Cuckoo-Shrike or Tuit-Tuit gets its local name from the characteristic calls which draw attention to this otherwise rather secretive bird which creeps about in the moss encrusted branches. The Réunion Bulbul, which is now considered critically endangered, is very similar to its Mauritius counterpart but is smaller and has a white eye. The delightful Réunion Stonechat or Tek-Tek is common along the more open parts of the trails, usually nesting in the mossy banks or among tree roots, whilst the Réunion Grey White-eye and the distinctive Réunion Olive White-eye flit through the leafy canopy in noisy bands. The Coq de Bois or Mascarene Paradise Flycatcher is much easier to find here than on Mauritius, the form here (which is sometimes split) having a grey rather than black head in the male. In the open country above the forest we may well see the splendid endemic Réunion Harrier.
Later in the day we shall make a visit to the coastline to look for seabirds. During our seawatch we will look out for Tropical and Wedge-tailed Shearwaters and in particular the beautiful Barau’s Petrel or Taille Vent as it is called locally. In the late afternoon the first Barau’s Petrels begin to approach the land. At first they shear over the waves and then, once over the land, they gradually begin to wheel and circle ever higher until they disappear from view as they head for their nesting sites (discovered only recently) high up among the rugged volcanic peaks of the island’s centre. If we are really in luck we will see the rare Mascarene (Réunion) Petrel as well.
Seychelles, Mauritius & Réunion Birding Tour: Day 12 This morning, provided we have seen all the endemic landbirds well, we will drive up a winding road of hairpin bends that will take us slowly from sea level to a spectacular viewpoint on the rim of one of the three huge volcanic cirques that form the heart of the island. The scenery is quite breathtaking, with stupendous views of the highest peaks on Réunion (which reach 3065m) as well as down into the crater floor over a thousand metres below. Once inhabited by escaped slaves, the tiny settlements we can see far below are still almost totally isolated from the outside world as no road reaches into the crater. There will also be the chance for another seawatch in the hope of seeing Mascarene Petrel.
Our tour ends this evening at Réunion.