Sunshine, palm trees, Mojitos and beautiful sunsets.
I guess those are the reasons that most people go to Mauritius. It was, absolutely, the reason we headed there as a family in October. We were on our way to Mauritius to celebrate my mother’s 70th birthday and we were going to do all of the above in overdose quantities and, since the kids were a lot older than they were the last time we came for my father’s landmark celebration, we were going to be able to do a lot of those things together as a family.
When we visited seven years ago we stayed in the north-west corner of the island near Grand Baie and, being the fanatical birder that I am, I made a plan to visit Black River Gorges National Park to tick a few of the endemics.
But, before recapping that, perhaps a bit of history about the island from an environmental point of view.
Mauritius is yet another example of a catastrophic ecological disaster that seems to beset Indian Ocean islands. In fact, it may be accurate to say that Mauritius has possibly been the worst off amongst a very bad lot.
The most well documented extinction on the island, and arguably worldwide, was, of course, the Dodo, a large flightless bird closely related to the pigeons. The Dodo was hunted by Dutch sailors in the late 1600s until it was completely extirpated in 1662 – a pretty sudden removal of an entire species off this planet. It was reputably well worth eating and conveniently completely flightless, which made it a pretty lame duck (or Dodo). The Dodo is the most well known Mauritian endemic extinction, but many other flora and fauna have suffered the same fate, following the colonization by man and other four legged alien animals. The endemic animals were not suited to a life of running away from these new visitors and so were eaten or replaced by more aggressive and adaptable ones, not the least of which was man.
The list of extinctions is long and includes all forms of animals. Birds included the Broad-billed Parrot, Mascarene Grey Parakeet, Mauritius Blue Pigeon and Mauritius Owl, among others.
Reptiles are actually still quite well represented on the island but many of them suffered a similar fate, being slow and sluggish, making them vulnerable. There was a Giant Skink, not that much smaller than a monitor lizard, and then, of course, the three species of Giant Tortoise that were another source of food for sailors and colonisers.
The consequences of the tortoise extinctions are pretty interesting. Many of the endemic plants on the island relied heavily on the tortoises for germination and pollination, through a mechanism of seed dispersal. They would ingest the seeds of these plants as part of their diet and, soon thereafter, defecate them in different places, which helped spread the plant species. This source of dispersal came to an abrupt end when the last of the tortoises was killed. The plants faced an uncertain future without this mechanism and the wildlife authorities decided to use an introduced species to assist with the ongoing existence of rare and endangered plants. It was a risky proposal given the toll that had been taken through the introduction of other aliens.
In 2000 the Aldabra Giant Tortoise was introduced in small numbers to the island of Ile Aux Aigrette off the south-east coast of the mainland, where only males were introduced, and were closely monitored to ensure that the results were not the opposite of what had been hoped for. The process worked a treat and the highly endangered ebony trees (white and black) were far more successfully germinated after passing through the tortoise’s intestinal tract. This success has given the Mauritius Wildlife Foundation (MWF) the confidence to allow the tortoises to breed freely and they have been reintroduced to different parts of the island where their gastric work continues.
As mentioned, the countless extinctions over the years were caused by a combination of habitat destruction through the clearing of indigenous and endemic species for the planting of more commercially viable palms and sugar cane, as well as the introduction of many land mammals that ravaged the slower species on the island.
It is interesting to note that the only indigenous land mammals were three species of bats, which still survive on the island. The most noticeable of the bats is the Mauritius Flying Fox, also known as the Mauritius Giant Fruit Bat. Even if you are a complete natural history philistine, you cannot miss these amazing creatures. They are probably the same size as an Eagle Owl and they are pretty active during the day, unlike many other bat species. If you are so ignorant to passing fauna and you don’t even see them, you will most certainly hear them, as they have a blood-curdling scream that seems to pass right through you when they call from above.
What is interesting about these beautiful creatures is that the government has just passed a law that will allow for the culling of this endemic species. There are apparently over 60,000 of them on the island, at present, and they are reputedly causing headaches for fruit farmers as they are eating the mangos and papayas that are grown on the island for export. The farmers have succeeded in lobbying for their culling and that will commence imminently.
We spoke to a biologist that works for the MWF, who said it is remarkable that such shortsighted decisions are still being made on an island that is renowned for its poor history when it comes to the protection of its precious wildlife. 60,000 individuals sounds like a lot, and there is no doubt that they are abundant, as you see them all over the place, but their existing large numbers are primarily a function of the fact that the island has not suffered a major cyclone since 2003. Cyclones are natural cullers of these great beasts and it is estimated that a serious storm will destroy almost two thirds of their population. So, it just seems a little worrisome that there is a chance that the government’s culling program commences and Mother Nature follows that up with a cyclone or two and, before we know it, the Mauritius Flying Fox will be added to the unfortunately long list of vanished species.
The news is not all bad, though, and significant kudos must be due to the MWF for the work that has been done on the island in the last 30 or 40 years. There are eight true endemic birds that still exist on the island of Mauritius and almost every one of them has, at some stage reached an almost irreversible state of scarcity. The MWF has brought most of these back from the brink and the amount of time, money and innovative work that is being done is remarkable.
Our visit to the Black River Gorges National Park back in 2008 had yielded four of the eight endemics. They were the Mauritius Bulbul, the Echo Parakeet, the Mauritius Olive White-eye and the Mauritius Cuckoo-shrike. The fifth of the endemics that I saw that time around was the Mauritius Grey White-eye and that was not a surprise at all, since it has thrived in the artificial environment that exists on most of the island and you can see it just about anywhere.
I still needed three of the endemics and two of these were once considered two of the rarest birds in the world.
The first of them is the greatest success story of the MWF and possibly represents the most remarkable conservation story in the history of conservation stories. It is not a surprise that the Mauritius Kestrel is the chosen emblem for the MWF.
Back in the 1960s there were only four Mauritius Kestrels remaining. Even more disastrous was the fact that there was only a single female. It is hard to believe that a species can recover from a situation that dire, but this one did. The kestrel was in such a precarious state as a result of the clearing of habitat where the kestrel made its home. It would breed in the hollow cavities of the ebony trees and many of these were chopped down for furniture and then the land was replaced with cultivation. Further pressure was caused by the use of pesticides that worked its way through the food chain and ultimately affected the strength of the eggshells, which would fracture when being incubated by the adult birds.
With only four birds remaining, the only viable solution was to capture the remaining ones and breed them in captivity. This must have been a stressful process but it was one that has worked exceptionally well. It is believed that there are now over 400 of these birds living on the island and the MWF continues to monitor them extremely closely, with almost every nest site being known and each chick being rung.
From all reports that I had read about this bird, the chances of bumping into one in suitable habitat were exceptionally small. They are small raptors and pretty secretive in the tall tree habitat. Further reading revealed that there was a pair that was very reliable in a place called the Valley de Ferney, which happened to be about a 20 minute drive from the hotel we were staying at. The reason for their reliability was due to the fact that the birds are helped along by being fed at a private site that works closely with the MWF. That was another interesting factoid that I gleaned while chatting to some of the local MWF employees. It seems that eco-tourism is now becoming more popular in the private sector and money is being made available by wealthy landowners to continue protecting the endangered wildlife.
It seemed like a great solution to my obvious need to add this iconic bird to my life list. I was left in a little bit of a quandary as to whether a fed bird is tickable but I came to terms with that by comparing it to hummingbirds that are fed at Ecuadoran mountain lodges and Antpittas that are called up in the depths of the Amazon rainforest to be fed mealworms. I guess there are some that would question the tickability, but the pair at Valley de Ferney is a wild pair that relies on a bit of help from the owners of the property and I was going to tick it!
As it turned out it was a rewarding experience, whether tickable or not. Within minutes of arriving at the station they use to feed the kestrels, a pair arrived and alighted in the large tree in the middle of a clearing, and they actively called and flew around the tree before getting their morsel. It is quite remarkable to think that they have managed to save this beautiful bird against all odds.
Possibly the most valuable environmental site on the whole of Mauritius is a tiny little island just off the south-east coast called Ile Aux Aigrette. Over the years it had been used as a strategic military site, as it was positioned just off the coast of the town of Mahebourg, the original capital city of Mauritius. It saw a variety of battles, being situated in the gateway to the capital. Following the independence in the late 1960s, the island was declared a nature reserve and they cleared it of all alien vegetation and started replanting and transferring endemic plants to the island. It is a very small, almost perfectly round island, created exclusively from coral and is now, more or less, 100% covered in endemic plants.
We took a visit there with Benny from the MWF who explained how valuable the island was as it represented almost 50% of the remaining natural vegetation on Mauritius. Only 2% of natural vegetation remains with 0.8% on Ile Aux Aigrette and the other 1.2% being at Black River Gorges National Park.
The trip to the island is by boat and only on an official tour. We opted for a VIP tour that meant we could spend a little longer on the island than the standard single hour. Our first target species was the iconic Pink Pigeon that almost dwindled to the same disastrous numbers as the kestrel with only nine birds remaining at one point. Birds were relocated from Black River Gorges and allowed to roam freely on Ile Aux Aigrette. There are now 328 birds remaining in the wild with at least 30 of them on the island. Sightings are never guaranteed and we heard stories of serious listers having to do repeat trips to the island to eventually get their lifer, but we were considerably luckier than that with a view of a plump pigeon sitting on a horizontal branch under the canopy. It was quite a surprise at seeing how enormous these pigeons are, and one can understand how their plumpness was an attraction to sailors who arrived on the island after long travels at sea.
There are a few reports of birds flying across the short hop back to the mainland, but they are few and far between as there is not much for them to eat as they are decidedly fussy about only consuming the fruits and seeds from indigenous plants. They will either fly back to the island or perish at the hands of cats and dogs.
We met a researcher at Black River Gorges a few days later who works exclusively with Pink Pigeons and it was fascinating to hear the lengths that the MWF goes to ensure these birds never return to the same depths they were once at.
The second of my target species on the island was a bird called a Mauritius Fody. On my last trip to Mauritius we had searched for this species at Black River but it is incredibly difficult to find anywhere but on Ile Aux Aigrette. Another tricky factor is that it is quite similar to the abundant introduced Madagascar Fody, which seems to have almost completely displaced the endemic all over the island. There are Madagascar Fodies on Ile Aux Aigrette but they have to be controlled so as not to outcompete the Mauritius Fodies.
Well, we didn’t quite contemplate how easily we would encounter this bird. As we walked off the jetty onto the small path through the low forest, a pair flitted past us and landed in the tree above our heads, almost as if they were welcoming us to their safe haven. When seeing and hearing these birds it was quite obvious that they are quite different to the Madagascan version. As friendly as they seemed to be, they were almost impossible to photograph as they buzzed around our heads.
The kestrel, pigeon and the fody completed my threesome of sought after species but there was one other bird that we were very happy to see on Ile Aux Aigrette and is possibly the most precariously surviving Mauritian endemic. As much as the Mauritius Grey White-eye has thrived in the man-made environment, the Mauritius Olive White-eye has virtually disappeared entirely. There are believed to be well less than 200 birds remaining on the planet and that makes it one of the rarest birds in the world. In a bizarre stroke of luck, my father and I bumped into a small group of these birds seven years previously when we visited Bassin Blanc, which lies within the Black River Gorges National Park. On that occasion I managed to get a photo of one of them and it is possibly one of my most prized photos, being of a bird that is un-ringed which is a rarity within a rarity. Given the size of these birds it is almost impossible to ring every single one but there must be precious few of them untouched by human hands as they are so closely monitored, given their status.
It is almost unheard of to see the Olive White-eye anywhere but on Ile Aux Aigrette and even on the island they are like needles in a haystack. There are no Grey White-eyes on the island and that is one of the only things that makes them possible to find. They have a typical white-eye call and so once latching onto that you can track them down as they move quickly through the canopy. The birds are also supplementally fed at nectar feeders that are positioned fairly sporadically throughout the island, but sightings are also never guaranteed at these stations. We were fortunate to see a number of them at the feeders and moving through the canopy in different places.
The visit to Ile Aux Aigrettes was not just about birds. Our guide, Benny, showed us two of the endemic reptiles of Mauritius. The Ornate Day Gecko is pretty well described, being the most beautiful collection of green, purple and electric blue. The gecko is very common on Ile Aux Aigrette and equally common on the mainland and represents the main prey item of the Mauritius Kestrel.
The second reptile we were able to find is not quite as common and came pretty close to extinction itself. It is called the Telfair Skink and although not quite as big as the Giant Skink that no longer exists, it is certainly the largest skink I have ever seen. It is more reminiscent of a Giant Plated Lizard in size than a skink.
The Telfair Skink was reduced to a single population on Round Island, which is off the north-east coast of Mauritius. There were around 4,000 remaining before they decided to translocate a number to Ile Aux Aigrette. Since Round Island became an even greater haven for wildlife (in that it is a totally restricted and quarantined island) the numbers have increased massively but they have avoided a possible mass extinction by spreading the gene pool through the translocation.
For me, the most impressive aspect about the work that is done by the MWF was hearing how they monitor the Telfair Skinks on Ile Aux Aigrette. Every single hatchling is taken from its nest and placed in a terrarium where it is kept until it has reached adult size. This is to reduce the chances of the younger animals falling prey to cannibalism and the introduced Agamid Lizard. Once the young skinks have reached adulthood each one has a chip inserted which records data that can be read at a later stage. Essentially that means that every skink on the island has a surgically implanted microchip that assists identification and monitoring in order to track the population.
I knew that birds were rung for monitoring purposes but I had never thought that a similar process would extend to reptiles.
Anyway, that’s the long story about Ile Aux Aigrette.
The only place we had left to visit was Black River Gorges National Park. Tommy, Adam and I took a taxi there early one morning and met with Christobelle, who is the young lady that has dedicated her life to Pink Pigeons. She joked about members of her family that wondered when it would be that she would have a real job. If only they knew the importance of the work she does.
We had the pleasure of her company for a wonderful three hours along the Macchabee Forest Trail, which stretches along the rim of the northern ridge of the Black River Gorge. The natural vegetation is a visual pleasure after all the cane and palm trees but, despite this, the birdlife is few and far between. The forest is quiet and one only has the occasional call of the endemic Echo Parakeets and Indian Ring-necked Parakeets to break the silence. Adam remarked a few times that it was the toughest birding he has ever done.
There are a few introduced species that lurk here as well (such as Common Myna, Common Waxbill, Red-whiskered Bulbul and Madagascar Fody) but the real specials include the Echo Parakeet, Mauritius Bulbul, Pink Pigeon, Mauritius Fody and Mauritius Cuckooshrike. We lucked out on the cuckooshrike, which is not a surprise, as they have now realized that it occurs in perilously low numbers and is possibly approaching the status of the Olive White-eye. I had been lucky to see one seven years before but we weren’t so fortunate this time.
The real highlight was seeing a number of Echo Parakeets, which is just a stunning bird. They seemed to be doing much better than when I had been here previously and we had some superb views of perched birds in great light. Christobelle showed us a number of the nest boxes that they have constructed to encourage breeding and this has worked well with the Echo being more dominant than the Indian Ring-neck in Black River Gorges.
Our last bird was the Mauritius Bulbul, which gave us the run around for a while before eventually showing itself just before our taxi’s timer had expired.
We also nabbed two other lifers in a confiding Mascarene Martin and a few very non-confiding Mascarene Swiftlets that dipped and dashed through the forest proving incredibly difficult to photograph. Despite not being endemics it was still good to record some indigenous lifers amongst all the introduced rubbish.
The introduced species on the island run amok. Our time was spent mostly at our resort and the only birds that are available are a real mish-mash of trashy stuff. Against my better judgement I have included a few photos of some of them.
Overall, I recorded 24 species in 10 days, which is pretty paltry, but one cannot expect a lot more than that on the island without some more significant travelling around. We also never got out to sea, which would have delivered a few tropical seabirds, but we can always leave those for another time and place.
So, there were plenty of birds during a holiday that was definitely focused on a celebration for my mother and family holiday time together. We skiied, snorkeled, swam, golfed, ate and drank and soaked in plenty of sunshine. It was yet another memorable family holiday.