Seychelles The archipelago's endangered and endemic birds

Once upon a time, Seychelles had a thriving bird population. Today 10 of its 12 endemic species survive in various stages of vulnerability. Read on to know more about the birds found only here
Seychelles The archipelago's endangered and endemic birds

On a balmy morning warmed by a tropical sun that cared little for seasons, I found myself on Praslin Island in the Seychelles, strolling in an Eden of oddities. Around me mushroomed an ethereal forest of palms. Some grew low on the ground, their spathes and fronds swarmed by geckos&mdashsmall fluorescent green ones and enormous pock-eyed bronze ones&mdashnoshing on a smorgasbord of gnats. Others towered high, filtering sunlight to a latticework of dappled shadows on the forest floor. Near the crowns of the female trees (males don&rsquot fruit but sprout pollen-bearing catkins) hung humongous nuts, their dark, dimpled husks embarrassingly reminiscent of something between a cow-buffalo&rsquos behind and a woman&rsquos mons pubis.

This conversation-starter was the Coco de Mer (Lodoicea maldivica). At a skull-crushing 20 kilograms, it is the world&rsquos largest fruit. The rare palm that bears it grows wild in this prehistoric forest, a Unesco World Heritage Site intriguingly christened Vall&eacutee de Mai. So chauvinistic are Seychellois of their national symbol that they seldom blush at its sexually suggestive shape. Rather, they celebrate this seemingly forbidden fruit. It is emblazoned on immigration stamps and currency notes. Women, who consider it a talisman of fertility, flaunt earrings and pendants inspired by it.

As I snickered internally at the double entendres inundating my brain, three soot-grey birds flapped into view and settled high on a nearby palm. Amid a clamour of whistling shrieks, they began devouring its tiny blossoms. I gasped for joy as only a twitcher would, for the endangered Seychelles Black Parrot (Coracopsis barklyi) nests solely on this tiny island. This feathered tarball is the national bird and I was gawking at three of the 900-odd that remain on the planet&mdasha moment straight out of Douglas Adams&rsquos Last Chance to See.

It was a moment of redemption, too. As a schoolboy, I had pored over musty library tomes of Life and acquired an intimacy with the Seychelles, especially its birds whose nearest relatives were flung thousands of kilometres away on the mainlands of Asia and Africa. Most, I feared, would be extinct by the time I grew up. But here I was, three decades hence, handed by providence my own last chance to see them.

Tourists shuffling along the narrow path regarded my excitement with polite WTF-ness. There are two things you must know, if you are ornithologically challenged, about the avifauna of the Seychelles. One the birds are spectacularly dowdy. At their most dazzling, they are muddy brown or glossy black. Two they are ludicrously easy to approach. Having evolved in isolation without natural predators, they don&rsquot scuttle at your prying. Either that or they must be chuffed that anybody lavishes attention on them.

Birds are named with flagrant disregard for political correctness. European settlers chose for the Seychelles Paradise Flycatcher (Terpsiphone corvina) the poetic moniker of Veuve, meaning widow. Excuse my French, but besides being misogynistic that coinage is incorrect.

Only the male, with its trailing tail streamers, dons black. The female, like its relatives in Africa and Asia, is chestnut with a black head. They share parental duties, taking turns to warm the cup-shaped nest fashioned from coconut fibre and spider webs, and to stuff food into the gaping maws of their chicks.

To visit the flycatcher at home, you must island-hop by ferry from the capital Mahé to bucolic La Digue, then ride an ox cart to a roadside reserve as spacious as a kitchen garden. Fewer than 200 survive among 2,000 humans, crammed into the island&rsquos 10 square kilometres. The Diguois, who get around on bicycles, until recently allowed no motor vehicles.

The Seychelles were home to 12 endemic bird species, of which ten survive in various stages of vulnerability. We almost lost the Seychelles Magpie Robin (Copsychus sechellarum), found only on Fr&eacutegate Island, when its population fell to 25 in 1970. Aggressive conservation has revived it to 260-odd birds. Similar is the story of the Seychelles Warbler (Acrophalus sechellensis), which recovered after Cousine Island was protected in 1968. The Seychelles White-Eye (Zosterops modestus) bounced back from near-extinction to a promising 400-odd birds. You may chance upon a flock while hiking in the cloud forests of Mahé&rsquos Morne Seychellois National Park. Here, at dusk, birders listen for the soft hoot of the endangered Seychelles Scops Owl (Otus insularis), which struggles to fend off competition from the introduced Barn Owl.

Until humans populated the Seychelles three centuries ago, birds ruled the roost. The islands have no native land mammals except bats&mdashlarge fruit bats fly boldly by day and smaller ones flutter at dusk. With people came rats and mice, cats and dogs, livestock and cagebirds. And agriculture, exotic plants and diseases. By 1870, the Marianne White-eye and Seychelles Parakeet were extinct. The tiny Seychelles Fody (Foudia sechellarum) almost went the same way until the islanders resolved to stop competing with it for seabird eggs.

Not all birds suffered with the arrival of Homo sapiens. The Seychelles Sunbird (Nectarinia dussumieri) and Seychelles Bulbul (Hypsipetes crassirostris) thrive on exotic flowering plants. The Seychelles Blue Pigeon (Alectroenas pulcherrimus), gaudy with red facial wattles, has been helped by an abundance of plantation fruit.

Aldabra Atoll (the country&rsquos other World Heritage Site), where herds of elderly giant tortoises roam wild, shelters a treasure of seabirds including frigatebirds and terns. Fairy terns and tropicbirds speckle the azure sky, settling at dusk in clumps of casuarina inside inaccessible mangrove swamps. On snorkelling sorties and inter-island cruises, petrels and shearwaters are seen skimming the white crests of the ink-blue ocean. Migratory shorebirds stop over seasonally while storms blow in vagrants from far-flung shores. And then there are those that come to stay.

The introduced Madagascar Fody (Foudia madagascariensis) is a looker. Along with the Barred Ground Dove (Geopelia striata), imported from Southeast Asia, this flame-orange finch is the most numerous bird in the Seychelles. A most pernicious immigrant, the Indian Myna has acquired an unflattering reputation of edging out local birds and robbing their nests. On smaller islands the Seychellois have put a price on its head, culling it to reclaim space for endangered natives.

On my last morning in the islands, I was escorted on the picturesque Anse Major nature trail by an indefatigable Seychellois named Rocky who plucked me wild plums and encouraged me to taste strange leaves. He took me to the edge of the cloud forest to gaze at the endless ocean. The inner islands of the Seychelles are granitic. Rugged rock faces interspersed with cloaks of dense vegetation make great habitats for birds of the sea and the land.

A pair of tropicbirds, exquisitely sprite-like with long streaming tails, communed briefly in the air with a flock of Seychelles Blue Pigeons.

The information
Getting there
Air Seychelles flies daily direct from Mumbai to Victoria, capital of the Seychelles, on Mahé Island. Economy return fares start at around Rs 32,600.

Visa On arrival for Indians, for free.

Currency 1 Seychelles Rupee (SCR) = Rs 5.16

Where to stay
&nbspCoral Strand Hotel (from &euro200 is centrally located on Beau Vallon Beach, a 10-minute drive from Victoria. Avani Seychelles Barbarons Resort and Spa (from &euro290 is located right next to a bird-rich mangrove forest.

Praslin The meagre comforts of the budget Le Relax Hotel (from &euro100 are compensated by its proximity to a white-sand beach and a garden where rare Black Parrots come to forage.

La Digue Garden birds abound at the quiet and leafy Chateau St Cloud (from &euro170, where the meals are fulsome and the hospitality warm.

What to see & do Praslin Island is connected to Mahé by Cat Cocos Ferry ( At Vall&eacutee de Mai Nature Reserve, guided walks can be paid for at the ticket booth. Non-Seychellois visitors must pay an entry fee of &euro20. Camera fees may apply depending on the equipment. Opening hours from 8am to 5.30pm. .

Cat Cocos also island-hops to La Digue from Mahé and Praslin. To see the Seychelles Black Paradise Flycatcher, hire an oxcart to Veuve Special Reserve (, open 8am&ndash4pm Monday through Friday entry fee SCR 200 248-2783114.

On request, Coral Strand Smart Choice Hotel ( arranges guided walks for guests along the Anse Major nature trail, an easy walk that ends in a secluded beach. 248-4-291000.

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