Category Archives: birds

I sing the songs that make the whole world sing…

What it lacks in plumage (it’s not as brightly coloured as other Sunbirds), the Seychelles Sunbird makes up for in song (and in its lovely Creole name, Kolibri). Since our Dragon Tree flowered, we’ve had a number of these lively birds coming for the nectar. And there’s been lots of singing and marvellous (acrobatic) displays to entertain us at lunch. There have been some among us who’ve called it a racket. We just shoosh them. The males of the species apparently are the loud ones. The Sunbirds are accompanied by a number of bees, but they’ve not been dangerous. Too high on nectar I bet.

Watch me do this!

Watch me do this!

And this!

And this!

The Dragon Tree is a palm like shrub native to the Seychelles (Dracaena reflexa to Science, Bwa Sandel in Creole), found in scrub, woodlands and open spaces throughout the granitic islands. Related species with colourful flowers are grown in gardens.

See me flower

See me flower

Red-billed TropicBird on Cousin

Peter Chadwick of  WWF South Africa was visiting Cousin and was seating on top of Cousin Hill looking towards Cousine when he noticed a tropicbird with a red bill fly past amongst the more regular White-Tailed Tropicbirds. His account and pictures below support a similar sighting in February.

The bird made continuous passes over the lookout point over the next hour and I was able to photograph it, both from the underside and also showing the mottled back which clearly identified the bird as an adult Red-Billed Tropic Bird. What makes the sighting more interesting is that the bird made numerous passes and disappeared from view into the rocky outcrop at the top of the hill. This rocky area is a favoured nesting position for Wedge-Tailed Shearwater and White-Tailed Tropicbirds. Although I did not actually see the bird land, I strongly suspect that it did indeed do so and that it inspected the rocky area as it disappeared from view for 10 minute periods. The bird was still present when I left the view point at 09h00.

Underside view of Red-Billed Tropicbird

Underside view of Red-Billed Tropicbird

Top view of Red-Billed Tropicbird

Top view of Red-Billed Tropicbird

I returned to the position the following day at the same time and suspect I again saw the bird departing from the rocky outcrop. The bird flew rapidly out of view and was not seen again. I cannot 100% confirm that my sighting on the 11th October was indeed a Red-Billed Tropicbird but I am fairly certain that I sighted a tropicbird with a red bill. I searched the area and also searched amongst the rocky outcrop on the 12th October with no further sighting.

It must be remembered that a tropicbird with a red bill was sighted by island staff in the same vicinity in February 2010 and this could indeed be the same bird. It was reported that the tropicbird flew out of the rocky outcrop. These sighting indicate a possible regular use of the area by the tropicbird and could even indicate that the area could be used for breeding. I would therefore suggest a regular survey of the area for further sightings.

Red-billed Tropicbirds are the most restricted of tropicbirds occurring along the coast of America from Baja California to the Galapagos, the Caribbean, tropical Atlantic and Red and Arabian Seas. There are three races recognised, of which only race indicus of Red Sea to Persian Gulf is likely to reach Seychelles  (Ref: Birds of Seychelles). In the Seychelles they are vagrant to Bird Island, granitic islands and possibly the Amirantes. One is known to have remained on Bird for a year.

Peter’s pictures and account have been sent to the Seychelles Bird Records Committee for authentication.

Zwazo: celebrating the International Year of Biodiversity

The latest issue of Zwazo – Nature Seychelles bi-annual conservation magazine – commemorates 2010 as the International Year of Biodiversity (IYB).

Zwazo" is Creole for Bird

Zwazo" is Creole for Bird

Zwazo’s feature articles  are written by people who are proposing solutions based on field research and who are experimenting with solutions on site. In a thought provoking article, “Can people be trusted with Biodiversity,” IUCN’s Regional Director Ali Kaka draws on experiences from eastern and southern Africa to show why there is a return to embracing communities in conservation for the benefit of biodiversity. Chris Feare’s “Exploitation and Conservation of Sooty Terns in Seychelles” demonstrates the usefulness of robust data for species management, while Rudy van der Elst of the Western Indian Ocean Marine Science Association discusses a programme that documents the diversity of fisheries and their resources in the region. Saving albatrosses from extinction by working with fishing industries and providing innovative and win-win solutions to seabird bycatch is the way to go, says Ross Wanless. Nirmal Shah remarks that sharks are worth far more to the economy alive than they are on a platter served up with chips. Christopher Kueffer brings us lessons learnt in the management of invasive alien species in Seychelles and Wayne Meyer talks about vegetation management on Cousin Island.

A free copy of Zwazo is downloadable via the Nature Seychelles website http://natureseychelles.org and at http://issuu.com/natureseychelles/docs/zwazo21iyb

Why are female warblers unfaithful?

Why does female infidelity occur so frequently throughout the animal kingdom? A 10-year study from the University of East Anglia seems to have an answer. It shows that Seychelles warblers (Timerl Dezil) may increase their offspring’s survival through their infidelity.

Although in many animals females may pair up with a specific ‘Social’ mate who helps raise the pairs’ offspring, DNA fingerprinting studies across a wide range of animals reveals that offspring may often be sired by other males. What has perplexed scientist is why females engage in such infidelity – what is the benefit of being fertilised by these other males – males which do not contribute towards raising the offspring.

Despite being apparently monogamous and pairing with the same male for life, female Seychelles warblers often prefer to be fertilised by other males, and this appears to increase the genetic quality of their offspring.

Seychelles Warbler mum and chick by Cas-Eikenaar

Seychelles Warbler mum and chick by Cas-Eikenaar

The study has shown that these extra-pair fertilisations can result in a higher diversity of specific genes which detect disease and trigger an immune response in offspring. As a consequence, the offspring survive longer probably as a result of having greater resistance to a wider range of diseases.

The research ‘MHC-dependent survival in a wild population: evidence for hidden genetic benefits gained through extra-pair fertilisations’ has been led by Dr David Richardson (UEA) and is published  in the Molecular Ecology journal. It was conducted with the University of Sheffield, the University of Groningen and Nature Seychelles and used the warbler population on Cousin Island.

Since 1997 more than 97 per cent of warblers on Cousin were ringed, blood sampled, and their breeding attempts followed. The researchers monitored the fate of 160 birds hatched on the island between 1997 and 1999, over 10 years.

They found that females paired to males with a low diversity of disease-detecting genes (known as major histocompatibility complex or MHC) elevate gene diversity of their offspring by gaining extra-pair fertilisations from males with higher diversity. This extra pair fertility was found to be common – accounting for 40 per cent of offspring.

Importantly, the offspring born as a result of this female infidelity have higher genetic diversity at these disease-detecting genes than they would have had if sired by the cuckolded pair male.

However they were not found to be higher than the population average.

The researchers then found a positive association between diversity of MHC genes and juvenile survival. A higher than median MHC diversity was found to increase lifespan more than two-fold.

Dr Richardson said: “We first tested whether extra-pair offspring have a survival advantage compared to within-pair offspring. Then we tested whether there are genetic benefits to the patterns of the MHC-dependent extra-pair fertilizations observed in this species.”

“We did not find any evidence for genetic benefits of extra-pair fertilisations per se, as on average extra-and within-pair offspring survived equally well.

“However, by not being faithful to a pair male with low MHC diversity, females are ensuring that their offspring do not end up with below average levels of MHC diversity and therefore lower survival.

“We have shown that the association between survival and MHC diversity levelled off with increasing diversity, so choosing males with above average MHC diversity would not have resulted in any additional fitness benefits for the offspring.”

“One thing that remains unknown however, is what mechanism drives the patterns of MHC-dependent extra-pair mate choice. Experiments are needed to determine whether females actively choose more diverse MHC males or whether other factors like male-male competition or sperm competition play a role.”

3 days on Cousin – a volunteer’s tale

First of all we would like to apologize for being away for so long. We have been a little busy this month. But we promise to to keep you updated more regularly.

We from time to time receive volunteers to work with our staff here on Mahe and on Cousin Island. Here is an account by Sarah Bunce,  a resident and  recent volunteer, of her 3-day visit to Cousin.

The mosquitoes were far from fierce, the wardens were welcoming (and psyched for the World Cup) and the birds were beautiful.

I went to Cousin to assist in investigating the impact of Pisonia grandis (Bwa Mapou, Kreole) on the Seabird population.  Research on Cousin Island has highlighted the fact that Pisonia may have a significant negative impact on the seabird populations of the island. Nature Seychelles is conducting an experiment to assess just how many birds are being affected. However, my experience during my 3-day visit amounted to much more.

After, a 10 minute wet boat ride from Praslin, hanging out some clothes to dry, and a cup of ice coffee, we were off to look for burrowing birds – the Wedge tailed and Audubon shearwaters at the rocky Southwest corner of the island.  The walk through the predominantly Pisonia forest was pleasantly shaded on a warm day in June and was my first opportunity to see the Lesser Noddies nesting and carrying on in the trees so close you could touch them.

Sticking one’s arm down the potential nesting burrows to seek out the shearwaters was slightly daunting after being told that the black ants bite as do the shearwaters.  So, I chose to prod gently with a stick and feel if there was warmth on the floor of the burrow (a traditional Australian aborigine technique) before calling on Gareth to stick his arm down to shoulder depth to determine which shearwater was at home.  The method worked well, I didn’t get bit but Gareth suffered one ant and a couple of shearwaters.  The result: we found some wedge tailed shearwaters but no Audubons at the first site.  The number of Noddy nests overhead was counted, a search for distraught birds caught up in Pisonia seeds amounted to nil so we were off to the next quadrant to repeat the process.

I had heard and read about the stickiness of the seeds and the poor condition of entangled birds so I was beginning to wonder whether it was all made up until we found our first bird that day, then I fully understood.  The seeds are not only sticky but they behave a bit like Velcro.  They are a burr with glue.  Once I saw my first ensnared Noddy, I realized there is little chance for these delicate birds to land on the ground in the Pisonia forest during seed dispersal and escape while collecting seeds on the tail or wing feathers.  The seeds do not drop from the trees in ones or twos but in bunches of 20 or more!  The more the bird moves to try to remove the seed, the more the seeds become firmly attached and accumulate.  Seeing the delicate feathers stuck together, unable to spread as intended, is distressing.  But then trying to remove the seeds is almost equally distressing.   But with care, wardens and volunteers are able to free the birds of seeds.  I could not help but feel the tug of feathers was agonizing for the wee body clutched in my hot hand.  I was somewhat relieved to know that I had arrived at the tail end of the seed event and therefore the birds on the nest and going through their nodding rituals of collecting nest materials were at a far reduced risk of being stuck on the ground.

Fairy tern immobilised by Pisonia seeds. Photo: Wayne Meyer

Fairy tern immobilised by Pisonia seeds. Photo: Wayne Meyer

Noddies were by far not the only bird of interest on the island.  I had several firsts for my bird life list including the Magpie robin, Seychelles Fody and Seychelles warbler.

But the ultimate bird experience was watching the Jonathan Livingston seagulls of the Seychelles from a top Cousin’s glacis.  The white tailed tropicbirds, Audubon shearwaters, Wedge tailed shearwaters, Bridled terns, Fairy terns, Lesser noddies, Common noddies and even a Frigate bird vied for air space as the sun set over the ocean.

Thanks to the low numbers of stuck birds, we were able to speed through our daily surveys and spend time observing the Giant Tortoise lumber, eat, sleep and bathe and wonder at the absence of the middle aged Giant Tortoise.  There are cute baby Giants, wrinkly before their time, and the very mature, but where were the teenagers or those in their 20s and 30s?  Perhaps, they are shy and better at hiding in the bush than the older generation but 3 days was not long enough to find them.

The old and the babies, but where are the young and the restless. Photo: Sarah Bunce

The old and the babies, but where are the young and the restless. Photo: Sarah Bunce

Snorkelling was limited due to visibility and rough sea over the best snorkelling area but the beach volleyball on the softest sand in the world made it a pleasure to dive for the ball before a swim in the warmest waters in the world… Do I  exaggerate? Only a bit.

Just one word of advice (I’ll leave it to someone else to tell you to bring mosquito repellent, sun screen etc.). Be sure to take fresh veggies from the Victoria market.  As a result the researchers and volunteers on the island for longer stints will appreciate your presence even more. They may even cook for you!

Sarah on Cousin hill

Sarah on Cousin hill

Charity website goalover.org praises Cousin Island

Goallover.org – a not for profit site dedicated to encouraging internet users to make regular and more varied donations to charities, has given Cousin Island an excellent review. Citing the Island’s conservation success, the site, in article titled, “From The Brink: Extinction To Paradise” says that Cousin “provides real hope that all is not lost for those species that teeter on the precipice of existence”.  Thanks Goalover.org

You can read more about it here http://www.goallover.org/from-the-brinkextinction-to-paradise/7467

Bird fight

It took the intervention of Cousin warden Steve Agricole to stop these two White-tailed Tropicbirds from feuding today. The two were really going at it and Steve decided to separate them before they drew blood. They seemed to be fighting over a nest. The fight kept going on though despite Steve’s attempt to call a time-out. Our two friends kept up the beak to beak combat. Steve was having none of it. He finally picked one up. But neither wanted to let go. Ending in this less than thrilling situation for one of them – hanging off the ground by its beak!.

steve-and-tropic-birds

Close up of beaks

Close up of beaks

Those beaks are as sharp as a knife by the way, with a jagged inside useful for gripping big, slippery fish. Tropicbirds dive for fish from a height of about five metres. They fold their wings and plunge into the clear water to catch flying fish or squid.

Afterward, the one left behind at the nest continued to make a ruckus and seemed to be castigating Steve for stopping the fight. After a while it settled down, its long tail up in the air. The entire fight happened very fast and I was lucky to catch it on camera.

When not fighting, Tropicbirds can be seen soaring high above the water, their white wings with black patches and long white tail outlined against the sky. On Cousin Island, the only other bird (for me) that can rival their beauty during flight are Fairy Terns.

Born to soar

Born to soar

Allister to the rescue!

We regularly receive calls to go and look at injured or helpless birds as well as enquiries about how to help birds that have been rescued. Sometimes members of the public have also brought in injured or helpless birds to our offices in Roche Caiman. Today, a young boy named Allister and his mom came in with a fairy (white) tern chick. It looked to be days old. Allister had found the chick about in the nearby walking trail at the Sports Complex that borders our office. Attempts to reunite it with its parent were futile as the parent seemed to have left. David our science coordinator, together with Allister and his mom tried to locate its parents or adults among the Casuarinas on the trail. But no adults were visible. It’s been decided that Allister will take the chick back home where he will help take care of it for a few days before it’s taken to Cousin on Thursday where we should be able to find adults to take it in.

Here are pictures of Allister and the chick.

Allister-fairy-tern-chick

fairy tern chick

He tells us how he rescued the bird in the video.

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Nature Seychelles educates the public about what to do about injured or helpless birds through various media. We advise that the most important thing to do is to determine whether a bird has an injury, how bad it is and whether it is better to leave it where it is – especially in the case of chicks whose parents are sometimes nearby or to offer it some help. We also encourage those who don’t know what to do to call bird experts they know.

Bravo Allister!

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Remember the Petrels?

Bulwer's Petrel Cousin Island, 15 June 2009 Photo: Martyn Hammers

Bulwer's Petrel Cousin Island, 15 June 2009 Photo: Martyn Hammers

In July 2009 we brought you the news of the sighting of what was presumed were Herald’s and Jounin’s Petrels on Cousin Island – See this post.

Well it turns out that the Jounin was actually a Bulwer’s!. The Seychelles Bird Committee has come back with a confirmation of this sighting as a Bulwer’s. You can read more about this authentication (and more Petrels on cousin!) on our website

Ian’s Cousin Blog

me holding a Lesser noddy

This is me holding a Lesser noddy

Hello. My name is Ian Valmont. Am the new Island Coordinator for Cousin Island. I wanted to introduce myself and also to let you know that I will be a regular contributor to the Blog.

A little about myself. Am not a stranger to Cousin Island. For the past decade, I have worked mainly for Nature Seychelles and spent a considerable amount of that time on the Island.

Iam a keen birder and I enjoy being on Cousin which frankly is a birder’s paradise. Very few people are this lucky. There is always something interesting going on. I have just been taking pictures of a Northern Pintail (Anas acuta) that’s been wintering here since December. It’s on its own. For those who might not know the Northern Pintail is a duck that breeds throughout North America and northern Asia, but comes to our parts as well as Africa, India, Burma, and Japan for the winter. The vagrant ducks are found in the granitic Seychelles from November to December. In the north it would be found in shallow, wide open tools and lakes. But it uses coastal waters during winter. This one sure knows how to pick its vacation spot!

This Northern pintail has been vacationing on Cousin since December. A word of advice mate, next time bring someone!

This Northern pintail has been vacationing on Cousin since December. A word of advice mate, next time bring someone!

On the Island I will be coordinating conservation and research on some of Seychelles rarest bird species, including the Seychelles warbler (Timerl Dezil in Creole), the Seychelles magpie-robin (Creole: Pi Santez) and the Seychelles fody (Creole: Tok Tok). I am a bird ringer with accreditation from South African Ring (SAFring), specializing in the endemic passerines and seabirds. I have rung and taken biometric measurements of more than 500 individual birds. This experience has  provided me with the opportunity to visit some of Seychelles unique places with important bird populations such as the Aldabra atoll in the southern part of the archipelago. I have also helped to rehabilitate habitats on other islands in the Seychelles for the re-introduction of endemic bird species.

I take an interest in all aspects of nature. For the past year, I have been involved in monitoring of roosts for the endangered Seychelles Sheath tailed bat on Mahe. I have a passion for mentoring younger Seychellois in conservation. So am looking forward to moulding younger and newer staff to be the best, ensuring that Cousin is one of the best-run Nature Reserves in the world

I look forward to conversing with you our readers. I would be happy to answer any questions you have about Cousin.

Ian.