Category Archives: Nature people

Cousin island marine monitoring – over 100 surveys done

This past week the Nature Seychelles staff of Cousin Island were hard at work completing an ambitious marine monitoring project. We began the week by acknowledging that the plan we set out would take a solid team effort to achieve. Everyone based on Cousin was involved, providing boat skipping, diving, and support, as well as the Reef Rescuer team based on Praslin, who supplied necessary equipment. The team entered this week of bi-annual reef monitoring with excitement to get underwater and determination to complete the data collection in the allocated period. It proved to be a successful week as five divers jumped right into the work with enthusiasm. The island’s science officer along with two marine research assistants and two of the Cousin Island wardens completed over 100 surveys at three different sites around Cousin island in just six dives!

Everyone based on Cousin were involved

Everyone based on Cousin was involved

The survey sites were distributed around the island, and selected to provide a sampling of various benthic composition. As such, the different locations made for quite a variety of diving conditions. Some (read, a few) dives were calm and lovely with clear waters, sunshine filtering in, and schools of friendly Parrotfish flitting about.  Others (read, most) resembled what I imagine it would be like to dive in the spin cycle of a washing machine, whirling and churning and sending Parrotfish flying. However, the divers persevered, executing their work with an excitement that was matched only by the size of the swell, rocking and rolling beneath their lovely dive boat.

The survey sites were distributed around the island

The survey sites were distributed around the island

The surveys completed throughout the week will allow the research team to compile a comprehensive report, detailing the density and diversity of target fish and invertebrate species as well as coral coverage of both adult and juvenile stages. This report can be used in comparison to a similar, more detailed report in the 2009. The results will hopefully demonstrate an improvement in the health of the marine life found in the 400-metre special reserve zone surrounding Cousin Island, which were heavily damaged in the 1998 el Nino bleaching event.  As the researchers continue to write the report, they may head back into the water to collect additional data as necessary, however this past week was a great success and a wonderful show of teamwork as the staff succeeded in their ambitious fieldwork goals.

Special Turtle lays eggs – with a little help from her friends

An exhausting but successful Hawksbill turtle nesting season on Cousin Island Special Reserve was topped by the appearance of an extraordinary turtle nicknamed “Stumpy” by island residents.

The Hawksbill turtle arrived on the island devoid of her right rear flipper and part of her carapace. But in spite of her missing flipper she made several attempts at nesting, finally succeeding with the help of the turtle team to lay not one, but two nests!

Turtles use their flippers to swim in the ocean where they spend most of their time. They also use them on land.  With the front ones they crawl out of the sea and drag themselves across the beach to nesting sites, and once there, digging what is called a body pit. With the hind flippers, they excavate the pits within which eggs are laid.

She was missing her right rear flipper and part of her carapace

She was missing her right rear flipper and part of her carapace

“Her right rear flipper was missing and a chunk was taken out of her carapace, but this did not stop her natural instinct to lay,” says Kat one of  Cousin’s Turtle Team Volunteers.

“Throughout the season we encountered tagged turtles, on average, 3 times. However she attempted to lay 10 times,” she continues, describing the persistence of the turtle.

 “At first we thought she would not be able to complete the laying process because although the damaged flipper went through the motion of digging an egg chamber, no sand was shifted. But with help from us, scooping sand out of the way, she managed to dig an egg chamber and laid her two nests.”

But with help she laid two nests

Stumpy’s flipper and the carapace is suspected to have been chomped off by a shark.

This is not the first time that the turtle has been spotted on the island. Female turtles instinctively return to the island where they were born to nest as adults and two years ago she was spotted.

“I remember helping Stumpy to nest,” says Alec another volunteer who was on the island at the time, “Sand to the face but worth it!”

Despite a late start, this season Cousin Island experienced the highest number of nesting female hawksbill turtles in recent years.

The high numbers are obviously good news for the turtle population nesting on Cousin Island, which is one of the world’s longest running hawksbill monitoring programmes, but meant a very exhausting few months for the volunteers and wardens of Cousin Island.

“But it has been incredibly interesting for me seeing the whole lifecycle happen on Cousin Island,” says Kat. “From Sighting turtles mating in the waters around Cousin and watching females emerge to lay eggs on the island to hatchlings pouring out of their nest in their hundreds and then snorkelling and seeing juvenile turtles feeding around the island.”

 “It really brings home how important this small island in the Seychelles is for ensuring the continuation of this ancient species. I can only hope in the future there are more and more bumper years like this and the same turtles and their offspring keep returning,” she says.

Life as a Coral Nanny

The project seeks to restore damaged coral reefs

Corals in the Seychelles and the region were destroyed by bleaching caused by warming oceans. The most severe bleaching occurred in 1998. Many reefs around Cousin Island Special Reserve  simply collapsed into rubble which became covered by algae. Years later they show little sign of natural recovery. In 2010, Nature Seychelles launched the Reef Rescuers project. Financially supported by the United States Agency for International Development – USAID, the project is  the first ever large-scale active reef restoration project in the region (See Building Coral Reefs of the Future on our website). Using a method called “reef gardening” healthy corals from donor sites are raised in underwater nurseries to required size and then ‘planted’ in degraded sites. A team of 6-7 divers perform daily underwater tasks to do this. They include volunteer scientific divers such as  Joseph Marlow. Below is his account of life as a reef rescuer.   

For any young marine biologist, volunteer work is a fundamental component of the first rung of our career ladder. We all do it, some of us monitor turtle nesting sites, some of us tag whale sharks, me? I am a coral nanny and my particular choice of volunteer opportunity allows me to work every day on the world’s biggest and most ambitious coral nursery project.

Underwater nursery construction

I have worked on a few volunteer projects in my time and count myself as an experienced diver, but this project offered the chance to experience something entirely new; both in terms of marine science and diving. With so much of world’s reefs in a degraded state and the decline looking set to continue, I was curious about the potential for projects such as these to reverse the decline. The diving here is also a fairly novel experience; our normal dive kit is supplemented by a range of tools normally found on a building site and it’s not unusual to see a diver striding across the sand with a sledgehammer across their shoulder.

Life as a coral nanny isn’t easy; we dive five days a week, work starts early in the morning and the work is hard. Just like their human counterparts, corals left in a nursery unattended for too long tend to create havoc and the first dive of the day is often spent repairing whatever has been broken in the night. Our second dive of the day could entail anything from nursery coral health monitoring, nursery construction to the exciting work of actually transplanting our mature corals to their new home, the degraded site we hope to transform into a healthy reef.

By mid-afternoon, our work is done, our tanks are empty and we return to our base on Praslin Island exhausted. At base we quickly store away our kit, enter any data we need to into the project computer and then the rest of day is ours. What do you do with a free afternoon in the Seychelles? Anything you want; hang out on the beach a few strides away from the base, head into town to catch a film at the cinema or just relax at base with a beer and a book. However, the real fun starts on the weekend; Praslin Island is a fantastic island to explore and with staggeringly beautiful beaches, a UNESCO world heritage site and world class dives sites on your doorstep, you’ll never run out of things to do.

Related news: Help in deep waters

La Digue children “friend” the Flycatcher

We were recently on La Digue to witness the launch of an after-school club called the “Friends of the Flycatcher.” Presently 20-member strong, the club has been formed to involve children in activities that will help conserve the Critically Endangered Seychelles Paradise Flycatcher and its habitat.

The flycatcher is our friend

The club has been set up as part of an advocacy and education project being implemented by Nature Seychelles and the Seychelles National Parks Authority (SNPA) under the BirdLife International (Nature Seychelles is BirdLife partner) Preventing Extinctions Programme. The work is being supported by Viking Optical of the UK who are Species Champion.

The flycatcher, known as Vev in Creole, is regarded as an icon of La Digue by the local people. This project is enhancing its protection by engaging local people.  The club will be based at La Digue School and will be run by Josiana of the SNPA as well as three teachers from the school.

At the launch club members were kitted with colourful t-shirts that announce they’ve “friended” the flycatcher and presented with an educational booklet titled Vital Vev – Environmental Activities to Help Protect the Seychelles Paradise Flycatcher.

What bird am I? these members are captivated by the booklet

The booklet is full of fun activities that will help club members understand the Vev and other Seychelles wildlife. It includes information and games appropriate for children aged five to fifteen, which will help the children to make the connection between species, their habitats, food and the environment in general.

The headteacher of La Digue School Mr. Michel Madeleine encouraged the members of the club to reach out to their friends and families to influence a wider involvement in the Vev’s protection.

Talking about the flycatcher? these boys cycle home after the launch

In the fight against extinction the Friends of the Flycatcher are in good company because Angry Birds are also rooting for the Vev.

How to handfeed a tropicbird in five easy steps

Iona and the tropicbird

Iona and the tropicbird

We often receive injured or lost birds picked up by concerned members of the public. Recently, someone brought a white-tailed tropicbird juvenile which they had found. Although it was quite big it was unable to fly and so it could not go out to look for food. Riaz, our science coordinator took it home to look after it until it could fly. But he had to leave Mahe and go to Cousin Island for a few days and the bird couldn’t fly yet, so he recruited Martin, our community person, and his children to do the job while he was away. Let’s pick up this story from Iona, Martin’s daughter….

Dad came home from work on Friday afternoon with a box which had ‘bird inside be careful’ written on the top. When Dad stopped moving a bird’s head popped out. It was white with a black and white beak and speckly black bits. I got to hold it on my knee while we drove to a fish stall to get some fish for it. Dad said someone had brought it into his work in a box and we got to take it home to look after it for a few days. When we looked inside we saw the bird had a white body with black speckles. We gave it some fish but it wasn’t very interested, so we left it in the corner of the dining room. This morning we heard a lot of noise from the box and it was trying to spread its wings out so we got a bigger box and gently tipped it in.

Guess what I just did… can you gess? No? ok I’ll tell you, I HAND FED THE BIRD!!!!! well, I held the bird (the bird is called a white tailed tropic bird) while dad held the beak open and Sophie fed it. We have to force feed it because it’s a baby and we have to teach it to fly too! I bet dad is thinking “I wish I hadn’t taken that bird home”. Dad thought he would have to give it some fish and it would fly away. We also have to feed it 4 times a day. this is how to hand feed a tropic bird in 5 simpe stages; 1, mash up some fish or squid with some water and put on a plate. 2, gently grab the bird directly down and tuck your thumbs under it’s head. 3, then you wrap it in a old tea towel. 4, you take 3 people one to hold the bird firmly, the other to hold open the beak ( don’t break the beak.) and the last to shove the food down it’s throat, then the 2nd to close the beak. 5, if the bird shakes it’s head it could get very messy, but if it puts it head back and looks likes it’s choking it’s swallowing. repeat until the plate is empty.

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Martin and the children also left Mahe before the juvenile flew, so they brought it back to the office to be looked after by other staff here. After a couple of days we took it down to the beach next to our office and off it went. Sadly Iona wasn’t here to see it, but she was happy with this ending. Thanks Iona!

Bird ringing on Cousin

Ringing is delicate work and ringers need training

Ringing is delicate work and ringers need training (Dieter Oschadleus)

From 18-23 September 2011 Dieter Oschadleus from SAFRING (South African Bird Ringing Unit) was on Cousin Island Special Reserve conducting training on ringing birds for the island’s wardens. Ringing and releasing birds is delicate work and ringers need skill and experience.The training was mostly on mist-netting of seabirds and land birds, a method used in bird ringing. A total of 478 birds were caught and ringed including recaptures. Riaz Aumeeruddy, Nature Seychelles Science and Conservation Coordinator was at the training and we took the opportunity to ask him a few questions. Following are his answers.

Why do we ring birds?

There are different reasons for ringing birds. One is to be able to identify birds individually in a population, usually using a combination of different coloured rings. This is what is done on Cousin with the endemic Seychelles magpie robin and the Seychelles warbler, where each bird is colour ringed. Usually most ringing programs involve only putting a metal ring with a unique ID on one of the legs of a bird. This will allow, if the bird is recaptured, to get information on its movement (on the island itself or inter-island), on its longevity (eg. a Seychelles fody ringed in 2002 on Cousin was recaptured during the training course, showing the the bird lives at least 9 years, information on the longevity of the Seychelles fody has never been published before) and social associations. Bird ringing can help answer a number of questions relating to causes and factors contributing to population movement, dynamics and behaviour.

Which types of birds do we ring?

On Cousin, we systematically ring two species of land-birds: the magpie robins which are ringed by the Cousin staff, and the Seychelles warblers that are ringed by the scientists from the warbler research group. Ideally all the birds of these two species are ringed, to know the exact population, and the territories in which they live on the island. Other landbirds are ringed for specific projects; the Seychelles fody was ringed on Cousin by a student who was doing her PhD on that species. Some species of seabirds are also ringed on Cousin, for example the White-tailed tropicbird and the Lesser Noddy are ringed during study of their breeding success (parents and chicks are ringed when they are on the nest).

A ringed Seychelles warbler (L, Cas Eikenaar) and magpie robin (R, Glenn Jackaway)

A ringed Seychelles warbler (L, Cas Eikenaar) and magpie robin (R, Glenn Jackaway)

What do the different colors mean?

Colour rings are used in a unique combination (2-3 rings) which helps identify each bird. For the  magpie robin, 1 colour ring is attached to the right leg to identify the island (eg. Cousin uses a Red ring) so if a bird flies from one island to the other, we can know from which island it is from, and 2 colour rings are attached to the left leg to identify the bird. With this system, the whole genealogy of a bird can be determined. For the warblers, 1 colour ring is used to identify the year the bird is ringed, and 2 colour rings for identifying the bird.

What was the outcome of the exercise

Four wardens, the science officer and myself attended the training course. All the participants received certificates. We need to thank Dieter Oschadleus from SAFRING for conducting the training, and the warbler team (Martijn Hammers, David Wright and Sjouke Ann Kingma) for their assistance during the course.

The Lesser noddy was the most ringed species

The Lesser noddy was the most ringed species (Dieter Oschadleus)

Thanks Riaz.

Dieter has also reported on this ringing exercise here and has provided a table of the species and numbers ringed.

How many tortoises hang out on Cousin Island?

Tourists meet the island's Giant Tortoises (James Luxton)

Tourists meet the island's Giant Tortoises (James Luxton)

Most visitors to cousin would be familiar with the Giant Aldabra tortoises that lumber out near the visitor shelter to meet the tourists when they arrive. And more are to be seen as one walks through the forest and in the wetland area, a nice cool place to hang out. But how many more tortoise are on the island?

This is the question that two volunteers Sarah and Dale  recently helped Nature Seychelles to answer. Sarah and Dale helped to tag the Giant Tortoises on Cousin Island Special Reserve to monitor the population with a scientific approach. They  worked tirelessly to find all the tortoises, tag them for a population census, answer a few burning questions and train the wardens so that they can continue with future tagging.

tortoises of all sizes were tagged

35 tortoises were tagged

Sarah and Dale found and tagged 32 tortoises and 3 more were tagged by wardens after their 5 day stay.  We now know there are 35 tortoises.  However it is likely they did not find all the smaller sized tortoises and Sarah and Dale are thus estimating that between 40 and 45 tortoises reside on the island.  Over the course of coming months (and years) wardens will continue to tag tortoises and the additional data will be added to the database to ensure increasing accuracy of the population estimation and up to date records.

From the Census we have also learnt that the majority, 69% of tagged tortoises on Cousin Island, are greater than 90 cm long with the next largest grouping at 26% in the 46-90 cm long category.  Only one (3%) in each of the: 15-45 cm; and less than 15 cm long categories were found.

all sizes

in different sizes

The tortoises roam freely and likely enjoy a fairly diverse diet and fresh water. The wardens, who inform tourists about the island and the conservation work, had been reporting that there were 28 tortoises but thanks to this project they can update that information and raise awareness about the growing population of tortoises on Cousin Island.

This post is extracted from an article for Zwazo magazine by Sarah Bunce

Nature Explorers brings benefits to Children

When Robin Hanson is teaching the Nature Explorers class at Nature Seychelles it sounds exactly like what it is – children having fun. Who wouldn’t have fun jumping like a frog, standing like a tree, and balancing like a heron? Or walking on a fallen tree and listening to the sounds of nature? But apart from having fun the children are exploring their bodies and their minds while cultivating an empathy for nature.

Nature Explorers is part of the Nature Seychelles’ Green Health programme, which is combining yoga and fitness in natural surroundings with activities that help the environment.  Robin, a yoga teacher and conservationist started the programme mid-last year. And now he has began running a dynamic programme for children combining yoga, general fitness and self-discovery.

Classes increase flexibility, strength, discipline, confidence, general positivity and calmness. They encourage children to be ready to learn, create, and develop. “The children are of course having fun. But the core is education,” says Robin. “Children are generally more willing to learn. Adults you have to persuade to do handstands – children have to be persuaded to do the warm up first,” he quips.

A typical class allows for exploration and using one’s imagination. Everything is exercised – from eyes to arms and legs. And classes are non-competitive: every child works at the level they find themselves in. This builds self-esteem and confidence.

the props...

the props...

The setting of Nature Explorers classes within the Sanctuary at Roche Caiman helps in the discovery of nature and various natural materials lend themselves as ready tools to be used for classes. Robin has fashioned pieces of wood as balance beams, stepping stones, toad tokens, basically anything he and mainly the children can imagine to use them for to exercise and have fun. Learning the animal poses, where they live, how they move, how they live together also educates children about nature. Learning the other nature poses such as mountain increases awareness and appreciation of the wonderful healing world around us.

Nature Seychelles will soon be expanding this programme to include children from vulnerable environments.

Check out Robin’s  blog here: http://greenhealthseychelles.wordpress.com/

Zone Australe discovers Cousin

The Reunion TV programme Zone Australe produced by Serge Marizy last year journeyed through Seychelles discovering its magical islands that included the Cousin Island Special Reserve. The programme was aired in Reunion earlier this year and can be seen here in its entirety. Its about 32 minutes and is in French (Reunion Island is a department of France).

With the permission of Serge Marizy, we have extracted the part on Cousin. See Eric, J’elle and David explain its attractions (also in French):

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YouTube DirektCousin Island Courtesy Zone Australe

Turtles, Tortoises and Torti: a voluntary week on Cousin Island

The following account of Sarah Bunce’s voluntary time on Cousin Island during the turtle season appeared in Zwazo, Issue 22, which is available for free download.

I’ve just returned from a wonderful week on Cousin Island where the boat ride up onto the beach is just beginning of the rush of things to do and see as a volunteer.

As the Hawksbill sea turtle egg laying season is just peaking my friend and I were able to lend some hands to the sea turtle monitoring programme.  Cousin Island Special reserve has been collecting data about sea turtles since 1972 so Gilles-David Derand, the Nature Seychelles Science Coordinator from Mahé, showed us the ropes of this well established programme.

We had a bit of time to settle into our digs and meet the 3 students from the Seychelles Maritime School who are on Cousin for a month of work experience before their graduation; plus a volunteer from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, UK.  It was a fun group of young women living away from home for the first time and generally enjoying one another’s company.

Then it was off to find turtles on our first patrol.  As hoped, the turtles were out and about.  I had the great pleasure of watching the process from body pitting to returning to the sea.  During body pitting the turtle settled herself into the sand, under some vegetation for shade, by using her front flippers and body to create an impression of her body while clearing away the surface leaf litter.  Once she seemed comfortable, she started to dig the egg chamber.  This fascinating process involves the use of her back flippers in a highly agile and manipulative way.  She is able to create a long scoop with her flipper to dig sand from as deep as 60cm.  It looks like she scoops the sand up with one flipper dumps it and then pushes it away with the other flipper.  Alternating flippers she achieved her goal.  Between sessions of flying sand there were lovely pauses when she seemed to catch her breath and worked up her resources to recommence the dig.

flying sand as this turtle digs her chamber (Herve Chelle)

flying sand as this turtle digs her chamber (Herve Chelle)

Then, the laying began, peering down into the depths; I could see the light yellow ping pong ball size eggs dropping into the chamber.  Again there were little pauses in the process, when she would raise her head a bit and seem to take a deep breath before more eggs would drop.  After about 45 minutes she was finished with the hard part.  Now she pushed the sand over the eggs and proceeded to gently pat the mound under which her babies would incubate for the next 65 days, again with her rear flippers.  Finally, she camouflaged the mound and nest to prevent the ghost crabs or other predators from digging up the eggs for supper.  Camouflaging seemed to involve a lot of flying sand and generally stirring up the surface near the nest to spread vegetation.  She created a clear crescent with her front flippers maybe to infer the nest was located a bit further away. Read More »