A whole new garden list

With the piggy bank well and truly smashed to smithereens the fabulous Mrs D and I have just spent a fortnight on the rather splendid island of Mauritius to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary, so NOT a birding trip, but it would have been foolish to ignore the mega-rare endemics that cling on in Destination Dodoland.
With the rain sluicing down the windows in Ainsdale, the mercury plummetting and just the Undertones to keep me warm, it seems a long, long time ago now.
We stayed at the Tamassa Resort in Bel Ombre on the south west coast, a classy all-inclusive set on a crystal clear lagoon fringed by a reef which kept out the huge southern Indian Ocean as it relentlessly piled up against the coral.
The Tamassa was brilliant and the team working there did their utmost to make the stay enjoyable, comfortable and memorable – which it was…thanks everyone.
Each time the appreciative Mrs D complimented staff on the superb job they did, ever more elaborate towel animals and birds magically appeared on the bed whenever we popped out.
This rapidly escalated into a surreal “courtesy arms race” so that by the end of our stay, towel elephants had graduated to towel scale models of the Forth Road Bridge and the Eiffel Tower.

Or maybe I made that bit up.

Snorkelling, snoozing, scoffing, chilling, slurping and wait, what was that bird in the Mango Tree over there…????
Virtually all the birds around the hotel’s ground were “exotiques” a euphemistic term to describe the avifauna dumped onto the island over the centuries, many of which have helped push the endemic species here to the brink of extinction.
Bucking the trend was the endemic Mauritius Grey White Eye, which zipped about everywhere like a demented white-rumped warbler, oblivious to the loss of native forest, carpet of Sugar Cane that covers most of the southern interior, touristification of the coastal strip and onslaught of introductions over the years.

The grounds were filled with large numbers of calling Zebra Doves and Madagascar Turtle Doves too.

Indian Mynas and Red Whiskered Bulbuls were everywhere.

Mercifully there were a few native species that always grabbed the attention – exquisite White Tailed Tropicbirds sailed high over head, commuting from the sea to cliff-faces in the few forested areas that survive inland.

And quite wonderfully, the hotel had a thriving population of Mascarene Martins.

Confined to Mauritius and Reunion, they were a classy hirundine, big, like a streaky Crag Martin, they often perched on the low rooftops, just a few feet away, comfortable with the comings and goings of tourists roughing it in paradise…
With a gruelling timetable of breakfast, basking like an Agamid Lizard (introduced from Java), lunch, basking, reading, random Phoenix beers (you’ve got to keep cool somehow), dinner, more Phoenix and snoozing it really was a hard work, but somehow we soldiered through…

The odd Green Backed/Striated Heron fed in rockier areas along the coast, but the only wader I saw in the fortnight was a Whimbrel that dropped in one morning – I wonder what the journey south had been like for the humbug head?

More colourful, but again introduced, Madagascar (Red) Fody and Yellow Fronted Canary jostled with House Sparrows and Common Waxbills, but they were undeniably easy on the eye.
Male Fodys had varying amounts of scarlet plumage, but all had the heavy bill of the introduced species rather the slimmer adapted beak of the struggling Mauritian endemic.

A bit harder to love were young Scaly Breasted Munia aka Spice Finch.

Outside the gates and across the blanket of Sugar Cane, the hills of the Bel Ombre and Black River Gorge forests tempted me, but the only other species that I didn’t see in the hotel grounds, yet encountered around the fields along the low-lying coastal strip were Ring-Necked Parakeets and Village Weavers.
I knew there was good stuff lurking on the higher ground though – I could almost hear the Pink Pigeons, Echo Parakeets and Mauritius Kestrels calling me.

When night fell, Guttural Toads (introduced) broke into song, not unlike Natterjacks, but nowhere near as loud.
They even had thin yellow stripes down their backs.
One evening a Tenrec, like a hairy hedgehog without spines, scuttled across our path.

Brilliant Mauritian Flying Foxes emerged at dusk and on the nocturnal stagger back from the beach bar were a great distraction as they clambered about the crowns of the swaying palms above us.
The flying foxes are an endemic, yet still culled because they feed on fruit trees – go figure.
Seems to me that if a bit of the land turned over to Sugar Cane could be replanted with native species, allowing forests to develop, the big beasties would have more natural food to eat, and may reduce their visits to the islanders’ fruiting trees.
The industry is no longer the sole source of revenue for the island state, and I’m sure the magnificent Mauritian Wildlife Foundation would be happy to advise on the benefits of eco-tourism.
Just saying.
Top marks to the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation anyway for its excellent work for this and the other threatened endemics on the island – this superb organisation assisted me on several occasions during our visit, and deserve all the help they can get.
I must also thank Farzana, the Tui rep who went above and beyond to make sure I got myself into all the right places, at the right times and with the right transport when I did venture out birding.
Meanwhile, back to the nightly sway back from the bar, and offshore the dull roar of the Indian Ocean rumbled on beyond the reef.
Just above the murky horizon the Southern Cross twinkled, pointing the way to Antarctica, a mere 2,000 miles due south of us across the swell.
I considered pinching a Pedalo and making a break for it while everyone slumbered, but figured I’d never clear the reef.
Antarctica will just have to wait…

Seawatching in paradise

I am not very good at sunbathing.
Given I possess the complexion of a shaved Orangutan, baking in the sun is emphatically not for me, so what to do while Mrs D roasted under blue Mauritian skies?
Fortunately the Tamassa sits on Pointe Citronniers, which juts out a little bit and means the reef, while largely an obstacle to seabirds was only about 200 metres or so offshore at some points. Beyond it lay the vastnesses of the Southern Indian Ocean.
There are undoubtedly better places for seawatching on Mauritius, with better elevation, but you can only work with what you’ve got…
Scoping over the breakers (how did my little Kowa get in the luggage???) revealed large numbers of seabirds out near the horizon, although most were beyond the realms of identification.
Most, but not all, and while I probably let as much as 70% of the traffic go, I managed to identify a few species that came closer inshore as they passed behind the roaring surf.

Armed with an ice cold Phoenix, it wasn’t a bad spot for a seawatch, although I don’t think the Tamassa team have encountered a shaved Orangutan seawatching from their sun loungers before…
Commonest bird by a long way was Wedge Tailed Shearwater, which swept past throughout the day, with numbers peaking generally peaking around midday.
On some days, these large all dark shears were passing at the rate of 100 per hour.

They sailed and sheared into the prevailing south easterly breeze, but when heading west with the wind tended to stay low to the water, flapping more like a noddy than a shearwater.
I did see a few birds that looked smaller and may have been Flesh-Footed, but I could not be sure and let them disappear un-named…
Some days the waves were mountainous making it very hard to see anything behind them – a problem I have previously experienced at Aird An Runair up on North Uist, but just watching the water change colour as it towered and crashed onto the reef was breathtaking.
I shot a wee video of it here so you can see what I mean – still images never catch the scale of waves when there is no context, although…

When surf is up here, it really is up…
I saw White Tailed Tropicbird (picture at the top of the entry) everyday, usually flying high along the coast before heading inland, although one or two plunge dived for prey like midget Gannets.
Generally 7-10 birds went through, but I wasn’t watching all the time, as distractions included Kersley arriving with more complimentary beer or very polite beach sellers trying to flog me towels with Dodos on.
In the fortnight I only encountered Red Tailed Tropicbird three times, and each time was struck by how much heavier they looked in flight, almost gull-like, how hard it was to spot the red streamers against the water and how hefty the bill was compared to White Tailed Tropicbird.
One of these dazzling white seabirds swept into the lagoon one morning allowing me to grab a poor record shot – they are much easier in the north, with breeding colonies around the legendary Round Island.

Best bird by a long way came by on September 3rd in a freshening south easterly at about 2.40pm, heading west about 400 metres out.
I have only ever seen the flight action once before in my life and that was on September 3rd too, but in 2011 at the Bridges of Ross, when a Fea’s-type petrel exploded into the consciousnesses of the fortunate gathering as it yo-yoed west.
Fast forward to Mauritius on September 3rd, 2019 and I realised immediately I was watching pterodroma again – this one swept high up above the waves with such grace, power and speed it stunned me, before sweeping back down to be lost against the waves.
Just like the Fea’s type of County Clare all that time ago.
But which species?
Locking the ‘scope on the area it rose again, revealing bright white underparts, face and vent and more importantly white underwings too, with black marks at the shoulder.
As it dropped back again, this time it showed me its dark grey upperparts and crown.
Bloody marvellous.
It was gone in seconds, but it felt like the encounter lasted a lifetime as I sat bellowing “BARAU’S PETREL!!!” to no one in particular.
So September 3rd is not only our wedding anniversary, it is also the only date I have seen pterodromas – roll on next year!
Conditions on 8/9/19 looked great too as an anticyclone barrelled through with south easterly gusts of up to 70kph, and the roar of the surf pounding the reef was audible over the air conditioning and double glazed doors of our room from 5am.

I didn’t expect I’d need a jumper and waterproofs here, but while the storm gave me two stunning Masked Boobies (no tittering at the back) during an early morning seawatch, I couldn’t pick up much else – the waves were simply too high.

Groups of Sooty Terns powered by, but not everyday, and Noddies were generally too far out to safely separate, but I did nail some close groups of both Brown and Lesser Noddy.
Seawatching is seawatching, so here are my tallies from these thoroughly enjoyable tropical sessions.
The Tobacco Dump will never be the same again.

Tamassa, 3.9.19, 1430-1530:
Sunny, light but strengthening southeasterly

Wedge Tailed Shearwater 50+
Barau’s Petrel 1
Sooty Tern 4
Brown Noddy 2
Tropicbird sp juves 2

Tamassa, 4.9.19, 1000-1700:
Easterly f3, very light showers, sun and cloud

White Tailed Tropicbird 3
Red Tailed Tropicbird 1
Wedge Tailed Shearwater 500+
Brown Noddy 2
Lesser Noddy 7
Whimbrel 1

Tamassa, 8.9.19, 0730-1500:
SEly 35-70kph, occasional showers, visibility good

Wedge Tailed Shearwater 100 per hour approx
Red Tailed Tropicbird 1
White Tailed Tropicbird 1
Masked Booby 2
Noddy sp 30+

Tamassa, 13.9.19:
Wedge Tailed Shearwater 200+
Sooty Tern 7
Brown Noddy 12
White Tailed Tropicbird 4

Tamassa, 14.9.19:
Wedge Tailed Shearwater 200+
Red Tailed Tropicbird 1
White Tailed Tropicbird 7

Tamassa, 15.9.19:
Wedge Tailed Shearwater 300+
White Tailed Tropicbird 8
Sooty Tern 21
Brown Noddy 3
Shearwater sp 2

Black River Gorges National Park

I was up and out before the first towel hit the sun loungers on September 10th for a visit to the Black River Gorges National Park.
The Mauritius Flying Foxes hadn’t gone to bed yet as I met up with the taxi that drove me up into the hills to Petrin on the edge of this superb forest reserve, about half an hour away, up slopes through dozing villages until the Sugar Cane petered out and the forest began.
Temperatures were a bit lower up here, but it was still warm and Rose Marie from the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation was waiting for me as we pulled up at 7.30am.
I’d hired her as a guide for five hours to aid my hunt for endemics.

There she is, a mine of information and great company for the morning as we walked along the Macchabee Ridge Trail, where the forest fell away down steep ridges on either side of the wide trail and Mascarene Swiftlets zoomed pat at eye level in the cooler mountain air – this was the only place I encountered this species during our visit.
Constantly mimicking Mauritius Cuckooshrike as we walked along, in the hope of luring one out, Rose Marie explained about the conservation work that takes place on the island, inbetween making slightly disconcerting “kakakaKAAA” noises.
It wasn’t long before we bumped into an Echo Parakeet – we saw a dozen or more of these endemics during the morning.
In 1986 there were only about ten left, and their return mainly in the Black River Gorges to a population of about 500 individuals is one of Mauritius’ conservation triumphs.
The black bill of the females, less piercing call and wider, scruffier tails all helps separate them from Rose-Ringed (Ringed-Necked in old money), which are present here too.

Seemed to be a much more emerald green too, with a different flight action.
Several Mauritius Bulbuls fed in the trees on either side of the track, and didn’t seem phased by our presence.
This endemic was under threat in the 1970s as well, but the population is now estimated to be about 2,000 birds.

The skies clouded over a bit, which seemed to shut down much of the bird activity as is often the case in rainforests the world over, but it was pleasant enough walking along with Rose Marie, taking the views as White Tailed Tropicbirds wafted around the steep ravines and Crab Eating Macaques coughed and chuntered from the undergrowth.

Just like our ongoing battle with Sea Buckthorn in the dune system at home, the Government’s National Parks and Conservation Service, who manage the site, is forever battling Strawberry Guava and other alien invasives here, which chokes the forest, engulfing the open floor.
In a national park of humid forest, covering about 70km, that’s a lot of strimming.
But given the island only has about four per cent of its original forest left, it’s pretty important that it’s looked after.
Sunnier spells revealed my first Pink Pigeon flying up one of the slopes and disappearing into the canopy and a basking Blue Tailed Day Gecko (Phelsuma cepediana), but my mind was really on a certain Kestrel that lurks in the forest here…

We reached the end of the trail and an observation point with dramatic views down to the west coast, where two of the deepest gorges meet – this is the best site for Mauritius Kestrel in Black River Gorges apparently, but they weren’t playing today.

Rose Marie explained they have got harder to see here, and are rarely encountered now.
It didn’t help that we paused to look at a dead gecko – probably dropped by a Mauritius Kestrel – as we turned and headed back down the ridge.
Sensing my disappointment, she did what any self-respecting guide would do and offered a prayer up to “the great guy in the sky”, asking that Mr Dempsey, not her, would see a Mauritius Kestrel, not necessarily today (good escape clause Rose Marie), but at some point during our holiday.
Given that the Pope had only visited Mauritius the day before, it may not have been such a bad strategy.
I liked Rose Marie – it’s the first time a guide has ever prayed to get me a tick!

Still calling away like a Mauritius Cuckooshrike, Rose Marie scored about halfway back, when a male cuckooshrike responded and we sneaked into the forest to get great views of this declining endemic as it peered at us through the branches.
I managed a blurry snap through the tangle of trunks.

Blue grey with whiter underparts it was a stonker, and after a few minutes was joined by a female, rich chestnut and russet and looking more like a new world antshrike than a cuckooshrike.
Less than 400 of these critters remain now.
The forest had produced a few good birds, but as we neared the end of the trail, we detoured to a feeding area for Pink Pigeons, where three of these, well, pink birds, were coming in to feeders.

An intensive rescue programme since the population plummetted to just nine individuals in 1990 has seen numbers rise to more than 400 now, and I was to bump into the bizarre looking beast at two other sites later in the holiday.
Like most of the other threatened endemics on Mauritius, all of these things have colour rings galore.
In fact as a rule of thumb, if you see any bird on Mauritius with lots of colour rings, it’ll probably be a rare.
Unless it’s a lost racing pigeon of course.
It was a pleasure to be shown around Black River Gorges by such an affable and expert guide – the place is probably easy enough to bird on your own, but I doubt I’d have enjoyed it half as much AND I can’t call like a cuckooshrike.
Thanks again Rose Marie.

Iles Aux Aigrettes

We headed east on September 11th for a trip out to the Iles Aux Aigrettes, which lies a short distance offshore in the south east in a picture postcard bay, flanked by King Kong Island mountains and surrounded by another crystal clear lagoon.
We admired the vista as we waited for the boat over from Pointe Jerome – what a view!

Madasgascar Turtle Doves commuted to and fro from the island, presumably to help themselves to food put out for Pink Pigeons – not a good thing as the turtle doves carry virus that the Pink Pigeons have no immunity to – a bit like Red and Grey Squirrels here.
Iles Aux Aigrettes is managed by the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation, and was declared a nature reserve in 1965.
Since then the MWF have restored the native flora and fauna of this tiny coral island, so that it represents the only patch of truly native dry coastal forest in Mauritius now.
Their hard work, alongside the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust and Mauritian Govt is paying dividends and it is the easiest place to connect with Mauritius Olive White Eye and Mauritius Fody, with the added bonus of a few great big free range Aldabran Giant Tortoises roaming about the place.
We were shown around by Brian, another of the great MWF team.

As we walked up into the low canopy, Mauritius Fody called in the branches and we saw two fine singing males, one of which sat still long enough for a piccie – really green undercrackers, a finer bill than the Madagascar Fody that is everywhere and a prediliction for feeding in the canopy rather than on the deck – nice endemic, but sadly not too many of ’em left now.

Nearby Pink Pigeons clambered through the branches and we soon came across the first of several Aldabran Giant Tortoises.
These rarities from the Seychelles were imported here because their feeding and pooping habits can help replicate the natural growth and seed dispersal of an indigenous Mauritian dry coastal forest.

Best big tortoise of them all however was “Big Daddy”, a 105-year-old and with an attitude to match.
Considering they are meant to be a herbivore, the grumpy old sod seemed way too intent on taking a bite out of my nether regions in between threatening hisses for my liking, and we left him to his hectic lifestyle.
To be fair, being disturbed on his afternoon stroll by a bunch of tourists in soaring temperatures was probably justification enough for his bad temper.


At least even I could outrun him.
Other non-birdy specialities included some stunning Orb Spiders and what I think was a young Ornate Day Gecko.

Back under the sun-dappled and shady undercanopy I noticed a movement around a feeding station, wrapped in chicken wire to keep pests like Red Whiskered Bulbuls out, and was delighted to see a Mauritius Olive White Eye feeding in there.
Not the best way to photograph such a rare endemic, but even though I saw another three during our walk, they never sat still long enough to snap… good goggles and colour rings.

I did manage one picture of one away from the feeders, can you see it amongst the leaves?

Wandering through this remarkable habitat of ebony trees and native understorey we finally came across a Dodo – I’ve been looking for one of those since 1662.

First recorded in 1598, gone within 64 years. Terrifying and tragic.
Being the ground zero for the first recorded human extinction event is enough to galvanise any conservation work…

While they wouldn’t have occurred on Iles Aux Aigrettes, they did run down out of the forests across the bay from here when the Dutch first landed in the late sixteenth century, and it felt quite eerie thinking about them and their demise.
After a fascinating hour or two looking at the conservation work here and admiring the habitat it was time to head back to Point Jerome.

I couldn’t resist another quick video clip of the jaw-dropping panorama and the receding island as we headed back…
Dodo gone.

Mauritius Kestrel, Ferney.

My creole is not that good, but I’m pretty sure as I nursed a cold Phoenix and watched the news footage of the Pope visiting Mauritius during his homily I distinctly heard the Holy Father say “everyone should see a Mauritius Kestrel at least once”.
I’m pretty sure that’s what he said anyway.

Especially after I’d asked Rose Marie the best place to be sure of connecting with one after dipping them at Black Rivers and she didn’t hesitate in answering: “Ferney“.
Thanks to the excellent assistance of Arabelle and Rose Marie at the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation, they arranged for me to visit Ferney, where supplementary feeding of wild Mauritius Kestrels takes place at midday most days – I didn’t need to be asked twice and on September 12th pulled up in the courtyard of this vast estate in the shadow of Lion Mountain.
Thank you so much for your help ladies.

This neck of the woods is where the Dutch first rocked up in the sixteenth century, but the conservation efforts in the native forests above the sugar cane on the Ferney estate are superb.
The work of conservationist Carl Jones, his team, Chester Zoo and dedicated Mauritians brought the Mauritius Kestrel back from just four birds in 1974 to 600+, although numbers have declined since 2017 and now there are 300-350 on the island.
I jumped in to the back of a beat-up Ford 4×4 and with staff bumped up the track into the forested hills, past Sugar Cane fields that held assorted Zebra Doves, Madagascar Turtle Doves, Mynas, Red Whiskered Bulbuls, Yellow Canary Finch, Madagascar Fody and the only Grey Francolin I saw on the whole island, which scuttled away as we bounced up the track.
We pulled up at a clearing where Braveem (forgive me if I got that wrong, it has been a few weeks now…should have written your name down) sat us down, pulled out a whistle and handful of dead Red Whiskered Bulbuls.
The bulbuls all shuffled off this mortal coil when trapped in feeding cages meant for other species they couldn’t escape – despite being a major pest and harmful to so many of the endemics they were not deliberately killed.
It still felt like poetic justice though when Braveem blew his whistle and almost immediately a female Mauritian Kestrel swept in to snatch a bulbul.
It was joined by a male moments later.
Pepita and Pepito are getting a bit long in the tooth now, each at least 15 years old, but they know when its feeding time.
It was thrilling seeing these mega-rares so close and in their natural habitat.
I photographed ’em, I videoed ’em and I swooned over ’em.
Stunning birds, their calls were wild and stirring.
Although they looked much like most other Kestrels, albeit far whiter on the front, with lovely chestnut crowns, they hunt differently – pouncing on prey under the canopy as much as above it like an accipiter, and they appeared to have broader wings than our Kestrels.
Here’s the female:

And here’s the warier and smaller male:

You can watch my video clips of the female here, the male here and the female’s pass to grab a bulbul here.
Long may folk work to keep these marvellous little falcons on the planet.
They didn’t hang about too long, before melting away into the trees again.
After feeding time we took a walk up into the wooded hills of the indigenous forest, where the Ferney estate are clearing invasives like Traveller’s Palms and fighting to keep these woodlands as pristine as possible.
Only a few years back they managed to see off a bid to run a road to the island’s airport right through these hills, and many ancient Ebony Trees still bear the red dye marking them out for felling before the successful campaign to save this place.
A Pink Pigeon fed on a grassy slope as we walked up (gratuitous Pink Pigeon video here), and Mauritius Flying Foxes hung from the trees like goth Christmas decorations.
Under the canopy another Mauritius Kestrel screamed angrily before flying away from us.

Java Deer grazed the slopes and I struggled with the id of butterfly and dragonfly species.

It really was a beautiful place…

After about an hour and a half we walked back out of the trees to be picked up and taken back down the hill, and a female Mauritius Kestrel flew in to say cheerio before I headed out….

Superb. Pope Francis was right.