The Seychelles – Indian Ocean Islands – Living the Dream

Although the World Health Organization recommended against it, the Seychelles still implemented a travel ban for anyone entering the country via Madagascar. (In case you missed it, there was a bit of a pneumonic plague situation going on.) Uh oh, I had a layover in Madagascar a few days prior! Luckily my layover in the country was less than 24 hours but when I went to pass through customs, I was flagged as having been in the forbidden country. I was sent to speak to another official, where a few phone calls were made but after it was explained that I only have a stamp in my passport because of having to pick up and recheck my bags they allowed me through, not before mentioning how lucky I was. If I had been in the country even one day they would have sent me to the isolation camp! Ross informed me that he would have gone birding if I had been detained and attempted to make light of the situation, after all how many people can say they were sent to an “isolation camp” outside of the country?! Sorry, but that doesn’t sound like fun to me!

For those wondering, The Seychelles is an island nation located northeast of Madagascar off the east coast of continental Africa. It is an archipelago made up of 155 islands in the Indian Ocean. 115 may sound like a lot (although it probably shouldn’t), the majority of those islands are uninhabited, and rather small with only 42 islands containing 98% of the population. The “inland islands” as they are often referred to are the biggest in the archipelago and are popular among tourists because they are mostly granitic resulting in fine white sand on the beaches. Unfortunately like many island nations, human settlement has impacted the wildlife and a few species have already gone extinct. Thankfully The Seychelles is working towards sustainable development and already has strict environmental policy so no further casualties should be lost as a result of human interaction. Anyway, due to their granitic nature, The Seychelles is known to have some of the best beaches in the world. Naturally top beaches are a tourism draw and accommodation can often be extremely expensive where tourists like to visit. With that in mind we set off to The Seychelles and were hoping to clean up the majority of those remaining endemics on as tight of a budget as we could manage, visiting the islands of Mahe, Praslin, La Digue, and then back to Mahe.

It was already dark when we landed in The Seychelles on the island of Mahe and my delay going through customs certainly didn’t help, but I was just lucky to be in the clear! Who knew that pesky layover in Madagascar would have been so problematic?! At the airport, we picked up what felt like the most sketchy rental car of our lives (no rental agency, no detailed paperwork, just one man who dropped off a car) and made our way to a windy road on the opposite side of the island where Ross and Josh were determined to find one of the most difficult birds of the trip, Seychelles Scops-Owl. I was exhausted (and still partly jet-lagged) and was intermittently sleeping in the back seat of the car when Ross came back to get me. I am taken only a couple meters down from the car and had perched eye level views of a Seychelles Scops-Owl! It was nearly 2am, but the bird that so many birders complain about being impossible was found! Although the night was halfway over, we still managed to set up our tents and camp in order to get a bit of rest.  We opted to sleep in until 5am instead of getting up at 4:30, and while the extra 30 minutes of sleep was nice, with an earlier wake up we could have avoided the rain that started at 5am and moisture coated our tents. We quickly tried to pack up and get in the car before all of our belongings were soaked. Quite the alarm clock! The target for the morning was a small, grayish-drab white eye, slightly more plain than other white eyes but slightly more exciting than a plain brown bird. I know what you are thinking, sounds like a serious birders’ dream bird. You’d be right. Ross was not going to miss this one. Unfortunately the weather was less than ideal, with dense white fog obscuring most distant trees, but one of the first birds we heard calling was a song we suspected could be our target white-eye although we never got a look at it. We spent the next few hours walking up the road and checking a few nearby spots before coming back to the first spot near Misere garden when the fog began to lighten and we found an adult Seychelles White-eye with a begging juvenile. Ross managed to get the first public recordings of the species and once we had recordings of their calls/songs getting the birds to come in was extremely easy. You’re welcome, future world listers. This once-challenging bird should no longer be difficult. Ross, being the serious birder that he is wanted to spend a few hours watching, photographing and recording these less than stellar looking birds.

That afternoon, from the main town of Victoria, we took a ferry to the island of Praslin. As I mentioned, accommodation can be rather expensive, but when you book through AirBnB you can often stay for much cheaper. Ross found a small house along the same road as Valle de Mai, a birding location, and booked a room. This location likely wouldn’t be ideal for many tourists but because we needed to see the endemic parrot that is most commonly seen at Valle de Mai, it was perfect for us. We arrived, dropped of our bags and took a bus up to the park where we found that standing in the parking lot across from the reception center was more than sufficient to tick Seychelles Black Parrot and from there we also managed to see Seychelles Kestrel. That night we headed back to our AirBnB and cooked up a lovely fried rice dinner. The sautéed vegetables and chillies made the whole house aromatic. If you’ve ever cooked with chilies before you know that they can permeate the air. Although it smelled delicious, we effectively had smoked out our AirBnB co-habitants! We had to laugh but dinner was super yummy.

Only serious bird watchers get excited about little brown birds and for that reason we booked a trip to visit Aride Island to see Seychelles Fody and Seychelles Warbler, two small brownish birds. Luckily there is also a black and white bird to see, in the form of Seychelles Magpie-Robin. The island is also home to a huge seabird colony, so maybe the endemics weren’t going to be the most exciting birds, but the visit was surely still going to be a very entertaining and fun day.

We booked a boat for the price of 100 euro (!!!) each to take us to the waters just off the island. On the way we talked with our boat driver about Aldabra, a sandy coral island along the outermost rim of the archipelago that is home to a few endemic birds. The young boatman apparently once dated a girl who did research there and the fact that visiting could be possible got Ross and Josh excited, mostly because they could now sweep all of the world’s fodys! Unfortunately there are only two ways to get to Aldabra, by plane or by boat. From our boatman, we learned that by boat it would take a full 2 weeks of travel and the plane only runs once a month. If the plane was going out in the next few days we could potentially make this work because we had more days in The Seychelles than we knew what to do with. He made a few calls but it looked like the plane wasn’t going to be going out until the end of the month, staying for two weeks, and then coming back. Looks like our only option to get out there would be chartering a private plane. And doing so would cost an arm and a leg. Visiting Aldabra, while nothing short of amazing, simply would have to wait (until quite possibly never, although I’m holding out hope!)

The ups and downs of the Aldabra conversation made the already quick  20 minute boat ride to Aride that much faster. Before we knew it we had arrived. Thankfully making good time because if you are late they often will not even let you come on to the island! There are no docks on Aride so the only way to land is via beach landing. The orange raft that came and picked us up boatside soon was charging full speed ahead at the white sandy beach of Aride. Once we arrived, we joined a small intimate group as we toured the nature reserve. It really was better than we had imagined. Nesting seabirds numbered into the hundreds of thousands and along with Brown Noddy, Lesser Noddy, Fairy Tern, Sooty Tern, White-tailed Tropicbird, Great Frigatebird, Lesser Frigatebird, Wedge-tailed Shearwater, and Little Shearwater, we did have our target LBJs (little brown jobs), Seychelles Fody and Seychelles Warbler. Seychelles Magpie Robin, whose numbers on the island sharply declined to only 10 individuals a few years ago, are now being raised in captivity and released as adults. These black and white birds were very friendly and allowed us to get very close. They were however silent while we were there (likely due to time of day/time of year), so xeno-canto will have to wait for some other hardcore recordist to get the first ever public recordings of this species.

The island of Aride is very small, only 175 acres, and has very little fresh water available and is named as such, with Aride being the French word for dry. On our 2 hour tour we had beautiful views, two friendly and knowledgeable guides and birds everywhere. Our guides led the way and showed us to a view point where we could see all of the aforementioned seabirds up close and personal. Not to mention the view over the ocean was nothing short of spectacular. Our quick stint on the island was better than the three of us had imagined. When we asked if we could stay a little later the guides didn’t mind and let us do our own thing, walking up the beach and photographing the birds. To finish out our relaxing day, our boat driver dropped us off at the finest beach on the island, Anse Lazio where we ate our leftover fried rice and enjoyed a few beers before lounging on what is quite possibly the nicest beach I’ve ever seen.

The next day, we took another ferry, this time to the small island of La Digue. The most interesting thing about La Digue is that almost everyone gets around on bicycle! Being small and flat, this is the most convenient way to get from point A to point B. With that in mind, we hired two bikes and headed off to our AirBnb. That afternoon we biked down to some of the nicer beaches on the island and then stopped by the local park to pick up Seychelles Paradise Flycatcher, the main catalyst as to why we visited the island. Since this is also such a “romantic” location Ross and I opted to split up with Josh and meet later for dinner. First we took our bicycles to a nearby beach. The waves were very strong so swimming didn’t exactly look promising. We still opted to get in but after a close call with a very strong underwater current we decided it might be best to simply walk along the beach. We headed back to the hotel, switched out of our suits and went birding. We headed to Vev Reserve to search for La Digue’s most stunning bird, Seychelles Paradise Flycatcher. Although these stunning birds with long tails can be found all throughout La Digue, the bird on the Seychelles stands alone as the only Paradise-fly who is all black! Luckily it didn’t take long to find and soon Ross and I were watching a stunning male Seychelles Paradise Flycatcher along with two females. After getting some nice pictures and recordings of this range restricted endemic, we did a bit more exploring and found a Seychelles Kestrel that was probably nesting in a church. Having seen our only target on the island, we spent the rest of the evening relaxing and then visited a few more beaches in the morning before boarding a ferry back to Praslin and another the whole was back to Mahe.

When it came time to head back to Mahe, Ross was thoroughly convinced that he had given us way too many days in the Seychelles. We had already cleaned up the birds and yet we still had a full day and a half in the country. As you may have guessed, I was more than alright with it and Josh admitted that he was as well. In fact the reason Ross was so lenient with the itinerary in the Seychelles was to guarantee that I would have at least one beach day in what is supposed to be the best country in the world for beach going.

We arrived back on Mahe having seen all of the target birds on our first stop. The birds that people found difficult and missed, we didn’t have any trouble with. So for now, our only plan was to check in to our AirBnB and pray that the wifi actually worked so we could get caught up on some much needed research. Oh, and squeeze in another beach. We opted to rent a car for one more day so we could have a little more freedom to get around. Papaya guesthouse is located along the same cross-island road as the Seychelles White-eye, a convenient place for us to stay if we didn’t have a car and wanted to walk to the white-eye. We dropped our bags off at the guesthouse, and soon thereafter got back in the car driving along the southern edge of the island stopping at whatever beaches caught our eye. We scanned for shorebirds as much as we could and picked up the likes of Common Greenshank, Ruddy Turnstone, Black-bellied Plover, and Whimbrel. We ended our afternoon in the exact same location as where we slept on that first night, the Mission Lodge Historical Site. We knew a pair of Seychelles Kestrels roosted in an overlook shelter, we just didn’t realize it that first night. We decided to go back and proceeded to watch the sun set and the birds go to roost. We had views of a single Seychelles Kestrel perched up on the rafters for bed. Unfortunately he never called and Ross never managed to get a recording of this species. That night we went back to our homestay, ate a quick dinner and went to bed.

The following day we were thankful we had decided to get a rental car. Ross and I could be dropped off at the top of the steep hill for the white-eye, Josh could drive around searching for his life Yellow Bittern and pick up doxy as plague prophylaxis for our upcoming trip to Madagascar, and then we would be able to check out a few more of Mahe’s beaches. We found a rather extensive white sand beach tucked away in a bay that didn’t show up on any maps. We stopped and spent the next few hours jumping around in the waves. The ocean was a nice mix of waves, not too crazy that you were afraid of being pulled out, but not so gentle that you got bored. Despite the rain that we had we all agreed it was one of our most favorite beach days in the Seychelles so far. Besides, who cares about rain when you are already wet?! Playing in the ocean was a nice end to what was a fairly straightforward birding trip.