Next on our agenda? Mauritius — an island in the Indian Ocean home to some of the rarest species in the world. But getting there was a bit easier said than done! When we arrived at the airport in the Seychelles, the check in line for our next flight was basically out the door. Apparently Air Seychelles and Etihad Airlines had recently undergone computer upgrades and some technical difficulties ensued. We, along with another hundred or so other people, stood in line for well over two hours waiting to check in. It was as bad of an airport line as we’d ever seen and after what felt like an eternity in a non-air-conditioned room full of people with no fans to speak of, we finally got through. But the fun didn’t stop there! Apparently the airport started boarding people headed to two different destinations onto the same plane! After the people wanting to go to Johannesburg left the flight, it was another 1.5 hours sitting on the runway while baggage was sorted and loaded. So much to love about flying in and out of very small airports! The time we should have been landing in Mauritius was actually the time we ended up taking off! We arrived waaaaay past the time we originally planned so we speedily picked up our bags, checked out our rental car, and made our way to Bassin Blanc, a birding location outside of town near Black River Gorges.
Mauritius is a superficially beautiful island, but from a conservation standpoint, it is quite the opposite. In fact, the native flora and fauna have been almost completely eradicated. What we found interesting is that you can stand almost anywhere on the island of Mauritius, close your eyes and feel like you were standing on the island of O’ahu in the Hawaiian archipelago. The likes of Zebra Doves, Spotted Doves, Common Mynas, and Red-whiskered Bulbuls, common introduced birds that have taken over both of these islands in force, would be singing everywhere! It was de-ja vu for us because we used to live in Hawaii! The sounds were the same and Ross just couldn’t get over it. And it didn’t end there because when we opened our eyes we saw the same exotic birds, the same exotic plants and the same beautiful backdrop a sparkling blue ocean as far as the eye could see. Like Hawaii, Mauritius has seen a lot of extinction since the settlement of humans. At least 11 birds have gone extinct on Mauritius alone, including quite possibly the most famous of all extinct birds, the Dodo. This large flightless bird was known only to this one island and was able to survive because, prior to humans, there were no terrestrial mammals that would hunt it. It’s extremely frustrating and definitely humbling to visit an island that is just a skeleton of its former self. Due to the introduction of invasive species and human settlement, less than 2% of the native forest remains. Despite the feeling of hopelessness for the native species, we were still happy to have the opportunity to track down the few endemics that are still holding on.
Even though we were delayed and technically way behind schedule, on our way up into the mountains we decided to make a quick stop at Grand Bassin to see if any Mascarene Martins were hanging out and despite the less than desirable weather, did have a single martin perched on a line. Since we knew that we would be coming back, we took quick looks just to take the pressure off and headed on our way to Bassin Blanc, an old volcanic crater found in the mountains. We arrived at the pull off for Bassin Blanc and proceeded to scour the area for a few of our target birds. Trip reports reference that mosquitoes on Mauritius are exceptionally bad and that proved to be the case when as soon as we stepped out of the car, the little blood suckers swarmed in for the attack. Simply standing still to scan the lake in the middle of the crater was a chore!
We were nervous that with the substantial delay and thus significantly less time on the island we wouldn’t be able to pick up many of our targets, but in fact quite the opposite was true — we picked up all but 3 of our targets quite effortlessly, including Mauritius Olive White-eye and the local sub-species of Mascarene Paradise-Flycatcher, two birds people claim to have difficulty with. Along with those we also had views of Mauritius Bulbul.
We still had some daylight left so from the overlook area we headed to Piton Savanne trail to see if we could find the Mauritius Fody or Pink Pigeon. The trail was flat and we only had to walk for 10 minutes before we had a sighting of Pink Pigeon. Pink Pigeon, a stately pinkish-gray bird sporting pink feet and a white and pink beak was once on the brink of extinction, with only 10 individuals remaining in the wild when efforts to save this species went into effect. A captive breeding and reintroduction program has essentially saved the species from going extinct. The breeding center is located along this trail and often times when young birds are released into the wild they hang in the area. Counting these birds kind of feels like cheating and while it was nice to have up close views, luckily we all had a Pink Pigeon fly over the road miles from the breeding center that felt a bit more authentic. But hey, I’d count a non-extinct bird any day, no matter how used to people it might be.
Our accommodation for the night was an AirBnB located in Souillac. The owners were super friendly and showed us to the home and gave us extensive directions. We got to tell them about some of the unique birds of the island. The accommodation was quite nice and very affordable. When you are renting a car you can stay virtually anywhere and more often than not can get equally nice accommodation in the form of an AirBnB for less than half the price of a hotel.
The following morning we headed to the airport to catch a plane over to neighboring island Rodrigues, located 560km east of Mauritius. We took the first flight over and by mid-morning had arrived on the island and hopped on a bus to get to our birding location on the opposite side of the island where we planned to search for our two main targets, Rodrigues Fody and Rodrigues Warbler. We figured public transportation would be the best way to get to our destination and certainly the cheapest. When we hopped on the bus outside of the airport it started in the direction of where we needed to go, but for the next 30 minutes we never proceeded to go further than one kilometer (straight line) from where we started, practically going in circles up and down all kinds of small back roads to pick people up. The next 40 minutes however took us 12 kilometers. Again not very far, but a narrow winding road and frequent stops will do that. Somewhere along the beginning of this adventure three small children, travelling without a parent, all piled into my seat with me. I’ll never know why they chose to sit with me when only three other seats on the whole bus were taken but it was pretty darn adorable and when the bus started off the three of them all proceeded to fall asleep on me, one at a time. Basically we cuddled all the way there.
Both of our main targets for the morning had at one point nearly gone extinct, with numbers as low as 10 pairs each. But with a little luck and a lot of human intervention, the birds are doing so well that when we arrived at our birding spot on Rodrigues Island it took us exactly 2 minutes and 30 seconds to acquire our first views of Rodrigues Fody and Rodrigues Warbler and for Ross to manage audio recordings of both species. Not bad. Actually, that might be a record. Has anyone done it faster?!
Rodrigues Fody is a rather distinct fody sporting orange and yellow instead of the typical red plumage of all the other fodies we’d seen. Not only is it visually distinct, the song/call are unique in themselves. In fact, one might argue it sounds more like a weaver than a fody. When we were visiting the birding location we stumbled upon several pairs and witnessed males displaying to females and other males with nesting material being scolded by a female.
The warblers were equally numerous and brazen, coming within close proximity of where we were standing. Both targets in the bag. Easy day. We proceeded to spend the next hour or so hanging in the area so that Ross could get 5-star photos and top-notch recordings. It’s hard to call these once critically endangered species dirt birds, but when you get to the site they are everywhere! Perhaps they can take that as a compliment.
Ticking the birds was short lived compared with how long it took getting to the birding spot by public transportation. The same was true when returning to the airport (minus the sleeping children of course!) We flew in to Rodriguez via the earliest flight and were leaving via the latest. When we arrived back at the airport we had a bit of time to kill, but not too much that we could have taken any earlier flight. Two targets down, two more to go for Mauritius! While we were out on Rodrigues the owners of the AirBnB stopped by looking for us, but we didn’t arrive back until very late and left so early the next morning that we missed them.
The following morning we headed to Machabee, a rather scenic trail in search of Mauritius Cuckooshrike, Echo Parakeet, and Mauritius Kestrel, arguably one of the rarest raptors in the world. Despite having to walk for quite a while, we finally headed down a side trail into the forest and found our main target, the Mauritius Cuckooshrike. Josh and I walked away from Ross while he opted to stay back to record. Sometimes this cumbersome hobby works out for the best and while recording the cuckooshrike, Ross managed to find Phelsuma rosagularis or Upland Day Gecko, a rare species of phelsuma localized to Mauritius. We continued up the trail and stopped at the crest to enjoy views of the western side of the island as well as a few endemic Echo Parakeets. After a rather productive morning and another nice view of Mauritius Cuckooshrike from the overlook, we headed to Vallee de Ferney.
We arrived at Vallee de Ferney shortly before the “12 o’clock kestrel feeding” and made our way to the “feeding station” after paying our entrance fee and taking a short bus ride. Yep, that’s right, we purchased tickets to a kestrel feeding. Although that might seem a bit weird, what is even crazier, is the story behind the Mauritius Kestrel. A critically endangered species, the kestrel was once down to only FOUR INDIVIDUALS. Yes that’s right, FOUR. In the mid 1970’s the Mauritius Kestrel was considered one of the rarest (if not the rarest) bird in the world. Luckily, conservationists took action and thanks to the help of Welsh biologist, Carl Jones, a captive breeding program and protected area were created to help the critically endangered species. Luckily the Mauritius Kestrel was a huge success and nowadays over 400 pairs can be found on the island. One of the best places to see the birds is Valle de Ferney which has been feeding a pair of wild kestrels for over a decade. There are a few kestrels in the area and during the drive in we saw our first Mauritius Kestrel, but then had great looks at a pair as they came in to eat some mice that had been placed out for them. We were skeptical about this feeding not wanting to tick tame birds, but the kestrels were still skittish and would only accept the food if it was thrown into the air far enough away from any humans below. Quite a sight to see a rare raptor snagging a mouse out of midair! With all of our targets accounted for, we headed back towards our AirBnb on the other side of the island, making a quick stop to scan the ocean to see if we could turn up any rare or interesting seabirds. Unfortunately we didn’t see much of interest, the only highlights being distant views of flyby Wedge-tailed Shearwaters and Barau’s Petrel.
So remember how I said before that we had missed the owners of our AirBnB when they came to look for us? Well apparently they had come by again the next morning and yet again we weren’t there. Typical of most of our birding trips, we had been out all day, got in late and left super early the next morning. Well the owners didn’t know what to think when they couldn’t find us. They were looking for us because officials from the airport had been calling them nonstop searching for Melissa Gallardy. Uh Oh… When we finally met back up with the owners, we learned that because I had been in the plague-infested country of Madagascar, officials wanted me to come in to bio hazard security to get checked out and possibly quarantined making sure I didn’t have pneumonic plague! We laughed because I been in Madagascar for only a layover! Which at this point was now more than two weeks ago, longer than the incubation period of the plague! Not to mention we were flying out of Mauritius the next day! If they needed me they could find me at the airport because I was on my way to Madagascar! (For real this time!) No media-exaggerated “black death” article was going to keep us from seeing Madagascar! Stay tuned!