WHEN TO VISIT The endemic and other resident birds can, of course, be seen all year-round. Some seabirds are also present year-round though most terns breed during the south-east monsoon. To maximise birdwatching opportunities and the number of species seen, a trip might be planned either around activities in the breeding colonies or the likelihood of seeing migrant species. Migrants and vagrants are most likely at times of passage between Eurasian breeding grounds and wintering grounds mainly in Africa.
October to mid-December This period includes the end of the main tern-breeding season around October, when visits to colonies on Aride, Cousin and Bird will give the opportunity to see all the breeding species except for Roseate Tern, which is the first species to leave (around end-August). October also marks the beginning of the period when Eurasian migrants arrive. These include some species rarely encountered by European birdwatchers, common visitors including Terek Sandpiper, Pacific Golden Plover, Greater Sandplover, Lesser Sandplover and, a specialty of the region, Crab Plover.
Mid-December to end-January Heavy rain can occur at any time of year, but prolonged rain at this time, the height of the rainy season, can be a problem for an outdoor pursuit such as birdwatching. Also, this is a peak period for tourism when seasonal supplements make accommodation more expensive. On the positive side, many of the more unusual vagrants to Seychelles occur around this time and heavy rain or strong winds can sometimes bring these in.
February to April The regular winter visitors can still be seen during this period. Spring passage in March/April is rarely as dramatic as at the opposite time of year but vagrants are still a possibility. This period also marks the return of breeding seabirds, Sooty Terns noisily announcing their arrival at Aride, Bird and colonies in the outer islands. By April, the north-west wind has died away and humidity is at its highest, which makes walking in the mountains difficult. On the other hand, calm seas make island crossings very easy, the sky is usually deep blue and the visibility of the water is at its best.
May to September As the south-east monsoon sets in, breeding starts in the Sooty Tern and noddy colonies. Visits to the seabirds islands can be memorable at this time of year. Sea crossings can be rough and Aride Island, which hosts more breeding species of seabird than any other Seychelles island, is sometimes closed to visitors.
Seven of the twelve endemic land birds of the granitics are to be found on Mahé, more than on any other island. These include the two most elusive species of all: Seychelles Scops-owl and Seychelles White-eye. The owl is confined to Mahé while the white-eye also occurs on neighbouring Conception and has been translocated to Frégate, North and Cousine. There are some excellent nature walks in the mountains of Mahé and trail guides can be purchased at Antigone bookshop in Victoria or at the Botanical Gardens kiosk.
The stronghold for Seychelles Scops-owl is Morne Seychellois National Park. It is difficult to find without a recording of its call to lure it to close quarters, but it can often be heard around dusk at various locations along the Sans Souci road. Salazie Tea Plantation and Mission Viewing Point are two good quiet spots where it is possible to pull off the road (although there is in any case very little traffic at night on this route). The Mission site is easy to locate and is marked on all maps of Mahé. The Salazie site lies on the opposite side of the road, a few hundred metres towards Victoria. It is best to arrive before it goes dark, around 6.00-6.15pm.
Very few Seychelles White-eyes survive on Mahé but birds can be seen in the hills above Cascade and on tracks radiating from the La Misere road near its summit. For Cascade, take the road leading uphill from the church as far as it goes, then proceed on foot along the track that continues. On Conception just off northwest Mahé, the white-eye is the most common bird, but it is very difficult to land on the island as there is no beach or jetty. The other islands where it occurs (Frégate, North and Cousine) are all privately-owned with up-market tourism establishments where day visitors are not permitted. The best time of day is very early morning or late afternoon.
Mahé also holds most of the world population of Seychelles Kestrel, found from sea level to the highest hills. When travelling around the island it is worth checking telephone poles and tall church towers for the presence of birds. The other endemic land birds can all be seen with relative ease. Seychelles Blue Pigeon is common from sea level to the highest hills and can quickly be located at the Botanical Gardens. Seychelles Bulbul is common in the hills and its raucous calls draw attention. Seychelles Sunbird is common throughout the island and can usually be found in hotel gardens. Seychelles Swiftlet is uncommon in the south of the island but easily located in the north. The main nesting cave is just off the road to La Gogue dam, where birds can quickly be located throughout the day; in the early morning and late afternoon they descend to sea level to hawk for insects.
The coastal plateau areas of Mahé include important surviving wetland sites, though most are under considerable pressure from development. These include North-east Point marsh, Roche Caiman Bird Sanctuary, Baie Lazare marsh, Police Bay marsh and the grounds of Kempinski Resort. These areas are vital to the survival of Yellow Bittern in Seychelles. These marshes have also been focal points for the recent natural colonisation of Seychelles by Black-crowned Night Heron (the first breeding record was 1996).
The east coast of Mahé between the airport and Victoria has some good wader sites, although land reclamation in the 1980s and 1990s covered most of the area. The best remaining sites are at Providence (near the Red Cross building, which lies opposite the Peugeot dealer on the main airport to Victoria highway), opposite the Seychelles Breweries car park and on the promenade behind Oceangate House in Victoria. Providence is the best site of all especially during October to April when species will include Crab Plover, Terek Sandpiper, Curlew Sandpiper, Greater Sandplover, Saunders’ Tern and a host of other species. All sites are covered at high tide and the best time to visit is an hour or two earlier. A telescope is useful especially for visits at low tide.
Birdwatchers at Vallee de Mai
A visit to the World Heritage Site of the Vallée de Mai is not to be missed for the atmosphere of its unique Coco de Mer forest and also for the birding highlight of Praslin, the Seychelles Black Parrot. The best time to visit is Early morning or late afternoon when it is also cooler and less crowded (this is the number one tourist attraction in Seychelles and gets very busy when the bus tours start to arrive). It is worth lingering at the approach to the entrance and checking the tall trees near the roadside for parrots. Birds can also often be seen here flying in and out of the valley. Once in the valley, they may often be heard but not seen because of the density of the forest. However, it is worth continuing to the viewing point marked on the trail leaflet (given to each person entering the valley). Here the view above the trees is often a good place to see not just parrots but Seychelles Swiftlets, too.
The Vallée de Mai is by no means the only place to see the parrots. Birds descend to sea level where they can be seen in the grounds of several guest houses and hotels including Britannia, Villa Flamboyant and Coco de Mer Hotel. Another good site is Fond Ferdinand, which resembles Vallée de Mai except without the crowds. Also, while the Vallee de Mai is spectacular and a must visit, Black Parrots and Swiftlets are sometimes more easily seen at the red earth dirt track to the right off the main road some 100m or so after leaving the Vallee de Mai entrance in the direction of Baie Ste Anne.
The golf course within the grounds of the 5-star Lemuria Resort include a series of pools where Yellow Bittern and Black-crowned Night Heron may be seen. Bitterns are most frequent on the plateau area immediately south of the golf house. Night herons may be seen early morning or late afternoon around the large lake between the 13thand 18th holes. During the northern winter, Garganey, the only species of duck recorded annually in Seychelles, are often to be seen on the pools, while the open grass of the golf course attracts waders with the most common being Whimbrel, Greenshank, Grey Plover and Common Sandpiper. There is also a chance of rarities at times of passage particularly October to December.
Welcome to La Digue
The symbol of La Digue is the Seychelles Paradise Flycatcher, which was known to breed only here until birds were translocated to Denis in 2008 (also a few have been reported from neighbouring Félicité, where it may breed). Almost three-quarters of territorial pairs are concentrated on the western plateau. Birds can be seen almost anywhere on the plateau but the best starting point is the Veuve Reserve (the name honours the Creole name of the flycatcher).
Almost all visitors to La Digue arrive at the jetty at La Passe. From here, the reserve can be reached on foot but bicycle (the main form of transport on La Digue) is much quicker. After passing Choppy's Bungalows, the road swings inland to round the chalets of La Digue Island Lodge then runs parallel to the coast to a T-junction at Pont Bill. Turn left down Pont Bill for about 100 metres to the Veuve Reserve. The reserve was set up to preserve its habitat, some of the last remaining Takamaka and Indian Almond trees in which it feeds and nests. This habitat is under tremendous pressure from the expansion of tourism and housing developments. A visitor's centre at the reserve entrance provides information on the birds and the warden can provide useful pointers on where to find the them. Entry is free and there is a path commencing from the roadside Visitors Centre navigable both foot or on a bicycle.
The marshes of the plateau also hold an important population of Yellow Bittern, while on the hillside overlooking the plateau is located one of the few known nesting caves of Seychelles Swiftlet. Three other Seychelles endemics, Seychelles Blue Pigeon, Seychelles Bulbul and Seychelles Sunbird also breed. It is worth checking the open grassy areas for Common Waxbill, found only on la Digue, Mahé and Alphonse.
Landing on Aride
Aride Island is the best nature reserve in the granitic islands and a visit is essential for anyone who wishes to enjoy the wild side of Seychelles. It hosts more seabirds of more species than the other 40 granitic islands combined. A visit lasts for a full day, giving ample time for photographs. It has been managed as a nature reserve since its purchase by Christopher Cadbury in 1973 on behalf of the Society for the Promotion of Nature Reserves of UK (now Royal Society of Wildlife Trusts). It received Government status as a Special Reserve in 1979. In 2003, responsibility was transferred to the local NGO Island Conservation Society.
At 73 hectares, Aride is the largest granitic island never to have been invaded by rats. There is a single beach on the southern side of the island, where all visitors land. Behind this is a coastal plateau which rises steeply to 135 metres, dropping almost vertically to the sea on the northern face of the island.
Breeding seabirds include the world’s largest populations of Tropical Shearwater and Lesser Noddy. Two other species, Red-tailed Tropicbird and Roseate Tern are not to be found on any other island in the granitics. The strong emphasis on conservation and science have made Aride possibly the most natural of all the granitic islands with very little non-native vegetation and no Common Mynas, unlike every other granite island of any size.
The Conservation Officer and Rangers escort all visitors along the plateau and uphill on a nature trail through woodland before emerging at a viewpoint on the northern cliffs. Once on the hillside, visitors must not stray from the path. The tour lasts about two hours and after returning for lunch you are free to re-visit and explore the plateau at leisure. Keen birders and photographers will find much of interest to return to and observe at leisure at this time. On the plateau, all five endemics of Aride might be seen: SeychellesMagpie-robin, SeychellesWarbler, Seychelles Fody, SeychellesSunbird and Seychelles Blue Pigeon.
Ground nesting White-tailed Tropicbirds will be seen year-round both on the plateau and on the hillside as will tree-nesting Fairy Terns. Other species are seasonal, with the build up in numbers for most species commencing around March and lasting until October. The shortest season is that of Roseate Terns which do not arrive until the last week in April and depart at the end of August.
The walk uphill is fairly steep but not difficult. It passes through Pisonia woodland to emerge at a spectacular viewing point from where hundreds, sometimes thousands, of roosting frigatebirds can be seen. The majority are Greater Frigatebird, with around 10 percent Lesser Frigatebird usually present. The viewing point is also the best place to see Red-tailed Tropicbird. The few pairs breeding on Aride are the only breeding birds of the granitic islands. The return to the plateau is via the same route.
Landing on Cousin
Cousin is a small granitic island of 29 hectares. It was purchased to be run as a nature reserve by Royal Society for Wildlife Trusts in 1968 and ownership transferred to BirdLife International in 2002. It is managed by the local NGO Nature Seychelles. Due to its proximity to Praslin, Cousin receives more day visitors than any other small island in Seychelles. The Wardens escort all visitors on guided tours along a set nature trail. The plateau is covered predominately with indigenous mature woodland notably Pisonia, Tortoise Tree and Morinda. The endemic Balfour's Pandanus is common on the hillside. A sandy beach, moulded by changes in wind direction and strength changes size and shape during the year. The sand circles much of the island with a more rugged rocky coast along the southern rim.
The large number of visitors with little or no ornithological interest, waiting times to be landed and the rather short duration of guided tours can be frustrations for the keen birder. However tours are well organised, wardens are very well informed and sightings of Seychelles Magpie-robin, Seychelles Warbler and Seychelles Fody are pretty well guaranteed. Also, whereas Aride offers more time and space without the crowds, it is relatively easy to land at Cousin year round, unlike Aride. Two other endemics, more common elsewhere, also occur as do a few Madagascar Turtle doves with reddish heads, resembling the endemic race rostrata,which has disappeared from most islands, allegedly due to interbreeding with the nominate race (possibly introduced).
By far the most common seabird, breeding during the south-east monsoon, is Lesser Noddy, this being the world's second largest colony (after Aride Island). A large colony of Wedge-tailed Shearwater breeds at the opposite time of year, the north-west monsoon, though almost all except young birds will be at sea during your daytime visit. Fairy Tern, White-tailed Tropicbird and Tropical Shearwater breed all year-round, with large numbers of Bridled Tern breeding at intervals of eight months. A few non-breeding waders are to be seen, some remaining year-round, others present only during the north-west monsoon. Most common are Ruddy Turnstone with Crab Plover also frequently to be seen. Other species include Common Moorhen, Cattle Egret and Striated Heron.
Note: Indigo Travel (e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org) on Praslin are excellent for birders thanks to their guide, Gemma Gessy, who is allowed to guide independently on Cousin. This is of great benefit to escape the large groups of non-birders.
Arriving at La Passe, Silhouette
There are some excellent nature walks on this sparsely inhabited island but there are no particular special birds. Endemics are Seychelles Kestrel, Seychelles Blue Pigeon, Seychelles Sunbird and Seychelles Bulbul. There is a hotel at La Passe, but day visitors arrive and disembark at the nearby jetty. The helipad is also near to this same point. It is also possible to land at Grande Barbe or Anse Mondon in calm seas if special arrangements are made with your boatman in advance. At the shoreline of La Passe is Silhouette Island Conservation Centre, where organised nature walks may be arranged by advance notice.
Coming in to land at Bird island
The sand cay of Bird Island takes its name from the huge colony of Sooty Terns that breed on the island present March to October. It also holds the largest population of Brown Noddy in Seychelles. There are two endemic land birds, Seychelles Sunbird, translocated from Mahé and Seychelles Blue Pigeon, a natural coloniser first recorded 2006 and breeding since 2009. The resident population of Madagascar Turtle Dove is interesting in showing characteristics of the Seychelles race rostrata. Due to its location at the northern edge of the Seychelles Bank, Bird is the first land fall for many migratory birds and has a long list of vagrants, some of which have been recorded nowhere else in Seychelles. The best places to explore for vagrants are the open areas: the airstrip and the tern colony.