Mauritius: birding some less well-known spots
Whilst I have left the comforts of a salary long behind me by leaving the airline I worked for, fortunately (I suppose, he says grudgingly) two of my birding mates are still there putting in the long hours and seeing some fantastic birds. One of them, Redgannet, is a ‘Beat Writer’ here on 10,000 Birds, and the other, Graham Langley, occasionally dangles the odd carrot in front of my bird hungry nose – one of which is posted below (the carrot, not the nose, which given the heavy cold I have now is a most unattractive thing…)
Mauritius sits like a huge pear in the southern waters of The Indian Ocean and half way between Africa and Asia, which is pretty much where it finds itself culturally and bird-wise.
As Charles Darwin so admirably noted some 150 years ago islands have a habit of throwing up endemic species and, of course Mauritius, like its near neighbour Madagascar is no exception, or at least it was no exception until those spoilsports the European sailors arrived and took away the Dodo.
Black River Gorge from the Maccabee Trail
Almost every land bird I found outside the forested Central Massif was an introduction so as no self-respecting visiting birder should miss out on endemics like Echo Parakeets, Pink Pigeons and Mauritius Kestrels I took to the trails of Black River Gorge but that’s a story documented very well by Charlie on previous postings so I’ll concentrate on my other two days in Mauritius but not before the Gorge yielded a surprise. As I left the gorge I found a group of Laughing Doves on the road and saw more near to Tamarin. These birds are not on the national list or described in the excellent Ian Sinclair “Birds of the Indian Ocean Islands” but are well established as they were previously reported in 2002.
Coin de Mire from Cap Malheureux. Home to Red-tailed Tropic-birds and Boobies
There are more birds to see on the island than the land endemics and the coast is the place to see them looking for sea and shorebirds. Seabirds abound in the waters off Mauritius although good viewpoints are hard to find from the shore as an offshore reef surrounds the island keeping most birds far out from the breaker zone. I had been told that good opportunities for seawatching can be found at Soufflier in the south, Cap Malheureux in the north and at Point Lafayette in the west. I went to all three sites. Blame it on poor timing, lack of patience, lack of familiarity with southern seabirds or sheer incompetence but I have to confess the seawatch seemed to be a lot of watching the sea and very little birdwatching.
Most of the birds were Sooty Terns, Brown and Black Noddies and the seemingly ubiquitous Wedge-tailed Shearwaters but as always it was hard to drag myself away because there’s the nagging hope that anything could turn up in behind the next wave, perhaps even the local Round Island (Trinidade) Petrel, a Tropical (Audubon’s) Shearwater or the recently described but still barely known Mascarene Shearwater. Both should both be present but identification criteria appear hazy to say the least. Mascarene has white undertail feathers whilst the former species has black ones, except that some Audubon’s have white too. So who knows? In the event the best birds were at Cap Malheureux where distant views of Red-tailed Tropic-birds gave me a lifer and a Masked Booby was only my second ever. Not a great tally for a combined total of five hours staring into a hollow tube on windy shorelines but I’m sure there’s more out there.
The total list of species found on Mauritius is relatively small at 133 but, amazingly, an extremely high proportion (20%) are shorebirds, this despite the fact that none breed and the nearest continental landmass is hundreds of miles away. The miracle is that Palearctic waders like Turnstones, Whimbrel and Ringed Plovers have to cross xxx miles of sea from the Middle East, find an island less than 30 miles across and avoid overshooting it and perishing from exhaustion in the Antarctic two thousand miles further south. Extraordinarily many of them reach landfall and winter on the island.
I had seen a few at well known spots such as Tamarin Salt Pans and Grande River Noire but only three species seemed to be present, Whimbrel, Curlew Sandpipers and Grey Plovers. I knew there should be others but I had visited the “best” spots so I assumed I was a little early for the main influx.
Then my luck changed. On the euphemistically called Motorway heading north out of the capital Port Louis I saw a brown sign on the left to “Rivulet Terre Rouge – Estuary Bird Sanctuary – 2 kms”. Given the urban setting I didn’t hold out much hope that it was worth the detour but I took it anyway and boy was I wrong to doubt it.
On the road to Rivulet Terre Rouge, snapped from a moving car to show that
not everything in paradise is paradise!
After passing through an area of poor housing and derelict business premises I reached a small car park and a visitors centre where I was greeted with warmth and enthusiasm as if I was the first person to find the reserve. An enthusiastic receptionist led me a roof terrace where he set up a telescope and pointed it at the mudflats on the estuary below. The mud positively crawled with shorebirds and as I sifted through them I found Greater and Lesser Sand Plovers, dozens of Grey Plovers and Whimbrels, scores of Curlew Sandpipers, a lone Common Sandpiper and a smattering of Ruddy Turnstones. My guide was keen for me to see “Le Canard” – The Duck. A wild-type eclipse Mallard sat on the shore, allegedly the island’s only duck and probably an escape but the centre staff believed it to be wild.
The receptionist lent me the scope and set off on a path parallel to the water with closer views. The reeds held Common Waxbill and Nutmeg Mannikins (both established introductions). Another introduction, Red Avadavat, has apparently not survived in the wild although if any are still around this would surely be a good place for them. A Roseate Tern stood by the water edge and more shorebirds appeared as I searched more diligently. A Greenshank strode through the water, a Bar-tailed Godwit sat quietly by a creek and a Terek Sandpiper with its curiously upturned bill crept low as it sifted the mud. Sanderling were common too, although I had missed them on my first sweep. A Eurasian Curlew flew in and towered over the Whimbrels and a Striated Heron crept out of the reeds. As I returned to the Visitors Centre a mongoose crossed my path and a party of thirty school children arrived by bus. Time to leave I thought.
Rivulet Terre Rouge is signed left at a roundabout approximately two miles north of Port Louis centre. Entry is free.
All text and photos copyright Graham Langley, Nov 2010