ILE AUX AIGRETTES

December 23, 2009

The best thing about recording a giant tortoise is that it can’t easily get away from you, nor does it have any inclination to do so. However, a quarter ton of muscle and shell can be persuasive when it wants you to move out of its particular path of grazing. Occasionally, it grunts or groans as it slowly pulls its mass along in the midday heat. These are the sounds that I am trying to capture as I sit in the grass and weeds in front of him, parabola pointed at his indefatigable mouth. I watch as he briefly pauses from his incessant crunching of grass and dead leaves to inspect a small plant in front of him. I recognize the plant as Gastonia Mauritania, one of the critically endangered plants endemic to Mauritius. The tortoise cautiously mouths one of the long, skinny leaves and decides against it, resuming his activities with the grass and dead leaves.

This action is loaded with a heavy significance. In fact, it’s one of the reasons that the tortoise is even here at all. Two species of giant tortoise used to exist on Mauritius (both now extinct). Consequently, Gastonia evolved an effective means to deter these herbivores. As a juvenile, the plant produces long, thin leaves striped with bright red veins that giant tortoises dislike. As the plant matures, and reaches a height safely out of the reach of the tortoises, the veins disappear and the leaves become broader allowing more surface area for the plant to absorb nutrients.

The tortoise that I am recording is from Aldabra. It has been brought (along with dozens of others) to Mauritius to fill the void created by the disappearance of the extinct species. And they seem to be doing their job very well. They prefer the invasive, alien plant species over the endemics, and the endemics that they do eat enjoy the benefit of tortoise seed dispersal.

I am on Ile Aux Aigrettes, a small island about one kilometer off the coast of southeastern Mauritius. The island is owned by the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation and it is their intention to return the island as closely as possible to a state before human contact was made on Mauritius. Tortoise introduction is just one of many projects facilitating this goal. Introduced populations of Pink Pigeons, Mauritius Fodys and Mauritius Olive White-Eyes are doing well on the island. In addition to their introduction strategies, M.W.F. is also vigorously working on an island-wide elimination of all alien species, and, so far, the project is going well.

The Pink Pigeons and Mauritius Fody seem to be everywhere and I hurriedly get my gear out. Within a few minutes I have the microphone pointed at a male pigeon as he walks along the forest floor courting a female. With his chest feathers puffed out, he walks behind her rather awkwardly and gifting me with a great example of his mating call. The pigeons are quite ecologically naive and I find myself able to get within a few feet of them. They are striking and much larger than I anticipated. Their dark grey wings enfold around a light pink head and torso highlighted by rich, rust colored tail feathers. They sit lazily in low tree branches, or on the ground, or perched on the supplemental feeders the M.W.F. has provided for them all time making their deep, beautiful “hoo-hooOOOooo” call.

I point the parabola at one bird as it flies towards the cone-shaped tin feeder, but instead of landing on one of the perches conveniently placed near the dispersal opening, it lands directly on its pointed top. It stands there looking at me, trying to gain its balance unsuccessfully. My microphone picks up the scratching sounds as the bird tries to gain traction on the tin. The bird is still looking at me as it begins sliding down the side of the cone-shaped roof and finally falls with a thud to the ground below. It stands up dazed and slowly walks away. I’m perplexed by this behavior and look down at my recorder to confirm that it was recording. I listen back to it and wonder if anyone would ever be interested in listening to a Pink Pigeon falling off of a bird feeder. I shrug my shoulder and begin recording Fodys.

The Fodys are even more cooperative. There are dozens of them flying around the feeder. In the sunlight, I can only describe the males as flying jewels. The brilliant red is almost blinding. I watch the subtle intricacies of their courtship behavior and begin compiling a large amount of recordings. After some time, the birds (especially the females) become curious and start moving closer towards me. I’m forced to turn the gain down on my recorder as the proximity of their shrill and blasting chirps max out my levels. One of the birds almost decides to use my microphone as a perch.

During my eight hours on the island, I manage to collect a impressive amount of recordings. If only all of my targets could be this cooperative.

SLEEPING ON KESTREL’S CLIFF

November 13, 2009

Now that I knew exactly where I could find a kestrel, I decided that the best plan of action was to camp out in the forest above his nest.  I figured two days would be enough to accumulate a decent amount of recordings.

 

The hike up to the nest was much more difficult than the previous ascent.  The temperature was soaring past 30 degrees C and I was this time, carrying more gear and three liters of water.  Eventually, I reached the summit and dropped my pack.  After equipping myself with the recording gear, I scrambled the 400 yards or so along the cliff face to the kestrel’s nest.  When I arrived, I searched the nearby tree branches for my friend, but he was absent.  I figured he was probably hunting and would eventually return.  In the meantime, I decided to have a peek into the nest to see if his search for a mate had been realized. 

 

As I was glancing into the empty nest, I felt that strange sensation when you know someone else is nearby without having heard or seen them approach.  I turned around slowly and, sure enough, there he was about eight feet away on a low tree branch.  It was startling to see him sitting there.  In fact, I would say it scared the hell out me and I jumped back a bit.  The Mauritius kestrel is not a big bird, I’d say about the size of blue jay, but they have this particular way of glaring over that small and deadly curved beak.  It’s very unsettling when they apply that gaze in your direction.  I decided that maybe I should back away from the nest.  Slowly.  I’m also pretty sure that if the bird could speak English, he would have spoken those exact sentiments to me.  As I made my way back to the ground, he apparently decided that he had had enough of this giant nest-raiding mammal and flew off his perch directly at me.  He was aiming for my face but I managed to turn my head away.  I’d like to think that I was fast enough to prevent a direct talon to eyeball meeting, but I’m pretty sure that if he had wanted to, he could have done me a fair amount of damage.  No, this flyby was only a warning. 

After I had made it back to the ground and moved about twenty feet away, I readied my gear and prepared myself for the long hours of recording to come. 

 

Pointing the microphone at the bird with the device recording, I waited for him to make a sound, but he was apparently not in the mood and just sat quietly on the branch.  After a while, it was evident that he was getting used to me.  He began preening his feathers and stretching his wings in an effort to get comfortable.  In fact, it looked as if he was having a hard time staying awake.  As I kept the machine recording trying to figure out what his next move was going to be, I realized that I had made a mistake.  From behind me, I heard the telltale shrieking of an approaching kestrel.  I quickly pointed the parabola in the direction of the noise and spotted the bird moving rapidly towards me. 

 

It came swooping in and alighted next to my dive-bombing friend with a large lizard in its talons.  The two birds began to chatter and chirp to each other and finally, the second bird relinquished the lizard to the original bird and flew away. So, my friend had found a mate after all and this is whom I had been watching all along.  Watching her eat her hand-delivered lunch, I couldn’t help but feel a small rush of excitement.  The male/female ratio of kestrels on this side of the island is not as balanced as it is on the eastern side.  Many of the population go through the breeding season without finding a mate due to a lack of females in the area.  And I must admit that I felt a bit proud of my little buddy as well.  She was a beautiful bird. 

 

He also had his work cut out for him.  During the breeding season, the male kestrel spends a majority of his time hunting for prey (typically small lizards and mammals) and bringing them to the female who perches near the nest and tries to conserve energy in anticipation of the egg-bearing process.  I sat the rest of the day and watched as the male would return time after time (averaging about 45 minutes per round), with a meal for his beloved.  She would sit and preen herself each time waiting for his return.

 

And, of course, there was the large mammal with the parabolic disc in his hand sitting and watching the whole process from below.  After several hours I had accumulated a fair number of good recordings and had also affectionately named the birds “Archie” and “Edith”.  Edith was, by now, comfortable with me and probably assumed that her warning flight had done its trick. 

 

“You stay there and leave my nest alone, I’ll sit here and try to stay awake and everything will be fine between us”, I could hear her thinking.

 

The pattern soon became evident and the three of us would each perform our individual roles.  After securing some prey, Archie would return to the nest.  During his approach, he would shriek to let Edith know he was coming.  With my recorder constantly running, I would perk up at the sound of his call, locate his position, aim the parabola, and follow him in.  He would then land next to her and they would chirp and chatter amongst themselves, the trade off would occur, and then Archie would take flight to search for more food.  Sometimes she would eat the meal right there on the branch and other times, if the catch was particularly large, she would jump to the ground (preferably a good distance away from me) to polish it off.  I was thoroughly enjoying myself and didn’t notice that it was getting late and I needed to find a suitable campsite.  I packed up my gear and headed for my hidden backpack at the top of the cliff.

 

I located a nice spot overlooking the valley, laid out my bivy and began cooking some noodles.  It was about 5:30 and as I sat there I watched dozens of ring-necked parakeets fly up into the valley shrieking their particular brand of vocalization.  I saw a giant fruit bat, the size of a large crow, fly past me headed for the forest.  White-tailed tropicbirds soared above me in majestic spirals.  The crepuscular species began to come alive around me and my instinct was to grab my microphone and begin recording.  But I had to resist, as I had used a fair amount of battery life during the day and needed all that I had to fulfill my kestrel commitment.  I made a mental note to come back to this spot on a different occasion to record the parrots and the bats and the tropicbirds and the day turning into the night.  It took me a long time to fall asleep.  My work with the field recorder has changed my way of thinking.  I hear the noises around me differently now and my mind cannot help but try to define the species and determine if the parameters are sufficient for recording it.  I listened to the geckos and the bats flying overhead and, at one point, heard the snuffling sound of what may have been a tenrec rooting through the leaves and soil nearby.  I finally did fall asleep, although it’s difficult to distinguish awake from asleep in a place like this.

FIRST DAY RECORDING

November 3, 2009

Black River Gorges National Park is the island’s largest park and is one of the last areas on the island that contains original forest.  Located here are many of the endemic bird species including the kestrel and pink pigeon.  Honestly, my expectations of finding either of these birds was very low as I trudged the 5.3km down the access road to the park.  I was thinking of this first trip as more of a “scouting” mission to see what I could expect from the area.  Being early in the morning, the access road was empty and I spotted a monkey ahead of me on the road.  Reaching the spot where it had slipped back into the forest, I saw that it was part of a small group of about ten other individuals.  This is the crab-eating macaque, and alien species.  How they actually arrived here is in question, but it is postulated that his hardy monkey may have helped contribute to some of the extinctions that have occurred on the island.  They move away quickly before I can get the gear out of my bag so I move on.

 

Inside the park, The Black River snakes along side the trail.  A few stray tourists take photos of some small waterfalls and sit to admire its beauty.  To a wildlife recorder, the river is a source of annoyance, a constant voice gurgling and babbling in the background.  Often, it cannot be avoided, and turns up as an unwanted guest in the background of many of my preliminary recordings.  I’m anxious to get away from it and head to higher ground.  From an overlook higher into the mountains, the park lays out below me in all its majesty.  Green, tropical vegetation covers the landscape.  Waterfalls drop in that slow motion effect that can only be created by large phenomenon at great distance.  White-tailed tropicbirds stand out against the green and glide across the forest below me.

 

After unpacking and donning my equipment, I begin listening for birds.  A small Mauritius grey white-eye lands in a small tree right next to me and courteously begins singing.  I have the parabola pointed at the bird before the song even starts and the recording is a success.  The grey white-eye is the most common of the endemics on the island.  I’m happy for the recording, but scanning obsessively for the more rare species.  After a while, it begins to rain and I decide to pack my gear and begin the long hike back to the bus stop. 

 

Back on the access road, I see two men parking their motorcycles at a pull off.  I notice that one of them is wearing a Mauritian Wildlife Foundation t-shirt.  From the protection efforts of the M.W.F. and through the work of Carl Jones and others, most the island’s endemics are, for the most part, no longer in danger of extinction**.  I introduce myself and tell them a little about my project.  They have heard of me, as I have already been communicating with the Foundation in the hopes of collaborating with them.  They introduce themselves as Richard and Andy and explain that they monitor the Mauritian kestrel population.  They inform me that they are climbing up the cliffs on the west side of the gorge to investigate a few kestrel nests for evidence of females and invite me along.  I’m ecstatic and follow them to the trail.

 

At the top of the cliffs we rest and at that moment a kestrel swoops through the trees above us screeching.  It lands on a tree 20 yards away and I notice that it has a large lizard in its talons.  I frantically get my gear out and point the parabola at the bird.  I watch the bird as it places the lizard in a cache near the top of the tree and then flies off.  I’m disappointed, but Richard assures me that there will be more opportunities.  We hike down the cliff a little ways and locate the bird’s nest tucked into the rocky crag.  Richard looks inside, his face serious and grim.  “No eggs.  This guy hasn’t found a female yet”.  We wait for an hour and the bird returns with a freshly killed gecko, landing on a branch in front of the nest.  During his approach he shrieks his announcement, and this time I get the recording.

 

The Mauritian kestrel is a bit of an anomaly.  Kestrels are typically known for their  ability to “hover” over open fields and hunt for small mammals.  This species, though, has evolved shorter and rounder wings that give it the ability to dart and dash through forest and underbrush with amazing agility.  This maneuverability allows it pick off its favorite food of gecko in a dense vegetation environment.  Unfortunately, this trait has nearly been the bird’s downfall.  The kestrel’s natural habitat has been reduced significantly as Mauritius’ forests have been leveled to make room for its expanding sugar cane industry.  It’s ironic to think that a kestrel could be threatened by the creation of an open field environment, but that’s its situation.  After capturing the recording, I pack up and we head back to the road.

 

Before leaving, they inform me that I’m welcome to come to the nests whenever I’d like.  November is the kestrel’s breeding season, so I plan to return soon.  Hopefully next time I will have the opportunity to record two birds; a male and a female.

 

 

**In future blogs the M.W.F. and more information about what they do will be addressed.  In the meantime, please visit their website at:

 

http://www.mauritian-wildlife.org/

INTRODUCTION

November 3, 2009

Mauritius is an island that lies 530 miles east of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean. Together with its neighbors Reunion and its own island of Rodrigues, it makes up one third of the Mascarene archipelago.   Although regarded for its multicultural tradition, world famous sugar cane, and long white beaches, the country is perhaps best known as the home to the now extinct Dodo bird.  Viewed as a universal symbol for human negligence, the bird’s iconic status demonstrates the fragility of species on ocean islands.  In fact, Mauritius has suffered many extinctions since its discovery by man.  To this day, many of the island’s species are rare and endangered.  The Mauritian kestrel, now making a modest comeback, was once reduced to just six individuals.  The beautiful (and exotic sounding) pink pigeon was also at one time reduced to single digit numbers. 

The main island is now home to seven endemic bird species:  the pink pigeon, the Mauritius kestrel, the echo parakeet, the Mauritius bulbul, the Mauritius fody, the Mauritius grey white-eye, and the Mauritius olive white-eye.  In addition, its own island of Rodrigues, 350 miles to the east, has two endemics:  the Rodrigues warbler and the Rodrigues fody.  In the 1970’s many of these species were closing in on extinction until protection efforts were taken in the late 70’s and early 80’s.

Outside of the more rare endemics, Mauritius is home to around 80 species of bird, most of which migrated from neighboring islands or were brought here.  Many of them, for instance the gregarious common myna, have flourished within the island’s ecosystem and the island is awash with birds.  When I first arrived here, flashes of orange, red, and yellow feathers filled my vision and I imagined the landscape as an unfinished painting in which the invisible artist was still busy with the act of creation. 

I am here to record these birds.  In my luggage, I am carrying a plethora of microphones, recording units, cables, and a large, foldable parabolic disc.  My goal is to record as many species as possible over a nine-month stretch for the ever-expanding collection at Cornell’s University’s Macauley Library.  In particular, I am interested in recording the endemic bird species, although anything that gets in my way and makes a sound (be it a gecko, a bat, or a buzzing insect) is at risk of having itself recorded for posterity.  I’m hoping that during my time here, I’ll be able to capture and extensive collection of recordings for the library’s archives.