Blue Pigeons and Bulbuls bounce back in Seychelles

One of Bird Island’s successful colonising Seychelles Blue Pigeons, June 2014. (Photo Chris Feare)

In the 1960s a paper in the British Ornithologists’ Union journal, Ibis, by a group of students from Bristol University, UK, raised awareness of the critical plight of some of Seychelles’ endemic birds. Particular concern was raised about the Seychelles Paradise Flycatcher Terpsiphone corvina, the Seychelles Warbler Acrocephalus sechellensis and the Seychelles Magpie Robin Copsychus sechellarum, all of which lived in tiny populations, each on a single island. Some good news was that two species that had been thought to be extinct, the Seychelles Scops Owl Otus insularis and the Seychelles Grey White-eye Zosterops modesta, had been found, by Seychellois ornithologist Philippe Lousteau-Lalanne, to survive in the higher forests of Mahe, the main island. Bad news was that the Seychelles Parakeet Psittacula wardi and the Seychelles Chestnut-flanked White-eye Zosterops semiflava were already extinct. Subsequent research and conservation management by a variety of organisations and individuals has led to vast improvements in the populations of the species considered most at risk by the Bristol team – a huge conservation success story for Seychelles.

A Seychelles Bulbul awaiting an opportunity to sample ripeining bananas from a Pointe au Sel kitchen (Photo Chris Feare)

Two species that were of no particular concern at the time of the Bristol expedition were the Seychelles Blue Pigeon Alectroenas pulcherrima and the Seychelles Bulbul Hypsipetes crassirostris. When I first arrived on the islands in 1971 these two birds were largely restricted to the high forests of the main granitic islands, Mahe, Praslin, Silhouette and La Digue. While the bulbuls are conspicuously vocal and consequently easy to locate, Blue Pigeons were much less prone to calling and were more difficult to find in the forest canopy. At that time both species were hunted, Blue Pigeons especially as they were regarded as a good food source and sporting quarry, and doubtless for this reason they kept a low profile.

Increased availability of other foods, both imported and home grown, and the prohibition of guns and catapults (sling shots) signalled the end of widespread hunting and both species responded through increases in their numbers and range. By 1993 Blue Pigeons and Bulbuls could be seen in the Botanic Garden at Mont Fleuri, and gradually through the 1990s could on occasions be found down to the coasts at other parts of Mahe; I even saw Blue Pigeons flying over the most industrialised part of Victoria. Now, both species are commonly seen and heard all around the coasts of Mahe, Praslin and La Digue, with Blue Pigeons frequently decorating electricity cables above busy roads. And in June 2017 we have seen, for the first time, parties of Bulbuls feeding in Scaevola bushes (Veloutye in Creole) at the beach crest at Pointe au Sel in south Mahe. Here, Bulbuls have become sufficiently unwary of people that they enter a kitchen to take ripening bananas and mangoes!

The recoveries of populations of both Blue Pigeons and Bulbuls have occurred in the absence of targeted conservation intervention. So far, Bulbuls seem have stopped at the coasts of the larger islands but Blue Pigeons have taken their range expansion a step further. They have crossed the water to colonise smaller islands, initially reaching Cousin, Cousine and Aride, all close to Praslin, and Frégate, more isolated at about 25 km from La Digue. They later established themselves on the coralline island of Denis, about 45 km north of Aride. And in 2007 I was surprised to hear one calling on Bird Island, about 50 km from Denis and 100 km from Mahe; now, a small breeding population is well established on Bird Island.

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