When birds become “humanwatchers”!

Bird Island is not mis-named. For the variety of species that has been recorded, mainly in the northern winter, on its approximate 100 hectares, it is a birdwatchers’ paradise. During May to October it plays host to hundreds of thousands of Sooty Terns along with large numbers of Brown and Lesser Noddies, White Terns, Frigatebirds and some White-tailed Tropicbirds. Some of these can be seen all year. For most of them you don’t need binoculars or a massive camera lens because these birds evolved to occupy places where they were not threatened by man or many other land predators, and they are therefore very approachable. This trait has of course been misused by man, who has taken advantage of the behaviour to obtain easy food. Man has also inadvertently or deliberately introduced other land predators, especially rats, mice and cats, which have decimated many of the world’s major seabird islands.

Bird Island’s birds are sometimes so unwary of us that they make use of our facilities, and even sometimes of us. Brown Noddies frequently sit on the balustrades of the restaurant and chalets, always appearing alert to what other Brown Noddies are doing but also watching us. White Terns normally lay their egg on slight depressions on tree branches or even in forks in small branches, when the egg can be seen from below while the adult incubates. But they also nest very close to humans, using surfaces such as wooden beams of buildings or even rolled up blinds; these pairs lose their eggs whenever the blinds must be lowered to keep bad weather or hot afternoon sunshine out.

This Brown Noddy regarded Christine’s arm as part of the furniture (Photo: Chris Feare)

Madagascar Fodies and other landbirds are now discouraged from feeding in the restaurant but still investigate chalet verandas for any food that might have been dropped. But they are also prepared to explore the insides of rooms even when humans are present. In 2006 a male Madagascar Fody, sporting his red breeding plumage, used to enter my chalet to admire himself in the mirror; or perhaps he believed that the mirror showed that another male was invading what he considered to be his own space. Seychelles Sunbirds now behave similarly, with pairs frequently entering our chalet, perching on suitable woodwork and repeatedly flying to the mirror and hovering in front of it while facing the mirror glass. They are quite happy to do so when I am sitting at my computer next to the mirror.

Madagascar Fody investigating the bird in the mirror (Photo: Chris Feare)
Seychelles Sunbird hovering in front of the room’s mirror (Photo: Chris Feare)

In the Sooty Tern colony adults frequently land on our heads, sometimes flying off quickly but at other times remaining there while we walk among the incubating birds. When we catch a ringed bird and bend down to examine it in our net, adult Sooty Terns sometimes take advantage of the horizontal platform of our backs to scan over their neighbourhood from a fairly stationary elevated position.

A Sooty Tern uses Camille’s head as a viewing post (Photo: Chris Feare)
Christine’s back also provided an attractive perch (Photo: Chris Feare)

These behaviours are a far cry from our expectations of birds in Europe, but it is wonderful that there remain places where birds can regard us as part of their environment!

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