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.


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 next 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.


October 29, 2009

I was on the bus yesterday after a long day of recording in the park. My stop is just at the end of the access road to the park and is pretty far down the line so at the end of the day, it is easy to get a seat going back in the other direction. The bus fills up quickly though, as many of the riders work at the various resorts along this road and are heading back to their homes. Pretty soon we are all sitting three to a seat and I am pressed against the window with my knees crushing into the seat in front of me and my backpack of equipment on my lap and pushing into my face. At this point, there are also a bunch of people standing in the aisle. I was starting to get miserable when the bus driver put on a CD of the traditional sega music. Sega can best be described as a cross between reggae and rainbows. After a few moments of a particularly rainbowy song, some of the people standing start dancing in the aisle and everyone on the bus starts talking and smiling. I watched as one woman, reaching her stop, managed to dance her way down the crowded aisle, right down the steps of the bus and into the arms of her husband who was waiting for her. This place is amazing like that. It’s hard to be in a bad mood.


October 27, 2009

Yesterday was my first official day of bird recording and it was a good one. I took the one-hour bus ride to the access road that leads into the park and then walked the 5.3 km to the visitor’s center. This time, the gates were not locked and the walk up to the trailhead was lush and beautiful. And to top it off, I saw about 20 monkeys hanging out (literally) on the side of the road. Those things are so elusive.   I was trying to get a good photo of one of them, but it’s as if they know what you’re doing and wait until the last second and then jump out of the way.   So I’ve got a ton of pictures of empty trees.  I was getting frustrated, but there was no way I was going to let those monkeys make a monkey of me.  So finally, I decided to beat them at their own game. I hid behind a bush and lined up a great shot.  The monkey saw me and jumped away but not before I got a pretty decent shot of him.  I guess they learned their lesson about trying to outsmart me.

After reaching the visitor’s center, I hiked another 3 km up Parakeet Trail and stopped to don my recording equipment for the first time.  It was raining sporadically and I was having a hard time locating birds.  After a while, a small Mauritian grey white-eye came and landed near me and sang a song, which I got a pretty decent recording of.  Besides that, I didn’t capture anything worth talking about except, of course, for a miniature toad.  At first I thought they were insects, but it turned out that there were hundreds of little mini-toads all over the trail.   It was hard not to step on them and after a while I gave up and just started stepping on them.  So sue me.

I gave up and headed back, a little depressed I must admit.  When I got back, I realized the visitor’s center was full of potential recordings.  I put my equipment back on and ended up getting some really good recordings of a pair of red-whiskered bulbuls and a few myna birds as well.  Satisfied, I decided to head home.  About 100 yards down the road I saw two guys parking their motorcycles and I noticed that one of them had Mauritian Wildlife Foundation t-shirt on.  I introduced myself and they told me that they were out monitoring the Mauritian kestrel in the area.  This bird is one of the most endangered species on the planet and was, until recently, the rarest bird in the world.  Its population was at one point down to four birds.  This was one of the birds that I most wanted to record; a sort of “white whale” for me.  Anyway, they insisted that I come along and try to record one.  I agreed and off we went.  Unfortunately, the hike up to the cliffs was not fun and I had already hiked about eight miles to boot, but it was a great opportunity.  As soon as we got to the top, a kestrel came screeching through the forest with a gecko in its talons and landed on a tree just above us and started staring down.  I couldn’t believe it and rushed to get my gear out.   Although he didn’t make any more calls, I got some decent pictures of him.  Also, we learned that the tree was a cache for the bird as he took the gecko and hid it in a hole near the top.

The Mauritian kestrel is a beautiful bird and looks something like a cross between an American kestrel and a merlin.  The only difference is the short round wings.  Most kestrels hunt by “hovering’ over a field and looking for mice.  But, using those little wings, this bird is the exception.  It can fly through the underbrush with extreme agility hunting for its favorite meal of gecko.   What’s ironic is that this bird has evolved to become perfectly adapted to flying through underbrush, but now the island’s forests have been eliminated in favor of sugar cane farms.  Any other species of kestrel would thrive in this kind of landscape, but the Mauritian variety cannot live outside the forests.  I got to witness this particular bird’s agility as it flew off and we chased it to its cliff-side dwelling.

These two nice British gents, Richard and Andy, were here to see if the bird had found a mate and while Andy went to check on another nest, it was Richard’s job to sit for a minimum of three hours and wait to see if a female would show itself.  During that time, the kestrel sat on a perch for about a while before finally going hunting.  Richard told me that the birds typically only call when there is a female around, but, he said, don’t give up hope.  They will often also screech as they return to the nest after a hunt.  I sat with my gear on waiting for the bird to return.  Finally, it came back screeching loudly and with a gecko in its talons.  I was prepared and managed to get a pretty decent recording.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t see him and didn’t quite manage to get the parabola directly “on” the bird.  But it’s still not too bad.  We waited a while longer but, alas, no female ever showed so we hiked back down.

But, anyway, I managed to get the “white whale” on my first day.  And now I know where he lives so I’ll be returning tomorrow and maybe even stay overnight on the cliffs.  The best part of the day, though, at least at the time, was when a nice French couple picked up a woe-begotten hitchhiker who didn’t feel like walking the last mile and half to the bus station.


October 23, 2009

Kristin met a woman here who is former Fulbrighter who has a friend who works for the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation. This is the organization that I’ve been sporadically emailing with about possibly allowing me access to some remote areas of the island to record the more rare endemics. Apparently, this woman, who helps hand rear the very rare Mauritian kestrel, mentioned that the Foundation was very excited because there is a man coming to record bird sounds. Kristin said, “Oh, I think that’s my husband”. Small island. Anyway, I spoke with her today and she is going to put me into contact with someone who will, indeed, get me into the interior of some of the National Parks.  In the meantime, I’m figuring out how to get into the parks the old fashioned way, as a tourist. Although I may not come into contact with the very rare species, there are plenty of other birds and fauna to record.

I set off this morning for the Black River Gorges National Park to scout out the potential of a daily commute.  After a one-hour bus ride to the access road, I began hiking towards the park’s entrance. The microclimates on this island are drastic. Compared to the hustle and bustle of the tourist town that we live in, the area surrounding the park is rich in vegetation and island creatures. Volcanic spikes draped with low-lying cloud formations surround the road on all sides. The tropical vegetation begins to thicken as the road gets closer to the entrance. After walking for about 3.5 kilometers, I run into an obstacle; that obstacle being a locked gate with a sign reading “Park closed due to flooding”. Apparently, the past few days of rain have put me out of business. A couple of tourists also hover near the gate. One of them is Mauritian and I ask her if this is normal. She tells me no, and that the park is almost never closed. This boosts my spirits. They offer me a ride back, but I decline in favor of walking back with the hopes of seeing some new bird species. I’m relieved. One of my biggest concerns was figuring how to transport myself into the park on a daily basis. Now I know that it’s only two hours each way, which leaves me with a good chunk of time to dedicate to finding birds and getting them to sing to me.