by Mark Williams
August 7 , 2016
Once deemed critically endangered in the mid seventies with only 4 wild birds remaining, the Mauritius Kestrel now ranks as one of the most spectacular of any raptor conservation and recovery programs anywhere in the world.
Once the home of the Dodo, this tiny island by comparison is part of the chain of islands that include the Seychelles and Reunion islands just east of Madagascar. Unlike Madagascar that broke off east Africa millions of years ago, these islands are of volcanic descent, erupting from deep below the ocean floor. My goal of visiting Mauritius was to search for the endangered and very rare Mauritius kestrel amongst other endemic wildlife species of the island.
There were no indigenous people on the islands when they were first colonized by Dutch explorers around 1598. The French took over in 1710 and finally the British a hundred years later and ruled up until 1968 when it was given its independence. Although the British were last to colonize it has retained its French influence and culture as this was part of the agreement when the Brits took over. Indeed French is the main language along with Creole, a mixed blend of French and assortment of African languages, although English is the main business language of the island.
Since its early days of settlement, the island was used for sugar cane production mostly supplying Europe and it has remained its principle economy until recent years when textiles and tourism were added. Sadly it is the sugar plantation’s that accounts for 90% of all agricultural land and has resulted in the deforestation of most of the island natural forest and the demise of many of its endemic species. Within only 70 years of the Dutch settlers arrival on Mauritius the dodo became extinct. DNA samples from remains of taxidermy samples have shown its closest relative to be that of the pigeon! Along with the Dodo, the giant Red Rail and several other species also became extinct well before the French took over from the Dutch. Credit for this cannot purely be attributed to man’s early food hunting but also the introduction of invasive species like cats, dogs and escaped ship rats.
Male in flight
Things deteriorated further when mongoose were introduced to kill the rats and for reasons nobody knows, they also introduced the highly adaptable Macaque monkeys probably as escaped pets. The mongoose, rats and monkeys combined have played a major role in the demise of many endemic bird species due to nest robbing, in particular of the Mauritius Kestrel. Of interest is the largest endemic mammal of Mauritius is actually the fruit bat. There are no large predators such as foxes or wild big cats on the island to predate on the invasive species or to pose concern for man. The Kestrel remains the only bird of prey since the Mauritius Scops owl became extinct over hundred years ago.
While for the aforementioned reasons the Mauritius Kestrel (amongst others), has declined since man first inhabited Mauritius, however it was not until mid 1950’s with the use of DDT did the kestrel almost go the way of the Dodo. Thanks to the work of Carl Jones, Dr. Nick Fox, the Durrel foundation and several others, the MWF (Mauritius Wildlife Foundation), was formed in 1974 as a NGO organization that over the years, through captive breeding pioneered by falconers, has brought back the Kestrel from the fate of the Dodo and today there remains some estimated 300 birds on the island. The Pink Pigeon was also close to forever being lost and again at the same time and through the same team, these were also brought back from the dozen or more that remained to over 400 birds today. It was for these two species in particular that I came to Mauritius and although hard to find due to terrain the live in, I did not leave disappointed.
“Male (top left) and female”
My observations are that the kestrels are more the size and weight of the North American kestrels. They don’t possess a tendency to hover like the European or North American species but are very adapted to slope soaring on the updrafts. Unlike the North American or European kestrel species, there is no coloration difference between male and female. The typical blue / grey back and head is absent in the Mauritius kestrel. While the female is larger by a third, her chest markings are subtly different. Her front has more round spots than shark tooth shaped bars. I’m told their diet is 80% geckos and maybe 10% small birds with the rest being insects and possibly small rodents.
“on the attack”
They have two main strongholds on the island and only live in forested areas feeding mostly off geckos, insects and small birds as they slope soar along the many forested valleys. They nest in cliffs or tree cavities however they do adapt to nest boxes like most other species do. In recent years the kestrels numbers have declined in the Black River Gorges on the west side. This has been attributed to their tendency to nest on traditional nest sites like trees and cliff ledges.
“A picturesque setting often used for natural nest site”
This has made them vulnerable from the Macaque monkeys, mongoose and rats that raid nests of both eggs and young chicks. Meanwhile the eastern population has thrived and they’re mostly adapted to using the deep tree nest boxes provided by MWF. I had an opportunity to track down and speak to the deputy director of conservation for Mauritius during my visit and he informs me that they plan to start this September breeding season to take eggs from wild south eastern breeding pairs when the first clutch is just laid, thereby allowing the parents to recycle and raise their second clutch naturally. Meanwhile they will incubate the first clutch at a modest breeding facility and then later crèche rear and hack them from nest boxes in the Black River region in the south west areas. It is hoped that these young will imprint to these nest sites during hack instead of traditional sites that should minimize predation from the invasive predators such as monkeys.
“Only 3% of natural forest remains on the island”
Meanwhile the pink pigeon, which was in as much peril as the kestrel for the same reasons, these seem to be doing better and are more easily located. My observations put them to be about the same size as a European woodpigeon and its habits and behavior are similar. They eat leaves and buds off trees and seeds where found. While the majority 400+ birds are on the mainland, some 40 or so can be found on the tiny Isle Aux Aigretter a mere 800 meters off shore on the south east of Mauritius. Although only slightly more abundant than the kestrel, these pigeons seem sedentary and are much more readily found.
The rarest pigeon in the world “The Pink Pigeon”
Mauritius is indeed an interesting place to visit, stable and safe and although its conservation efforts are light years ahead of Madagascar, their government still does not put much support or funding into their environment and unique ecosystem …relying instead on the NGO Mauritian Wildlife Trust to do their heavy lifting through funding obtained by corporate sponsors and university study groups. While I don’t consider myself an environmentalist, it perhaps serves as a classic example of what disastrous impact and harm mans innocent or naive use of exotic species has on a sensitive eco system and its endemic species. I consider myself fortunate to have been able to view and photograph several of those endemic species and in particular the Mauritius Kestrel whose fascination stemmed from a childhood interest in their plight. I owe a debt of gratitude to Dr. Nick Fox for his help and advice and the biologists and custodians of Mauritius Wildlife Federation who were so helpful and accommodating in assisting me with location the birds.
back view of kestrel
Mark Williams in floating blind
Mark Williams career currently takes him to Dubai in the Arabian gulf and he takes advantage of his location to visit countries of interest in the region in his pursuit as a passionate amateur wildlife photographer. His work has been published in several books, magazines and even music album covers. He can be followed on his website (markwilliamswildlifephotographer.com) or instagram account "falcnr".
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