Bird Island is a sanctuary for birds, turtles and giant tortoises in one of the most beautiful parts of the world. With a wild environment in superb condition, thanks to award-winning conservation efforts, it’s full of amazing sights. Guided nature tours can help visitors discover the best of them.
The most northerly island in the Seychelles archipelago, Bird Island, is home to just 38 permanent human residents – and an extraordinary abundance of wildlife. With a total area of just under a square kilometre, it’s a delicate place to manage, but dedicated conservation work has seen it flourish in recent years and it is considered one of the jewels of the Indian Ocean. Tourism is carefully regulated, but by agreeing to follow the rules visitors can gain entry to a truly magical place.
A coral island
In a sense, the whole of Bird Island is organic. Instead of being founded on rock, it’s built out of coral – the skeletal remains of millions upon millions of tiny organisms which lived and died in these rich seas over hundreds of thousands of years. It is coral that makes up the fine sand on the island’s long white beaches and coral in which the delicate trees take root. There are also boulders scattered along the coast, providing shelter for crabs and other tiny creatures. Beyond the island itself, parts of the coral structure extend underwater as a living reef, teeming with exotic and colourful fish. Between November and January, when the moon is full or new, the tide goes out so far that visitors, wearing protective footwear, can walk out to the reef.
A unique position
Part of what makes Bird Island such an important environment is its position. Close to the edge of the continental shelf, it’s sheltered by the warm waters of the Indian Ocean but also benefits from the nearby Southern Ocean current, which is rich in micro-organisms and means the sea is teeming with fish. This aquatic life is part of what sustains the island’s large bird colonies.
It also provides a great deep sea fishing experiences for visitors. The water close to the coast, however, is shallow, and there are safe beaches for children to play on, as well as great scuba diving spots.
Along with these fortuitous oceanic features, Bird Island benefits from the south-east trade winds, which make it a perfect spot for migratory birds.
Restoring the wild island
Bird Island hasn’t always been in the great shape it is in today. After it was discovered by Europeans in 1776 it was used for coconut, papaya and cotton plantations, and the native vegetation was hacked back until little of it remained. In 1967 it was purchased by its current owner and reclaimed as a wildlife preserve. Rabbits were removed so that the native vegetation could begin to regrow, and the plantations were replaced with gardens just big enough to sustain the people living there. Rats were removed so that bird eggs would no longer be stolen, after which the bird population began to boom again. The island has gradually been restored to its original beauty.
The most common birds on the island, which nest in raucous colonies and soar across it in sky-darkening flocks, are terns. There are two species of these: sooty terns and lesser noddy terns. The former came to worldwide attention after being featured in two David Attenborough documentaries for the BBC.
The terns arrive in March and April and leave in late October. In between they engage in elaborate courtship rituals, lay eggs, defend their nests and raise their young. When accompanied by a guide, it’s often possible to get close enough to watch them feeding their chicks.
The white-tailed tropicbird
Also among the island’s avian residents is the white-tailed tropicbird. Sporting distinctive black and white markings with flashes of orange and yellow, it has a distinctive high-pitched call and is a favourite of visiting ornithologists. It feeds on the fish and squid in the neighbouring waters, and uses the island as a safe nesting site. Seen from below, it makes a striking image against the bright blue sky, with long feathers stretching out behind it.
In recent years a population of sunbirds has been introduced to the island. Natives of other parts of the Seychelles, these little grey birds, which live on a diet of nectar and insects, had begun to struggle due to a shortage of safe nesting spots. Fortunately, they are thriving in their new home. In October you can see their pear-shaped nests dangling from tree branches.
Bird Island has two types of sea turtles: green turtles and hawksbill turtles. Both are migratory. The green turtles arrive between June and September and crawl on to the beaches at night to lay their eggs. It’s important not to disturb them at this time, but they can be seen from boats a little way off the coast without upsetting their breeding habits. The hawksbill turtles arrive in November and lay eggs right through until February, with hatchlings emerging from the sand in March and April, and immediately race to the relative safety of the sea.
The island has one other notable reptilian inhabitant – Esmeralda, the world’s second oldest Aldabra giant tortoise. At 170, she has seen a lot of changes in her lifetime, but she remains calm around humans and even friendly. Along with about 19 other giant tortoises, she roams the island early in the mornings, looking for food. The tortoises burrow down into the sand to rest once the full heat of the day sets in. If you are lucky you can may catch them as they balance on their hind legs, stretching up to reach tree branches in search of fresh, juicy leaves.
The scientific aspects and conservation
Bird Island is an important centre for scientific research. Birds are ringed there, and turtles tagged, so that they can be monitored as they travel around the globe. There’s also a weather station which helps to monitor the global environment.
The conservation efforts on Bird Island have won several awards, including Green Planet awards, and the island has been celebrated as one of the world’s best destinations for real eco-tourism. The presence of visitors is crucial to funding the conservation work and a trip there provides a wonderful opportunity to discover the ecological heritage of the southern hemisphere. Bird Island is a place that visitors never forget.
Come and visit
Bird Island is a sanctuary for birds, turtles and giant tortoises in one of the most beautiful parts of the world. With a wild environment in superb condition thanks to award-winning conservation efforts, it’s full of amazing sights. Guided nature tours can help visitors discover the best of them.