Monday, 2 May 2016

Tommy's musings and reflections on volunteering for GIF on Denis Island

House reef (Tommy Fieldsend)
Tucked away in the far north-east corner of the Seychelles Archipelago lies Denis Private Island, a tiny speck of emerald glinting in the Indian Ocean. Denis is home to some truly remarkable animals, and so, as any budding zoologist would, I jumped at the chance to spend six months working in this special place.

Unusually, Denis Private Island has no mammals: none ever made it across the Indian Ocean without the help of man, and those that did stow away with the first human settlers have since been eradicated. Whilst the island is home to half-a-dozen species of crab, five species of lizards (three of which are endemic), and a number of other conspicuous arthropods, it is really the bird life that makes Denis a Mecca for zoologists and nature-lovers alike.

Seychelles Magpie Robin (Tommy Fieldsend)
Denis is home to several rare and endemic birds, the most conspicuous of which is the endangered Seychelles magpie robin (Copsychus sechellarum). Since these birds resemble magpies but are in fact robins, their name is as apt as it is unimaginative. In the manner of all robins, Seychelles magpie robins are highly inquisitive; when you are working outdoors, you can be certain that a small group of them will arrive within minutes to appraise your efforts. This examination is inevitably conducted with about as much discretion as would be shown by the members of a Women’s Institute meeting that has just been disrupted by the arrest of a neighbour. The robins will hop about on the ground or flit from tree-to-tree, all the while trading scandalous gossip about you in their bizarre calls, which resemble blasts of radio static. Occasionally, my fellow volunteer Nick and I are even subjected to surprise home inspections; these consist of a pair of robins bouncing around our house and verandah, screeching their disapproval at our slovenly lifestyle, and generally bemoaning the degenerate ways of today’s youth.

Male Seychelles Paradise Flycatcher (Jeff Watson)
Far more enigmatic than the Seychelles magpie robin is the critically endangered Seychelles paradise flycatcher (Terpsiphone corvina). Found only in the forests of Denis Island and nearby La Digue, flycatchers are small, captivating birds; females have milk-bottle-white breasts, jet-black heads, and backs, wings, and tails of chestnut brown. Save for a flash of bright blue across the eye, males are almost completely black, but are more readily distinguished by their two magnificent, elongated tail feathers, which can reach two-to-three times the length of their body.
Female Seychelles Paradise Flycatcher (Nick Burnham)

Like the island itself, the sea surrounding Denis is a naturalist’s nirvana. On two occasions I have been lucky enough to encounter pods of bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops sp.), calmly inquisitive in the face of boats and their crew; on the first of these occasions, several of my colleagues were diving nearby, and were able to witness the pod harrying a baby whale shark (Rhincodon typus), which, dwarfing its aggressors despite its tender years, was apparently suitably unimpressed.
Blue lined surgeonfish (Nick Burnham)
The coastal waters of Denis Island are a veritable metropolis, where thousands of citizens hustle and bustle their way between towering skyscrapers of coral. Clown surgeonfish (Acanthurus lineatus) dressed in ostentatious sherbet-yellow suits with neon-blue pinstripes rush about the reef like preoccupied businessmen, whilst chain gangs of black-and-white convict tangs (A. triostegus) toil away under the midday sun, chipping away miniscule fragments of coral. More than once I have watched an endangered humphead wrasse (Cheilinus undulatus) trundle past with several smaller fish in hot pursuit, the sight resembling a gaggle of tardy children chasing a double-decker school bus with a rather oblivious driver.

Green Turtle (Tommy Fieldsend)
Encircling this busy reef is a tranquil savannah of seagrass. Out here, the blazing sun heats the Indian Ocean to uncomfortably warm temperatures, and spotted eagle rays (Aetobatus narinari) glide overhead, as dark, silent, and ominous as storm clouds; green turtles (Chelonia mydas) also visit these submarine pastures to graze on seagrass, only to vanish in a whirl of inky-blue water when disturbed.

Spotted Eagle Ray (Tommy Fieldsend)

Despite the island’s undeniable beauty, life on Denis is not without its hardships: the heat, humidity, mosquitoes, and isolation can all take their toll. But come the evening, when the setting sun paints the sky in shades of vanilla, peach, and candyfloss pink, and the last rays of sunlight dance and sparkle on the sapphire-blue sea, life here does not feel like a hardship at all.
Tommy watching sunset (Nick Burnham)

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