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THE ISLANDS OF PARADISE
George Plimpton
February 05, 1979
Majestic beaches, such as this one on La Digue; cloud forests; rare, astonishing birds; a predilection for dominoes and amour; and no radio playing on the buses—these are the Seychelles
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February 05, 1979

The Islands Of Paradise

Majestic beaches, such as this one on La Digue; cloud forests; rare, astonishing birds; a predilection for dominoes and amour; and no radio playing on the buses—these are the Seychelles

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The main reason I had come to the Vall�e de Mai Nature Reserve was to try to spot the black parrot, a bird to be found only on Praslin and a rare ornithological sight because the species is restricted to an area about the size of Manhattan, and most often to the Vall�e itself, which is smaller than Central Park. The sighting of a black parrot is a prize moment; there are probably less than 100 of them.

When I mentioned this, my guide said the parrots would appear down by the road at 11 a.m. She was quite blas� about it. She did not mention the black parrot again until just before 11 when she led me out of the forest and we walked down a macadam-surfaced road with high banks on either side; the girl whistled occasionally, two notes descending, as if she were calling a dog.

Sure enough, right on the dot, a pair of parrots appeared beyond the banks, darting through the fronds of the coco-de-mer in a quick, shifting flight not unlike a pigeon's. The birds were much grayer than their name suggests.

When spotting a new species, I have often let out an exultant shout, but in this case I didn't, perhaps because of my guide's ho-hum attitude in assuring me that the birds would put in an appearance right on schedule, like the 6:17 arriving at Hicksville.

So they had, somewhat to my disillusionment. One expects that somehow the reward of sighting a rare bird should be preceded by an effort of some sort. To be led up to a designated spot, with a bird sitting there, however rare, is not unlike being deposited in front of a cage in the Washington zoo and being informed, "Well, there's what you've been looking for—a panda! Not quite the bamboo forests of Nepal, but that's the same genuine article drinking out of that tin dish."

In fact, all the rare birds of the Seychelles are relatively easy to find. Not only are the birds' habitats limited by a vast surrounding sea that pins them to their islands, but the rarest of them also seem to crave the company of man—very often to their detriment. On the island of Frigate at the eastern fringe of the granitic group, the magpie robin spends much of its time hopping around doorsills, and even into cabins where it makes the sad mistake of gobbling up insects half dopey with bug spray, which profoundly affects the bird's life cycle. However farfetched it may seem that an aerosol can used indoors can tamper with the very existence of a species, there may not be more than 50 magpie robins left.

The flightless rail of the island of Aldabra—an extraordinary atoll, which at 600 miles from Mah� is the most distant of the outlying islands—is so tame that if you sit still, it will come up and peck at your clothing. The traditional way of attracting rails (so I read in Malcolm Penny's bird guide) is to tap a pair of turtle bones together. Penny goes on to say that they will then come running, their stubby wings extended backward like a domestic hen's on the run, to investigate any sound. Fortunately, Aldabra is so remote that those ashore are either scientists or visitors who not only know that the rail is the last surviving flightless bird of the Indian Ocean but also are well aware of what happened to the rail's cousin, the dodo, on the nearby island of Mauritius.

To my regret, I could not get to Aldabra to see the rail (only a schooner or two put in at that distant place approximately every six months, so that a visitor must be very interested in rails to want to spend that amount of time with them), but I did go by coastal schooner across a few miles of water from Praslin to La Digue to see what is probably the most endangered species in the Seychelles, the black paradise flycatcher. Once again, this bird's trouble is its liking for the clearings in the vanilla groves and Badamier woods where people have built huts and lean-tos.

The government has commissioned a warden, a small bowlegged Seychellois wearing an official-looking green forest ranger's hat with a drawstring knotted under his chin, to do what he can to protect the bird. He met me at the dock. We climbed into an oxcart for a short trip to Gregoire's Island Lodge to drop off a bag. Just before starting off, the driver doused the ox with insect spray. The animal's skin shivered deliciously at the cool moisture, and in a pleasant aromatic cloud we moved down the path to the hostelry, where the warden and I shifted to bicycles. We were not more than five minutes into the vanilla groves when we stopped; the warden began whistling—two descending notes, precisely the same ones the girl guide had produced on the road outside the Vall�e de Mai. I wondered vaguely if all the birds of the Seychelles responded to this universal call. Whatever, the whistle provided the desired effect. A male paradise flycatcher with beautiful long, black tail streamers and a pale blue bill—and facial skin whose line is oddly like the smile of a porpoise—appeared and perched on a twig of a takamaka tree four feet above the top of an outhouse. A bicycle was parked outside the structure. There may have been someone inside. Four boys were weeding a garden patch nearby. The sound of a saw rose from a nearby mill.

As in the case of the magpie robin, the flycatcher's proximity to man may result in its extinction. The bird suspends its nest from the end of a branch hanging out over such clearings as we were standing in, which keeps the young out of harm's way from lizards, a habitual enemy, but the nest is consequently in such an exposed place that it is often a target for a boy's slingshot, or can easily be conked by someone passing by heedlessly with a headload. The veuve (as it is known in Creole) is thus very rare; perhaps not more than 15 or 20 pairs exist.

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