There’s a place at the northernmost tip of the Seychelles that’s massively popular. It’s been visited by — surprise — over one million sea birds! From nesting birds who travel from as far away as Australia to over 20 species of resident birds, Bird Island is an absolute bird paradise. This remote island, owned by a single family since 1967, is virtually uninhabited by humans, save one resort that allows tourists the opportunity to stay and explore nature in its most authentic state. This island is rich in history and wildlife (even being the home of a world-famous land tortoise). Read on to discover all there is to know about Bird Island.
Bird Island Location and Topography
The Seychelles Archipelago is a group of 115 islands located in the western Indian Ocean north of Madagascar. Aldabra is one of the most famous islands in the Seychelles, home to all manner of wildlife — namely Aldabra giant tortoises (a famous one of which inhabits Bird Island). The largest Seychelles island is Mahé. There, the city of Victoria serves as the capital of the Republic as well as home to most of its inhabitants.
Bird Island is at the northernmost tip of the Seychelles Archipelago. It’s only accessible by air, as the island’s owners strictly prohibit boat mooring. Air Seychelles provides chartered flights to and from the island from Mahé, which last about 30 minutes.
While most of the Seychelles are islands of granite, Bird Island is unique in that it’s a flat coral island that sits atop a coral reef. Sparkling white beaches encircle the inner island, and lush tropical vegetation covers it. A former historical plantation there saw the cultivation of coconut palms, as well as Mapou trees, Casuarina trees, and beach cabbage. There are a total of at least 92 species of plants, of which 21 are indigenous to the Seychelles.
Bird Island History
The first historical mention of Bird Island came from Captain James Cook of the British Royal Navy. While some sources conflict, Cook likely passed by the remote island in 1771, during his first voyage as captain, aboard the HMS Endeavour. The captain described the island as having, “Birds innumerable,” and, “Many sea cows on the beach.” He gave it the name Bird Island.
The next 100 years included an expedition to the island and habitation from the survivors of a shipwreck, half of whom died in the wreckage. After spending 22 days on Bird Island, six escaped on a makeshift raft, leading to the rescue of approximately 85 other survivors. From 1896-1906, the island of Mauritius imported from Bird Island as much as 17,000 tons of guano, to fertilize sugarcane crops on Mauritius.
Over the next couple of decades, Bird Island saw the establishment of a coconut plantation, which also grew papayas and cotton. During this time, bird populations fell. For example, the sooty tern, one of the prized annual visitors to the island, reduced from over a million in 1931 to 65,000 pairs by the late 30s, and to a startling 18,000 pairs by 1955.
In 1967, Guy Savy purchased Bird Island and then set about restoring the island to its natural habitat. Not only had human hands caused the bird population to suffer, but rabbits and rats — who competed with the birds for food — had also overrun the island. From 1995-96, the island’s owners brought in exterminators to rid the island of the rodent population so that the birds could repopulate and thrive.
The results of the hard work of Savy and his family have paid off. Among Bird Island’s many awards, the BBC recognized the location in 2006 as the seventh-best destination for genuine eco-tourism in the world.
Bird Island Inhabitants
The birds, for which the island is named, number in the millions. While there are birds that live on the island all year, migratory birds make up huge numbers of the population at intervals. Some even travel from as far away as Australia. Hundreds of thousands of birds nest in ground burrows and raise their young there during the breeding season, which lasts anywhere from March to October.
Bird Island is home to over 20 species of resident birds. Those include greater crested terns, fairy terns, frigatebirds, barred ground doves, noddies, white-tailed tropicbirds, curlew sandpipers, Seychelles blue pigeons, grey heron, cattle egret, ruddy turnstones, and more.
Some species of migratory and vagrant birds on Bird Island are crab plovers, red-billed tropicbirds, bar-tailed godwits, little terns, Saunders’ terns, red-backed shrikes, and blue-cheeked bee-eaters. But the most famous migrant birds are the sooty terns.
Sooty Tern Colony
Bird Island is famous for housing one of the largest breeding colonies of sooty terns in the world. Terns are a species of sea birds in the family Laridae which also includes gulls, kittiwakes, and skimmers. Terns don’t have many natural predators so typically live long lives. Many species are declining, however, because of habitat loss due to humans or certain mammals.
Sooty terns, a subspecies of terns, prefer coral or rocky islands for breeding. They’ll inhabit such islands for their breeding season, which on Bird Island, lasts from March to October. The process begins with them hovering in the area during March in the tens of thousands. Throughout April and May, they’ll begin settling on the island, where they’ll build nests in holes or ground scrapes. In June, female sooty terns will lay a single egg in their nests within a 10-day period. The eggs will hatch after 28-30 days. Then, the moms will feed their babies on a diet of fish and squid until their maturation, which will take about two months. By October, the juvenile birds will be able to fly and migrate with the flock.
When not breeding, sooty terns spend their lives at sea. Amazingly, when at sea, they stay in the air nearly constantly. That’s because the lack of oil in their feathers prevents them from floating on water. They dive for fish on the ocean’s surface for sustenance.
Sooty terns are a larger subspecies of tern, measuring 13-14 inches long with a wingspan of 32.5-37 inches. They have dark feathers on their upper bodies and white ones on their underbelly, with black legs and bills. Their life spans are 32 years on average. Sooty terns have a loud piercing cry described as ker-wack-a-wack.
Aldabra Tortoises and Sea Turtles
There are more animals than just birds inhabiting Bird Island. In fact, it is a known breeding ground for sea turtles. Two varieties — green turtles and hawksbill turtles — nest and breed on beaches on the island. Green turtles can breed all year long but prefer the months of June to September. They are harder for tourists to spot as they come ashore in the evenings to lay eggs. Meanwhile, hawksbill turtles breed from October to February, with up to five female turtles a day building nests and laying eggs through January. From December to March, hatchlings emerge and make their way to the ocean.
There are over 20 Aldabra tortoises living on Bird Island, the most famous being Esmeralda, known as the world’s heaviest land tortoise (weighing a whopping 670 pounds), and the second oldest in the world (only surpassed by Jonathan, who hatched in 1832). Estimates put Esmeralda, a male tortoise, at around 170 years old. It’s not uncommon for guests on the island to interact with Esmeralda and the other friendly tortoises that live there.
The sociable bottlenose dolphin lives in shallows off the coast of Bird Island in groups of 10 to 100. This popular species of dolphin are friendly, energetic, and smart. They are known for their trademark snout, which resembles a bottle in its shape. Visitors riding in boats around the coastline of Bird Island can often see these entertaining creatures, who bow-ride the waves created by the boats.
Migratory whales are another animal that you can find off the coast of Bird Island, usually from October to November. Humpback whales, southern right whales, and short-finned pilot whales are the types that frequent the waters.
As humpback whales are protected from whaling in the Seychelles, they are the most likely species to be spotted by whale watchers. They migrate thousands of miles from polar regions to tropical climates annually to breed. Short-finned whales prefer temperate waters, so you can see them year-round off the coast of Bird Island. Southern right whales are the rarest to see, as the Seychelles are outside their region. There have been sightings of them in recent years, though, suggesting that they are expanding their habitat.
Sea Cows (Dugongs)
Originally, Bird Island was referred to as Île aux Vaches (‘Island of Sea Cows’) because of the numerous sea cows that were spotted in the seagrasses around the coastline. These sea cows, also known as dugongs, are now extinct from that area of the Seychelles. There is still an existing population of dugongs at the Aldabra Atoll, a UNESCO World Heritage site, a protected marine animal habitat.
Much work has been done to rebuild bird populations that suffered at the hands of many years of human activity on Bird Island. Several implemented programs, focusing on species like the sooty terns, the white-tailed tropicbirds, and Seychelles sunbirds, help in these efforts.
Populations of white-tailed tropicbirds were restored from one breeding pair to 90 pairs within 10 years after the restoration of their breeding habitats. As they are protected, these birds fearlessly build their nests near the chalets so that vacationers can easily spot them.
Another program, begun in 2006, involved introducing a group of 33 Seychelles sunbirds to Bird Island. These vocal birds have populated the entire island now and enjoy feeding on nectar from tropical flowers.
The sooty terns, as aforementioned, had dwindled significantly, attributed in part to the harvesting of their eggs for human consumption. Government intervention helped control this activity so that their numbers could bounce back. Research has also been done on sooty terns by ringing them to track their lifespans and where they travel when not breeding on Bird Island.
Visiting Bird Island
The only way to visit Bird Island on foot is by flying from the island of Mahé. If you plan to visit, it may surprise you to learn that there is only one place for vacationers to stay — Bird Island Lodge. The lodge has 26 chalets which have 2-3 bedrooms in each. There is one shop to buy food items and other essentials, and one restaurant, only open in the evenings.
Activities one can enjoy include snorkeling in the coral reefs, kayaking, fishing, and visiting with land tortoises. And of course, there are nature trails that will allow visitors the opportunity to observe sea turtles and the abundance of birds that inhabit the island, with guided nature walks available.
Bird Island is indeed a birdwatcher’s paradise! If you’d enjoy the opportunity to observe numerous wild bird species in their natural habitat, then this island is the place to go. No doubt it would be a very pricey trip, but definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
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