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Recording Mauritius: Birding the Black Gorges

Mauritius Kestrel
Mauritius Kestrel by Jon Erickson.

As winter settles in on North America, Jon Erickson is sweating his way through tropical forest in Black River Gorges National Park, perhaps the finest remaining tract of forest on the island of Mauritius. Read on for sights—and to hear the sounds he recorded—from his first day looking for the endangered Mauritius Kestrel, one of the highest priorities for his recording trip to Mauritius. –Hugh Powell

From an overlook high in the mountains, the Black River Gorges park splays out below me in all its majesty. Green, tropical vegetation covers the landscape.  Waterfalls drop in that slow motion effect that can only be created by large phenomena at great distance.  White-tailed Tropicbirds stand out against the green and glide across the forest below me.

A Mascarene White-eye lands in a small tree right next to me and courteously begins singing. I have my parabolic microphone pointed at the bird before the song even starts and the recording is a success. Also called the Mauritius Grey White-eye, this bird is the most common endemic species on the island. I’m happy for the recording, but scanning obsessively for rarer species.

Back on the access road, I see two men parking their motorcycles at a pull-off. One is wearing a Mauritian Wildlife Foundation t-shirt. I’ve been hoping to meet members of this group, which is responsible in large part for helping many of the island’s endemic birds return from the critical danger of extinction. Fortunately, I find they’ve heard of me, too through my efforts to contact the foundation.

They introduce themselves as Richard and Andy and tell me they are climbing the cliffs on the west side of the gorge to investigate a few Mauritius Kestrel nests. Would I like to come along? I’m ecstatic and follow them up the trail.

Mauritius Kestrel
Mauritius Kestrel by Jon Erickson.

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At the top of the cliffs, as we are resting briefly, a kestrel swoops through the trees above us screeching. It lands 20 yards away with a large lizard in its talons. I frantically get my gear out and point the parabola at the bird, but it places the lizard in a cache near the top of the tree and flies off. I’m disappointed, but Richard assures me there will be more opportunities.

We hike down the cliff a little ways and locate the bird’s nest tucked into the rocky crag. Richard looks inside, face grim. “No eggs. This guy hasn’t found a female yet.” An hour later the bird returns with a freshly killed gecko, landing on a branch in front of the nest.  During his approach he shrieks his announcement, and this time I get the recording.

Hear the kestrel:

(A group of Mascarene White-eyes call for a few seconds before the kestrel flies in, making a sharp call that sounds surprisingly similar to the American Kestrel‘s call.)

The Mauritius kestrel is a bit of an anomaly. Back home, we typically see kestrels hovering over open fields hunting for small mammals. This species, though, has evolved shorter and rounder wings that give it the ability to dart and dash through forest and underbrush with amazing agility. This maneuverability allows it to pick off its favorite food of gecko even in dense vegetation.

Unfortunately, this trait has nearly been the bird’s downfall. The kestrel’s natural habitat has been reduced significantly as Mauritius’ forests have been leveled to make room for its expanding sugarcane industry. It’s ironic to think that a kestrel could be threatened by the creation of open fields, but that’s its situation.

Before we head home, Richard and Andy inform me I’m welcome to come to the nests whenever I’d like. November is the kestrel’s breeding season, so I plan to return soon.  Hopefully next time I will have the opportunity to record two birds: a male and a female.

Read more about Jon’s experiences on his own blog.

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American Kestrel by Blair Dudeck / Macaulay Library