Recording Mauritius: Echo Parakeets of Macchabee ForestBy Jon Erickson
August 13, 2010
Sitting in the grass in front of a field station known simply as “Camp”, it is hard to imagine that the birds I am looking at are an endangered species. They seem to be everywhere. At one point, I count 14 birds from my vantage point. These are Mauritius (Echo) Parakeets, one of the rarest parrot species in the world.
The environment here is unlike anywhere else in Mauritius. Through the hard work of the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation, most of the alien flora has been eliminated. It is a place where you can get an idea of what the island might have been like in its original state. There are no Chinese guava trees here, which have invaded almost every other forest in Mauritius (and actually originate from Brazil and not China). Instead, I just see wet upland forest of native black ebony, takamaka, and bois de natte dominating the landscape. It is a place of unspoiled beauty.
The Echo Parakeets also seem to like it here, and the supplemental feeding stations maintained by the M.W.F. staff probably have something to do with that. The stations are quite ingenious. They are made from PVC tubes aligned in a 45-degree angle. People fill from the top and parrots get to the food from the bottom openings, which have small, hinged lids. The parakeets lift the lids with their beaks, stick their head inside to grab a pellet, and then transfer the pellet to a foot in order to eat it. They are the only animals in the area that can manage this trick. Of course, it takes a bit of trial and error, and it was quite fun watching the juveniles trying to solve the puzzle. One lifted the lid only to have it fall before managing to stick its head inside. Another lifted the lid with its foot only to discover that it was now impossible to grab a pellet. The staff assured me that they all eventually sort it out.
Here’s a video of the Echo Parakeets at the feeders:
After several hours of recording audio here, I moved on into the even-more-gorgeous Brise Fer forest, following a hand-drawn map to search for the Mauritius Bulbul. The forest here was full of larger trees whose canopy prevented any non-native undergrowth from gaining a foothold. Massive spider webs spanned between the trees. Finding the spot on the map, I sat on a large tree trunk and made a few mid-volume pishes to make my presence known.
It didn’t take long for the bulbuls to find me. These birds are quite inquisitive and also very territorial. The first flew to a branch about 10 feet away and gave me a good looking over. Its partner appeared just moments later. I pointed the parabola at the nearest, but the pair remained silent (to my dismay) as they calmly preened and stretched their wings. But soon, a third, unwelcome bulbul flew a little too close. They both flew toward it and I listened through my headphones as the microphone captured their shrill, bubbling call.
Here’s one of the Mauritius Bulbul calls I captured:
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My next target species, the Mauritius Cuckoo-shrike, is an elusive bird. I got a lead from a staff member but also heard the disheartening tale of a volunteer who had worked at the field station for four months and not seen a single cuckoo-shrike. But I was determined to find this bird. In fact, it had become a bit of a white whale for me. On an earlier solo overnight trip into a different area of the park, a female cuckoo-shrike had landed in a tree about eight feet from me and begun calling. I had scrambled frantically for my recording gear, but as soon as I had the microphone pointed at the bird, it had flown away.
So now was my chance. As I approached the area I had been pointed to, I began scanning the branches for movement. Suddenly, from above me, I heard the definitive “sore-throat” screeches I was listening for: a male cuckoo-shrike! I swung the parabola around and began recording, and soon a female joined him. My Macchabee forest trip—one of the most unusual places I’ve ever seen—was a great success.