Last time we checked in with Jon Erickson he was getting to know a couple of Mauritius Kestrels. This time he’s been out to Ile aux Aigrettes, a tiny island sitting a half-mile off the island of Mauritius. It’s a refuge maintained by the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation, and home to giant tortoises, pink pigeons, and fodies.
Read on—and listen along—to what Jon found on his visit to this island-off-an-island:
The best thing about recording a giant tortoise is that it can’t easily get away from you. However, a quarter-ton of muscle and shell can be persuasive when it wants you to move. Occasionally, it grunts or groans as it slowly pulls its mass along in the midday heat. These are the sounds that I am trying to capture as I sit in the grass and weeds, parabola pointed at his indefatigable mouth. I watch as he pauses from his incessant crunching to inspect a small plant in front of him. I recognize the plant as Gastonia mauritania, one of the critically endangered plants endemic to Mauritius. The tortoise cautiously mouths one of the long, skinny leaves and decides against it, resuming his activities with the grass and dead leaves.
Hear the giant tortoise:
This choice is loaded with significance. Two species of giant tortoise used to exist on Mauritius, but both are now extinct. Gastonia had evolved an effective means to deter these herbivores. The young plants produce long, thin leaves striped with bright red veins that giant tortoises dislike. As the plant grows safely out of tortoise reach, the veins disappear and the leaves broaden to better catch the sunlight.
The tortoise that I am recording is one of a few dozen the Mauritius Wildlife Foundation brought from the island of Aldabra to fill the void created by the extinction of the native species. And they seem to be doing their job very well, eating mainly introduced plant species and dispersing the seeds of the endemic species they do eat. Along with reintroducing native birds and removing alien species, it’s part of the conservation group’s effort to return Ile aux Aigrettes to the state it was in before humans arrived on Mauritius.
Pink Pigeons and Mauritius Fodies seem to be everywhere on my visit. Within a few minutes of assembling my gear I have the microphone pointed at a male pigeon as he walks along the forest floor courting a female. With his chest feathers puffed out, he walks awkwardly behind her, giving a great example of his mating call.
The pigeons aren’t shy at all, and it’s easy to get within a few feet of them. They are striking and much larger than I anticipated. Dark gray wings set off a light-pink head and torso highlighted by rich, rust-colored tail feathers. They sit lazily in low tree branches, on the ground, or on feeders the MWF has provided, all the time making their deep, beautiful “hoo-hooOOOooo” call.
Hear the Pink Pigeon’s call:
I point the parabola at one as it flies toward the cone-shaped tin feeder. Instead of landing on one of the perches, it lands directly on the pointed top. It stands, looking at me, trying to gain its balance. My microphone picks up scratching sounds as the bird tries for traction on the tin. The bird is still looking at me as it begins sliding down the feeder and finally falls with a thud to the ground. It stands up dazed and slowly walks away. I listen back to my recording and wonder if anyone would ever be interested in listening to a Pink Pigeon falling off of a bird feeder.
Listen to the pigeon slip and slide:
I shrug my shoulders and begin recording fodies. They are even more cooperative. Dozens are flying around the feeder. In the sunlight, I can only describe the males as flying jewels. The brilliant red is almost blinding. I watch the intricacies of their courtship behavior and begin collecting recordings. After some time, the birds (especially the females) become curious and start moving closer towards me. I’m forced to turn down the gain on my recorder as the their shrill chirps max out my recording levels. One of the birds almost decides to use my microphone as a perch.
During my eight hours on the island, I collected an impressive number of recordings. Tortoise, pigeon, fody: If only all my targets could be this cooperative!
A Mauritius Fody calls just inches from Jon’s microphone:
More posts from Mauritius:
(Images and sounds recorded by Jon Erickson.)