Bird watching on an uninhabited island

Some researchers get lucky. They don’t end up in the basement of a grey laboratory. They don’t have to fight over a shared desk. No, their work spaces look more like a holiday resort. This week: Cousin.
By Christien Boomsma

Sarah Raj Pant stayed at the tropical island of Cousin for almost three months. The RUG-PhD-student researched infidelity among the rare Seychelles warblers that live on the tiny island in the Indian Ocean. She had to observe the birds, find their nests, tag them, and sample their blood, starting at first light and not stopping until night fell, for weeks on end.

‘I was completely hyperactive when I first came to Cousin. The island is so mind-blowing that I just couldn’t stop looking. Birds are flying everywhere with impressively long tails and bright colours. The island is exploding with life.

But death lurks at every corner. Most trees are covered in seabird nests, but when chicks fall out they often get eaten by crabs and tortoises. It all adds to the cycle of life and death. It was awesome – I was filled with wonder.

Bird poo

I lived with a maximum of three or four people in a very basic house on the beach. We gather water from a well. There is some running water on the island, but it isn’t very clear. I used to wash in the ocean, but you’re never really clean, with birds pooing on you all the time. After a few weeks you feel like a savage. I’d feel that especially when tourists would come to the island on those one-hour tours and I could smell their sunscreen from afar.

Luckily, the atmosphere was very positive. You need that, because after some time island syndrome can really get to you. Cousin is really tiny; you walk around it in fifteen minutes or so and there is not much you can do. You may feel claustrophobic. You start longing to see something that isn’t beach, sea, or birds – but that’s all there is. I used to go snorkeling when that happened.

Touristic attracion

The researchers that stay on the island for three months or more get to spend a couple of days on another island, La Digue, halfway through their stay. That island is a tourist attraction, so you can wash, sleep, and see normal people.

I realize how special it was to be able to go to such a place. But it was also nice to get home – to be clean, to not to have bird poo all over you several times a day. And no more mosquitoes. Come to think of it, that may have been the hardest part of my stay – dealing with the insects. Staying on Cousin was a unique experience, but it also made me enjoy all the basic commodities of modern life more once I got back to Europe.’



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