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Breeding again after 153 years: Black-capped Petrel returns to Dominica

Black-capped Petrel off of Hatteras, North Carolina, photograph by Patrick Coin (Wikimedia Commons).
Black-capped Petrel off of Hatteras, North Carolina, photograph by Patrick Coin (Wikimedia Commons).

Scientists at the just-concluded annual meeting of BirdsCaribbean in Kingston, Jamaica, have announced exciting, hopeful news:

One of the world’s rarest seabirds, the endangered Black-capped Petrel, is breeding on the island of Dominica for the first time in over 150 years.

The species once had colonies throughout the Caribbean region, and it was abundant on Dominica. But in the late 1800s, introduced mammalian predators and hunting by humans took their inevitable toll, and the species became extirpated on many islands.

Until recently, only 1,000-2,000 breeding pairs were thought to remain, and the colonies were believed to be located on Hispaniola only — in southeastern Haiti and in the mountains of the Dominican Republic.

“Finding this colony of petrels on Dominica is a real game-changer for Black-capped Petrel conservation,” said scientist Adam Brown, the leader of the expedition that discovered the birds.

“Dominica is an island-nation where nature conservation is a high priority, and forests needed by petrels are well protected, so we now have a huge new opportunity to undertake conservation efforts to preserve this imperiled species.”

Brown is co-founder of the research and conservation organization Environmental Protection in the Caribbean (EPIC).

In January 2015, EPIC teamed up with scientists from Dominica’s Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries to conduct a systematic survey of the island aimed at determining the petrel’s status.

The last nests on Dominica were recorded in 1862, but adult birds have been found occasionally on the ground in coastal or inland areas, buoying hopes that the species persisted on the island.

Exceptionally difficult to study, Black-capped Petrel comes to shore for only a few months of the year, and it nests in underground burrows, which it approaches only at night.

Consequently, Brown’s team of researchers adopted a technique developed to study petrels on Hispaniola: They employed a portable marine-radar array and nightvision scopes to locate and identify birds as they flew to and from potential nest areas in the island’s highest peaks. And the biologists were successful, counting no fewer than 968 Black-capped Petrels.

Though confident that the petrels were indeed breeding, Brown says the next step is to confirm breeding by locating active nests. He reports that biologists will search for birds, eggs, or chicks in burrows in early 2016, when breeding petrels are expected to return to Dominica.

Read about Black-capped Petrel (BirdLife).

Read about EPIC.

Learn more about BirdsCaribbean.

 

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