The nesting location of the Ringed Storm-Petrel has long puzzled researchers. Also known as the Hornby’s Storm-Petrel, this gem of a seabird spends the majority of its life at sea off the South American coast. Its Spanish name, Golondrina del Mar, means “swallow of the sea.” But where it goes to breed has been a mystery since the species was described in 1854.
In April, Chilean ornithologists from the Red de Observadores de Aves y Vida Silvestre de Chile (ROC), the Chilean Birding Network, made a long-hoped-for discovery: the first known breeding colony of Ringed Storm-Petrels. The team found the seabirds nesting in a surprising location — in burrows in the Atacama Desert in northern Chile, far from what would be considered normal seabird nesting habitat.
The ROC team searched the desert salt pans, hunting in cracks and crevices for traces of this elusive bird. They found the petrels 50 miles inland, near the city of Diego de Almagro in the Atacama region.
The fragile desert colonies are vulnerable to human-created disturbances and habitat disruption, including garbage and the scavengers it draws. As scientists learn more about this species’ nesting distribution, they can begin making recommendations for conservation actions to protect them.
More breeding sites are surely out there to be discovered in both Chile and Peru. Every year, residents of Lima, Peru, find Ringed Storm-Petrel fledglings stranded on the city’s streets. The young birds have just left their nesting colonies and are embarking on their maiden journey out to sea. Like other nocturnal seabird species, the birds are attracted to the bright lights of cities, where they can become disoriented and collide with power lines or other structures. Local NGO Proyecto Golondrina de la Tempestad de Collar, one of ABC’s partners, helps rescue and release the stranded birds to safely pass to the sea. ABC has supported work by ROC to learn more about another data-deficient seabird species in the region, Markham’s Storm-Petrel in Chile. It also nests in the salt pans of the Atacama and is attracted to the lights of cities and other infrastructure.
The discovery in the Atacama Desert has given us new clues about where Ringed Storm-Petrels like to nest. That information, along with data from the stranded birds in Lima, will help guide the ongoing search for more nesting sites of “the swallow of the sea.”
A version of this article appeared in the October 2017 issue of BirdWatching magazine.
This story was provided by American Bird Conservancy, a 501(c)(3), not-for-profit organization whose mission is to conserve native birds and their habitats throughout the Americas.
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