16 Dec 2011

Fiji Petrel crash-lands in Gau

By BirdLife Pacific
NatureFiji-MareqetiViti recently recovered and released a Fiji Petrel Pseudobulweria macgillivrayi, after it landed in a village on Gau Island, Fiji, where this enigmatic species is believed to breed. The bird grounded was found by local villagers, carefully checked by NatureFiji-MareqetiViti and released safely. Remarkably another individual was caught the following month. “We are especially happy that the Nawaikama villagers closely followed the procedures we have developed to care for landed petrels”, said Eleazar O'Connor - NatureFiji-MareqetiViti Field Manager. “They contacted us quickly and enabled the petrel's health to be checked, a thorough set of measurements and moult check made, the first ever band on a Fiji Petrel put on, and the petrel successfully released".   The population of Fiji Petrel is unknown, but believed to be fewer than 50 pairs, and potentially declining because of predation by cats, rats and feral pigs. It is classified as Critically Endangered by BirdLife on behalf of the IUCN Red List. NatureFiji-MareqetiViti is the Species Guardian for Fiji Petrel under the BirdLife Preventing Extinctions Programme. MareqetiViti has implemented a Fiji Petrel project since its establishment in mid-2007, and currently employs three full time staff and many part time field assistants on the island, all but one of them from Gau Island. A Species Champion is being urgently sought to support this work, which includes searching for nest burrows, working with island communities to gather information about the threats to the petrel, and training local people to help find nests and care for and release birds which land in villages at night after being attracted by lights. Fiji Petrels are thought to breed among the large numbers of globally Vulnerable Collared Petrels Pterodroma brevipes that nest in the rugged interior of Gau, where more than 70 km2 of suitable forest still exists. Collared are used as a surrogate for Fiji Petrels when training Gau islanders in petrel handling and measurement, burrow conservation monitoring, and management techniques (especially cat, rat and pig control). Two specially-trained ‘petrel burrow detector’ dogs have so far located two Collared Petrel nests.   Fiji Petrel was known only from one immature specimen collected in 1855 on Gau Island, until in the mid-1980s, grounded birds began to be reported from villages in Gau. In 2009, two expeditions off Gau made the first observations ever of this species at sea; but despite choosing the optimum month, and using chum, a pungent mixture of fish offal and fish oil which usually attracts all the petrels in the vicinity, there were only eleven sightings of Fiji Petrels over 22 days. NatureFiji-MareqetiViti and the BirdLife Pacific Secretariat have continued to search for the species at sea using chum. During many hours of boat-based surveys there has been just one sighting of Fiji Petrel at sea in May 2011 made by a joint NFMV-BirdLife team. A recent chumming trip in November failed to record the species in waters around Gau, but did gather valuable information on other threatened seabirds. “It’s always difficult to draw conclusions from a blank”, said Jez Bird, BirdLife’s Pacific marine Important Bird Area co-ordinator. “Whether we failed to see Fiji Petrel in November because of their rarity, or because the birds leave Fiji’s waters for another part of the Pacific we can’t yet say”. The important thing is to keep getting out there and gathering all the information we can throughout the year to inform future conservation actions”. Despite its elusive nature, the Fiji Petrel is a source of considerable pride for Fijian people, and the species was for many years used as the emblem of the national airline (Air Fiji), as well as being depicted on the country’s first $50 banknote. The new 2012 currency will see a much larger picture of the Fiji Petrel on the $20 banknote. To read more about the recent landing of Fiji Petrel on Gau, click here. This news is brought to you by the BirdLife Preventing Extinctions Programme Subscribe to The BirdLife Pacific Quarterly E-Newsletter