Pacific
30 Dec 2015

Will 2016 be the year the nesting sites of the enigmatic Fiji and Beck’s petrels are found?

Neil Fitzgerald and Chris Gaskin capturing New Zealand Storm Petrels at sea maybe the key to saving the Fiji and Beck's petrel - photo: Martin Berg
Neil Fitzgerald and Chris Gaskin capturing New Zealand Storm Petrels at sea maybe the key to saving the Fiji and Beck's petrel - photo by Martin Berg
By Mike Britton

Lost then found species capture the imagination of people everywhere.  They make the news and their discovery is celebrated.  There is every expectation that once `found’ the lost species will now join the list of living species, rather than the ghosts of species lost.

But that is not a certainty as most `lost’ species are extremely rare and endangered.  And unless conservation action can be taken to secure them for habitat threats and predators that are responsible for their `loss’ in the first place, these new sightings may only be a glimpse before they are gone once again, this time for forever.  The biggest danger for most sea bird species is the time they spend ashore nesting and to their eggs and fledglings.  Knowing exactly where these `lost’ birds nest is essential to ensuring they have a future.

Beck’s petrel is one of the `lost’ seabirds of the Pacific.  Lost for 75 years after its initial discovery and recording, it was only spotted again in 2007 offshore of the Papua New Guinean islands of New Britain and New Ireland.   Despite increased reporting of Beck’s Petrel sightings for southern New Ireland there is no knowledge of precisely where they breed and the search area remain vast.  It is rated as Critically Endangered.    

Fiji Petrel is another `lost but found’ bird that is also Critically Endangered.  Lost for over 100 years apart from a few tantalising glimpses, it was rediscovered when one was captured in in 1984.  It is currently believed that fewer than 50 pairs survive, breeding in 52 square kilometres in  rugged forest on the island of Gau, Fiji, but its nesting grounds have yet to be located.  It has to be assumed that the existing meagre population of Fiji Petrel is declining.  We know that cats are on the high ridgelines as are Pacific Rats   Brown and Black rats are also on the island but their distribution is not known.  Feral pigs are also a major treat.  But until the location of the nests is known no practical conservation measures to secure the remaining nests and start the recovery cannot happen.  Finding where they nest is the single most urgent and important conservation action required now to save the species from extinction.  BirdLife wants to make 2016 the year we gave both these birds a secure future.

Thanks to a grant from the Critical Ecosystems Partnership Fund (CEPF) we are planning an expedition to find the Beck’s Petrel nesting sites.  In narrowing the geographical area down the project will aim to capture birds, probably off the coast, using techniques recently developed in locating the nesting sites of other Oceania sea birds.  The objective is to put tiny satellite transmitters on these birds and follow them back to their breeding colonies.   This will enable subsequent fine-scale land-based searches to occur (with the likely assistance of VHF transmitters) and in ultimately pin-pointing the colony and then enable land-based conservation efforts.  A pretty ambitious project and we are urgently seeking more sponsors and supporters. 

The initial need is contributions to pay for more satellite transmitters and for the hire of boats.

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The search for Fiji Petrel is even more urgent.   This may be their last chance.  There have been other searches and it is ongoing.  Two (New Zealand-trained) petrel detector dogs are deployed on the island and the presence of Collard Petrel on Gau allows the search teams to gain experience without impacting on the rare Fijian Petrels.  But finding Fiji Petrel is a complex challenge and needs the further support of experienced seabird biologists and the application of a range of technologies to support the petrel dogs and increase the chances of finding these nesting sites.  Recently experience has been gained in locating the nests of other petrels including other `lost birds' such as the New Zealand Storm Petrel and the Chatham Island Taiko. Fiji Petrel are too small to use satellite technology but if some can be captured at sea of on land then radio transmitters can be used with telemetry to help pin point their location.   But is not easy and will require a long time, over several months, at sea around Gau where the birds congregate at dusk or on land with spotlighting.

Bringing together a team of the people will be the key and is a really exciting challenge.  These is no guarantee but if we don't succeed this iconic bird will be lost. 

This attempt will not be cheap and we need to raise US$200,000.  A donation of boat time would be another way someone who loves the Petrels of the Pacific could make a huge contribution.