The Black-capped Petrel: hope for an imperiled species

10 04 2012

Black-capped Petrel in flight


Having lived my whole life in New England, SEANET has offered numerous eye-opening opportunities for me to learn about species not known in my home region. One of these is the endangered Black-capped Petrel. This seabird breeds on the island of Hispaniola on both the Dominican Republic and Haiti sides. It now appears likely that small numbers of the birds may nest on Cuba as well. These seabirds are nocturnal and give eerie calls when on the nesting colony; these behaviors are likely responsible for the bird’s Spanish nickname “Diablotín,” or “little devil.” Even while raising young, the birds make long foraging journeys out to sea, and their full range extends from Brazil up to the northeastern United States.

The bird being rare overall, and being pelagic the vast majority of the time, the chances of a Seanetter finding the carcass of a Black-capped Petrel are slim, but not nonexistent. They are regular visitors to the waters off the Carolinas, and with our recent expansion efforts in that area, it seems timely to share information on this species with you Seanetters. You can follow the efforts of the Black-capped Petrel working group at their website, and also read the conservation action plan they published earlier this year. The threats to this bird will sound familiar to most, if not all of our seabird loving readership: a combination of habitat loss and degradation, and nest predation by introduced predators (cats, rats, etc.). The potential impacts of offshore oil and natural gas development on this struggling species have brought close scrutiny to proposed projects off the coast of South Carolina. Nocturnal birds of all sorts are at risk of colliding with lighted structures like cell phone towers, oil platforms and wind turbines, so the night-flying Black-capped Petrel could suffer more than many other seabirds from the contruction of these tall obstacles.

Both the nocturnal habits and secretive nature of this species has made it difficult to determine the extent of their breeding range, and their use of underground burrow nests make finding them difficult in the high mountain forests where they breed. Thus, a major focus of the conservation plan is simply to get a better sense of where the birds nest, and how many breeding pairs remain. Night-vision cameras are in use at known nests to monitor for visits by feral cats and other predators. By clearly delineating the habitats the birds use, and the nature of the threats they face, scientists can better choose the most beneficial tactics from among many potential conservation actions.

Home range of the Black-capped Petrel in blue, nesting range in yellow.

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