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A Bird of Hope; a Mystery Solved

The Bermuda Petrel is a bird of almost tragic fate, reduced to near extinction. It is a bird of hope, whose population is recovering thanks largely to the almost superhuman efforts of a man named David Wingate and of his successors in intensive recovery efforts. It is the Holy Grail of many a birder on pelagic trips off North Carolina.

It is also a bird of mystery, keeping a tantalizing secret: Where do Bermuda Petrels go when they leave their namesake island and neighboring Nonsuch Island, where a small breeding population has been introduced and established?

Cahow, (c) Ned Brinkley Now the answer has been revealed by a geolocator—a small, ultralight device attached to a bird, which records the latitude, longitude, and timing of a bird’s positions, which can be downloaded when the bird is recaptured and the device is retrieved.  

An article in the online edition of Bermuda’s Royal Gazette tells the stunning story. Nine birds were tracked for up to two years, with geolocators affixed under the direction of Australian petrel expert Nicholas Carlile.

The discovery is that these birds may travel as far as 4,500 miles to feed their chicks, going as far as Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, and offshore western Europe and back again. The occurrence of these birds off eastern Canada has been confirmed by photographs.

Geolocators show that the nine birds moved at least 36,000 miles within a single year, and that the “champion” traveled 81,000 miles. It is almost unbelievable.

The findings are of special interest to pelagic birders off our East Coast. Although six of the geolocator-tagged birds spent the summer near the Azores, three of them stayed between Bermuda, Nova Scotia, and North Carolina. (Meanwhile, new knowledge of their occurrence in the northeastern Atlantic has prompted birders in Ireland to spend time looking for them.)

Those of us who have taken many pelagic trips off North Carolina without seeing a Bermuda Petrel envy the fortunate minority who happen to be out in the Gulf Stream on precisely the right day and at exactly the right moment to cross a Bermuda Petrel’s path.

Never mind. Take comfort, at least, in the exciting discovery of where a majority of these resurrected seabirds spend most of their far-flung year.

photo (c) Ned Brinkley

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Paul Hess

Paul Hess

Paul Hess, the Birding "News and Notes" Department Editor, started watching birds at age 7 in Los Angeles. Now a retired newspaper editor in Pennsylvania, he formerly chaired the Pennsylvania Ornithological Records Committee, has contributed many articles to the journal Pennsylvania Birds, writes an ornithological news column for the Pennsylvania Society for Ornithology newsletter, edits the Three Rivers Birding Club newsletter in Pittsburgh, and has coauthored several National Geographic books on birds. Paul has received prominent awards for outstanding contributions to Pennsylvania ornithology and for bird conservation efforts in the state.
Paul Hess

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