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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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  • Paul,

    Thanks for this. I’m just blown away by the potential of such technologies to give us vital information that can be used to understand and conserve species from critically endangered ones like the Bermuda Petrel on down to much more common and familiar ones.

    But I can’t help but pose a question about how this data might affect things like official state lists. Suppose one of those Bermuda Petrels can be shown to have crossed Virginia (or New York or….) waters from one of these data recorders, even though there were no human witnesses?

    In other words, if a bird flies through the forest and there is no one there to see or hear it, does it count? Have any state records committees or similar bodies made a ruling about this sort of thing?

  • Hi, Jeff.

    It has been almost ten years since I’ve been on a state records committee, so I’m not up to date on this.

    I’ll see what I can find out. Meanwhile… If any current records committee members see this, how about letting us know your committee’s policy.


  • Jeff, you ask good questions!

    I accidentally posted your query on the Frontiers of Field Identification listserve and quickly received eight replies.

    Just now, I sent the message to my originally intended list, the Bird Records Committee Forum.

    When it appears that I have all the replies that are coming, I’ll compile them for the ABA blog.

    Everyone agrees that it’s a fascinating topic.


  • Paul,

    I saw the responses on ID-Frontiers…people did seem eager to take up the question, despite its not being totally on-topic for the forum. It’ll be interesting to see the responses from the records committee list.

    Looking forward to more.

  • Speaking of record committees, the article says, “…we got a photograph, it was unmistakeably a cahow. So we know, every year, they go up to Canadian waters.”

    I haven’t found an official checklist of Canadian birds in 5 minutes of googling, but I imagine that would be a new bird for Canada?

    Although unlike the above question, there’s a photo.

  • Speaking of tracking seabirds, how about the following exchange of posts yesterday on the Seabirds e-mail discussion list! Could one of the Zino’s Petrel “surprises” involve ABA Area waters? As Tony Pym says, we’ll have to wait and see.

    Robert Wallace Mar 28 01:55PM -0700

    Hello all – This is a fascinating article, and it begs the question if other Atlantic Pterodromas (Black-capped, Feas, Trindade, Zino’s), may follow a similar pattern of feeding movements. Particularly interesting is how they use fronts and storms to go out for food, and return home, and one wonders if they pick their feeding location based on weather, or wait for the weather to go.

    Is anyone aware if there a link that shows the tracks of these tagged birds?

    thanks in advance,
    R. D. Wallace
    New Smyrna Beach, FL

    Tony Pym Mar 28 04:42PM -0700

    The results from data loggers fitted to both Zino’s and Fea’s Petrels are yet to be published but I can say these also will be very enlightening (with some surprises in store!!)….but everyone will have to await the paper being published.

    Birds use meteorological, and oceanographic, phenomena and many seabirds make use of the prevailing wind systems also: for example, given Pterodroma and Pseudobulweria species can be found by considering flight dynamics and the prevailing wind directions.

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