American Birding Podcast



Confirmation of a New Nesting Site for Black-capped Petrel

For pelagic birders on the east coast, it doesn’t get much better than a Black-capped Petrel in a breeze. Like all Pterodromas, they cruise on the wind like a fine Italian sportscar on a mountain road, effortlessly and with breathtaking abandon. For decades the only known nest sites of this charismatic seabird were in patches of high mountain forest on the island of Hispaniola – including some of the last remaining patches of native forest in Haiti – where rampant destruction of natural resources continue to make their long-term survival uncertain.

A Black-capped Petrel in North Carolina's Gulf Stream, photo by George Armistead from the ABA's Seabirding IFO

A Black-capped Petrel in North Carolina’s Gulf Stream, photo by George Armistead from the ABA’s Seabirding IFO

But a re-discovery on the tiny island of Dominica not only offers a huge ray of hope to a beleaguered population, but is also a statement about that nation’s established environmental movement, and the success that is within the reach of other Caribbean nations. The Black-capped Petrel is once again confirmed to nest there, for the first time since 1862.

From a report at the Caribbean News Service:

Adam Brown, Co-founder and Lead Scientist at EPIC states, “Finding this colony of petrels on Dominica is a real game-changer for Black-capped Petrel conservation. For years we thought the only remaining colonies of petrels were on Hispaniola, where nesting habitat is diminishing at an alarming rate and pressures of human activity are significant. Dominica is an island-nation where nature conservation is a high priority and forests needed by petrels are well protected, so we now have a huge new opportunity to undertake conservation efforts to preserve this imperiled species.”

The searchers found 968 birds, a remarkable percentage of the population of a species that is estimated to number only around 5000. In addition to Dominica, it’s been long suspected that the species also nests in southeastern Cuba and Jamaica, but as yet, that is not confirmed.

Not only is this a fantastic conservation story, but there’s an interesting taxonomic angle as well. Birders in the Gulf Stream have long noted that Black-capped Petrels come in two varieties, “light-faced” and “dark-faced”. These two forms not only look different, but they have different molt timing and, as a study using museum specimens published in 2013 found, significant genetic distance as well. Known breeding populations on Hispaniola consist of dark-faced birds so the breeding grounds of the light individuals was long suspected to be Dominica.

More study is certainly needed, but the confirmation of a Dominican population matching the description of “light-faced” birds is certainly a huge piece of the puzzle. Exciting stuff, but seabirds never lack the capacity to amaze.