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Secret's Revealed

…by Jamaica's Petrels

Searches at sea off the eastern coasts of Jamaica in November 2009 have revealed the presence of significant numbers of Pterodroma petrels. The pelagic expedition was part of the global Tubenoses Project coordinated by Hadoram Shirihai and Vincent Bretagnolle and was supported by BirdLife International’s Preventing Extinctions Programme with funds from the British Birdwatching Fair. Its primary aim was to look for the Critically Endangered (and possibly extinct) Jamaica Petrel Pterodroma caribbaea. This mythical seabird – known locally as the 'Blue Mountain Duck' – has not been recorded since 1879 when the last specimens were collected in Jamaica's Blue Mountains.Although there have been several recent but unsuccessful land-based searches for this species, a targeted pelagic search – using fish-based 'chum' to attract petrels – was considered worthwhile. After all – other tubenoses (such as Fiji Petrel Pseudobulweria macgillivrayi and Beck's Petrel Pseudobulweria becki have recently been rediscovered or observed at sea for the first time in this way. At-sea chumming positions were carefully chosen in an effort to attract petrels in the vicinity of or en route to the Blue and John Crow Mountains, which are cloaked in forest with deep 'leading' valleys suitable for breeding petrels. Between 17 November and 1 December almost 100 hours were spent at sea at various points off north-east and eastern Jamaica. No Jamaica Petrels were found. However, 46 individual Black-capped Petrels Pterodroma hasitata – an Endangered species – were seen and photographed. This species had previously been recorded just once in Jamaican waters (it is known to breed only in Hispaniola and possibly eastern Cuba). Although it is impossible to be sure that these Black-capped Petrels were Jamaican breeders, their behaviour suggests they are and that their nesting area lies in the John Crow Mountains. They were observed coming close to the island during the late afternoon and evening, in small numbers, and sometimes in pairs (including one case of a displaying pair). They nearly always flew toward the island or would mill around at sea below the mountains, as if waiting for darkness before flying inland. If these Black-capped Petrels were indeed breeding on the island, it is also possible that, just maybe, the Jamaica Petrel also clings on in these same mountains.Although no Jamaica Petrels were found, the numbers and behaviour of the Black-capped Petrels we discovered suggest that Jamaica supports a breeding colony of this Endangered species and if this petrel has survived hunting and invasive predators, the Jamaica Petrel might just survive too, said Hadoram Shirihai.

A number of other seabirds, rarely seen in the Caribbean, were recorded during the pelagic searches off Jamaica last November. Three Band-rumped Storm-Petrels Oceanodroma castro were seen on separate days (the species was previously known in the Caribbean only from records in Cuba and Antigua); one Leach's Storm-Petrel Oceoanodroma leucorhoa was found, as were two Pomarine Skuas Stercorarius pomarinus and one Arctic Skua Stercorarius parasiticus – all considered vagrants in Jamaican waters.

There is still much to discover about seabirds in the Caribbean, but these targeted searches off Jamaica made some exciting and important discoveries which could have important conservation implications, David Wege, Senior Caribbean Program Manager, BirdLife International.

Further work in these areas around Jamaica and in the Blue and John Crow Mountains should assist regional efforts to conserve the Black-capped Petrel, and may eventually lead to the rediscovery of Jamaica Petrel too.

4th July 2014