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Beck’s Petrel flies back from extinction

A bird that was known only from two records from the 1920s has been discovered in the Pacific after a gap of 79 years. Sightings of the Critically Endangered Beck’s Petrel Pseudobulweria becki published by the British Ornithologists' Club, have finally proven the species is still in existence, and delighted conservationists.

A voyage into the Bismarck Archipelago, north-east of Papua New Guinea, successfully managed to photograph more than 30 of these elusive seabirds. This included sightings of fledged juveniles - suggesting recent breeding. A freshly dead young bird salvaged at sea also becomes only the third specimen in existence.

“This re-finding of Beck’s Petrel is exceptional news and congratulations to Hadoram Shirihai [the finder] for his effort and energy in rediscovering this ‘lost’ petrel,” commented Dr Stuart Butchart, BirdLife's Global Species Programme Coordinator.Mr Shirihai first visited the area in 2003, where he observed ‘possible Beck’s Petrels’ – inspiring him to return four years later. Explaining this decision, he commented: “I was eager to know about these amazing petrels… and to understand better how we may conserve them”.

The small tube-nosed seabird was first described by Rollo Beck, an ornithologist and collector of museum specimens. The petrel, which now bears his name, was previously only known from two specimens he collected in 1928 and 1929 during an expedition to the region.

Hopes were raised two years ago in Australia with the sighting of a possible Beck’s Petrel in the Coral Sea off Queensland. This record was not accepted by the Birds Australia Rarities Committee. The recent evidence from the Bismarck Archipelago is published today, and finally confirms the rediscovery of this enigmatic bird.Confirming the existence of Beck’s Petrel was difficult because it is similar to Tahiti Petrel Pseudobulweria rostrata, few people have looked for it at sea, and it may be nocturnal at the breeding grounds. “There are numerous atolls and islands where it may breed”, said Dr Butchart.“However, the remaining population may be small”.

Like other tubenoses, Beck’s Petrel is potentially threatened by introduced cats and rats at its breeding sites, and by logging and forest clearance for oil-palm plantations. Until the breeding sites have been identified the threats remain speculative.NB Hadoram Shirihai is the sole author of a paper published today in the Bulletin of the British Ornithologists' Club [he also took the original picture]. This marks the indisputable rediscovery of Beck’s Petrel. Mr Shirihai first visited the Bismarck Archipelago, in July–August 2003, where he observed ‘possible Beck’s Petrels’. This inspired him to return to the area between 27 July–8 August 2007, when he chartered a boat for a c.1,400 km voyage.

Despite the 79-year gap between records, BirdLife International have categorised Beck’s Petrel as Critically Endangered rather than Extinct. "It probably remains extant, because there have been a number of recent records individuals of the very similar Tahiti Petrel Pseudobulweria rostrata in the Bismarck Archipelago and Solomon Islands which may refer to this species," states BirdLife’s Red List species account.

The Bismarck Archipelago is a group of islands off the northeastern coast of New Guinea in the western Pacific Ocean and part of Papua New Guinea. It includes mostly volcanic islands spread into four provinces with an area of 49,700 km² (19,189 sq mi ). Most islands are mountainous, covered by tropical forest (replaced locally by plantations), and surrounded by extensive reefs.

4th July 2014