The Black-capped Petrel is known as the diablotín, or “little devil” in Spanish, probably because of its spooky cries. Best estimates suggest that fewer than 2,000 breeding Black-capped Petrel pairs remain. The crow-sized birds nest only in the Caribbean but feed as far away as Gulf Stream waters off the Mid-Atlantic United States.
“Finding this nest shows both that gems of biodiversity are yet to be found in Haiti, despite its environmental and economic troubles, and that there’s still time to save rare species if we act swiftly,” said James Goetz, a Cornell Lab of Ornithology graduate student who has helped lead the project.
The nest, containing a single egg and an incubating adult petrel, was discovered on March 3, 2011, by Jairo Arache of Grupo Jaragua. On return visits in April, May, and June researchers photographed but did not handle the growing chick as it waited for its parents to return with food. An automatic camera showed that adults visited the nest for an average of 80 minutes every couple of nights, typically between 9 p.m. and midnight.
Upon finding the nest, the researchers set up a motion-activated camera at the entrance to the cave. Over the course of four months, the camera caught images of the parents arriving to feed the chick, as well as visits by rats and a dog, two introduced predators that are known to destroy petrel nests. Nevertheless, in early July the camera photographed the chick waddling to the edge of the cave in preparation for its first flight.
“All indications point to the bird having fledged successfully,” said Ernst Rupp of the Dominican nonprofit Grupo Jaragua, which found the nest. “It’s amazing to think that the tiny creature we discovered could now be thousands of miles away.”
Black-capped Petrels are one of the least-known bird species of the Caribbean. Historically abundant, they fell victim to overharvest, habitat loss and introduced predators such as rats, cats, dogs, and mongooses. By about 1850 they were thought extinct—until scattered at-sea sightings, and the 1963 discovery of nesting sites in Haiti rekindled hopes for the species.
Haiti and, to a lesser extent, the Dominican Republic are economically poor but rich in biodiversity, which creates intense pressure on their natural resources. In Haiti, agricultural clearings reach to the tops of most mountains, no matter how steep. This severe loss of habitat threatens more than a dozen endemic Hispaniolan species, as well as wintering North American birds such as Bicknell's Thrushes, American Redstarts, and others.
Lessons learned from studying the first chick will help inform new efforts to discover nesting areas on Hispaniola and other islands. Until now, researchers have had to draw on details of better-known relatives such as the Bermuda Petrel and Hawaiian Petrel. “For such a poorly known species, every new scrap of information helps us gain ground in learning how to make conservation work for it,” Goetz said.
Among those funding ongoing research on the Black-capped Petrel are the American Bird Conservancy, BirdLife International, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Grupo Jaragua, the MacArthur Foundation and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Eduardo E. Iñigo-Elias (Cornell Lab), 607-254-2120, email@example.com
Ernst Rupp (Grupo Jaragua), 809-451-6510, firstname.lastname@example.org
Jessica Hardesty (ABC), 540-253-5780, email@example.com
Jennifer Wheeler (USFWS), 703-358-1931, firstname.lastname@example.org
Verónica Anadón (BirdLife), 787-243-5395, email@example.com