A small, dark seabird with a white underbelly faces almost certain extinction unless its nesting grounds are found. It is with this sense of obligation that an intrepid BirdLife International team sets off on an eight day voyage of discovery this weekend.
They will set out to sea on the trail of the Critically Endangered Beck’s Petrel Pseudobulweria becki somewhere near New Island and New Britain in Papua New Guinea. More than eighty years since it was first described, the species’ nesting grounds still remain unknown.
Team member Jez Bird explains that this means we need to act immediately:“Throughout the Pacific, we know that petrels have either disappeared from historic sites, or populations are declining on most of the islands where they cling on. The greatest threat has consistently been predation by invasive species, so finding the Beck’s Petrel nest sites is paramount to assessing their fortunes and launching any follow-up action.”
Beck’s Petrel has an estimated population size of 50-249 mature individuals. We do not have long to save their chicks and eggs from predation by invasive mammals.
As part of a Pacific-wide conservation initiative, Petrels in Peril, a new approach is being trialled to find the nesting grounds of Beck’s Petrel: it aims to capture birds at sea in order to fit small tracking devices. Team member Chris Gaskin has experienced success with this technique, having used it in helping discover the previously unknown nests of New Zealand Storm-petrel Fregretta maoriana.
As Chris clarifies, “This is the start of a long road, but the next couple of weeks will be crucial. Each time we attempt this there’s a lot to be learned. Will we find birds? Can we attract them close enough to capture? Will the tracking technology work? All vital questions, but after this trip we expect to have answers.”
Since their rediscovery at sea in 2007 by Hadoram Shirihai, successive trips have begun to reveal the whereabouts of Beck’s Petrel. While there is still very little known about the species, BirdLife’s work has honed in on a search area. The trip will focus its attention on the seas around the southern tip of New Ireland, one of Papua New Guinea’s remote Bismarck Islands. If the petrels are found, and if they can be attracted close enough, then a specially designed net will be deployed to capture the birds. Any birds caught will be quickly retrieved and their breeding condition assessed, the bird photographed and released safely back to sea.
“We do have a few additional tricks up our sleeve. If the conditions are right and the birds are there, we will be using every means possible to find out as much as we can about them this time round”, Chris adds. “The plan is to return in 2017 to fit transmitters that will ultimately allow us to identify where the birds raise their young on land.”
The Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF) is supporting conservation work throughout the islands of Papua New Guinea, the Solomons and Vanuatu. Beck’s Petrel is one of their focal species. Funded by CEPF this project is taking place in collaboration with local conservation group Ailan Awareness and the Wildlife Conservation Society and has the support of the New Ireland Provincial Government and the Conservation and Environment Authority of Papua New Guinea.
With these organisations, the project is aiming to build a wider constituency to support future Becks Petrel conservation efforts. John Aini, head of Ailan Awareness affirmed: “We are stewards here on New Ireland. Every species represents part of a bigger picture that we’re dedicated to protecting for future generations. That’s why we’re supporting this important project.”