New Chilean Storm-Petrel
Blogger: Forest & Bird’s Marine Advocate, Karen Baird
While climbing into the tiny wooden dinghy bouncing perilously around in rather rough seas and strong winds next to our chartered fishing boat, I reflected on what we were trying to achieve.
Our team was led by Peter Harrison (MBE), who published his authoritative ‘Seabirds of the World’ in 1983 (an inspiration for many enthusiastic seabirders over the years), the rest of the team were Peter’s wife Shirley Metz (the first woman to ski to the South Pole), Chilean ornithologist Dr. Michel Sallaberry Ayerza, my husband Chris Gaskin and myself.
We were on the water almost exactly one year after a group of Irish and US birders first saw this unusual bird. Peter, who is busy photographing and painting for a new handbook to the seabirds of the world took up the challenge of trying to determine what these birds were.
Finding the birds on the first day was a huge relief, given the cost and effort involved in getting the expedition together. Further on, we started seeing more of these delightful little birds and Peter began frantically photographing.
After a day of photographing and observing a group of these mysterious birds on the Southern end of Puerto Montt, on our second day out it was now our turn to try and catch a bird. I found myself in the dinghy and clutching one of the net guns. To be able to fire it I swung my legs over the transom, rested the rather cumbersome net gun on my legs then tested its weight and manoeuvrability. Chris rowed steadily into the wind and with our bait (a bag of oily salmon bits) laid both a visual and scent trail, designed to attract the birds up close enough for me to take a shot. To prove that these were indeed a new species, good photos as well as biometric measurements and biological samples would be needed; so a lot rested on our successful capture of one of these tiny birds.
I felt nervous, the team was depending on us. My first two shots missed – I was too anxious and fired before the birds came close enough. These birds were extremely manoeuvrable and could easily evade the net. With just two net guns, each required to be reloaded after each shot. We returned to the boat for reloading, a tedious business as the net had to be carefully untangled, then folded and packed back into the gun so that it would shoot out smoothly. Chris was expert at this, and Alfonso, our local skipper, who took great interest in what we were doing, was soon helping him below deck.
Rowing back out, Chris again got us into a good position. I waited more patiently this time and then fired. We had one! I was ecstatic! I could hear the boat team yelling with delight in English and Spanish—it all sounds the same across the water. There were even a few emotional tears I was later told. Pulling the net in and gently cradling the bird, Chris rowed us back to the fishing boat and we handed it over to the waiting team.
Over the next 3 days we captured 12 birds, taking measurements and samples before releasing them. A vital ingredient to the successful capture of these birds were the net guns. Harvey Carran, a farmer who lives near us and enthusiastic handyman, in collaboration with Chris, updated and improved earlier models used previously in work to study the recently rediscovered NZ Storm-petrel. Getting these intriguing devices onto planes for the flight to and from Chile, required a great deal of discussion and sign language with airport security people in Auckland and Santiago, but that’s another story. Safe to say, we were not arrested as terrorists.
With high quality photos and measurements Peter enthused, “These birds are likely to be a completely new species, as they are so different from any other storm petrels we know.” There are just twenty-two known storm petrels world wide.
Our area of operation was only a two-three hours cruising from Puerto Montt in a wide inlet known as Seno Reloncavi, and in sight of the bustling port town of Puerto Montt. This inlet and the adjacent waters are separated from the Pacific Ocean by Chiloe Archipelago, a myriad of islands that includes Chiloe, Chile’s second largest island. It’s a very productive stretch of waterways, wide inlets and gulfs.
We were amazed by how many of these tiny dancing black and white birds we were to see during our four days on the water – petrels are so named as they walk on water like St. Peter and none as effectively as storm petrels.
One of Chile’s leading ornithologists Dr. Michel Sallaberry Ayerza of Department of Ecological Science, Faculty of Science at the University of Chile (Santiago), who also handled expedition logistics, collected blood samples and feathers which will be analysed to confirm the identity of the new species.[i] Michel told us “This is a very important discovery for Chile and the birds are in good numbers, in fact they are the most common seabird in the waters here in Seno Reloncavi.”
We were delighted our expedition had such a successful outcome on the water; and thoroughly enjoyed our time at Puerto Montt and in Chile. Work on preparing the scientific paper describing these birds is well underway and already a trip is planned to locate their breeding site later in the year.
As an end note, and something that will also need further investigation, we did have one concern and wondered how this might affect the birds we were studying. In recent years, marine farming in these northern fiord areas of Chile has boomed, salmon and mussel farms line the fiords, pots for catching king crabs and long lines for fish hang off buoys everywhere. One of the downsides of this is that many of the buoys are filled with polystyrene; or are simply great blocks of the stuff. These inevitably deteriorate over time, come loose and end up on beaches on islands and along the mainland coast. They get broken up by the sea and washed around, the fragments getting smaller and more numerous over time. We noticed other marine debris in huge quantities too, plastic of all kinds and ropes washing around in current lines and on beaches. Despite confirming a good sized population of our new little storm-petrel we were saddened by this discovery. Storm-petrels pick up surface prey, zooplankton including fish eggs and larvae as well as fish offal whether it originates from fishing activity or sea lions’ feeding. These birds in particular seemed to be great scavengers.
Our hope is that Chileans, especially people who live in Puerto Montt, will adopt this bird as their own, a symbol of the fertility of the region, and galvanise efforts to reduce plastic debris entering the marine systems and ensure these little sea-dancers have a bright future.