A recent expedition to Dominica, as part of EPIC’s ongoing joint efforts to find new Black-capped Petrel nesting locations, was aided by a sniffer dog named Africa and her handler. Sniffer dogs can be trained to find all sorts of things, including burrow-nesting birds like petrels. Yet, two hundred years ago in Dominica, pet dogs used by colonialists led to the disappearance of petrels who were hunted for food. Will dogs that once hurt the petrel populations on Dominica be the helpers that discover their elusive nesting grounds so they can be protected in the future?
The Diablotin (aka Black-capped Petrel) is one of the Caribbean’s rarest seabird species. Historically known to nest on many islands in the Caribbean, the only current confirmed nesting areas are on the island of Hispaniola. Recent evidence of petrels found grounded at numerous locations on Dominica, has lit a fire in the conservation community, and efforts to locate nesting Diablotin on Dominica have ramped up. This year’s expedition is one in a long series that seem to indicate the possible presence of petrels. Teams using marine radar to identify flying petrels at night visited the island in 2015 and 2020 and noted numerous potential petrel-like targets with their equipment. Another team, using a powerful thermal spotting scope, also observed a single petrel flying near Morne Micotrin in 2022. This evidence led to the use of a sniffer dog named Africa to search for nests in the dense understory at possible nesting locations in Dominica in 2023.
But this wasn’t the only time that sniffer dogs have searched for Diablotin on the island. In the 1700s, French colonists lived in Dominica, enjoying the verdant and lush forests that were teaming with wildlife. These French colonists often hunted the petrel, also known as the Diablotin bird. They used dogs to hunt because dogs can quickly work their way up and down the steep forested slopes and sniff out this reclusive species that nests in underground burrows, which are difficult for humans to see or find. Sadly, this hunting by humans likely led to its disappearance from Dominica, since the last reported nesting birds were documented in 1867.
The recent EPIC expedition in January and February 2023, was co-led by Yvan Satgé, an EPIC Board member and a force for the conservation of Caribbean seabirds, who brought Africa and her human handler Dr. Jacob Ganzalez-Solis. Additionally, Stephen Durand, the Dominica Forestry Division, BirdsCaribbean, and the American Bird Conservancy were present and led different aspects of the mission. Africa and Jacob have had much luck on other islands in the world locating burrow-nesting seabirds and hoped their luck on other islands would follow them to Dominica.
The team brought Africa to numerous places on the island where good potential Diablotin nesting habitat existed. They then let her run around and sniff. She can identify the smell of petrels and, when done, acts in a specific manner that indicates an area is worth additional inspection by the human team members.
Africa and the team worked very hard during their expedition but did not locate any nesting petrels on this trip. Africa did indicate, however, that some areas were worth further exploration. Based on this, plans were made to deploy listening devices and remote cameras in the areas identified with the highest potential. This is the next step in the process of research and discovery.
How ironic that two hundred years ago, dogs used in a similar way by humans led to the disappearance of Diablotin in Dominica. Today, dogs are helping conservationists find this lost species so that it can be protected and brought back from the brink of extinction. We look forward to working with our partners, both human and canine, to locate nesting petrels on Dominica.
Thank you to expedition partners Seabird Ecology, American Bird Conservancy, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, WildDominique, Dominica Forestry, Wildlife & Parks Division, BirdsCaribbean, Universitat de Barcelona, and the International Black-capped Petrel Working Group.