Dominica, West Indies - In May of 2007, a bus driver was leaving the Dominican village of Trafalgar heading towards the capital city of Roseau. Passing through the village of Padu, he noticed an odd-looking bird on the road. Curious, he stopped and got out to have a look. Upon closer inspection, this was a bird he had never seen in Dominica before. Something was off about this bird, perhaps it was injured or stunned in some way, so the bus driver picked the bird up, put it on his lap, and continued his bus route to Roseau. After he dropped his passengers off, he stopped at the offices of the Forestry Division and left the bird there for staff to monitor. The staff there were shocked and excited to see that the bus driver had brought in a Black-capped Petrel, the first observed in Dominica in decades!
The Black-capped Petrel is an endangered medium-sized seabird that feeds at sea and nests in mountain areas in the Caribbean. Historically, the petrel was common in Dominica. However, the arrival of European settlers to the Caribbean and the associated hunting of petrels for food and the introduction of mammalian predators, caused a steep decline of the species throughout the Caribbean and the believed extirpation of the species from numerous islands, including Dominica. The last known nesting petrel in Dominica was found in 1867.
This observation in 2007, inspired EPIC to find Black-capped Petrel on Dominica. But how to do this? Almost a decade before, EPIC’s Founders, Natalia Collier and Adam Brown spent a few weeks on Dominica listening for petrels at night and looking for nesting birds in historic nesting areas. Leaving the island with no observations, EPIC set Black-capped Petrel conservation aside.
However, the 2007 sighting brought petrel work back to the forefront for EPIC and an expedition to search for petrels was planned as part of EPIC’s Seabird Atlas of the Lesser Antilles mission in 2010. The mission included night visits to Morne Diablotin to listen for calling petrels as well as a circumnavigation of the island by boat to look for birds at sea. None were found on this trip.
EPIC returned to Dominica in 2015 with a marine radar unit, equipment that allows for researchers to detect petrels flying at night. Additionally, this team brought night vision scopes as well, which allow for surveyors to see petrels as they fly. This expedition was met with great success, and petrels were observed at numerous locations flying between the sea and inland potential nesting areas. This mission was inspiring and provided motivation for the next step, looking for nesting birds!
In 2016, a team of researchers from the Dominican Republic visited Dominica and spent two weeks working alongside the Dominica Division of Forestry searching for nesting petrels at both historic nesting areas and areas that looked promising. This was hard work for the team and included cutting trails, hiking up incredibly steep hills, and looking into infinite potential nesting crevices. Sadly, this team left without locating any nests. But also felt that the habitat looked perfect for nesting petrels and believed that the petrels were there but had not been located.
In 2020, EPIC returned with its radar and night vision equipment and surveyed areas it had visited in 2015. This team again with radar, observed petrel-like targets and with night vision binoculars, observed petrels flying. Further, the team deployed song meter units which would listen for calling petrels at potential petrel nesting areas.
The nest steps were a more refined search for petrel activity and ideally to locate nesting petrels. EPIC team member Yvan Satgé returned to Dominica in February of 2022, bringing with him thermal binoculars. This equipment had been used to successfully located other petrel species on Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean. During a ten-day mission, Yvan and his team surveyed numerous locations and was able to detect and record a single Black-capped Petrel flying. This petrel was observed near Morne Micotrin, a historic nesting area and an area that previous researchers in 2015/2016/2020 believed looked the most promising for nesting petrels. This data collected by Yvan further supported the idea that petrels are still active and likely nesting in Dominica.
But how to find the nests? That’s the most difficult part of all this. In other places researchers have used dogs to sniff out the nests of petrels, people have used drones with thermal cameras to see the heat signatures of nesting petrels, and others have tagged petrels at sea and followed them to their nests. All of these options are possibilities for EPIC and we are excited to pursue them as we continue our efforts in the coming months and years to locate the elusive and enigmatic Black-capped Petrel on Dominica!
To read more about our past missions, download the expedition reports here: