Welcome to a new series of articles which seek to explore matters of conservation importance and interest from around the world. This article, which I’ve named Petrel Stations, considers the remarkable achievements of a small team of dedicated scientists that have spent 7 years exploring the Atacama desert of Chile searching for breeding colonies of Storm Petrels. Hope you enjoy it…..
Storm Petrels are small waiflike birds, that as a group are mysterious and enigmatic… to say the least. They spend most of their time well out to sea, only coming to land to visit nesting burrows under cover of darkness; an effective predator avoidance tactic. Worldwide there are about 20 species of Storm Petrel, but in the UK and Ireland just two species breed; European Storm Petrel (Hydrobates pelagicus) and Leach’s Petrel (Oceanodroma leucorhoa). These inhabit remote northern and western isles and are difficult to actually encounter. Storm driven birds are sometimes blown close to shore, but generally speaking the only way to stand half a chance of bumping into one, or having one bump into you, is to visit a known breeding colony. Bear the word ‘known’ in mind – it will be relevant later.
I’ve managed to connect with the odd storm driven bird around the coasts of Norfolk over the years, and have been most fortunate to have witnessed European Storm Petrels returning to their nest sites in the old Broch at Mousa on Shetland. Watching these creatures materialise out of thin air in the twilight that is a Shetland summer midnight is an experience I would thoroughly recommend to anyone; it’s exciting, ethereal and downright excellent.
Some friends of mine had the good fortune to witness a petrel netting session a few years ago, and were doubly fortunate to be able to actually hold one of the birds. You will get a good idea from the image how small and dainty they are.
In May of 2014, I was lucky enough to be able to visit the Galapagos Islands. The delights of the 10 day cruise are too numerous to document here – maybe another time – but that’s not the point of this article anyway. One instance is relevant, that being delightfully enabled to snap away at flocks of dainty Elliot’s (White-vented) Storm Petrels (race Oceanites gracilis galapagoensis), that had a happy habit of following in the wake of our vessel. Take it from me that it’s something special….. as well as being quite challenging.
In my blissful ignorance, I was unaware that the species I was snapping away at are actually little known, in fact for galapagoensis there are no known breeding sites. Looking now at the description in the field guide I bought for the trip, I see an annotation: ‘Data Deficient‘. It didn’t register at the time, but recent events have served to show just how important and poignant those two words are. Essentially, in the 21st century, with all of our available communications and satellite tracking technology, those words mean we still know hardly anything about the Elliot’s Storm Petrel, or indeed several other related species. How can this be so? Well, as already stated, the birds are small, largely pelagic, only come to land under cover of darkness and literally have gone about their business under the radar. That is until now……
Research undertaken in the Atacama Desert of Chile by a group of scientists has revealed hitherto unknown breeding grounds for Storm Petrels. Miles from the ocean in the most inhospitable of terrains, a biologist had recorded what he thought were Snipe singing in the desert at night. Luckily the sounds were eventually identified as likely Storm Petrels and so the quest to track them down began.
The 7 year survey of nearly 1000km of dessert terrain to locate and map the nesting colonies of 3 species of Storm Petrel is the stuff of dreams. I’m blown away by it all. How and why do these small seagoing birds choose to breed miles inland in such hostile conditions? How do they survive? How many are there? Are there more colonies out there waiting to be discovered? Gripping stuff for sure. We just have to admire the dedication and perseverance of these scientists. It is no insignificant achievement; as far as I’m concerned it’s simply amazing. The wonders of nature epitomised.
You can read about these remarkable exploits by clicking on the buttons below.
I have other, more detailed, papers relating to Markham’s Storm Petrel and Hornby’s Storm Petrel that I would be happy to share – please contact me by filling in the comment box below and providing your email address if you would like these to be sent to you.
Many thanks to Fabrice Schmitt for agreeing to allow access to these documents and for his, and his fellow scientists, wonderful efforts. I hope you find it all as fascinating as I do.