On the verge of locating thought-to-be-extinct Jamaican petrel — scientists

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On the verge of locating thought-to-be-extinct Jamaican petrel — scientists

BY GORGETTE BECKFORD

Monday, September 21, 2020

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Co-founder of Environmental Protection in the Caribbean (EPIC), research scientist Adam Brown believes his team is closer than ever to locating the presumed-extinct Jamaican petrel seabird species, whose activity was last recorded in the 1850s.

Brown says data derived from radar tracking indicate that the Jamaican petrel could be in the Cinchona region of the Blue and John Crow Mountains National Park and World Heritage Site, where six suspected petrel flight activities were recorded in 2016.

The petrels, Brown says, were documented flying 65 kilometres per hour or faster, the first one spotted 30 minutes after sunset, one, 70 minutes later, then another, 90 minutes later.

“[Some] 165 minutes after sunset, two [petrels] were spotted engaging in a circulating behavioural pattern off Jamaica's north-eastern coast, before they retreated out to sea,” he said, explaining that the pattern mimics the seabird's well-documented habit of perusing real estate for future nesting.

The scientist made the remarks in a Zoom webinar Thursday, titled 'The Jamaican Petrel Alive' which was moderated by New York University Clinical Assistant Professor Dr Leo Douglas.

The last concrete evidence of petrel nesting in Jamaica was discovered in the Cinchona region, over 100 years ago, when the ground was being dug to plant trees.

While Brown concedes that his team is still a ways off from securing unquestionale data to definititvely confirm the sightings as Jamaican Petrel, a recorded increase in the number of its relative - the Black-capped Petrel - on the island's north and east coasts is an encouraging sign.

“Black-capped Petrels [are nocturnal seabirds that] nest in cliff burrows located at about 6,000 metres above sea level,” Brown stated, adding that Cinchona incubates the conditions to curate a colony.

“They travel at about 50 kilometres per hour… night travel is possibly to evade other preys [such as] peregrine falcons, barn owls, etc,” he continued, indicating that those very factors have so far made it difficult to unequivocally identify the Jamaican petrel.

But Brown and fellow petrel researcher Douglas – a Jamiacan – say they are optimistic about identifying the 'lost' species.

The Black-capped Petrel was also thought to be wiped out in the 1860s, before nests were found during an expedition in the hilly region of the Hispaniola's Haiti-Dominican Republic border, in 2007; then, five years ago, they were recorded on the Lesser Antillean island-nation Dominica. The smaller island is now believed to be home to hundreds of petrels.

“They spend most of their life at sea,” the EPIC co-founder said. He further rexplained that though they have a massive nesting colony on the island of Hispaniola, petrels have travelled as far north as North Carolina in the United States of America and south to Colombia and Venezuela in South America where the mid-sized seabirds retreat to high-altitude, basically “zero-degree temperature” regions, to make “three-metre nests underground” to lay a single egg, and hope for the best.

The reaserchers explained that petrels have had to adopt new behavioural patterns in order to survive. The seabirds' main prey are humans, followed closely by domestic cats and mongoose. Those, along with deforestation and other environmental factors have caused the drastic decline in pairing numbers, endangerment and possible extinction of one or more species of the petrels in the Caribbean.

“People, cats, mongoose have all been caught with surveillance equipment,” Brown said, adding that “over-hunting by colonialists” initiated the trend and, as a result, significantly contributed to the near-extinction and or elusiveness of the region's petrels.

One major modern-day hazard faced by petrels are cell towers, the scienists said, referencing instances of disoriented Black-capped petrels being found on the road. Brown says that prompted EPIC to adopt a second conservation methodology and partner with communications companies in Dominica to establish flight-safe technologies to reduce the number of towers while not compromising cell coverage and the quality of communication across the island.

Other than that, Brown said “communicating with human communities” has been the most difficult challenge that EPIC faces in its quest to preserve existing colonies of petrels as well and tracking and accessing possible new nests and rediscovering the Jamaican Petrel.

“You have to work with them [communities]… [and explain] about what is going on and let the community decide [how we can move forward, together].”

As part of the effort, Dr Susan Otuokon, executive director of the Jmaiaca Conservation Development Trust which manages the Blue and John Crow Mountains National Park and World Heritage Site, said the organisation needs researchers from everywhere.

“We engage community members [and] we've trained many young people as tour and or field guides,” she said.

The Jamaican Petrel is a medium-sized petrel that is dark brown in colour with a cream upper tail and black bill and feet. It is also known as the Blue Mountain Duck, is classified as critically endangered (possibly extinct), mates between October and December, and has an average lifespan of 16 years.


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