Scientists working in Haiti have obtained the first-ever
photos of an endangered Black-capped Petrel
chick—a ball of gray fluff that was discovered at its
nest inside a mountaintop cave. The finding helps answer
questions about this secretive species’ life cycle.
These crow-sized seabirds nest only in the Caribbean and
feed as far away as Gulf Stream waters off the Mid-Atlantic
United States. Best estimates suggest that fewer than 2,000
breeding pairs remain, and the data collected at this nest
have already been incorporated into a new conservation
plan for the species.
“Finding this nest shows both that gems of biodiversity
are yet to be found in Haiti, despite its environmental and
economic troubles, and that there’s still time to save rare
species if we act swiftly,” said James Goetz, a Cornell Lab of
Ornithology graduate student who helped lead the project.
The nest was found on March 3, 2011, by a team from Grupo
Jaragua, a nonprofit from the Dominican Republic.
Upon finding the nest, the researchers set up a motion-activated
camera at the entrance to the cave. Over the next
four months, the camera caught dozens of images of the parents
arriving to feed the chick, as well as visits by rats and
a dog, which fortunately did not disturb the growing chick.
In early July the camera photographed the chick waddling
to the edge of the cave in preparation for its first flight.
The bird presumably departed safely in mid-July, though the
camera’s batteries ran out before then. Out of only a handful
of nests found in the last decade, it’s the only one that scientists
have been able to monitor.
Black-capped Petrels are an enduring mystery among
Caribbean birds. Once abundant, they fell victim to over-harvest,
habitat loss, and introduced predators such as rats,
cats, dogs, and mongooses. By about 1850 they were thought
extinct—until scattered at-sea sightings, and the discovery,
in 1963, of a few nesting sites in Haiti rekindled hopes for
The ensuing five decades have turned up few clues about
a bird that spends most of its life at sea, returning to land only
a few dozen nights per year to visit nests in treacherously
steep cloud forests. Only three remaining nesting areas—
all on the island of Hispaniola—are known, although sightings
along Cuba’s eastern coast in 2004 indicate the birds
probably nest there as well.
In Haiti, poverty creates intense pressure on natural resources.
Agricultural clearings reach to the tops of most
mountains, no matter how steep. Loss of habitat threatens
more than a dozen endemic Hispaniolan species, as well as
wintering North American birds such as the American Redstart
and Bicknell’s Thrush, a vulnerable species.
Lessons learned from studying this nest and the chick’s
progress will help inform new efforts to discover nesting areas
on Hispaniola and other islands. Until now, researchers
have drawn on details of better-known relatives such as Bermuda
and Hawaiian petrels. “For such a poorly known species,
every new scrap of information helps us gain ground in
learning how to make conservation work for it,” Goetz said.