The Fiji Petrel Expedition 2008

Most birders will know the story behind the enigmatic and near-mythical Fiji Petrel. Unrecorded from the type specimen taken in 1855 until 1984 when Dick Watling had the extraordinary experience, when spotlighting, of a bird crash-landing into his head! Breeding is suspected on the small island of Gau but detailed searching there has not found any birds. Some 10 though, mainly juveniles, have since crashed onto roofs and grounded in a local village there. One of these last year, 2007, having died, is now preserved as a study skin (the 1855 skin is at the BMNH and this second in Fiji). The biology of the species is completely unknown.  

      Left and right - the Fiji Petrel of 1984   

                         

                                                

             Left, right and below -

           Fiji Petrel, the bird of 2007   

The voyage had three main goals:

1. To learn the at-sea identification of the Fiji Petrel, observe behaviour if possible, and hopefully get an understanding of the likely numbers in the area.

2. To try to obtain photos of Fiji Petrel at sea, for use in both scientific and conservation/education publications to protect native Fijian birds.

3. To survey other species of petrels in this area, on which limited information is currently available.

The proposed expedition dates, at sea, were 17th-26th July

The seabird team aboard consisted of Hadoram Shirihai (Israel), Dick Watling (Fiji), Tony Pym (England),

Patric Blomquist (Sweden), Jörg Kretzschmar (Germany), Geoff Jones (Australia) and Dick Newell (England)

The 2008 report is below:

This year's mission to try and observe the Fiji Petrel at sea unfortunately had to be aborted after three days due to mechanical problems with the boat. Two chumming sessions on the journey to Gau, the island where birds have been grounded in the past, produced four Kermadec Petrels (only the second record for Fiji waters), a White-necked Petrel (though possibly a Vanuatu Petrel), 20+ Tahiti Petrels, four Collared Petrels and one probable, though brief, Providence Petrel. Of special note was a small 'Cookilaria-sized' dark petrel seen by three of the team, which flew under the Kermadec's giving a direct size comparison.
  
On the second day at sea we chummed some 16 miles southeast of Gau. Two Polynesian Storm-petrels (the first confirmed in the Fiji and Samoa biogeographical region for 132 years) were observed plus two more Kermadecs. Tahiti Petrels numbered about 16 over a three-hour period and two Collared Petrels were distant. Once more, a small dark petrel was seen momentarily, only to fly into the sun's glare.

Following the boat's technical problems the group decided to fly to Taveuni in the Fiji Islands and try for seabirds there (and the endemic landbirds in any spare time). We could charter only a high-speed sports boat and chummed the first day 18 miles offshore and the second day at the Vuna seamount. The highlight was a White-bellied Storm-petrel (a species never reliably confirmed from Fiji waters) on the first day and three Gould's Petrels on the second. Day totals were 50+ Tahiti Petrels, one Collared Petrel on the first day and 30+ Tahiti Petrels on the second - on our return to the quay at dusk we had a gathering of an additional 50+ Tahiti Petrels, waiting to return to their breeding burrows ashore.

Supplementary species seen during sailings were many Red-footed Boobies and Crested Terns, flocks of both Brown and Black Noddies, Lesser Frigatebirds, a couple of Black-naped Terns and a lone Bridled Tern.

We had two cetacean species; a pod of about 10 Pantropical Spotted Dolphins off Viti Levu and a Dwarf Minke Whale, feeding in the chum off Taveuni.

It is evident, from the records above, the real possibilities for groundbreaking research in this marine area and it was most frustrating for us to have to leave the region prematurely. Indeed, for some species of seabirds our research, and discussions aboard - for example, on identification and taxonomic issues - raised many more questions than answers.

Another sailing next year is already in the early planning stages, and most likely will be from mid to late July, with 10 days intended at sea – this time frame we believe the best for success with Fiji Petrel, based on ageing of the available specimens and grounded birds. We shall have the best type of boat for working these waters and have found a new chum mix that works extremely well with the tubenoses. Already Hadoram Shirihai and Dick Watling have confirmed they will again be on the voyage.

We shall announce more over the coming months for those interested in joining us in 2009. Please monitor the seabird newsgroups or contact me direct (Tony_Pym@hotmail.com). Participants will share equally all onboard costs and NatureFiji-MareqetiViti (www.naturefiji.org) will support the expedition. This continuing seabird survey we believe will confirm yet more exciting species in the local seas and provide further insight on the mysterious Fiji Petrel itself.

Some photographs taken on the 2008 expedition

(Thanks to Hadoram Shirihai for the © photos!)

      

 

 

 

 

 

 

         

           Left - Tahiti Petrel

              Above right - White-bellied Storm-petrel

              Below left - Gould's Petrel