BirdLife: The Magazine June 2017 - Page 32

THE SEX ISSUE WE’RE OFF TO NEW IRELAND, PAPUA NEW GUINEA, IN SEARCH OF THE WORLD’S LEAST- STUDIED SEABIRD: BECK’S PETREL PETREL PATROL Spotlights and recorded bird calls are used at night to try to capture Beck’s Petrel. Photo André Raine 2 T Some bird species are so elusive we don’t even know where they breed – and if we don’t know what dangers they face at their breeding grounds, we don’t know how to save them. However, an intrepid BirdLife team has made waves in their bid to understand Beck’s Petrel Bill Morris 32 BIRDLIFE • JUNE 2017 he anchor-chain rattle reverberates through the hull as PNG Explorer noses out of the harbour and onto the roll of the mid- night sea. Daybreak finds a BirdLife International research team – Karen Baird, Matt Rayner, Chris Gaskin and Bill Morris from New Zealand, Jez Bird from the UK, André Raine from Hawaii and two local conservationists, July Kuri and Bernard Maul – scanning the waves for life. We’re headed south along the coast of New Ireland, the second largest island in Papua New Guinea’s Bismarck Archipelago, in search of one of the world’s least-studied seabirds. This bird eluded biologists for nearly seventy years: Beck’s Petrel Pseudobulweria becki was first described in 1928, but for the rest of the JUNE 2017 • BIRDLIFE NET-GUNS DURING THE DAY, SPOTLIGHTS AND BIRD CALLS AT NIGHT: THESE ARE OUR ONLY TOOLS twentieth century was known to science only from museum specimens. Then in 2007, it was sighted off the southern end of New Ireland. Since then, scientists have been on a quest to locate their breeding grounds – an essential step in understanding their biol- ogy and also in determining the threats they face on land. Introduced predators like pigs, cats and rats are all too commonly culprits in the decline of petrels and other seabirds. The hope is to track this Critically Endangered bird to its breeding grounds using remote satel- lite tracking technology. That, of course, means catching them to attach a transmitter – no easy feat given their flighty nature. In 2012 BirdLife International took up the chal- lenge and Jez Bird travelled to the area, where he saw good numbers of the birds rafting on the waters of the bay. Joining with the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund and other partners, a follow-up trip in 2016 also found many birds. However, despite ten days of trying to capture one of these agile, sea-faring birds, the crew’s efforts came to nothing. On two occasions Chris Gaskin fired at birds flying towards his kayak, only to have one agonisingly slip under the net at the crucial second, another to tumble out. “You could probably hear my swearing from the shore“, says Gaskin. But despite the misses, the team remained confident the net gun approach would ultimately work and so, armed with the knowledge of those previous trips, they returned in 2017 for another shot. After two days at sea, the team arrived in Silur Bay, the Hans Meyer Range launching over 2,000 m above us. It’s on the summits of this densely forested, vast and barely explored land- scape that the team suspected the petrels could be breeding. This area is not connected to the rest of the world by road, airport or electricity, and people here live largely off the land, much as they have for 30,000 years – in pandanas, thatched huts in neat little villages amidst the backdrop chatter of the forest. There are two prongs to the catching effort – a sea-based technique involving kayaks, chum slicks and homemade net-guns; and an onshore strategy. Led by André Raine, this uses power- ful spotlights and recorded bird calls to draw the birds down at night, a technique success- fully used elsewhere with other petrel species. As night falls, the beach children hang by the fire watching the strange spectacle. The recorded bird calls are those of the closely-related Tahiti Petrel Pseudobulweria rostrata, played on a loop as spotlights probe the night for birds. But most nights, there were none, leaving the team to sit and watch the Milky Way arching over the trop- ics until dawn fills the sky. 33