What are the elements of a true mystery? Well, it should make you scratch your head in puzzlement. Words like what, and why, and how spring to mind. There are going to be things that are hidden, secret, waiting to be discovered. There are clues. And there must be some excitement!
In the bird world, too, there are quite a few mysteries. One of these is the intriguing story of the Jamaican Petrel. It unfolded at a recent webinar organized by Past President of BirdLife Jamaica, now Clinical Assistant Professor at New York University (NYU), Dr. Leo Douglas. The conversation with Adam Brown, Senior Biologist at Environmental Protection in the Caribbean (EPIC) on September 17 led us down some paths, and sparked our curiosity. The question is, is the Jamaican Petrel, long considered extinct, still alive? The discussion was co-sponsored by BirdLife Jamaica, the Jamaica Conservation and Development Trust (JCDT), and the International Black-capped Petrel Conservation Group. The latter was created by BirdsCaribbean and has formed a conservation action plan.
Leo Douglas and Adam Brown first met up on the island of Dominica, where Dr. Douglas was doing fieldwork on the relationship between songbirds (bananaquits – they caught hundreds of them!) and, as scientists often do, found they had interests in common, including petrels. As Dr. Douglas pointed out, so many Caribbean endemic birds (endemic means living in one location and nowhere else) are “languishing in the drawers of museums around the world,” including at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, where he lives and works. Poor things! Those dead bodies in drawers, that once spread their wings in life.
The Jamaican Petrel (Pterdroma caribbaea) was said to have nested in the Blue Mountains, where specimens were collected up to 1879. It is very hard to find. It nests at five to six thousand feet up, and its nest burrows go three feet or so into the ground.
Introduced predators were – and remain – a threat. In Dominica as well as in Jamaica, the last sightings of petrels coincided with the introduction of mongoose onto the islands, which happened in Jamaica in 1872. (over-hunting was still a factor). However, Adam Brown revealed that the Black-capped Petrel was found again in Dominica through thermal imaging and radar, in 2015 and again earlier this year – hundreds, flying overhead. No nests have been found, but dult birds have been found on the ground, usually disoriented or injured. On Hispaniola – Dominican Republic and Haiti – where Adam Brown and EPIC have conducted a great deal of field work, Black-capped Petrels have existed in large numbers. Mongoose, rats and feral cats are always around, but the birds exist. Hmm. Another piece of the puzzle, or a clue perhaps to…something.
By the way, if you are fascinated by petrels, there’s an article about the Black-capped Petrel in Hispaniola on the BirdsCaribbean website here. A dramatic account of the 2019 expedition in Hispaniola is documented in a two-part article here.
Predators are a threat because petrels have unusual habits. They nest in burrows on cliffs or in holes under tree roots, up in the mountains. They fly out to sea at dusk, foraging for food, returning home before dawn; according to Adam Brown, petrels use gullies and river valleys to fly from the sea to the mountains. It is thought that the Jamaican Petrel would feed far out at sea on crustaceans, shrimps and the like, which come to the surface at night.
So, where was the Jamaican Petrel last seen? Back in the nineteenth century, it was spotted in the slopes above Nanny Town and near Cinchona Gardens (the last known nest was found when the garden was created, some hundred years ago) in the Blue and John Crow Mountains. Those areas are a good starting point. It’s possible that the birds would use the Rio Grande Valley in Portland as a flight path. Prior to Adam’s work, Leo and a colleague, Herlitz Davis, spotted a Black-capped Petrel off Jamaica’s south coast. Now Adam is interested in looking around the waters south east of Jamaica, to see what he can find.
Now, Adam Brown took his radar equipment (which took three months to arrive in Jamaica) up to the Cinchona area, and on March 22, 2016, he detected six “targets” (not birds, targets on the radar) flying at approximately 65 km per hour, with two circling for a while. Could they have been Jamaican Petrels? We know that petrels are fast flyers!
The mystery of the Jamaican Petrels has not been solved – by no means. However, there is hope. And hope is a good thing, nowadays. Nocturnal creatures (that is, those that are active at night) can more easily escape notice. There may well be small colonies of the mystery bird, way up there.
“I believe that the Jamaican Petrel is out there,” says JCDT’s Executive Director Susan Otuokon, firmly. We once thought that the Jamaican Hutia (Coney) and the Jamaican Iguana were extinct, she pointed out; however, we know now that they are not. The fact is, while JCDT in itself is not a research institute, the Blue and John Crow Mountains National Park and World Heritage Site has rich potential for scientific research. Trained park rangers, tour and field guides are available to assist. So come, scientists! There is much to study and explore.
So, hope there is. If you should see a petrel, on land or out at sea, take a photograph. If you are up in the Blue and John Crow Mountains at night, and you hear an eerie cry in the valleys…
You never know. The lost Jamaican Petrel may be found again.