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Kaua‘i team discovers rare seabird nests on Tutuila for first time in almost forty years

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A Tahiti Petrel chick in its burrow. Photo Courtesy: ARC

A Kaua‘i-based conservation team discovered four active burrows of a rare bird in American Samoa last month – marking the first time burrows of the Ta‘i‘o (Tahiti Petrel) species have been found on the island since 1986.

Archipelago Research and Conservation, which is based in Hanapēpē on the South Shore of Kaua‘i, found the Ta‘i‘o burrows in conjunction with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Department of Marine & Wildlife Resources, Conservation Metrics and the National Park Service.

A poorly known seabird species, the Tahiti Petrel is classified as “Near Threatened” by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Red List of threatened species, due to several factors including introduced predators (such as cats, dogs and rats), light attraction and threats at sea.

Tahiti Petrel habitat. Photo Courtesy: ARC
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While a small number of fledgling birds are found in villages on Tutuila every year after being attracted to lights, the only location where birds were thought to breed was Rainmaker Mountain (although this had not been confirmed) as well as a known colony on the nearby island of Ta’u.

The Kaua‘i team have been working to locate Tahiti Petrel colonies on Tutuila since 2020, deploying recording devices in potential breeding habitat on mountains to listen for their distinctive calls, using night vision and thermal cameras to locate the birds at night, and conducting ground surveys for burrows.

“As a rare seabird species that only visits the most remote and densely vegetated mountain tops of islands at night, this is a very challenging bird to study. This was made even more difficult because the start of our research project coincided with the beginning of
the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Dr André Raine, science director for Archipelago Research and Conservation.

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“When we discovered four active burrows of this incredible seabird on two different mountain tops on Tutuila last month, it was more than we could have ever hoped for,” Raine continued.

The burrows were found on steep and densely vegetated slopes on both Pioa (Rainmaker) and Matafao mountains. Two of the burrows contained a small chick and the other two had an adult bird inside.

An adult Tahiti Petrel. Photo Courtesy: ARC

During fieldwork, the team also identified several breeding colonies of another nocturnal seabird species, the Tropical Shearwater – including the locations of multiple colonies not
recorded on the island previously.

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The team placed cameras at each of burrows to monitor the birds’ activity, and footage has already been recovered from one of them. These cameras will allow the researchers to obtain a better understanding of when the birds visit nest sites and when the chicks fledge.

The cameras will also provide the team with information on predators visiting burrows.

Two predated Tahiti Petrels were also found in the area, highlighting the impact of non-native introduced predators such as cats and rats.

Funding for the project came from four U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service programs (Coastal, Migratory Birds, Endangered Species Recovery, and Refuges Inventory and Monitoring) and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.

“We were very pleased and honored to be a part of the unexpected discovery of these nest sites by our partners at ARC. Documentation of their breeding habitat will undoubtedly inform future conservation activities for this Bird of Conservation Concern,” said Roberta Swift from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Migratory Birds Program.

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