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In This Place

Formerly 'Extinct' Bird Shows Up in Massachusetts Waters

Peter R. Flood / flickr /
Bermuda Petrel

If you listen regularly, you know that I occasionally report on the so called Extreme Pelagic birding trips run by the vaunted Brookline Bird Club. Well, those wacky, ocean going birders were at it again this past weekend, when, on a quest for rare seabirds, they steamed out of Hyannis aboard the Helen H. 


On their overnight tour of the continental shelf waters 140 miles southeast of Hyannis, these salty surveyors turned up some real doozies. But while sightings of Brown Booby, White-faced Storm-Petrel, Black-capped Petrels, and South Polar Skua were worth the price of admission, one bird put the other sightings to shame. Because until its rediscovery in 1951, the Bermuda Petrel had been presumed extinct for centuries.


First, while the name of this uber rarity is officially Bermuda Petrel, many, including even younger birders, still defer to the traditional Bermudian name of Cahow. I realize this is a hard to pronounce word, so let me use it in a sentence: “Having seen the world’s second rarest seabird in Massachusetts waters, I can’t help but wonder Ca-how the ca-hell those Brookline Bird Club birders got so lucky.” Hopefully that helps.


Given that this is among the world’s rarest birds, it’s reasonable to scrutinize the report. So how did they know it was a Bermuda Petrel – did photos reveal it to be wearing tiny pink shorts smartly paired with a blue blazer? More likely it was the neck, rump, and underwing pattern, which together distinguished this species from the more common but still very rare Black-capped Petrel that was also flying around the boat. Both species are what’s known as “gadfly petrels”, fast-flying, lone-wolf seabirds of deep offshore waters, all of which are very popular among the seabirding crowd.


The Bermuda Petrel was given up for extinct by the time the pilgrims landed in Massachusetts. While the species once apparently numbered in the hundreds of thousands across the Bermuda archipelago, the usual suspects when it comes to island extinction events – cats, rats, dogs, hogs, and humans - ate them into presumed extinction by the 17th century. A few sightings and specimens in the early 20th century were tantalizing hints that reports of their extinction were greatly exaggerated. But it wasn’t until 1951, when seven pairs were confirmed nesting on a few tiny Bermudan islets, that the Bermuda Petrel was officially exhumed from the extinction list and reanimated as a species.


The tiny remnant population has since survived nest site competition with other seabirds, egg shell thinning from DDT, and storm surges flooding their nesting burrows. A man named David Wingate almost singlehandedly brought the species back from extinction over the last five decades using a combination of artificial burrows, translocations, and hand feeding, as well as reforestation of one of the nesting islands. His successor, Jeremy Medeiros, has continued the recovery efforts, and has recently placed tracking devices on some birds. Results indicate that they range across most of the North Atlantic, and at least occasionally may visit the Gulf of Maine and Southern New England waters. Despite that, there is only one previous record for the state, in some far flung shelf waters that are, at best, sort of in Massachusetts, but also sort of in Nova Scotia.


Since there are only estimated to be a few hundred Bermuda Petrels in the world I suspect I am not going to see this bird anytime soon. But I take comfort in the simple fact that they still exist on the planet, something that is still not assured over the long term. But for now, at least, we can say that, whoever said “extinction is forever” didn’t ask the Bermuda Petrel.


Learn more about the Nonsuch Expeditions which includes the CahowCam project, here: