How do you gather information about a bird species that spends 99 percent or more of its time at sea? Until recently, there wasn't an easy answer. But now scientists who are working to conserve the endangered black-capped petrel (Pterodroma hasitata) have come up with an innovative technique to improve our understanding of the rare birds. The researchers have attached small, solar-powered satellite transmitters to three of the petrels to track them as they forage for food over the Caribbean. The devices were attached in April and have already transmitted valuable information about the birds' behavior and feeding patterns.

Black-capped petrels only come ashore on Hispaniola, the Caribbean island that is home to Haiti and the Dominican Republic, when they are nesting. The species—known as diablotin or "little devils" for their eerie, nocturnal cries—have only 13 known nesting sites and an estimated breeding population of as few as 600 pairs. Many of these nesting areas have been farmed or deforested for cooking fuel by the economically devastated people of Haiti. The birds also face risks from invasive predators such as rats and cats, and have been killed by collisions with power lines and communications towers.

Although protecting those nesting sites remains a priority, scientists also need to understand the oceanic life cycle of these rare birds. In particular, researchers want to know if the petrels come into contact with fisheries, oil spills, oil drilling platforms and other potential threats. The satellite transmitters have already revealed that the petrels forage for food in an area of the southern Caribbean where the researchers did not expect them to fly. They also reveal how often they fly back to their remote, mountainous nests to feed their chicks.

The information isn't complete because the solar-powered transmitters can only function for about eight hours a day and take 24 hours to recharge, but it's already more data than we had about the species's behavior at sea. The live feed from the transmitters is posted daily online.

Meanwhile, efforts to protect the petrels' nests continue, although it isn't an easy task. The birds nest in high, remote mountain regions and typically land at night, making it hard to find the nests, let alone to observe the birds. The first photos of black-capped petrel chicks were not obtained until 2012.

Photo by Tazio Taveres courtesy of the American Bird Conservancy

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