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Black-capped Petrel Pterodroma hasitata 


Black-capped Petrel in fight


At a glance

  • Endemic to the West Indies
  • Once believed to be extinct
  • Apparently extirpated from all but one of its former nesting islands
  • One of the rarest seabirds in the world
  • Nocturnal at breeding sites, difficult to census
  • Breeds in winter
  • Total population of 1300-3100 pairs

Index


The Black-capped Petrel is the only gadfly petrel (Procellariidae) known to still breed in the Caribbean Region.  Once thought to be extinct, this species is extant on only one, possibly two, of the five islands upon which breeding was documented historically. Island extinctions mostly result from European contact, but pre-Columbian humans also relied on them as a seasonal source of protein. Today, breeding populations are small, fragmented, and currently believed to be declining, although the exact sizes, locations, and chronologies of petrel breeding colonies are poorly known.

This species forages off the southeastern coast of Cuba and in Gulf Stream off southeastern United States (mostly from Cape Canaveral north to Cape Hatteras).

Identification:

Adults

Large petrel (14-18 inches, 35-46 cm, in total length) typically with white collar and white rump. Bill black with tube nose. Dark dorsally, and primarily white on underside, but some individuals are darker and exhibit less white than others. At sea, it has a conspicuous soaring, roller coaster, flight pattern. Feet have pink toes and webbing, whereas feet of Jamaica Petrels are all black.

Juveniles

Similar to adult, though some remaining down on the neck or head could indicate a fledgling if found on land near appropriate breeding sites.

Alternative Names


English 'Capped Petrel' and 'West Indian Petrel.';

Creole-, French-, and Spanish-speaking islands: the bird is usually referred to as 'diablotin,' or more rarely 'diablotine.'  Translated into English, 'diablotin' means little devil. In Haiti, and possibly other islands where French is spoken, 'chathuant' is also used.  This common name is frequently used for other nocturnal birds, including owls and nightjars.  In Cuba, the bird is known as 'bruja' or witch.  In historical times, young birds savored for eating were referred to as 'cottons,' the name referring to the plump, cotton-ball appearance of downy chicks.

Systematics

Early in the last century P. phaeopygia, externa, cahow, and hasitata were considered to be of close affinity.  Some considered many forms of Pterodroma to be a subspecies of hasitata.  These include not only caribbaea and cahow of the North Atlantic, but four Pacific birds that get progressively larger and grayer with a reduction in dark pigmentation from north to south (P. sandwichensis of Hawaii, phaeopygia of the Galapagos, cervicalis from the Kermadec Islands, and the large externa breeding on the Juan Fernandez Islands).  Subsequently P. hasitata was placed in the subgenus Pterodroma, one of four subgenera.  The eleven members of this subgenus include the species that are the largest in size, have the deepest, strongest bills, and have helicoidal intestines with 93-100% counterclockwise twist.  Seven, including hasitata, are winter breeders.  The intestinal structure of P. hasitata is virtually identical to that of incerta that may be a sibling species of lessonii.

The North Atlantic may have been colonized twice by Pterodroma, once by summer breeding species, and once by winter breeding ones (hasitata, cahow).  While several authors have stated that the Bermuda Petrel P. cahow is a form of hasitata,  helicoidal twist counts of intestines indicate that the Black-capped Petrel and the Bermuda Petrel are clearly distinct.

In the 1700’s Catholic bishops after serious deliberation and consultation declared that lizards and Black-capped Petrels were vegetables and thereby could be eaten during Lent. In short, the taxonomy of the species even on the Kingdom level is still not fully resolved.

Likely locations

Mountains of south central Hispaniola in winter. At sea off southeast coast of Cuba and off southeast Atlantic coast of the United States in Gulf Stream.

Distribution

Tropical and sub-tropical distribution with numerous hurricane driven vagrants north of typical range. Highly pelagic. Typically in deep Gulf Stream waters, also probably in Sargasso Sea.

Species confined to western North Atlantic, with breeding sites restricted to the Greater and Lesser Antilles. Sub-fossil and bone remains of P. hasitata are known from Haiti (at least 4 different caves), Martinique, St. Croix, and Crooked Island (Bahamas). The material from Haiti is all from sites on the southern peninsula. Although none of this material has been radio-carbon dated, the faunal assemblages suggest a late Pleistocene age to recent. Associated human artifacts and fire charring on some bones suggests they we eaten by pre-Columbian man.

Former nesting within the historical period for Dominica, Guadeloupe and Martinique. An apparent fledgling was captured in Dominica in the spring of 2007.

It been known for a number of decades that Black-capped Petrels appear off the southeastern coast of Cuba and can be seen from shore without binoculars.
In 2004, a team of biologists from Cornell and Cuba observed groups of up to 46 adult Black-Capped Petrels rafting offshore and potentially flying inland, suggesting nesting. Lee and Vina (1993) investigated the potential for nesting in the mountains of Southern Cuba thoroughly. They found that the birds feed in an area of upwelling just offshore (at Punta Bruja). Thorough searches and conversations with local residents over a week in the winter found no reliable evidence that petrels nest in the area.

While many are hopeful of finding new nesting sites for this declining species, there is no reliable evidence of nesting there. There is also no fossil record from the area despite a large amount of searching and findings of other fossils by Cuban scientists. Until an actual nesting site is documented, the best explanation for these sightings is the important feeding area that attracts the birds. It is a remarkable location and birdwatching destination since it is the only place in the world where this species can reliably be viewed from land.


Black-capped Petrel Map

Biology

At sea

It was not until the late 1970’s that the primary foraging range of the Black-capped Petrel was recognized as the offshore zones of the southeastern United States.  The Gulf Stream current system is thought to be a principal factor influencing the marine distribution of this seabird. All evidence at present indicates that waters in the Gulf Stream between north Florida and southern Virginia provide for the primary non-breeding range of Black-capped Petrels.  Concentrations of birds can be found within the Gulf Stream in U.S. waters throughout the year, but particularly in May, August, and late December through early January.  The main foraging area appears to be directly east of Cape Hatteras National Seashore, North Carolina.  Concentrations occurring during winter, when peak breeding activity is underway, are suggestive of breeding birds moving to and from breeding colonies.  These long-distance foraging bouts, if verified, would not be unreasonable for species of the Genus Pterodroma.

Forages singly or in small groups over deep waters along current edges, eddies within the Gulf Stream and at sites of upwellings. Often seen in mixed species flocks. Feed primarily on squid, small fish, and fauna associates of Sargssum. Vocal at sea. Primarily nocturnal but also feeds during the day. Birds rest on the surface in small, species-specific flocks. Off North Carolina, birds encountered are primarily adult males.

At the nest

Little information. Winter breeder laying a single egg in burrows on remote mountain cliffs. Vocalizations of adults at nesting colonies, timing of molting of adults at sea, and historical information suggests most nesting activity is between December and April. Based on studies of other petrels in this genus, the nesting season is protracted (60 days of incubation; 120 days from hatching to fledging) and the birds are long-lived and probably do not reproduce prior to their 5th to 7th year.

Current Population 

Estimates of 2,000 - 20,000 pairs were made at the time of their 1961 rediscovery. The higher figure was certainly an overestimate, and subsequent habitat destruction places their total population at less than 2,000 pairs.


Location Known Sites Low Estimate High Estimate
Cuba ? ? ?
Haiti 3 1310 2900
Domincan Republic 1 5 100
Guadeloupe 1 0 0
Dominica 1 1 100
Martinique 1 0 0
Total 8 1316 3100

Conservation Status

Critically endangered (Schreiber and Lee 2000), one of seven endangered taxa of gadfly petrels. Included in 1988 ICPB list of threatened birds of the world. Despite repeated attempts since 1990 to have this species listed as endangered by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, no action has been taken. Once believed to be extinct but nesting colonies were discovered in Haiti in 1961. Black-capped petrels are now extirpated, or believed to be extirpated, on Guadeloupe and Martinique. They are hanging on in Hispaniola under intensive pressure from humans, and there are indications that relict populations might persist in the mountains of Cuba and Dominica.  This species is one of the most threatened in the Americas with a documented population decrease since its rediscovery.

While today it is restricted to cliff faces in remote interior regions, fossils and historical accounts indicate that they nested throughout the larger, forested islands of the region prior to human contact. At one time, this species was abundant.

Risks to the known Hispaniola colonies include illegal logging, forest fires, human predation, and introduced predators. Extensive logging creates erosion and mudslides that presumably destroy nesting sites.

In addition to the other exotic animals that are causing conservation problems for West Indian seabirds, the mongoose has become established on most of the islands with former and current nesting petrel colonies. The effects of the various exotic predators on nesting petrels is unknown because of inaccessibility to nest sites.

Black-capped Petrels have the highest concentrations of mercury in their tissues of any species of seabird occurring off the se United States examined to date. These petrels have mercury loads 7-9 times higher than most of the 27 species studied.

Oil exploration over the Outer Continental Shelf where most foraging activity occurs could be detrimental to the species. In addition to oil spills, the bird’s attraction to lights on oil rigs could devastate populations over time.  Heavy metals are expected to be released into the water column in the area where these petrels concentrate off North Carolina if offshore drilling were to take place. How this would effect the current mercury loads in the petrels is unclear.

This petrel is not known to represent a by catch species of pelagic fishing operations. Plastic was recovered from the gizzard of the one specimen examined but there is no indication that plastic ingestion is major issue.

Conservation Needs

Governments need to be made aware of conservation issues associated with this petrel. As it currently stands, no country is accepting responsibility for the conservation needs of this species on its breeding grounds or at sea.

Surveys of the known nesting areas in Haiti and the Dominican Republic need to be enhanced in order determine the current status of known populations and the existence, if any, of additional ones. These sites need protection, as well as monitoring for the presence of introduced predators. The national parks in Haiti and the Dominican Republic should be managed in ways to provide protection of nesting colonies.

Additionally, because of the bird’s secretive nocturnal nesting behavior, the presence of currently undetected populations in the West Indies region cannot be ruled out. Attention should first be given to islands that once supported nesting populations, but other areas need to be examined as well. There are a number of cases where extinct and extirpated petrels have been rediscovered, in some instances centuries after they were believed to have been exterminated.

Petitioning of the US Fish and Wildlife Service to list this species as endangered could help protect it from proposed oil exploration along the Outer Continental Shelf of the Southeastern United States.

Black-capped Petrels are an important element of the cultural history of the colonial period of the West Indies, and they were also apparently a resource used by pre-Columbian man. They represent a surviving legacy of the exploitation of the region and deserve protection. Research to date, both at their breeding sites and at sea has lead to nothing that actually provides long overdue protection, yet the plight of the species has been recognized since the mid-1700’s.

Photos

Selected References:

Black-capped Petrel page at the United States Fish and Wildlife Service Website.


Haney, J. C. 1987. Aspects of the pelagic ecology and behavior of the Black-caped Petrel (
Pterodroma hasitata). Wllson Bulletin 99: 153-168.

Lee, D. S. 1984. Petrels and storm-petrels in North Carolina’s offshore waters: including species previously unrecorded for North America. American Birds 38: 151-163.

Lee, D. S. 2000. Status and conservation priorities for Black-capped Petrels in the West Indies. Pp 11-18. in E. A. Schreiber and D. S. Lee (eds) Status and Conservation of West Indian Seabirds. Society of Caribbean Ornithology, Special Publication Number 1.225 pp.

Lee, D. S. and N. Vina. 1993. A re-evaluation of the status of Pterodroma hasitata in Cuba. Ornitologia Neotropical 4: 99-101.

Ottenwalder, J. and M. T. Vargas. 1997. Nueva localidad para el Diablotin en la Republica Dominica. Nturalista Postal 1976-79. 36/79: 185-186.

Wingate, D. B. 1952. Discovery of breeding Black-caped Petrels on Hispaniola. Auk 81: 147-159.

Wetmore, A. 1952. A record for the Black-caped Petrel Pterodroma hasitata, in Martinique. Auk 69: 460.

Williams, R. S. R., G. M. Kirwan and C. G. Bradshaw. 1977. The status of the Black-caped Petrel, Pterdroma hasitata, in the Dominican Republic. Cotinga 6:29-30.

Woods, C. A. 1987. The threatened and endangered birds of Haiti: lost horizons and new hopes. Pp. 385-429 In Proceedings 1987 Jean Delacore/IFCB Symposium on Breeding Birds in Captivity. North Hollywood, California: International Foundtion for the Conservation of Birds.

Woods, C. A. and J. A. Ottenwalder. 1983. The montane avifauna of Haiti. Pp 607-626, In Proceedings Jean Delacour/IFBC Symposium on Breeding Birds in Captivity. North Hollywood, California: International Foundation for the Conservation of Birds.
Compiled by: Dave Lee and Will Mackin

West Indian Breeding Seabird Atlas by Will Mackin and David Lee is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Based on work at www.wicbirds.net. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at www.wicbirds.net.

Suggested Citation: Lee, D. S., W. A. Mackin. 2008. Black-capped Petrel. West Indian Breeding Seabird Atlas <http://www.wicbirds.net/bcpe.html>. Last Updated: _____. Date accessed: ______.

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