While remaining focused on the fate of Dominica’s endemic parrots, I am also concerned about Maria’s potential impact on the endangered black-capped petrel (Pterodroma hasitata). The rare seabird– known locally as the Diablotin (Little Devil), thanks to its nocturnal habits and eerie calls– was rediscovered over Dominica in 2015. In that year, 968 black-capped petrels were documented darting on swift wings between the sea and the island’s towering volcanic peaks. The phantom birds are notoriously difficult subjects of scientific inquiry, however, as they prefer to breed in remote, densely-forested highlands, returning to their nesting burrows only at night. As of this writing, the presence of Diablotin eggs and chicks in burrows on Dominica has yet to be confirmed.
A gadfly petrel in the genus Pterodroma, the black-capped petrel is one of the world’s rarest seabirds, with as few as 1,000-2,000 pairs remaining. Until it was discovered in numbers over Dominica, the bird’s only known breeding location had been Hispaniola, a Greater Antillean island divided by the nations of the Dominican Republic and Haiti.
Haiti deforestation via Direct Relief CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Since environmental pressures and widespread deforestation on Hispanolia have proven catastrophic in recent decades, particularly on Haiti, the detection of the black-capped petrel over the mountainous, rainforest-clad Nature Island of Dominica, where natural resources are valued and protected, was considered to be a most fortunate development for the continued survival of the species.
Black-capped petrel range map via Cornell University
For most of the year, the black-capped petrel forages in the warm waters of the Gulf Stream, returning to land only to nest. In the non-breeding season, its numbers are concentrated out-to-sea between the coasts of Florida and North Carolina. Once abundant within its range, the Diablotin was thought to be extinct by the early 20th century, but was fortunately rediscovered. Its close relative the Jamaican petrel (Pterodroma caribbaea)–sometimes considered a dusky subspecies of the black-capped– was last sited in 1879. The Jamaican petrel has yet to be declared extinct, thanks to its secretive, nocturnal habits, with some authorities postulating that the species could still persist on Guadeloupe and Dominica.
1907 illustration of the now-mythic Jamaican Petrel
Though the black-capped petrels nest in January, with young fledging and heading to sea by June or July, the impact on potential nesting grounds post-Maria could prove disastrous to the breeding success of the species on Dominica, thanks to the widespread loss of forest cover and landslides in the high mountains. I will continue reporting on the species as details emerge.