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2011-06-10
A new species of seabird has been found.


Based on two years of follow-up research, scientists have concluded that the birds Jeff Gilligan, Gerard Lillie, and four Irish friends saw from the deck of their cruise ship off the coast of Chile are likely members of a new species of storm-petrel. The men, who are all serious birders, spotted what they thought were Wilson’s Storm-Petrels. On closer inspection, however, they noticed several features not consistent with that species, such as bellies that were too white and distinctive whitish wing bars.

 

After taking pictures and comparing them with various birding books and online reference materials, it began to look increasingly like they had found an unknown species. Upon returning home, they consulted with different experts and kept coming up with the same feedback, a new species may have been discovered.

 

The next step was to enlist the services of some experts to capture some birds. Funding such an undertaking, however, is not inexpensive. Ironically, the person who came to the rescue was Peter Harrison, a recognized international expert on seabirds, who, 20 years earlier, had documented seeing a bird that may have been the same species in the same area. Owing to poor visibility, however, he discounted the sighting.

 

Harrison sought the help of two New Zealanders, Chris Gaskin and Karen Baird, who had been involved in searches for breeding sites of the recently rediscovered New Zealand Storm-Petrel, a bird that was thought to be extinct for over 100 years. He also recruited one of Chile's leading ornithologists, Dr. Michel Sallaberry Ayerza with the University of Chile-Santiago.

 

In February 2011, the team set sail from Puerto Montt, Chile in the Gulf of Ancud.  After chumming the water with fish scraps, they spotted some of the unknown petrels.  However, due to rough waters, they had to return to port. 
Over the next several days, the seas calmed and the team was able to return to the water and was able to capture 12 birds.  They took blood and feather samples as well as a variety of measurements of weight, wings, bills, toes, etc. One bird was accidentally killed in the capture net and was retained as a specimen.

 

Harrison is now working on a peer-reviewed paper officially describing the new species.  If accepted for publication, it will mark the first new seabird species in 55 years, and the first new storm-petrel in nearly 90.

 

Presently, there are 23 species of storm-petrels that vary from five to ten inches long. All are dark gray or brown, sometimes lighter below, often with a white rump. Their relatively short wings are rounded at the tips; the tail can be square, forked, or wedge-shaped.

 

The name petrel is thought by some to refer to St. Peter because when feeding, they face into the wind with wings extended, and appear to be walking on water.  The word “storm” was added for this group because the early sailors often reported seeing these little birds just before a storm.


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