The unusual call reverberates through the heavy night air. Cutting through the darkness and dense forest with purpose. A bit unnerving to say the least, should you ever find yourself roaming the wilds Hispaniola in the middle of the night. While it may sound like the wailing of some poor soul lost at sea long ago, it is actually the call of the “diablotin,” as its known all over the Caribbean.
And no, we’re not speaking of a real life, devilish little imp. Say hello to the black-capped petrel. Once thought to be extinct, and against all odds, this mysterious sea bird is showing the world otherwise.
“It is surviving in Haiti of all places,” says Jennifer Wheeler, co-chair of International Black-capped Petrel Conservation Group.
With very little forest left within which to build its burrows and with the presence of predators, this is definitely a feat for the bird, she says.
“They have become a symbol of hope and perseverance.”
This elusive bird was actually rediscovered in the early-'60s. Due to much of its time being spent many miles offshore close to the Gulf Stream, where it feeds and only coming ashore at night to visit its burrow, progress on the species and its status has been slow going, at best — that is until the American Bird Conservancy (ABC) came up with one heck of a plan.
Scientists from the ABC, along with Hatteras-based Seabirding (the only local operator of pelagic bird watching trips) partnered in an effort to “capture, tag, and remotely follow the birds back to their Caribbean nesting areas.”
Which begs the question, “Why are the black-capped Petrels so important?”
"These birds are surviving despite all the odds," Wheeler says. " There are natural disasters, such as hurricanes and earthquakes, the constant threat of predator invasion, not to mention rising ocean temperatures and acidification, which will also affect them.”
The birds also play a role in the ecosystem.
“While out at sea, the petrels feed on small fish and then — when they head back to the islands — their guano then has a positive effect on the environment,” she says.
A small batch of bird excrement might not seem like a lot until one considers the high levels of nitrogen, phosphate and potassium it contains; all nutrients that plants require for optimum growth, she says. "And it is our duty to lend them a hand."
And with that in mind, the scientists went to sea.
Because of Hatteras’ proximity to the Gulf Stream, the Continental Shelf, and the Labrador Current, the expedition was in prime territory for petrel activity.
The plan was simple: Head 30 miles offshore, wait for a very skittish bird to fly within 10 feet of your vessel, and capture it with a net. Ummm. Right.
Before any birds could even be seen, some tricky work had to be done. From the main boat, the scientists had to launch a dingy, and then transfer all the necessary equipment, including a boat engine, without any damages or injuries, in 5 feet seas, no less.
“It was actually more of a feat of athleticism,” Wheeler says with a broad smile. “At one point, we are all laughing, looking at this tiny little dingy bobbing around out at sea with two guys in it holding a net gun, and waiting for a bird to fly by.”
Their patience and perseverance, however, paid off.
“This was our first attempt using a net gun, and it didn’t take long as the birds we being lured in by chum blocks floating around the dingy, along with a few other creatures,” she says. “After two practice shots, the first bird was caught at about 30 feet away. In all, we are able to safely capture 10 black-capped petrels,” she says. “Each bird was safely transferred to the big boat where they each fitted with solar transmitters. These will each collect and beam data for six hours every 28 hours and — in a perfect situation — last for a year.”
For an expedition that many deemed improbable, Wheeler included, the end result is nothing short of amazing.
“Now that we know our net system works, we will be able to see where the birds are breeding outside of Hispaniola for conservation efforts,” she says. “We are also hoping to reduce the number of incursions from predators into their burrows so that the population may once again flourish and sustain itself.”
While all of this may take decades to establish, Wheeler, along with her highly skilled friends, have proven that even in the most mercurial of environments, dreams can come true — for the petrels, and for us.