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Barau’s Petrel, the easiest Pterodroma in the world to see

 
The Ile de Réunion
 
The Indian Ocean island of Réunion lies between the islands of Mauritius and Madagascar with approximately 93 nautical miles (170 kilometres) of sea between Reunion and Mauritius to the ENE and 360 nautical miles (675 kilometres) NW to the closest coast of Madagascar. The island is centred at approximately 21°07’ South 55°32’ East.
 
It is an overseas département of France, and hence effectively part of the EU. For European-based Francophile birders this makes it an attractive option for a short break, a tropical France in the Indian Ocean.
 
Réunion is the youngest of an archipelago known as the Mascarene Islands, which were formed over a part of the Earth’s crust known as the Réunion hotspot. The oldest islands are now but coral shoals eroded over the last 35 million years while Mauritius is some 8-10 million years old; Réunion though, has been formed in the last 2 million years. The island contains three classic shield volcanoes, formed when lava breaks through the thin oceanic crust. These include the highest peak, the extinct Piton des Neiges, at 3069 metres, and the far from extinct Piton de la Fournaise (2631 metres). The latter is one of the world’s most active volcanoes and has erupted as recently as November 2008.
  
Lava flow from 2008 at Pointe du Tremblet © Pete Fraser
  Figure 1. Lava flow from 2008 at Pointe du Tremblet, Ile de Réunion.
 
In many ways Réunion is very similar to the island of Hawaii, USA, (‘Big Island’), although the latter is larger (Hawaii is 10432 km² while Réunion is 2512 km²): both were formed in a geologically similar way, and have very active volcanic areas in their south-eastern quarters. They are both situated at similar distances from the equator and receive some of the heaviest rainfall on earth when the moisture-laden trade winds from the east meet the volcanic mountains. Cilaos, near the centre of Réunion, has received 1,869.9 mm (73.6 in) of rainfall in 24 hours, this is the greatest total ever recorded on Earth; other sites on the island have received 18 metres  of rainfall in one year!
 
The Petrels of Reunion
 
This geography is not without importance, and is mentioned here not just because of its self-evident interest! Geologically young, volcanic, islands near the tropical boundaries offer terrific opportunities for petrels, for a whole variety of reasons. Geographical isolation makes mammalian predators a minimal threat, unless, of course, they find their way to the island, either via their own agency or a host species; un-eroded vertiginous topography adds to nesting security and proximity of the sea to these sites gives them an attractiveness matched only by the sea-cliffs of the temperate zones. The geographical location of these islands with favoured nesting sites to sub-tropical feeding areas; down (or up depending on the hemisphere) to 40° makes them favorites for several species.
 
Réunion fits the bill for two endemic petrels: the endangered Barau’s Petrel Pterodroma baraui and the critically endangered Mascarene Black Petrel Pseudobulweria aterrima. Barau’s is thought to have a world population of around 15,000 with between 3000 and 5000 pairs breeding, the latter is one of the rarest birds in the world and may have a population reaching 100 pairs.
 
It is thought that most of these birds (of both species) nest in the area known as Le Grand Bassin, at an altitude of between 2000 and 2800 metres. This is a spectacular gorge inland from the town of St Pierre and viewable distantly from the town on a clear day. To see video Click here

Le Cirque de Cilaos © Pete Fraser
Figure 2. Le Cirque de Cilaos, Ile de Réunion. One of the world’s wettest places, a home to Barau’s Petrel and all bar one of Réunion’s endemic landbirds.
 
Barau’s Petrel is known to breed, and by implication Black Petrel is thought to breed, in the austral summer with egg-laying probably taking place in November and hatching up to 55 days later. The fledging period then takes place between January and May.
 
For a detailed discussion of the species’ pelagic distribution, see Stahl and Bartle. Their surveys showed that Barau’s petrels were present in low numbers in Réunion waters during the austral winter, but absent from further south, with occupation of nesting sites beginning in September. These surveys correlate with casual observations made by visiting birders, a sample of which is listed below. During the fledging season however the adults forage to the south of Réunion, up to 41° South to the Southern Subtropical Convergence Zone. In April adult and juvenile Barau’s Petrels begin to disperse eastwards into the tropical Indian Ocean and the last leave in mid-May. At this time over the last two decades many juveniles have been found grounded by attraction to urban lighting. This is a significant threat to the species, between 1995 and 2003 between 207 and 791 juveniles have been collected annually by the Société d’Études Ornitholigiques de la Réunion.
 
Some Barau’s Petrel sightings from Réunion gleaned from internet-based bird reports
Dates Site Numbers Source
August 6/8th 2001 St Etienne river 30 D. Van den Schoor
October 31st 2001 St Denis present R. Hoff
August 2002 St Etienne river 5 P. Hottola
September 11th 2004 St Etienne river > 400 J. Jansen
September 19th 2005 St Etienne river 240 G. Westdean
October 19th 2005 St Etienne river present Birdwatching breaks
 
Significantly, there are few reports of counts of Barau’s during the breeding season, this may largely be due to this also being the (even) wetter part of the year, when it is additionally much hotter in Réunion, and, to cap it all, it is the southern cyclone season from January until March. These factors may deter visiting birders who may be giving greater priority the Island’s endemic and quasi-endemic landbirds.
 
Birding Réunion
 
Readers may have inferred that Réunion’s weather is diabolical. This is actually far from the case; although the mountains can be very wet and are best visited in the northern hemisphere summer which is the dry season in Réunion. My wife and I visited Réunion for a relaxing week in March 2009, a time I thought may be good for see Barau’s Petrels and she thought would be good for reading around the pool. We stayed in St Pierre on the southwestern coast; this is a town seemingly dedicated for the inhabitants of the capital, St Denis, to go to at the weekend, and has a thriving bar and restaurant culture. In March the daily maximum temperature was 30°C, with either a stiff south-easterly trade wind or a light (and hot) northerly; it didn’t rain in St Pierre while we were there. St Pierre is about 7km south of the St Etienne estuary, the ‘stake-out’ site for Barau’s Petrels.
 
Seeing Barau’s Petrel
 
I went seawatching every afternoon for six days, usually from around 4pm until dark, at around 7pm; but kept a casual eye on the sea most of the time and ventured out at dawn once when the jet-lag had worn off. I either watched from the harbour sea-wall or walked for 20 minutes to Pointe au Parc, to the south of town over the river. While a better sea-watching spot, this was a gathering point for the local youth, most of whom were friendly enough, but whose curiosity required engaging as they were somewhat mystified why I was staring at the sea from their skate-board area.
 
  The Harbour wall at St Pierre © Pete Fraser
 Figure 3. The Harbour wall at St Pierre, Ile de Réunion. Barau’s Petrels frequently come as close at the breakers and fly inland over the harbour. Pointe au Parc is in the distance (1km away) over the top of the further harbour wall which is about 250 metres away.
 
Barau’s Petrels were present off-shore usually from 3pm, but in low numbers. On one day there was a mixed-species feeding ‘kettle’ about 5 km off-shore, containing a few dozen Barau’s, in the late morning. I saw no birds on the morning I got up early at 7am.
 
From 4pm onwards the number of birds off-shore increased, with birds circling round at sea, but some also coming right in-shore and flying along the surf line. Many began to move north to (presumably) the St Etienne river mouth, with a continual stream of birds doing this by 5.30pm. Not all birds moved north though, from 5.30 pm onwards some would start flying with a rapid wingbeat and begin to rise up to 300-500 metres above the sea and circle around over the beach. From this time onward some of these birds would then fly directly inland over the town toward Le Grand Bassin. We saw several directly overhead over our hotel during the short dusk period, and even saw one flying inland at 10pm directly over the harbour.
 
Numbers varied from night to night, depending on the wind, but it would be not unreasonable to estimate that between 250 and 1000 birds per night were present off St Pierre, with single scans frequently having 100 birds in them. Michael Brooke suggests that Pterodroma chicks may be fed every two or three days, so it is possible to surmise that over 5 days different adults are being seen every night. In my time at St Pierre this means that I may have seen a 25% of the world breeding population, assuming 500 birds per evening and a total of 5000 pairs!
 
It can be seen from the video [Click here] that Barau’s Petrel is a large Pterodroma with a predominantly pale underwing. It has a similar wingspan to its nearest genetic relatives Trinidade Petrel, P. arminonjoniana and Kermadec Petrel P. neglecta , but is smaller than both Dark-rumped Petrels, Galapagos P. phaeopygia and Hawaiian P. sandwichensis as well as Juan Fernandez Petrel P. externa. The underwing is more marked than Juan Fernandez and White-necked P. cervicalis Petrels, but less so than Galapagos and, probably, Hawaiian. It is most similar to Hawaiian Petrel, and I would personally exercise great trepidation in separating the pair in a blind photograph competition. Barau’s probably shows more grey on the head and crown than Hawaiian.
 
On Réunion there are no identification issues with Barau’s Petrel, but observers should be aware of the possibility of seeing Trinidade Petrels from Round Island, Mauritius, and Soft-plumaged Petrels P. mollis from the temperate Indian Ocean.
 
Seeing other seabirds
 
The two commonest seabirds, other than Barau’s Petrel, seen whilst seawatching at St Pierre, were Wedge-tailed Shearwaters Puffinus pacificus, with typically up to 250 seen each evening and Common Noddies Anous stolidus with numbers up to 100 each evening. More interestingly there were usually up to 8 individuals of a small black-and-white Puffinus shearwater. These birds were evidently members of the Tropical/Audubon’s complex but had conspicuously broad dark edges to the underside of the wings as they made rapid progress past the ‘Wedgies’, low over the sea. Rightly or wrongly, I have assumed that they were P. (lherminieri) bailloni, which can be considered a Réunion endemic, and could be called Baillon’s Shearwater. There are between 3000 and 5000 pairs. The taxonomy of “Audubon’s” complex in the Indian Ocean would best be described as ‘complex’ and not the topic of this piece! Otherwise two other seabirds were seen, White-tailed Tropicbird Phaethon lepturus, with the charming French name of paille-en-queue (straw tail)which can be widely seen around the coast, and one Lesser Noddy Anous tenuirostris.
 
A note on Mascarene Black Petrel.
 
There are at least two records of this species mentioned in trip reports, one of which is described as being at close range (400 m) at St Etienne River mouth in August. I had hoped that, at least statistically, I might have a chance of seeing one, or more, from St Pierre in March, but to no avail. To use English vernacular, I didn’t get a sniff of one in over 20 hours of seawatching. Ian Sinclair suggests chartering a Marlin-fishing sport boat from St Gilles, to the north of St Pierre, this option would only be taken by a committed group with plenty of money who might still not succeed in seeing one.
 
It must also be emphasized that there are a number of potential confusion species, these include Great-winged Petrel P. macroptera, dark morph Trinidade Petrel, Jouanin’s Petrel Bulweria fallax and lastly, but by no means least, Flesh-footed Shearwater Puffinus carneipes. Any claim of Mascarene Black Petrel must convincingly eliminate all these species to maintain credibility.
 
Travelling to, and in, Reunion
 
Réunion can be reached daily from Paris and other French cities with Air France or Air Austral. Air Austral also serve South Africa and Australia and is the main ‘island-hopping’ airline in the western Indian Ocean.
 
There are ferries from Mauritius in addition to regular flights, but these aren’t timed with the pelagic enthusiast in mind, leaving at dusk and arriving at dawn.
 
Réunion has an excellent bus network, which serves every village. There is an express network (‘Le Car Jaune’) which runs around the periphery of Réunion and has one cross island route. We travelled between St Denis, St Louis, St Pierre and Pointe du Tremblet by Car Jaune and up to Cilaos from St Louis by local bus. All the endemic landbirds except Réunion Cuckoo-shrike were seen in the forest around Cilaos. A taxi might be needed to visit La Roche Ecrite from St Denis for the Cuckoo-shrike. Car hire is easy, and without problems for those experienced with France, however the tortuous mountain roads are, in my view, best experienced when someone else is driving. If you hear a horn on a mountain bend, it means the bus is coming round and not stopping! I saw one Réunion Harrier from a bus under circumstances which would have made it impossible to stop a car.
 
It is a Francophone island, and any attempts to try and speak French are better than none; visitors may struggle if they can’t read, understand, or speak a word of French.
 
Bon chance!
 
Peter Fraser
2 The Parade, Truro
Cornwall, TR1 1QE
 
 
Ornithological references
Brooke, M. Albatrosses and Petrels across the World. OUP, 2004
Minatchy, N. Stratégie de reduction de la mortalité des petrels induite par les éclairges publics. University of Réunion, 2004.
Sinclair, Ian & Langrand, Olivier. Birds of the Indian Ocean Islands. Struik, Cape Town, 1998.
Stahl, J.-C. & Bartle J. A. Distribution, abundance and aspects of the pelagic ecology of Barau’s Petrel in the south-west Indian Ocean. Notornis, 39 211-224.
 
Also
Société d’Études Ornithologiques at www.seor.fr/index.htm
 
 
Text, photographs and video © P. FRASER