Fea's Petrel in Scillonian waters: an overview

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Bob Flood & Ashley Fisher

Fea’s Petrel Pterodroma feae breeds in the Cape Verde Islands and the Madeiran archipelago. These two distinct forms are considered by some authorities to be separate species, respectively Fea’s Petrel Pterodrom feae and Desertas Petrel Pterodroma deserta. Both are threatened. The Fea’s Petrel is heavier, more bulky, with a more robust bill. The breeding population size of Fea’s may be 500-1,000 pairs, whilst Desertas Petrel is reduced to perhaps 150-200 pairs. Given the population sizes speculation suggests that the birds seen off Scilly most probably are Fea’s Petrel from Cape Verde. However, the birds we have seen well appear big headed, bull necked, large chested, and have enormous bills so typical of Desertas Petrel. We believe it is possible that Pterodromas seen off Scilly are Desertas Petrel on incubation foraging flights with egg laying known to take place in July-August. Pterodromas are known to cover large distances when off duty during incubation. All Pterodroma sightings off Scilly fall in the period July 8 to September 8.

Zino’s Petrel breeds in Madeira and is critically endangered. It is a slighter and more lightweight version of the Fea’s Petrel with a slimmer bill. The breeding population is thought to be in the region of 85 pairs given the recent discovery of a new breeding location. Conventional wisdom suggests that Zino’s Petrel is so rare that probability dictates Pterodromas seen off Britain almost certainly are Fea’s Petrel and/or Desertas Petrel. We do not agree with this assumption. It is possible for Zino’s Petrel to visit British waters, for example, on incubation foraging trips when they might cover long distances. Egg laying is known to take place in late May and early June. Thus incubation foraging sightings might be expected in June and July.

To date there have been seven sightings of Pterodromas from Scilly short-range pelagic trips. Two performed so well that it was possible to document them with photographs and video that show enough detail for BBRC to accept them to species as Fea’s Petrel. At the moment BBRC and BOURC do not recognise the split into Fea’s Petrel and Desertas Petrel. Details of these amazing sightings follow.

2001    Jul 8      1, short-range pelagic, 12 km south, first for Britain.    
2004    Sep 6    1, short-range pelagic, 16 kms west, third for Britain.    

2001 On July 8 at about 19.00, approximately 12 kms south of St. Mary’s during an evening short-range pelagic trip a Fea’s Petrel was seen at point blank range and remained with the boat for some 12 minutes, thrilling the blessed seven birders on board. The extended stay made it possible to capture video footage of the event and from that extract video grabs showing enough structural detail to make a safe identification as Fea’s Petrel, rather than Zino’s Petrel. The record was accepted in 2006 by BBRC and BOURC (who review all firsts for Britain) and thus became the first for Britain (Ashley Fisher, Bob Flood, and Nigel Wheatley). To see the full account with images Click here

2004 On the evening of Sep 6 a group of seven birders were on an evening pelagic trip drifting and chumming approximately 16 kms west of St Mary’s Quay. At approximately 18.45 a Fea’s Petrel appeared over a wave just 25 metres off port side and was heralded by a multiple cry, ‘Fea’s!’ It remained within 150 metres of the vessel for at least ten minutes. The Fea’s Petrel associated with and followed Northern Fulmars and this connection brought it very close to the vessel on numerous occasions and, as you will appreciate, each time all onboard whooped with joy. On several occasions the ‘Fea’s’ swooped past the vessel at about 15 metres and at its nearest it was just six metres off the bow. Eventually the ‘Fea’s’ moved off in a south-westerly direction. A number of photographs were taken that facilitated safe identification as Fea’s Petrel, rather than Zino’s Petrel, in particular because they show key identification features, especially bill size and structure, and head and body bulk. This ‘Fea’s’ was accepted by BBRC and became only the third record for Britain (Ashley Fisher, Bob Flood and Ben Lascelles).

The above two records along with one at sea about 96km southwest of Scilly (outside the recording area) during a pelagic trip aboard RMV Scillonian III on 12 August 2001 to date are the only ones accepted by BBRC to species. The remaining Pterodroma sightings in Scillonian waters that were not supported by photographs have been ascribed to the species pair Fea’s/Zino’s Petrel.

1996    Aug 18    1, short-range pelagic, 3.2 km southwest Bishop Rock.    
1999    Aug 24    1, short-range pelagic, 1.5 km south Bishop Rock.    
1999    Aug 31    1, short-range pelagic, 5 km south St Agnes.    
2002    Sep 8      1, short-range pelagic, 10km south St Mary's.    
2004    Aug 28    1, short-range-pelagic, 16 kms west St Mary’s.    

1996 A presumed Fea’s Petrel was seen by Will Wagstaff about three kms south-west of Bishop Rock on the evening of Aug 18. Here is his account: “On a slightly choppy evening with sick fishermen on board adding to the chum, I kept out of the way in the bridge chatting with the skipper. Then I noticed a seabird very different from anything else I had seen, which passed the boat at c20m. Even with the naked eye I could see a distinctive 'M' pattern across its wings. That and the swinging flight combined with the dark mask behind the eye quickly led me to realise I was watching a ‘Soft-plumaged Petrel’ now known as Fea's Petrel. It was very quick over the sea and did not stay around the boat for long, but was in view for some time as it flew away with its distinctive high swinging flight.”

1999 The second presumed Fea’s Petrel for Scilly was seen by Bob Flood more-or-less at the same location as the 1996 bird, three years plus six days later, on the evening of Aug 24. Just one week later on the evening of Aug 31 the same or another presumed Fea’s Petrel was seen, again at more or less the same spot, initially spotted by Pete Greaves and witnessed by three other birders including Bob Flood.

2002 A presumed Fea’s Petrel was watched for about five minutes by four birders on Sep 8 during the outward journey of an evening pelagic trip. The location was approximately 10 kms south of St Mary’s. Initially it was picked up by Bob Flood some 50 metres ahead of the boat, off the port side. At one point the presumed Fea’s circled around and inspected a Manx Shearwater that was sitting on the sea. Unfortunately, however, it was otherwise moving in a south-westerly direction and despite ‘full steam ahead’ it was not possible to make up ground.

2004 On the afternoon of Aug 28 four birders were drifting and chumming approximately 16 kms northeast of St Mary’s Quay. At 14.40 Ashley Fisher spotted a presumed Fea’s Petrel about 30 metres off the port bow. It remained in the region of 30 metres off the vessel for one-and-a-half minutes affording fantastic views to the four birders on board, including Bob Flood. The presumed ‘Fea’s’ headed off in a south-westerly direction.