Trindade Petrel, Porthgwarra, 29th July 2018: Two first-hand reports.
Before I start, I must mention the very sad passing of Brian Field yesterday and the effect this had on all of us. Despite the excellent passage of seabirds, we could never fully focus on this. We discussed many fond memories we had of Brian, as he was such a kind, warm and inspirational person who was such a valued part of the birding community. Unfortunately, it was for this reason that many great local seawatchers weren’t able to make it and our thoughts lie predominantly with them and Brian’s family rather than the petrel.
Yesterday morning, the wind was a particularly strong south westerly and had been forming way into the Atlantic Ocean. Birders from across the UK, who were excited about the prospect of a large movement of shearwaters and other interesting species, had arrived at first light, initially having to sit in poor visibility for two hours before their efforts paid off and the first of many large shearwaters started to pass the headland. It was an exciting morning as the numbers of species grew as did the volume of birds passing. Could it get any better?
At 12:08pm there was a slight lull in proceedings, following a fairly regular passage line of large shearwaters, and a few were tucking into their lunch. Then suddenly, Ray Archer shouted ‘Fea’s Petrel’ and everyone rushed back to their scopes. After a few seconds the first sea watchers were arriving on the bird, half way between the Pinnacle and the Runnel Stone and initially closer in than the Runnel. As the bird made a steady but assured passage west more and more were arriving on the bird and questions surrounding the identity began to be raised. But the more pressing question was its whereabouts for those who hadn’t yet connected. Frantic directions ensued from the marker-less ocean until perhaps a minute after discovery when the bird passed ever so slightly behind the Runnel Stone where everyone (all 20-25 observers) were able to get onto the bird. More and more doubts crept in as to the identity until Martin Elliott shouted words to the effect of ‘it’s a Trindade Petrel!!!’
Most had been looking for a bird more similar to Fulmar in appearance, whereas the closest bird this resembled was a mini Cory’s Shearwater and the new identification made more and more sense. Within 30 seconds to a minute the bird had headed around the rocks and was lost to view, but not before good views of multiple features had been obtained. By this time the identification as Trindade looked good, Martin Elliott and John Gale made field sketches and people who had seen the underwing pattern and tail pattern clearly were quizzed to ensure that the drawings were accurate! It was like being interrogated by the Police force! An incredible buzz grew around Gwennap Head as people stood up and congratulated each other. Had we really just seen a first for Britain!?!
Congratulations to Ray Archer for the find of a difficult to detect bird; Martin Elliott for the correct identification as well as Mark Wallace for superb directions.
Reuben Veal, 30th July 2018
In the circumstances Ray Archer did well to call this bird as a gadfly petrel at all! The light had been good shortly before (squalls permitting), but as the cloud broke patches of glare began to appear and it was in one of these the bird was first seen. Calling “Fea’s!” would be natural for anyone used to sea-watching from UK shores- no other Pterodroma would ordinarily be on your radar! But he did the job and almost everyone was quickly on the bird.
It was only then that things got confusing. Even those without previous experience of Fea’s type petrels in the field will have seen plenty of photographs or illustrations but this just did not conform- to the point that several birders (myself included) actually came off it temporarily because we thought we were looking at the wrong bird!
The bird’s flight was distinctive; a continuous series of almost elastic looking flaps, not as rapid as Manx, slightly deeper and more like Sooty Shearwater but without the latter’s power and obvious curling or flexing of the primary tips. The bird kept low to the water, and did not shear or glide more than brief banking over wave crests which meant the underparts were hard to see.
The combination of uniform brown upperparts without pale primary shafts, white underbody with dark under-tail coverts, dark underwing with white band on the secondary coverts, inner greater primary coverts and primary bases, small, relatively uniform brownish head with paler throat, and longish narrow tail can only be shown by pale morph Trinidade Petrel Pterodroma arminjoniana! The only other taxa which come close “Herald” Petrel Pterodroma heraldica from the Pacific ( with which Trinidade was “lumped” previously) but they do not show as much white on the underwing coverts, or “Trinidade” Petrels breeding on Round Island in the Indian Ocean- both being far fetched to say the least! Trinidade is regular off the Eastern seaboard of the US and has occurred in the Eastern North Atlantic.
Martin Elliot, 30th July 2018
Eds – The record will be subject to ratification by the relevant rarity committee for full acceptance to the British List. This represents an amazing record, with the nearest breeding population in the South Atlantic off Brazil, with nearest regular sightings in the warm Gulf Stream waters off the South Eastern USA, although still something of a speciality there, with a single record off Bermuda in 2015. There have also been a small number of WP records, mostly from the Azores.
The supporting cast for birders on the day included maxima reported of 92 Great, 32 Cory’s, 47 Sooty and 13 Balearic Shearwaters, 1 Arctic and 13 Great Skua, 56 Storm Petrel, 4 Puffin and 5 Yellow legged Gull. Two Wilson’s Petrels were also seen further around the coast the same day.