During a series of voyages led by Zegrahm directors Peter Harrison and Jonathan Rossouw, Zegrahm travelers have once again been enjoying some exciting birding in the southwest Pacific. The Zegrahm team, traveling aboard the Clipper Odyssey, recently visited Papua New Guinea as well as the Solomon and Vanuatu islands.
Past Zegrahm travelers will be well aware of the region’s commoner seabirds: brown and red-footed boobies, plus the hoards of brown and black noddies that follow the schools of predatory bonito as they herd baitfish before them to create massed feeding frenzies. Searching carefully amongst the mobs of noddies, one of the least-known and most enigmatic of all seabirds, the Heinroth’s shearwater can sometimes be found. Described as recently as 1919, the breeding grounds of this near-mythical species still remain a mystery and only a handful of photographs have ever been taken. During recent research in the area by Peter Harrison in preparation for his forthcoming publication (A Handbook to the Seabirds of the World), several thousand images of this rarely observed shearwater were taken.
Rarer still, however, is the Vanuatu petrel, a lone individual of which crossed in front of the vessel’s bow on our recent Faces of Melanesia voyage. The first at-sea encounter with this species was by Peter and Jonathan north of Pentecost Island on an earlier Zegrahm voyage in 2010, where the first ever at-sea images were also taken.
Incredulously, there are still new seabirds to be discovered in this region! Following our Faces of Melanesia voyage in March of this year, Jonathan and Peter headed a team of international ornithologists on an eight-day expedition to seas south of Noumea, New Caledonia. Their hope was to find and photograph a mysterious, undescribed species of storm-petrel that was first photographed in 2008. Superficially resembling the recently rediscovered New Zealand storm-petrel, the "New Caledonia" storm-petrel is larger, with a different underwing pattern, but has the same striking white belly and streaked underparts. Over the eight-day expedition period, 16 chum slicks were deployed to entice the as-yet undescribed bird within range of the same powerful, air-operated net guns that successfully caught the recently discovered Pincoya storm-petrel in seas off Chile in 2011. Jonathan was the expedition’s dedicated net-gun operator and on one occasion came within inches of capturing the undescribed bird. In total, the expedition encountered the mysterious storm-petrel on 21 occasions, but failed to capture one. A follow-up expedition is now being planned, with chum recipes and net-gun tactics refined to better match their quarry’s speed and feeding traits. The near-capture of the mysterious storm-petrel has prompted the French government to perhaps consider lending logistical support for next year’s planned follow-up attempt.
In the meantime, Zegrahm travelers have now turned north and are in seas off New Britain, where Jonathan is leading the search for another of the world’s rarest seabirds, the Beck’s petrel. It was in this area, in 2010, off Cape St. George, that a Beck’s petrel was discovered on the deck of the Clipper Odyssey. This was the first time that a live Beck’s petrel has ever been held in the hand. In addition to Beck’s petrel, the Zegrahm birders are also enjoying fine views of Gould’s, Tahiti, and collared petrels.