Rarity finders: Black-capped Petrel in the Canary Islands


Between 30 October and 11 November 2022, my wife and I enjoyed a cruise onboard MV Queen Victoria. This took us from Southampton to Madeira, followed by several of the Canary Islands, before returning to the UK. About half the time would be spent at sea, so I was hoping for a little seabird action during these periods.

After an enjoyable visit to Madeira on 3 November, the ship departed for the overnight transit to La Palma in the Canary Islands.

The following morning at approximately 6.50 am, I did an initial sweep around the promenade deck of the ship before sunrise to check if any passerines had landed overnight, as I tended to do most mornings. Nothing was discovered on this circuit, so I walked the other open decks of the ship, before returning to the promenade deck around 7.30 am. The island of La Palma was clearly close on the starboard side of the ship, so I assumed we would be nearing the breakwater quite soon.

I had only been walking a few minutes when I spotted quite a large petrel against the bulkhead behind some reclining chairs. My initial thought was that the bird was either a Fea's or Desertas Petrel, which would be the most likely in the area of the Canary Islands. The ship's position at the time of the sighting was 28.6853, -17.7186.

The Black-capped Petrel was discovered marooned onboard the MV Queen Victoria during an early morning wander (Steve Copsey).

The petrel was clearly not happy and was flapping against the bulkhead. I took a couple of shots on the camera, but my thoughts were for the welfare of the bird, and I did not want it to sustain an injury as it struggled. After putting down my camera and binoculars, I walked over to the bird and managed, after a few attempts to safely pick it up despite it latching on to my fingers a couple of times with its rather sharp bill. Once in my hands, the bird started screeching and was getting very agitated. I gave it a quick once over and decided it had no obvious injuries and that it was best for the bird that I get it to the ship's side for release as quickly as possible. I duly released the bird over the starboard guard rail, and I am happy to report that it flew strongly away from the ship heading back out to sea.

I photographed the images above on the back of my camera with my phone and sent them to a couple of friends, one being Simon Cook, a wildlife tour leader and a fellow member of the Royal Naval Bird Watching Society (RNBWS). Within a few minutes, he responded and stated that he thought the bird was a Black-capped Petrel, a species that breeds in the Caribbean and is a rarity on this side of the Atlantic Ocean. He informed me that he would pass the image to a few friends and suggested I post the images to a pelagic Facebook page which I did. From the responses received it was clear that the bird was indeed a Black-capped Petrel.

Black-capped Petrel breeds in the Caribbean between November and May (Steve Copsey).

I assume that the bird had been attracted to the ship's lights overnight on the passage from Madeira to La Palma and crash-landed on the deck near where I found it during the hours of darkness. As it was still reasonably dark on my first circuit of the deck, I probably missed the bird, as it was maybe tucked under the recliner chairs. With daylight increasing the bird perhaps moved out into a slightly more open area of the deck, becoming more visible.

I believe this is around the 17th record for the Western Palearctic and a first for the Canary Islands, but due to its pelagic nature it is almost certainly under-recorded.

As a footnote, I have been rather lucky in the vicinity of the Canary Islands. Back in September 2012, I was sailing past Tenerife in HMS Protector, heading for the South Atlantic and Antarctica. I was called to the bridge for a bird perched on the foremast. This bird turned out to be another first for the Canary Islands, a Red-footed Booby!

Written by: Steve Copsey

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