Zino's Petrel, Isles of Scilly, 30 July 2020. An evocative image of a Zino's in British waters (Danni and Zac Hinchcliffe).
Zino's Petrel is among the rarest of all seabirds in the world, with perhaps 80-85 pairs breeding exclusively on Madeira, and 300 individuals in total roaming the entire Atlantic Ocean.
Over the last 12 years, I have been at sea off Madeira on about 50 days, observed Zino's Petrel on about 30 of those, enjoyed perhaps 50 sightings of Zino's, seen Zino's in the hand, seen a 'live' Zino's egg, interviewed Frank Zino in his garden in Funchal, Madeira (followed by a gin and tonic, as featured on the DVD in our 2013 guide, Pterodroma Petrels) and enjoyed several truly memorable evening dinners with Frank and his delightful wife, Buffy. There was just one thing missing …
A five-day yacht expedition, from Madeira to the Selvagens Islands, was the first occasion on which Bob, front right, saw Zino's Petrel (Oriole Birding tour, then Celtic Birding; photographer unknown).
A wonderful evening meal, full of Frank's incredible stories about saving Zino's Petrel from extinction. Left to right, Buffy Zino, Frank Zino, Bob Flood and Mandy Flood, at the Marina, Funchal, Madeira, July 2018. We owe the Zino family, including Frank's father, Paul Alexander Zino, a huge thank you for saving the rightly named Zino's Petrel.
The weather conditions leading up to Thursday 30 July 2020 were quite unusual. There was a steady westerly airflow right across the North Atlantic, west to east, at our latitude, reaching south-west Ireland; and 18-knot southerly winds, originating from the south-west of north-west Africa, reaching Scilly. It was so unusual that I texted pelagic buddy Scott Reid to say that due to the winds this evening's pelagic "could be interesting".
MV Sapphire departed St Mary's Quay at 5 pm with 11 birders on board. All were pumped, because Monday's trip had found four Wilson's Storm Petrels, three Great Shearwaters, and nine Cory's Shearwaters. Pelagic stalwart of 20 years and buddy Higgo (John Higginson) rubbed his hands together and with a grin on his face said his usual "tonight's the night."
Skipper, Joe Pender, well known for his sensational seabird photos, summoned me into the cabin to discuss which direction to head. Normally, in an evening, we would take the quickest route to sea by heading directly south, but with brisk southerly winds, the boat and the smell of chum would blow back toward the islands. So, we decided to head to Pol Bank, 5 km south-west of Bishop Rock Lighthouse.
The evening did not disappoint, with another six (maybe eight) Wilson's, many hundreds of European Storm Petrels, three Cory's and a Great Shearwater. We began the steam home at about 8.40 pm, pitching and rolling on the choppy seas. Folks with cameras 'stood' at the stern photographing a Cory's, which swept in behind the boat numerous times, plunge-diving for fish bits, while a moulting Great Shearwater cruised in low, skim-diving for fish bits. Hundreds ofstormies swarmed like gnats over the wash, including a Wilson's. I stood on the step to the cabin (my perch) to gain better views. It was quite a show.
In the last few years, my eyesight has deteriorated, and I have been working on the ID of seabirds as different kinds of blob. If a blob looks interesting, I raise my binoculars to check it out. I cannot manage spectacles and binoculars or contact lenses due to my disability. Anyway, it was about 8.55 pm and I noticed two mid-sized blobs close to each other, port side, perhaps 75m off, flying low over the water.
The leading blob looked like a Manx Shearwater; the following blob looked smaller and something quite different. I raised my binoculars. The leading bird was indeed a Manx, the following bird however … At this moment, MV Sapphire and all on board entered a time warp. Like in a Star Trek movie, something paranormal switched us into slow motion ... ay, caramba! A Pterodroma, apparently smaller than the Manx, with a grey upperside, and a dark panda-like face patch.
In my most fanciful of moments, during quiet pelagic trips, I had fantasised about a Zino's Petrel gracing a Scilly pelagic. I had even rehearsed my lines. But, in the reality of this split-second moment, and despite the small size of the Pterodroma suggesting Zino's, an overwhelming incredulity factor red-flagged my plans and I screamed, apparently like a manic hyena, "Fea's Petrel!" That is what it would turn out to be, right? Wrong!
The Pterodroma was checking out the Manx. Then, without warning, it demonstrated rapid acceleration and super-manoeuvrability, towered up in a steep incline from the ocean surface, at great speed, with no effort, and revealed its underwings. It was indeed surprisingly small and, holy moly, it had extensive white in the underwing coverts, unlike any Fea's Petrel. It was a Zino's Petrel.
Bedlam ensued. Big Al (Alan Hannington) put down his lunchbox, stood up, and raised his binoculars – a sighting as rare as a Zino's Petrel off Scilly. The boat lurched and Big Al was saved by Marty Smith from an ungraceful fall flat on his face, though rammed his back into a boat fitting. At the same time, I was catapulted off my perch and wrenched my shoulder when grabbing a door handle. Lucy McRobert sprung out of the cabin, baby in arms, and cracked her head on the door. Others tumbled out of the fully occupied cabin. It was Keystone Cops, birder-style slapstick at its nuttiest. Only on Scilly Pelagics.
Some of the observations made by birders on board are listed below:
- John Higginson: "My first view was of the upperparts, clearly one of the Desertas, Cape Verde, Zino's group, having greyish upperparts, a noticeable dark M-shape across the upperwings, and a dark panda-like face patch. My next view was one of the underparts, which will live with me forever, showing a clean-white underbody, and the dark underwing having a very obvious, strong white bar of feathering, from the inner secondary coverts right across the primary coverts. The bill was smaller and more lightly built than the four Fea's Petrels that I have seen. I observed how slender and elegant this wonderful bird was as it effortlessly flew back and forth over the wake, before sadly heading away to the distant horizon."
- Rob Lambert said the Pterodroma's flight was: "startlingly distinctive, agile, zippy, with hugely skilled twists and turns, towering rises up, steep returns down, seemingly in erratic ill-disciplined figures of eight".
- Danni Hinchcliffe described it as: "bat-like, a surprisingly small bird, with fast erratic wingbeats and very agile flight".
- Her husband, Zac, commented: "My main immediate impression was how small it was and how fast it flew."
- Scott Reid added: "It appeared slight, no larger than the Manx Shearwaters following the boat and crossing the wake in the moments prior to its appearance, yet its slim build gave it an overall smaller feel. Its flight was somewhat erratic, frantic at times, with short bursts of hurried, fluttering wingbeats, occasionally propelling the bird prior to arcing. Its changes of direction and position were sudden, 'flipping sides' at the summit of its arc in a quick, sharp motion before descent."
Zino's Petrel off Madeira, July 2018. This 47-second clip gives some idea of our 40-second sighting off Scilly, though our bird was on average about twice the distance as it flew around the Sapphire. Conditions off Scilly were windier and the Scilly Zino's flew faster and even more erratically. Skilled twists and turns, fast erratic wingbeats, small overall size, and agility in flight describe our bird. On the soundtrack of the video, listen to the trained-eye observations of expert, Catarina Fagundes, of Madeira Wind Birds, noting right away the small size of the bird and the white in the underwing coverts, adding up to Zino's Petrel. With experience, a 'classic' Zino's with white in the underwing coverts is relatively straightforward to ID (Bob Flood).
Desertas Petrel, off Madeira, June 2019. The two Fea's Petrels, Desertas and Cape Verde, are larger and heavier than Zino's, and this is reflected in slower wingbeats and less excited, less agile flight. Much can be learnt by studying the flight of seabirds using video recordings. The underwing coverts are almost always all dark, or virtually all dark (Bob Flood).
I really could not believe my eyes. The bird had a smallish head, slender-looking bill, short neck, small and slender body, and mid-length wings that, fully outstretched, looked rather long relative to the small, lightweight body. Flight was indeed erratic, unlike any Fea's Petrel, Desertas or Cape Verde. It reminded me of the small Cookilaria Pterodroma petrels of the Southern Oceans. It performed 'freak-out flight' several times when it flipped from side to side with rapid shallow flicks of the wings, like that of Soft-plumaged Petrel from the Southern Oceans. I have not seen Fea's Petrel behave in this way. All aspects of the bird resonated with the traits of Zino's Petrel.
The bird flew to and performed close over the wake, where Scott Reid, Danni and Zac Hinchcliffe were positioned. The Hinchcliffes took a quick-fire four-in-sequence set of photos and then watched the bird. Scott managed a few shots but told me after the event that the bird's erratic flight and the lurching boat meant that he could not keep the camera on the bird, so he watched it. Joe Pender, who had to unpack his camera and 'climb over bodies' to exit the cabin, got to the stern in time to shoot a few record shots. Thus, just a handful of photos document this amazing little petrel.
Zino's Petrel, Isles of Scilly, 30 July 2020. A four-in-sequence set of photos showing the diagnostic amount of white in the underwing coverts, slimline body, and an indication of the small size of the head and bill. The underwings are at an angle to the camera, but a direct view would show an even larger area of white in the underwing-coverts (Danni and Zac Hinchcliffe).
Zino's Petrel, Isles of Scilly, 30 July 2020. Although no more than record shots, these photos (by Joe Pender, top, and Scott Reid) show a small head, slim bill, short neck, and slimline body.
Cape Verde Fea's Petrel (top image; Hadoram Shirihai, Tubenoses Project) and Desertas Petrel (lower image; George Rezseter). The two 'Fea's Petrels' are larger, Desertas on average the largest, with a much fuller body and broader hips than Zino's Petrel. Note the 'classic' all-dark underwing coverts of the Cape Verde bird and the 'classic' all-dark underwing coverts with a whitish crescent at the base of the greater primary coverts of the Desertas.
The whole event, from first shout to the bird departing the wake, was about 40 seconds, with another 15 seconds as it flew into the distance, at which time Sapphire exited the time warp and we returned to regular speed.
Zac Hinchcliffe dashed, in zig-zags, in time with the rolling boat, from the stern to the cabin to show me underwing photos and the lovely, oh so wonderful white in the underwing coverts. The Hinchcliffes had nailed it for all to see. Those of us stood by the cabin agreed, in fast-talk, on size, flight behaviour, and build. It was a Zino's Petrel. I went to the stern and sat with Scott, Danni and Zac, looking over the Hinchcliffe's underwing photos, and scored the extent of white in the underwings using the scorecard from Pterodroma Petrels. It scored four in the under primary coverts, a score unique to and diagnostic of Zino's Petrel. The under secondary coverts scored two, near-diagnostic of Zino's. Back at the cabin, I confirmed the underwing scores with Higgo, Joe, Lucy, Rob, and 'golden balls' Ross Newham (who, in 10 trips off Scilly, has seen Zino's Petrel, Feas Petrel, multiple Wilson's Storm Petrels and a breaching Humpback Whale).
Unbeknown to us, as we were totally engrossed in reviewing the underwing scores from Danni and Zac's photos, printmaker and wildlife conservationist on Scilly, Vicky Heaney, sneaked a couple of photos. These photos taken just minutes after the sighting capture us deliberating over a first for Britain. Left to right, Bob Flood, Zac Hinchcliffe, Scott Reid, and Danni Hinchcliffe. Note Bishop Rock Lighthouse in the far-left background. The ocean looks deceivingly gentle, but it was not! (Vicky Heaney).
Scorecard for assessing whitish in the underwing-coverts of the feae complex (Ashley Fisher, from Pterodroma Petrels). Whitish occurs in the underwing greater and median primary and secondary coverts (prim-covs and sec-covs, respectively). An all-dark underwing scores 0, the greatest amount of whitish scores 4. A bird can have different scores for primary and secondary coverts. Figures in the tables summarise the rough percentages of birds showing these scores (based on research published by Shirihai, Bretagnolle, and Zino in 2010). The primary covert score 4 of the Scilly bird is diagnostic of Zino's, as neither of the Fea's Petrels show this amount of white; the secondary covert score 2 of the Scilly bird is near-diagnostic of Zino's, with only 3% of Cape Verde Fea's and 4% of Desertas Fea's having this score, while 24% of Zino's have this score.
Our sighting was nothing short of monumental. I know of only two other sightings of Zino's Petrel away from Madeira, confirmed with photos. I had some say on both. Brian Patteson photographed one off Hatteras, North Carolina, USA. It eventually was accepted by the American Birding Association using the criteria set out in Pterodroma Petrels. The second bird was photographed off the Azores and the photos were sent to me as Fea's Petrel, but close inspection revealed that it was in fact a Zino's Petrel.
Zino's Petrel off Hatteras, North Carolina, USA, September 1995. It wasn't until the work of Shirihai, Bretagnolle, and Zino in 2010, on the underwing patterns of the feae complex, and the subsequent guidelines for the process of ID in the feae complex (Flood & Fisher 2013), that the American Birding Association finally accepted Brian's record as a Zino's Petrel. It is the first Zino's to be positively identified away from Madeira, supported by photos, while the Scilly Zino's is only the third (Brian Patteson).
There is always a degree of pressure to make a positive ID right away and report the sighting of a mega to bird information services. I do not agree with this. Sometimes careful reflection is a more sensible approach. So, we decided to be super cautious and report a possible Zino's, with photos to be reviewed later.
As we steamed home, Big Al reminded us that 14 years previous he had bought a cigar made by a company called Zino. I remember, all those years back, Al saying that the cigar would remain in the side pocket of his pelagic bag until the day came that we saw a Zino's Petrel off Scilly. Then he would get the cigar out and smoke it. The moment had come, the drum roll rolled, we watched Al in great anticipation, but the zip had corroded after 14 years of sea salt spray and could not be opened. Al!
Zino cigar. Chubby model, modelled on Big Al's habitus (Alan Hannington).
I remember thereafter that much of the talk on the boat stopped. Birders looked dazed. I wondered what thoughts were running through their minds. A shared experience, true, but deeply individual emotions.
Among my thoughts, it struck me that, given a total population of around 300 birds, and my previous sightings of Zino's, there is a reasonable chance that I had previously seen the Scilly Zino's off Madeira. Quite amazing if true.
I also reflected that this Zino's sighting came after 25 consecutive years of pelagics off Scilly, regular trips out since 2000, launched as Scilly Pelagics in 2006. By that timetable, perhaps the next sighting of Zino's off Scilly will be way off in the future, by which time Joe and I may have rebranded Scilly Pelagics as 'Scimmerframe Pelagics'.
My most meaningful thought, though, was the rather simple truth – 'team effort, team result'.
Later that evening, back at home, after Mandy had gone to bed, the handful of photos arrived by email. The lightly built bird seen in the field had not morphed into a chunky Pterodroma, the substantial white in the underwing coverts had not painted over blackish. As agreed by all on the boat, our bird was indeed a Zino's Petrel. Confirmation news was posted early next morning and social media went crazy.
I reclined in my armchair, took a little substance to assist sleep, and listened to Pink Floyd's track Echoes, charged by David Gilmour's emotion-wrenching, sublime guitar skills. I slowly drifted away into Nirvana to the sound of Gilmour and the evocative lyrics:
Overhead the albatross
Hangs motionless upon the air
And deep beneath the rolling waves
In labyrinths of coral caves
An echo of a distant time
Comes willowing across the sand
And everything is green and submarine …
My last conscious thought was, 'We did it.'
Flood, B, & Fisher, A. 2013. North Atlantic Seabirds: Pterodroma Petrels. Scilly.
Shirihai, H, Bretagnolle, V, & Zino, F. 2010. Identification of Fea's, Desertas and Zino's Petrels at sea. Birding World 23:239-275.