The Leach’s storm petrel is a common seabird along the coasts of Newfoundland and southern Labrador, and through the Atlantic provinces — but, like numerous bird species, is becoming less so.
Leach storm petrels are in decline, due in part to artificial light.
Juveniles particularly vulnerable
Fiona Le Taro, a PhD student from Memorial’s Cognitive and Behavioral Ecology (CABE) Program and a member of Dr. Pierre-Paul Bitton’s Visual Ecology Lab, is identifying how light is impacting storm petrels.
“Light pollution is one of the main threats to storm petrels in Newfoundland — this past year, volunteers rescued more than 1,000 birds in a single night,” said Ms. Le Taro.
The birds were all found stranded close to a brightly lit area of the Avalon Peninsula.
Young birds, having left their nests for the first time, are most often found stranded onshore.
Once stranded, the birds risk road traffic collisions, predator attacks and starvation.
In addition to light pollution on land, petrels are attracted to the lights of ships and oil rigs.
They collide with the structures and injure themselves or are fatally attracted to gas flares.
“Part of my research is understanding how different kinds of artificial light affect the birds,” Ms. Le Taro said. “I am testing how colour, intensity and technology, among other factors, may play a role in making the birds strand at night.”
Finding their way
Known as Mother Carey’s chicks or Careys in some parts of the province, Leach’s storm petrels are solitary nighttime flyers.
They’re small — about half the size of a pigeon — and they nest in burrows and shallow rock crevices.
“One of the challenges in protecting these birds is that many people are not aware of their existence.”
Because of their size and nocturnal habits, Leach’s storm petrels are fairly inconspicuous members of Newfoundland and Labrador’s cast of avian characters.
“One of the challenges in protecting these birds is that many people are not aware of their existence,” said Ms. Le Taro. “In normal circumstances, they are rarely seen on land.”
From May to September, the petrels gather in colonies along the Atlantic coast of Canada to breed.
As many as 25 per cent of the world’s Leach’s storm petrels breed in Newfoundland and Labrador.
Their largest known colony is located on Baccalieu Island.
Over the past 30 years, however, the Baccalieu Island population has experienced a 42 per cent decline.
Similar declines have been observed in other breeding colonies.
In 2016 the Leach’s storm petrel was listed as a vulnerable species by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.
Harnessing local know-how
Identifying and handling seabirds requires expert knowledge, and help from Newfoundland and Labrador citizens is needed to patrol coastal areas in search of stranded birds.
Memorial’s CABE researchers have partnered with Environment and Climate Change Canada, The Rock Wildlife Rescue and the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society to provide training for volunteers and to streamline the collection of data from stranded birds.
Supported by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada and Memorial’s Office of Public Engagement, the initiative has allowed CABE and the many organizations involved in the “petrel patrol” to hire a volunteer co-ordinator and produce a training video for current volunteers.
In 2021 the Puffin and Petrel Patrol, led by Suzanne Dooley of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society N.L. chapter, rescued and released more than 2,300 stranded Leach’s storm petrels.
Of these, more than 1,000 birds were found over one night in the northern Avalon Peninsula community of Bay de Verde.
These numbers are alarming to researchers.
They also only represent a fraction of the birds that are stranded each year.
The big questions
“Despite the evidence that artificial light attracts storm petrels at night causing significant mortality, we still don’t fully understand why this is happening,” said Ms. Le Taro. “Knowing when, where and under which conditions a bird has stranded gives us a way of better understanding this issue. Thanks to the new system for co-ordinating volunteers, we now have a means for monitoring environmental conditions at the stranding sites and find out if factors other than artificial light are relevant.”
A $10,000 Accelerator Grant from the Office of Public Engagement will help support Ms. Le Taro and her collaborators in expanding the reach of the patrol.
“Healthy seabird populations are an indicator of a healthy ocean.”
One of the end goals of the project is to establish a network of volunteers to protect birds across Newfoundland and Labrador.
Co-ordinated volunteer action will span from St. John’s to Bay de Verde.
The Indian Bay Ecosystem Corporation, located on the Bonavista Peninsula, will also join the petrel patrol, further increasing its capacity in responding to stranded birds.
For Ms. Le Taro, conservation of the Leach’s storm petrel is a crucial part of preserving Atlantic biodiversity.
“Healthy seabird populations are an indicator of a healthy ocean, and it is important to understand what threatens our seabird colonies in order to better protect the ocean as a whole.”