Seabirds Take a Long Time to Forget

Seabirds have incredibly high site fidelity, which means they typically return to the same breeding colony, often where they were born, time and time again. But at the same time they are also amazingly long-distance dispersers to colonise the remotest islands of the world. I was reminded of this paradox this evening barely a few hours in to my expedition to French Polynesia. Having checked in to the InterContinental Resort at Tahiti just after landing that afternoon from New Zealand, I went for a walk around the grounds as the sun set. Lo and behold there on the rock ledge was a gorgeous Tahiti petrel (Pseudobulweria rostrata) minding its own business.

Tahiti petrel (Pseudobulweria rostrata) grounded on Tahiti (Photo by James Russell)

Even though humans have long inhabited the coast of Tahiti, this bird still landed here as if nothing had ever changed on the island. It demonstrated its classical mammalian predator naivety as it allowed me to effortlessly scoop it up, and after checking it was in good health (and introducing it to an interested toddler) gave it the uplifting thrust it needed to fly back out to sea as the sun set. Where had you come from petrel – perhaps the high peaks of neighbouring Moorea where I will be heading tomorrow? Can we find your breeding colony?

Sunset over Moorea from InterContinental Resort, Tahiti
Sunset over Moorea from InterContinental Resort, Tahiti (Photo by James Russell)

The vulnerability of these graceful birds compels me to protect them, and is the primary reason I am back in French Polynesia after an absence of a few years. On this expedition I will split my time among the central Society Islands of Tahiti, Moorea and Tetiaroa, and will be reporting back here every few days. Last year in the Seychelles we also found new records of nesting shearwaters where resort owners wanted to build a 24 hour restaurant. Thankfully on our recommendations this development was not pursued, as the seabirds would take a long time to forget this was their home.

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Meet the Author
Conservation biologist Dr. James Russell works throughout the world on remote islands and other sites to provide conservation solutions by applying a combination of scientific methods. Follow James on National Geographic voices for regular updates on his own work or other exciting developments in island conservation.