Fea´s Petrel off NW Spain

The first Fea´s/Zino´s identified to species level in Iberian waters

by Dani López-Velasco

Fea´s (Cape Verde / Desertas) Petrel (Pterodroma feae). 17 miles off Malpica, Galicia, NW Spain. 26-8-2012. Photo: Pablo Gutierrez

The number of Fea´s / Zino´s Petrels recorded off NW Spain has increased dramatically over the last couple of years. Numbers peaked last year (2011), when local observers Ricardo Hevia, Antonio Sandoval, Dave MacAdams and myself observed no less than 16 individuals from Estaca de Bares, Galicia.

Estaca is, nowadays, undoubtedly the best place to see these Gadfly Petrels in Europe, outside Madeira. But more on that on another post.

However, none of the birds seen from land, even though some have passed very close to the headland, and some record shots have been obtained,  could be identified with confidence to species level. At least 1 of the birds we saw last year looked very good for Zino´s (a species that recent geolocator studies have shown that frequently uses Galician waters to feed), and several close birds were highly likely Fea´s. But, due to poor photo documentation, none of these birds have been properly identified.

We´ve been running pelagic trips off various harbours of Galicia for more than a decade. The waters around Galicia are very rich in seabirds, and  very good numbers of Sabine´s Gulls (flocks of up to 400 birds), Great Shearwaters, Long-tailed, Pomarine, Arctic and Great Skuas, Wilson´s Petrels (up to 100 birds coming to the chum), etc.. are regularly encountered on our trips.

One of the main objectives of recent trips was to try see and photograph a Pterodroma close enough to the boat to get a conclusive identification. A couple of birds were seen a few years ago, but unfortunately the views were very brief, and the photos too distant, so the birds remained unidentified.

Finally, persistence paid off last saturday!

While I was leading a pelagic off  Malpica (Coruña, Galicia), together with Juan Sagardía and Pablo Gutierrez, a stunning Fea´s Petrel came to investigate the oil slick for a few minutes, gave a couple of close passes, flew away, and came back again for the last 2 minute show, until it was lost out of sight. WOW! Adrenaline racing, everyone shouting, hundreds of photos taken, and, afterwards, plenty of happy paces. What a bird!

So, finally, after so many pelagics, and on a very calm day, when we weren´t really expecting anything too exciting to show up, we got it!  The task of identifying one of these evocative birds off Galicia had already became something kind of personal. Almost an obsession! I knew I couldn´t give up, even though we kept struggling over and over. We had to keep trying and getting out to the sea, as the birds were there, somewhere. So after all the efforts, it was a great, happy and exciting moment.

Already from the first views with the bins, the heavy-chested, bull-necked and quite big-sized appearance, almost uniformly dark underwing coverts, as well as a notoriously big, broad and relatively compact bill, were immediately noticed. The identification as a Fea´s was relatively straightforward then, and it was soon confirmed once we zoomed in the photos and bill shape/size, structure, underwing, etc.. were properly studied.

On current knowledge, separating Cape Verde from Desertas Petrel at sea is not possible, so the identification as Fea´s Petrel (Cape Verde/Desertas) is the correct way of dealing with these birds. Hopefully, Bob Flood´s long awaited Pterodroma guide will help shed more light on that issue.

For more information regarding the ID of Zino´s and Fea´s, check the following article, with many previously unpublished photos of both species.

http://www.reservoirbirds.com/Articles/RBAR_000004.pdf

And last, a few more shots of the Galician bird.

Fea´s (Cape Verde / Desertas) Petrel (Pterodroma feae). 17 miles off Malpica, Galicia, NW Spain. 26-8-2012. Photo: Juan Sagardia

Fea´s (Cape Verde / Desertas) Petrel (Pterodroma feae). 17 miles off Malpica, Galicia, NW Spain. 26-8-2012. Photo: Pablo Gutierrez
Note the bull-necked and heavy-chested appearance of the bird, typical of Fea´s. Together with bill shape and size, and size/structure judged in the field, confirm the ID as feae.


Fea´s (Cape Verde / Desertas) Petrel (Pterodroma feae). 17 miles off Malpica, Galicia, NW Spain. 26-8-2012. Photo: Daniel López-Velasco

Fea´s (Cape Verde / Desertas) Petrel (Pterodroma feae). 17 miles off Malpica, Galicia, NW Spain. 26-8-2012. Photo: Juan Sagardia
The pale grey, at a distance whitish, tail and uppertail coverts of both Fea´s and Zino´s is, in my experience, usually a very striking feature when distant birds are seen from land. Mainly on sunny days, when the color of the sea can be similar, it can actually be difficult to see the tail, and the birds can look surprisingly tail-less

Fea´s (Cape Verde / Desertas) Petrel (Pterodroma feae). 17 miles off Malpica, Galicia, NW Spain. 26-8-2012. Photo: Juan Sagardía

Fea´s (Cape Verde / Desertas) Petrel (Pterodroma feae). 17 miles off Malpica, Galicia, NW Spain. 26-8-2012. Photo: Pablo Gutierrez.

Fea´s (Cape Verde / Desertas) Petrel (Pterodroma feae). 17 miles off Malpica, Galicia, NW Spain. 26-8-2012. Photo: Pablo Gutierrez

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