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Steep decline in breeding pairs of white-chinned petrels on New Island

Photo: White-chinned petrel (Falklands Conservation)

Rabbits, rats, cats, mice, and climate change could be contributing to dwindling bird populations.

New Island is historically home to one of only three known colonies of white-chinned petrels in the Falkland Islands. The seabird, which nests in underground burrows, is categorised as “vulnerable” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

The species is also listed under both the Agreement on the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels (ACAP), and the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS). The Falklands, as a signatory of ACAP, therefore has a duty of care to look after the species.

New Island was previously home to 30-50 breeding pairs of the burrowing seabird. However, “there could now be a maximum of only 10 breeding pairs and at worst none at all”, said Ross James, Biosecurity and Invasives Officer for Falklands Conservation.

“The honest answer is we don’t know all the factors that might be contributing to this, and it probably is several factors.”

Back in February, as part of the New Island Restoration Project, a survey of the colony was conducted and camera traps deployed.

Mr James explained they saw some adult white-chinned petrels return to the burrows which is a “really good sign” as it means there is at least one pair of adults returning.

“However,” Mr James said, “we also saw feral cats, rats, and mice all using the burrows. Feral cats and rats could be predating on the birds, and their eggs, and could be part of the reason they’ve reduced in number.

The soils around the breeding site are also thin, dry and eroded, with little vegetation to retain moisture, a critical factor for birds to make their burrows.

In terms of conservation efforts, cat control in the area will be looked at to relive the pressure on the white-chins as well as habitat restoration which could involve tussac planting or creating artificial burrows.

“Ultimately the idea is to remove all four invasive species from New Island. But we know that won’t happen for at least a few years so we’re looking into short-term solutions,” said Mr James.

“All we can do in the Falklands, really, is to make sure we give them the best opportunity for survival and breeding while they’re here which means looking after sites like New Island, Kidney Island, and offshore breeding sites, and do what we can to safeguard the species.”

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