Environment & Science

Rare nocturnal seabird discovered breeding on Catalina Island

The rare Ashy Storm-Petrel nests in rock crevices, returns to breeding islands at night, and feeds far out to sea during the day.
The rare Ashy Storm-Petrel nests in rock crevices, returns to breeding islands at night, and feeds far out to sea during the day.
Darrell Whitworth
The rare Ashy Storm-Petrel nests in rock crevices, returns to breeding islands at night, and feeds far out to sea during the day.
Tyler Dvorak, wildlife technician for the Catalina Island Conservancy, stands on Ship Rock, where he and other scientists discovered active nests of Ashy Storm-Petrels.
Darrell Whitworth
The rare Ashy Storm-Petrel nests in rock crevices, returns to breeding islands at night, and feeds far out to sea during the day.
Ashy Storm-Petrels make their nests in meter-deep crevices in rock. Scientists found some to be breeding on Ship Rock at Catalina Island in early July 2014.
Darrell Whitworth


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A rare nocturnal seabird has been found nesting near Catalina Island. Researchers announced on Monday that they'd witnessed evidence that Ashy Storm-Petrels were breeding on Ship Rock, a massive stone formation that juts out of the ocean about a mile off Catalina Island. 

The Ashy Storm-Petrel has been designated a bird species of special concern by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. Only 10,000 are estimated to exist worldwide.  

Anecdotal evidence from 1903 and 1937 hinted that Ashy Storm-Petrels may nest on Ship Rock. Earlier this month, three researchers from the California Institute of Environmental Studies and the Catalina Island Conservancy made the trip to see for themselves. 

The scientists found six nests with bird activity. Four of the nests had an egg or a chick. 

"It's definitely exciting to confirm your hopes when you go out on an excursion like that," said Tyler Dvorak, a wildlife technician with the Catalina Island Conservancy. 

The researchers piloted an inflatable boat out to the rock, which has no dock. They scaled what appears in pictures to be snow-covered peaks. Dvorak said that it's not snow that makes the rock so slippery.

"All guano," Dvorak said. "It smells great up there." 

Beyond the smell of guano, Dvorak said they were able to detect the aroma of the birds themselves. 

"It's an olfactory experience as well, finding these birds in their crevice, because they have almost like a petroleum-type odor," Dvorak said. "You can smell that coming out of the crevice, fairly strong."

Ashy Storm-Petrels reside mainly in Central and Southern California, making their nests about a meter deep within crevices. Dvorak said that the discovery will allow researchers to keep track of population changes and better understand how environmental factors may be affecting their numbers. 

“Although it’s a small sample size, we can learn something about the birds in general in Southern California by monitoring that rock out there,” Dvorak said.

Photo by Ed Bierman via Flickr / Creative Commons