by Matt Walker
Editor, Earth News
Up to eight Fiji petrels were seen over an 11-day period
One of the world's rarest and most elusive birds has finally been seen flying in its natural habitat.
The Fiji petrel, a seabird that once "went missing" for 130 years, has been sighted flying at sea, near the island of Gau in the Pacific Ocean.
The culmination of a meticulously planned bird hunt, Birdlife International researchers sighted the birds 25 nautical miles south of Gau.
Up to eight individuals were seen and photographed over 11 days.
The 30cm tall dark-brown Fiji petrel (Pseudobulweria macgillivrayi) is one of the most elusive of all birds.
Originally, the species was known from just a single immature specimen, collected in 1855 on Gau Island, Fiji.
But then the bird "went missing" with no further confirmed sightings of it for almost 130 years.
Then in 1984, an adult was caught and photographed on Gau, then released.
Since then, there have been a handful of reports of "grounded" birds that had crashed onto village roofs on the island. Most were immature birds, of which a few died.
Due to the extremely limited number of sightings, the bird is also inferred to be one of the rarest of all bird species.
It is one of 192 bird species which are list as Critically Endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.
But while there have been ten unconfirmed reports of the bird at sea, with the latest a possible Fiji Petrel sighted around 400km north of Bougainville Island, until now there has been no confirmed sightings.
That was until in May, when scientists and volunteers working with Birdlife International and NatureFiji-MareqetiViti, a partner conservation organisation based in Fiji, set out to find the bird in its natural habitat.
The search for the elusive petrel is described in a paper in the latest Bulletin of the British Ornithologists' Club.
The researchers lured the bird with a specially made food, made from finely cut fish offal mixed with very dense fish oil.
The Fiji petrel once "went missing" for 130 years
These were then frozen into 10kg blocks, which persist for over an hour in the water, creating a pungent oil slick which attracts petrels from some miles away.
On the second day of the expedition, the first Fiji Petrel appeared, approaching the chum slick from downwind, slowly zigzagging over the slick, and suddenly changing direction to drop onto a floating morsel.
In all, the expedition team believe they saw eight individuals over eleven days of observations.
"Finding this bird and capturing such images was a fantastic and exhilarating experience," says ornithologist Hadoram Shirihai, who lead the search team.
In 2008, Mr Shirihai also rediscovered the Critically Endangered Beck's Petrel (Pseudobulweria becki) a bird that was also only known from two sightings in the Pacific made in the 1920s.
"To see such a little-known bird at such close range was magical," added fellow expedition member Mr Tony Pym, describing his joy at seeing the Fiji petrel flying over the waves.
More surveys in 2010 are now planned to to locate the breeding area of the Fiji Petrel, says Dick Watling of NatureFiji-MareqetiViti.
"Once we know the location, we can assess what needs to be done to turn around the fortunes of this species," he says.