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Researchers find rare bird in Fiji

Photos reveal the first sighting of the elusive seabird, the Fiji petrel.

By Kristen GelineauAssociated Press Writer / September 16, 2009

In this May 2009 image, an elusive Fiji petrel flies over the waves near Fiji's remote island of Gau. The bird is listed as critically endangered.

BirdLife International/AP

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SYDNEY

A group of researchers in Fiji has captured images of an endangered and elusive seabird, the first confirmed sighting of the chocolate-colored creature at sea.

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Scientists photographed the Fiji petrel soaring above the ocean about 25 miles (40 kilometers) south of Fiji's remote island of Gau in May, according to the Britain.-based conservation group BirdLife International, which helped fund the expedition. The researchers' findings were described in a paper published in this week's Bulletin of the British Ornithologists' Club.

"Finding this bird and capturing such images was a fantastic and exhilarating experience," the paper's lead author, Hadoram Shirihai, said in a statement.

The bird is listed as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the producer of the world's Red List of endangered animals.

The first Fiji petrel specimen was collected in 1855 on Gau, and a second not until 1984. Since then, there have been a handful of reports of birds crashing into houses on Gau, but no one had ever positively identified one at sea, the researchers said.

The finding is significant because there is so little information about the bird, said Nicholas Carlile, seabird project officer with the New South Wales state Department of Environment, Climate Change, and Water.

Carlile has studied the Fiji petrel for years and began traveling to Fiji in 2003 to hunt for the animal's breeding ground. But despite all his research, even he has never seen one of the elusive birds.

"There has been no positive sighting of the Fiji petrel at sea — it's very rare," Carlile said. "So it was absolutely fantastic to see those images."

The researchers threw blocks of frozen fish pieces mixed with dense fish oil into the water, creating a smelly slick that attracted the birds. The scientists spotted up to eight petrels over their 11-day expedition.

Expedition member Dick Watling of the conservation group NatureFiji-MareqetiViti said more surveys to locate the birds' breeding area are planned for next year.

"Once we know the location, we can assess what needs to be done to turn around the fortunes of this species," he said.

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