A bird not seen for almost 80 years has been discovered in the Pacific to the delight of conservationists.

Becks Petrel Pseudobulweria becki
©Hadoram Shirihai
Recently fledged juvenile Beck's Petrel Pseudobulweria becki, off Cape St George, New Ireland, Papua New Guinea, August 2007.

Only two records of Beck's petrel existed previously, from the late 1920s when ornithologist Rollo Beck collected two of the tube-nosed seabirds on his quest for museum specimens from the region.

The small tube-nosed seabird was first described by Rollo Beck, an ornithologist and collector of museum specimens. The petrel, which now bears his name, was previously only known from two specimens he collected in 1928 and 1929 during an expedition to the region.

Now, an expert on a ship in the Bismarck Archipelago, north-east of Papua New Guinea, has photographed more than 30 Beck's petrels and his account is being published March 7 in the Bulletin of the British Ornithologists' Club. Young birds were amongst the group indicating that the birds have a breeding site close by.

Hadoram Shirihai, an ornithologist from Israel, led the two-week voyage last summer. He said: "I may have seen then in 2003 on a previous trip which made me eager to return. I wanted to know more about these amazing petrels and understand better how we can help them.

"This re-finding of Beck's Petrel is exceptional news and congratulations to Hadoram Shirihai for his effort and energy in rediscovering this 'lost' petrel," commented Dr Stuart Butchart, BirdLife's Global Species Programme Coordinator.

Confirming the existence of Beck's Petrel was difficult because it is similar to Tahiti Petrel Pseudobulweria rostrata, few people have looked for it at sea, and it may be nocturnal at the breeding grounds. "There are numerous atolls and islands where it may breed", said Dr Butchart. "However, the remaining population may be small."

Hopes that the bird had not gone extinct were raised in Australia two years ago when tour guide Richard Baxter thought he had seen a Beck's petrel in the Coral Sea off Queensland. Rare bird experts rejected this sighting because photos were not sufficiently clear. Hadoram Shirihai's pictures of the species' more recent appearance have left no doubt, however.

Identifying the dark, slender bird is complicated by its resemblance to another species, the Tahiti petrel.

And its protection could be hampered by several threats, including rats and cats at breeding grounds, which have yet to be found, and widespread logging and land clearance for palm oil plantations. Research last year revealed the extent of logging on New Britain, one of the islands making up Papua New Guinea.

Experts believe the Beck's petrel may only visit nesting burrows at night, which will make its protection even more complex.

Dr Geoff Hilton, a senior biologist at the RSPB, said: "There are numerous atolls and islands in the region where the Beck's petrel could be breeding and its remaining population may only be very small.

"Even so, the discovery of this 'lost' bird is fantastic news and we congratulate those who spent so much time and effort in finding it. It doesn't get much better than finding a species that was long thought extinct. Now we must use this discovery as a new spur to try to save the bird."

BirdLife International contributed materials used in this article.

Adapted from materials provided by Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.