A quick detour to the Caribbean before we continue to South America for our next continent in my nature around the world series…
Spanish sailors anchored off Bermuda in the 1500’s trembled in their galleons as ghostly wails emanated through night skies. Had they known sleek seabirds with fluffed out chicks were the source of these eerie calls, they might not have presumed the islands haunted and left them unclaimed for later British settlement. Sadly, these later settlers were not deterred by night wailings and Bermuda Petrels, locally called cahows based on their calls, went from nightmare fodder to favored food. Between hunting and pressures from non-native animals introduced with human settlement, it wasn’t long before the birds were judged forever gone. Gone that is until a tenacious school boy joined an expedition in 1951 that rediscovered cahows nesting on off-shore islands.
Staring at a football-sized explosion of downy cahow feathers on Nonsuch Island, I couldn’t help but marvel at the hurdles that had to be overcome for this chick and its neighbors to be here today. Cahow numbers had been incredibly low when rediscovered and efforts to save them were complicated by any number of challenges. Storms engulfed nesting islands, DDT claimed many a life, military lighting at night interfered with courtship, White-tailed Tropicbirds caused cahow chicks to die as they claimed petrel nests for their own reproduction; the list goes on. Fortunately, the boy who helped rediscover the Bermuda Petrel in the first place, David Wingate, grew into a man who stopped at nothing to save this species. He met each new challenge to the population with relentless determination, resolving one obstacle after another.
Visitors to Nonsuch Island today see the cumulative results of David’s conservation efforts and those of his successor Jeremy Madeiros. The most visibly obvious is the solution to the tropicbird conundrum. We’d barely set foot on the island when a tropicbird swooped to the cliff above and disappeared into a cement igloo specially designed for the species. We passed three more man-made caves on our ascent, each containing a tropicbird nest at some stage of development. And on a grassy slope on the other side of the island, cahow chicks huddled in a very differently designed artificial nest. A cahow-shaped wooden door marks entry to an undulating cement burrow that ends in a nest chamber where the chicks slumber the day away, waiting for their nightly feeding and likely dreading the occasional intrusion as a trap door above opens for a researcher to pull them out for measurements. The separate systems, so logical and tidy now, required years of trouble-shooting from the discovery that tropicbirds were stealing cahow nests to perfecting artificial nest designs that provided for the needs of each species. Add to this continued logistical complexities associated with carrying cement from bobbing boats up jagged shorelines, busting burrows through boulders, and actually constructing the artificial nests; you begin to appreciate what a labor of love the cahow rescue has been.
Seldom is an animal revived from extinction, and seldom can the revival be credited to one person. But it’s safe to say that David Wingate saved the Bermuda Petrel. Today’s fluffy chicks represent hope. Hope that humans, even one human, can make a difference. And as for David? He’s passed the cahow project on to Jeremy, the next generation, but even in his 80’s, he’s still running around Bermuda restoring habitat and bringing awareness to another bird in dire need of help – the island’s last few breeding pairs of Common Tern.