While you are safely in your home, spare a thought for Bermuda's wildlife during a hurricane
Whenever a strong storm, especially a hurricane, looks to be approaching the Island, Bermuda's Conservation Officer Jeremy Madeiros begins to worry.
Those storms and especially hurricanes can have a devastating affect on the nests of the Cahow and other birds like the Longtail and the Common Tern.
In fact Hurricane Fabian in 2003 destroyed many Cahow nesting burrows and set back the historic programme.
Just over 60 years ago 18 surviving nesting pairs were found on rocky islets in Castle Harbour, and the programme was set up by Dr David Wingate to build concrete burrows and wooden bafflers for the nesting tunnels in order to keep out the slightly larger, competing Bermuda Longtail, and to restore the nearby Nonsuch Island to be a future viable base for the species.
This work has been taken over by Mr Madeiros and he remembered Hurricane Fabian. “We were just reaching 70 nests when Fabian hit in 2003. That knocked us back because it destroyed 20 percent of the Cahow nests. Some areas we simply couldn't rebuild (the nests) because the part of the island they were on disappeared they vanished overnight.”
But the Cahow nests have recovered fairly quickly. “This year we have a new record of 101 nesting pairs,” said Mr Madeiros.
Mr Madeiros at times lives out on Nonsuch Island and admits that he has become “a bit of a weather prophet”.
“There are number of concerns when the hurricane season comes around (it starts today, June 1). We have boats that service the islands and we make sure we have a plan of getting them out of the water or putting them on the storm moorings. There is not much we can do about the Cahows all we can do out there is to batten down the island as much as possible. In this particular job I have become a bit of a weather prophet your life literally depends on weather forecast. The weather conditions hurricanes aside can be dodgy enough that you really have to religiously follow those weather warnings. For instance when a hurricane is approaching Bermuda, Nonsuch and Castle Harbour islands are right on the south east edge of Bermuda and very close to the outer reef life. The reef gives very little protection to those islands. We have the highest wave energy of any coastal area in Bermuda that is direction these hurricanes come in from. When they come in you get monster swells which I have certainly noticed over the past 15 years.”
Even when a hurricane is hundreds of miles away Mr Madeiros says it is felt at Nonsuch. “If a hurricane is 400 or 500 miles away we can get 20-foot swells and the dock of Nonsuch can be under water.
“One of things you discover living on Nonsuch is that the weather can be very Wagnerian in its moods. It can be absolutely calm like a small lake and two or three days later it can have awe-inspiring swells 20 foot or 30 foot swells. Normally we evacuate Nonsuch Island we do not try and ride out a hurricane there.
“I do stay out there off and on throughout the year. But in the hurricane season I go into alert mode. We move everything up to the buildings and most of the buildings are built 50 feet above sea level.”
But there have been times when things have become very hairy.
“There have been times when for two or three days it gets kind of marginal being out there. I have been sleeping at the house and the island is shaking because of these huge swells things are rattling around and falling off the shelves. Nonsuch is quite a small island and when those big swells are hitting it the island noticeably shudders. That is the alarm signal that it is time to move out.”
It is not even the direct hit from a hurricane that can cause a lot of damage on Nonsuch.
Me Madeiros remembered: “In 2009 Hurricane Bill missed us by about 200 miles to the south west and we had 20 foot swells that caused a lot of damage. Huge chunks of the island were ripped away. But Fabian in 2003 probably made the biggest single impact we have had since Nonsuch was designated as a protected living museum back in 1951. Fabian was certainly the biggest hurricane since 1951 and possibly since the hurricane of 1889.”
That hurricane in September 2003 devastated the Causeway linking St George's island to the main island and had to be rebuilt.
“In Fabian we measured waves over 35 feet. It obliterated many land marks things just vanished overnight it destroyed so much. Nonsuch was divided into two islands by that storm. And then when Igor struck in 2010 the whole area was hit badly again.”
Mr Madeiros explained that Cahows spend much of their life out at sea. And the Cahow is also the only Bermuda breeding bird that nests in the middle of winter.
“It returns around end of October and the beginning of November which also happens to be the end of the hurricane season. The eggs are laid in January and the chicks hatch in March. The chicks are all fledged out by about the end of May and the beginning of June and that is when the hurricane season is just starting. I find it hard to believe that is just a coincidence. The Cahow has adapted to the fact that we get hit by hurricanes a lot about one every three years. Our season is really mid August to early October and the Cahows are basically out at sea during that whole period of risk. Even if the nest birds get destroyed the adults will survive. They fly around the fringe of storms and hurricanes. They survive and come back but may find a destroyed nest. But they will relocate.”
The Cahow is a slow breeder, but also an excellent flier, and spends its adult life on the open seas. At five years old it returns to its former nesting place and begins breeding, laying only one egg per season. Cahows also mate for life sort of.
Mr Madeiros said: “What often happens with Cahows is when they lose a nest the pair may break up. The nest is what holds the pair together. What we noticed after Fabian is once the nest is destroyed that pair may break up but they will find a new partner and new nests as long as we have built the nests for them. It seems that the nest it what holds the pair together. They do not see each other while they are out at sea. One may be off North Carolina and other around the Azores. They come together to raise their children. But when the nest burrow is destroyed there is nothing to keep them together so they find a new partner. That has been a very interesting find.”
Most of the nests for the Cahows are built by Mr Madeiros and others. “It is very labour intensive,” he said. “We have made over a 100 of them over the last 25 to 30 years. Dr Wingate first pioneered the programme. I would say that 80 percent live in artifical government housing!”
The Bermuda Longtail is also badly impacted by storms and hurricanes.
“Longtail nests are more vulnerable during the hurricane season as their nests are in the coastal cliffs. During Fabian we lost almost half the Longtail nests on the Castle Harbour islands. Over 300 nests were destroyed and of course any chicks in those nest were killed. The adults can usually go out to sea and ride out the storm there. The chicks cannot do that. Like ships, Longtails do not want to be in port during a storm. The birds head out and ride it out on the fringe. One of the big problems we have here is that a lot of the sections of the cliffs collapse during a hurricane.”
As with the Cahows, Mr Madeiros and others have started building artificial nests.
“We have installed about 300 around the (Castle Harbour) islands,” he said adding that the Longtails like the areas around Nonsuch and Castle Harbour, areas of Southampton and St George's as well as St David's. And he said the public can also help with the Longtail nests.
“They are available to the public from the Bermuda Audubon Society for $75 a piece. They have proved to be very successful in fact they (man-made nests) have produced higher breeding compared to the natural ones.” And Mr Madeiros is also very proud that Bermuda has about 2,500 Longtail pairs the largest in the North Atlantic ocean.
While the storms and hurricanes can hit the Cahows and Longtail nests badly, so too can land animals and rodents.
“If a rat gets on Nonsuch it can be a big problem for the Cahow nests and feral cats are also a problem for Longtail nests,” he said.
Another bird badly affected by hurricanes and storms is the Common Tern.
“They have probably been the worst affected by hurricanes. The Common Tern is the most uncommon seabird in Bermuda although they are found all around the world. We used to have about 25 to 30 pairs and Fabian basically decimated them. All the chicks (about 57) had gathered in Harrington Sound the day before Fabian. Only three survived. The population fell to eight or 10 pairs. You can see the Common Tern around Flatts inlet and the bridge. They feed on fry and baitfish. The numbers had started to pick up a bit and then we got hit by Igor in 2010 and numbers dropped again. The present level is five pairs. If we have another bad hurricane soon we could lose the species,” he said.