Cahow story takes flight in new book

  • <B>Book author Elizabeth Gehrman</B> with David Wingate and a copy of the new book on cahows 'Rare Birds'.

    Book author Elizabeth Gehrman with David Wingate and a copy of the new book on cahows 'Rare Birds'.
    ((Photo by Mark Tatem))

  • <B>Elizabeth Gehrman&#146;s </B>new book on cahows 'Rare Bird'.

    Elizabeth Gehrman’s new book on cahows 'Rare Bird'.
    ((Photo by Mark Tatem))

“Come to papa.”

The words, spoken quietly, are directed at two tiny black spots on the horizon. They seem to take heed and fly in, coming quickly into focus as they careen toward the speaker, who, with a sun hat on his head and binoculars in his hands, is balancing in an open boat on a rough sea five miles from land. It is David Wingate, a man who in environmental circles is immediately known for his jutting beard and expansive gaze.

The rediscovery and re-establishment of Bermuda's national bird, the cahow, is this man's story. There is no other claimant to the title of 'father' to this remarkable species, endemic to Bermuda and for whom there is no other home than the islands that separate Castle Harbour from the South Shore.

There are dedicated men who came before, and today the baton has been passed on to environmental officer Jeremy Madeiros, whose passion and dedication is unwavering. But it is Dr Wingate who nurtured the tiny remaining colony in the years soon after its rediscovery, saw it though many threats — including the destructive impact of the insecticide DDT on the cahow's egg shells to the arrival of a predatory snowy owl which killed several of the young chicks in one horrifying continuum of days.

On this day, however, Dr Wingate is watching the cahows return to these tiny islands after a year at sea to reclaim their nesting sites in preparation for the breeding season. He can do this with the knowledge that the species now numbers in three figures and is producing dozens of chicks every year. And he also can do it knowing that the large and safe Castle Harbour island, Nonsuch Island, is now home to a new colony which has been successfully inhabited by several breeding pairs. For those who are environmentalists or simply love nature, it is an amazing story.

“When is the book going to be written?” was a frequently repeated question, said Dr Wingate. Now it has been and 'Rare Birds' is published.

Writer for the Boston Globe Magazine, Elizabeth Gehrman was assigned to a story in Bermuda for a travel cover piece. “I asked the public relations people not to take me to tourist places, but they did!” she said.

Fortunately her quest led her to dive operator Michael Heslop who in turn directed her to Philippe Rouja, then the acting director of Conservation Services. He immediately sent her to Nonsuch Island with Mr Madeiros, where Somers, the first cahow to be born on Nonsuch in 400 years, had just hatched. While motoring towards the island, he related the story of David Wingate and how he had saved this species. The author recalled: “As soon as Jeremy finished telling me about it, I said, 'I have to write a story about this!'”

While she knew about the cahow, she said: “I had never heard the full story until I was out on the water with Jeremy. He told me about David's tragic loss of his wife Anita on Nonsuch Island, but that he had persevered. And as soon as I met the little bird Somers, I was completely charmed.”

Dr Wingate's persistence and hard work over many decades provided the bridge to get the cahow to the point where Mr Madeiros has been able to establish this new colony on Nonsuch Island, a safe haven as sea levels rise and hurricanes grow stronger and more frequent, eroding their rocky islet homes at an alarming rate.

“It's a success story for conservation. One of my beats at the Globe is the environment, and this was a success story — there are very few success stories you hear in that world,” Ms Gehrman added.

Dr Wingate believes that without the support the species has had, the cahow would have disappeared entirely by the mid-1970s. Even so, there were some moments when the bird was severely threatened, and the insecticide DDT was the most serious of those threats. The impact of DDT was global, and it was the effect of the poison around the world which brought home the knowledge that pollution can impact places and animals far beyond the sites where it was initially used or dumped. While people like Rachel Carson, author of the 1962 expose 'Silent Spring', and Charles Wurster, a biologist at SUNY Stony Brook, were researching the subject, raising awareness of its dangers and lobbying to get it out of the environment, Dr Wingate was at a standstill.

“There was nothing I could do, so I tried to do something positive,” he said. It was the beginning of a major project to replant Nonsuch Island with native species and remove non-natives, to provide a haven which reflected Bermuda in its pre-colonised condition.

Ms Gehrman said: “There were 10,000 new plants put in and at least that many came out. I can't even imagine it.”

There were challenges with that project too, as gale-force winds blew down newly planted trees. Dr Wingate said: “They came back the following spring, but there were so many little disappointments.”

In fact, every chapter of 'Rare Birds' is a story of a trial overcome, said Ms Gehrman. The book itself was written over an 18-month period. “I came out to Bermuda in April 2009 and I think I must have been interviewing David Wingate for about a year.”

Although an experienced writer and editor, this is her first book and the culmination of a long-held ambition. Describing her own career, she said: “I initially moved to Boston to work at the Boston Herald for a summer; I ended up taking a job there and staying in Boston. I wrote for the Herald freelance, but basically worked on the copy desk. After a couple years I left and started working for magazines, then eventually started working for the Globe Magazine pretty steadily.”

She has written for several national magazines as well, including Men's Journal and Metropolitan Home.

“I had wanted to write a book for about five years. I kept trying to come up with a story idea, and then this fell into my lap.”

For Dr Wingate, it was the ideal resolution to the long-standing quandary of recording the story of the cahow and its re-establishment as a viable species. Ms Gehrman's high research standards and fact-checking of all aspects of the story turned out to be of particular importance for Dr Wingate.

“I was immediately able to spot that she was very brilliant, and I thought she could do the job.”

Ms Gehrman worked closely with Dr Wingate, who had himself kept detailed diaries which the author was able to use, and she interviewed everyone that she could find who had been involved in the cahow rehabilitation project from its very earliest days.

The book concludes by capturing the future of the project: Jeremy Madeiros with his mentor, Dr Wingate, on Nonsuch Island during a 'nightwatch'. The cahow's nocturnal behaviour means they flock to the shores of the nesting islands at night, screeching their ghostly calls and swooping over the nesting sites. And on this night, the success of this decades-long project culminates on Nonsuch — the island this species last nested on 400 years ago — with the two men together, the cahows overhead, and this author there to record the moment.

“They're having a party tonight,” Dr Wingate said.

'Rare Birds' is published by Beacon Press and is available from the Book Mart at Brown & Co. The author will be signing books in the store today between 11am and 2pm.

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Published Oct 12, 2012 at 8:00 am (Updated Oct 11, 2012 at 3:28 pm)

Cahow story takes flight in new book

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