Why Bermuda’s bird is still the word
David Wingate began to change the world, or at least a tiny speck of it at the easternmost end of Bermuda, when he was just a 15-year-old schoolboy.
Teased by his classmates because of both his prominent, beaklike nose and equally pronounced love of all things feathered, he was already known as “Bird” when he joined a scientific expedition to the Castle Harbour islands in 1951 in search of the long-elusive Cahow or Bermuda Petrel (Pterodroma cahow).
Over the years there had been tantalising hints a small population of the endemic Bermuda bird may have defied the odds and survived in Castle Harbour after early settlers ate the once-abundant species to the point of extinction in the 17th century.
Organised by the Bermuda Aquarium, Museum & Zoo's Louis S Mowbray and Robert Cushman Murphy and his wife, Grace EB Murphy, of the American Museum of Natural History, seven nesting pairs of cahows were eventually located during the 1951 survey.
These were the first living specimens of the legendary seagoing bird seen by human eyes in almost 400 years.
News of the discovery rocked the international scientific community and made headlines around the world. The bird (its plaintive night-time “ca-hoo” wail had led early mariners to believe Bermuda was a spirit-haunted “Isle of Devils”) was instantly classified as a “Lazarus species”, one that had effectively come back from the dead.
In the intervening decades Dr Wingate may have thrown off the unwelcome nickname “Bird”. But his obsession with the nocturnal cahow, cemented that January night in 1951 when he was crawling around wind-whipped ridges and crevices in Castle Harbour, has never faltered, never slackened.
Something of a cross between the ornithological world's answer to Indiana Jones and the stock absent-minded professor, Dr Wingate has spent the last 60 years building nests, transplanting chicks, nursing sick birds, warding off predators and fighting developers to boost the numbers of this unique Bermuda bird — from just a handful in 1951 to more than 250 now.
As Bermuda's first conservation officer, he moved to Nonsuch Island and embarked on an ambitious project to transform its 14 acres — once the site of a yellow fever quarantine hospital and a reform school — into a breeding oasis, what he calls a “living museum of pre-colonial Bermuda”.
Now a new internet-based project is bringing this remote corner of Bermuda to the world and the world to Bermuda, offering the only opportunity many of us will ever have to see this rarest of rare seagoing birds in its natural environment.
Built for the Nonsuch Island nature reserve's newly-launched website, LookBermuda's Cahowcam involved the development of highly-specialised, solar-powered equipment and a painstaking installation process which would not disturb the birds or disrupt their habitats.
The results have already exceeded all expectations. When Dr Wingate gave actress and former chairman of the US National Endowment for the Arts Jane Alexander the rare opportunity to see a nesting cahow chick in 1997, she spoke in the same awed tones as all of the relative handful of visitors to Nonsuch who encounter the bird first-hand.
“It was the most stunning sight,” she said. “Imagine an old-fashioned grey flecked powder puff. I get
chills just thinking about that bird.”
The Cahowcam will now generate these selfsame chills in any location in the world with internet access.
The project is an outstanding example of public-private sector cooperation, LookBermuda working with the Ascendant Group, Logic and Government's Department of Conservation Services to finesse a world-class system which is every bit as unique as the bird whose life cycle it explores.
A boon for armchair ornithologists, students and researchers the world over, the Nonsuch website is an outstanding credit to its developers and the Island.
Senior conservation officer Jeremy Madeiros, who succeeded Dr Wingate and has managed the Cahow Recovery Project and the Nonsuch Island Restoration for the last 14 years, has said: “(The new technology) has given us a fresh understanding of various aspects of behaviour by the chick as it develops, as well as allowing us to watch the interaction between the chick and adult cahows during the brief feeding visits by adults after long, multi-thousand mile foraging trips to gather squid, small fish and shrimp-like organisms for the hungry, growing chick.
“The infrared burrow-cam has already proved its worth, both in revealing previously unknown behaviour and in allowing the public to follow the development of the chick at the same time it is seen by the researchers.”
Almost 400 years ago an official proclamation issued by Governor Daniel Tucker banned “the spoyle and havocke of the cahowes” because settlers had already critically reduced their numbers just four years after Bermuda's permanent settlement. By 1620 the petrel was believed to have been entirely wiped out.
That David Wingate, Jeremy Madeiros and others have nursed the bird back from the very brink of extinction — the only species ever rediscovered and subsequently revitalised — is a story of redemption as rare as the bird itself.
And it is why the world remains anxious to learn more of the story of that tiny speck of land at the East End of Bermuda which is home to one of the Island's oldest inhabitants.