A rare chance to listen
People thought Dr David Wingate was cracked when he first talked about saving an almost extinct seabird and restoring cedar blight ravaged Nonsuch Island.
Fifty-two years later, no one's laughing. Thanks to his efforts, cahow birds are back from the brink of extinction and Nonsuch Island is a protected paradise of native and endemic trees.
Dr Wingate, 78, will reflect on his pioneering life's work tonight at the Bermuda Underwater Exploration Institute (BUEI) as part of the Lionfish Taskforce lecture series. His lecture is entitled ‘Turning the clock back on Nonsuch: The making of a sanctuary for Bermuda's pre-colonial heritage against the onslaught of invasive species'.
“We lobbied the government to declare Nonsuch Island a nature reserve in 1961,” said Dr Wingate. “Certain people thought it was a crazy idea.”
At that time, Nonsuch Island, which had previously been a boy's reform school, among other things, was completely without trees thanks to the cedar blight in the 1950s.
“To me it was paradise,” said Dr Wingate. “I was newly married and looking for a home. I was given the opportunity to live on the island as caretaker for the Public Works Department.
“I was employed on a grant to study the cahows. There was a Parks Department but no national parks legislation until 1986.
“There was no conservation division of Parks until 1966 when I was finally employed by the government as Conservation Officer.”
The plan was to provide Nonsuch as a place for the cahows to expand to when their numbers began to grow due to conservation efforts.
In the 1960s the cahows were mainly living on tiny rocky outcrops off Bermuda.
After living on Nonsuch for four years, Dr Wingate decided that he also wanted to turn Nonsuch into a living museum by replanting cedars and other native and endemic plants and trees.
“I realised it would take decades and decades for that to happen,” he said.
The isolation of Nonsuch and topographical diversity made it perfect for such a plan.
At that time restoration ecology, known as “the art of the possible” was still a new field, and Dr Wingate learned through trial and error.
“There were a lot of things I could have done better, but probably not without going through the same mistakes,” he said. “The cahow project has been an extraordinary success.
“I am also proud of the successful restoration of Nonsuch with native flora which was what most people said would never be possible.”
He said while many types of endemic and native plants, such as Olive Wood, flourish, on Nonsuch now, unfortunately there is still only a smattering of cedars.
He thought it would probably be another 50 years before cedars became dominant again. Dr Wingate retired in 2000. He has won numerous awards for his work including the Queens Medal of Honour, Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE) and Order of the British Empire (OBE).
Nowadays he doesn't get out to Nonsuch as much as he would like as he had a double knee replacement.
Conservation Officer Dr Jeremy Madeiros has taken over the work of conserving the cahows and Nonsuch.
At first Dr Wingate was opposed to current efforts to physically move some nesting pairs from the outer islands to Nonsuch.
Environmentalists are concerned that the outer outcrops that contain many cahow nesting spots, are eroding away with each storm.
Cahows do not easily or quickly find new nesting spots when their normal one is destroyed. “I was opposed to it at first because when they started doing it, the technique was still unproven,” said Dr Wingate. “But the project has been outstandingly successful.”
Tickets to Dr Wingate's lecture tonight are $15 and available by calling 294-0204 or visiting Oceans Gift Shop at BUEI. There is a special menu at Harbourfront restaurant with advance purchase required: $39.75 (includes gratuities).
Doors open at 6.30pm with happy-hour priced drinks at Harbourfront. The lecture starts at 7pm.
For more information on cahows and Nonsuch see Lucinda Spurling's film “Rare Bird or see a live cahow cam at blog.lookbermuda.com/CahowCam.