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Vol. 40 No. 13 · 5 July 2018

The Rarest Bird in the World

Jane Campbell

If it is​ on time the regular British Airways flight from Gatwick arrives in Bermuda as the sun is setting and then, if you are lucky, the pilot will swing around to line up with the runway and as he does that, if it is a clear evening, you will be able to see the whole island lying like an unfinished jigsaw on the gleaming surface of the sea. This tiny country is really no more than a string of islets meandering for 20 or so miles across the ocean, sometimes connected by bridges, seldom measuring more than a mile from side to side.

I used to live there and still visit frequently and it has always seemed to me that the point of Bermuda is the sea that surrounds it. Bermudians, those who have been there for several generations or who have become encultured, go out on the sea in boats. I think they return to the island only to anchor their boats and rear their children. Some Bermudians work out on the water while for others it is an escape. But every Bermudian, it seems, has an ambition to anchor his or her boat at the bottom of the garden; the lucky ones do. The sea is the countryside of Bermuda: that is where there is space and freedom and speed. Cars are allowed to travel at no more than 35 kph on the island’s winding narrow roads. It is very pretty, full of the primary colours of subtropical vegetation, and you can make money on land, but if you want to live you have to get out on the water.

At the west end of the island is the old Royal Naval Dockyard, once home to warships. Last summer the America’s Cup yacht race was held here and the billion-dollar computerised man-powered sailing machines tried to outmanoeuvre each other over a course laid out in the Great Sound. While this was going on something infinitely more important was continuing at the other end of the island and I went in search of it after the spectators in their superyachts had departed. It was Christmas Eve, a sunny day with a bit of a breeze but a clear sky, when I boarded a small shabby Boston Whaler belonging to David Wingate. We were going to Nonsuch Island, the home of the cahow, an oceanic bird that was believed extinct for more than 300 years. Invisible most of the time and, like most Bermudians, off at sea as often as possible, it is unique to Bermuda and now one of the rarest birds in the world.

We met at Flatt’s Inlet and set off along the North Shore. Rather than cutting across Castle Harbour, the great natural expanse of water at the eastern end of the island, we were going the long way around which would take us to the waters where the first colonists were shipwrecked 400 years ago. There was just room to stand side by side in the tiny boat as we entered Ferry Reach between the Bermuda Institute for Ocean Sciences and the airport on the way to St George’s Harbour. The sea here was calm, the low-lying land, dotted with pastel-coloured houses with white roofs, slipped past easily. We passed a couple of rusty old buoys used to tether warships in World War Two; these days common terns nest there to escape the rats that live on shore. Then we travelled through St George’s Channel between Paget Island and Smith’s, once the main entrance to the harbour. Ahead were the reefs where the Sea Venture, on her way to Jamestown, Virginia, was wrecked in a hurricane on 28 July 1609. It was the crew of that ship who became the first castaways on the island, including William Strachey, who wrote a dramatic account of the storm in a 3000-word letter to an unidentified ‘excellent lady’ in London, which is vividly echoed in the first scene of The Tempest. It was the survivors of that shipwreck that later became the first colonists to lay claim to Bermuda for the British.

‘It did strike me as a woeful exploitation of the primeval innocence of Eden,’ Strachey wrote. ‘No fear, no suspicion on the part of the birds; untutored in fear they befriended these strangers who drew them by mimicking their cries.’ These birds were the cahows, so called because they have a strange wailing mating cry that was once thought by mariners to be the sound of devils. Strachey writes that the cahows (then called ‘sea owles’), clumsy on land and almost blind by day, would cluster around the sailors in such numbers that hundreds could be clubbed to death for food.

This is how Strachey describes them:

A Kinde of webbe-footed Fowle there is of the bignesse of an English green Plover, or Sea-Mewe, which all the summer we saw not, and in the darkest nights of November and December (for in the night they onely feed) they would come forth, but not fly far from home, and hovering in the ayre, and over the sea, make a strange hollow and harsh howling … Our men found a prettie way to take them, which was by standing on the Rocks or Sands by the Sea Side, and hollowing, laughing, and making the strangest out-cry that they possibly could: with the noyse whereof the Birds would come flocking to that place and settle upon the very armes and head of him that so cryed and still creepe nearer and nearer, answering the noise themselves.

Leaving behind the reefs where the Sea Venture foundered, we turned south and entered some of the roughest waters around Bermuda. We passed Little Head, Great Head and Ruth’s Bay point and then saw tall cliffs to our right and the great dark mouths of sea caves where fossilised cahow bones have been found. David had told me that this area is characterised by dangerous rip tides. The boiler reefs seemed alarmingly close and it was at this point that I looked at the bow of the little boat as it smashed and crashed and lurched from wave to wave and reminded myself that Boston Whalers are said to be unsinkable. The hulls are stuffed with styrofoam.

It was also, of course, exhilarating and it was Coleridge’s lines that popped into my head as I clung to a rail: ‘The fair breeze blew, the white foam flew,/The furrow followed free.’ The cahow belongs to the same family as the albatross and the shearwater and the storm petrel. David told me that in flight the cahow combines ‘the agility of the storm petrels with the grace of the albatross’. Able only to waddle clumsily on land, once they have spread their long, shapely wings they can ride the updraughts from the fore-edge of a wave and can live through Atlantic gales by riding the swells of the wind. This is called ‘dynamic soaring’; few have been lucky enough to see it. The cahows mate in November before spending 40 days in the wilderness of the North Atlantic, returning in January to lay their eggs. After each female has laid a single egg the parents take turns to incubate it and when in February or March those eggs hatch, for the next three months the parents will take turns in feeding the chick. Their food does not consist of local species but squid, fish and shrimp found hundreds of miles to the west and north of Bermuda. It can take four days for a parent to get a meal for the chick, regurgitating the squid on their return. When the chick is grown and ready for departure the parents take off and leave it to emerge alone from the burrow, stretch and test its wings for the first time, and fly off across the ocean for between two and five years until, an adult, it returns to the same rocks to mate and breed. The numbers are slowly increasing: there are currently about 120 breeding pairs.

David has been making this trip for close on fifty years and for forty of them Nonsuch Island was his home. As a schoolboy of 16 in 1951 he was there with a visiting ornithologist, Robert Murphy, and Louis Mowbray, the director of the aquarium, when the extraordinary discovery was made of a surviving cahow on a tiny outcrop not far from Nonsuch Island, three centuries after it was thought to have become extinct. When he had completed his studies at Cornell University he returned home to become the first conservation officer employed by the Bermuda Government and devoted himself to promoting the survival of the cahow.

We tied the boat up at Nonsuch quay and climbed some stone steps to the top of the cliff, then walked along a path towards a tunnel made of wooden arches about 15 yards long. ‘This is like a time tunnel,’ said David. ‘On the far side is the island as it was in pre-colonial times.’ When those first castaways arrived on the island they were also the first human inhabitants. The Spanish, who found and named Bermuda, had probably put pigs ashore and inadvertently left a few rats behind as they passed through, but the British came to an otherwise unspoiled Eden. My picture of Eden is probably Miltonic:

                    and overhead up grew
Insuperable height of loftiest shade,
Cedar, and pine, and fir, and branching palm,
A sylvan scene, and as the ranks ascend
Shade above shade, a woody theatre
Of stateliest view.

In reality, there are no pines or firs endemic to Bermuda and the trees on the 15 acres of Nonsuch are not that lofty but, nonetheless, as we walked along the tracks between the overarching trees I could see that it is indeed ‘a woody theatre’. Tall cedars provide protection for the undergrowth, snowberries and Bermuda sedge. Palmettos, the ‘branching palms’, are native to the island, as are olivewood. Once cahows would have built their nests in burrows tucked away in the sandy soil in the roots of these trees; the ecosystem is being re-established to create the ideal environment for them. For example, 99 per cent of Bermuda’s cedars died after being infected by a scale insect during World War Two so these cedars, too, are part of the work to recreate a lost world.

A notice on the shoreline states that intruders trespassing on the island without permission will be fined $5000. Such measures are essential if the cahow is not to repeat the fate of the dodo. The cahow was thought to have disappeared around the same time; only the bird’s persistence and good fortune in adapting led to its survival in secret places. When they first changed their nesting sites the cahow chicks became vulnerable to the beautiful longtail birds whose breeding season was later than the cahows and who were accustomed to using the same sites. These days the cahows breed in burrows designed by David and made of concrete, with entrances too small for a longtail. The conservation programme in Bermuda is now able to make use of the trusting nature of the birds (they are not domesticated but they are tame) to band them and check their weight. Cahows mate for life and return each year to the same burrow. The relative invisibility of the cahow these days is due to its lifestyle. They carry out their mating rituals in the air on the darkest nights of November, preferring moonless windy nights, making those strange wailing cries that used to frighten sailors. From January to June, they rear their young in a burrow deep in the earth and then they abandon the island completely for the rest of the year.

It is one of the curious ironies of the current situation that, as part of the funding provision, 600,000 people can now sit at their computer screens and watch these most private and invisible of birds as they preen and caress each other while they take turns to incubate their egg. If you google ‘Nonsuch Expeditions’ you will find the live CahowCam, focused on a breeding pair. When I was on Nonsuch, David showed me the concrete burrow where the webcam is set up. We stood there on the rocks above the surging tide and looked out towards the further islands; a scene that cannot have changed much in hundreds of years.

It is salutary to reflect that if the cahow had been extinguished, as the dodo has been, it would make no apparent difference at all to the life of Bermuda: the ordinary families, the money machines, the America’s Cup, and, of course, the ocean would still be here. It may be stretching a point but could the return of the trusting cahows, who befriended those early mariners and were then killed out of hand, be seen as a good omen for Bermuda? And, by extension, for all of us? It is now the island’s national bird. It is being looked after diligently and scrupulously. Nestling in their burrow, they are such very ordinary looking birds.

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