The Amazing Story of the Bermuda Petrel—and the Man Who Saved It

Through six decades of obsessive dedication, one Bermuda birder saw the return of the cahow—a rare bird thought to be extinct—to Nonsuch Island.

| March 2013

  • Rare Birds
    Nonsuch was once the breeding ground for millions of Bermuda petrels. Also known as cahows, the graceful and acrobatic birds fly almost nonstop most of their lives. But shortly after humans arrived, the cahows had vanished, eaten into extinction. “Rare Birds” is an excitingly told tale of David Wingate, a Bermudan birder determined to save the cahow through 60 years of dedicated conservation.
    Cover Courtesy Beacon Press

  • Rare Birds

Rare Birds (Beacon Press, 2012) is a tale of obsession, of hope, of fighting for redemption against incredible odds. It is the story of how Bermuda’s David Wingate changed the world—or at least a little slice of it—despite the many voices telling him he was crazy to try. Author Elizabeth Gehrman tells of how Wingate saved the Bermuda petrel—also known as the cahow—from extinction and saw its return to Bermuda’s Nonsuch Island. The following excerpt sets up Wingate’s tale of big personalities and vital bird conservation. 

David Wingate wants to see his birds. “This is cahow weather,” he says, peering through the rain-splashed windshield of his white Suzuki Alto at treetops dancing violently in the wind. “We may be miserable, but the cahows are just yippee-happy right now. If we could go out to Nonsuch tonight, they’d be celebrating.”

Just a handful of people have seen the cahow (also known as the Bermuda petrel) in flight, and even fewer have witnessed the staggeringly graceful, scramjet-fast aerial courtship they perform on only the darkest fall and winter nights. Wingate, though, has spent enough time with the birds that he has felt their wings brush the top of his head as they darted past him in the blackened sky, gliding ever slower through the air before dropping to land like a cartoon anvil. But in the past few years things have changed, and troubles from bad knees to bad blood have conspired to keep him from the birds he calls his first love.

This week he’s supposed to make his first trip to Nonsuch at night in two years. He’d been trying to get out there—or at least into the harbor in his boat—for a night watch once or twice every November since he moved off the island in 2003, but last year he didn’t go because of the knee-replacement surgery that laid him up for six months and left six-inch vertical scars in the dead center of both his legs. Before that—well, it’s a long story.

Mid-November is when the birds are most active, from a human perspective. It’s when the returning fledglings arrive at Castle Harbour after as much as four years spent flying virtually nonstop, drinking seawater and sleeping on the wing. During that time a young cahow might travel thousands of miles a week, weaving in and out among the rolling waves and heaving swells of the open ocean, a lone feathered missile gliding and banking along the westerlies as it roams over millions of square miles of the Atlantic. Then, one day, a day like every other in the bird’s life so far, some unknowable instinct kicks in; some primal urge tells it to head back to Bermuda to find a mate. And, like a high school senior hustling to Cancun for spring break, it does. And when it arrives, it lands within three yards of the tree or rock or sheer cliff wall from which it fledged. When it takes off again to get to the business at hand, it rises and dips through the night sky and calls to its new friends in low, spectral moans until that special someone answers and the sexual chemistry becomes so achingly clear that the other birds must roll their eyes and tell the pair to get a burrow.

Seeing that, to Wingate, is heaven, an adrenaline high like no other. But this week, as in Novembers recently past, the Fates are refusing to allow him his greatest thrill.

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