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

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Cover Courtesy Beacon Press
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.

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.

First, there’s the weather, which is often unsettled in Bermuda this time of year. What the weather service describes as a “solid cloud deck” is hovering over the country; tomorrow it will combine with a low pressure system from the south and the next day with the nor’easter created by what’s left of Hurricane Ida as it charges up the coast of the United States, generating a mini perfect storm that will result in near-constant rain, winds gusting to 33 miles an hour, and a total of just a few hours of sunshine over the next three days. The small-craft warning that will be issued for each of those days would most certainly apply to Wingate’s battered 17-foot Boston Whaler–not that that sort of thing usually keeps him out of the water.

Far worse than the weather, for Wingate, is that he threw his back out yesterday after having to bail his boat with a hand pump because the electrical system’s on the fritz again. (Covering the boat while it’s moored, he says, is “too much trouble.”)

He turns into the parking lot of a bungalow-style pink building called Shorelands, which houses the Bermuda Department of Conservation Services, and slowly begins to extricate himself from his sardine can of a car, the smallest he could find in the country. He’s here to go through two plastic storage containers full of old photographs to select some for a Canadian filmmaker who’s in town shooting the cahows for a DVD series on the environment. But Wingate can’t carry the bins. He can barely make it into the building. He hobbles up the sloping lawn and, once inside, leans on any available surface as he plods forward, wincing and groaning all the way.

“I’ve turned overnight into a doddering old man,” he says, finally lowering himself into an office chair in a first-floor conference room, where he can spread out the pictures on an enormous laminated table.

“This is not me, you’ll see.”

At seventy-five, Wingate is a trim six feet tall and broad-shouldered, with a full head of uncombed white hair, thin lips, watery blue eyes, and the slightly crooked teeth of a British schoolboy. He has a short beard, also white, and his dress is emphatically casual, tending toward shorts, polo shirts, and boat shoes or Crocs for all but the most formal occasions.

“Whenever Dad had to come to something at school,” his daughter Karen Wingate remembers, “my sister and I would be in agony. We knew he’d be late. And if he comes, what will he be wearing? Ripped shorts and a shirt covered in bird poop? He was always scruffy, with his hands bleeding and burrs clinging to him, because he’d be off in the bushes after a bird.”

Like most Bermudians, Wingate speaks with a mix of accents–in his case, Scottish, handed down from his father’s side, and English, from his mother’s. Thus his nasally cannot becomes canna and glasses something like glahshees. Though most people pronounce the bird’s name ka-HOW, as in “How now brown cahow,” Wingate more often says KA-how, rhyming the first syllable with the vowel sound in the American pronunciation of laugh.

He had a skin-cancer scare last summer when he developed a persistent sore on his lip. Though a biopsy proved negative, just to be on the safe side he cut out a rectangular piece of cardboard and affixed it, dangling, to the back of his baseball cap with blue painter’s tape. On cloudless days, he works the thing down over the bill of the hat, past his wire-framed aviator-style bifocals, and over his mouth, where it jumps slightly whenever he talks. When asked why he doesn’t just use zinc oxide on his lips, he replies that he prefers a mechanical barrier. He’s thinking about replacing the cardboard soon with a leather version, maybe in the shape of a handlebar mustache–“to look like Mark Twain,” he says with a chuckle.

“I think everyone, even his best friends, would say he’s, well, he’s not certifiable, but he’s certainly a genuine eccentric,” David Saul says of Wingate. Saul, a former finance minister, former premier, bird lover, and raconteur, is no slouch himself in the eccentricity department, with a specially made steel coffin–guillotine-ended for easy opening–accumulating coral while it waits for him at the bottom of Devonshire Bay a quarter-mile from the backyard of his house.

Saul can’t recall any particular anecdotes to back up this assertion.

“No, nothing that I–I wouldn’t have even mentally recorded anything like that because everything about him was strange. You’d meet him and there’d be a bird in his pocket. You know, what could be unusual about that?”

A live bird?

Oh, sure! To open up his car and–I am sure when he was conservation officer he carried birds, turtles, live and dead, many, many dead, scores, if not hundreds, dead, in his various vehicles. But this would not be considered to be, you know, you wouldn’t go home and say, ‘I just saw David Wingate, guess what!’ Well, they’d say–” He shrugs. “If he was acting normal, we’d think he was ill.”

Wingate was nicknamed Bird in grammar school, partly, he speculates, because of his prominent hooked nose. Saul dismisses this idea. “No, they’d’ve called him Hawky,” he says. “It was because of his interest in birds, to the exclusion of everything else, probably even girls, at the time. Everyone in Bermuda who’s over fifty still addresses him as Bird Wingate.”

Saul, who is several years younger than Wingate and knew him only by reputation when they were growing up, maintains that Wingate took his childhood nickname as a badge of honor, but Wingate recalls it very differently. At a time in life when fitting in is the most essential tool of social success, he was openly different, and he remembers being teased and bullied for his unusual hobby. “I was very lonely,” Wingate says of those days. “In fact, I had a bit of an inferiority complex.”

Wingate may have felt he was being cruelly taunted by the other boys at the Saltus Grammar School, but he also admits he “disdained” the bullies for–ironically–their single-mindedness. The difference was that while they loved football and cricket, Wingate’s pursuit was, literally, loftier. He has kept detailed diaries since 1950, and in the first few books, he repeatedly mentions his disinclination for mandatory after-school sports, even going so far as to note that “everything turned out well” the day he was sent to detention because it got him out of “games.” In February of that year, two days after the first local newspaper article about him appeared in the Royal Gazette— “BOY BIRD WATCHER HAS IDENTIFIED FIFTY DIFFERENT SPECIES IN ONE YEAR,” reads the front-page headline, in 36-point type–comes the following entry:

I was late for school, and found it a most miserable day, because the whole sixth form joked & laughed about my bird-watching as though it was a horrible crime.

By the next semester he seems to have toughened up a bit, as he mentions in passing “the perpetual annoyance and stupid name-calling such as ‘Birdy’ and ‘Bird-Brain.’ “

Wandering around with a notebook and binoculars, meticulously recording his sightings, he must have seemed hopelessly nerdy to the more sportive boys. But despite the mutual antipathy, he may even then have been beginning to earn their grudging respect, for in a place as small as Bermuda, it doesn’t take long to make a name for yourself. By age fourteen, Wingate was presenting the neighbors with gifts of his ornithological lists and diaries and getting phone calls from adults all over the island–including at least one from someone at the Bermuda Biological Station–to come and identify unusual birds for them.

“If you ever had a sick bird,” Saul recalls, “an owl that struck the electric cables or anything, you just took it to his house and dumped it. Don’t even bother to ring, to knock the door. Just leave it there. And if it was dead, he would stuff it. I would imagine he stuffed half the birds at the aquarium museum. In the general population’s mind, the man is synonymous with birds. You just say, ‘You know that crazy birdman,’ and they’d all say, ‘You mean David Wingate?’ ‘Yes, David Wingate.’ “

Just a few years ago, Wingate’s daughter Janet met a man with a cat who, without knowing who she was, volunteered that the cat’s name was Wingate because, the man said, “he looovvves de birds.”

Wingate wasn’t always obsessed with birds, but he was preoccupied with the natural world from the time he could walk. At age three, he collected a herd of wood lice that he called his beesh, for beasts. He kept them in a matchbox and took them to bed with him, until his mother found them crawling all over the pillow. Chastened not by her disapproval–his parents were tolerant of his diversions–but by the possibility that she might expel his pets from their new homes, he simply relocated his menageries, catching bugs of various sorts and stashing them under the bed instead of in it. Occasionally a spider would escape and build a web over him as he slept.

“When you’re a kid,” he says of his attraction to crawling things, “your nose is close to the ground.”

Wingate’s parents, a postal employee and a legal secretary, didn’t seem to know where their “born naturalist” came from, but were willing to indulge him, particularly as he was the baby of the family for thirteen years, until his sister Katharine came along. After a brief flirtation with astronomy–abandoned when, as he wrote in 1950, “I could not get the same thrill as I did before I found myself making silly blunders in judging the stars”–at age eleven his interest in the natural world took a turn toward birds. His older brother, Peter, had started an egg collection, which was a fairly standard pastime for Bermudian boys at the time, despite laws meant to protect nests from poaching.

“Every kid in the English countryside had a bird-egg collection,” Wingate says, “going way back to the 1700s. Interest peaked in the nineteenth century.”

Bermuda has been heavily influenced by both the United States and Great Britain, and in the 1940s and ’50s, when Wingate was growing up, Victorian England was not the quaint bit of ancient history it seems now, but a part of living memory that continued to influence culture and daily life in the colonies, just as the 1960s and ’70s do in America today. The amateur study of natural history and a passion for collecting were tres façonnable in the mid- to late-1800s, and the fad was particularly pronounced in the United Kingdom, where both of Wingate’s parents were raised. Connoisseurs of everything from seashells to beetles abounded in the middle and upper classes, and those who had the money would send emissaries to the far corners of the earth to obtain for them ever-rarer specimens.

Wingate’s great-grandfather was among those caught up in the fascination for diversity and predilection for cataloging that characterized the time, though in a slightly different form. James Wingate was a noted collector of Scottish coins who wrote the definitive book on the subject in 1868 and sold his stash of ancient groats and testons seven years later for £3,263. The price, called “fabulous” in 1905 by the Coin Collector, was equivalent to about $1.75 million in today’s dollars. (Bermuda used the English currency system and tied its values to the pound sterling until 1970, when it switched to Bermudian dollars, which are on a par with the U.S. dollar.)

Unlike his zealous ancestor, Peter Wingate grew bored with collecting when the opposite sex began to appeal. But David seemed to have inherited the accumulator’s gene, and made sure his brother’s lovingly amassed hoard didn’t go to waste. He adopted the clutch and would eventually take his absorption with it several thousand steps beyond anything Peter could have imagined.

By age twelve, Wingate could distinguish a greater shearwater from a Cory’s shearwater and a bay-breasted warbler from the blackpoll variety. He spent every spare moment exploring the forests and beaches and salt marshes of Bermuda, counting snowy egrets and white-eyed vireos and hoping for a glimpse of a migratory American avocet or a white ibis. In 1949, the American naturalist Richard Pough, who two years later would help found the Nature Conservancy, met Wingate on a visit to Bermuda, where Pough and his wife often spent their December wedding anniversaries. He sought out Wingate’s parents to tell them the boy had potential.

“He advised them to buy me a Peterson Field Guide,” Wingate recalls, “and then they got me a pair of binoculars. It was the best Christmas present ever.” Wingate took off on his bike, and the family didn’t see him for the rest of the holiday.

Reprinted with permission from Rare Birds by Elizabeth Gehrman and published by Beacon Press, 2012.

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