Inside a cahow’s egg, the chick’s skull takes up most of the room – they are packed in tightly, their whole bodies folded up. When they hatch in late February and early March, in just hours they take up ten times the room that the egg they have just emerged from did, puffing up to a ridiculous size as their fluffy down dries out. The flamboyant grey down chicks are precious things – they represent incredible time and energy investment from the cahow parents, which mate for life – and they are a testament to the tremendous dedication of Bermudian conservationists, who have enabled this ‘Lazarus species’ to be brought back from the brink of extinction.
All 155 pairs, representing the entire species of the rare bird, nest on Nonsuch Island and a few small, surrounding rocks. This incredible living museum, designed to represent pre-colonial Bermudian ecology, free from introduced flora and fauna, was created to enable cahows to thrive. Though the cahow is Bermuda’s national bird, few Bermudians have seen one in person: Nonsuch Island (currently closed due to covid) grants very limited access to the public in order to protect the survival of the fragile species, and the recovery programme is carefully managed by principal scientist for terrestrial conservation in Bermuda, Jeremy Madeiros. However – thousands of people watch the mating, nesting, hatching, and fledging of this living fossil every year through the ingenuity of fellow cahow champion, Jean-Pierre Rouja.
“Like many Bermudians who are involved in conservation I can trace part of my interest back to having been exposed to Nonsuch in my youth,” Rouja says. “In fact, one of my earlier conservation memories is being told off by David Wingate, Jeremy’s predecessor and founder of the Cahow recovery and Nonsuch Reforestation programs, for stepping off the path onto an endemic plant as a 10-year-old when I visited the island back in the 1970’s. The ongoing success of those programs has made Nonsuch even more sensitive to human traffic, so hopefully enabling people to visit virtually will reduce some of that pressure, whilst still giving them at least part of the experience.”
His CahowCams are celebrating their 10th anniversary this year. They have been filming and broadcasting the nesting season of the endemic cahow live from their nesting burrows almost completely uninterrupted since 2012 – capturing the moment chicks hatch and fledge, and allowing viewers the world over to join in the excitement. Rouja has made it his mission to provide reliable, high-quality coverage of the cahows during their most intimate moments – overcoming challenges of filming in the dark, ensuring a reliable internet connection to the mainland from the off-grid Castle Harbour islet, and combatting the activities of crabs and ants – which dig around his underground cameras and eat the silicone used to seal them.
The chick incubated in CahowCam 1 hatched on February 27th, and as of the March 12th, the chick in CahowCam2 has hatched as well! You can watch the livestreams here to see the next generation of Bermuda’s national bird in its first days out of the egg!
Rouja was heavily involved in the hatching process of the CahowCam 1 chick, glued to the live stream from the first pip on Saturday, February 26th at 2am, until it hatched 24 hours later. Rouja continuously tracked the chick’s activities, making adjustments and updating the social media feeds for followers around the world. “For some reason major nesting events seem to happen at night and on weekends,” Rouja says – and he has lost a lot of sleep in order to look after the rare birds.
David Wingate, the first conservation officer of Bermuda, began the cahow recovery programme in the 1960s. He added wooden baffles to the crevices where cahows – usually a burrowing bird – had been forced by necessity to nest, which prevented the aggressive white-tailed tropic bird from turfing them out. By installing more nesting burrows made of concrete, he grew their population from 18 breeding pairs to more than 50, all the while preparing Nonsuch Island to be recolonized by the birds, by removing invasive species and planting over 10,000 individual native plants in an effort to restore it to a pre-colonial Bermudian environment.
However, when he turned 65 in 2000, Wingate was mandated to retire from his position as conservation officer, and the cahows had not yet returned to Nonsuch. Alarmed by hurricane Fabian destroying some of the last remaining cahow nesting sites, Wingate’s successor, Jeremy Madeiros, began the cahow translocation project a few years later – moving individual cahows into purpose built concrete burrows on Nonsuch in a bold move to preserve the last of the species. Madeiros hand fed the rare chicks daily on squid and locally-sourced fresh Anchovies, saw them fledge, and waited for them to return.
After 3 years at sea, Madeiros saw the landmark first return of a translocated chick to nest again on Nonsuch, which signaled an early success for the translocation programme. Later, the programme monitored the entire life cycle of one of its birds by seeing the return of an adult to nest again which had hatched from an egg on Nonsuch. More recently, a Nonsuch-hatched chick returned and attracted a mate from another island, to the delight of Medeiros and Rouja. By 2022, 50 of the original 102 translocated chicks had returned, 31 to Nonsuch, and the rest to the original smaller nesting islands. The total number of nesting pairs on Nonsuch has increased from the original single pair in 2009 to a total of 32 nesting pairs in 2022.
Rouja has been running the CahowCam since 2012, which has allowed more recent milestones for the project, and never-before-seen cahow behaviour, to be captured on camera.
Rouja first began developing what would become the CahowCam system in the mid 2000s. He became involved initially as the producer for the 2010 “Higher Ground” film documenting the cahow recovery and translocation work taking place at Nonsuch Island – but filming an animal in complete darkness, let alone one that nests underground, was almost impossible, with barely suitable cameras costing upwards of a hundred thousand dollars at the time. The cahows on Nonsuch nest in purpose-built concrete burrows, designed specifically for the recovery programme. The burrows consist of a 6-8-foot-long tunnel with a bend in it, to ensure that no light gets in, and a basketball-sized nesting chamber with a heavy concrete lid that can be opened for maintenance and easy access to the birds by their care givers.
“They are ultra-sensitive to light, as they are capable of flying in the dark, and may navigate using the stars,” Rouja, says. The initial challenge was lighting up the burrows so that high quality images could be taken, without disturbing the birds. Rouja first considered 850-nanometer (nm) infrared LEDs, which are commonly used for security cameras – but they have a very slight glow emanating from them, which disqualified them from use in Rouja’s eyes as the cahows may have been able to detect it. Even standard 940nm military grade, totally invisible infrared LEDs didn’t work, because they were designed to light up vast areas many meters away, and so overexposed the small burrows – he eventually found a specific kind of industrial 940nm LED bulb that would allow for close-up filming in darkness.
The CahowCam was Rouja’s first foray into conservation technology development – his interests in cahow recovery, and his background as a filmmaker led him to create custom-built systems for capturing high-quality imagery, for the combined purpose of scientific discovery as well as public outreach and engagement. “Especially in harsh environments, scientists tend to deploy robust equipment that is built for observational purposes, and image quality isn’t a priority,” Rouja explains. “Finding a way to also produce higher quality cinematic imagery that can be used for education and potential broadcast was important to me.”
A decade ago, when there weren’t any compact or affordable infrared camera options, the first CahowCams were built around hacked GoPros that Rouja taught himself how to modify. These were the first compact HD cameras that he could afford to experiment with and risk destroying. Rouja removed the IR filter from the camera sensor (that otherwise blocked infrared light), and built his own infrared light arrays using 940nm bulbs, which allowed for imagery to be captured in completed darkness. He was totally self-taught, initially rigging the modified cameras and custom LEDs with special transformers that would allow them to run off of fluctuating power from car batteries on the remote island, as Nonsuch only had sporadic solar power at the time. The CahowCam cameras have since evolved well beyond GoPros – and are now capable of streaming and recording in 4k for months at a time, however the original infrastructure and lighting designs remain the same.
One of the early challenges was being able to deploy and service cameras without disturbing the birds, as once they lay their eggs any desired installations or modifications to the burrows would have to wait until the following season. To get around this, Rouja developed a camera and lighting deployment system around custom-built, laser cut 3D printed trays that could slide in and out of a standard 4-inch PVC pipe. Then in the off-season, Rouja and Madeiros poured replacement concrete lids for the targeted burrows with a 4-inch PVC pipe embedded into them, which could be capped off when not in use. Ten years later this system continues to allow for the cameras and lights to be adjusted and maintained without disturbing the occupants of the burrows, and Rouja is now promoting this tool for use in the observation and conservation of other species that spend time underground, including other birds, bears, badgers, and beavers.
For CahowCam 2, based in burrow #832, the camera is still located in the PVC pipe embedded in the lid of the burrow, with the custom led lights in a 3D printed ring around the lens, giving a top-down view of the birds. CahowCam 1, based in burrow #831, is also lit from the top with the original light array, but the camera is now buried underground off to the side of the burrow, which allows for a much more personal and cinematic experience of the cahow’s activities, at their eye level.
The CahowCam has allowed for a never-before-seen view into the lives of cahows. Not only could locals, students, and scientists from around the world watch as one of the rarest birds on the planet started pipping its egg without disturbing its recovery – the CahowCam also led to numerous discoveries about the life history of the species that would not have been possible without its 24/7 coverage.
“The details and timing of how the parents take turns incubating the egg is extremely synchronized,” Rouja explains, “we have now observed that in January the female usually returns alone to the nesting chamber and lays her egg within an hour, and the male is able to coordinate his arrival at times within an hour of her laying, so that he can begin incubation. We also have observed that the chick can be alone within hours of hatching, as the parents go out to sea to start the feeding process.”
Furthermore, the camera allowed for close observation of parent feeding behaviour. “Towards the end of their growing cycle, the chicks end up quite a bit larger than the parents, to the point they could easily hurt the parents as they lunge for food,” Rouja says. “When the parents come in from a feeding trip, they don’t feed the usually hungry, at times aggressive, chick right away – instead they preen it first until it calms down.” These observations in turn aid Madeiros in running the recovery programme, because he can emulate what the parents do when taking over the feeding of chicks for translocation and rescue purposes.
But cahows aren’t the only thing the cameras capture – they have showcased the activities of endemic Bermuda skinks, which clean out cahow nests after they leave. “Cahows don’t mind sharing their space with skinks – sometimes you even have the skinks coming in alongside the chicks to keep warm!” Rouja says – the most Bermudian scene imaginable. Cahows will however defend their burrows fiercely against red land crabs, and fights between cahows and land crabs have also been recorded.
An unlikely star of the CahowCam has been “Stormy” – a diminutive storm petrel, a species that is not normally known to land in Bermuda, which is about a fifth of the size of a cahow. The charismatic Stormy has been returning for four years. “Originally, he took over the empty nests after the cahows fledged,” Rouja says, “but lately, he has been co-habitating the occupied CahowCam nests during the nesting season.” Known as ‘the loneliest petrel’ as he has not been able to attract a mate during his time at Nonsuch, the tiny Stormy has now been recorded serenading and effectively courting the cahow chicks while they patiently sit in their nesting burrows. “He is a very confused little bird,” Rouja remarks.
Stormy has gained a significant following due to his nightly serenades and antics. “We even have followers who have offered to crowd fund a plane ticket for him to go back to a colony in Nova Scotia, and – quarantine issues aside – Jeremy and I have determined that the exercise would serve only to see how fast he could fly back here as this is where he has imprinted.”
There is no doubt that the CahowCam has illuminated the lives of cahows in incredible detail. They have also captured the imagination of many casual viewers and dedicated birders alike, and act as a powerful tool for education and outreach. Rouja recalls, “one time a chick happened to be hatching mid-morning, and West Pembroke Primary in Bermuda moved the whole school into assembly to watch.”
Many schools also incorporate the cahow life cycle into their classes – it is one of the few birds whose whole life cycle takes place completely during the school year, and students are able to learn about the entire process, from courtship in November, to egg laying in January, to hatching at the end of February/beginning of March, to fledging in May/June. In addition, the community of viewers also in turn become part of a scientific community around the species in general, through the contributions they are able to make through watching the footage and flagging significant events.
“At any point in time, there are people around the world in different time zones watching the cameras. Obviously, Jeremy and I can’t be watching them 24/7 – although it feels like we do!” Rouja remarks. Tens of millions of minutes of footage have now been watched, and the CahowCam has had viewers from almost every country in the world, including informed individuals who are knowledgeable about cahows and who understand what they are seeing.
“There have been instances where someone on the other side of the world recognizes something significant and alerts us to it, and we are able to react accordingly.” For the cahows, it really does ‘take a village’ – the crowd-sourcing and citizen science monitoring of video feeds, which is a relatively new phenomenon in scientific research, ensures that no important information is missed.
“At about 3am one night we were notified by a regular viewer in Japan over Twitter that something that resembled a flesh-eating flatworm had dropped onto one of the newly hatched chicks. I called Jeremy and woke him up – he immediately started getting ready, but luckily, we saw the worm wriggle out of the burrow on the live feed before he had a chance to leave for Nonsuch in the middle of the night. What are the odds that this less than 3 second event would be seen by someone who actually realized it posed a risk, and, then made the effort to contact us?”
After promoting the CahowCam on his own during the early years, Rouja linked up with the best bird-cam people in the business: The Cornell Lab of Ornithology. The Cornell Lab brings together a wide range of bird nesting feeds from different parts of the world, for research and monitoring purposes.
The Cornell Lab provided access to their 2 million followers, and assistance with the all-important archive for the CahowCam footage. “You’re basically recording 24/7 HD video, for about 7-8 months a year – times three cameras. Just the hard drive space alone is insane,” Rouja explains. Cornell also manages a series of dedicated volunteers who assist with monitoring the feeds and post updates to a shared twitter account.
“The fact that we are able to let people into their world is incredible,” Rouja says. “It’s a privilege to be able to work with the cahows and I’m thankful to the Department and to Jeremy for giving me the opportunity to work with them. To be able to make a difference and contribute to the recovery of the species is amazing.”
While Rouja is quick to emphasize that it’s Madeiros that handles the on-the-ground work for the survival of the species, without his outreach work, there is no way that the life of the cahow would be able to reach as many people as it does.
“It’s the second or third rarest seabird on the planet – but because of the CahowCam, it’s now one of the most well-known.” The value of the 24/7 LIVEstream cannot be overstated for scientific work – not only does it allow for scientific discoveries but also for outreach and engagement so that ordinary people can experience the cahow’s life cycle in a detailed way.
Rouja operates the ongoing CahowCam project as part of the Nonsuch Expeditions – which he founded to document, showcase and participate in the research and conservation efforts going on and around Nonsuch Island. The project includes the CahowCam LIVE streams, still images of the cahows and other Nonsuch flora and fauna, and dedicated weekly health check videos, that he films whilst shadowing and assisting Madeiros as he manages the species.
Three years ago, in collaboration with Cornell, Rouja also launched a companion Longtail / TropicBirdCam based in a man-made burrow above the Nonsuch Island dock, which has now gained its own dedicated following. You can view the Cam here.
The Nonsuch Expeditions project is a good example of Rouja’s effort to develop technologies to resolve conservation challenges, whilst producing media for outreach and education. The project is supported in part by the sale of Nonsuch-themed art that Rouja produces. The Nonsuch Expeditions efforts also includes photography and video of the wider Sargasso Sea, which has been utilized by the conservation charity, the Sargasso Sea Commission for which he is an Ambassador.
Furthermore, Rouja continues with other work in the conservation technology space – at the moment, he has a research permit in collaboration with Cornell University and the University of California San Diego from the Department of the Environment and Natural Resources of Bermuda, under which they are several years into a bio-acoustics project, building and deploying sensors which document and analyze the soundscape of Bermuda’s reefs. He is also heavily involved in the development and deployment of technologies designed to protect Marine Protected Areas.
This Spring, Rouja will also be working to incorporate more direct engagement with Jeremy in classrooms – hoping to allow for live interviews with Jeremy as he is doing the cahow health checks. Cornell University is incorporating the Cam’s footage into their K-12 curriculum, and in one good example, a teacher in Maine, who teaches students for multiple years, has been able to revisit the Cahow Cams and track the life cycle of the birds throughout his students’ schooling.
The CahowCam will be online for every day of the nesting season – with coverage ending after the chicks fledge in May/June. Now is the perfect time to tune in to get to see the activities of the parents as they feed their newly-hatched chicks in CahowCam 1 and 2!
You can also sign up to the Nonsuch Expeditions Newsletter, which includes an option for subscribers to be alerted by email when there is significant activity happening on the cams. Activity is often concentrated late at night or in the early hours of the morning, and about a third of the newsletter subscribers opt in for alerts.