A portrait of Dr. David Wingate painted by renowned artist, Henry Ward was unveiled over the weekend to coincide with the artist’s upcoming exhibition at the Bermuda National Gallery, ‘From Darkness to Light’, which includes a series of chiaroscuro style paintings of key figures in our local community.

The portrait of Dr. David Wingate is the first piece of public artwork to honour his legacy in conservation. In Ward’s artist statement, he declares, “The painting is a tribute to a great Bermudian hero, whilst also ensuring that Bermuda is remembered for its part in helping to conserve the natural fauna of our natural environment.”

It is thanks to the following donors that the first piece of public artwork to celebrate the life and accomplishments of David Wingate exists: Jim and Debbie Butterfield, Jessica Cox and Family, Henry and Judiann Smith, Shelley Ray and Colin Brown, Christian and Michelle Dunleavy, Charles and Cathy Gosling, Sharon Vesey, Richard and Mary Winchell.

Principal Curator of Bermuda Aquarium, Museum and Zoo, Dr. Ian Walker adds, “Dr. David Wingate is the most influential and tireless conservation naturalist Bermuda has ever known. His passion and dedication for preserving our island’s natural history is unwavering. Henry Ward’s wonderful portrait of him depicts a crowning achievement amongst many – bringing the Cahow back from the edge of extinction.  Quite simply, Bermuda and future generations owe David a great debt of gratitude for his life’s work.”

Former Bermuda resident, Henry Ward has been working as a full-time portrait artist for over twenty years and has painted monumental figures such as Queen Elizabeth II. His latest exhibition, ‘From Darkness to Light’ will be on display in the Watlington Room of the Bermuda National Gallery from May 10th through October 15th.

In honour of the first portrait of Dr. David Wingate to be unveiled, we share with you a diary by Jane Campbell. First published in the London Review of Books in July 2018, Campbell’s piece, ‘The Rarest Bird in the World’ shares an intimate account of her visit to Nonsuch Island- the home of Bermuda’s national bird, The Cahow.

If it is on time the regular British Air-ways 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. Real 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. At the end of the working day or week they get out on the water. Every Bermudian has an ambition to anchor his or her boat at the bottom of the garden; the lucky ones do and certainly every Bermudian has or wants to have a boat. 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 war-ships. 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 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 Win-gate. He had offered to take me to Non-such Island to see – or try to see – the ca-how, an oceanic bird that was believed ex-tinct 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 the second rarest seabird in the world.

We met at Flatts Inlet and set off along the North Shore. Rather than cutting across Castle Harbour, the great natural bay at the top 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 Wingate steered us past Shelly Bay and Bailey’s Bay and entered Ferry Reach be-tween the Biological Station and the air-port 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 arctic terns nest there in order to escape the rats that live on shore. Then we travelled through St George’s Channel be-tween Paget Island and Smith’s, once the main entrance to the harbour. Ahead and about half a mile north-east of us were the reefs where the Sea Venture, on her way to Jamestown, Virginia, was wrecked in a hurricane on 2 June 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 the Virginia Company in London. There are various theories concerning the means by which Shakespeare saw the letter but whatever the links may be, Strachey’s ac-count of the shipwreck is vividly echoed in the first scene of The Tempest. It was the survivors of that shipwreck that later be-came the first colonists to lay claim to Bermuda for the British.

While researching Strachey’s letter for another purpose I had stumbled upon the following lines: ‘It did strike me as a woeful exploitation of the primeval innocence of Eden. No fear, no suspicion on the part of the birds; untutored in fear they be-friended these strangers who drew them by mimicking their cries.’ These birds were the Bermudian cahows, endemic to the island and so-called because they have a strange wailing mating cry that was once thought by mariners to be the sound of devils. Strachey also recounts the poignant fact that the birds were attracted by what they thought were attempts to communicate with them. He 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 flock-ing 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 Ruth’s Bay Point and Little Head and Great Head and then saw tall cliffs to our right and the great dark mouths of sea caves where fos-silised cahow bones have been found. Wingate had told me that this area is char-acterised by dangerous rip tides. The boil-er 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 re-minded 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 spar: ‘The fair breeze blew, the white foam flew,/The fur-row followed free.’ The cahow belongs to the same family as the albatross and the shearwater and the storm petrel. I have been told that in flight the cahow com-bines ‘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 relying on their body weight to push up against the wind, barely needing to move their wings. Few observers have been lucky enough to see this. The cahows mate in November before spending 40 days in the wilderness of the North Atlantic, re-turning in January to lay their eggs. After each female has laid a single egg the par-ents take turns to incubate it and when in February those eggs hatch, for several months the parents will take turns in feed-ing the chick. Their food does not consist of local species but small squid found hundreds of miles to the west of Bermuda. It takes a full day 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 bur-row, stretch and test its wings for the first time, and fly off across the ocean for four or 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.

Wingate has been making this trip for close on fifty years and for forty of them Nonsuch Island was his home. As a school-boy of 15 in 1951 he was there with two visiting ornithologists, Robert Murphy and Louis Mowbray, when the extraordinary discovery was made of a surviving ca-how on Inner Pear Island, three centuries after it was thought to have become ex-tinct. When he had completed his studies at Cornell University he returned home to become the first conservation officer em-ployed by the Bermuda Government and devoted himself to researching and 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 a time tunnel,’ said Wingate. ‘On the far side is the island as it was 300 years ago in pre-colonial times.’ When those first castaways arrived on the island they were also the first human in-habitants. The Spanish, who found and named Bermuda, had probably put pigs ashore and inadvertently left a few rats be-hind as they passed through, but the Brit-ish came to an otherwise unspoiled Eden. My picture of Eden is probably Miltonic:

  • And overhead upgrew
  • 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 Nonsuch are not that lofty but, nonetheless, as we walk 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 on Nonsuch is being re-established to create the ideal environment for them. For example, 99 per cent of Bermuda’s cedars died after being infect-ed 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 quiet places. When they 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 accus-tomed to using the same sites. These days the cahows breed in purpose-built bur-rows designed by Wingate 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. It mates 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 May, it rears its young in a burrow deep in the earth and then it abandons the is-land completely for the rest of the year.

It is one of the curious ironies of the current situation that, as part of the fund-ing 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, Wingate 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 is-lands; a scene that cannot have changed much in hundreds of years.

It is salutary to reflect that if the cahow had disappeared, 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 trusting cahows who befriended those early mariners and were then killed out of hand, could their return be seen as a good omen for Bermuda? It is now the island’s national bird. It is being looked after dili-gently and scrupulously. Nestling in their burrow, they are such very ordinary look-ing birds. I have never seen them in their element, riding the winds, using the weight of their bodies to swerve on the currents of air, travelling thousands of miles over the North Atlantic. Few people have. It seems to me indisputable, however, that the fact that they survive to do so is important. The woeful exploitation that William Strachey saw and recorded 400 years ago has been reversed. The species that once cajoled the birds ‘untutored in fear’ into a submissive death have now re-built a little piece of Eden for them and are doing their best to preserve the cahows and their freedom.

Jane Campbell grew up in Africa and studied English Language and Literature at Oxford. She has worked in the UK as a Group Analyst, teaching, training and lecturing internationally for nearly forty years. Her first book, Cat Brushing, a collection of short stories, will be published by Quercus on July 21st in UK. Jane lives in Bermuda and Oxford.