This article was taken from our archives. It first appeared in the September 1993 issue of The Bermudian. It appears here exactly as it did originally.
More than forty years ago the world scientific community was stunned by the announcement that the cahow – a bird which had come to symbolize extinction – had just been rediscovered.
The Bermuda petrel was long thought to have become extinct in the 1600’s at the hands of mankind, at about the same time as the dodo bird disappeared from the face of the earth.
Tagging along with the expedition members who found the cahow in 1951 was a young schoolboy named David Wingate. The rediscovery had such an impact on the young Bermudian that he subsequently devoted most of his life to nursing the pelagic seabird back from the edge of extinction. He has not only succeeded in saving the bird, but he has also restored the terrestrial ecosystem of an entire island, the fifteen-acre Nonsuch Island in Castle Harbour in Bermuda’s eastern end.
Today, some forty-two years after the conservation programme to save this extraordinary bird began, the cahow has ultimately attained a wider significance- it serves as a symbol of hope for conservationists around the world. The cahow’s existence is also inextricably tied to that of its present-day savior, Dr. David Wingate, who has ultimately secured a permanent place in the scientific world as well as the hearts of those who believe this earth belongs to more than just the species Homo sapiens.
“I’ve been with the cahows since their rediscovery,” says David Wingate form the porch of his warden’s cottage on Nonsuch. “I’ve grown up and grown old with the same birds. We’re mutually dependent.”
It is an extraordinary story that still continues to unfold. For as with anything involving nature, it is impossible to confine efforts to just one thing. Saving the cahow has resulted in Nonsuch Island being transformed back into pre-colonial times. It is the refuge of last resort for not just the cahow which nests in small islands nearby, but also the ever-declining population of Bermuda’s endemic flora and fauna.
Approaching from the northwest, Nonsuch Island towers high above the ocean surface. It is a forbidding outcrop of limestone that is just ten minutes away from Tucker’s Town wharf. The feeling of isolation is heightened by the wreck of Her Majesty’s water barge H.M.S. Supply, which was converted into Bermuda’s first-ever glass bottom boat before Dr. William Beebe had it sunk just off Nonsuch to serve as a breakwater.
In the calm waters behind the Supply David Wingate effortlessly maneuvers his Boston Whaler, anchoring and tying up as smoothly as he would were he driving a car. As he walks across the wooden catwalk laid along the rusting hulk of the Supply, he appears to relax, as if any tension from the mainland dissipates once he’s back on his beloved island.
Nonsuch Island appears on the earliest map of Bemruda drawn by Richard Norwood in the early 1600’s. It is believed to have been named after the famous Tudor palace in Surrey, England, and literally means ‘unparalleled’. The island was purchased by the colonial government in 1865 and used as a yellow-fever quarantine hospital.
The quarantine station was relocated to Coney Island in 1911 and in 1928 Nonsuch was loaned to the New York Zoological Society for three years during which it was used by Dr. Beebe and Dr. John Tee Van as a marine research station.
Beginning in 1934 the island was converted into the Nonsuch Junior training School for delinquent boys under the supervision of Arthur Tucker. For fourteen years the island was home to teenage miscreants, who were employed during World War II to dig – by hand – a tunnel under the island, ostensibly as an air raid shelter should Bermuda come under air attack by the Germans. Most believe the tunnel was dug to give the boys something to do. Whatever the original purpose, the tunnel today conveniently serves as a storage area.
At about the same time the Junior Training School was moved to Paget Island in St. George’s Harbour, the cedar scale epidemic in 1948 destroyed virtually all of Bermuda’s cedar trees, almost completely denuding Nonsuch’s forest cover.
By the time Nonsuch, together with the other islets that comprise in Castle Harbour Island National Park, was declared a nature reserve in 1961 it resembled a windswept desert island populated by the silvery skeletons of once proud cedars. Its once magnificent cedar forest had been destroyed entirely by the cedar scale epidemic, while whatever vegetation remained had been reduced to grass cover by wind, salt spray, and free-roaming feral goats, and that pest of pests, the rat (whose Latin name Ratus rattus could be hardly more appropriate), which was able to colonize Nonsuch by swimming out from the mainland.
Nonsuch was considered ideal for the conservation effort to restore the cahow population because of its close proximity to the then existing cahow nesting islets and its isolation from the rest of Bermuda, making its management as a predator-free reserve feasible by quarantine.
David Wingate moved onto the island in 1962 when one of the former quarantine hospitals was restored and converted into a warden’s cottage. There was no telephone or electricity when he moved out there. But as he readily admits, “I could hardly have dreamed of a greater paradise.”
It was from Nonsuch that David Wingate directed the effort to save the Cahow. “Bescause of its isolation, Nonusch is the best site for what I am trying to do,” he says. “I can keep off the island ninety percent of foreign fauna and flora by quarantine. It is also big enough to reproduce most of Bermuda’s habitats, yet small enough to be manageable.”
While the cahow has yet to nest in artificial burrows created on Nonsuch, Dr. Wingate’s efforts have enabled the cahow population to grow from eighteen pairs in 1961 when the restoration programme began, to forty-five pairs this year. At the current growth rate of 2.5 additional pairs a year, he hopes to see 100 pairs of cahows “in my lifetime.”
To understand the plight of the cahow, one needs to understand its history prospects for the future, both of which are inextricably tied to that of man.
The story begins more than 400 years ago when Bermuda was first discovered by Portuguese and Spanish navigators exploring the New World. In those days the treasure-laden galleons from the Spanish Main sailed north from the West indies to catch the westerly winds for their return home. Many came to grief in sudden, violent storms on Bermuda’s unchartered reefs. As darkness overtook the stranded survivors they were terrified by the hordes of nocturnal seabirds coming and going from their nesting grounds each night. The sailors took them for evil spirits and named Bermuda ‘The Isle of Devils.’
It wasn’t until 1609 that the British landed in Bermuda in circumstances similar to those of the Spanish. A fleet sailing to relieve the Virgina Colony was dispersed by a hurricane near Bermuda and the flagship, the Sea Venture, was shipwrecked on its shores.
Pre-Colonial Bermuda was, like many oceanic islands, a crucible of rapid speciation in the grand process of evolution, first elucidated in Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species. While there was a low density of terrestrial life on the Island due to the difficulty of making an ocean crossing, the Island was rich in bird life, including a small number of species which had evolved to suit Bermuda’s own set of environmental conditions.
The land itself was covered by dense forest dominated by two trees – the Bermuda cedar, which was to provide valuable timber for ships, and the palmetto which provided leaves for thatching huts and making ropes and basketware after human settlement.
Apart from the wild hogs left by the Spanish, Bermuda was a land devoid of mammals the only four-footed creature to reach the Island before man arrived was a small lizard of the skink family. An abundance of sea turtles hauled themselves up on the beaches to lay their eggs, while waters surrounding the Island were teeming with marine life.
But dominating Bermuda’s fauna were the birds. There were landbirds of several species, so tame that early settlers reported that they readily landed on their shoulders, but most of these were soon exterminated at the hands of the early settlers. Seabirds were even more abundant in both number and species, thought it was the cahow that outnumbered all the other birds put together.
The cahow was a ground-nesting, soil burrowing seabird, which nested both along the coast and inland, under the forest canopy. Cahows are also among the fastest and most efficient flyers in the world, and it was this extraordinary ability that enabled them to reach far beyond the relatively sterile waters of the Sargasso Sea to feed in the rich upwellings of the Gulf Stream some 400 miles distant.
The ground-nesting cahow and other seabirds were destroyed not only by man himself, but by a plague of rats which reached the Island accidentally in 1614, and by the cats and dogs which were brought in to control the rats. In less than thirty years following colonization, the abundant cahow was reduced to the verge of extinction. Indeed, as a remedy at the height of the rat plague in 1616, Governor Tucker ordered a general burning of the Island, which laid waste to large tracts of the land.
The cahow was thought to have become extinct in the 1600’s, becoming more of a historical footnote for the next two hundred years. But in the middle and late nineteenth century there was a great cultural infusion and contact between Bermuda and the outside world. Many of the officers of the British garrisons posted to Bermyda had an interest in the natural sciences and their explorations provided the first detailed scientific descriptions of Bermuda’s geology and natural history beginning in about 1840.
Among other things, their curiosity inspired them to look into the almost legendary accounts of the cahow bird by the early settlers. Their investigations were concentrated on the remote Castle Harbour Islands, where local fishermen continued to report nocturnally active seabirds which they indiscriminately referred to as pimlico or cahows.
These islands were investigated by a number of naturalists between 1840 and 1900, but the only nocturnal seabird they ever succeeded in finding was the pimlico, or Audubon’s shearwater, which has, incidentally, since died out altogether in Bermuda.
The confusion over the seabird’s identity lingered into the early 1900’s, when new evidence clarifying its identity was discovered in the form of abundant fossil bone deposits in limestone caves by Louis L. Mowbray, founder of the Bermuda Aquarium. By 1915 these bones had been examined by the avian paleontologist R.W. Shufeldt at Carnegie Museum, who identified them as species of gadfly petrel. It was the sheer abundance of these bones together with the pronounced hooked bill that led Shufeldt to conclude that they must represent the legendary hook-billed cahows of the early settlement days.
It was then discovered that back in 1906 Louis Mowbray, a Bermudian naturalist, had actually captured a living gadfly petrel from a crevice in one of the Castle Harbour Islands. The specimen had been preserved and sent to the American Natural History Museum. Its bones were subsequently compared with the fossils and found to be identical. And it was this way that the Bermuda petrel- Pterodroma cahow – was first identified in 1916.
It was another thirty years before another specimen was discovered – this time a fledgling which was killed when it flew into St. David’s Lighthouse in 1935. The specimen was taken to Dr. Beebe, who sent it to Dr. Robert C. Murphy, a seabird expert, for identification. Dr. Beebe would have liked nothing better than to rediscover an extinct species, but all he managed to find alive during his stay on Nonsuch was the Audubon shearwater.
It was the loss of the Bermuda cedar due to two small scale insects that finally stirred Bermudians into thinking about the need for conservation. And when a third cahow specimen was washed up on the beach of Cooper’s Island in 1945, a last-ditch search expedition for living cahows was mounted by Dr. Cushman and Louis S. Mowbray in 1951.
“I was only a schoolboy at the time, but my budding interest in birds secured me an invitation to join the expedition on the day of rediscovery,” says Dr. Wingate. “And I will never forget the elation on Dr. Murphy’s face when he and Mowbray succeeded in noosing a bird out of its deep nesting crevice, held it up to light, and exclaimed, ‘By Gad, the cahow’!
“From the moment that the bird was rediscovered I knew exactly what I wanted to do- I wanted a career to save the cahow. And I’ve been extremely fortunate in life to have encountered the circumstances that have allowed me to do just that.”
Dr. Wingate has been greatly supported over the past two decades by the Bermuda government, which created the conservation division within the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Parks, which employs Dr. Wingate as the Island’s conservation officer. “This has made my career in conservation possible,” he says. “I am very indebted.”
Since the discovery of the cahow, Dr. Wingate has done much more than ‘just’ save the species. Over the past forty years he has become the Island’s leading conservationist. Conservation and Wingate are two words in the Bermuda context that are seldom separated for long.
Dr. Wingate’s efforts have crystallized on Nonsuch Island. Here he has laboured long and hard since 1962 to restore the island to its pre-colonial condition. It is an extraordinary achievement given the fact he has done most of the work by himself with the support of the Bermuda government, though the recent realization of the importance of the work being carried out on Nonsuch to Bermuda has won increasingly broad-based support both here and abroad.
In addition to becoming a refuge for Bermuda’s wildlife, Nonsuch Island has also become a refuge for David Wingate, who lives on the island except when hurricanes and winter storms necessitate a move to the main island. And it is to Nonsuch Island that he hopes to retire as permanent caretaker when the fifty-eight-year-old finally retires form government service.
“I hope it will be possible after I retire from government to continue the cahow programme as long as I am able, which I hope to be another twenty years,” says Dr. Wingate. “It’s a part of my life.”
“And by virtue of living out here on Nonushc Island since 1962, I have experienced Bermuda the way people did in the 1860’s when certain changes came to Bermuda. I’ve experienced Bermuda’s golden era, when there was a much slower pace of life, far fewer distractions, when one cold focus on things for a much longer period of time.”
“There is also the silence, which you don’t realize until you hear the sounds once you go ashore. The abrupt contrast makes it seem like a madhouse, the great crush of people, and just the sheer volume of the noise coming form all the motor vehicles.”
After graduating form Cornell University with a Bachelor of Science (the Doctorate is an honourary one awarded much later by Clarke University), David Wingate moved to what would become his home of thirty years to launch his programme to save the cahow. But because of its agonizingly slow reproductive potential – each pair produces just one egg per year – he soon cast about for something more to keep his attention. It was during his first year out at Nonsuch that he conceived of the idea to restore the island to its pre-colonial condition, allowing it to serve as a ‘living museum.’
Partly as a distraction, and partly as a way to justify Nonsuch Island’s continued existence as a nature reserve, Dr. Wingate decided to make it a sanctuary for all of Bermuda’s terrestrial flora and fauna. It began as a spare-time diversion, but soon became Dr. Wingate’s consuming passion.
Between 1963 and 1972 Dr. Wingate planted more than 8,000 trees and woody shrubs, representing the full range of Bermuda’s native forest species. Initially, he was unable to include the Bermuda cedar in the reforestation plan because the scale insects were still abundant. But by 1970 it had become apparent that natural selection, combined with effective biological control methods, were beginning to turn the tide. Finally, in 1972 he undertook the mass planting of 600 Bermuda cedars. Although death rates were high, 200 trees ultimately survived and soon emerged above the other slow-growing native trees to dominate the canopy in several parts of the island.
“When I began the restoration, how did I know what to restore because Bermuda was so radically changed?” asks Dr. Wingate. “I turned to the earliest descriptions of Bermuda before it was settled, include accounts from the Sea Venture, which was as the flagship of the flotilla to Jamestown, carried the top brass, including William Strachey, who wrote a detailed account of his time in Bermuda.
“But they were not scientists, and I compared what they wrote with subsequent scientific observation, including studies of fossil bones from the caves.”
Dr. Wingate’s method has subsequently been proved through pollen analysis of peat cores taken from local marshes. The cores have revealed plant life as it was in pre-colonial days. “It indicated that we are pretty close to the mark out here on Nonsuch,” he says.
By the early 1970’s Dr. Wingate had created an emerging forest, and he was subsequently able to begin restoring the native fauna which had once lived in the great cedar and palmetto forest that dominated all of Bermuda.
He started with the Bermuda sub-species of the white-eyed vireo. At frist Dr. Wingate thought the bird might re-colonize Nonsuch Island naturally. Indeed, he began to think this had happened when he occasionally sighted vireos on the island. But in 1972 he discovered that these vireos were transients of the American race, which migrates between North and South America.
He also discovered that the local race has greatly reduced flying ability, an evolutionary trend towards flightlessness common to many landbirds on mammal-free oceanic islands. It had become so sedentary that it was unable to make the crossing to Nonsuch.
He resolved this problem by netting several videos on the mainland and releasing them on Nonsuch. They settled so successfully into the re-created environement that they now exhibit a population density twice that on Bermuda’s mainland.
The next project- and one which has attracted the most public interest- was the effort to reintrodcue the green turtle which while still living in Bermuda’s waters had been exterminated as a breeding species since the early years of Bermuda’s settlement.
The Bermuda project was carried out in cooperation with a similar effort known as Operation Green Turtle, which transplanted batches of hatchlings from the last huge nesting colony at Tortuguero, Costa Rica to beaches of former nesting islands where they had been exterminated. Between the years 1968 and 1978, and with enormous financial and participatory support form the Dr. H. Clay Frick family who lived at nearby Castle Point, a total of 16,000 green turtles were hatched and released from hatcheries on Nonsuch Island’s South Dune beach and nearby main island beach on the hypothesis that when mature they would return to breed on the beaches they were hatched.
It still remains to be seen whether the project to restore Bermuda’s pre-colonial sea turtle population will succeed. For one thing, the turtles hatched in Bermuda are only now reaching maturity.
“At the time we did the project we didn’t know the growth rate of the green turtle,” says Dr. Wingate. “We thought they matured in seven years, but scientists have since discovered that they take about twenty-five years to mature.”
“Today, thanks to a government ban on turtle fishing and full protection locally the green turtles are probably as common as they were in pre-colonial times, with the exception that there are no adults yet. This may be because most of our present stock has been derived from Caribbean breeding population rather than from our restoring projects. Caribbean turtles would be expected to return there to breed rather than on Bermuda beaches.”
“It remains an ongoing project, and Fisheries, with the help of volunteers, continue to monitor the turtle population, which now numbers in the thousands, if not more than 10,000 turtles. So at least from that point of view we can say the turtle programme was not a failure.”
The turtle project also helped pioneer the methodology to track turtles as they left the beach for life at sea. Research conducted from Nonsuch helped confirm that the green turtle’s first year of life is pelagic – they drift about the Sargasso Sea. When they reach “dinner-plate size” the turtles settle over coral reefs, feeding on great beds of turtle grass. It is only when they reach full maturity that they return to their home beach to lay their eggs.
“We’ve found a few big turtles around Bermuda,” says Dr. Wingate, “But none of them have been the full breeding age.”
In order to widen the representation of pre-colonial wildlife, David Wingate dreamed of artificially creating wetland habitats on Nonsuch. This finally became a reality in 1975 with a grant form the New York Zoological Society.
A freshwater pond was created by slightly deepening a depression between two hills, laying down an impermeable plastic liner and covering it with soil. Once the pond filled with rainwater Dr. Wingate planted the edge with various marsh plants native to Bermuda, while fish and invertebrates were transported in buckets of water and mud. “Within little over a year I had established a community which was indistinguishable form a natural marsh.
“The beauty of wetland habitats for the restorationist is that you can create a mature community in just a couple of years. With the forest I’m still waiting- it’s been thirty years and it is only a young mature forest,” he says.
The saltmarsh pond was created by excavating to below the water table in a very low-lying area behind the Souch Beach dune. In this area a saltwater pond resulted from natural seepage without the need for a liner. Again, the appropriate submergent plant and invertebrate communities were established with the ubiquitous bucket.
All of Bermuda’s pre-colonial habitats were represented with the completion of the two ponds. Their existence allowed Dr. Wingate to get on with his next restoration project -the reintroduction of certain species that had been totally exterminated from Bermuda.
Early settlers to Bermuda had described herons and egrets of several species, so tame they could be clubbed down out of trees. This most endearing quality guaranteed their extermination. Although their nearest relation- migrant herons from North America -continue to drop in on Bermuda in transit, they had never re-established nesting colonies.
“For several years I had noticed that one of these species, the crustacean-eating yellow crowned night heron, would eat my landcrabs during stopovers on Nonsuch,” says Dr.Wingate. “It occurred to me that if I could induce night herons to breed on Bermuda, they might serve as a valuable biological control for these crabs, which are generally regarded as a pest on lawns and golf courses.
“There was enough evidence to determine that herons were once in Bermuda, but not enough evidence to determine their species. It was through a combination of historical and fossil research that we were able to identify the species as the yellow-crowned night heron, which had evolved into an endemic form specialized for feeding on landcrabs.”
“Because the endemic heron evolved rather rapidly, I felt it was justified to reintroduce the American species into Bermuda. Natural selection would allow the heron to evolve once again in the same way as before. As a predator of land crabs it was a key component of an ecosystem. We reintroduced the heron in the 1970’s and it clicked right back into place, like the missing piece of a puzzle.”
Dr. Wingate used exactly the same technique for the herons as he did for the turtles. Nestlings were obtained from a large rookery in Tampa Bay, Florida, and from 1976 to 1978 forty-four yellow-crown nestlings were shipped to Nonsuch and reared in an abandoned building.
“Although hand-rearing of this species had never been attempted before, it proved to be the easiest and most successful of my restoration projects,” says Dr. Wingate. “Night herons feed their chicks by regurgitating into the nest rather than feeding each chick directly. This meant that I merely had to place the chopped-up crabs onto a food tray. Whenever the chicks were hungry they would gather around this tray like barnyard chickens.
“As soon as they were old enough to fly, I let them escape from the building to learn to hunt on their own, bur they continued to return to the food tray until they were proficient. As I had hoped, these herons did not leave Bermuda, although they wandered extensively in the landcrab-infested areas beyond Nonsuch Island.”
Despite having been reared on Nonsuch, the herons at first elected to nest elsewhere in Bermuda, though they certainly made good use of the ponds, often bringing their fledglings over to bathe and roost as soon as they could fly. Then in 1985 Dr. Wingate discovered that a small nesting colony had established in coastal buttonwood bushes on the isolated South Point of Nonsuch.
As the native forest continued to grow, it gradually became more favourable for the herons. After a quarter of a century, the palmettos, olivewood and cedar were at last attaining maturity and beginning to self-seed.
“Everything was knitting together,” says Dr. Wingate. “My elation could hardly be contained when in 1987 I found night herons nesting throughout the island’s forest, just as they must have done in pre-colonial time.
“They continued to feed almost entirely on landcrabs, reducing the Nonsuch population to manageable levels again and doing such an effective job on the golf courses on Bermuda’s mainland that the managers were soon able to stop the use of poison bait for crab control.”
And there have been other unexpected spin-off benefits as well. “Some of the rarest plants on the Island would not have survived on Nonsuch before I reintroduced the heron,” say Dr. Wingate, explaining that the plant-eating landcrab would have destroyed them without a predator to keep its population under control.
The success of the night heron reintroduction was the first to demonstrate that the living museum concept could have benefits for the rest of Bermuda. Others were soon to follow.
In 1982 local marine archeologist and treasure diver Teddy Tucker returned from the Bahamas with a small collection of living top shells, an edible and economically important food species of the inter-tidal zone throughout the West Indies. Early accounts record that this species was common in the waters of Bermuda too, providing an important source of food during the ratinduced famine of 1614-1618.
Overharvesting had probably tipped the balance to extinction, since Bermuda was the northern limit of the species’ range. Mr. Tucker’s eighty-two topshells were reintroduced into the inter-tidal zone of Nonsuch in 1982 and by 1987 there were still thirty-five mature specimens and the first confirmation of successful reproduction was obtained.
Seven years into the restoration project disaster truck – or so it was first thought. According to Dr. Wingate, a worker employed in the restoration of the warden’s residence on Nonsuch Island was searching the shoreline for bait to be used in fishing and came across the seed colony of these large sea snails, most of which he collected. Some were used immediately and the rest were abandoned to die in the sun near the warden’s home, where they were eventually discovered.
“These shells represented the greater part of the restoration experiment…which was just beginning to show signs of success before this momentary act of ignorance and wasteful over-exploitation doomed it to failure,” Dr. Wingate wrote in the April 1989 edition of the Monthly Bulletin put out by the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Parks.
But the following March he reversed his conclusion when it was discovered that the topshell population had already spread far beyond the confines of waters around Nonsuch.
“It now appears that the views expressed in that article were premature and overly pessimistic,” wrote Dr. Wingate in the March 1990 edition of the Monthly Bulletin, noting that two important discoveries had led him to believe that the majority of larvae might be drifting far beyond Nonsuch before metamorphosing into shells.
Today the topshell is doing very well. “By the time the predation occurred, the topshells had luckily already reproduced sufficiently enough to produce a larger second-generation stock. The topshell is now found islandwide, from St. David’s to at least as far west as Hungry Bay, although the area of greatest abundance continues to be Castle Harbour.”
As the native terrestrial life of Nonsuch has gradually begun to fit back together like pieces of a puzzle, Dr. Wingate has better been able to reflect on the evolution of life in Bermuda.
“If we are talking about terrestrial life, all of it had to colonize Bermuda from the continents – it couldn’t evolve entirely in Bermuda because the Island’s geological origin is so recent, one million years or so,” says Dr. Wingate. “Very few terrestrial species had adaptations allowing them to reach the Island, and for those that got here the likelihood of extinction again was great. Thus the pre-colonial flora and fauna of Bermuda was extremely impoverished.”
Bermuda’s geological history is considered relatively young because while the volcano which created the platform for the Island erupted thirty to forty million years ago, it is believed the resulting volcanic island eroded away completely over several million years. Only with the advent of the Pleistocene ice ages did Bermuda reappear again as a limestone island.
“Bermuda would have been as large as the entire Bermuda Platform with as much as 200 square miles of land mass during the lowest sea levels,” says Dr. Wingate. “What i now the North Shore Lagoon area would have been a vast interior marshland which would have been more capable of supporting a much wider diversity of species than the Bermuda of today.
We know from fossil records that several quire large and possibly flightless species of birds evolved during low sea level periods, only to become extinct again when the rising sea level once again reduced the land area.
“One cave opened by blasting in the government quarry in the 1960’s revealed a subterranean stream bed littered with the fossil bones of marsh birds. These marsh birds were clearly endemic and clearly became extinct before man came. They must have died out during an earlier high sea stand.”
One animal that was able to survive the last high sea stand was the small lizard of the skink family, which Dr. Wingate believes first came to Bermuda more than half a million years ago by rafting as an egg on board a tree trunk that had fallen into the ocean from the American continent.
“The skink displays one very interesting behavioural pattern, and that is its incredible ability to smell,” say Dr. Wingate. He hypothesizes that this olfactory ability evolvedto better allow the skink to seek out dead fish and broken eggs provided by the Island’s plentiful seabirds.
“The skink could have survived the highest sea stand because it is a small animal and could still inhabit a much reduced land mass,” says Dr. Wingate. Unfortunately, the skink is today threatened by man and his introduced predators…
The skink is now common on Nonsuch Island where it enjoys a predator-free and liter-free existence. Indeed, the skink has become a regular visitor to Dr. Wingate’s residence on Nonsuch, where it enjoys meals of tuna set out on the porch.
This porch has seen many visitors since Dr. Wingate started the restoration of Nonsuch Island. And increasingly Dr. Wingate is playing host to growing numbers of group visitors including schoolchildren who come out to the island to learn about Bermuda’s natural terrestrial habitats firsthand. On Nonsuch these visitors, who now number 3,000 annually, learn about the Island’s heritage by gaining a genuine feeling for the life of pre-colonial Bermuda.
“Nonsuch is a living museum where students can see pre-colonial Bermuda live, as if taking a trip back in time,” says Dr. Wingate, who notes that in the I 970’s and early 1980’s he would often walk down to the South Point on Nonsuch at the end of a hard day’s work, hoping to be lucky enough just once to see or hear a cahow from there without having to take a boat to the smaller islets.
“It finally happened one stormy night about 1982,” he says. “And I have never been disappointed since. Indeed, I can now on occasion sit in comfort on the porch of theNonsuch warden’s residence and listen to the cahow’s eerie calls out over the bay.”
Is this nature at work, or the fruits of one mans labours? More than likely it is a combination of both. For without Dr. Wingate the cahow would most certainly have perished even before the 1960’s were out. And mother nature would have seen yet another of her creations wiped from the face of the earth.