Wingate Recalls Historic Cahow Expedition

November 17, 2011

Bermuda made ornithological history — and front page news around the world — in 1951 when 18 breeding pairs of Cahows were discovered by an expedition led by American biologist Robert Cushman and Bermuda Museum, Aquarium & Zoo curator Louis Mowbray.

A Bermudian schoolboy — 15-year-old David Wingate — accompanied the team to the small islets that now compose the Castle Harbour Islands National Park.

This rediscovery prompted conservation efforts in Bermuda to bring the endemic species back from the brink of extinction and Dr. Wingate subsequntly devoted his life to working for the birds’ survival.

“It seemed inconceivable that the Cahow, tbe most vulnerable species of all, which had declined to oblivion within the first few years of Bermuda’s settlement, could possibly have survived up to and beyond such recent traumatic events as the bulldozing of the airport — which destroyed more ]han half of its original nesting islands — and the loss of the cedar forests,” Dr. Wingate has recalled. “Nevertheless a Cahow was found washed up dead on the beach of Cooper’s Island in 1945 and provided the inspiration for a last-ditch search expedition.

“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 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 the light, and exclaimed, ‘By Gad, the cahow’!”, Dr. Wingate.”

The full scientific report on the bird’s rediscovery submitted to the New York Zoological Society in 1951 appears below.

Efforts to protect the island’s national bird are now led by Jeremy Madeiros, Bermuda’s chief terrestrial conservation officer.

“The most urgent continuing threat to the recovery of the Cahow is serious erosion and over-washing of the tiny nesting islets by hurricanes and storms,” said a spokesman for the island’s Cahow Recovery Project. “Recent hurricanes have eroded some of these islands to the point where they are no longer stable and can collapse in the next severe storm.

“In addition, these islets are too small to enable the Cahow to fully recover and build up a stable population.”

So the overriding priority for the Cahow Recovery Project in recent years has been to establish the Nonsuch Island nature reserve as a new colony by translocating near-fledged chicks from their natal nest sites on the Castle Harbour islets to a group of artificial nests built at the new colony site.

The 17-page Murphy-Mowbray Cahow report is below, click ‘Fullscreen’ for greater clarity:

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Category: All, Environment, History

Comments (4)

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  1. Star man says:

    David Wingate is a national hero, IMHO.

  2. Eden says:

    Dr. Wingate has contributed much to our island’s understanding of not only the cahow but other endemic species. He is truly one of Bermuda’s greatest scientists. As a Bermuda College student, I am thankful for all his work, dedication, and commitment to the rehabilitation of the cahow species. Hopefully, they will continue to thrive and increase in numbers so the next generation (my kids) will get a chance to enjoy these wonderful birds. Thanks, Dr. Wingate!!!