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Rare Birds: The Extraordinary Tale Of The Bermuda Petrel And The Man Who Brought It Back From Extinction

Author : Elizabeth Gehrman
Published : 2012-10-09

Rebuilding habitat to what it once was is no easy task, but David Wingate's success in largely reassembling the flora and fauna on one of Bermuda's islands can be seen not only in the vegetation, but in a bird once thought extinct.

This was no easy task. It consumed his adult life. But it also gave life to a seabird well-known, and well-consumed, by 17th-century explorers who found their way to Bermuda.

Today the cahow, perhaps better known as the Bermuda Petrel, continues to be considered endangered. But from just 18 pairs known to the world in 1951, the bird's population has grown to an estimated 250 individuals and 71 breeding pairs. Not a lot, but a substantial number when you keep in mind that this species was considered extinct for some 300 years.

Wingate's role in rebuilding this population is recounted in Rare Birds: The Extraordinary Tale of the Bermuda Petrel and the Man Who Brought It Back from Extinction by Elizaeth Gehrman.

This engaging, 221-page book can be viewed as a love story of sorts, between Wingate and the cahows. But also central to the book is the love story between Wingate and his first wife, Monica Ann "Anita" Wingate, who died in a freak accident and left him with two young daughters to raise and understandably despondent over the loss of the woman who was his soul mate.

Anita was the consummate spouse -- a loving partner supportive of Wingate's determination to see the cahows rebound in numbers and willing to put up with what some considered to be her husband's eccentricities. Her sudden loss vividly and deeply affected Wingate's life, and while he married twice more, he struggled to find the grounding or love he had in his relationship with Anita.

Ms. Gehrman pulls all these threads together in a story that itself spans more than 300 years. Her thorough research takes us back to the 1500s and early 1600s when ship crews stumbled upon Bermuda and its outlying islands. Those islands for a time were considered to be inhabited by the devil, she tells us, as cahows are largely noctural and come to life after dusk with all sorts of cries and commotions that frightened sailors. is said that in 1503, when Juan de Bermudez, a navigator born in the Andalusian port town of Palos de la Frontera, drew near a chain of low, rocky islands in the mid-Atlantic, far from any landmass, his terrified men refused to anchor because of the cacophony of eerie, high-pitched cries that emanated from its shores at night.

Cahows perform their aerial courtships in moonless darkness, and their mating call is a long, uneven moan punctuated by high yelps and extended shrieks; think of a gale-force wind whistling through a broken window or the muffled screech of a car skidding out of control on a fog-shrouded road. The birds' compatriots, noctural Audubon's shearwaters, were also plentiful here before colonization, and sound a bit like a small machine getting stuck in the wrong gear, with a drawn-out, throaty note sung at a slightly higher pitch that Wingate describes as being "more witchlike."

The author takes us adroitly from the European discovery of the cahows, to their downfall, and rediscovery in 1951. And from there she weaves into the story Wingate, whose boyhood years on Bermuda were carefree and filled with an interest in natural history. So interested was he in the natural world around him that he became quite noted as a birder -- in his teenage years.

It was Wingate's determination to save the cahow that led him to Nonsuch Island, a 15-acre limestone outcrop that had been largely deforested of its native Bermuda cedars by a blight. Compounding the island's woes were goats that "had grazed away the rest of the vegetation so that the birds had disappeared too. There was virtually nothing left," Wingate told the Ms. Gehrman.

In the ensuing chapters the author recounts the obstacles -- both physical and emotional -- Wingate overcame to save both the island and the cahows. It's a wonderful story of wildlife conservation and one man's determination.

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