Sunday, January 7, 2018

The Cahow Experience, Bermuda 2017 - by Kate Sutherland

The Cahow, or Bermuda Petrel (Pterodroma cahow) is a bird that is sought after on our trips from Hatteras.  I saw my first ones here in 2000, and have been lucky enough to see many more on our trips offshore from Hatteras!  We have birders that travel from all over the world hoping to catch a glimpse of this "Lazarus species" - one that has been rediscovered after being thought extinct for many years - in their case about 330 years.  So one can only imagine my excitement when I saw the Cahow Experience trips being offered by Dr. Robert Flood (of Scilly Pelagics) in Bermuda - five trips to sea when the birds are courting and a trip to Nonsuch Island to see the translocation colony of this highly endangered species...and the possibility to see them in the hand!  Not to mention time with David Wingate, the man who was there when the Cahow was rediscovered and dedicated his life to its survival, and Jeremy Madeiros, the man who took over from David in 2000 and stepped things up a notch with a translocation program!  I signed up for my first trip in 2015, then returned again in 2016.  For the trip in 2017, Bob made me a co-leader so I was able to make the trip for a third year in a row - opportunity of a lifetime!
For anyone unfamiliar with the story of the Cahow, Ned Brinkley has composed an excellent and fact filled segment for the Neotropical Birds online library, and you can read that here.  Brian wrote a post after we took this trip in 2015 about his first trip there in 1993, you can see that here.  This year, while circumstances beyond my control prevented me from attending the first two trips, Peter Flood captured this image on the second trip, Tuesday November 14.
While the weather prevented us from heading offshore on the 15th, we made it out for the rest of our trips, including the trip to Nonsuch, by Sunday.  This was very lucky because the weather took a turn for the worse by Monday the week of Thanksgiving!  David Wingate joined us for most of the trips offshore and it is always a treat to have him with us.  He is now over 80, but still as spry and as sharp as ever, the thrill of being there and seeing these birds in greater and greater numbers every year can be seen in his eyes and heard in the excitement in his voice!  (Photo of David Wingate and Peter Flood on our November 18 outing)
This year the offshore trips yielded over 20 individuals on two occasions.  We also turned up a young Masked Booby and an adult Brown Booby!  Excellent sightings for Bermuda!  But, more than anything, it is incredible to scan the horizon and know that the most likely bird to enter your field of view will be a Cahow!  In November, most of the breeding adults have already returned to their nesting burrows and re-acquainted themselves with their mate, calling and allopreening, then mating.  Young birds and unmatched birds are courting and checking out their options at the different colonies around Castle Harbor.  So scheduling this trip in November, during the new moon, is perfect to see the most individuals at sea.  Beginning in December the birds depart for a month or so before returning to lay their eggs and turn their attention to incubating, then rearing their chicks.  Below is a photo of a courting pair that I took in 2016.
November also gives us a good chance to encounter incoming pairs that have not been checked yet by Jeremy Maderios, so when we join him on Nonsuch for a tour and burrow checks, we have a good chance to see Cahows in the hand and be a part of the data collection for each bird as they begin their nesting season!  This year we were able to go to Nonsuch on Friday November 17.  Stepping on this island, that has been aggressively managed to cull invasive species, is like stepping back in time. 
Surrounded by plants that dominated the landscape when Bermuda was settled, then seeing pieces that you have read about in books about the Cahow recovery program, the house where Wingate and his family lived for many years, the paths that are well worn from the dock to the buildings...it is a feeling like no other.  Jeremy is there to welcome us to the Living Classroom, as Nonsuch has been dubbed, for it is a classroom for Bermudians to learn about their past, and their future - which includes the future of their National Bird, the Cahow.  When Jeremy took over as Senior Conservation Officer from David Wingate, he put the wheels in place to begin a translocation colony on Nonsuch.  For four years, 2004 to 2008, he took chicks and moved them to artificial burrows on Nonsuch, which did not have a breeding colony, but was much better suited for the future of these birds than the low lying islands they naturally nest on.  He held his breath until the first translocated chick returned to nest on Nonsuch, in 2008!  The program has continued in earnest and now he has a second translocation colony on Nonsuch.  So the day we visited, we were able to see six adults during his burrow checks!  It is incredible to have Jeremy point out the characteristics that we all know so well on a bird in the hand...and the chance to photograph them?  Nothing like it! (pictured here, Jeremy Madeiros with the Cahow, of course, and left to right: David Pereksta, Robert Flood, and Tom Blackman)
If you are interested in seeing the Cahows in real time on the nest, check out the Cahow Cam that features a pair on Nonsuch!  The link is here: http://www.nonsuchisland.com/live-cahow-cam/ This is the sixth season that this has been available, so you can also check out some of the historical footage as well. 
Following are a few more images from the past three years of trips to Bermuda.  Anyone who might be interested in joining us for the 2018 Cahow Experience (November 5-14, 2018), or getting on a list for a future year, can just let me know, my email address is cahow1101@gmail.com.  Or, join us on a trip from Hatteras!!  (photo from the May 25, 2015 Hatteras trip by Brian Patteson below!)
Same email address or check out our website here!  There is always a chance to see a Cahow here, in the Gulf Stream and Brian and I do our best to find them!

A couple of images by Brian Patteson from our 2015 tour
A ventral image I took during the 2016 tour

A pair of Cahows, male and female, from the November 2016 visit to Nonsuch
An incredible shot showing the inside of a Cahow's mouth as it bites Jeremy's shirt! (2017)
Robert Flood, myself, and Peter Flood - no they are not related!  But it is a funny coincidence...
photo is courtesy of Dr. Robert Flood who runs Scilly Pelagics and is the author of the Seabirds Multimedia ID Guides that you can find on his site!