Sunday, November 22, 2015

Bermuda 1993 - by Brian Patteson

Kate Sutherland, myself, and several others spent a week and a half in Bermuda earlier this month for the purpose of observing and photographing their endemic seabird, Pterodroma cahow the Bermuda Petrel as we know it, or the Cahow as it is called by Bermudians. We had a very successful trip and saw a great many Cahows, both at sea and ashore at their colonies. We saw more Cahows in an afternoon than we have seen at sea off North Carolina in the last decade, and far more than I saw on my first trip to Bermuda in 1993.

The 1993 expedition to study Cahows was the result of two sightings of Bermuda Petrels off the U.S. southeast coast on July 31, 1993. Ned Brinkley and I saw one off Oregon Inlet that day and Todd Hass and Joe Poston saw one over 200 miles off Charleston the same day. Ned and Todd and I spent a lot of time at sea together in those days. Todd was working on a PhD at UNC and he was on almost all of the pelagic bird watching trips in NC at the time, gathering data for his dissertation. We all wanted to know how better to identify these petrels at sea, and at the time, information was scant. In stark contrast to today, there were almost no photos or good illustrations of live Cahows. Comparative morphometric data was also lacking. We had an idea how the species differed from Black-capped Petrel, but just how much smaller it was and how much darker was not something you could find in print, which was the media of bird identification at the time.

Ned began corresponding with David Wingate in Bermuda and before long, we had plans to visit Bermuda and study Cahows. Things were a bit different back then. There were only 40 or so pairs and Wingate, who had brought them back from near extinction, did not band or regularly handle the birds. We did get to see an adult in a burrow during a nest check with him, but he did not extract it. We also made history with the first daytime sighting of a Cahow in recent history during a boat trip off the east end of Bermuda on Nov. 13, 1993. It was much harder to get photos of flying seabirds back then (manual focus and film days) and we did not get a record shot. For our ID studies, we photographed all of the specimens at the museum.  We also made a nighttime trip to Horn Rock where we had birds whizzing overhead and we recorded their calls. Upon return to the States, we began working on an ID article for Birding magazine. Wingate supplied a few recent photos of live birds in hand and as luck would have it, we found another Bermuda Petrel off Hatteras in May 1996 and I got some photos of that one good enough to publish (they suck by today’s standards, but they were the first of the species at sea.) The article was finally published in the Feb. 1998 issue of Birding, and naturally in spring 1998, I got better photos.

Things have changed a lot since that first trip. There are now over 100 pairs of Cahows and they now nest on Nonsuch Island where we stayed with Wingate in 1993. Jeremy Madeiros, who took over Wingate’s work after his retirement several years ago, now bands the birds and has also done tracking studies, which explain why they are seldom seen here with the Black-capped Petrels off Hatteras. But it is easier than ever to see Cahows in Bermudian waters as a large troop of sub adults spend weeks courting and prospecting for nests during fall and winter. They can be seen from Cooper’s Point, which was formerly a restricted area, but they are better seen from a boat just a few miles offshore.

Our 1993 trip was important for number of reasons. It helped us work out the field ID of the species and disseminate that information. It got Wingate and other Bermudians out looking for Cahows at sea during the breeding season. It inspired Brinkley to return several times with birding tour groups, thus getting more birders interested in the petrel and the place. And most importantly, it was on that trip that got to know and spend a lot of time with David Wingate, and then that we first met Jeremy Madeiros, who has taken charge of the Cahow program in the 21st century and is not only continuing Wingate's work, but helping us learn more about the secret life of these special seabirds.

by, Brian Patteson - 22 November 2015 (all photos copyright Brian Patteson)

On the porch at Nonsuch: David Wingate (left), Todd Hass (right)

Ned Brinkley & David Wingate

Boat trip on November 13, 1993: David Wingate explains the game plan

Ned contemplates the trip ahead of us.

Todd looks like he is ready for some water to cross the deck

No pics of the Cahow we saw, but a late tropicbird came by within camera range

Wingate moors his Boston Whaler at Nonsuch

Checking Cahow nests for activity on Horn Rock

Not enough light to see the adult Cahow inside

Cahow nests on Horn Rock

Entrances to Cahow burrows

Looking over to Cooper's Point, which was off limits at the time.  It is now a great vantage point for seeing Cahows in late afternoon during the breeding season.

Adult and young Cahow specimens

Studying the dorsal aspect of the Cahow and its gray-tipped upper tail coverts (white in Black-capped Petrel)

Studying the ventral aspect of the Cahow and its cowled appearance

No place now for live Cahows on mainland Bermuda

Carnage from the Snowy Owl that visited in 1987

Pelagic trip!  Setting out in a leaky Boston Whaler

Leach's Storm-Petrel as seen from Wingate's Boston Whaler.  We also saw Cuvier's Beaked Whales!

Birding ashore: I think these flamingos were at Spittle Pond

Sandhill Crane at the dairy

Looking out from the porch at Nonsuch