Bermuda's National Bird Blown Away

HAMILTON, Bermuda, September 25, 2003 (ENS) - Tonight flights in and out of Bermuda have been cancelled ahead of Tropical Storm Juan, just weeks after Bermuda suffered the worst hurricane in more than a century when Hurricane Fabian struck this island in the North Atlantic Ocean.

The latest tropical storm formed Thursday and is packing sustained winds of 95 kilometers (60 miles) per hour with higher gusts. Tonight it is centered 300 kilometers (185 miles) east-southeast of the British territory.

Difficult as this season's round of severe storms is for the island's 64,000 residents, it has been disastrous for the country's national bird, the Bermuda petrel, Pterodroma cahow, already on the brink of extinction.

The petrels number only around 180 individuals, according to BirdLife International, a global alliance of conservation organizations that is an authority on the survival of avian species.

Hurricane Fabian destroyed many of the petrels' nesting burrows, but the birds were not at their sole nesting grounds on four tiny Bermudan islets when Fabian's winds of 250 kilometers (155 miles) per hour struck, conservationists observed.

Despite severe damage to Bermuda's infrastructure, local residents are now rushing to repair the burrows in time for the petrels' expected return in a month’s time.

The species, known locally as the cahow, was thought to be extinct for almost 300 years, until it was rediscovered 52 years ago.


A Bermuda petrel in its burrow (Photo by Jeremy Madeiros courtesy Bermuda Department of Conservation Services)
A few birds were rediscovered in 1951, after the species had been presumed extinct since 1620. Intensive conservation management has resulted in an increase in cahow numbers from 18 pairs of cahows in 1962 to 70 pairs rearing a record 40 young in 2003. But Hurricane Fabian is viewed as the greatest setback yet to the cahow recovery program.

The effort to rebuild the petrels’ human-made burrows is led by Jeremy Madeiros of Bermuda’s Department of Conservation Services. Madeiros says that at least 10 out of the 70 active nest burrows were completely destroyed, as the sections of the island where they were located were swept away.

Large sections of two of the nesting islands have collapsed or been washed away, and nearly 50 of the heavy concrete lids which permit observation of the nest chambers were swept off the islands.

“The effect on the four cahow nesting islands is very severe,” says Madeiros. “The nest burrows which were completely destroyed will have to be rebuilt and relocated to a higher level on the islands but still as close as possible to the original sites. These cahow pairs may possibly be disrupted for a few years because of their fidelity to the original sites.”

Still, Madeiros is encouraged by the level of public participation in the rebuilding work, which involves volunteers laden with buckets of cement jumping off boats onto the islets, which have no landing jetties.

“I praise Bermudans for pulling together to help to protect the Endangered Bermuda Petrel in its hour of need,” says Dr. Michael Rands, BirdLife International’s director and chief executive. “I am encouraged by the fact that, despite suffering a great deal of damage to their infrastructure, the people of Bermuda are also prepared to think of birds and other wildlife during this crisis.”

Madeiros said, “We already have volunteers lined up to assist with the restoration work of the cahow nesting burrows. Although it will be a very busy labor intensive four weeks, I feel very certain that we will be able to complete repairs, providing the weather cooperates and allows us to work on the islets.”

But the weather has again turned nasty, with Tropical Storm Juan due to hit Bermuda tonight, according to the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami, Florida.


Only 180 Bermuda petrels survive today. (Photo by Jeremy Madeiros courtesy Bermuda Department of Conservation Services)
The cahow’s drastic population decline is attributed to habitat loss, exploitation and predation, BirdLife International says. Its recovery has been hampered by competition from the white-tailed tropicbird, Phaethon lepturus, for nest sites.

The four islets, which are part of the Castle Harbour Islands national park in the east, are the last remaining refuge for the bird at present, although other potential breeding islands have been reforested with native plants in an attempt to attract nesting petrels in the future.

Before Hurricane Fabian, it was planned to tranlocate a number of birds to nearby Nonsuch Island, which offers birds more protection from winds and rising sea levels. Fabian has increased the need for new habitat on larger, higher elevation islands safe from storm surge, says BirdLife, as predicted global warming will increase the incidence of extreme weather and lead to higher sea levels in Bermuda waters.

The cahow is important to the history of the tiny Bermuda islands. The bird is credited with keeping the Spanish conquistadores from adding the 34 square kilometer territory to their vast Americas empire because they believed the cahow’s shrill cries were those of the dead and were too terrified to stay on Bermuda.