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Storm Causes Petrel Crisis

Hurricane-torn Bermuda rallies to save rare seabirds

After suffering the worst hurricane in more than a century, Bermudans are now racing to save their national bird, the Bermuda Petrel Pterodroma cahow, from the brink of extinction, following destruction of many nesting burrows by Hurricane Fabian earlier this month.Fortunately these Endangered seabirds, which BirdLife International estimates number only around 180 individuals, were not at their sole nesting grounds on four tiny Bermudan islets when 250 km/hr winds struck. Despite severe damage to island infrastructure, local residents are now rushing to repair the burrows in time for the petrels return in a month`s time. The bird, known locally as the Cahow, was thought to be extinct for almost three centuries, until it was rediscovered in the first half of the 20th century. However, this hurricane is thought to be the greatest setback yet to its recovery programme, ongoing since the 1960s. [A few birds were rediscovered in 1951, after the species had been presumed extinct since 1620. Intensive conservation management has seen numbers rise from 18 pairs in 1962 to 70 pairs rearing a record 40 young in 2003]The effort to rebuild the petrels` man-made burrows is being led by Jeremy Madeiros of Bermuda`s Department of Conservation Services, who 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.However, 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. We already have volunteers lined up to assist with the restoration work of the Cahow nesting burrows, he says. Although it will be a very busy labour-intensive four weeks, I feel very certain that we will be able to complete repairs, providing the weather co-operates and allows us to work on the islets.The Cahow`s drastic population decline is attributed to habitat loss, exploitation and predation and 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 flora in an attempt to attract nesting petrels in the future. Before Hurricane Fabian, it was planned to translocate a number of birds to nearby Nonsuch Island, which offers birds more protection from winds and rising sea levels. This hurricane has increased the need for new habitat on larger, higher elevation islands safe from storm surge as predicted global warming will only increase the incidence of extreme weather and lead to higher sea levels.The Cahow is intrinsically tied to the history of the tiny Bermuda islands The bird is credited with keeping the Spanish conquistadores from adding the 34 sq km 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. 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.For further information, contact Jeremy Madeiros in Bermuda: tel +441 292-0707 or 293 3883; cahowman@yahoo.com or Gareth Gardiner-Jones at BirdLife International in Cambridge, UK: tel. +44 (0)1223 279903; 07779 018 332 (mobile); gareth.gardiner@birdlife.org.uk

4th July 2014