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Young conservationist’s career ambitions take flight

Royal Gazette

By Jonathan Bell
Published Aug 25, 2012 at 7:10 am (Updated Aug 25, 2012 at 7:09 am)

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Apprentice conservationist Miguel Mejias checks on a nesting site.

Most Bermudians feel a justifiable familiarity with the iconic longtails that teem to the Island during the warmer months — apprentice conservationist Miguel Mejias gets to work alongside them.

“Fieldwork involving the longtail does have its surprises,” the 25-year-old acknowledged.

“I’ve had nesting longtail adults literally take an object like a pencil or spoon from my hands, sit on it, daring me to come get it. I also remember showing a visitor a longtail chick, only for it to throw up its latest meal all over me.”

Miguel has just finished another stint at the Bermuda Aquarium, Museum and Zoo studying the Island’s migratory seabirds — in particular, the longtail or white-tailed tropicbird, as well as the common tern.

Looking back on his first year as a summer employee of Conservation Services, the Hamilton Parish youth said it all began with a childhood fascination.

“My parents used to bring me to the Aquarium a couple times a month,” he toldThe Royal Gazette. “Each time I went, it became harder and harder to leave.”

Miguel trained as part of the Bermuda Zoological Society's Junior volunteer programme and worked as a volunteer in the Caribbean exhibit at age 16.

Three years later he was offered a staff position in the Longtails Department, where injured or weakened birds go through rehab.

“I can remember learning how to hand-feed longtails for the first time, which requires you to stick your finger into their scissor-like beaks,” he said.

“However, my true love for the longtail, as well as birds in general, stemmed from former Conservation Officer and founder of Nonsuch Island Dr David Wingate. I have acted as Dr Wingate’s primary summer apprentice since 2010 and it was through him that I truly started to appreciate birds that can be found in Bermuda, including the longtail.”

Miguel called BAMZ “an amazing place for any young person to build a sense of character”.

“I know when I first started I was a mouse, barely muttering a word or making eye contact. The Aquarium is practically my home — I grew up and truly began to understand myself there.”

Through his work, Miguel also came to understand the incalculable impact of human activity on our living surroundings.

“The thought of Bermuda losing any more of its natural biodiversity, which makes it unique, is frightening,” he said. “This is what drives me to become heavily involved in Bermuda’s Conservation matters and help protect what little biodiversity we have left.”

Studying the breeding success of longtails had Miguel and his colleagues tracking down and monitoring 200 of their nests over the summer.

“My study sites were scattered throughout the Island — Somerset to St George’s,” he said. “Needless to say, my folks weren’t impressed with the gas I used up.”

Half the nests were conveniently onshore; the other 100 were secreted on the rocky islets off the mainland. Miguel’s aim was to study the difference in longtail chicks between the two, as well as compare the breeding success of the birds’ natural nests and the man-made “igloo” nests built for them.

The job has enabled him to watch a bird go from egg to successful fledgling. Longtails, he noted, are nothing if not dedicated.

“When the egg is first laid, both parents take turns sitting on the egg for three to four days in a row without food.”

The month-long process leads into a two-month chick-rearing period before the young bird is ready to fly.

A graduate of CedarBridge Academy, Miguel is now pursuing a bachelor’s degree in biology at Canada’s Trent University, with a dream of becoming an ornithologist.

“Animals will indeed be in my future career. I would love to become involved with Bermuda’s conservation work, more specifically in the realm of birds as well as plant life.”

He considers Dr Wingate a mentor and inspiration, adding: “I never had grandparents growing up, so I see Dr Wingate as a grandfather figure as well.”

Miguel has also worked very closely with the Island’s current Terrestrial Conservation Officer, Jeremy Madeiros. Parents Albert-Pedro and Patricia Mejias said they consider their son blessed to have had the opportunity to work with them.

“When he was little he would stay at the Aquarium until it was time to go home,” Mr Mejias said. “This is his dream.”

Useful website: www.bzs.bm.