Conservationists set up concrete gannets on Mana Island off New Zealand. They played seabird calls over speakers as a lure.

THE story of a lonely seabird named Nigel who tried to woo a mate that had a heart of stone and died on an uninhabited island off New Zealand has captivated many on social media.

Footage of the bird preening and cooing as he fruitlessly courted a decoy made of concrete has been watched obsessively online.

Though his chosen partner kept a cold silence, Nigel, a gannet, won the hearts of visitors and conservationists alike.

But, his solitary life also shone a light on a year-long effort by an army of conservationists, devoted volunteers and others to repopulate his species on the island.

News of the seabird’s death late last month hit the island’s caretakers and social media users hard.

“It seems like such a wrong ending for Nigel to die now,” said Chris Bell, 37, a ranger of the New Zealand Conservation Department, who found the seabird dead in his nest.

“It’s really sad, just when it looked like it could get better for him.”

Nigel first landed on Mana Island a few years ago (conservationists differ on the year). Mana is the smaller of two islands about 25.3km northwest of Wellington. It is also the site of an ambitious effort to establish a flourishing colony of Australasian gannets. The seabirds can be found in social clusters off the coast of Australia and New Zealand, and in parts of Scotland.

In the 1990s, conservationists set up concrete gannets on the western side of Mana to lure real birds. They painted the decoys’ beaks yellow, the wingtips black and the plumage white. They played seabird calls over solar-powered speakers.

Two gannets landed the very first day, Bell said, and conservationists congratulated themselves on their instant success. But the birds soon flew away, and the project stalled.

Then, Nigel arrived.

He quickly took a liking to one of the concrete replicas, according to Bell, who says he’s the only full-time employee on the island.

Month after month, the bird cozied up to his chosen mate, but she maintained an aloof presence.

“He nested alongside ‘her’,” said Linda Kerkmeester, vice-president of the environmental conservation group Friends of Mana Island.

“He was seen wooing her by preening her. Nigel was also seen trying to mate with her.”

A botanist doing a survey for Friends of Mana Island named the bird Nigel “no mates” because he had no friends.

“I think the saddest part of this story is what a frustrating existence to be courting this stone bird and getting nothing back. Not getting rejected, not getting encouragement,” Bell said.

Though Nigel lived a mostly solitary life on the island, he became the lynchpin of the efforts to draw other gannets to Mana.

The colony was one of several seabird projects undertaken by a partnership that included a local tribe, Friends of Mana Island and the Conservation Department to drive gannets to spread out and inhabit other islands.

“New Zealand was an amazing place for seabirds before humans arrived,” Bell said.

“Lots of seabirds nested on the land. Bringing seabirds back to the land is important.”

New Zealand’s native species have been devastated by predators, like rats, that were introduced to the country.

Now, it is aiming for an environmental moonshot: Eradicate all invasive predators by 2050. Several islands have already been cleared.

Mana, which was farmed from the 1820s to the 1980s, is pest free. It has been restored with 500,000 native trees, and lizards, seabirds and other native birds were translocated, according to Friends of Mana Island.

“Mana Island is a great scientific reserve because Mana never had rats,” Bell said.

“So, it’s a great place to reintroduce species.”

The seabirds are important to the project because they provide nutrients in the soil for insects and plants to thrive, according to Friends of Mana Island.

In December, conservationists redoubled efforts to build up the Mana colony. They repositioned the decoys where they might draw the attention of real gannets, and moved the speakers so that recorded bird sounds would be carried clear out to sea. The fake birds got fresh paint.

“Within 10 days of that,” Bell said, “there were three more gannets” on the island.

The conservationists were elated but cautious, hoping they would stay. But Nigel avoided the birds, refusing to leave his concrete mate. Then, one day, Bell found him dead.

“Broke my heart,” wrote one user on the Friends of Mana Island’s Facebook page when the news got out.

“Teary-eyed,” said another.

“It’s really sad he died,” Bell said, “but it wasn’t for nothing.”

The bird left a legacy to the island, he said. His presence most likely helped draw the three birds there and persuaded them to hang around. Now, the hope is that the new flock will stick around long enough to breed.

“These birds interact with each other. And if the birds are communicating with one another, there’s a chance,” Bell said.NYT

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