For two years, Nigel's only company on his island home has been that of 80 concrete gannets. Just before Christmas last year, he was finally joined by three real seabirds, only to be found dead some three weeks later.
Real gannets used to nest on the small Mana Island, just off the southwest coast of New Zealand's North Island, until pests drove them away. So, in 1997, after the rats were eliminated, a decoy colony was installed.
This consisted of not just the fake birds painted to look like the seabirds from the air, but solar powered speakers that played the noise of a bustling colony, and even fake guano – or poop to you and me – splatted around the statutes to make it as realistic as possible.
After 20 years, the efforts finally paid off. A single gannet landed at the colony, the first to do so for almost half a century. Unfortunately, he arrived on his lonesome leading volunteers to nickname him “no mates” Nigel. The name stuck.
So enamored by these counterfeit gannets was he, Nigel decided to stay. He took a special shining to one particular pretender and built a nest made from seaweed and twigs next to it in a somewhat misplaced bid to woo it. But his courting of the model bird did not stop there, as poor Nigel even sat preening the concrete figurine and attempting one-sided conversations.
“I think it must have been quite a frustrating existence,” said Chris Bell, a NZ Department of Conservation ranger who lives alone on Mana Island. “Whether or not he was lonely, he certainly never got anything back, and that must have been very strange experience, when he spent years courting. I think we all have a lot of empathy for him, because he had this fairly hopeless situation.”
After a year or two, another passing gannet took the decision to touch down, and Nigel was joined in his lonely existence by Norman. Despite the doubling of the population, the likelihood of any breeding going on was still pretty slim. That was until the decoy birds had a fresh lick of paint, making them look more realistic, changing the recording of the calling colony, and moving the speakers further up the hill.
In December 2017, another few gannets joined Nigel. Unfortunately, the few weeks they were together was brief, and not only did Nigel fail to befriend any of the new arrivals, but he was sadly found dead in his nest, stoically by the side of his unrequited love, surrounded by his concrete mates.
The death of Nigel has hit the conservationists working on Mana hard, not least due to the arrival of new birds. “It just doesn't seem how it should have ended,” laments Bell. “It would have been nice if he had been able to hold on a few more years and found a partner and breed.”