Maui News

Conservationists Find new Home for Endangered Birds

January 6, 2019, 11:47 AM HST
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Conservation partners were able to provide a new home, safe from invasive predators,  for a total of 39 endangered seabird chicks, according to the Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR). Twenty of the birds were the endangered Uaʻu, or Hawaiian Petrel, and 19 of them were the threatened ʻAʻo, or Newell’s Shearwater. The birds were moved from the mountainous interior of Kauaʻi to the translocation site called Nihokū at the Kīlauea Point National Wildlife Refuge.

Over the course of several weeks, a team of biologists and volunteers will feed and care for the birds until they fledge, or are finished maturing into adult plumage and fly off. According to the DLNR, 112 chicks have successfully fledged from the site over the past four years. The new chicks will spend a few years at sea before returning to the area where they were raised.

While living in the rugged, mountainous interior of Kauaʻi, the birds were in danger from introduced predators, including feral cats, rats, and pigs, as well as a loss of breeding habitat. According to the DLNR, these dangers, coupled with collisions with power lines and attraction to artificial lights, have dramatically reduced both the Uaʻu and ʻAʻo populations on Kauaʻi. The effort to create a new, fully protected colony of these birds at Nihokū is part of a larger project to protect the two species and help their populations recover.

According to the DLNR, the 7.8 acre Nihokū location provides protection for the birds through a predator-proof fence that surrounds it. The fence is made out of a very small, woven steel mesh that is buried three feet underground and has an upper hood to keep out predators. This is one of the best tools available for conserving seabird colonies and are now more commonly used as a hedge against introduced predators plaguing native birds, plants, and even small endangered tree snails throughout Hawaiʻi, according to the DLNR.

Even with this protective technology, the project has encountered some challenges. Earlier this year, a record-breaking storm swept across the island, flooding the nearby Hanalei Valley and part of the refuge. An estimated 49.6 inches of rain fell in 24 hours, nearly blowing out a drainage culvert under the protective predator-proof fence. In addition, Hurricane Lane drove in more damaging rains in mid-August.

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“We experienced a difficult year with many close-calls due to unanticipated weather events, but despite these challenges, we are very pleased to have completed another successful year of this important seabird recovery project,” Kauaʻi National Wildlife Refuge Complex manager Heather Tonneson said. “Quick response from the US Fish and Wildlife Service staff and volunteers resulted in clearing the damaged culvert and preventing further damage and erosion under the fence.”

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Lindsay Young, the executive director for Pacific Rim Conservation who led the project to build the fence, attributes part of the success to the fenceʻs effective design. “The record rainfall this year had minimal impacts on the fence as a result of design features that allowed water to exit the fenced area,” Young said. The partners said they are grateful for the dedicated volunteers who helped to keep debris away from the drainage culverts, keeping Nihokū predator free.

Other challenges came from the birds themselves. “Each chick has its own personality, and more often than not, they are just plain feisty, which makes daily care a challenge,” outreach coordinator for Pacific Rim Conservation Leilani Fowlke said.

Another challenge the team faced was having to travel in and out of the rugged, mist-shrouded mountains to recover the chicks.

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“After monitoring the chicks in all seasons, we move them during a narrow window, a few weeks before fledging. Chicks are transferred from underground nests to a special transport box, and delivered via a short helicopter ride to their new home at Nihokū,” André Raine, project lead for the Kaua‘i Endangered Seabird Recovery Project explained. “The weather is always an unpredictable factor each year, as it is often raining and misty in their mountain homes, but despite this, the translocations all went well this year.”

All 19 Newell’s Shearwater chicks and 19 of the 20 Hawaiian Petrel chicks had fledged by December 2018. “We are doing our best to give them a good start here so they are best prepared to thrive once they fly out to sea,” said Hannah Nevins, American Bird Conservancy’s seabird program director. “The healthier they are when they depart their nest to fly out to sea, the better the chances they will return to breed.”

These seabirds spend their first four to five years at sea and the partners are anxiously waiting for the first translocated birds to return to the site to breed, which they said is the ultimate measure of success for the project. The team is expecting the first cohort of petrel chicks, nine birds that fledged in 2015, to return to the site soon. One of the teamʻs goals is to establish Nihokū as a breeding site to create the next generation of seabirds for this area.

Additional information can be found online.

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