Maui News

Team continues efforts to save Native Honeycreepers on Kauaʻi

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  • Saving ‘Akikiki-The Field Team Presses On. PC: Hawaiʻi DLNR / screenshot
  • Saving ‘Akikiki-The Field Team Presses On. PC: Hawaiʻi DLNR / screenshot
  • Saving ‘Akikiki-The Field Team Presses On. PC: Hawaiʻi DLNR / screenshot
  • Saving ‘Akikiki-The Field Team Presses On. PC: Hawaiʻi DLNR / screenshot
  • Saving ‘Akikiki-The Field Team Presses On. PC: Hawaiʻi DLNR / screenshot
  • Saving ‘Akikiki-The Field Team Presses On. PC: Hawaiʻi DLNR / screenshot

A team from the Kaua‘i Forest Bird Recovery Project are in the midst of another field season. The season is probably the last for the diminutive native Hawaiian honeycreeper, the ‘akikiki, according to the state Department of Land and Natural Resources. 

The team is led by Justin Hite, and works from a remote camp, perched on a  narrow 3,000-foot cliff, near the top of Wainiha Valley.

“This is one of the last places where we’re still seeing a ton of native forest birds, where everywhere else, just in the last couple of years they’ve quickly and suddenly vanished. And we think it’s because of mosquitoes,” Hite explained during a recent eight-day-long egg collection trip. 

Saving ‘Akikiki-The field team presses on. VC: DLNR Hawaiʻi

The usually upbeat and hopeful Field Supervisor has lost some of his optimism this season. Hite said his crew are likely seeing the last ‘akikiki remaining in the wild, as members have been documenting increases of disease-carrying mosquitoes on the plateau. 


Regulators are on the verge of approving landscape control of mosquitoes in the mountains of Kaua‘i using the Incompatible Insect Technique to reduce the likelihood that forest birds will be impacted by avian malaria, carried by female mosquitoes.  

While permitting and approval is underway, the team continues work in what is arguably some of the toughest terrain around. 

Robby Kohley, Director of Aviculture with Pacific Rim Conservation, is the on-site expert working with the forest bird team in the Mohihi region of the plateau. 

He has worked across the Hawaiian Islands and in Alaska. “Each project comes with a different set of challenges. The logistics problems of this project are quite high. Between the weather (mostly wet, muddy, and incredibly steep), and the lack of luck ‘akikiki are having with nests this year, I’d say this one ranks really high on the challenge scale,” said Kohler. 


Since late January the recovery teams have been flying into the field, hiking to field camp, and then from there trudging through knee deep mud on unimproved pig trails to reach ‘akikiki nests that had been previously spotted. 

Using a camera, mounted on a long pole, they are able to see the condition of the tiny eggs. If they appear to be in good shape, they then rig up a tethered ladder system to get a team member high into the forest canopy to collect eggs, climbing as high as 48-feet to get them. 

So far, they’ve successfully rescued ten ‘akikiki eggs that are placed in a portable incubator and carried, ever so gently, up the trail to camp. They’re then flown out to a brooder house in Koke‘e State Park and then eventually to the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance Keauhou Bird Conservation Center at Volcano. 

Hite notes ‘akikiki in the wild are very good at breeding. However, if avian malaria doesn’t  strike them down first, rats are picking them off one-by-one. 


“This year is an out-of-control level of nest failures,” Hite said. Typically, the team finds 30 nests each season and almost all of them would fledge young into the wild. “We spotted a female ‘akikiki sitting on two eggs and when we came back two days later to collect the eggs, we found broken, rat-chewed eggshells on the ground.” 

Now the field team has the added pressure of trying to control the rat population by setting out dozens of rat traps.

At the end of a recent eight-day stint in the field he observed, “These birds are only here. They’ve been here the whole time, long before people arrived in the islands. They’re quiet, unassuming, and wonderful. If we lose them, it’s a huge loss, it’s terrible.” 

To learn more about Hawai‘i’s native honeycreeper species and the interagency efforts underway to save them from imminent extinction, visit the Birds, Not Mosquitoes website.


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