Saving Endangered Hawaiian Seabirds on Kauaʻi

Translocated Newell’s Shearwater chick. Photo credit: Leilani Fowlke/PRC

In 2018, conservation partners again provided a new home, safe from invasive predators, for some of Hawaiʻi’s most imperiled seabirds. A total of 39 chicks, including 20 Endangered Uaʻu (Hawaiian Petrel) and 19 Endangered ʻAʻo (Newell’s Shearwater), were moved from colonies in the mountains to the translocation site, called Nihokū, at Kīlauea Point National Wildlife Refuge. In this location, they are protected by a predator-proof fence surrounding the Nihokū restoration site.

Over the course of several weeks, the chicks are fed and cared for by a dedicated team of biologists and volunteers until they fledge – finish molting into adult plumage and fly off. Over the last four years, 112 chicks have successfully fledged from the site. The chicks will spend a few years at sea before returning to the exact area where they were raised, hopefully establishing a new seabird colony at Nihokū.

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Some of the mountainous habitat the seabirds nest in – though rugged, cats, rats, and pigs are still present and pose a threat to the birds. Photo credit: Hannah Nevins/ABC

All of the translocated chicks were collected by Kauaʻi Endangered Seabird Recovery Project staff, from colonies located in Kauaʻi’s rugged, mountainous interior, where the birds are under threat from introduced predators, including feral cats, rats, and pigs, as well as loss of breeding habitat. These dangers, coupled with collisions with power lines and attraction to artificial lights, have dramatically reduced populations of the Uaʻu and ʻAʻo on Kauaʻi. The effort to create a new, fully protected colony of these birds at Nihokū is part of a larger effort to protect the two species and help their populations recover.

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The future site of a new seabird colony at  Kīlauea Point National Wildlife Refuge. Photo credit: Andre Raine/KESRP

The 7.8-acre translocation site is protected within a predator-proof fence. Made with very small, woven, stainless steel mesh, buried three feet underground, and with an upper hood that prevents the incursion of predators, this is one of the best tools available for conservation of seabird colonies. Such fences now are more frequently used as a hedge against introduced predators plaguing native birds, plants, and even small endangered tree snails in Hawaiʻi.

The project has not been without its challenges. This year a record-breaking rain event in mid-April 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 rains in mid-August.

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Moving the birds into their new home, safe from invasive predators. Photo credit: Hannah Nevins/ABC 

“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,” said Heather Tonneson, Refuge Complex Manager at the Kaua‘i National Wildlife Refuge Complex. “Quick response from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service staff and volunteers resulted in clearing the damaged culvert and preventing further damage and erosion under the fence.” Lindsay Young, Executive Director for Pacific Rim Conservation, who led the project to build the fence, attributes this to good 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.” 

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Chicks are transported from high in the mountains of Kauaʻi by helicopter. Photo credit: Andre Raine/KESRP

Lindsay Young, Executive Director for Pacific Rim Conservation, who led the project to build the fence, attributes part of the success to good 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.” All partners are grateful for the help of 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,” says Outreach Coordinator for Pacific Rim Conservation Leilani Fowlke.  

Another potential stumbling block: traveling in and out of the rugged, mist-shrouded mountains to recover chicks for translocation and bring them to Nihokū for care until they fledge. André Raine, Project Lead for the Kaua‘i Endangered Seabird Recovery Project, explained: “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. 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!”

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Andre Raine carefully removing a Newell’s shearwater chick from its burrow to prep it for translocation. Photo credit: Erin Pickett/KESRP

By December 2018, all 19 Newell’s Shearwater chicks and 19 of the 20 Hawaiian Petrel chicks had fledged. “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,” says 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.” 

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A Newell’s shearwater nearly ready to fledge. Photo credit: Leilani Fowlke/PRC

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 — the ultimate measure of success for the project. In spring 2019, the first cohort of petrel chicks – nine birds that fledged in 2015 – is expected to return. 

The partners hope that they will establish Nihokū as a breeding site and create the next generation of seabirds for this area. 

The effort to establish this new colony is a collaboration among the Kaua‘i Endangered Seabird Recovery Project (KESRP), Pacific Rim Conservation (PRC), American Bird Conservancy (ABC), the Hawaiʻi Department of Land and Natural Resources’ Division of Forestry and Wildlife (DOFAW), and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). KESRP is a DOFAW/Pacific Cooperative Studies Unit project. Other partners also provided much-needed assistance for the project. The Kauaʻi Island Utility Cooperative provided critical support for predator control in collaboration with DOFAW at montane nesting areas within the Hono O Na Pali Natural Area Reserve and the National Tropical Botanical Garden (NTBG) at Upper Limahuli Preserve. NTBG also conducted vegetation restoration at Nihokū. The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) provided critical funding support. The Kaua‘i DOFAW Natural Area Reserve team also provided on-the-ground support.

For more information on the project, please visit:

 www.Nihoku.org  

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Partners celebrating the successful translocation work. Photo credit: Andre Raine/KESRP

About the partners

The Kauaʻi Endangered Seabird Recovery Project is a DOFAW project, administered through the Pacific Cooperative Studies Unit of the University of Hawaiʻi. The project focuses primarily on Kauaʻi’s three endangered seabirds– Newell’s Shearwater, Hawaiian Petrel and Band-rumped Storm-Petrel. KESRP identifies the breeding distribution of these rare and enigmatic seabirds, monitors their breeding colonies, undertakes research projects to better understand their life histories and the various threats which they face, and works with partners to ensure their long-term conservation.

 The Hawaiʻi Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) mission to enhance, protect, conserve and manage Hawaii’s unique and limited natural, cultural and historic resources held in public trust for current and future generations of the people of Hawaii nei, and its visitors, in partnership with others from the public and private sectors.

 The mission of DLNR’s Division of Forestry and Wildlife(DOFAW) is to responsibly manage and protect watersheds, native ecosystems, and cultural resources and provide outdoor recreation and sustainable forest products opportunities, while facilitating partnerships, community involvement and education. Malama i ka ‘aina.

Pacific Rim Conservation (PRC) is a non-profit organization dedicated to studying and conserving the biota of the Pacific region. PRC provides biological research and management services to government agencies, non-profit organizations, landowners, and other groups throughout the Hawaiian Islands and the Pacific region. PRC’s goal is to maintain and restore native species and ecosystems through habitat protection and management, threat control, public education, and scientific research to develop and improve conservation methods.

 The Kīlauea Point National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1985 to preserve and enhance migratory bird nesting colonies, federally listed species, and native coastal strand, riparian, and aquatic biological diversity, as well as to support incidental fish and wildlife-oriented recreation. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service works with others to conserve, protect, and enhance fish, wildlife, plants, and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. For more information, visit www.fws.gov/pacific, or connect with us through any of these social media channels at www.facebook.com/PacificIslandsFWS,www.flickr.com/photos/usfwspacific/,  www.tumblr.com/blog/usfwspacific or www.twitter.com/USFWSPacific.

American Bird Conservancy is the Western Hemisphere’s bird conservation specialist—the only organization with a single and steadfast commitment to achieving conservation results for native birds and their habitats throughout the Americas. With a focus on efficiency and working in partnership, we take on the toughest problems facing birds today, innovating and building on sound science to halt extinctions, protect habitats, eliminate threats, and build capacity for bird conservation.

Chartered by Congress in 1984, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) protects and restores the nation’s fish, wildlife, plants and habitats. Working with federal, corporate and individual partners, NFWF has funded more than 4,000 organizations and committed more than $2.9 billion to conservation projects. 

Reblogged from USFWS Pacific Region – view original post here!