Restoration for Aleutian Birds brings New Life to Refuge Island Biologists confirmed that Rat Island, a remote island in the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge, is now rat-free. The report comes after two years of careful field monitoring at Rat Island, where the invasive predator decimated native bird populations by preying on eggs and chicks and altered the native ecosystem in numerous ways.Restoring habitat on Rat Island to benefit native wildlife is the largest rat eradication ever undertaken in the Northern Hemisphere and the first in Alaska. The eradication of the non-native rats took place in September of 2008 after four years of planning. The restoration of the 10-square-mile island was accomplished by Island Conservation, The Nature Conservancy and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.“Rat Island is the most ambitious restoration effort we’ve undertaken on a refuge island, and we couldn’t have done it without our partners,” said Geoff Haskett, regional director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “Nearly 7,000 acres of wildlife refuge habitat has been reclaimed for native wildlife and that is an exciting result.Biologists have confirmed increased numbers of at least one native bird after just two rat-free nesting seasons on the island. The giant song sparrow, found only in the central and western Aleutian Islands, is now commonly occurring on Rat Island. Song sparrows were only rarely seen on the island prior to the restoration. Other species confirmed nesting on the island and expected to benefit from rat removal include black oystercatchers, glaucous-winged gulls, pigeon guillemots, rock sandpipers, common eiders, red faced cormorants and gray-crowned rosy finches. Over the long term, burrow nesting seabirds, driven from the island by rats, are expected to return and re-colonize the island. “The presence of nesting birds is deeply gratifying,” says Bill Waldman, executive director of the nonprofit Island Conservation. “Our field team was overjoyed to see so many song sparrows this year after working on the island for several years with only an occasional glimpse of one.”Though Rat Island is a remote island in the Aleutian chain about 1,300 miles west of Anchorage, invasive Norway rats arrived via a 1780's shipwreck preying on native birds and altering the native vegetation during the ensuing 220 years. The Rat Island restoration is the most recent project in a long campaign to restore otherwise healthy seabird habitat in the Aleutians.“We’re incredibly pleased to see this fresh new start for Rat Island,” said Randy Hagenstein, director of The Nature Conservancy in Alaska. “In the Aleutians, great clouds of seabirds normally fill the skies over islands teeming with life. The rats’ devastation had turned Rat Island into an eerily quiet place.”The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been at work in the Aleutian Islands, most of which lies within the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge, restoring seabird habitat by eradicating non-native species for more than four decades. Non-native foxes have been taken off over 40 islands in the refuge including Rat Island but this was the first rat eradication for the refuge.To ensure that invasive rats don’t spread to other globally significant seabird habitats in Alaska, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service leads the ongoing Stop Rats! campaign to help ships, harbors, and towns to prevent the spread of rats.“The history of Rat Island shows we need to prevent future disasters caused by invasive species. Alaska is almost entirely rat-free, and it’s absolutely vital we work together to keep it this way. Birds that build nests on the ground – such as ducks, seabirds and songbirds – simply can’t defend their eggs and chicks from non-native predators such as rats,” said Haskett, Alaska Regional Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.Island habitat restorations are occurring across the globe. Worldwide, there have been more than 300 successful eradications involving invasive rodents. Rats are responsible for about half of all bird and reptile extinctions on island habitats.In 2008, the Rat Island Wildlife Habitat Restoration team spread grain-based bait pellets across the island from helicopters flying a GPS-guided flight path. Two years of monitoring following international standards revealed no sign of rats. Although initial non-target mortality was higher than expected, no sign of any additional bird mortality was observed in 2010 and populations of affected bird species are already recovering on Rat Island.
With the rats gone, restoration partners and the Aleutian Pribilof Island Association agree that an Aleut (Unangan), name was a fitting tribute to the restored island. The U.S. Board on Geographic Names, at its May 10, 2012 meeting, approved the proposal to change the name of Rat Island to Hawadax Island in the Aleutians. Hawadax (pronounced “how AH thaa”) is a return to the original Aleut name, in acknowledgement of the absence of rats—a return the island’s previous ecological state prior to European/Japanese contact. The word ‘Hawadax’ roughly translates to “those two over there” as in “the island over there with two knolls”, referring to two modest hills on the island.Learn More
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Biologists recently discovered Kittlitz’s murrelets nesting on Adak, and since then have searched the island for more birds. An elusive and little understood seabird, Kittlitz’s murrelets are a species of concern because of their low numbers and restricted range. Their cryptic mottled plumage and secretive behavior around their solitary nest sites makes locating murrelet nests seem a lot like looking for a needle in a haystack. If eyes are not the best tool for finding Kittlitz nests, what about noses? This summer a new member joined the team: Otto, a ten-month-old Deutsch-Drahthaar (akin to a German wirehair pointer). Even in the Aleutians, Otto is not the first dog to work alongside Refuge biologists. Read more about Otto and how we went to the dogs to bring back an endangered species.