National Wildlife Refuge System

Tufted Puffins Are Back!

For the first time ever, tufted puffins have been found on Hawadax Island in Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge. where many other birds have returned since invasive rats were removed five years ago. .
Credit: Ilana Nimz/USFWS

Five years after the successful removal of invasive Norway rats from Rat Island in the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge, Hawadax Island (its Aleut name) is “hardly recognizable among the cacophony of birds calling everywhere; it’s alive with bird fledgings, eiders, wrens, sparrows, eagles, peregrine falcons, gulls, sandpipers,” according to Stacey Buckelew, a biologist with Island Conservation.

For the first time ever, breeding tufted puffins have been documented on the island.  Leach’s storm-petrels, thought to have been extirpated because of the rats, have also been seen. Song sparrows and snow buntings are rebounding as well.

Norway rats were spilled onto the island’s rocky shores in a 1780’s shipwreck. Since then, the rats had decimated native bird species by eating eggs, chicks and adult birds and by ravaging habitat. In early October 2008, after many years of intensive planning, the project partners  - U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Island Conservation, and The Nature Conservancy - successfully removed the rats using rodenticide bait.

Since the removal of rats, partners have been back several times to monitor particular species. These early increases in native bird populations are expected to lead to more ecosystem recovery. Seabirds drive the vegetation communities on rat-free islands by delivering marine based nutrients to the soil. As seabirds increase on Hawadax, scientists expect plant communities to return to this natural state.

 “What a joy it was to visit Hawadax Island this summer,” said Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge manager Steve Delehanty. “There were birds everywhere. There is no more valuable action we can take on a national wildlife refuge than making it once again a haven for wildlife.”

The project has also helped to restore an important Native presence. In 2012, the Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association, representing the Unangan (Aleut) community championed and officially restored the island’s original Unangan name. Hawadax translates to “those two over there” (an accurate description of the two knolls dominating the island’s topography). While the island is currently uninhabited, it was used by the Unangan people for millennia.

Islands Hold Keys to Extinct Species
Globally, 40 percent of all species threatened with extinction today depend on islands, yet islands comprise a mere five percent of our world’s land area. Since 1500, 80 percent of all recorded extinctions worldwide have occurred on islands. Damaging introduced invasive species such as rats are implicated in nearly half of these. To date, there have been over 1,100 successful removals of invasive species worldwide, almost half involving rats. Once invasive species are removed from islands, native species and the island’s natural balance often recover with little or
no further intervention.

Hawadax Island is part of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge and the National Wilderness Preservation System. The island is located about 1,300 miles west of Anchorage in Alaska’s Aleutian Islands.  The 6,861 acre island is uninhabited by humans. Steep coastal cliffs, a small central mountain range (with a maximum elevation of about 950 feet), and broad, rolling plateaus of maritime tundra define this treeless island. There are no native land mammals on Hawadax but there are marine mammals on off-shore rocks and islets.

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Last updated: October 28, 2013