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A Talk on the Wild Side.

A Seabird Rescue Takes Wing

Hawaiian petrel chick
A Hawaiian petrel chick in an old, pre-relocated, burrow. Photo by Kauai Endangered Seabird Recovery Project


Susan Morse, a writer-editor for the Service's National Wildlife Refuge System, tells us about work out in Hawaii to recover the endangered Hawaiian petrel and the threatened
Newell’s shearwater.

KILAUEA, HAWAII — Coaxing rare seabirds to adopt a safer new nesting site on a steep sea-facing slope is a long process — and an exercise in hope. Just ask the folks at Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge in Hawaii. I’m standing at their Crater Hill site now, shoes dusted in Kauai’s red dirt after a short scramble downhill, to hear about it.

albatrosses in front of predator proof fence
Albatrosses in front of predator-proof fence. Photo by Susan Morse/USFWS


First you erect half a mile of predator-proof fence around the new 7-acre nesting area. That’s to screen out the rats, mice, feral cats and pigs that are threatening the birds with extinction. Then you send a team to the mountains to retrieve 10 endangered Hawaiian petrel chicks when they’re a few weeks from fledging. You helicopter the chicks to the new site (known as Nihoku in Hawaiian) and place them in man-made burrows — one chick to a burrow. You hand-feed, weigh and monitor the young daily until they fledge. Phew.

Hoping

The crossed-fingers part comes last: You watch the fledglings fly out to sea, hoping some will return in three or four years (!!!) to mate — and in five or six years to nest.

Biologist Eric Vanderwerf (left) and Deputy Project Leader Mike Mitchell, Photo by Susan Morse/USFWS


“We would be happy if a third to half the birds return” — as birds have in rescue projects elsewhere, says Mike Mitchell, deputy project leader at the Kauai Refuge Complex. “It’s fascinating how they do that. Scientists believe chicks memorize the stars to find their way back to the same spot that they fledged from.”

The first nine “graduates” of the Kauai Endangered Seabird Recovery Project flew off the island last fall; the 10th chick, ill before it was moved, didn’t live to fledge. The project’s next phase is tentatively set for fall, after the public gets a chance to weigh in.

Recovery's Next Step

On May 11, project leaders opened a 30-day public comment period on a draft environmental assessment. The preferred plan proposes the move of 10 Newell’s shearwater chicks plus 20 more Hawaiian petrel chicks to the new nesting area, as well as a “social attraction” component.

If you think that means a happy hour for birds, you’re not far off. Biologists have rigged up loudspeakers to mimic petrel and shearwater calls. They hope these will woo prospective mates to the refuge’s new nest site. “This way, we can increase our odds of success,” says Mitchell.

Meanwhile, refuge staff and partners are restoring habitat inside the fence — clearing another acre or so of invasive Christmas berry and replacing it with native plants. Eventually, they aim to remove all of the non-native plants and restore all of the 7-acre nesting area.

WORKING TOGETHER
Partners in the seabird translocation project include: Kaua'i Endangered Seabird Recovery Project, a Hawai'i Department of Land and Natural Resources' Division of Forestry and Wildlife project administered by Pacific Cooperative Studies Unit, University of Hawaii; Pacific Rim Conservation; Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge; and American Bird Conservancy (ABC).

The National Tropical Botanical Garden helped with plant restoration at the translocation site. The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and ABC provided funding support.

“It’s just at the very beginning here,” biologist Eric Vanderwerf says of the recovery project.  

Says Mitchell, “It’s great to have this partnership working together on restoration being done on a national wildlife refuge where the conservation efforts being made will be there in perpetuity.”

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