At least 11 breeding or prospecting pairs of ‘A‘o, or Newell’s shearwater, were recorded at Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge last year. It is the most ever found on the refuge.

The ‘A‘o—a seabird listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act—is found only on the Hawaiian Islands. Kaua‘i, where the refuge is situated, is home to about 90 percent of the world’s population. A true mariner, the bird spends most of its time at sea, where it roams for thousands of miles. It returns to land during the breeding season, which runs from April to November.

Currently, the majority of ‘A‘o nest in native habitat in the mountains, making the Kilauea Point population unusual in that the birds are breeding in a coastal area. The ‘A‘o is 12 to 14 inches, with a wing span of 30–35 inches. It has a glossy black back and white belly. Its black bill is sharply hooked at the tip. Its claws are well adapted for burrow excavation and climbing.

The refuge’s population probably was established during a translocation project from 1978–80, when refuge and Hawaii state biologists brought ‘A‘o eggs out of the mountain colonies, where they were being eaten by non–native predators. To rear, the eggs were placed in the nests of ‘U‘au, or wedge–tailed shearwater, another native species.

Because the numbers of ‘A‘o were rapidly declining, the project aimed to establish a population in a relatively safe area that could be actively managed. The majority of birds fledged successfully early in the project, but the refuge’s breeding population has remained small.

Kilauea Point Refuge was established in 1985 and expanded in 1988 to enhance seabird nesting colonies. Its ocean cliffs and open grassy slopes on an extinct volcano provide breeding grounds for migratory birds, including the ‘A‘o.

In 2007, the state–funded Kaua‘i Endangered Seabird Recovery Project, in collaboration with the refuge, set up a “social attraction” project to try and encourage more ‘A‘o to breed at the refuge.

This involved two audio speakers that play the bird’s calls at night throughout the breeding season.

“Social attraction projects have been successfully used to attract endangered seabirds in many other countries, most notably New Zealand,” says Andre Raine, the Kaua‘i project’s coordinator. “By playing calls of these birds at night, new birds are drawn into the area to see what is going on. If they find the area suitable, [they] may return to breed in following years. This can be a vital conservation tool for this species in other areas on Kaua‘i in the future.”

Five of the Kilauea Point Refuge ‘A‘o pairs were confirmed to have chicks last year, suggesting the breeding season at the refuge was successful. The pairs represent an important, protected population of a species that has seen dramatic population declines of approximately 75 percent in recent years.

There have been many reasons for the decline, including predation by non–native, introduced species such as rats, barn owls and feral cats. Other problems are loss of breeding habitat to non–native plants and animals, the effects of light pollution and collisions with power lines.

“It is gratifying to work with a threatened species, which responds positively to management techniques,” says refuge biologist Kim Uyehara. “This suggests that the refuge can play an important role and people can make a difference in conservation and recovery of Hawaii’s rare seabirds.”

Dennis Fujimoto is a staff writer and photographer at The Garden Island newspaper of Lihue, HI. This article is adapted from an article that appeared in The Garden Island on Oct. 10, 2012.