Wildlife Spotlight: Translocations on the Refuge

By Kathleen Viernes, Education Coordinator

Location! Location! Location! Who hasn’t heard that real estate mantra? Well, if you’re a Newell’s shearwater or a Hawaiian petrel on Kauaʻi, your mantra might sound more like: Translocation! Translocation! Translocation! For these seabirds, prime real estate isn’t about luxury, it’s a matter of survival. So much so that an amazing collaborative effort is underway at Kīlauea Point NWR with the intent to help these two federally listed, endemic Hawaiian species dodge the extinction bullet.

The plans to create new nesting colonies for Newell’s shearwaters and Hawaiian petrels moved from planning to reality in 2014 when the construction of a predator-proof fence was begun. This ambitious wildlife restoration project was modeled on a plan hatched by conservationists in New Zealand where threats to their unique wildlife are as formidable as they are here in Hawaiʻi.

A predator-proof fence over 2000 feet long has been installed at Kīlauea Point NWR, encompassing a little over 6 acres of land, and is constructed along the natural contours of an area of the refuge known as Nihokū. Building any kind of a fence on rugged coastal terrain is a serious accomplishment in and of itself, but to construct one to keep out mammalian predators as small as a nine-day old mouse? Now that’s taking predator control to a whole other level...a level that’s necessary when you’re working to save species on the brink.  By Spring of 2015, not only had the fence been completed, but all mammalian predators had been removed and native plant restoration inside the fence area was underway.

With a protective fence in place and native plants taking root, it was time for the next big step. In October of 2015, the first precious cargo of ten Hawaiian petrel chicks were moved from their mountain burrows to their temporary home on the refuge, just a couple of weeks before they were due to “fledge,” or leave the nest.

During those weeks between their relocation to Nihokū and their time to take off out to sea, chicks were fed and monitored by wildlife experts to help ensure that they left in the best possible health, and they did. With the 2015 petrel move such a great success, Newell’s shearwaters were added to this “land ark” manifesto the following year.

From 2015 to 2018, a combined total of 115 Newell’s and Hawaiian petrel chicks have successfully fledged from Nihokū. This year, another 20 of each species should take off again. For these chicks, the journey out to sea is a cinch compared to their relatives up in the mountains. No cats or rats at their door, no goats or pigs trampling their home, no powerlines to hit, no man-made lights to disorient…just a short shot to the sea. Plus, they get the best of care from experts during their stay on Nihokū.

Biologists are banking on the translocated chicks making their way back to the refuge when it is time to use their impressive navigational skills to return and nest, which include reading celestial cues, finding landmarks and more.  The views from their artificial burrows on Nihokū are the only visual cues the translocated chicks have for “home” because they were moved away from their hatch sites before they’d even peeked out their mountain burrows.

It will take three to six years for the recovery team to find out if these translocated chicks return to Nihokū. Why? Because it’s a minimum of three years (often longer) before those little webbed feet touch land again, once they take off on their maiden voyage out to sea. They aren’t called seabirds for nothing! 

With 2015 being the first year that chicks fledged from the translocation area, you can bet that the anticipation and hope of getting a returnee is building. Maybe next year? Only time will tell, but what you can count on is that the collaborative efforts of dedicated conservationists will continue doing their best to make sure these precious, rare Hawaiian seabirds have a fighting chance of remaining on our planet. Here are some ways that you can help:

  • Keep cats as indoor pets and leash your dogs on hikes, especially if you live or hike near wildlife habitat. Advocate to keep spayed and neutered feral cats from being freed, especially anywhere near conservation areas. Sterilizing does not keep outdoor and feral cats from eating birds!

  • Turn off outside lights during shearwater and petrel fledging months (Sept-Dec) and support actions like scheduling football games for daytime instead of at night to keep tall, bright stadium lights off.

  • Reduce your plastic use!

  • Share what you’ve learned with others so they can become informed, and make sure you include our youth too. Use your social media to help seabirds.

  • Donate, volunteer and cheer for organizations that are working to restore native Hawaiian wildlife and ecosystems.

To learn more about the Nihokū Ecosystem Restoration Project at Kīlauea Point NWR, including getting links to the many partners involved, visit the program online.

Photo Credits: FWS, Pacific Rim Conservation, Hob Osterlund and Brenda Zaun.

Wedgie season at KPNWR

August is wedge-tailed shearwater chick hatching time at Kīlauea Point NWR. This grayish-brown seabird, called ʻuaʻu kani in Hawaiian and “wedgie” for short in English, is one of the most common seabirds found in Hawaiʻi. They generally mate for life and pairs tend to come back to the same nesting spot each year. ʻUaʻu kani are burrow nesters. Pairs begin cleaning and excavating their burrow upon arrival in March and old burrows that have been in use for many years can extend more than 5 feet in length. Some pairs nest above ground underneath shrubs such as native naupaka or akoko, or nestled within the exposed roots of ironwoord or other trees.

After 53 days of life inside a white, chicken-sized egg, the chicks hatch out. When they emerge, they are small, gray little fluff balls, once they’ve dried off. They will be fed regurgitated squid and fish oil by both parents for about three and a half months before its time for them to leave the nest. Like most seabirds, the first years of an ʻuaʻu kaniʻs life is spent entirely at sea, fishing and resting on the ocean. When they do return to land to begin breeding, they tend to go back to where they hatched.

The ʻuaʻu kani population at Kīlauea Point NWR has benefited immensely since the land came under the protection of the Fish and Widlife Service as a national wildlife refuge. In the late 1970s (prior to Kilauea Point being designated as a refuge) an island-wide survey counted 3,855 burrows along Kauaʻi’s coastline, 75% of which were on Kīlauea Point. In the mid 2010’s FWS Biologist Brenda Zaun estimated that there were 8,000 to 15,000 breeding pairs on the refuge alone. Biologists from the US Geological Survey conducted a survey this summer, but the results have not yet been released yet. Predator control on the refuge has been a major benefit to the population, but limiting access to people was critical too. Many people who accessed the areas before it became a refuge didn’t even realize there were birds beneath their feet and sometimes unwittingly crushed and trapped birds or eggs in collapsed burrows.

Extreme weather events can be very impactful for shearwaters and other ground nesting seabirds. Sudden and torrential rains can cause mudslides on the slopes, flooding burrows and burying openings. Chicks being raised in surface nests risk getting soaked in long, heavy downpours. The damage to ʻuaʻu kani and other seabird nesting areas was very evident following the torrential rains that hit Kīlauea Town recently. Many burrows were buried in mud and a number of unhatched eggs washed downslope.

In spite of some of the challenges they face, ʻuaʻu kani nesting at Kīlauea Point NWR will fare better than many seabirds which nest out on remote Pacific islands. In time, rising ocean levels due to climate change will encrouch into nesting grounds that millions of seabirds rely on for reproduction. As they become displaced, some of those birds will likely make Kīlauea Point NWR their home too. For this season, though, we hope that the precious birds which survived this recent storm make it through the next few months until it is their time to fledge and soar.

Wedgie3 5.25.18 Kviernes KPNHA.JPG

More about the great frigatebird, or ʻiwa

The great frigatebird, or ʻiwa in Hawaiian, is one of the easiest birds to identify at Kīlauea Point NWR, due to its distinctly different look from the other birds here. This large black bird, with its seven-foot wingspan, forked tail, narrow, angled wings and light body, is an aerodynamic wonder.

The weight of the bones makes up a mere 5% of its total body weight and who needs legs when you’ve got wings? The legs and feet are so trimmed down to size that on land `iwa can do little more than perch on branches or a cliff; they really don’t walk. An ‘iwa that lands on the ground struggles to get back onto its perch. Landing on the ocean is even more dangerous because, unlike most seabirds, they cannot run on the ocean because of those diminutive legs and feet. A poorly developed oil gland means minimal waterproofing on their feathers. Landing on the ocean for this bird could lead to becoming waterlogged and drowning.

Oh, but what supreme fliers they are! Scientists have discovered that frigatebirds can stay aloft for nearly 2 months at a time and reach heights as high as 2.5 miles above sea level with no problem flying through clouds or freezing temperatures! A frigatebird will end up spending up to 90% of its time in the air over its lifetime and that means there had to be some trade-offs.

Frigatebirds are also sometimes called Man-o-war birds, a name given to them by Caribbean sailors who likened them to the speedy, maneuverable pirate ships by the same name. The Hawaiian word ‘iwa means “thief” in Hawaiian and it reflects the frigatebird’s habit of stealing food from other seabirds.

This behavior, also known as kleptoparasitism, is commonly observed at Kīlauea Point where ‘iwa can be seen chasing and harassing red-footed boobies until they throw up their meal. The ‘iwa then swoops down to catch the ejected prize from mid-air and swallows it. This feeding behavior is opportunistic and not their primary hunting strategy. Most meals are caught by swooping over the water and snatching squid or fish from within a few centimeters of the ocean surface, or from the air when fish leap out of the water.

As common as it is to see ‘iwa at Kīlauea Point, they are not known to be nesting on the Refuge. In Hawai‘i, frigatebirds nest on the remote atolls and islands northwest of the main Hawaiian islands.

The most iconic image of the great frigate bird is probably that of the male, which is all black with its throat pouch, also known as a gular sac, inflated out like a great crimson red balloon during courtship. Females have a gular sac too, but it is dull in color and they do not inflate it like the males. Females can easily be distinguished from the males by their white throat and chest patch. Juveniles have white with varying amounts of rust coloring on the head, throat and underbelly.

The feathers of the ‘iwa bird features prominently in Hawaiian culture. The iridescent black feathers, including tail feathers, were used in the kāhili of royalty and in feather capes. It is found in many traditional Hawaiian moʻolelo (stories) and ʻōlelo noʻeau (sayings). One such saying, found in Mary Kawena Pukui’s book ‘Ōlelo No‘eau, says “Kīkaha ka ‘iwa he lā makani”, which translates to “When the ‘iwa bird soars on high, it is going to be windy.” Interestingly enough, when Hurricane Iniki struck in 1992, one of the staff at Kīlauea Point, who stayed on the refuge during the storm, said that early in the morning and before the winds picked up, he saw a huge flock of ‘iwa spiral up into the sky and fly northwest out to sea. The red-footed boobies, however, did not attempt to leave until the storm was upon them which resulted in a number of them being blown back into the trees and shrubs and a number of them became entangled and died.

If you want to see the ‘iwa birds on Kaua‘i, Kīlauea Point is the place to come, especially to observe them at their thieving best. Kāhili Beach is another great place to watch them too. There, you can see them swooping down to grab a quick drink from Kīlauea Stream. Whatever you do, don’t point your finger at them or you’ll make it rain...so say the keiki to one another on school field trips out to Kīlauea Point. So, grab your binoculars and come have a look, but no pointing...better to be safe than sorry.

male iwa flying Gene McGuire 5.2.11 022.jpg