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.