Yesterday, Kumu Sabra Kauka and her fourth-grade class from a local school gathered along the coastline at Lydgate Park. It was a bluebird sky kind of day. More importantly, we had light trade winds. Winds are important to birds.
It’s true my recent 28 days at sea aboard the NOAA research vessel Oscar Elton Sette focused on the endangered Hawaiian monk seal. But you cannot study monk seals in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands without running into—and I do mean literally—a few seabirds. And by few, I mean a few hundred thousand. And during albatross nesting season, which is fast approaching, I really mean a few million.
It seemed there was nothing more prevalent in those waters and on those islands than seabirds. We’re talking Red-footed, Brown, and Masked boobies; White, Gray-backed, and Sooty terns; Bulwer’s, Bonin, Hawaiian, and Band-rumped storm petrels; White- and Red-tailed tropicbirds; Black, Brown, and Blue noddies; Great frigatebirds; and Wedge-tailed and Christmas shearwater.
We don’t see all those birds on Kaua‘i, or in the same numbers. But one seabird I didn’t spot in the waters of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands was the Newell’s shearwater.
For the seventh year in a row, Kumu Sabra brought her class to this spot on Kaua‘i’s east side to participate in a Hawaiian blessing of this special seabird.
Also known by its Hawaiian name of `a`o, the shearwater is noted as one of two seabirds endemic to the Hawaiian Islands. And because an estimated 90% of the species total population breeds on Kaua‘i, the `a`o is also known as Kaua‘i’s bird.
But the `a`o nests in underground burrows tucked beneath vegetation along steep mountain slopes and cliffs on Kaua‘i’s interior, making them very elusive for biologists and birders alike. That is until they start falling from the sky.
Every April, `a`o return from the sea to breed. They come and go in the dark—after sunset and before sunrise—and adults have been known to collide with power lines and towers. More disturbing, though, is light attraction during the fall fledging season, the time of year when chicks take to the sky for the first time, using the reflection of the moon on the surface of the sea to guide them to their new home and source of food—the big, Pacific Ocean.
During particularly dark nights, fledglings can confuse the lights of humankind—shopping centers, resorts, and playgrounds—for the moon, circling and circling until they fall to the ground in exhaustion or crash into manmade structures.
Three `a`o had fallen the night before and would be given a second chance to fly again thanks to a program called Save Our Shearwaters that relies on Kaua‘i citizens to rescue downed birds and a team of bird rehabilitation specialists to give the birds nourishment and space to rest, if needed, and when ready are taken to favorable launching spots around the island. Like the one at Lydgate Park.
Kumu Sabra’s class gathered in the shade of a pavilion. The kids talked about the birds, their fertilizing ability in the high mountains, threats to their survival, and more when Tracy, lead rehabilitator with Save Our Shearwater, showed up with a bird, pointing out their webbed feet and tubed noses.
As Tracy and the bird passed one boy, I overhead him say, “I want her job when I grow up. Then, I can hold the birds.”
Later, after all three birds successfully took the sky for their second time in their lives, I would see the same boy, eyes laser focused, finger pointing, as he watched the last of the three birds fly for the far horizon. It’s kids like him that give me hope for the species’ long-term survival.
Newell’s shearwater chicks will continue fledging for another month or so. Here’s how you can help.
If you find a downed bird, follow these guidelines, established by the Save our Shearwater program:
• Keep an old clean towel and a ventilated cardboard box, pet carrier or other non-airtight container in your car. If you are on foot, just a towel will do.
• If you find a downed bird, gently pick it up from behind with the towel, carefully wrapping the material completely around its back and wings. Place it in a container as soon as possible. Be aware of the shearwater’s long, pointed bill and don’t hold it near your face. Don’t worry too much because the birds are usually docile, but wrapping the bird in a towel will protect you and the bird safe.
• Keep the bird covered and in a quiet, shaded or cool location.
• Do not feed, water or handle birds.
• Do not attempt to release the bird yourself. It may have internal injuries or be too tired or weak to survive. Throwing the bird into the air could cause more injury. Let the trained Save Our Shearwaters program staff examine the bird and decide when, where and how to let it go.
• Take the downed bird directly to our shelter located at the Kaua‘i Humane Society during regular business hours. We are open from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and Monday. The shelter is closed on Sundays.
• Otherwise take the bird to the nearest shearwater aid station right away:
Kilauea Medical Group
Hanalei Fire Station (near Princeville shopping center)
Hanalei Liquor Store
Lihu’e Fire Station
Kapa’a Fire Station
Kaiakea Fire Station
Kauai Humane Society
Waimea Fire Station
Hanapepe Fire Station
Kalaheo Fire Station
Koloa Fire Station
And, then, about the time the `a`o finish their fledging, Laysan albatross will return to Kaua‘i. So, don’t worry, there’s no end to the wildlife stories to come.
I wrote about the Newell’s shearwater last year for HAWAI‘I magazine. You can read more about Kaua‘i’s bird here.