Yesterday, my friend Anne, who is also writing during the COVID-19 pandemic, posted on Facebook that she was requesting writing topics. In marketing-speak, that’s called crowd-sourcing. “If anyone has a suggestion of something to write about (including research), I’m all ears,” she wrote.
I guess I was feeling spunky. “Ears,” I typed.
She fired back, “Only if you do.”
I tried to weasel out of it. “I’ve already got another topic for today,” I wrote.
But she wasn’t having it. “I’ll wait then,” she wrote.
Fortuitously, last night, a little before 8:00, the bird biologist who lives down the street from me texted, “Just heard a NESH fly past my house.”
“OMG. I’m running outside,” I texted back.
NESH is the scientific shorthand for Newell’s shearwater, a seabird that nests primarily on Kauai and nowhere else in the world. They come and go from their nesting colony in the dark, after sunset and before sunrise, so they’re nocturnal. The best way to spot them is to simply listen for them. (Unless, of course, you have night-vision goggles.)
NESH have a distinctive call often compared to a braying donkey. A braying donkey in flight, that is. I think their call sounds more like a hyperventilating chimpanzee, if you’ve ever heard a chimp pant-hooting.
Certainly, if it was out there, I’d hear it. It’s a crazy ridiculous sound.
My neighbor and I live on the flightpath for Newell’s shearwater nesting in the mountaintop across the street from us. I knew I had to get outside quickly, because NESH can clock 45 miles per hour in flight. If you think that’s impressive, get this: NESH have a unique foraging method, called “pursuit-plunging,” in which a bird regularly dives to depths in excess of 150 feet in pursuit of prey. They feed on the smaller fish driven to the surface by tuna, especially the prized yellowfin tuna, so they are considered fish-finders by fishermen.
As I understand it, the species was once thought extinct; however, in the late 1960s, a colony was discovered in the very mountains across the street from me.
Some years ago, I was using our outdoor shower when I looked up and to see a bird flying much like a Newell’s shearwater—shallow quick wingbeats followed by a bit of a glide. I cannot say for sure it was a NESH. A few years ago, a friend stopped by our place for a chat. We drank tea on the lanai, in full view of the mountain. She’s birdy, too.
“Have you ever seen a NESH fly in here?” she asked, and I told her about my shower experience. Later, after she left, she texted to tell me she’d found a dead NESH on the highway.
For a long time, the population size of Newell’s shearwater was a bit of a mystery. Their only remaining nesting sites are high in remote mountainous—and vertiginous—regions, making it hard to count them. Scientists have gotten very creative in order to tease out an answer to their population size—using radar and sound recorders. Unfortunately, once they started to pinpoint a population size, they also zeroed in on annual mortality rates. And, let’s just say it’s depressing. A 94 percent decline on Kauai means the species could go extinct by 2050.
Once ringing in hope for the species, the colony in the mountains across the street from me has been decimated. They’re just too close to neighborhoods, where there are cats, rats, pigs, and dogs. Plus, as I sit looking at the mountain from my house, there is a fence of electrical wires. A recently study reported that 1,800 endangered seabirds are killed by collisions with power lines every year. This includes Newell’s shearwaters and Hawaiian petrels.
But the sound of their call brings hope.
Unfortunately, I didn’t hear it. My neighbor and I are planning nightly listening surveys—she on her lanai, me on mine. We’ll sit. We’ll listen. The nightly COVID-19 curfew ensures the roads will be quiet, making it easier to hear the crazy call of Newell’s shearwater. I’m all ears.
We’re at 530 cases in Hawaii with 21 on Kauai.
Be well. Be sane.