Help Protect Hawaii’s Seabirds

Hawaiian petrel 'ua'u
​’​Ua’u (Hawaiian petrel)

[Re-printed in entirety from a State of Hawaii DLNR press release that just landed in my in-box. Please help protect Hawaii’s seabirds.]

For immediate release
November 15, 2017


HONOLULU —  It’s Fall in Hawai‘i, and once again time to watch out for the “fallout” of young seabirds on our islands. At this time of year, native Hawaiian seabirds become disoriented by artificial lights during their maiden flights from their burrows out to sea.  Read more

From Seals to Seabirds.

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.

Newell's shearwater chick
Newell’s shearwater chick thinks about taking to the air.

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 Releases `A`o Chick.
Kumu Sabra Releases `A`o Chick.

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.

Malama Monk Seal Voyage #5: Laysan

Laysan Finch Chick
Laysan Finch Chick

I was walking on the leeward side of Laysan Island, over 900 miles northwest of Honolulu, when Megan, one of the remote field campers with the Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program approached me. The full complement of seabirds flew overhead or roosted in nearby bushes, including two new species for me during our trip: Bristle-thighed curlew and the endemic Laysan finch. We’d also already spotted close to two-dozen Hawaiian monk seals hauled out on the beach fringing the island but none were underweight candidates for Ke Kai Ola, the Hawaiian Monk Seal Hospital.

“Have you heard the news over the radio?” Megan asked. When she isn’t surveying Hawaiian monk seals during the summer field season, she’s an EMT, a good person to have on the team in the wilderness of the sea.

“No,” I said. It had been a hot day with no respite from the sun. We’d only trekked a portion of Laysan Island. With little more than a thousand acres, it’s the second largest island in the 1,000-mile-long archipelago. Its rectangular shape has been compared to a poi board—a very large one at roughly one by one-and-a-half miles in size.

Like the rest of these islands, Laysan has a storied past. There’s some question whether Hawaiians inhabited the island, although there is clear evidence those residing on the Main Hawaiian Islands knew the island chain extended beyond Kauai. In the 1820s, Massachusetts’ whalers reported sighting the island. Then, the Russians mapped it. In 1890, the guano miners arrived and things began to change—rapidly. Max Schlemmer released rabbits on the island in 1894 for a meat-canning business that never happened. What did happen was the rabbits denuded the island. Reportedly, two-dozen species of flora were eradicated, and the Laysan rail, Laysan honeycreeper, and Laysan millerbird* went extinct. A scientist with the Bishop Museum estimated there were 10 million seabirds on Laysan in the early 1900s. One-tenth remained a short 10 years later. And while I haven’t found exact data on Hawaiian monk seals at Laysan, we know from various ship records that seal hunting expeditions occurred throughout the archipelago in the mid- to late-19th century.

We were on island to re-deploy two field campers who had left earlier in the season due to a hurricane threat. It was while unloading a storage unit at the highest elevation spot on the island—all of 50 feet—that I spotted the lake.

One of the really interesting thing about Laysan is its lake, the only lake of any kind in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. It’s not any ordinary lake, but a hyper-saline lake. With the lake comes ducks. Surprisingly, the endemic Laysan duck has survived the island’s onslaught of guano miners, rabbits, hunters, and its own share of natural disasters that must have occurred over the millennia of the duck’s existence to rebound from its lowest recorded number of 11 in 1911 to several hundred or more today, thanks to habitat restoration work by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The ducks have become somewhat famous in bird circles for the way they forage—by running on mudflats, stirring up clouds of brine flies, and snapping up a meal as they go.

Speaking of flies, back on the beach, I was probably swatting at a few while Megan delivered her news. As the day heated up on Laysan, a swarm of flies seemed to gravitate toward me, sticking to my shorts and occasionally landing on my face. Earlier, just before we descended the rope ladder into the small boat that would deliver us ashore, someone had told me about the abundance of flies on Laysan and how they tend to favor people wearing dark-colored clothes—dark, as in black, the exact color of the cheap shorts I’d purchased from Ross Dress for Less.

Megan, however, seemed to be fly-free. “There was a major earthquake off Chile, and we’re under a tsunami watch,” she said.

As it turned out, the field campers didn’t get re-deployed, after all. Not for another day. They returned to the ship with us to eat a garden salad, garlic pasta with fresh, grilled asparagus, and a King Cone ice cream drumstick for dessert. (Well, that’s what I ate, at least.)

It was at dinner, a short few minutes after returning to the ship, that we learned the tsunami watch had been canceled altogether. There was no threat to Hawaii. Still, everyone slept in their bunks in their staterooms for one more night. Because if there’s one thing I’ve learned about the Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program and the crew aboard the Oscar Elton Sette it’s that safety is the number one priority.

Interestingly enough, the next day, off Laysan, we witnessed the tide ebb and flow, swinging all of six inches or so every thirty minutes. It was like watching a time-lapse video of the daily tidal flux. If we hadn’t been alerted to the news of the earthquake, I wonder if we’d even have noticed at all.

Hurricanes. Tsunamis. Heat. Bugs. These are the challenges of doing fieldwork.

*In 2011, scientists reintroduced millerbirds to Laysan Island, these from Nihoa, another of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. We dropped a couple badass bird biologists off at Laysan to survey their population. We’ll pick them up when we swing back through here in a week.