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.

Do These Pants Make Me Fit In?

The ornithologist and I picked our way across a knife-edge ridge high on a Kauai mountain. We were here looking for the nesting site of a rare and endangered bird—the Newell’s shearwater. Due to development and cats and rats and barn owls and a host of other threats, the total population of this particular species of seabird has plummeted an estimated 75% in 15 years. In fact, the colony in which we found ourselves standing waist-high in false staghorn fern, known as uluhe in Hawaii, once numbered 48 active nest sites. Now, only one remains.

I know this, because I had been peppering the ornithologist with questions for a magazine story I was writing.

“Watch your footing. There’s a hole here,” the kindly ornithologist said in his quiet voice tinged with an English accent.

hiking ornithologist
Kindly Ornithologist

I was wearing turquoise-colored pants—not my first choice, but my favorite hiking pair was piled in a laundry basket awaiting a go in the washing machine. I’d only worn the turquoise ones a few times before and never in the field. They weren’t quite the same color as I’d seen in the catalog. Teal marine? Poseidon blue? Fiji green? Who can really tell what these colors will turn out to be? These turned out to make me feel like I was standing out rather than fitting in. And I don’t like to stand out.

I grew up the only girl of three children. My two older brothers taught me how to throw a baseball and how to shoot a basketball. When they turned to pro wrestling moves, I quickly learned how to escape their favorite hold—the full Nelson.

Soon, they were choosing me in the neighborhood touch football games. “We’ll take her, because she’s our sister,” they’d concede, as if I were a liability. Then, they’d demand a few points and to receive the kickoff to further emphasize my girly burden. But with the first snap of the ball, they’d throw long. To me. Because in addition to the baseballs and basketballs, they’d also taught me how to catch a football. That trick worked a few times before the other team would figure out I wasn’t a fluke and would put a defender on me.

I quickly learned that being a girl who could throw and catch like a boy earned me respect. I didn’t wear pink. I didn’t play with Barbie dolls. I always tried to fit in.

I applied the same technique to my career. When I worked in the male-dominated corporate world on the mainland, I took up golf. But I didn’t buy those pink golf balls that manufacturers were pawning on women. Oh, no. Not me. On Sundays, I watched football, and I could go head-to-head with any man on sports trivia. (Again thanks to my brothers–one, in particular.)

Then, my husband and I moved to Kauai, where I very clearly do not fit in. I am light-skinned. I don’t possess a single drop of Hawaiian blood. I don’t speak Pidgin. But, still, I try to fit in. I try to understand the culture, do the right thing, and be respectful of the place and those who were here long before me. I especially try not to be the obnoxious, know-it-all white woman from the mainland.

The thing I love about being a writer is it gives me permission to enter terrain with which I am familiar but not an expert. I like writing on topics about which I want to know more. But that often puts me in a position of being the ignorant fool. At least, that’s how I perceive myself. Some writer friends I know base their persona around being the bumbling idiot. Some writers—Mark Twain, Bill Bryson—are quite good at it. Not me. Being the ignorant fool is not a role I like playing. I suppose my self-confidence is not all that strong, because even at 51, I am still trying to fit in, still trying to impress the older boys, whose team of ornithologists, biologists, and scientists, I can happily report, is being infiltrated more and more with girls. But that team? They are now, more often than not, much younger than I am. And in much better shape.

View of Poipu Coastline from Mauka Kalaheo
View of Poipu Coastline from Mauka Kalaheo

And, so, I trekked after this younger man—the ornithologist—for an hour through a muddy trail. I felt my breath quicken and my face redden. At every curve, I looked up, hoping to see a flattened slope instead of a continued uphill climb. And, finally, when it happened, when the trail reached its apex, I realized we were standing in the middle of a high-ish-elevation bog where the infamous uluhe grows rampant.

This particular fern sends out shoots that weave one on top of the other, creating a matted web of fronds that’s a little like walking on a trampoline. These shoots—segmented pieces, really—can even extend far out beyond where land stops and cliff starts. On the narrow spine of a ridge on which we picked our way, we were not many steps away from cliff’s edge—on either side of us.

I was aware of this and trying to be mindful of it while trying not to think about it too much. If you know what I mean.

At the point when the ornithologist said, “Watch your footing. There’s a hole here,” we’d already stepped through a few other holes. That is, areas of less dense uluhe fern that did not hold our weight. But it just so happened that this time, this hole opened up on a downward sloping part of the ridge, and when I stepped into it, my momentum was going forward. Going so forward, in fact, that I felt my upper body propel forward over my feet.

I think I may have called out, because the ornithologist stopped and looked back, and I heard the words, “Oh, my,” escape his lips. He, by the way, wore camouflage-colored pants with knee-high rubber boots that had studs—to help with traction.

Already, in my mind, I was picturing the sight he saw: Two turquoise-colored legs–caked with mud—sticking out of a bed of ferns.

Now, my 35-year-old self would have been humiliated. My 25-year-old self would have probably preferred falling completely down the cliff face. But the middle-aged, grey-haired, turquoise-pant-wearing woman that I am today? I started laughing. Laughing so hard, in fact, that I was paralyzed. I couldn’t right myself by rolling forward or backward, and my turquoise-colored legs flailed in the air.

“Are you O.K.?” my only witness to this come-uppance asked. I noticed a bit of concern in his voice, so I stifled my laughter and somehow got my turquoise legs back under me.

The ornithologist was a complete gentleman about it. He didn’t make me feel stupid or bumbling or ignorant.

After we found the burrow and adjusted a song-meter, a device that captures the raucous call of these seabirds in order to estimate population, we picked our way back along the ridge and through the ferns to safe, albeit muddy, land.

When we arrived back at his office, I said. “This was a great day. I am only disappointed with one thing.”

His face wrinkled in a question.

“That you didn’t get a picture of me doing the headstand in the uluhe.”

So, finally, at 51, I think I might be starting to get over my need to fit in. In fact, I might finally be embracing who I am—in my own white skin, inside my own turquoise-colored pants. In fact, I have a whole new opinion of my turquoise pants now. I think I’ll wear them on my next hike.