By Erin Pickett, M.Sc. (GEMM Lab member 2014-2016)
Field Assistant, Kaua’i Endangered Seabird Recovery Project
I heaved my body up with both arms, swung one leg up and attempted to muster any remaining energy I had into standing on the ridgeline of the valley that I had just crawled out of. Soaked from the rain, face covered with bits of dirt and with ferns sticking out of my hair I probably resembled a creature crawling out of a swamp. I smiled at this thought knowing that my dramatic emergence from the swamp might have been captured on a nearby motion-sensing trail camera.
I surveyed my surroundings to gain my bearings. I was searching for seabird burrows in a densely vegetated valley called Upper Limahuli Preserve in the mountains of Kaua’i, Hawaii. I was looking for the nests of the endangered Hawaiian Petrel (or ‘Ua’u in Hawaiian) and the threated Newell’s Shearwater (A’o), Hawaii’s only two endemic (found nowhere else in the world) Procellarid species. I registered the trail, the nearby fence line and the two valleys on either side of the ridge I was standing on. If a drone had photographed me from above, the scene of lush green mountains, waterfalls and rugged cliffs would not only look like the views from the helicopter arrival scene in the movie Jurassic Park, but indeed was the same Nā Pali coastline.
When I finished my graduate program at Oregon State University in 2017, I began working for a project called the Kaua’i Endangered Seabird Recovery Project (KESRP). Our work at KESRP focuses on monitoring Kauai’s populations of breeding a’o and ‘ua’u, mitigating on-land threats through recovery activities and conducting research (e.g. habitat modeling & at-sea tracking) to learn more about the two species.
An estimated 90% of the Newell’s Shearwater population breeds on the island of Kaua’i, as does a large portion of the Hawaiian Petrel population. Both populations have declined rapidly on Kaua’i over the past two decades, where radar surveys found a 78% decrease of Hawaiian Petrels and a 94% decrease in overall numbers of Newell’s Shearwaters (Raine et al., 2017). Light pollution, collision with electrical power lines, and invasive vertebrate predators represent primary threats to both the a’o and ‘ua’u while on land during the breeding season. As with all seabirds that nest on islands, the a’o and ‘ua’u are easy prey for invasive species such as feral cats and black rats, thus, there is a large effort within our study area to alleviate the threat of these predators.
The purpose of my burrow search effort on this day was to find suitable candidate burrows for a translocation project that KESRP has undertaken since 2015. This fall, we will attempt to relocate via helicopter up to 20 a’o and ‘ua’u chicks from the mountains of Kaua’i, where they are vulnerable to invasive predators, to a predator-proof fenced area located within nearby Kīlauea National Wildlife Refuge. The ultimate aim of our translocation project, a critical component of the Nihokū Ecosystem Restoration Project, is to establish successful breeding colonies of a’o and ‘ua’u within the protected boundaries of a fence that is impermeable to rats, cats, and pigs.
On Kaua’i, the imperiled a’o and ‘ua’u nest on verdant cliffs amid native Hawaiian uluhe ferns and ‘ohi‘a lehua trees. Both species raise their chicks in burrows that can only be located by humans after an extensive search effort that involves scanning the densely vegetated forest floor for tiny feathers and guano trails, and following the musty scent of seabirds until an underground tunnel is found, sometimes with a bird nestled inside.
My afternoon of burrow searching had been strenuous, and being day three it had already been a long week in the field so I sighed and started heading in the direction that would lead me back to our field camp. Though, after a few steps I caught the musty smell of seabird in the air and immediately stopped walking. Like an animal, I followed my nose and turned my head over my right shoulder and sniffed the air. I climbed over the fence that separated the trail I was hiking on from the 3,000 foot drop into the valley below, carefully positioned my feet on the fragile cliff side and lifted a large tuft of grass to find a freshly dug hole that smelled unmistakably like a seabird.
Either a prospecting Hawaiian Petrel or Newell’s Shearwater had broken ground on this new burrow the night before. The birds had been busy digging into the cliff side while I had been conducting an auditory survey a few hundred meters away. The auditory survey had begun at sunset and over the course of the next two hours I listened for and recorded the locations of seabirds transiting overhead, heading from the sea to the mountains and calling from their burrows nearby. Ideally, this auditory survey would help me pinpoint locations of ‘ground callers’ who’s raucous would lead me to their burrows the next day.
Finding a burrow is not often as easy as pinpointing the location of a ground caller, catching a whiff of seabird near that location and immediately locating a hole in the ground. Yet, finding a burrow that is ‘reachable’ and that is reasonably close to a helicopter landing zone, is even more difficult. And this task is one of our objectives throughout the field season this year.
If you’re interested in keeping up with our progress you can follow KESRP on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/kauaiseabirdproject/
Raine, A. F., Holmes, N. D., Travers, M., Cooper, B. A., & Day, R. H. (2017). Declining population trends of Hawaiian Petrel and Newell’s Shearwater on the island of Kaua‘i, Hawaii, USA. The Condor, 119(3), 405-415.