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Gather the Goslings Before the Gale!

Staff used binoculars to get a better look at the nest without alarming the birds. Since the 1940s when there were fewer than 50 nene remaining, this species has made a remarkable turn-around, in part due to captive breeding efforts by San Diego Zoo Global.

Staff used binoculars to get a better look at the nest without alarming the birds. Since the 1940s when there were fewer than 50 nene remaining, this species has made a remarkable comeback, in part due to captive breeding efforts by San Diego Zoo Global.

On a cold and foggy winter morning, a group of Keauhou Bird Conservation Center (KBCC) staff stood alongside biologist Kathleen Misajon and ecologist Darcy Hu, from the National Park Service. Just a few yards away under the umbrella of a sizable hapu‘u (tree fern) was a nene nest. The nene, (pronounced nay-nay), is Hawaii’s state bird and also happens to be the world’s rarest goose primarily due to excessive hunting and predation by introduced mammalian predators, like feral cats and mongooses. Underneath the incubating female nene we hoped to find four newly hatched goslings. A raging wind storm was headed straight for the Hawaiian Islands that night. If the nene family wasn’t moved that day, we feared the vulnerable goslings might not make it through the night. If any goslings were still in the process of hatching then we would need to postpone the move until the next day. We anxiously waited and watched as Kathleen slowly walked up to the nest…

Life at the KBCC gets a little more interesting when nene breeding season rolls around. Nene territory disputes are a common sight and consist of a lot of raucous honking. Sometimes there are even a few feathers floating around in the aftermath. Over the years we’ve kept close tabs on nene that visit our grounds. Female PA and male FL (named for their leg band combinations) are no strangers here and we have been closely following their interactions. It’s almost like watching a popular reality TV show!

PA hatched on KBCC grounds in 2003 and was moved, along with her previously released parents, to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. She was over a week old when her family was moved, and she returned to nest at KBCC. In an effort to avoid establishing a breeding population amongst the facility buildings, roads and parking areas, nesting families are now moved right after hatch to ensure that the goslings imprint on, and later breed in, the National Park. PA had a mate named FS and in 2008 and they had a nest of 4 eggs that failed to hatch. Unfortunately FS disappeared, never to be been seen again.

Male FL was also hatched in captivity and released into the wild. He originally paired up with a female named FX. Sadly, in 2008, just as FX and FL’s eggs were hatching, FX was mysteriously found dead near her nest and an egg had gone missing! FL was left to be a single dad to the three brand-new goslings. PA and FL paired up later that year and have been inseparable ever since. Last year, they successfully hatched and raised four goslings. (Read Nene Nest Fest 2014 to learn more.) We were anxious to see if they would repeat history this year.

We could tell female PA was about to lay eggs because the white area of her abdomen became much bigger and rounder than the male's.

We could tell female PA was about to lay eggs because the white area of her abdomen became much bigger and rounder than the male’s.

In early November, PA started to look gravid, meaning we could tell that she was carrying eggs. Nēnē don’t start sitting on the nest until they’ve laid all their eggs. This ensures that all eggs develop and hatch at the same time. Over the span of a few days PA would briefly disappear from FL’s side to lay her eggs but we weren’t sure where the nest was.

Eventually, Rosanna, our research coordinator, found the nest in a slightly startling way. Walking down a dirt road that leads to some of our alala aviaries Rosanna saw FL by the road, peacefully nibbling grass. Suddenly FL looked up and quickly took flight—flying low and straight at Rosanna’s head! Luckily, Rosanna has quick reflexes. She held up a clipboard to protect her head and thankfully, FL stopped short of his aerial attack, landing between Rosanna and a hapu‘u just off the side of the road. Nervously, Rosanna called out “I think I found PA’s nest!”

FL weighs in at no more than a bag of flour and stands less than 16 inches tall, but that doesn’t stop him from being a cutthroat protector of PA and her nest. He can instill fear in any stranger that dares to walk by his nest. The staff and interns have learned that FL is more bark than bite, but those less familiar with his antics, like the big burly contractors who have been working on our new alala aviaries, were wary about going down the road FL guarded. It was a funny sight to these grown men shaking in their boots because of FL!

This adorable ball of fluff is a one-day-old nene gosling, peeping loudly for his mother. Currently the wild nene population stands at about 2500 birds.

This adorable ball of fluff is a one-day-old nene gosling, peeping loudly for its mother. Currently, the wild nene population stands at about 2,500 birds.

On that cold and foggy morning, Kathleen slowly walked up to the nest. FL was having none of it. He spread his wings and started angrily hissing. We knew that Kathleen had spotted four goslings when she and Darcy quickly snatched up PA and FL in their arms. With the parents subdued, KBCC team members swooped in to scoop up the four goslings. The family was then gingerly placed in carriers and transported to their new home in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, where the goslings would be able to grow up among other nene and become truly wild birds.

That night, intense gale-force winds slammed many parts of the Hawaii islands. The KBCC facility lost power and sustained some tree damage. The aftermath of the storm was hectic, but Kathleen was quick to send us an e-mail update on the nene family. PA, FL, and their goslings were safe and sound in their new home!

The staff eagerly waits for the day when PA and FL decide to come back and visit the KBCC property!

Amy Kuhar and Donnie Alverson are Research Associates at the Keauhou Bird Conservation Center in Hawaii.