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Hawaiian Honeycreeper Hatches Under Managed Care

These two 'akeke'e chicks will be part of a captive breeding population aiming to boost the species' numbers.

These two newly hatched ‘akeke’e chicks will grow up to be part of a managed breeding population.

The first three eggs of the rare ‘akeke‘e have hatched under the auspices of San Diego Zoo Global conservation biologists. The newly hatched chicks represent hope for the survival of a small Hawaiian honeycreeper.

Eggs from two species of rare Hawaiian honeycreeper birds, the ‘akikiki and ‘akeke‘e, were collected from native habitat earlier this month as part of an effort to preserve these two bird species from extinction.

The eggs were brought into managed care to start a breeding population through a collaborative effort by the Kaua‘i Forest Bird Recovery Project (KFBRP), State of Hawai‘i Department of Land and Natural Resources’ (DLNR) Division of Forestry and Wildlife, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service-Pacific Islands Fish and Wildlife Office (USFWS-PIFWO), University of Hawaii, and San Diego Zoo Global.

“These three ‘akeke‘e eggs all came from a single clutch,” said Bryce Masuda, Conservation Program Manager, San Diego Zoo Global. “One of the eggs was a bit worrisome because it was losing too much weight a few days ago, but all three hatched just fine. We are continuing to watch the nestlings closely as this is the first time they have been raised under human care.”

The ‘akikiki and ‘akeke‘e are two species of Hawaiian honeycreeper found only on the island of Kaua‘i. These two small bird species have been severely affected by introduced diseases such as avian malaria, as well as loss of native forest habitat, hurricanes, and the introduction of non-native predator species in the wild. Very little is known about them and they have not been raised in a zoological setting before. Conservationists with the HEBCP have worked successfully with a number of other similar native Hawaiian birds and are using these techniques to ensure both species will thrive.

“Both the ‘akikiki and ‘akeke‘e have shown steep declines over the past 10 to 15 years, and now number fewer than 1,000 birds each,” said John Vetter, Forest Bird Recovery Coordinator of the DLNR’s Division of Forestry and Wildlife. “A panel of experts in Hawaiian forest bird conservation was convened in 2013 to identify steps needed to preserve these species and ranked the initiation of captive breeding populations as one of the highest priorities for both species.”

Since early March, KFBRP team members have spent hundreds of hours searching the dense rain forests of Kaua’i’s ‘Alaka‘i Wilderness Preserve for the cryptic nests of these two rare species, said Dr. Lisa “Cali” Crampton, KFBRP Project Leader. “Both nest on tiny branches at the top of the canopy, about 30 to 40 feet high, and camouflage their nests as clumps of moss. To reach the nests, KFBRP devised a suspension system for a 40-foot extension ladder.”

Eggs from the two Hawaiian honeycreeper species were removed from nests and a team of bird experts hiked and helicoptered them to an egg-rearing facility on Kaua‘i. Seven ‘akikiki chicks have hatched so far and appear to be doing well. Four ‘akikiki chicks are already out of their nests and moving around their aviary. Back in the wild, parents of nests harvested earlier this season have started renesting.

Conservation biologists will continue their efforts for the remainder of the breeding season, and have already identified more nests for harvest. The USFWS-PIFWO provided the majority of the funding for the project and a grant from the Mohamed Bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund has also been instrumental in this effort.

Bringing species back from the brink of extinction is the goal of San Diego Zoo Global. As a leader in conservation, the work of San Diego Zoo Global includes onsite wildlife conservation efforts (representing both plants and animals) at the San Diego Zoo, the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, and San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research, as well as international field programs on six continents. The work of these entities is inspiring children through the San Diego Zoo Kids network, reaching out through the Internet and in children’s hospitals nationwide. The work of San Diego Zoo Global is made possible by the San Diego Zoo Global Wildlife Conservancy and is supported in part by the Foundation of San Diego Zoo Global.

KFBRP is a collaboration between the Pacific Studies Cooperative Unit of the University of Hawai’i and the DLNR Division of Forestry and Wildlife. KFBRP’s mission is to promote knowledge, appreciation, and conservation of Kauai’s native forest birds, with a particular focus on the three endangered species: puaiohi, ‘akikiki and ‘akeke‘e. For more information, please see kauaiforestbirds.org. The mission of the Department of Land and Natural Resources’ Division of Forestry and Wildlife is to responsibly manage and protect watersheds, native ecosystems, and cultural resources and provide outdoor recreation and sustainable forest products opportunities, while facilitating partnerships, community involvement and education.

The mission of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working with others to conserve, protect, and enhance fish, wildlife, plants, and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. The mission of the Pacific Islands Fish and Wildlife Office is to conserve and restore native biodiversity and ecological integrity of Pacific Island ecosystems for the benefit of present and future generations through leadership, science-based management, and collaborative partnerships.

Photo by Tammy Spratt, San Diego Zoo Global

CONTACT: SAN DIEGO ZOO GLOBAL PUBLIC RELATIONS, 619-685-3291
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Two Species on the Brink of Extinction Being Brought Into Safety from Threats in the Wild

Six tiny nestlings at San Diego Zoo Global’s facilities in Hawai‘i are being closely watched by conservation biologists. These six chicks represent hope for a small Hawaiian bird species known as the ‘akikiki. The species is being brought into captivity to start a breeding population through a collaborative effort by the Kaua‘i Forest Bird Recovery Project (KFBRP), State of Hawai‘i Department of Land and Natural Resources’ (DLNR) Division of Forestry and Wildlife, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service-Pacific Islands Fish and Wildlife Office (USFWS-PIFWO) and San Diego Zoo Global. Eggs from ‘akikiki and ‘akeke‘e nests were collected from the wild recently as part of an effort to preserve these two bird species from extinction.

“Both the ‘akikiki and ‘akeke‘e have shown steep declines over the past 10 to 15 years, and now number fewer than 1,000 birds each,” said John Vetter, forest bird recovery coordinator of the DLNR’s Division of Forestry and Wildlife. “A panel of experts in Hawaiian forest bird conservation convened to identify steps needed to preserve these species and ranked the initiation of captive breeding populations as one of the highest priorities for both species.”

The ‘akikiki and ‘akeke‘e are two species of Hawaiian honeycreeper found only on the island of Kaua‘i. These two small bird species have been severely affected by introduced diseases such as avian malaria, loss of native forest habitat, hurricanes, and the introduction of non-native predator species in the wild. Very little is known about them and they have not been raised in a zoological setting before. Conservationists with the HEBCP have worked successfully with a number of other similar native Hawaiian birds and are using these techniques to ensure both species will thrive.

“By bringing ‘akikiki and ‘akeke‘e into captivity for breeding purposes, we will prevent their extinction and support their future recovery by releasing captive-reared offspring into the wild in the future,” said Bryce Masuda, conservation program manager, San Diego Zoo Global.

“Since early March, KFBRP team members have spent hundreds of hours searching the dense rain forests of Kauai’s ‘Alaka’i Wilderness Preserve for the cryptic nests of these two rare species,” said Dr. Lisa “Cali” Crampton, KFBRP project leader.  “Both nest on tiny branches at the top of the canopy, about 30 to 40 feet high, and camouflage their nests as clumps of moss. To reach the nests, KFBRP devised a suspension system for a 40-foot extension ladder.”

Eggs from the two species were removed from the nests and a team of bird experts hiked and helicoptered them to a facility for artificial incubation. Six ‘akikiki chicks have hatched so far and appear to be doing well under the care of San Diego Zoo Global staff. Conservationists will continue their efforts for the remainder of the breeding season. The USFWS-PIFWO provided the majority of the funding for the project and a grant from the Mohamed Bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund has also been instrumental in this effort.

Bringing species back from the brink of extinction is the goal of San Diego Zoo Global. As a leader in conservation, the work of San Diego Zoo Global includes onsite wildlife conservation efforts (representing both plants and animals) at the San Diego Zoo, the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, and San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research, as well as international field programs on six continents. The work of these entities is inspiring children through the San Diego Zoo Kids network, reaching out through the Internet and in children’s hospitals nationwide. The work of San Diego Zoo Global is made possible by the San Diego Zoo Global Wildlife Conservancy and is supported in part by the Foundation of San Diego Zoo Global.

KFBRP is a collaboration between the Pacific Studies Cooperative Unit of the University of Hawai’i and the DLNR Division of Forestry and Wildlife. KFBRP’s mission is to promote knowledge, conservation of Kauai’s native forest birds, with a particular focus on the three endangered species: puaiohi, ‘akikiki and ‘akeke‘e. For more information, please visit kauiforestbirds.org. The mission of the Department of Land and Natural Resources’ Division of Forestry and Wildlife is to responsibly manage and protect watersheds, native ecosystems, and cultural resources and provide outdoor recreation and sustainable forest products opportunities, while facilitating partnerships, community involvement and education.

The mission of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working with others to conserve, protect, and enhance fish, wildlife, plants, and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. The mission of the Pacific Islands Fish and Wildlife Office is to conserve and restore native biodiversity and ecological integrity of Pacific Island ecosystems for the benefit of present and future generations through leadership, science-based management, and collaborative partnerships.

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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.

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Watch the Birdies! Open House at the Keauhou Bird Conservation Center

Special displays allow curious visitors to understand the "why" and "how" of the program.

Special displays allow curious visitors to understand the “why” and “how” of the program.

Last December, we held our annual open house here at the Keauhou Bird Conservation Center. This is our largest public event of the year and always an exciting time for us. Although we are normally closed to the public in order to focus on breeding our rare birds, this even is our chance to open our doors to those interested in learning about our program.

Since we are located on a remote ranch, we can only accept as many people as can fit in our shuttles for each tour—and the tours filled up fast again this year! It was so encouraging to see such an outpouring of interest and support from our local, island, and global community. In addition to many local residents, we had guests this year fly in from other islands and from as far away as Montana!

Our staff met visitors at our outer gate, situated everyone in the shuttles, and then drove guests through nearly three miles of beautiful, restored native forest to the facility. Upon arrival, everyone gathered inside our main office building to learn a little of the history of the program and to admire our fantastic mural depicting the array of unique wildlife and environments found here on the Big Island of Hawaii. We talked about the species we work with—Palila, ‘Alalā, Kiwikiu, and Puaiohi—and the multifaceted pressures they face in the wild.

The author acting as tour guide for a group of interested visitors.

The author acting as tour guide, giving visitors the inside story about the birds being bred at KBCC.

 

Next, everyone gathered around the windows to get a close up and personal view of our education birds, including two ‘alalā, before heading up to one of our forest bird barns to see our species in their breeding aviaries. It was wonderful to see smiles spread across the faces of everyone, young and old, as they watched some of the world’s rarest birds go about their business.

Throughout the tour, visitors demonstrated great interest and concern for the future of these special birds, and many of our staff received excellent questions such as “What can I do at home to help?” and “Is there a way for me to help restore the forests so our birds have somewhere to go?” We encourage people in our area wanting to help to plant native species such as ‘ōhi‘a lehua, in their yards to attract endemic forest birds. Getting rid of standing water on the property is another great way to make life easier for our birds since it eliminates breeding grounds for mosquitoes, which carry dangerous diseases for both humans and wildlife.

Our entire staff was available after the tours to talk with everyone, and it was so heartening to see such passion and respect for the birds that we work with on a daily basis. Open House is an important reminder for us that the work we do is valued, but most significantly it is our chance to give back to our community for their support, interest, and enthusiasm.

For all of you reading this post, thank you. I will say to you the same thing I said to my tours: Your being here (even if it is just through the Internet!) is a vital part of our program. We could breed birds all day long, but without your interest and support it would be for naught. You are an essential part of the future of these birds, and we at the Keauhou Bird Conservation Center are proud to have your support and partnership as we move forward together to make this conservation story a success!

Chelsea McGimpsey is a research associate at the Keauhou Bird Conservation Center.

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Sweet, Juicy Papaya‚—for the Birds!

What's on the menu? Egg, commercial diet, and juicy, sweet papaya!

What’s on the menu? Scrambled egg, commercial diet, and juicy, sweet papaya!

As people recover from their holiday feasting, now is a nice time to reflect on feeding Hawaiian birds in a captive breeding program.

One of the biggest challenges of managing a captive propagation center for Hawaiian birds is providing a nutritionally balanced diet replicating foods the birds would eat in the wild. Ideally, a captive diet is composed of the exact same natural fruits, nectars, and animal and insect proteins birds forage on while wandering in native Hawaiian forests. But collecting the exact food items these birds eat in the wild is impossible!

Although wild diets cannot be perfectly recreated, we strive to fashion a representation offering the same nutritional components. Prior to working with any new bird species, Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program (HEBCP) staff review data on a species’ nutritional requirements and foraging behavior in the wild, to create diets for the birds in captivity. For instance, wild alala historically consumed many native fruits, and supplemented their fruit-heavy diet with invertebrates as well as the occasional egg and nestling of other bird species.

For birds in managed care, we replicate what is contained in wild alala diets by providing apple, melon, mixed veggies, and papaya in place of native fruits. The alala also receive scrambled egg, mealworms, and bird pellets that offer a balance of carbohydrates, fats, amino acids, vitamins, and minerals. As you can see, these captive diets heavily feature food items available from commercial retailers.

Unfortunately, even commercially available foods can be difficult or expensive to obtain. This is where we benefit from close relationships with generous local supporters in our communities. For example, Kumu Farms in Wailuku, Maui, regularly donates organic, GMO-free papaya for the birds at the Maui Bird Conservation Center (MBCC). Although the MBCC is a relatively small facility, providing enough papaya for all almost 70 birds (representing 4 species) being bred in captivity is no small feat—but Kumu Farms donates papaya to help make this possible. And all the birds at MBCC eagerly devour Kumu Farm’s sweet, juicy gift!

Joshua Kramer is a research coordinator at the Maui Bird Conservation Center, operated by San Diego Zoo Global. Read his previous post, Maui Bird Conservation Center: Open House 2013.

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Meeting Endangered Birds on a Tropical Island Getaway

The view as we drove the winding road to the Maui Bird Conservation Center was stunning!

The view as we drove the winding road to the Maui Bird Conservation Center was stunning!

As a senior animal trainer at the San Diego Zoo, I always tell our guests that San Diego Zoo Global has dozens of conservation projects worldwide. But until recently I had never gotten to experience any of our off-site programs. While planning a vacation to the islands of Lanai and Maui in Hawaii, I realized “Hey—we have that bird facility over there!” I had heard about the Maui Bird Conservation Center (MBCC) and the work they do with critically endangered Hawaiian bird species, and I was lucky to be able to visit the MBCC, even though the facility is typically closed to the public.

At left are the bird holding areas.

At left are the bird holding areas.

My companion and I drove straight from the Lanai ferry up an exceedingly narrow and twisty road with some amazing vistas to the Maui Bird Conservation Center, stopping first to pick up some thank-you donuts for the staff. If there’s one thing I know about zoo folk, they love surprise yummy treats, and the reception the donuts got was very gratifying! The MBCC has only a few permanent staff, supplemented by a handful of post-college interns each year. They do everything themselves, including mowing the lawn and caring for the two back-up generators. The interns live on site and are allowed to borrow the car to go into town just twice per week.

We were met by Michelle Smith, who gave us a fantastic tour of the facility and answered all of our questions. The first thing I learned was that the MBCC’s facility is a former minimum-security prison! Its clinic is located in the prison’s old dentist’s office and is fully equipped with an X-ray machine and a complete stock of medicines regulated and monitored by San Diego Zoo veterinarians. Michelle told us that they are able to contact a vet 24-hours per day, and one visits every six months to do a comprehensive check-up on all the birds. Most of the day-to-day medical issues are handled by the MBCC staff, and they’ve even had emergency procedures narrated to them over the phone by the Zoo’s veterinarians!

An intern prepares bird diets at the MBCC, a task I can relate to!

An intern prepares bird diets at the MBCC, a task I can relate to!

Although it was not breeding season for any of the birds, Michelle was able to show us their old but functional incubators. Eggs are transported from the nest to the incubator in a warm thermos full of millet seed! There is also an intensive care unit, like an incubator for premature human babies, where the young chicks grow. Alala and kiwikiu chicks are fed with a hand puppet so they don’t associate food with humans. Eggs that are hand-incubated are cared for intensively and every change recorded in detail. Rate of water loss is very important to monitor, and a machine called an Egg Buddy can even sense and record the heartbeat of the unborn chicks. Michelle explained the hatching process and some of the interventions that the staff has to do to help chicks hatch.

We peeked in on an intern making diets, a process that I am very familiar with! The birds eat mostly fruits and some insects. The alala get some mice because in the wild they would eat eggs and nestlings, though they eat much more fruit than other species of crows. The birds’ diets are put in bowls and served up on stainless-steel trays left over from the prison!

We saw a handsome adult male and three juvenile palila. In the wild, they eat only the pods and grubs found on the mamane tree and are very tenacious about their territory; that is, you can't move them from a dangerous area, because they'll just go back.

We saw a handsome adult male and three juvenile palila. In the wild, they eat only the pods and grubs found on the mamane tree and are very tenacious about their territory; that is, you can’t move them from a dangerous area, because they’ll just go back.

To actually see the birds, we walked down a dirt pathway past a (nonnative) pine grove. The air was surprisingly cool and fresh, due to our elevation on the northwestern slope of Mount Haleakala above the “cowboy town” of Makawao. The MBCC is on state-owned land, and the developed part is about eight acres. We got to enter “Forest Bird Barn I” to see three small forest bird species. I was interested to learn that the four species at the MBCC are from all around Hawaii, not just Maui itself.

The palila is a pretty little gray bird with a yellow head, found only on the high-elevation slopes of Mauna Kea on the Island of Hawaii. The puaiohi or small Kauai thrush is an un-prepossessing brown bird. Puaiohi are easy to raise, and are the species that new staff gets to work with first. The kiwikiu was called the Maui parrotbill until recently, when it was given a Hawaiian name. It’s a really cute little bird with a big bill reminiscent of a parrot’s.

Leaving the Forest Bird building, we went to look at the stars of the MBCC: the alala or Hawaiian crows, which are Extinct In The Wild. I capitalized that because I felt awestruck to get to see these birds. There are only 114 alala on the planet, 42 of which are at the MBCC, and the rest of which are on the Island of Hawaii at MBCC’s sister facility, the Keauhou Bird Conservation Center, with one exception. They are strikingly different from regular crows in size, and they made a variety of startlingly loud and odd vocalizations the whole time we were there.

It is considered the only Kauai forest bird with a stable population – even though that population is only 500 individuals. This bird is not being bred at the MBCC very much, because they are stable in the wild - however, observations of the wild birds are very important to ensure that the population is truly sustainable.

The puaiohi is considered the only Kauai forest bird with a stable population, even though that population is only 500 individuals.

The only alala not in Hawaii is Kinohi, who lives in California at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research! He is extremely valuable genetically because his mother, a founder, has no other offspring and neither does he. If we can get babies from Kinohi, it will increase the genetic pool by a whole other crow. The problem is that Kinohe is imprinted and not willing to breed with female crows. Scientists at the Institute have been working to get semen samples from him, but Kinohi has been producing only low concentrations of sperm. (see post Alala: We’re Getting Closer.) Michelle was hopeful that they will one day be able to try artificial insemination with a sample from Kinohi. The odds are stacked against it, but I think that if anyone can do it, our scientists can!

I was very impressed by the facility, which was clean and neat. The staff was so kind and excited about having us, I felt like a VIP! It was really special to get to see the birds and hear all about them, especially since the MBCC is typically closed to the public. At the same time, it was sad to hear about the challenges that these species face across all the islands but heartening to hear the determination and enthusiasm shared by the staff. I would encourage anyone to visit during the MBCC’s annual open house if you find yourself on Maui early next November!

Susan Patch is a senior animal trainer at the San Diego Zoo.

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Mangrove Finch: Chick Transfers

Anita Carrion (Charles Darwin Foundation) and Paula Castaño (Island Conservation) load mangrove finches into transport crates for their voyage to Isla Isabela.

Anita Carrion (Charles Darwin Foundation) and Paula Castaño (Island Conservation) load mangrove finches into transport crates for their voyage to Isla Isabela.

Be sure to read the previous post, Mangrove Finches: Hand-rearing Chicks.

Nearly 40 days after the first mangrove finch eggs and chicks were harvested from their nests at Playa Tortuga Negra, it was time to send them home. Ever since they had arrived at the Charles Darwin Research Station in the Galápagos as young chicks or embryos yet to hatch, we had spent all of our time hovering over them and attending to their every need with one goal in mind: to send healthy mangrove finches back to Isabela Island for release. It was an exciting and hectic time as we prepared to transfer the oldest chicks while the younger chicks were still being fed every hour!

Pre-release aviaries had been constructed in the mangrove at Playa Tortuga Negra by local builders and awaited the arrival of the seven oldest chicks that would make up the first release cohort. After the remaining eight were grown and feeding themselves, they would join the first cohort in the aviaries.

Members of the first cohort were fitted with a unique combination of color bands on their right leg for identification from a distance as well as a silver, numbered band on their left leg. A drop of blood was drawn from under the wing of each bird (just like pricking a finger) for DNA sexing. Transport crates were inspected by the Galápagos Biosecurity Agency to ensure that quarantine conditions would be maintained during the chicks’ transfer. The gear the field team would take with them was sprayed with insecticide and put into quarantine before it was allowed to leave for Isabela.

Mangrove finches relax in their transport crates aboard the Galápagos National Park boat "Guadalupe River."

Mangrove finches relax in their transport crates aboard the Galápagos National Park boat “Guadalupe River.”

The evening of our departure, we transferred the chicks from their fledging cages to mosquito-proof travel crates that we then covered with black sheets. Keeping the birds in the dark while traveling helps keep them calm as it simulates nighttime, when they are typically inactive. A small crowd of staff members from the research station and their children gathered outside of the lab to catch a glimpse of the chicks as we carried them to the truck that would take us to the dock. This group had supported us throughout the project, but due to the quarantine conditions in the lab, this was their only opportunity to see the chicks. The public turnout for the chick transfer was a touching reminder of the support we had received from so many to make the project a success. We loaded the chicks in their crates into a truck for the short ride from the lab to the dock where we took a small boat, or panga, to the Galápagos National Park boat Guadalupe River. The finches got their own bunk on the boat, and we were underway for Isabela.

We sailed overnight and awoke in the morning in the shadow of Volcan Darwin off the west coast of Isabela. After a rushed breakfast, we loaded the finches back into the panga and headed for the beach. The mangrove forest here is protected by a wide, black sand beach, but the porous lava bedrock lets the forest flood at high tide. Navigating the thick tangle of roots and branches is downright treacherous when the forest is flooded, so we were fortunate to land at low tide when the walk from the beach to the pre-release aviaries was relatively easy.

A wild mangrove finch visits the chicks in the pre-release aviary in the mangrove forest at Playa Tortuga Negra, Isla Isabela.

A wild mangrove finch visits the chicks in the pre-release aviary in the mangrove forest at Playa Tortuga Negra, Isla Isabela.

The first step toward getting the chicks used to their new surroundings was transferring them from their travel boxes into fledging cages identical to those they had lived in at the lab. These cages were hung inside one of the three large aviary chambers and allowed the chicks to have a look at their new home while still keeping them confined to a smaller space in case the novelty was too scary or overwhelming. They settled in quickly, and we spent the afternoon watching them while finishing up the fine details of the aviaries and filling in gaps.

Both of the local snake species had been spotted at the aviary site, and we hadn’t gone to all of the work raising these finches for them to be snake food! Rather than snakes, though, the chicks attracted the attention of two wild mangrove finches that came down to the aviary to check out the new arrivals! The wild visitors were the cherry on top of an exciting day that had gone almost precisely as planned. We bid the babies goodnight and went to set up our camp. I was only going to be at the field site for about a week, but the rest of the team would be there for two months, and there was a lot of food, water, and gear to be hauled and organized.

Chick #1 forages in the pre-release aviary on Isla Isabela.

Chick #1 forages in the pre-release aviary on Isla Isabela.

The next morning we let the chicks out of the fledging cages to explore the full aviary. We had furnished their new home with rotten logs, strips of bark, and trays of leaf litter—all places that they would find food in the mangrove forest after their release. They set about busily exploring these new things. It was entertaining for the field crew to watch them interact and learn to navigate in the larger space and to see their foraging instincts kick in.

The next several days were mostly spent observing the chicks in the aviary, finishing the aviaries in preparation for the arrival of the second cohort of chicks, and watching wild mangrove finches at their nests. We even managed to trap and band one of the wild finches that kept coming around the aviaries to check out the chicks! The days were hot, and one afternoon as I was having a combination bath/swim in the ocean, a Park boat showed up out of the blue with instructions to take me to a cruise ship that would take me back to Puerto Ayora. I had to bid goodbye to the field crew, pack up my gear, and go with them right away because the ship was already underway, and we would have to catch it sailing down the coast of Isabela. It was an abrupt ending to a really special part of my Galápagos experience. I got to bring the first of our hand-raised mangrove finches back to their home forest and spend a week camping on a beautiful, remote beach flanked by volcanoes and surrounded by the spectacular wildlife of the Galápagos.

The first release cohort of hand-reared mangrove finch chicks gather together in the pre-release aviary.

The first release cohort of hand-reared mangrove finch chicks gather together in the pre-release aviary.

I arrived back in Puerto Ayora the following morning and was immediately back in preparation mode. It was nearly time for the second cohort of chicks to be transferred to the release site. We went through the entire process once more, and a week later, Michelle Smith with the Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program and Anita Carrion of the Charles Darwin Foundation sailed for Playa Tortuga Negra with the second cohort of chicks.

With all of the chicks grown and moved back to Isabela, there was nothing left for me to do but clean and pack up the lab and wait to hear from the field team. I could do that from San Diego, so I headed home, excited by what we’d accomplished but still nervous about how the chicks would fare after their release.

Beau Parks is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read his previous post, Mangrove Finch Eggs Hatch: A World First!

4

Maui Bird Conservation Center: Open House 2013

What fun to view the alala, which is currently extinct in the wild...for now!

What fun to view the alala, which is currently extinct in the wild…for now!

Although we occasionally host VIP tours at the Maui Bird Conservation Center—usually school students or other special-interest groups—it is not often that we get the opportunity to open our doors. Being a non-public facility that focuses on captive breeding and reintroduction programs, we simply do not have the logistical capabilities to welcome visitors to MBCC throughout the year. However, our team is always delighted to introduce guests to the resident birds, as well as share stories and the successes of the Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program. Consequently, we are excited to announce two important dates coming up.

The Maui Bird Conservation Center will be holding “open house” events on Saturday, November 2, and Sunday, November 3, 2013. Everyone is welcome to visit our educational room featuring presentations, a children’s area, and fascinating information regarding Hawaii’s endangered birds. Also, three guided tours of the birds, aviaries, and grounds are offered each day of the open house at 10 a.m., noon, and 2 p.m. Reservations for the tours are required, and space is limited, so booking in advance is essential to secure a spot for you and your family and friends!

The Center's educational displays are updated for the open house.

The Center’s educational displays are updated for the open house.

If you are a Maui local, Hawaii resident, or visiting the islands, now is your chance to encounter some of Hawaii’s most endangered and iconic native birds. Please phone our team at 808-572-0690 to reserve your spot.
We look forward to meeting you at the Maui Bird Conservation Center!

Joshua Kramer is a research coordinator at the Maui Bird Conservation Center, operated by San Diego Zoo Global. Read his previous post,

7

Alala Mom Shows How It’s Done

Po Mahina's chicks, 10 days after hatching, are still naked and blind and require constant care from their mother.

Po Mahina’s chicks, 10 days after hatching, are still naked and blind and require constant care from their mother.

A couple weeks ago, we announced that one of our alala, Po Mahina, had hatched three chicks (see Alala: Does Mother Know Best?) There was a great deal of excitement here at the Keauhou Bird Conservation Center during this milestone event. However, at the same time, we couldn’t help but be a little nervous. Would Po Mahina be able to feed and take care of these chicks all on her own?

Over the next few days, Po Mahina spent most of her time brooding her chicks, keeping them safe and warm. Alala chicks, like many bird species, are born naked and with their eyes closed. Watching on camera, we observed Po Mahina leaving the nest for short periods of time to bring food for the chicks. We provided her with the same types of food items that we feed the hand-raised alala chicks, which include an emphasis on animal protein to fuel growth (waxworms, crickets and chopped mice) as well as papaya and pellets. All three chicks would eagerly beg to be fed each time she returned to the nest.

Sadly, the youngest of the three chicks died after seven days. For the youngest chick to die in the nest is not an uncommon occurrence in the bird world. Frequently, older chicks have a couple of days’ head start to grow and beg for food, and they out-compete the youngest. Sometimes inexperienced parents may find a full nest of chicks challenging. It is almost certain that unfortunate occurrences such as this were normal for wild alala, particularly when food availability was limited in their environment. Whatever the cause, it was sad to witness the death of this chick. But we now know that we can comfortably inspect the chicks at five days old with minimal stress to the mother. This will, we hope, enable us to rescue a compromised chick and prevent this kind of mortality in the future.

The remaining two chicks are continuing to grow big and strong. When coming back after days off, we marvel at how quickly the chicks have grown and developed over only a few days. The chicks quickly went from naked baby birds to having sleek black-brown feathers, blue eyes, and a gray beak with a wide, pink gape. As the chicks’ feathers started to emerge, they were covered in a waxy, tubular coating called pin feathers. Po Mahina carefully preened away this waxy sheath to help her chicks’ new feathers unfurl.

Every five days we climb up a ladder and perform a quick nest check. The chicks are weighed to make sure they are following similar weight-gain patterns of the chicks that we hand raise. At the same time, we also give the chicks a quick health assessment. Each nest check takes less than 10 minutes, and afterward, we watch on camera as Po Mahina returns to the nest to make sure her chicks weren’t harmed.

At 20 days old, the chicks' feathers are starting to come in.

At 20 days old, the chicks’ feathers are starting to come in.

Something interesting that we noticed during our nest checks is the chicks’ response to humans. Unlike hand-raised birds, who get excited and beg to humans for food, these chicks are a bit nervous and frightened by our presence. They hunker down into the nest, trying to be as still and quiet as possible. Although we want to minimize stress to the chicks during the nest checks, their behavior is a good sign. We want the alala to grow up behaving like the ones in the wild did, suspicious and wary of humans or other potential predators. When we release alala into their natural habitat in the future, these predator-avoidance behaviors may give them a greater chance of surviving the wild.

Po Mahina is doing a great job raising these chicks. It seems that motherhood comes very naturally to her. By analyzing both her and the chicks’ behavior on camera, we have (and still are) learning a great deal from her about how we might expect alala to raise their young in the wild. This helps us understand how we may be able to monitor and manage wild nests as part of future recovery efforts.

We will continue to bring more updates on the chicks’ growth and progress. There is still much to learn about parent-rearing alala. Some questions that we eagerly await for answers are: When will Po Mahina’s chicks work up the courage to fledge out of the nest? How long will they depend on her to feed them? How will the chicks react toward their keepers when we come to service the aviary every day?

Amy Kuhar is a research associate at San Diego Zoo Global’s Keauhou Bird Conservation Center.

1

A Dusty Day Off

Lauren is ready to plant mamane saplings.

Lauren is ready to plant mamane saplings.

My day off began before the sun had even given thought to rising. I suppose this is more normal to me, a young ornithologist, than to most others. I packed my bag, laced up my boots, and slipped out the door just as the first streaks of light graced the horizon; this day was to be dedicated to planting native trees on the high slopes of Hawaii’s Mauna Kea.

Historically, the yellow-flowered mamane tree used to be so abundant that an aerial view of Mauna Kea looked like a big yellow lei encircling the highest elevation of the peak. Unfortunately, this habitat has degraded to sparse grasslands in recent years. Mamane seeds are extremely toxic to most animals if ingested. Ironically enough, the seeds make up most of the critically endangered palila’s natural diet. Yellow headed and charismatic with a finch-like bill, the palila is one of the honeycreepers involved in the Keauhou Bird Conservation Center’s captive-breeding program. I have the privilege of seeing and working with these birds every day, and it was an honor to physically make a difference in the restoration of their natural habitat. In 2002, the Mauna Kea Forest Restoration Project began the task of reestablishing the mamane forests that once dominated the arid terrain of the mountainside, starting with the west and north slopes.

This particular morning, I met with the rest of the volunteers and headed up to the north slope site, Ka’ohe Restoration Area. The outreach coordinator, Jackson Bauer, gave us a detailed history of the mountain and forests, showing us native plants as we hiked around the area. We searched for what seemed in vain for wild palila. Suddenly, I heard it: churr-eep! My heart beating madly in my chest, I raced down the hill and around a cluster of mature mamane just as Jackson spotted it hopping from branch to branch. It watched us warily as it inspected each dangling flower and seedpod within reach. I was beyond thrilled to see one of our birds thriving in the wild, and it further instilled a sense of responsibility as to why I was there that day.

A'ali'i (pictured) and mamane saplings are carefully planted on Mauna Kea's slope.

A’ali’i (pictured) and mamane saplings are carefully planted on Mauna Kea’s slope.

After everyone settled down, we got down to business with the planting. We unloaded the eight-month old mamane and a’ali’i saplings, dibbles, and watering backpacks from the trucks and carried them to the plot. After a quick planting lesson, the group split easily into groups with distinct roles and set to work. Saplings were laid out in rows, and everyone worked in a leapfrog-like assembly line to dig holes, nestle the plants in the ground, and water each one carefully and efficiently. This was especially important to give them the best start in life on their own without the luxuries they had in the nursery.

With such a large group, we finished planting what we had brought much quicker than I expected. I wiped the sweat off my dirty face and admired the healthy 550 trees we had just planted. With a little time, they will become the native forest that once covered these mountainsides. With a little hope, they will become a sanctuary for the palila and other native animals dependent on this unique ecosystem.

For more information on restoration efforts, visit: facebook.com/MKFRP

Lauren Marks is an intern at the San Diego Zoo’s Keauhou Bird Conservation Center in Hawaii.