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Keauhou Bird Conservation Center

3

Aloha, Green Mama

Green Mama, one month before her passing.

It was a wet day. With an average annual rainfall surpassing 300 inches (762 centimeters), almost every day in Kauai’s Alaka`i Swamp is wet. That 26th day in April 1996, 4 tiny puaiohi eggs were collected from wild nests. In total, there were seven puaiohi (or small Kauai thrush) eggs collected that year, all a cream color with a thousand tiny, brown spots speckling the fat end, and only five were fertile.

In 1996, the Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program (at that time operated by The Peregrine Fund) was spearheading efforts to recover Hawaii’s native birds. By that time, the wild population of the puaiohi was at a crossroads. It was thought to be extinct in 1950. Habitat loss, rats, cats, and disease carried by introduced mosquitoes were the biggest enemies to puaiohi survival and continue to haunt all wild forest birds in Hawaii. Luckily, this enigmatic little bird was rediscovered by Frank Richardson and John Bowles in 1960. When it was officially listed as endangered in 1967, the puaiohi was given a second chance at life; but with 177 total sightings between 1968 and 1973 and only 13 in 1983, it was in dire need of assistance.

Joop Kuhn harvests precious puaiohi eggs from the wild in 1996.

Little was known about these birds, as they had never been bred or kept in captivity. With so few individuals left, each incoming puaiohi egg was a precious gem whose population couldn’t afford mistakes. In preparation, `ōma`o, the only Hawaiian thrush not endangered (or extinct) at the time, were used as a “model” species to develop incubation and captive-rearing techniques and release methods. Wild eggs artificially incubated and hatched were considered the best option, because wild adult birds might not adapt to captive life as well as birds raised in managed care. The strategy proved successful, and 25 `ōma`o were hatched and eventually released. With the triumph of the surrogate program, the proverbial “stage” was set and ready for puaiohi.

Fluctuating cabin pressure made transporting eggs inter-island risky. Instead, the eggs were brought to local biologist Jim Denny’s “egg house” to complete their incubation and were monitored with great anticipation. The first to hatch was named Ikaika, meaning “strength” in Hawaiian. (It was an oddly fitting name, considering its inspiration came off the back of the softball shirt Jim Denny wore as he hiked through the Alaka`i!) The last egg collected hatched on April 27, and the chick, given the studbook number 5, was transported to the Keauhou Bird Conservation Center on the Big Island three days later. She grew up and laid her own eggs the following year, but none of the original eggs collected in 1996 produced males, so #5’s first eggs were infertile. Twelve more eggs were collected from the Alaka`i in 1997, and by 1998, the first fertile puaiohi eggs were laid in captivity. The following year, the first 14 birds we raised were released into the Alaka`i.

Cyndi Kuehler and Tom Snetsinger candle a puaiohi egg in 1996.

Remaining with us, #5 hatched and successfully reared seven chicks, including babies she fostered in addition to her own brood; she even fostered palila eggs! Because of this, puaiohi #5 ultimately earned the name Green Mama in part due to the tiny green band on her left leg. She was retired from the breeding program in 2002 to give her body a break but continued in her determination to benefit the species by building nests and teaching an army of staff and interns the ways of her kind.

The morning of April 25, 2012, two days short of her 16th birthday, Green Mama died. In the days leading up to her death, she showed no signs of ill health and was happy to chase after every insect tossed her way. Like most birds, she was never one to complain, but at almost 16, Green Mama was actually very old. She was the record holder for longest-lived captive puaiohi and was also the last surviving founding member of the first 15 eggs hatched during the program’s inception. Quite simply, her time had finally come.

While we mourn Green Mama’s passing, we also celebrate a great victory for the puaiohi, the only Kaua`i forest bird species that has not declined over the last decade. Recent surveys show that the wild population has increased to 500 to 800 birds and is now relatively stable. A more accurate estimate is difficult to obtain due to the difficult nature of the terrain in the Alaka`i. But at this point, our captive breeding and release program can be halted while field crews monitor the wild population to see if it can thrive on its own over longer periods of time (see post Puaiohi: Released and Breeding). Green Mama would be proud!

In the islands, aloha is an expression of the joy in one’s soul and refers to the genuine feeling of love, friendship, and compassion that is readily given to all. We use it as a greeting when giving our aloha to those we meet and to wish someone well when they take their leave. In this manner, perhaps it is best to wish Green Mama aloha as she continues her journey so we never have to say goodbye.

Sharon Belcher is a senior research associate at the Maui Bird Conservation Center. Read her previous post, Nene: Movin’ On Up.

4

`Alala Population Soars Past 100

Hatching can be an exhausting process! This brand-new 'alala rests after a successful hatch.

May 13 was an exciting day: our first `alala of the 2012 season hatched at the Keauhou Bird Conservation Center! Just like all our previous `alala breeding seasons, this first chick was eagerly awaited and anxiously nurtured through its first few days (see video below). Over the past three weeks, another seven `alala chicks have hatched. Crucially, on May 31, we celebrated reaching the major milestone of 100 ‘alala in the entire world population! This is quite an achievement for a population that was down to a low of 20 individuals in 1994 and is currently considered extinct in the wild. In fact, following subsequent hatches, the population currently stands at 102 birds. We are hoping for several more chicks in the weeks to come.

This is one of Po Mahina's torpedo-shaped eggs.

This year, we have continued to apply the strategy of “assisted hatching” for several of our eggs. For example, our first two chicks are siblings from the same clutch of eggs, and both required assistance to hatch successfully. Their mother, #152 Po Mahina, is only 3 years old, and this was her very first clutch. Already it seems that Po Mahina has a tendency to lay long, narrow eggs, almost torpedo-shaped. This had implications for these two chicks; in the very final stages of the incubation period, each should have been ready to chisel the cap off its eggshell with the egg tooth on the beak. However, in both cases, the chick’s head and neck was wedged so tightly into the narrow egg that they were unable to rotate inside to cut through the shell. Consequently, these chicks were in serious danger of dying from exhaustion or asphyxiation before even having the chance to hatch. In both cases, we performed the avian equivalent of a Caesarian section. With great deliberation, we carefully peeled back the eggshell piece by piece, pausing to investigate for landmarks in the hatching process (such as the retraction of blood vessels and yolk sac) before finally releasing the head and gently extracting the chick from the remnants of its shell.

Helping an 'alala chick hatch takes steady hands!

Obviously, assisting the hatch of a chick from its shell is considered a last resort, a result of the breakdown in the chick’s normal, natural hatching processes. It is quite probable that the high incidence of assisted hatching cases is a consequence of inbreeding depression, caused by the shallow gene pool of the `alala flock. It is tremendously satisfying to watch other hatchlings burst out of their shell under their own steam!

Those first two chicks are now nearly a month old and barely recognizable from the pink, naked, and helpless neonates that were extracted from their shells. With a covering of pin feathers and equipped with a raucous voice to rowdily beg for food, they are making great progress. Eventually, these two will become members of our captive-breeding flock. However, with the `alala population now exceeding 100 birds, our Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program continues to be in a strong position to make plans with our partners for releasing and reestablishing `alala back in the wild.

Richard Switzer is an associate director of applied animal ecology at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read his previous post, Maui Bird Conservation Center Open House.

4

She Came, She Stayed, She Was Released

The `akiapola`au adjusts to her temporary home.

In early February 2012, our partners at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Biological Research Division called the Keauhou Bird Conservation Center in Hawaii to ask for our involvement in the recovery of an `akiapola`au Hemignathus munroi, which had been caught in a mist net at Hakalau National Wildlife Refuge on the Big Island. The `akiapola`au is a woodpecker-like member of the endemic Hawaiian honeycreeper family. This striking little creature has an unforgettable bill. It uses the broad and stocky lower mandible to hammer away at tree trunks and branches to excavate insects’ burrows or expose sap; it then uses its long and slender, curved upper mandible to probe the holes and extract the insects. `Akiapola`au are currently listed as endangered, due to threats of deforestation, habitat fragmentation, predation by introduced mammals, and avian disease.

Ornithologists often use mist nets to catch wild birds, attach leg bands, and gather important data about them such as their lifespan, migratory patterns, and biometric measurements. In this way, we add to our ever-growing knowledge of how well bird populations are fairing. However, immediately after release from the hand, this female `akiapola`au was observed flying poorly and was unable to sustain long flight or gain lift. Occasionally, when birds are caught and handled, they may suffer muscle strains, just as humans do. As you can imagine, birds have a hard time flying with strained wing or breast muscles, which in turn can affect their subsequent survival in the wild.

‘Akiapola’au habitat at Hakalau National Refuge on the Big Island

The field biologists immediately recaptured the `akiapola`au to assess her condition and judged that the bird was unfit for release. We happily provided a holding cage and waxworms for the short-term care of the bird. After a few days, it became apparent that the `akiapola`au would require long-term care to recuperate from her injuries. She arrived at our facility on February 13 and was treated like royalty; she was given a quiet environment, with limited human contact to make her as comfortable as possible. To limit the potential exposure of disease to the birds in our care, she was kept under quarantine conditions while we ran clinical tests to screen for disease.

Our feathered friend voraciously indulged herself on her favorite insects and also adjusted slowly to the selection of other items we offered. Curiously enough, we found her to be an aficionado of green peas (yes, the ones you find in the grocery store freezer section) and cantaloupe! Who would have guessed?

After about three weeks in our care, the `akiapola`au’s condition and behavior prompted us to transfer her from her recuperation cage into a small aviary as a means of assessing her flight ability. If we had any doubts about her abilities, she soon corrected them, as she showed us that not only was she back to her old self, but that she needed a bigger aviary, too! We quickly graduated her to a full-sized aviary, and she soon took full advantage with perfect flight capabilities and exhibiting natural foraging behaviors. I’m sure her neighbors—a puaiohi, palila, and Maui parrotbill—wondered about this new kid on the block who seemed to be making an awful lot of noise by pounding on all the wood in her aviary, looking for bugs.

The door is opened on Aki #1′s overnight howdy cage.

By the start of April, it became clear that the “`aki” was fit for release. On April 9, the bird was transferred back to the Hakalau refuge, stopping in at the East Hawaii Veterinary Center for a final physical exam and the “green light” for release. At Hakalau, we installed her in a “howdy cage” overnight, enabling her to settle after her long journey and acclimate herself to her surroundings. The following morning, the `akiapola`au was released into her home range, very close to the site where she had originally been mist netted. Although the field crew from the USGS had spread out, encircling the release site just in case there was problem, the `akiapola`au delighted us all by flying straight up to the canopy and appeared to adjust very well to her old wild environment.

What’s particularly special about this event? To our knowledge, it has been at least 20 years since an `akiapola`au has been kept in captivity and almost certainly the first time an `akiapola`au has been rehabilitated back to the wild. The successful rehabilitation of the `aki is a shining of example of how cooperation, husbandry expertise, and knowledge of Hawaii’s birds can lead to a very happy ending. But the conservation action for this one `akiapola`au represents just one very small piece of the jigsaw puzzle. Conservation efforts, such as reforestation, minimizing habitat fragmentation, exotic predator and feral ungulate eradication, as well as an improved understanding of the species in the wild, will be essential to ensure the `akiapola`au population has a secure future.

Rebecca Espinoza is a research associate at the San Diego Zoo Keauhou Bird Conservation Center in Hawaii.

2

Puaiohi: Released and Breeding

A released puaiohi

Winter in Hawaii is usually thought of as a “snowbirds” paradise; people flock to the islands to get away from the nasty storms associated with mainland winters. This year, here on the islands, we got to experience our own sort of winter storm. Throughout the months of February and March we were pelted with winds and rain, leaving everyone quite soggy and begging for sun. With some of the rainiest months in recent history came some new inhabitants for the island of Kauai. The crews at the Keauhou and Maui Bird Conservation Centers transferred 22 puaiohi Myadestes palmeri to the Alaka’i Wilderness Preserve for release, with special thanks to Hawaiian Airlines for giving the endangered birds their VIP seats on the plane.

This year marked the 14th release of puaiohi to the Alaka’i Wilderness Preserve. On February 13, the first 12 birds made their journey from the Keauhou Bird Conservation Center on the Big Island to Kauai and were released one week later. We apply a “soft release” principle, where the birds are housed in a hack tower for one week to get accustomed to their surroundings before having to fend for themselves; after release, we offer them supplemental food near the release site. Before these birds are released, we fit them with a small radio transmitter, attached by means of a backpack. Using radio telemetry, we can track the individuals and find out how they are doing. Our partner, the Kauai Forest Bird Recovery Project, does most of these tracking efforts, helping us evaluate the movements and survival of the release birds.

This wild bird is paired with one of the HEBCP's released birds, making their nest at an artificial nest site, evidence of successful conservation measures in action. Photo credit: Mitch Walters

The first group was lucky to have nice weather for the first few days after release, enabling the birds to explore their new home in suitable weather. This being said, quite a few dispersed farther than anticipated. The second group of 10 birds traveled from the Maui Bird Conservation Center (MBCC) on February 28, delayed by a day due to storms. From then on, this group struggled just to stay dry. The puaiohi were released on March 8, again a few days late, but seemed to do quite well, considering the unusual weather. Several of them were spotted feeding at the supplemental feeding stations, which was a relief to the crews.

Since this year spring’s release, one particular female has been of interest: puaiohi #345, a young bird who hatched at the MBCC in 2011. In the past month, this particular female has been observed paired with a wild male and, crucially, incubating eggs in a nest of her own; further proof that our released puaiohi adjust to life in the wild and are contributing to the survival of the wild population. We are hoping that this nest produces chicks and helps to ensure the population keeps growing.

Over the last 13 years, 222 puaiohi that were hatched and raised through the Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program have been released back to the wild. Over the same time frame, the wild puaiohi population is estimated to have doubled to more than 500 birds; it is thought that numbers are currently remaining stable. While we love to report success stories such as this, our conservation partnership has decided to temporarily halt our puaiohi release effort. This partnership is now moving on to the next phase of species recovery, re-focusing efforts from captive propagation to protecting the species in its natural setting. This includes predator control, providing artificial nest boxes that are predator proof, and habitat restoration.

With efforts to protect the wild nests and habitat of puaiohi, as well as other critically endangered species on the island of Kauai, we hope to see many more nests in the future, just like that of #345’s.

Rachel Kingsley is a research associate at the San Diego Zoo Keauhou Bird Conservation Center in Hawaii.

2

Raising Maui Parrotbills

A newly hatched Maui parrotbill

The Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program is pleased to announce our current success in raising the critically endangered Maui parrotbill (Hawaiian name: kiwikiu). This year, two chicks have hatched at the Maui Bird Conservation Center (MBCC), and one chick hatched at the Keauhou Bird Conservation Center (KBCC) on the Big Island. Our previous chick was raised in 2009, so adding three birds to the managed-care population over the course of one month is fantastic!

A newly hatched Maui parrotbill weighs only 1.5 grams (about the weight of a large paperclip!) and needs to be fed every hour between 6 a.m. and 8 p.m. for the first 13 days, with additional midnight feeds for the first 3 nights, which keep us very busy. Being intelligent and slow to become independent, Maui parrotbill chicks are susceptible to imprinting, so when their eyes begin to open, chicks are fed with a sock puppet created to look like the adult bird. When MBCC’s two chicks were old enough, we transferred them to KBCC so that they could all be together, helping them to develop the correct species identity.

A Maui parrotbill youngster

In the wild, Maui parrotbills form monogamous pairs that produce a clutch comprising a single egg. If raised successfully, the fledgling can remain with its parents for up to 17 months, so the species naturally has a low reproductive output. Here, we increase egg production by removing eggs from parental nests for artificial incubation, which can trigger the females to lay more eggs.

The Maui parrotbill is a member of the unique Hawaiian honeycreeper family. Currently, the Maui parrotbill’s range is extremely restricted to high elevation ohi`alehua forests on the eastern slopes of the Haleakala volcano on Maui. The wild population is estimated to be only around 500 birds. Although the population is currently considered to be stable, its distribution is limited primarily to one location, making it susceptible to extinction.

Growing chicks with a puppet "parent" watching over them

The Maui parrotbill is an insectivore that uses its strong, parrot-like beak to remove insect larvae from tree bark and fruit. Providing them with an extensive range of insects for their diet is a challenge, which we try to overcome by providing alternative nutritious foods and plenty of native branches for them to forage. In the last few weeks, we have started experimentally adding silkworms to the flock’s diet. We are hoping the bright yellow pigments contained in the green leaves eaten by the silkworms will ultimately be deposited in the birds’ plumage and enhance the yellow color of the males, making them more attractive to the females. With continuing effort and good fortune, we hope for another successful breeding season next year.

Amy Kilshaw is a research associate at the Maui Bird Conservation Center, part of the San Diego Zoo Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program. Read her previous post, Nene Propagation: End of an Era.

10

‘Alala: A Magic Moment

We have an amazing video for you to watch!

As mentioned in the previous blog, Corvid Cupid (part 2), we spend innumerable hours each breeding season monitoring and analyzing the breeding behavior of the `alala flock as part of the San Diego Zoo’s Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program.

An `alala female normally gives signals that she is laying an egg, but we usually have to wait for her to leave the nest before we know for sure. Not this time. This is `alala studbook #149, named Po Noe, laying an egg in the nest. As a rare treat, Po Noe stood up a little while laying the third egg of her second clutch. You can actually see the egg being laid.

Click here to watch Po Noe lay her eggs.

(Note: This video only seems to open on Macs, not PCs. We apologize!)

Jennifer Holler is a seasonal research associate/student intern at the Keauhou Bird Conservation Center in Hawaii, part of the San Diego Zoo’s Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program.

0

Hawaii: Native Birds and Plants

Ohelo fruit is a native Hawaiian cranberry, favored by many frugivorous birds.

What is the connection between plants and birds? Plants can provide birds with shelter, nesting material and nest sites; food in the form of nectar, fruits and seeds, leaves. They can even harbor invertebrates. Birds, in return, protect plants from those invertebrates, assist in pollination, and disperse seeds. Sometimes, bird and plant species evolve “together” to the mutual benefit of both species, exemplified in Hawaii by the hoawa Pittosporum glabrum and its large seeds that lie within a tough outer shell. The `alala is the only known existing, native species that can deal with this robust fruit.

Susan Culliney, a masters student in collaboration with Colorado State University, has been studying `alala at the Keauhou Bird Conservation Center (KBCC) to investigate their ecological relationships with a variety of native Hawaiian fruits, including hoawa. The study has focused on the `alala’s role in seed dispersal and germination, a role currently unfilled due to the `alala being extinct in the wild.

The MBCC greenhouse is bursting at the seams.

For many years now, the East Maui Irrigation Company has provided the Maui Bird Conservation Center (MBCC) staff with access to protected forest, where we carefully select small branches of ohia Metrosideros polymorpha and koa Acacia koa for perching. We collect native berries for dietary enrichment, giving potential release birds the opportunity to develop a “search image” for native fruits that will benefit them when they are released.

Recently, we have also begun to look for ways to develop our own native plant resources. The MBCC already sustains a few native plants from which we have gathered seeds. We have also been fortunate enough to obtain seeds from other sources, including the KBCC. We are delighted to have the assistance and advice of Anna Palomino, a local nursery owner who recently developed a native plant nursery within walking distance of the MBCC. Anna is propagating some of the more difficult native plants and has generously offered an “exchange” program: we bring her compromised plants, such as plants that have spent time in `alala aviaries, and we receive healthy ones to put into use around the facility. With this plant swap, we hope to provide a more consistent supply of healthy plants for aviaries while reducing our losses.

From these small seedlings, large koa trees will rapidly grow.

We have always made attempts at native plant propagation, with varying degrees of success; however, within the past year, our efforts really began to focus on designating a small amount of time every week on plant propagation, despite jam-packed days filled with bird husbandry, facility maintenance, and aviary upkeep. The facility greenhouse is now literally overflowing with native plant seedlings, to the point where we are hoping for a second greenhouse to house our propagation efforts!

Thanks to the green thumbs of Research Associate Michelle Smith, 10 species of native plants have sprouted, including pilo Coprosma spp., hoawa, and aalii Dodonaea viscose. Over 100 koa seedlings are 4 to 6 inches tall, and our most recent success is the germination of ohia seeds. Eventually, these plants will be valuable in multiple facets: we will distribute appropriate plants to our captive flock for enrichment and foraging.

Other plants will be planted on facility grounds; over the long-term, the plants will provide perching material and food for our captive birds and, we hope, create an oasis of native plant life that will entice wild native birds, such as `amakihi Hemignathus virens, to utilize facility grounds as habitat. Finally, seedlings may act as educational tools during tours, which visitors will be able to take home to promote the preservation of Hawaiian plants and habitats, helping to spread the kokua and aloha.

Joshua Kramer is a senior research associate at the Maui Bird Conservation Center, managed by the San Diego Zoo. Read his previous post, Nene Visitors.

8

`Alala Season Begins With Flurry

The first 'alala chicks of the season are hungry!

It has been an amazing start to the 2011 `alala breeding season: we have already hatched eight healthy chicks at the Keauhou Bird Conservation Center in Hawaii! This brings the entire `alala population to 84 birds, and we anticipate many more eggs to go into incubators soon. One of these chicks represents a significant achievement in itself: the 125th `alala to hatch since the inception of the Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program in 1993. Also exciting is the fact that these chicks are offspring from three different females. Notably, one of these chicks represents the first great-grand-offspring of the `alala that hatched from the very last egg harvested from the wild in 1996 (known to his friends as Oli), which has resulted in the valuable genetic line descended from the wild Ko`ohena pair.

Hatching begins with the embryo pushing its beak into the air-cell at the blunt end of the egg. From that point we continue to monitor the embryo even more closely, in case it needs assistance through the hatching process. (For more details of the `alala hatching process, including video, see Hatching Additions to the `Alala Flock.) So far, three of the chicks required a certain degree of meticulous and painstaking assistance, since there was a chance that they may not have made it on their own.

Once a chick has hatched, we essentially switch off the lights and leave it for a few hours to regain its strength. However, we do remove its eggshell, which we keep for subsequent chromosomal analysis of the blood remnants in the membranes to ascertain the chick’s gender.

During the hatching process, the embryo retracts its yolk-sac through its umbilicus into its abdomen, resulting in a very round belly and yellow areas clearly visible through the skin of the abdominal wall. This yolk-sac provides a valuable source of nutrition in the early days of a chick’s life; it is essential that the chick metabolizes its yolk-sac to prevent this becoming stagnant and leading to a life-threatening infection. Consequently the chick’s first feeds are relatively small and feature, among other food items, bee larvae‑a great source of liquid to keep the chick well hydrated.

As the chick grows, we increase its food intake. Initially the diet also includes cricket guts and scrambled egg. As the chick develops, we start to incorporate papaya, whole cricket abdomens, pinky mice, and waxworms, which are some of the items they will eat as adults. Since `alala are a species which, as adults, regurgitate a cast (pellet) of indigestible food, we must be cautious to slowly introduce the chicks to food that is high in chitin, such as insect exoskeletons. Throughout the chick’s development, we calculate its daily food intake, as well as its consumption of calcium. We must be careful that the chick’s body mass does not exceed its skeletal development, particularly in the leg bones – the last thing we want is a chick with a broken leg or rickets.

So far, we have been lucky enough not to face any major problems in the rearing of these chicks. In the past, `alala have proven particularly challenging to rear in their first ten days of life, due to weakness, poor begging response, and a compromised immune system, possibly as a result of inbreeding depression. Only one chick has given us cause for concern when it went through a long period of failing to produce fecals. Like all good animal keepers, we closely monitor the quantity and quality of fecal production, since it provides a valuable insight into the health of the chick. After modifications to increase the proportion of moisture in the diet, enemas, and internal manipulation of the chick’s swollen back end, manual stimulation of the cloaca proved the key in encouraging the chick to pass the huge back-log of fecal material, and it has now returned to good health.

What these young `alala lack in the “cute and fluffy” factor (blind, mostly naked, with typically only a little down on their heads), they make up for in personality. At this age, they can seem to be a little moody, and even appear to “give some attitude” if they don’t want to be bothered. Equally, they can be highly vociferous when expecting to be fed. This means that working in our hand-rearing rooms presents a delightful experience. These are still early days for these chicks; we only begin to relax slightly when a chick is fledged and weaned. However, we are doing everything possible to ensure these chicks stay healthy, and equally crucially, we hope to have number of new additions to the flock soon. Keep your fingers crossed!

Lynne Neibaur is a senior research associate at the Keauhou Bird Conservation Center.

Richard Switzer is the conservation program manager for the San Diego Zoo’s Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program.

2

A Growing ‘Alala Flock

An 'alala checks out her new neighbors.

Construction of the new `alala aviaries at the Maui Bird Conservation Center (MBCC) was completed early this spring, thanks to the great work of our friends at Zoe Builders. (See post, New Homes for the Growing Flock).  In order to house the growing `alala flock, the Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program (HEBCP) staff members are in the process of transferring juvenile and non-breeding `alala from our sister facility, the Keauhou Bird Conservation Center (KBCC) on the Big Island, over to MBCC.

Prior to installing the birds into their new aviaries, we have been busy making the aviaries into suitable homes for the new residents. This has entailed mounting perches, ropes, and browse tubes, and hanging large swinging perches from the ceilings. The aviary has natural earth floors, to which we are steadily adding grass, logs, koa trees, and other native plants to simulate natural elements of their wild environment.

The four new `alala aviary buildings at MBCC.

One of the advantages of the new aviaries’ design is that they are much more efficient for daily maintenance and cleaning; this reduces the amount of time we are inside the aviaries, so the birds spend less time interacting with us and more time interacting with each other. But we are able to make close observations of the birds through windows. Catch-up cages, known as “hack-boxes,” are a new feature for MBCC aviaries, having proven a valuable component of KBCC’s aviaries. We are in the process of conditioning the `alala to feel comfortable coming into the hack-boxes by placing their daily food pans inside, but eventually we hope to be able to train the birds to enter the hack-boxes in return for a reward.

KBCC Research Associate Rachel Kingsley arrives at Kahului airport, transporting an `alala to its new home in Maui.

Transferring a large number of `alala from the Big Island to Maui is a gradual process, because the birds are such a special consignment. Hawaiian Airlines very kindly allows the birds to travel in the cabin—perhaps the only birds in the world with airline corporate membership?! We are careful to ensure that the birds’ carrier boxes are protected with mosquito netting, which eliminates the ever-present risk of avian malaria. The flight is short, but the birds occasionally vocalize during the flight, which leads to some head-turns from fellow passengers—fortunately not enough shrieking to make ourselves unpopular…yet! We are always eager to explain what precious cargo they are carrying as well give a mini-history of the HEBCP and its goals with the endangered `alala.

Once the `alala arrive at the Kahului airport on Maui, they make the 30-minute drive up the slopes of Haleakala to the MBCC facility. The selection of which birds to place next door to specific neighbors is dependent on several factors including personality, age, sex, and behavioral history toward other birds. Upon arrival in their aviary, the carrier box is positioned so that the bird has a full view of its new home, and it is then released. After it has found a favored perch on which to settle, we observe the bird to ensure that it is still healthy after the journey. The new residents are checked frequently to ensure that they are adjusting well in their new abode.

After successfully relocating five `alala to MBCC this spring, we plan to transfer more juvenile and non-breeding `alala from KBCC over the next few months. Crucially, with this year’s breeding season underway, we have hopes to fill these aviaries with another productive year of youngsters.

Sierra Browning is an intern at the Maui Bird Conservation Center. Read her previous post, Interns Birding at 10,000 Feet.

1

Endangered, Elusive Palila

A palila perches on a mamane tree at the KBCC.

Over the course of three weeks in January and February 2011, staff members from the San Diego Zoo’s Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program trekked up to Pu`u Mali, on the northern slopes of Mauna Kea (the tallest mountain on the Big Island of Hawaii). Our objective was to carry out some preliminary research on the small population of wild and released palila that reside at this location.

The palila Loxioides bailleui is one of the endangered Hawaiian honeycreeper species propagated at the Keauhou Bird Conservation Center (KBCC). The palila uses its strong, finch-like bill for opening mamane Sophora chrysophylla pods to obtain the immature seeds (its primary food source), and the species shares a close ecological relationship with the plant. The introduction of invasive ungulates such as goats, sheep, and cows ultimately led to the vast destruction of mamane forests, which in turn was responsible for decimating the palila population and reducing its range. Currently, the majority of the population is located on the south-western slope of Mauna Kea, but it is declining rapidly. According to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), the palila population has dropped from about 4,400 in 2003 to as low as 1,200 birds in 2010. Efforts to expand the palila population back to its historic range at Pu`u Mali have included experimental releases of captive-bred birds from KBCC, as well translocation of wild birds by the USGS.

A release aviary in the heart of palila habitat.

During our fieldwork, we had three goals:
1) To provide supplemental food at the former release site and then record data on the frequency of supplemental food consumption by both captive-released and wild palila. Since food abundance is a limiting factor in the palila distribution and population, we hoped that our previous release birds and even wild birds might return for supplemental food.
2) To conduct surveys of the Pu`u Mali area, in an attempt to get a population estimate of palila currently inhabiting the area, both captive-released and wild.
3) To conduct behavioral observations of wild palila with regard to habitat use, in the hope that this may provide additional, valuable information for application in captive management.

Research staff look for wild palila.

We spent a total of four hours each day observing the feeding stations and another four hours hiking around Pu`u Mali in search of both wild and release birds. Unfortunately, no palila were sighted at the feeding stations, and none of the supplemental food appeared to have been eaten. Luckily, there was a seasonal abundance of mamane pods, so perhaps the palila will be more eager to come in for supplemental food at other times of year, during mamane shortages. More discouraging was the result that scarcely any palila were even sighted at Pu`u Mali, with a maximum of four birds recorded by our team. Worst of all, we documented numerous signs of feral cats (another major threat to the palila) as well as signs of pigs, goats, and sheep.

The results from our field expedition seem to shed a grim light on the current status of the palila population at Pu`u Mali. Although the outcome was not what we would have wished, it did confirm that drastic conservation efforts are still needed to help save this unique bird species. Consequently, we feel even more motivated to continue our own palila recovery activities.

Kyle Parsons is a research associate at the Keauhou Bird Conservation Center.