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Maui Bird Conservation Center

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Gorse Crisis: Making Way for Native Plants

Amanda and Amy remove some invasive gorse.

It goes without saying that wild bird populations are dependent upon good quality, natural habitat for foraging, nesting, and escaping from predators, to survive. The native forest birds of Hawaii face a multitude of threats, and the loss and degradation of habitat is one of the primary reasons for the decline of these unique species. Invasive plants and animals are taking over and destroying their forest home. For example, introduced pigs and deer browse on the plants and churn up the forest floor in search of food, killing native seedlings and providing an opening for faster-growing, invasive plants to gain a foothold in native environments. In many cases, in order to restore native plants, we must first remove the nonnative ones.

Gorse in bloom. Note the nasty thorns!

Gorse is one such invasive plant common in parts of Maui as well as the Big Island. The dense, prickly shrub, introduced to Hawaii in the 1800s, originated in western Europe, where it is still valued as a living fence for livestock. In addition to its aggressive tendencies, gorse grows much more quickly than most of Hawaii’s indigenous species and easily out-competes them for space and sunlight. Today, gorse is considered to be a serious weed, and all attempts to eradicate it have failed. The International Union for Conservation of Nature recognizes gorse as one of the top 100 worst invasive species in the world; so far, the best-recognized method for combating gorse is to plant faster-growing plants that are able to shade out sun-loving gorse.

At the Maui Bird Conservation Center, we have our own gorse crisis. Fellow intern Amy Kuhar and I are tackling our gorse invasion head on. Because the gorse defends itself with innumerable thorny spikes, we have started by taking down different sections of the weed in phases. We start by trimming back branches with loppers, then we use hand saws to sever each plant at the base. When possible, we also dig out the roots. The process is very time consuming, and we have worked many hours on the project. “Painstaking” would be the best adjective to describe the effort, because the gorse fights back, and after an afternoon of gorse eradication, we are left with innumerable itchy, tiny thorns embedded under the skin of our hands, arms, and legs!

A mamane sapling planted at the MBCC.

In addition to rescuing resident koa, ‘ohia, and mamane trees choked by gorse around the facility, we also began the process of replacing the invasive vegetation with native plants such as `a`ali`i and more mamane. In one area alone, we have planted more than two dozen new trees and are excited to see them growing over the newly cleared area! But the battle does not end there. One of gorse’s greatest weapons is its massive production of seeds, which can lay dormant in the soil for many years. As the older gorse is cleared, the seeds rapidly germinate, and within a few weeks there is a bed of new gorse seedlings. To stay on top of these, we must spray with herbicide to prevent another new invasion, allowing the native plants to flourish.

Hopefully, future interns will continue to clear gorse to make way for more native planting, all of which will someday create habitat for our wild, feathered friends such as the `amakihi. We hope the native plants will also eventually provide a source of perching, nesting material, berries, and seedpods for the birds in our care.

Amanda Maugans is an intern at the San Diego Zoo Maui Bird Conservation Center.

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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.

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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.

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‘Alala: Weighing In

`Alala Hekili shows his peers how weighing is done.

Keeping a close eye on the health of the birds is very important to us here at the Maui Bird Conservation Center. One valuable way we determine the health and body condition of a bird is through obtaining regular weights. (See also Zoo Hospital: What Do You Weigh?) Traditionally, we would weigh birds by catching them in a net, then transferring them to a box or a bag that could then be placed on a scale. This method required the time of multiple husbandry staff at once and subjected the birds to a certain amount of stress. Stress in birds can be dangerous, and we obviously like to keep our birds as stress-free as possible. Our solution was to convince our `alala to offer us their weight by landing on a freestanding platform that had been placed on a scale. This is called a “remote weight.”

2011 `alala chicks are already at ease with the process.

By using positive reinforcement, the birds of our `alala flock have been conditioned to perch on a freestanding platform that holds their food pans. When individuals are fed on these platforms consistently, it adds little to no stress to move that platform onto a scale to obtain a weight. With this procedure, one staff member can obtain the weights of many birds in one day, with the birds typically unaware of what is taking place!

Laha finds a loophole in the weigh-in process when he uses a stick and some gymnastics to retrieve some apple from the far side of the freestanding food platform.

The younger `alala from 2010 and 2011 have become experts at retrieving rewards from the platforms and have served as good examples for other birds to watch the process. Not everyone is easily convinced, however, and some of our `alala have proven a challenge. It seems as though some of our smarter adults are also rather stubborn, and the conditioning process has developed their crafty side! One of our mature males, Laha, seems determined to prevent us from weighing him and goes to great lengths in order to obtain treats while breaking the rules.

Michelle Smith is a research associate at the Maui Bird Conservation Center, part of San Diego Zoo Global’s Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program. Read her previous post, New Homes for the Growing Flock.

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Maui Bird Conservation Center: Open House

Get this cool logo on a T-shirt!

Although we occasionally host VIP tours at the Maui Bird Conservation Center (MBCC)—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 our resident birds, as well as share stories and the successes of the San Diego Zoo Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program. Consequently, we are excited to announce two important dates coming up.

The Maui Bird Conservation Center will be holding two “open house” events on Saturday, October 29, and Sunday, November 13. Activities will include presentations; a guided tour of the birds, aviaries, and grounds; and an opportunity to buy a splendid MBCC T-shirt (see logo above), plants, and other goodies.

If you are a Maui local, now is your chance to encounter some of Hawaii’s most endangered and iconic native birds. As the open house events are based exclusively around a limited number of guided tours throughout the day, it is essential to book a place in advance. Please phone our MBCC team at 808-572-0690 to reserve your spot.

We look forward to meeting you at MBCC!

Richard Switzer is the conservation program manager of the San Diego Zoo Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program. Read his previous post, Hawaiian Birds: Pallets of Pellets.

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Nene Propagation: End of an Era

Nene pair Red Rocket and Nu enjoy retirement.

On June 24, 2011, we handed over four nene (Hawaiian geese) to Haleakala National Park staff, who took them away for release in the crater of the dormant volcano on Maui, Hawaii. These birds had received the routine physical examination before their release and had been micro-chipped and banded for identification in the wild. Nothing unusual there: the San Diego Zoo’s Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program has released 442 nene (pronounced nay nay) since 1996, helping to augment wild populations on the Hawaiian islands of Maui, Kauai, and the Big Island, as well as establishing an entirely new population on Molokai. But importantly, these birds represented the last two breeding pairs from the nene captive propagation flock at the Maui Bird Conservation Center (MBCC).

Robert Taylor, intern, and Sharon Belcher, senior research associate, get the nene ready for release.

In April this year, we had received the news from our partners, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the State of Hawaii Division of Forestry and Wildlife, that it was time to end the captive propagation-and-release program for nene. The nene population throughout Hawaii has risen to nearly 2,000 birds, having been at a low point of only 40 birds in the 1950s, representing a very significant conservation success story. With the population now at this level, captive propagation is no longer considered the most efficient tool for further recovery of the nene. But management of the wild population by our field partners will continue to play a vital role.

So having hatched 395 goslings, we are coming to terms with the fact that we will no longer have gray fuzz-balls as the focus of our attentions over the winter months. Crucially, however, our spirits are lifted by the knowledge that captive propagation and release have been instrumental tools in bringing back the nene from the brink of extinction. It is time for us to say “job well done.”

One pair of nene, known to the staff as Red Rocket and Nu (pictured at top), will remain at the MBCC facility. Red Rocket (a female) was wild hatched in December 1987, though in her 24 years she has never laid a single egg! She happily spends her time with the male, Nu, who was hatched at MBCC in June 1992 from a wild egg. We are very glad to still have these two retirees to keep us company.

Amy Kilshaw is a research associate at the Maui Bird Conservation Center. Read her previous post, Honk if You like Nene.

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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.

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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.

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Interns Birding at 10,000 feet

An iiwi feeds on the blossoms of a mamane tree at Hosmer Grove.

As interns at the San Diego Zoo’s Maui Bird Conservation Center (MBCC), we have a unique opportunity to work with and preserve endangered Hawaiian avifauna. We come from various backgrounds to learn from the knowledgeable staff about husbandry care, breeding, and incubation of the birds that are a part of the Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program (HEBCP). (See post, Interns Help Endangered Birds.)

Our days typically include the observation of breeding behaviors, diet preparation, cleaning and maintenance of aviaries, and monitoring the health of the birds. Every few weeks the interns are presented with a lecture pertaining to conservation projects both in Hawaii and around the world. We learn about various bird species and the global issues that play a role in their survival.

Two of the major threats impacting endemic Hawaiian birds are the destruction of native forests and avian malaria spread by nonnative mosquitoes. MBCC is located in an area where there is very little native forest and within the zone where avian malaria is prevalent, so there are very few native birds around; there are plenty of introduced mynahs, cardinals, and house finches, though. Consequently, to find the majority of native forest birds in Maui, it is necessary to visit protected areas above the altitudinal limit of the mosquito line.

Interns Sierra and Cody consult bird guides to identify birds along the trail.

After spending several months getting to know the birds in managed care at MBCC, we were given the opportunity to observe the native birds that reside on the slopes of Haleakala volcano. Our journey began in the Haleakala National Park with a small hike through Hosmer Grove, which is a trail nestled just inside the entrance of the park. Looking through our binoculars, we were able to identify the various species that flew from tree to tree. Among the mix of introduced and Hawaiian trees, we were able to observe several native forest birds, including the spectacular `i`iwi, `apapane, `amakihi, and the endemic Maui creeper. We noted the varying flight patterns and calls of the birds that were visible and attempted to seek out the ones that were not. We consulted our Hawaiian bird guide books throughout our adventure to confirm our observations.

Drive carefully!

We then started our trek up to the 10,000-foot summit of Haleakala, which is a popular tourist attraction on the island of Maui for its breathtaking views and rare wildlife. As we made our ascent up the mountain, we caught a glimpse of several chukar partridges running along the side of the road up to the summit. The chukar is one of the many nonnative species to have been introduced to the Hawaiian Islands; in the case of the chukar, it was introduced as a game bird. We also kept an eye out for the nene that reside around the crater, including a large number released over the years from MBCC, but we were not fortunate enough to catch sight of any in the mist.

For the past five months we have spent the majority of our time at the MBCC facility caring for the birds, but being able to witness forest birds in their natural environment gives us hope and renewed appreciation for the HEBCP propagation mission. We enjoyed our brief field trip up to the Haleakala summit and Hosmer Grove, and we hope that future interns continue to have as much fun (but slightly less altitude sickness) as we did.

Sierra Browning and Lisa Farr are interns at the Maui Bird Conservation Center. Read Sierra’s previous post, New Year of Nene Goslings.

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Nene Visitors

Wild nene perch on the roof of the main building at MBCC, checking out the residents.

Maui Bird Conservation Center (MBCC) staff member Michelle Smith snapped this photo on February 13, 2011, when she spotted two wild nene perched on the rooftop of the main facility building. Wild nene visiting MBCC is not an unusual event, although this prominent lookout is a novel location.

Many combinations of wild nene stop by MBCC, including small groups, breeding pairs, and lone individuals. We can’t be sure what attracts them—it could be the lush, green facility grass, the contented contact-calls of resident breeding pairs, or the super-luxurious nene accommodations (see post Nene: Movin’ On Up). In the past, lone wild males have shown up, and they hang around for several days, courting un-paired captive females. However, these bachelors eventually leave when they realize the relationship will be strictly platonic, due to the impediment of the pens’ fences and mesh roof. Over at Keauhou Bird Conservation Center on the Big Island, the pens lack a mesh roof, so the wild visitors are free to come and go, and consequently the daily interactions can resemble a soap opera.

This wild male nene is out of luck in his attempts to court a resident female.

During breeding season our resident adult nene become extremely protective of their goslings, and the presence of wild nene can become very aggravating for parents that are restricted by the constraints of their pen from chasing off territorial infringers. If we observe behaviors indicative of stress in our captive flock, steps are taken to gently encourage the wild nene to another area of the facility grounds. The recent visitors photographed by Michelle did not appear to disturb the captive flock, so they were left to perch in peace and stayed in place for most of the afternoon.

Our spirits are uplifted when we hear the calls of wild nene as they fly overhead. Frequently we observe released nene, which have been hatched and raised at MBCC, returning to the facility grounds. The released nene are recognizable by their identification leg bands. Both the sight of nene on the wing and an occasional visit represent confirmation that our efforts are benefiting island conservation.

Josh Kramer is a senior research associate at the Maui Bird Conservation Center, part of the San Diego Zoo’s Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program. Read his previous post, 200 Puaiohi Released!