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.
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.