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The Bird that Darkened Kauai By Coco Zickos Feb./March 2014 edition of Hana Hou

Teetering atop one of Kaua‘i’s tallest mountain peaks, André Raine plunges through dense vegetation, undaunted by the three-thousand-foot drops on either side of him. Mist blankets his clothes, and he hasn’t seen another person for days —not since a helicopter dropped him off and left him alone in the cloud forest with only a backpack and his determination. Raine regularly visits such remote places in the National Tropical Botanical Garden’s Upper Limahuli Valley and the Hono O Na Pali Natural Area Reserve, listening for the donkey bray-like calls of the ‘a‘o, mapping their nests and observing their behavior. “You can really feel that there used to be so many more. There are lots of empty [nesting] holes out here,” he says. “You go to some of these sites now and it’s just deathly silent.” Even so, for Raine visiting places no one else may go and spending nights wedged among ‘ohi‘a branches and uluhe fern to study the birds is an unparalleled experience. “At night, when the birds are coming in from their foraging trips at sea, the mountains echo with their haunting calls. It’s like a window into what Kaua‘i must have looked like before humans set foot on the island—although of course there would have been many, many more birds streaming into the valleys,” he says. The Newell’s shearwater, or ‘a‘o, is a marvelous bird. It’s an endemic species named for Brother Matthias Newell, a missionary and amateur ornithologist who collected specimens on Maui at the turn of the twentieth century. Today Kaua‘i is home to 90 percent of the world’s population with the rest residing on Maui and Hawai‘i Island. They can dive down to two hundred feet for fish and scale cliffs using their talons and bills. They spend most of their lives at sea and return to land only once a year to nest and lay a single egg. They spend the first two to three years of their lives entirely on the open ocean, and they do not begin breeding until four to six years of age. Not much is known about their lives at sea, but they have been seen as far south as American Samoa and as far east as the Mariana Islands. They’re culturally significant, too, having led Hawaiian fisherman to food for generations. But there’s one thing they’re not particularly good at: navigating through human civilization. In the 1970s native seabirds began mysteriously falling from the sky over Kaua‘i. A baffled Division of Forestry and Wildlife started receiving numerous reports of downed birds around the island in 1975 and 1976. People theorized that it was a disease or that the birds were malnourished and too weak to fly. But the truth was more surprising— and it had consequences for life on the Garden Isle. Every year between September 15 and December 15, fledgling Newell’s shearwaters leave the safety of their burrows and follow the moon and stars on their journey to sea. But if the young birds become distracted by bright, artificial lights like those at sports arenas, hotels, parking lots

and along highways, they lose their bearings and circle the lights until they drop to the ground, too exhausted to take off again and rendering them easy prey for dogs, cats, rats — and cars. Dozens of birds were discovered like this in areas of greater human population such as Lihu‘e, Kapa‘a and Po‘ipu during the mid-1970s. Coincidentally this was the same period of time that Kaua‘i began experiencing an increase in urban growth, which meant added power lines that disrupted the birds’ flight paths and new buildings like Vidinha Stadium that housed bright lights. The problem got bad enough that in 1979 concerned community members and the Kaua‘i Humane Society launched the Save Our Shearwaters program to rescue and rehabilitate fallen birds. Now people on Kaua‘i can bring grounded birds to rescue stations across the island, where SOS team members pick them up, treat them for ailments like head trauma and dehydration, and release them once they’ve recovered. It’s been both a major effort and a major success: More than thirty thousand shearwaters have entered the program since its inception, with 92 percent being rehabilitated and released. But the obvious solution—turning off the lights—has also been the most fraught. In 2005 the US Justice Department directed Kaua‘i County to shield its stadium lights, but it was only after a 2010 plea agreement that the county finally followed through. Another lawsuit from an alliance of citizen groups represented by Earthjustice forced the St. Regis Princeville Resort to take measures to prevent seabird light attraction. Formerly the Princeville Resort, the hotel was responsible for an estimated quarter of shearwater fallout associated with light attraction between 2000 and 2008. Two more lawsuits (one a civil suit brought by Earthjustice and another a federal criminal indictment) forced the Kaua‘i Island Utility Cooperative to enact mitigation measures; the power company has been responsible for the majority of seabird deaths since the 1970s (when it was Kauai Electric). The toughest fight, though, might well have been changing the hearts and minds of Kaua‘i’s football parents. It so happens that fledgling and football seasons coincide, and a significant portion of bird fallout over the years has been due to stadium lights, including those at Vidinha Stadium in Lihu‘e. To avoid a lawsuit the Kaua‘i Interscholastic Federation altered its high school football schedule in 2010 so that Friday evening games would no longer interfere with the shearwaters’ flight path. But because the sport is such a deep tradition on an island where youth have few extracurricular opportunities, the change caused much huhu. Now kids must play on weekend afternoons, forcing families to rearrange their schedules and athletes to play in the heat of the day. Altering the schedule caused enough of a decline in game-day attendance to force some budget cuts. The conflict even made national news in 2010, with reportage in The New York Times and on NBC. “Many of our keiki grow up waiting for their chance to play under the lights, like their heroes have done in the past. That’s why this issue has been so difficult and why we’ve worked so hard to find a way to preserve what we can of the football traditions,” says Kaua‘i County’s Director of Parks and Recreation, Lenny Rapozo. A handful of evening games have been preserved, but no longer is Kaua‘i the island of Friday night lights. Even with the darkening of Kaua‘i’s night sky and the rescue efforts of SOS, the Newell’s shearwater population is still declining. Power lines, predation by rats and bright lights remain

problematic. According to SOS data as well as radar studies, some 75 percent of the population has disappeared in the past fifteen to twenty years, down from eighty thousand in the mid-1990s. “At one point in time, there would have been colonies all around the island,” laments Raine, now down from the mountain and sitting in his office in Hanapepe. “They’ve been pushed back mainly to the two areas we are studying, but they are dying up there as well. Something horrible is happening.” More intervention is needed, and as coordinator of the Kaua‘i Endangered Seabird Recovery Project (KESRP), Raine is trying to figure out why populations of the ‘a‘o — along with two other Garden Isle seabirds, the Hawaiian petrel (‘ua‘u) and the band-rumped storm petrel (‘ake‘ake) — are falling and what to do about it. That starts with gathering data: When the shearwaters return from their year at sea to breed, Raine heads for the hills to monitor the birds as prescribed by a habitat conservation plan created and funded by the Kaua‘i Island Utility Cooperative. The goal is to apply different technologies to control invasive species and gather information. That includes tracking birds by radar as they leave their burrows at night to fish and as they return at dawn; that data will tell Raine not only how many birds hit power lines each year but also by how much the population is declining. Song meters deployed on the summits help estimate changes to the population by measuring noise levels in the colonies. The equipment is dropped off in hard-to-reach locations by biologists like Raine, who dangle the machinery from a helicopter. The units turn on automatically at night and shut off at dawn; they are left onsite for a month before being picked up for analysis. While Raine is one of only a few people permitted to physically enter their habitat, anyone can now peek into the mysterious life of the Newell’s shearwater thanks to KESRP’s new technology. Cameras near shearwater and petrel burrows snap photos (no flash) whenever movement triggers them: when birds enter and leave their burrows, when chicks gear up for their first flight or when parents maintain their nests. The images, available on KESRP’s web site (, offer an intimate look into the life of a rare endemic bird, but they also “show how vulnerable they are,” says Raine, pointing to an image of a chick exercising outside its burrow. Spending hours away from the safety of their nests as they prepare for their first flight leaves the chicks susceptible to predators, particularly introduced ones; Raine’s cameras have captured horrifying images of a rat dragging a chick from its burrow. “It’s a really hard issue,” says Raine. “The birds are not equipped to deal with it.” No one can say what the future will hold for the Newell’s shearwater, but now that the lights are out and new data is helping to refine conservation strategies— like predator-proof fencing and moving fledging chicks from their burrows into safer habitats—Raine hopes not only to protect the birds where they are but to bring them back to areas where they once lived. “It’s Kaua‘i’s bird,” he says. “I want to make sure when my son’s grown up, he can hear the calls of the birds, and the mountains won’t be silent.”

The Bird That Darkened Kauai  
The Bird That Darkened Kauai