What We Do
The mission of the Kaua'i Forest Bird Recovery Project (KFBRP) is to promote knowledge, appreciation, and conservation of Kaua'i's native forest birds, with a particular emphasis on three endangered species, the Puaiohi, ‘Akikiki, and ‘Akeke’e. Our organization has three primary facets: research, management/conservation and outreach. The research and conservation activities we undertake are guided by the Recovery Plan for Hawaiian Forest Birds (USFWS 2006) and 5-year Action Plans for each species that are designed to implement and update Recovery Plan actions.
Traditionally our main focus has been researching the demography and behavioral ecology. This research entail assessing population size and trends via audio-visual surveys throughout the range of each species, as well as assessing vital rates, such as survival and reproductive success. Additionally, we wee to understand foraging behavior and diet, nesting behavior, and habitat use among different sites. Ultimately we aim to determine which of the potential threats to these species – disease, introduced predators, or loss of habitat and food resources – most affect vital rates and important behaviors so we can target these threats with conservation efforts.
Recently, armed with new information from these studies, and given alarming population declines in the honeycreeper species on Kaua’i (Paxton et al., in press), we have embarked on several new conservation and adaptive management projects.
1) Captive Breeding program with San Diego Zoo Global (SDZG) and US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS)
The objective of this project is to collect eggs to found small captive breeding populations of ‘Akikiki and ‘Akeke’e, in order to prevent extinction of these birds. These species are in steep decline and were not represented in captivity until we initiated a captive breeding program in 2015 with partners from USFWS and San Diego Zoo Global (SDZG). Thus emergency actions are required to prevent extinction. KFBRP’s contribution to this program includes nest searching and monitoring, and logistical planning for nest harvests. The program is funded by a grant from FWS Pacific Islands Fish and Wildlife Office.
‘Akikiki populations have declined by over 80 percent in the last 2-3 decades and the species’ range has contracted from 21,745 ac. (88 km2) in 1973 to less than 6,178 ac. (25 km2) today. ‘Akikiki now number an estimated 470 individuals (USGS unpubl. data), down from an estimated 6,800 individuals in 1973 and an estimated 1,400 individuals in 2000. ‘Akeke’e populations have also undergone a dramatic decline over the past two decades; currently the species’ population is estimated at 950 birds (USGS unpubl. data), with its range contracting from 31,382 ac. (127 km2) to less than 12,355 ac. (50 km2) over the past decade. In light of the steep population declines and range contraction for the ‘Akikiki and ‘Akeke’e, a Structured Decision Making Workshop was conducted at the Pacific Islands Fish and Wildlife Office in December 2013, which prioritized activities to prevent the extinction of these birds. Bringing birds into captivity was determined to be the highest priority action under the chosen management scenario.
In the second and third years of this program, we continue to search for nests of both species at Halepa’akai and Mohihi field sites. Upon finding a nest, we monitor its activity every 2-5 days to understand productivity and behavior. When a nest has eggs that are 9-15 days old, we can collect the eggs to be hatched in a specialized captive breeding facility. Because these birds nest high in the canopy (over 40 ft) in Ohia trees with small spindly branches, we use a unique, but reliable, system to reach the eggs. Trees cannot support the weight of a tree climber, so we use a 40’ extension ladder (tied safely with ropes) to access nests. A trained climber from SDZG staff climbs the ladder to collect eggs, while KFBRP field technicians provide support from the ground. Eggs are removed from the nest and immediately placed in a portable incubator to be transported out of the forest by foot to helicopter delivery or ground transportation (depending on where the collection takes place) to the Kauai-based SDZG facility where the eggs will be hatched and the chicks reared until they are ready for transport to the Maui Bird Conservation Center (MBCC) or the Keauhou Bird Conservation Center (KBCC).
2) Control rats using GoodNatures in a 300-trap grid and around nest trees
The objective of this project is to protect breeding birds and their nests from predation by rats. Rat control is necessary in our forests because our native birds are naïve to these introduced predators. Rats are a primary culprit of forest bird decline, eating eggs, young, and even adults. They are thought to be the main reason that female and juvenile Puaiohi survival is lower than that of males (VanderWerf et al., 2014), and caused 40% of nest failures in a recent study of the Kaua’i forest bird community (Hammond 2015). Rats also destroy native vegetation by feeding on the bark, fruits, and flowers of native Hawaiian trees and shrubs.
Traditional methods of rat control, such as snap traps, are extremely labor intensive, and thus impractical in Kauai's rugged terrain. A simple and very effective way to control the rat population in the forest is to set humane GoodNature traps. These devices are powered by a pressurized CO² cartridge, and can fire up to 20 times before they need to be re-set or re-baited, significantly reducing the time we need to spend maintaining a rat control area. In 2014, we created an online campaign on the crowd-funding platform indiegogo.com called “Protect Hawaii’s Stunning Endangered Forest Birds”, or “Birds, Not Rats!” With over 350 backers, we raised over $35,000, enabling us to buy 150 rat traps. To learn more about our crowdfunding efforts, read this article recently published by Julia Diegmann in the Philanthropy Journal: http://pj.news.chass.ncsu.edu/2016/03/28/76801/:
In 2015 we deployed 150 GoodNature traps in a plot at our Halepa’akai study site. We checked traps every 1 to 2 months, recording the number of rat kills using automatic counters attached to the traps, and also counting carcasses below the traps. We used track tunnels to detect the presence of rats and mice on plots with and without (the control) rat traps, before and after deployment. On the control plot, we noticed a steady increase in rat numbers over the season. The Goodnature traps managed to prevent this seasonal increase on our treatment plot (see Figure 1) by eliminating at least 210 rats. This same seasonal increase was also noticed during our first trials of Goodnature traps in 2014. This increase can be particularly detrimental at this time of year when females are nesting, young birds are learning to fly and forage, and native plants are fruiting (rats eat and destroy these as well).
In 2016 we deployed 150 additional traps at Halepa’akai, extending our rat control site along streams and ridges that are crucial nesting habitat for native birds. The ongoing trapping effort is generously funded by the American Bird Conservancy and National Fish & Wildlife Federation. Again, we will assess the efficacy of this effort with track plates along control and trapping streams, and by monitoring Puaiohi and Kaua’i ‘Elepaio nest success in trapping and control areas.
Ongoing Research and Management Projects:
1) Document the distribution, demographics, ecology, life-history, limiting factors, and habitat and management needs for the Puaiohi, 'Akikiki, and 'Akeke'e including:
- Color band and radiotag adults and fledglings to determine survival and dispersal rates.
- Collect blood samples to determine prevalence of avian malaria (Plasmodium relictum) and avian pox (Avipoxvirus sp.) and assess genetic relatedness, feather samples to assess movement patterns, and fecal samples to investigate diet.
- Conduct variable circular plot (VCP) point counts and occupancy surveys to provide long-term population data
2) Assist other agencies in managing and protecting Kauai’s forests by documenting invasive weeds, feral ungulate activity, infrastructure needs in study areas, and when possible supporting and/or participating in weed removal and fence repair projects.
We recently partnered with the Kaua'i Watershed Alliance, led by The Nature Conservancy, to document the effects of removing non-native feral pigs on native forest vegetation and birds within a newly fenced area of the Alaka'i. We are using a Before-After-Control-Treatment experimental design, in which we monitor plants and birds inside and outside the fence before and after pig removal.
Future Research Goals:
- Understand nest site selection by ‘Akikiki (and ‘Akeke’e if sample sizes warrant)
- Monitor native bird movements outside of breeding season
- Collect data on mosquito abundance at varying sites and elevations
- Conduct low elevation bird surveys, using song meters
- Monitor the phenology for fruiting and flowering of native plants in our study site, to understand how this affects food availability
- Map the distribution or rats in both time and space
- Collect data on rat diet, and whether it changes with seasonality or location
- Remote sensing of Puaiohi, 'Akikiki and 'Akeke'e habitat using LiDAR technology
Past Research Projects:
1) Occupancy and Habitat Use by ‘Akikiki and ‘Akekee
Lucas Behnke, a former KFBRP employee and graduate student, conducted occupancy sampling for ‘Akikiki and ‘Akekee and vegetation surveys at plots across the Alaka’i Plateau in 2012 to assess range-wide occupancy and habitat use (Behnke et al. 2015). Occupancy rates for both species increased from west to east along the plateau, but were low throughout the ranges of both species. Both species were more likely to be found in areas of high canopy, which suggests the damage done by hurricanes in 1982 and 1992 may be restricting these birds to the most intact forest remaining. Vegetation surveys revealed several key differences in forest composition and structure between areas, indicative of broader changes occurring across the plateau that may be partly responsible for the alarming population trends in these two species.
2) Nest success of Kaua’i Forest Birds
From March – June of 2012 and 2013, former KFBRP employee and graduate student Ruby Hammond conducted a study to investigate factors that affect reproductive success of native, arboreal nesting songbirds on Kaua‘i, including the impact of rodent predators. A small team of field assistants help Roby to search for and monitor nests at our Halepa’akai field site. The endangered ‘Akikiki and ‘Akeke‘e had high nesting success (77 % and 71 %, respectively) relative to other bird species (57 %), and relative to mean nesting success of Hawaiian forest birds (46 %). Nest predation was not a major cause of nest failure for the endangered species, although ‘Akikiki suffered some nest predation, but it was attributed to at least 40% of failures overall. This study has resulted in two published papers (Hammond et al. 2015, Hammond et al. 2016).
3) Radio Telemetry to Understand Non-breeding Movement Patterns
In the fall of 2014, a grant from the Mohammed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund gave us the opportunity to take to the skies and use radio telemetry to track birds by helicopter. Our staff attached small radio-transmitters to Akikiki, Akekeʻe, and Puaiohi in the wild. These transmitters sent out signals that we were able to pick up using a receiver in the helicopter (or—with more difficulty—on foot). Each bird’s radio transmitted on a unique frequency. Marking the points where the transmitter signals come in loud and clear painted a picture of each bird’s movement across the landscape. In the case of the Akekeʻe, every single point was brand new knowledge. The information gathered from this project can be used to improve our understanding of how these birds use the habitats available to them, which in turn can help us encourage better conservation of these areas. We just published a paper describing our results in detail in ‘Elepaio (Bonnette et al. 2016). Mahalo to the Hawaii Audubon Society for administering this grant.
4) Disease and Mosquito Prevalence on the Alaka’i Plateau
In recent years, we have worked with collaborators to publish two papers regarding increased prevalence of both mosquitoes and avian malaria on the Alaka’i Plateau (Atkinson et al., 2014 and Glad and Crampton, 2015). Mosquitoes are the vector for two devastating disease, avian malaria and avian pox; formerly, the cool temperatures of the Alaka’i Plateau put the brake on transmission of these diseases. These changes appear to be driven at least in part by warmer temperatures and decreased frequency of flooding events, which allow mosquitoes sufficient time to complete their life cycle on the plateau.
Past Conservation Projects:
1) Puaiohi Nest Boxes
Early researchers hypothesized that nesting sites for Puaiohi, which nest in shallow crevices in cliff walls, might limit their distribution. In an attempt to expand their range and population size, researchers developed and installed nest boxes in low density areas of Puaiohi. Later efforts by Dr. Eric Vanderwerf focused on developing and distributing rat-proof nest boxes in the same areas. Unfortunately, for almost 10 years Puaiohi did not use the boxes, and we were thinking of giving up the effort when suddenly, two pairs used two different designs in spring 2011!
Since neither of those models were rat proof, we tested and designed new boxes in winter 2012 and 2013 and found that modifying roofs and skirts on our previous designs greatly reduced accessibility by rats. In spring 2012 and 2013 we installed over 50 new rat resistant boxes to Kawaikoi and Mohihi streams, with funding from the American Bird Conservancy. Currently we are assessing microclimates of natural Puaiohi nest cavities and trying to modify nest boxes to mimic these microclimates so that they more attractive to Puaiohi. In 2013 we also designed and implemented in-box sensors funded by DuPont Pioneer that track visitations of animals to nest boxes. Relevant resentations can be seen in the Reports and Publications section.
Read an article on an endangered Hawaiian songbird that hatched in an artificial nest - ABC News Release 9/6/11
2) Release of Captive Bred Puaiohi
In the 1990's, the Puaiohi was thought to be on the brink of extinction, so conservation biologists from the USGS and Zoological Society of San Diego started a captive breeding program to act as an insurance policy and potentially add birds to the wild population.
A handful of eggs were collected and incubated to found a small captive population which bred very well in captivity. By 2012—the 14th year of releases—222 of their offspring been released in the forests of the Alaka'i. After the birds were released, KFBRP staff used radio-tracking and resighting of uniquely color-banded birds to monitor their survival and movements across the forest. We also looked for evidence of nesting by these birds near the release area, and have confirmed breeding of several birds. In fact, one of the nest boxes (see above) was used by a captive bred bird last year. However, because most of these birds do not survive >1 year post-release (VanderWerf et al., 2014) and because of inbreeding issues in the captive flock, this program has been halted, and the remaining Puaiohi were released into the Alaka’i in spring 2016.
To achieve our goal of promoting appreciation and conservation of Kaua'i's forest birds, we have produced several educational materials, and are actively engaged in community outreach:
KFBRP sets up a booth at community fairs such as Arbor Day, Banana Poka Roundup, and the Orchids and Art Festival throughout the year to increase awareness of our native forest birds and the issues they face. Our booth consists of a diorama of forest birds in the Alaka'i, which brings the forest to the people since it is so difficult for many people to access the heart of the Alaka'i; brochures; hand-drawn coloring books of native birds; temporary tatoos of native animals and plants; and face painting.
In February 2011, we held our first annual Hawaiian Blessing of the start of our field season and our work in the Alaka'i. On a beautiful morning, which awarded stunning views of Kalalau Valley and the entire Alaka'i Plateau, Keahi Manea and Heu'i Wyeth from Ka'Imi Na'Auao 'O Hawai'i Nei Institute (http://www.kaimi.org/) performed songs and dances invoking the elders and the gods to watch over us during our field work. We particularly appreciated the Kolea dance!
Ka'Imi Na'Auao 'O Hawai'i Nei Institute has since joined us annually for Hawaiian Blessings. As described in this article in the Garden Island, chants and dances with Hawiian drumming were performed to bless the 14th release of captive-bred Puaiohi and the start of our 2012 field season. A beautiful mele about the Puaiohi was written and performed especially for this event.
Forest Akamai Camp
In June 2011, KFBRP participated in Forest Akamai Camp, run by the Storybook Theatre in Koke’e State Park for youth 7-16 yrs old. The goal of this camp is to raise awareness of Kaua'i’s forest birds, and to teach the coming generation the science and techniques of ecology, ornithology and conservation biology. For our efforts, Storybook Theatre and KFBRP were presented the David Boynton Award by the Board of Directors of the Koke'e Discovery Center.
Public Presentations and Workshops
KFBRP staff are available to spend time in the classroom with kids of all ages or to present lectures on relevant topics to older audiences.