AKIKIKI by John Puschock

A very exciting Easter egg hunt: preserving the ‘akikiki, an endangered native Hawaiian forest bird species

(From the notebook of KFBRP seasonal Mithuna Sothieson)

It was a week before Easter and in the Alaka’i Wilderness Preserve, the birds were busy doing their thing. Seven active ‘Akikiki nests had been found in the weeks prior, of which four were in the incubating process.

Whilst it was situation normal for the creatures of the forest; back at the KFBRP camp, staff and volunteers nervously surveyed the sky both waiting for vital equipment to arrive, as well as watching for the first signs of the weather turning.  90% chance of precipitation for the following day they say? We can beat the odds we assure ourselves nervously – after all, it was a glorious summer day at the swamp – a rather unheard of phenomenon.

With the arrival of the precious cargo including a 40ft ladder, incubators and the San Diego Zoo staff, all seemed to be on target. A few practice runs on moderate slopes allowed us to sort out any teething difficulties, and assure both Jeremy and Josh from ‘the Zoo’ that they were in safe hands high up in the air. After the dynamic duo Andrew and Jeremy manhandled the ladder down Halepa’akai stream and threaded it through a tapestry of tree trunks to the first nest up for harvest, the stage was set for the first ‘Akikiki nest harvest operation.

We fine-tuned our timings and memorized our roles that night over sausages (courtesy of Cali) – a far cry from our usual tofu and tinned spam. I unenthusiastically eyed up the schedule highlighting a need to be ready for action at ‘first light’ knowing a sacrifice was going to be made by the name of sleep. Despite this, at our 6am alarm call, we all emerged like zombies out of the Weatherport to be greeted by a dismally wet day. It seemed the weather gods had been otherwise occupied to hear our prayers and we were resigned to the fact that today would not be the day.

Twenty-four hours later and it was a different story indeed. With grins on our faces we traipsed through the bush to the first nest site. Harnesses were put on, ropes were untwisted and tied off, and the stainless steel monstrosity was jostled into position. As we watched Jeremy climb the rungs, time seemed to stand very still. At the top, we hear him call out that the female was still on the nest. This news was bittersweet to us all. What commitment it must take by a female ‘Akikiki to remain incubating her precious eggs whilst chaos ensued below on the ground floor! However, it was also a sad reminder of their naivety in today’s forest – a stark contrast to pre-human times when few predators threatened their survival. We awaited the news by Jeremy that both eggs had safely been transferred from the nest to its carrier, and watched, mesmerized, as the canister was slowly lowered down through gaps in the canopy. Once received below, these eggs were carefully placed into an incubator and we all breathed a sigh of relief. Adrenalin pumped; there was little time for celebration as we faced our next mission: to successfully harvest a second nest before the scheduled flight at 11am arrived to transport our early Easter present – the first of its kind- out of the Alaka’i and into captivity.

Back home, we celebrated the culmination of months of preparation and discussions behind the scene between KFBRP staff and San Diego Zoo, coupled by dedicated seasonal field biologists that had led to this moment. But above all, we celebrated the ‘Akikiki – an understated bird of the Kaua’i forest – worthy of preserving for the future.