People Were Not Made to Fly

(From the notebook of Americorps Intern Kayla Bonnette)

I’ve always laughed at the immense effort and technology that is required for us to temporarily leave the ground, while birds simply lift themselves out of the trees. Of course, their entire morphologies have been honed for this life: ultralight, modified bones; lightweight feathers instead of hair; beaks instead of teeth… all of these things to fill an empty niche in the sky. While incredibly fascinating and satiating to my never-ending curiosity, these adaptations have also given rise to some unique problems in studying avifauna.

Simply put, studying a flying species while not being a flying species yourself is really hard.

My first day on the job here in Kaua`i I was thrown into (thankfully not OUT of) a helicopter for the first time. I pretended to give the impression that I thought flying in a helicopter was very cool and exciting, though internally I was quite panicked. I love birds, and I love that they can fly, but I do not enjoy flying myself. The flight was not simply a ferry into our isolated campsite; we also had the mission of finding some uniquely marked birds. In previous weeks before my arrival, mist netting efforts had procured a couple of our endangered birds: a young `Akikiki and a young Puaiohi. These birds received small radio-transmitters, glued to their backs, which send out signals on frequencies unique to each bird. With a receiver, we are able to pick up these signals and – after mapping all the points where we find the signals coming in loud and clear – we can build a rough picture of the movements of these birds and where they spend their time.

So we’ll be doing telemetry from the air, I thought, that’s neat, but that means the flight will be long…

In addition to being plain ol’ scared of flying, I’ve got the added fun of a sensitive stomach. Fueled with a very small breakfast and lots of water, I headed out with the rest of the crew for the airport. At some point I think the pale, queasy look on my face gave away the fact that I wasn’t exactly stoked to fly in a helicopter. The rest of the staff was exceedingly entertained to find out my thoughts on flying; it was insisted that they had asked during my interview if there was any reason I couldn’t go in a helicopter… I don’t remember this question. I was probably blinded by the sheer, unexpected joy of having an interview so soon after graduating.

Anyway, we took off. I felt sick. And I also felt every bird on the planet laughing at me. Trying move my focus away from the stomach-churning lurches of the flight (all of those crashes in the helicopter training videos are just freak accidents, right?!), I turned my attention to the telemetry. Y’know, the whole reason we were up there. I listened so very carefully. Desperately searching for the tiniest of blips among the static of the radio and the pounding air from the helicopter.

I honestly don’t remember if we picked up any of the birds. I was just very happy to have gone through the entire flight without losing my breakfast. With more flights, and more experience with radio-telemetry, I eventually came to recognize the quiet blip we were searching for. I also discovered the magic of anti-motion sickness remedies.

Those little birds sure do have it easy when it comes to moving around.

HEAVEN… AND HELL!

(From the notebook of RSPB volunteer Geoff Young)

Having worked at the RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) for seven years, I was allowed a four week sabbatical.  Hawai`i looks nice I thought, go up in the hills for ten days, catch some birds, record a few details, get back to the beach; easy, or so I thought.  I know now.

Prior to the field trip, Kyle (the field trip supervisor) took us through what we should/should not bring with us.  Pulling his leg, I said “shall we take napkins?” to which he replied “you DEFINITELY will not need napkins” … challenge on!

Chris, Lizzie and I were getting spoilt, as we were to be flown to the HPK camp by helicopter. The plan was to drive the state car to Hanapepe, meet Kyle, load the kit and food into his car, Kyle would then take us to the airport – the perfect plan (or so we thought), except our car would not start … panic!  Liz tried to contact Kyle then Cali then Kyle. Chris and I went to the nearby bakers to see if we could get a lift and managed to flag down a customer as he was leaving and told him the problem.  He kindly agreed to take us to Hanapepe and drove Chris and I back to where we had been staying.  Liz joined us and we drove off only about 200 yards down the road before Kyle phoned to say stay put he will pick us up.

We were still on time to catch the helicopter to take us to the camp.  The flight was amazing, and it gave us a bird’s eye view of part of the island which no-one sees except from the air. At the helicopter drop off point we were met by Adam and Amy and taken to the camp itself, which is where the dream turned into reality.

The camp hadn’t been used since March, which was reflected in its condition.  We spent the first few hours tidying up and putting up a shelter over the decking.

All the water was collected from the stream, the drinking water was purified, but if it was to be boiled before use, it was used directly from the stream.  One precaution that even Chris (the ex head chef at the RSPB HQ) hadn’t seen before was that the plates and cutlery were dipped in diluted bleach prior to putting away.

There was nowhere to wash or shave, so it was wet wipes or the river.

We then had a grand tour of the place. The toilet was considerably better than expected, and the cots (beds) were very comfortable.

We were shown where the mist nets were that had already been set up by Adam and Amy, which had to be checked every 30 minutes.  We eventually caught a bird, which Amy took out of the net and put into a bag.  She then took it back to camp to be checked, weighed and banded.

It was soon time for the evening meal, and I made a stew for everyone. I am pleased to say they all survived.  Washing up done, kettles filled for the morning, it was time for bed as it was now dark and after 7:30pm!

The next day a routine soon developed of tidying up (I was promoted to chief sweeper upper), checking for birds every half hour, and fetching water, while Adam and Amy put up more mist nets.

On Monday Kyle flew into camp (we did more tidying up, trying to impress the boss) and Amy flew out.  Kyle decided that the awning that we had spent time erecting was in fact not erected correctly, so it all had to come down and be reconstructed in the correct way.  I must say he was right, it did give more cover over the decking.  For Kyle’s first night Lizzie cooked the evening meal and I laid the table, complete with folded napkins.  To set the tone for the evening’s meal, Adam was made to take his cap off before sitting at the table!

One day we caught an I’iwi, which is extremely rare.  I was allowed to hold it and have my picture taken prior to being allowed to release it.  I also got to band and measure a Nutmeg Mannikin, which was so fragile it felt like holding a precious new born baby.  The highlight of the field trip was catching an `Akikiki, which caused tremendous excitement, especially for Kyle and Adam.

The catching, measuring and banding of the birds was the heaven of the field trip.  The HELL was the trek out.  Having done a number of treks for charity in a variety of terrains, I knew it would be tough but I thought it would be OK as I had done a lot of training.  What I hadn’t bargained on was the number of dead trees lying across at times indistinguishable pathways.  We had to climb over some trees and crawl under others (fun!). Add this to the steep ups and steep downs, branches appearing from nowhere, parts of the trail that needed a rope to descend – this was not so much a trek, more of a 9½ hour assault course before we could get to the trail head and the haven of the vehicles.  Suffice it to say, the next time anyone hears me say “I’ve got a good idea …” – shoot me!

However, on a serious note, it was a wonderful experience and if you get the chance to do it, do it!  It is something which will stay with me forever, but a word or warning unless you are very fit: do some training first and get used to carrying a 20-30lb backpack.

I would like to thank my fellow campers, Amy, Lizzie, Chris, Adam and especially Kyle for all their help and support, and for making the trip so memorable.

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Puaiohi-Photo by Pauline Roberts

Conservation: Puaiohi Nest Boxes

Boyd-Scenery

Small Pleasures-Why We Do This…

(From the notebook of Americorps intern Kayleigh Chalkowksi)

“You’d have to be a… what’s the word?  Oh yeah, masochist.  You gotta be a masochist to keep doing this kind of work.”  We all commiserated over our warm bowls of sardine-noodle-medley.  I took a miscalculated step earlier, so there was a thin layer of slick Alaka’i mud in my left shoe.  The week had been a long series of miscalculated steps.  Every morning, you could hear the sloshing of water coming from my boot when I would squeeze them on as my feet were entrenched in a cold enigma of muddy water.  Rain jacket and pants were like sticky, cold gum wrappers.  No clean fingernails at this camp, nosirrreeeee.

It’s hard to imagine that your friends might be down on the coast eating papaya on the beach, jumping in the water to cool off.  Your roommate is probably sitting out on the lawn reading a book because it’s too hot to read in the house.

It was a long week, that’s for sure.  The repetition and isolation makes you feel like you’re in a fieldworkvortex: wake up// coffee// wetfieldclothesON// binocularsready// workwork// lunch// workwork// backtocamp//dinner//sleepingbag// ZZZZzz….//

I stare down at my empty bowl smeared in hot sauce remnants, put the bowl down, put on an extra fleece.  I need a burger, and a shower, and a nap.

So why do we do it?  There isn’t really a tangible answer for that.  Would it be cliché to quote Thoreau?

The rain picked up outside, made loud by the pattering of the drops on the tarps above our tent.  Earlier that day I was kneeling on the side of a deep drainage, staring at a cliff wall on the other side, scanning for nests. The clouds hung low, sweeping up the stream valley in wind-drafts.  A mist blew in, then rolled into rain.  Drops hung from the tip of my nose, streamed down my face.

 

I was suddenly sensible of such sweet and beneficent society in Nature, in the very pattering of the drops, and in every sound and sight around my house, an infinite and unaccountable friendliness all at once like an atmosphere sustaining me, as made the fancied advantage of human neighborhood insignificant. 

 

Over the knoll, through the fog: a Puaiohi song held slow, solemn, and sweet– tumbling low from his throat and ending in a high, ethereal trill– left hanging in the silence of the mist.

'Akeke'e-Photo by Lucas Behnke

Unexpected AKtivity

(From the notebook of staff research assistant Adam Elzinga)

This fall we had a very successful banding effort in the Kawaikoi drainage of Koke‘e State Park. This site is located on the western edge of the Alaka‘i plateau and has seen steep declines in native forest bird abundance over the past ten years. We had heard intriguing reports of Akeke‘e and ‘Akikiki foraging along Kawaikoi stream, so decided it would be a worthwhile effort to try to locate and capture some of these critically-endangered forest birds surviving on the edge of their known range. Akeke‘e have proven very difficult to catch as they forage almost exclusively in the forest canopy and rarely venture low enough to be captured by traditional mist-nets. To address this issue, we modified a mist-net rigging design originally developed to catch Marbled Murrelets in the redwoods of California. With this new setup we were able to get a 12-meter net at canopy level in a known Akeke‘e foraging area. Luck was on our side and one morning as we watched a pair of Akeke‘e chasing each other through the canopy, we captured the fourth Akeke‘e in KFBRP history. With less than a thousand individuals remaining, every blood and feather sample we collect helps fill in the missing pieces needed to determine causes of their decline. While the Akeke‘e capture was very exciting, unexpectedly catching an ‘Akikiki in the same net was icing on the cake. The ‘Akikiki population has been in a rapid free-fall throughout its entire range, making it now one of the most imperiled species in Hawaii, and it has all but disappeared from the western end of the Alaka‘i. The difficulty in catching these extremely rare birds reinforces the necessity to study them before it is too late.

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 Rats!

(From the notebooks of seasonal technician Nick Seeger and Americorp intern Nicki Ozaki)

Recently, we’ve been conducting predator control near our active Puaiohi nests since historically rodents have preyed on eggs, chicks, and incubating females. One day, we went to check an active Puaiohi nest that we expected to contain two older nestlings, or perhaps even to have fledged. When we arrived, the nest was empty. We watched the area for a while for fledglings, and observed one chick being fed by a parent, so the nest was successful! Two of the four rat traps had caught rats, and we believe that our management activities might have contributed to the success of this nest. It is so rewarding to feel that we are actually contributing to conservation of this species!

'Akikiki

Weird and wacky ‘Akikiki breeding behavior

(From the notebook of seasonal volunteer Liza Olson)

One of the highlights (and frustrations) of working with such rare, difficult-to-access species such as ‘Akikiki and ‘Akeke’e has to be the fact that there remains much about their behavior that is still poorly known.  Unlike other birds species, where nest monitoring work has been going on for decades and hundreds of nests have been described and monitored, studies on birds like ‘Akikiki are still in their infancy, and the number of nests monitored up to this point in time may only be in the dozens.

Understanding breeding biology is, without argument, one of the fundamental building blocks required to create an effective conservation plan.  Luckily, up in the Alaka’i, we learn something new every trip out.  Our knowledge databank is always growing.

For example, our field crew was initially baffled by the female at one of our ‘Akikiki nests because she would sit and brood her very old chick for long periods of time (40+ minutes, sometimes), even when it was nearly fledging age.  When the chick finally did fledge, the female ‘Akikiki returned right back to the nest and continued to sit, seemingly unphased by the lack of chick!  The mystery, however, was solved by the next nest check, when we looked into the nest with our peeper camera to see the nest contents.  One egg!  So it seems that the female was actually trying to continue to sit on an unhatched egg!  Fertility problems may be a possible contributing factor to ‘Akikiki declines, so the presence of an unhatched (possibly infertile) egg in the nest is of interest to us.

Another example of weird ‘Akikiki behavior has got to be the camp male, Orange/Black; Yellow/Aluminum—as his color bands read—but known better simply as the camp male, because we see him pretty regularly around camp.  Although we initially thought he had his own mate, lately this male has made a habit of showing up as a third wheel at the nests of other ‘Akikiki!  What are you doing, bird?  We haven’t observed him actually feeding any chicks or directly going to the nests, just foraging a few meters away.  Why don’t the parents chase him away as an intruder?  Could he somehow be helping out at the nest site?  While so far we haven’t seen any conclusive evidence of cooperative breeding, these observations certainly is enough to raise some eyebrows.

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Retraction-The Alaka’i has a nasty side!

(From the notebook of seasonal technician Cody Bear Sutton)

On this last trip into the Alaka’i, we were shown a completely different side of the forest! Instead of the bright and sunny Alaka’i that we saw the first time, we met the more normal rainy forest. The trip was made up of wet boots, drenched bodies, cold nights, and muddy clothes, to which people that frequent the forest are likely accustomed. Our trip was cut short due to massive amounts of rain and gushing streams,  and we spent more time trying to dry out our gear and fjord streams than we did finding birds. Maybe this is the forest we should have expected…

Americorps intern Nicki Ozaki adds:

Our last trip to our Wainiha pali site, Mohihi camp, was much different than previous trips. Since I’ve been here a little longer than Cody, I know that rain in the Alaka’i is a regular, maybe even daily, event, so I wasn’t too shocked when we had a couple rain days. The birds were quiet on those days and it was too wet to check on the nestbox sensors. The only work we could have done was vegetation surveys, which, thankfully, we finished a few months ago. Instead, we hung out at camp, which was a bit crowded with seven people, cooked food, and read for two days. And because I had a cold and slight fever, those relaxing days were exactly what I needed.

We ended up hiking out a day early and that hike out was the most interesting hike I have had on Mohihi-Wai’alae trail. Crossing Mohihi stream, which usually is easy rock-hopping, involved wading across a rushing stream where the water was up past my knees. And at Kawaikoi stream, which we can usually drive across, we spent two hours debating how to cross the stream. The stream was running very fast and was up to my stomach! (Granted, I am not too tall). It had tripled in width as well. Eventually, we slung some strands of webbing across the stream, and crossed on foot, leaving our vehicles behind and hitching a ride with other State workers. It was an eventful day, to say the least.

Barbara-Heindl-Alakai-Canopy

First trip to the “miraculous” Alaka’i

(From the notebook of seasonal technician Cody Bear Sutton)

I think one of the most exciting things in life is adventuring into an unfamiliar wild place. My first trip into the Alaka’i did not disappoint. The group of seasonal workers for KFBRP received their first taste of the Alaka’i this past week and I think I speak for most of us when I say it was an eye-opening and awe-inspiring trip for those of us with little familiarity with Kaua’i.

We departed from Kekaha early in the morning on Friday and were immediately introduced to some of the jaw dropping vistas of Waimea Canyon on our way to the trailhead. For most of us, this was the first time seeing the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific” and all I can say is that it exceeded all the expectations that pictures of it led you to imagine. It is amazing on an island, which can at times feel so small, that there is this amazing canyon that immediately reminds you how small you really are. The canyon is one of the most beautiful and amazing sights I have ever seen on my travels around the United States.

While driving up the canyon you do not expect there to be a tropical rainforest at the end of the road but eventually you start to notice a change in the vegetation as you get closer to the trailheads into the Alaka’i. After some slow driving on some treacherous four wheel drive roads, we reached the trailhead and we were all pretty eager to start the hike into the Alaka’i for our first time. The hike started out with a search for a known ‘Akeke’e nest, which we were unable to locate after a few trips up and down the boardwalk.  Although we did not find the nest, which would have been a good example for those of us unfamiliar with the local forest birds, the search was not in vain. While searching, we encountered a few curious ‘Elepaios, some very musical ‘Apapane, a vibrant ‘Anianiau, and a strong voiced ‘Amakihi. These birds were beautiful and were exciting life birds for most of my colleagues and me.

After the nest search, we started on the hike to Kilohana Vista. At first the trail to the overlook implied that the Alaka’i was going to be relatively flat and easy hiking. These misconceptions disappear as soon as you drop down into the first drainage on the hike to the overlook. The trail begins a steep decent down some muddy terrain as well as an uncountable number of stairs. We stopped to have lunch next to a creek. As we ate, we listened to the sounds of ‘Apapane and got another good look at an ‘Anianiau. The trail up the other side of the drainage is some unforgiving hiking that requires some extra thought when picking your route and foot placement. Heading out of the drainage towards the boggier part of the Alaka’i we had our first encounter with the vibrant ‘I’iwi. Most of us were pretty excited to get our first glance at this obvious honeycreeper that would stand out against any bird in the contiguous U.S. I was amazed at how much some parts of the Alaka’i varied as I walked through some treeless areas of the swamp along the boardwalk. Eventually, we arrived at Kilohana Vista, which other than miraculous, cannot be adequately described. We took some time to snap some photos of the crew and enjoy the view before we started the hike back to the trailhead, which we had to do quickly to make it home by dinnertime. I left the Alaka’i that day thankful for this opportunity to work in such an amazing, one-of-a-kind place, as well as an extreme interest in exploring more of the forest and meeting the other endemic forest birds.

Veg survey adventures in the “off” season

(from the notebook of Americorps intern Nicki Ozaki)

Breeding season hasn’t started yet, so life has been pretty quiet for us birders so far. Lots of office work and data management, which is quite interesting actually, looking at the data KFBRP has collected over the last several years. But we have had a few trips into the field to conduct vegetation surveys. One particular event I remember was an epic adventure at Kawaikoi stream near the Alaka’i Swamp Trail. It was after a week of veg-plot surveys at our Halepa’akai camp. We hiked out on Mohihi Trail heading towards Camp 10 road. After a brief civilization experience in the Durango, we parked at the Alaka’i Swamp Trailhead and hiked to our Kawaikoi camp. We spent one night there and in the morning, tackled a few veg-plots that were left over—the ones that no one really wanted to go to. After a several hours of climbing ginger ridges, sliding through mud, trekking through streams, and tunneling through uluhe, we arrived at our spot—well, the general area, it took us another 10 minutes to find our point; the flag was hidden, even though it was in a pretty open field. It was a crazy forest adventure I hadn’t experienced before. No trails, no transects, just looking at a map and a GPS, and going. I saw some parts of the Kawaikoi area some people have never seen before. Although there were a lot of invasive plants, it was pristine in its own sense. I was exhausted from the previous week, but that was my favorite part of the trip. It took us a whole day just to do that one point, but it was totally worth it.