(From the notebook of KFBRP seasonal field assistant Derek Harvey)
The Alaka’i is producing more rainy weather with each visit, but our field crew is rising to the occasion by finding more nests! Watching wild bird behavior is both an amazing and entertaining experience and these activities also serve as helpful clues to aid researchers find nests in the field. Here are some highlights of cool behaviors of Kaua’i’s native birds from our most recent trip.
As our project well knows, the akeke’e is a tricky bird to find consistently and even harder to follow to their secretive nest. One of our crew members found a pair and got to see the male perform a courtship dance similar to the popular hokey-pokey. After the performance ended, she kept her binoculars on both birds’ movements and followed them straight to the nest they were building! Recognizing the significance of this exciting courtship behavior helped our crew find the first akeke’e nest of the season at this site!
Another day we found some exciting activity by the always charming ‘akikiki, aka Kaua’i creeper. Usually seen in pairs, this episode involved five birds settling a territorial dispute in a battle royale with the winning pair getting access to the best nest sites. “The Battle of Five Creepers” was a noisy and energetic affair, but follow-up on the outcome will help us determine locations where one pair’s territory ends and another’s begins. We also can’t help but wonder what the fifth unpaired bird will do.
One time during this trip I spotted an ‘akikiki with a piece of moss in its bill: a telltale sign that this bird is constructing a nest nearby. Sure enough we found that this pair had just started building an early nest platform. As we watched them go about their building, the female and male provided us with some comedic behavior. Their routine involved one bird delicately placing nest material, only to have the mate compulsively move the twig or moss to another location. Instead of coordinating their efforts to build, this pair seemed to be on different wavelengths because their constant rearrangement resulted in much of the nest material falling to the forest floor! Since females and males are identical in appearance, we couldn’t tell which sex was doing what, but our crew imagined some creative dialogue interpreting what was the cause of this funny pair’s dysfunctional building.
And then there are some unusual behaviors that aren’t particularly helpful to our work, but that still are fascinating to watch. A Kaua’i ‘elepaio nest we found on this trip was so large compared to what the species normally builds we dubbed it “the Ark”. Maybe they are “expecting” an especially large clutch of eggs but we won’t know for sure until they start laying!
I hope everyone can appreciate these field stories and that we will share more experiences witnessing exciting bird behaviors. All of us at KFBRP and our supporters work hard to ensure these birds will be around for future generations to enjoy!
(from the notebook of KFBRP Field Crew Leader Justin Hite)
The thick throaty song of a Small Kauai Thrush stopped me in my tracks. Each phrase was a faithful rendition of his five-syllabled Hawaiian name: Puaiohi. He was close, his voice like a clarinet under honey, and perched directly above his mate’s nest. I smiled in her direction, wondering if she loves his singing as much as I do. Hard to tell what an incubating bird is thinking about…all you see is that cute little face peeking out of the extravagance of the nest, in this case a small throne cupped on a cascade of fibers pouring out of a crevice in a giant fern-draped wall of rock. But with a singing male, it’s so easy to get caught up in the richness and beauty and imagination of it. Effortlessly we project onto singing birds, and his song seemed to be a carefree salute to his misty domain, of joyousness toward his worldly needs: berries ripening in the forest, the texture of bark, the crisp beauty of his rocky stream, even to the pouring rain that muffled his dauntless voice.
A few days later, soaked and cheerful, and having just set a dozen rat traps along a transect through the forest near camp, I made my way down into the narrow gorge that led to the same Puaiohi nest. The invasive rats, many the size of squirrels, are formidable bird predators, and three of the bird species common at our camp, including the Puaiohi, have global populations below 1,000 birds. I could hear him from a distance—it was the same song, suggesting all the same easily-projected wonders onto my naïve mind. I rounded the last bend and looked up at the nest. A ruin of moss and blood-specked feathers, a single disembodied wing resting neatly beside the top of the nest. A rat had found her. And she had either been caught unaware or maybe stayed and tried to defend her helpless eggs. But she lost. The singing male lost. I lost too, maybe we all did.
When anger comes, it bubbles up quickly and finds release, but mine fizzled even as it came. Instead I just felt exhausted. These birds are so rare. This didn’t need to happen. I stood there for a long time.
And the male kept singing. It was the same song it had always been. And I don’t have any idea what it means.
(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.
(From the notebook of Americorps intern Kayla Bonnette)
The ‘Akikiki is my personal favorite. Not just because they’re adorable with their goofy pink feet (all the birds are incredibly cute), but because of their demeanor. Often looking for food below the canopy, I have had the privilege of observing them for hours. They make little hops up and down branches, often flipping over like a gymnast on a bar – their little tails in the air – to reach prime spots on the underside of branches. Quietly as they look, they communicate to each other via airy chirps, as they are often found in small family groups of 2-4 individuals. Watching them, I smile at their acrobatic antics until the inevitable thought hits me: there are less than 500 of these birds left. These could be gone from the wild within 5 to 10 years if we don’t change something. Most people on this island – in the world, really – don’t even know these birds exist at all. They will never be affected by their disappearance and they won’t know the tragic loss that could occur so quickly. This is so sad to me, partly because I think most people would be so charmed by the character of these birds if only they were able to see them.
I love all of what I’m doing here. I love that I get to help spread the word about these birds that are so unique and amazing, in addition to being out in the field directly observing and monitoring them. But there is one moment in particular that will be with me forever, a unique experience that few have had the opportunity to enjoy: I smelled an ‘Akikiki. And it was wonderful. Now don’t get me wrong, I’ve smelled lots of other birds too, but they don’t compare to the ‘Akikiki. When one has a particularly strong sense of smell and just happens to have a bird in hand…. Sometimes it’s irresistible. Most birds have a sort of subtle musty, almost powdery, smell. It’s not a bad smell; it’s rather earthy actually. But the Hawaiian honeycreepers add another level to that musty bird smell, with sweet and flowery undertones (describing bird smell is an art akin to describing the taste of wine). In fact, this strong scent has been so well documented amongst the Hawaiian honeycreepers, that it actually is considered a characteristic of their taxonomic subfamily Drepanidinae, and is (creatively) called the Drepanidine odor. Science says it’s true, I’m not making this up! The ‘Akikiki really takes the cake though. Even after releasing the bird after it has been captured and banded, everything the bird has touched now has that sweet, musty, honeycreeper smell. The scented feathers of this little bird just add to its charm. As if being cute wasn’t enough, it smells good too!
I am distinctly aware of how few people have gotten to experience this smelly little puffball of a bird. Once numbering in the thousands just a few decades ago, the ‘Akikiki’s population has plummeted to around 450, mostly due to malaria, predation by non-native predators, and loss of native habitat. And the ‘Akikiki isn’t the only one; most of Hawai’i’s honeycreepers are suffering these declines for the same reasons. The field of conservation biology is rough and can be depressing if you’re not careful. But rather than letting despair take over, I use it for motivation. I love these little birds, and I so desperately want them to thrive in the wild. I also want others to experience their charm, and if all goes well, maybe someday that will be possible. Until then, it’s important and exciting for me to tell you about these birds, Drepanidine odor and all. Endangered species are not only the face of conservation; they can also be the smell of conservation.
Go look at a bird. Or smell one, if you happen to have the opportunity.
(P.S. I’d recommend smelling a Wrentit if you want a good, strong representative of the classic, musty bird smell. Just fyi.)
(From the notebook of seasonal technician Patrick Blake)
As field researchers, one of the most important aspects of our job is being the eyes and ears of the project, because the data we collect determines the path the project takes. What happens, then, when that data disappears?
On a recent field trip, the day’s task was to collect ink tracks from over a dozen rat tunnels. The idea is to lure rats with bait placed on a cardboard plate. The bait is placed on an ink blot, and when the rats take the bait, they step onto the ink and leave a trail of footprints on the cardboard. Using this method, we can determine where to place our Goodnature rat traps most effectively.
I was making good progress on this trip, having already collected twelve of the fifteen tracks I had to pick up. But it was slow going, crossing steep ravines and traversing yards of uluhe ferns. As I collected my lucky thirteen track, I discovered that the Ziploc bag I had been storing the collected tracks had vanished, swallowed by the forest!
I spent over an hour retracing my steps (as best I could, thanks to my GPS), but to no avail. The Alaka`i had claimed my collection for itself. However, all was not lost. I had carefully written all of the important data into my notebook (which never leaves my sight), so although the physical tracks were lost, the data they carried was not. Still, a hard lesson learned.
Only a few days later I was back in the same forest, placing new ink tracks at different rat tunnels. After completing the installation at my second tunnel, I noticed a yellow Write in the Rain notebook lying in the woods. It belonged to another of this year’s field crew, and contained at least a week’s worth of detailed observations. So in the space of just one field trip, I had unwittingly lost and found valuable data for the Kaua`i Forest Bird Recovery Project.
(From the notebook of seasonal technician Darin Ripp)
Here we are on Kaua`i! All of us 2015 field crew members have arrived on the Garden Isle, and are excited to be involved with the dynamic group that is KFBRP. Many of us got here a couple of weeks ago, and have gotten settled rather quickly, so as to be ready for the field season that is already under way. The majority of the seasonal field crew this year will be staying at some old cabins within Koke`e State Park while not in the field, which lends itself to some beautiful Hawaiian canyon scenery and plenty of Koa forest canopies, all among a good ole rural feeling. Many of us look forward to the hot and dry climate of the western coast of Kauai when hiking out of the field (which tends to be WET and a bit chilly at times), which Koke`e doesn’t always provide since it is still very much so in the mountains and also tends to reside in the clouds. With that said, coming down to the coastal lands to catch some beach time, or even to work on some office projects here in Hanapepe is a true refreshment filled with sun and clear skies. Regardless, there is a sense of fortunate feelings to be able to live, work, and play in such a special and unique place that is this island.
The crew this season comes from areas wide and far, which is great since their experiences are all different. There are plenty of interesting stories about conservation projects, animals seen along the path, and simple day to day words (such as weasels…which apparently are called stoats in New Zealand). Everyone on the crew this year has been working hard, getting to know one another, and having fun all at the same time.
About half of us have already been in and out of the field since March has rolled around, while the other half is still experiencing their first trip into the field. We all crossed paths on the trail as some folks were hiking in and the others out, and it seemed all too right to have some laughs about the amount of mud and pasta that the first trip seems to entail. Everyone was in high spirits, even though the hike in and out of camp can be a tough one indeed (and even tougher if one were to carry four, 2lb. blocks of cheese on their first hike in, which happened this year, and yes, the cheese was a great addition to all that pasta…and mud).
On the first official nest searching trip of the year, we had visuals on seven of the native forest birds, and heard all eight (the illustrious Puaiohi was the only one that missed our curious gazes). All of the native birds here have been a joy to briefly get to know, as they all have their little something specials about them, quirks included. I am looking forward to enjoying more time with them inevitably as the field season progresses. We have found two nests thus far, both `Akikiki! The birds are flying around up there on the `Alaka`i, nesting material in their bills, welcoming the days!
(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.
(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.