Puaiohi- Photo by Leon Berard

New Study Reveals Just How Important Native Birds are to the Forest

Puaiohi- Photo by Mark TeruyaA recently published study from the heart of Kauaʻi’s Alakaʻi Wilderness Preserve has revealed that Puaiohi, a critically endangered native thrush, plays a key role in keeping the rainforest healthy. This delicately patterned songbird eats native fruits and disperses their seeds, but it is estimated that there are fewer than 500 birds left in the wild. Researchers with the Kauai Forest Bird Recovery Project (KFBRP) looked at whether the introduced Japanese White-eye can fill this niche but found that White-eyes prefer smaller seeds and are also spreading invasive plants.

KFBRP Project Coordinator, Dr. Lisa Crampton, said, “Kauaʻi has experienced extinction and catastrophic declines in fruit-eating native bird species, combined with the introduction of non-native species. Our results underscore how important it is to protect Puaiohi if we want preserve Kauaʻi’s montane ecosystem. This is the only native songbird capable of dispersing larger seeds in the rainforest”.

The study was led by Dr. Monica Kaushik, a Fulbright Fellow at Colorado State University (CSU), in collaboration with KFBRP and Dr. Liba Pejchar of CSU. Kaushik was surprised to find that sites with Puaiohi received substantially higher ‘seed rain’ (number of seeds caught in seed traps) even though fruit abundance was the same. She says, “Non-native birds cannot adequately replace the seed dispersal services provided by Puaiohi. If Puaiohi continue to be rare and their range is restricted, we’re likely to see important changes in the plant community, such as increased numbers of invasive or small-seeded plants. Other native plants might fail to regenerate altogether”.

Kauaʻi has lost five of its native birds in recent decades and those that survive are restricted to a small area of pristine forest at higher elevations. They are at risk from introduced predators, such as rats and feral cats, avian malaria, and habitat destruction.

This latest study adds to the body of evidence showing that the loss of native birds jeopardizes the fate of native plants. This has consequences for people as the forest provides humans with free ecosystem services such as flood water attenuation, filtration, and fertilization for fields downstream.

Co-author Dr. Liba Pejchar agrees: “KFBRP works hard to protect Kauai’s forest birds despite a perfect storm of disease, invasive predators, and limited resources to address these challenges; our results reinforce the critical importance of their efforts not only for the birds, but also for Kauai’s diverse and beautiful rainforest”.

You can read the full study here. The Garden Island Newspaper also covered this story.

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Save a Bird, Swat a Skeeter Campaign

'Apapane- Photo by Lucas Benke

KFBRP Launches New Website

KFBRP is excited to announce the launch of its new website. Take a moment to look around. Browse our Kauai Forest Bird Galleries, check out volunteer and graduate student opportunities, or collaborate with us on a research project.

The Miracle of Goodnature Traps

Akikiki photo credit Jack Jeffreys

Mid-Season Field Stories

(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!

Puaiohi-Photo by Lucas Behnke

In a Rain of Song

(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.

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.

Akeke'e- Photo by Nyberg

The Smell of Conservation

(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.)