A Thank You Letter from a Helicopter Pilot

Did you know that much of the conservation work that takes place on Kauai would be impossible without helicopters?

The remote rugged terrain restricts the amount of gear than can be packed in. Conservationists like those that work for the Kauai Forest Bird Recovery Project need gear, food, and supplies to complete their work. They must hike for many miles along steep, uneven, and unmarked trails to get to field camps and conservation areas. It would be nearly impossible to get all the scientists and their gear to these locations without helicopters. While we often thank our pilot for delivery and return, it was quite a treat to get a thank you from this helicopter pilot who makes our work possible.

If you want to learn more about the use of helicopters in conservation, check out this presentation on using helicopters for conservation on Kauai.

A Thank You Letter

I’m a helicopter pilot who flies the various conservation crews all over the island of Kauai. I get a lot of “thank you-s” while flying this rugged group about the island. When dropping them off at their remote campsites so they can get to the work they are so passionate about, I hear, “Thanks for lift!” When extracting these crews, after they have been clawing through the mud, sleeping in wet tents, and living off cold cans of Spaghetti O’s, I hear, “Thanks for getting us out of the field.” My reply to their gratitude is always the same, “My pleasure, I have the easiest job out of any of you guys”.

The flying may be easier and more comfortable than working and camping in the wettest places on the planet, but it is by no means easy flying. I may have cut my teeth in other types of heli ops, but flying conservation in Hawaii has sharpened them to a fine point. It’s experiences such as tow-in landings over 1000 foot waterfalls while certain botanists climb the exposed skids to safety. It seems evolution would see to it that rare plants only grow in places even helicopters have trouble getting to. Also, situations like slinging ungulate-proof fences high atop the ridges of the Napali Coast, where it’s either windy or really dam windy. And then, there’s the weather, the ever dynamic weather. The visibility can change just as fast as the wind blows, which leaves little time for mistakes. This is by far the most challenging part of my job. But even when the weather takes a turn for the worse, and we have to leave crews in the field, I still hear “Thank you for trying.”

Despite all the hair raising challenges I face while flying conservation crews around, it is my favorite part of the job. I’m honored to be a part of this hearty group of people who are well educated, well informed, and so passionate about the work they do. These crews are literally knee deep in protecting our native forests and animals. They give their sweat and blood for the cause. After a tough week in the field, I listen to the trials and tribulations these crews face. Sometimes I’ll say, “Well, that’s why you guys get the big bucks.” One soldier of conservation replied to that quip with, “Ya right, we get paid in sunrises and sunsets.”  And that is absolutely true. You are rich. Rich in experiences in nature, and rich in seeing sites so few are ever graced with, and rich with doing work that fulfills the soul. 

So with that, it’s my turn to say “Thank you.” Thank you for hiking miles and miles to collect rare seeds. Thank you for diving head first into shearwater burrows to check on the chicks. Thank you for pounding fence posts until your hands bleed. Thank you for climbing 40-foot extension ladders suspended only by ropes to ever so gently collect endangered forest bird eggs. Thank you for the fence checks, the cat hunting, the bird strike counting, the weeding of invasives and the protection of the natives. Thank you for finding work you are passionate about and sticking with it, even in the sometimes harsh conditions of the native Hawaiian forests. 

I’m sure that if the citizens of Hawaii could share my birds eye view, and see what happens out there on the front lines of conservation, they would share my respect and gratitude for these crews. I hope to continue to help out with this ever so important cause. And, as long as the weather cooperates, I’ll try to get you home in time for happy hour.     

Sincerely.  Chris Currier.  Airborne Aviation

Puaiohi on rat trap


Puaiohi by Lucas BehnkeThe Puaiohi is a critically endangered native thrush and the last of the island’s native seed-dispersing species.  As such, the Puaiohi, which numbers only 500 birds in the wild, is central to maintaining healthy native forests. Given the Puaiohi’s critical ecosystem role, small population size and restricted range, gaining a better understanding of the conditions which affect its reproduction and survival is critical.  

To address this issue, I and other researchers at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa joined with KFBRP to look at how different types of management options might influence the population size of the Puaiohi, and thus, promote the species’ long-term survival.  We found that rat control, even at conservative levels, appeared to be the most effective method of increasing Puaiohi abundance.  Moreover, we found that female and juvenile survival appeared to be the most important influences on population growth and persistence, indicating that management should focus on increasing female and juvenile Puaiohi survival.  Both females and juveniles are very susceptible to rat predation.  Other management options, such as providing nest boxes and supplemental food and improving native habitat, also have potential to increase Puaiohi numbers.  

In this study, we demonstrate that practical, attainable management activities can increase Puaiohi numbers and prevent the extinction of this unique endemic species.  Furthermore, the study helps justify the enormous time and effort KFBRP, its partners and the public (via the very successful “Birds, Not Rats!” campaign) is investing in rat control in the Alaka’i.

You can read the full study here.  The study has also been covered by the Garden Island Newspaper and KHON and HPR.

Fifty-six Waterfalls and Counting

Fifty-six waterfalls and counting! All teeming with water as I looked west in disbelief at the scene that lay in front of me. A few minutes later the view was masked by fog once again, the rain continued, so I walked up to camp and sunk back into my sleeping bag. Little did I know at the time that parts of Kaua’i were experiencing some of the most intense rainfall ever recorded in 24- and 48-hour periods. No small feat for an area that is often regarded as one of the wettest on Earth!

And here I was watching birds.

The previous week I had been flagging point count transects, collecting forest bird point count data in Koke’e State Park, and helping with outreach at a garden festival. And now I found myself in a remote section of the Alaka’i Swamp, up high on a plateau overlooking some of the greatest views the United States, and some might say the world, has to offer. It didn’t seem to matter that it was raining. I could still hear ‘Apapane, ‘Anianiau, and ‘Elepaio calling and flying around camp and there was plenty of food to have fun throwing together and cooking up as ‘mystery meals’.

My time in the Alaka’i had me watching family groups of the critically endangered ‘Akikiki within a stone’s throw as they called and clambered around ‘Ohi’a Lehua trees like more curious nuthatch relatives, grasping at small branches from all angles and investigating for food. Incredibly energetic birds that are always on the move, they were so interesting to watch and ponder what they were thinking. On one occasion I spent half a day helping with the setup and take down of a large ladder for retrieving eggs from an ‘Akeke’e nest to add to the growing aviary population on one of the larger Hawaiian islands. Both the ‘Akikiki and ‘Akeke’e have a very real chance of going extinct in the wild within the next few years if current trends continue. To steal a phrase from a good friend from Kaua’i, “this pulls at my heart strings”. For an island that has already experienced so much avian loss, it is hard to believe that there is more still looming.

Honestly, I knew there was only so much I was going to accomplish in three weeks. I certainly wasn’t going to save a species from extinction. But knowledge and experience can and should be passed on. I love chatting random people up that seem interested so I made it a point to learn as much as I could in my short visit and I’m already sitting down with friends and colleagues and teaching them about the plight of Hawai’i’s, and specifically Kaua’i’s, birds.

The individuals I worked with and alongside on the Kaua’i Forest Bird Recovery Project were highly committed, professional, and extremely efficient at working and living in the sometimes cold, and usually wet, forests, and really knew the native birds of Kaua’i well. They all knew their roles and most importantly, they all wanted to be there, in the woods, living and learning with their colleagues. Honestly. I thought they were all fantastic. On behalf of the birds and everything else that depends on them in the forests of Kaua’i, please continue your great work. You really are the keepers of the forest and these creatures truly do depend on the time and effort you sacrifice out of your lives.

Some of my most memorable moments came in the discovery of a wicked looking fungus, finally hearing a Puaiohi singing (it’s a solitaire!), cooking with colleagues, getting up first and delivering that first cup of coffee to my friend in the morning, climbing to the top of the ‘Akeke’e nest ladder (I’m not good with heights!), seeing Kauai from the view of a helicopter pilot, and honestly, just sharing the love of the outdoors and the work with colleagues.

On my first week in Kauai I spent a good deal of time with two other biologists from the Big Island and Oahu and I would be remiss not to thank Seth and Jason for the friendship and experience they passed on during our short stint together.

I want to give a special shout out to my new friend who made the experience so much more memorable. You know who you are. Experiencing the dawn to dusk slog through mud and rain with this individual was a treat and I will forever be reminded of them when thinking of Kauai.

Will I be back? You bet!

high water in the Alakai

Notes from the Field: Heavy rain in one of the wettest places on earth

Alakai volunteersBy Doug Marcum

The Alaka’i Plateau, which sits on top of Kaua’i, is one of the wettest places on earth.  On the eastern end of the plateau, near the summit of the island, Mt. Wai’ale’ale receives an average of 450 inches of rain per year.  The Hawaiian name roughly translates to “overflowing water”, which is a scenario that occurs frequently across this montane rainforest.  

The wettest place got wetter in an extreme rain event that occurred during one of my recent trips to our main bird camp back in mid-April.  My girlfriend, Kelsey, came out to help as a volunteer, and she and I were busy following a recently radio-tagged Akeke’e the day before the big storm came (if you’re serious about bird conservation and can handle working hard in tough terrain, contact us about volunteer opportunities!).  From the shelter of the camp Weatherport we listened to thunder and heavy rain all night as lightning lit up the scene.  We sure were thankful for camp that night!  According to co-workers who have been around much longer than I, the Alaka’i doesn’t see much in the way of thunderstorms, so I knew that this was a rare event.  

At 4:30 AM I decided to run outside to look at the stream near camp and found it to be raging in a way that I am certain that no one else has ever seen!!  Illuminating the darkness of the night and storm with my headlamp, I could see the water rushing by at frightening speeds, carrying anything away in its path.  On my very first trip to the Alaka’i, we had had heavy rains and the seasoned members of the crew said that they have never seen the stream so high.  Well, on the early morning of April 15th, the stream was much higher.  It was to the point where if it had risen just a few more inches, our deck would have been sitting in the main channel of running water!  Although it looked frightening, I knew that we were safe where we were in the headwaters of this stream, and higher ground isn’t hard to find from camp.  I was able to go back to sleep that night and by 9:30 AM the stream had settled down to the point where Kelsey and I crossed it to do more work that day.  

Many of the streams in Kaua’i can be very “flashy”, meaning that they rise fast during rain events, but also can lower just as quickly.  Down in the lowlands, however, the water that collected all over the mountain had combined and found its way through the main drainages to the ocean and caused historic damage, especially to the famous north shore of the island.  Twenty-seven inches of rain over 24 hours were measured near Hanalei during this record-breaking storm, and the island is still recovering.  Severe weather events and disasters can be catastrophic for critically-endangered species since population levels are so low, but thankfully the individual birds that we track endured the storm and bird camp survives.  Some Kaua’i forest bird species were never seen again after hurricane Iniki leveled much of the forest on the plateau back in 1992.  These kind of disasters are one of the many threats we address in efforts to protect these birds.  For now, species like the ‘Akikiki, ‘Akeke’e, and Puaiohi  are still hanging on in Kauai’s high-plateau wilderness, and I hope that it continues this way.





Notes from the Field: Riding out the 100-Year Flood

(From the notebook of KFBRP field assistant Elizabeth Abraham)

Phew! What a Week. It started with a nest collection on Wednesday April 11th, and finished this with another collection on Wednesday, April 19th! Both nests were Akeke’e which brings our total number of Akeke’e eggs collected this season up to seven. We are definitely growing our captive population quickly this year. Of course we are also working hard on completing the Hawai’i Forest Bird Survey transects (Big Shout Out to all of our AMAZING Volunteers!) and monitoring our rat grid in the core habitat as well. 

Apparently, on April 14th, Kaua’i got slammed with over 27in of rain in a 24-hour period! We were on national news for what was a 100-year flood. Two staff members were riding out the weather in the core habitat where they were working on our rat grid and I was up at one of our ridge locations with a volunteer! We had hiked from a remote site to our ridge camp on Saturday just has the rain started. We flagged transects as we moved southeast along the plateau and got completely soaked. When we arrived at camp, it was only to discover that the weight of all the water had caused the tent to collapse and fill with water too! Good thing the down pour was so intense and there wasn’t much else we could do, so we had plenty of time to repair the tent and bail it out. Once the tent was clean and we were dry, we rode out the storm playing cards and watching the light show outside. It was definitely a wet 24 hours, but I got to snap a pretty cool picture the next morning of all the water falls on the ridge across from camp. 

We were successfully able to count our transects over the next two days and the nests we were monitoring weathered the storm perfectly! All of our nests were still active at our remote site when we returned and the collection on Wednesday, April 11th went beautifully. The weather was even the nicest I’ve seen it in a long time. Many mahalos to our helicopter crew for flying us out with eggs on Wednesday despite how busy everyone is with recovery and relief efforts on the North Shore of the Garden Island. I look forward to another nest collection coming up next week!

In the field ridge-Liz

This photo was taken from the same location the previous year in May

How to Find an ‘Akeke’e Nest in a Sea of Wilderness

How do you find an ‘Akeke’e nest among all the trees in the Alaka’i? It’s no easy task especially since it is estimated that there are less than 1000 individuals left in the wild. BUT, this is what the Kauai Forest Bird Project is faced with in their efforts to save the species.

Thanks to grant from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) and the USFWS State Wildlife Grants program, KFBRP was able to use telemetry to help find, tag, and then track some of these birds. Here’s how it is going:

So far, three female ‘Akeke’e, two male ‘Akeke’e, and one male ‘Akikiki have been tagged.  Two of the females and the ‘Akikiki were tagged early in the season, but following the females has been tough. One disappeared out of range within two days, and the other after a week. However, it was subsequently located via helicopter and then located every few days thereafter. The ‘Akikiki was easy to follow because it had a nest. This bird was used as a test of range, which was found to be about 200m.

The KFBRP field crew had to take a break due to cold rainy weather, so the the last three tags have just gone out in the last couple of weeks. A nest for one of the females was found, and it then it fledged. KFBRP has been able to keep track of her and her fledglings’ movements for a couple of weeks now. They moved several hundred meters away but are now coming back to the area she had nested in, so we are hoping she will renest. The two males have been moving around a lot and are sometimes together, but most often a few hundred meters apart. No signs of nests for them yet. KFBRP plans to do some more banding and tagging next week.

Overall we are very pleased with these results for such an endangered bird, especially considering the weather we have endured this year including a 100-yr-flood event on one part of the island!








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.