'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.



(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!


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.


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.


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.


Surveying for Puaiohi – Streams, streams, and more streams!

(From the notebook of seasonal technician Kevork Babayan)

The field season has come to an end and it’s been quite the journey for the “PU Crew.” We’ve spent the vast majority of our time conducting Occupancy Surveys (OS) for Puaiohi along five major streams in the Alaka’i: Mohihi, Waiakoali, Kauaikinana, Koaie, and a stream in the East Alaka’i Fenced Area. Mohihi Stream is the only one that has previously been surveyed using the current technique. The four other streams had not been visited in recent years, so in addition to setting up survey stations on each stream (20 stations, each 150m apart) we had to find ways to safely get into these drainages. Needless to say, there was lots of bushwhacking down steep slopes and mutterings under our breath.

Some of these streams had a fair amount of Puaiohi activity, such as Waiakoali. In others, like Kauaikinana, we found no Puaiohi at all (likely due to lack of suitable habitat and the stream being overrun with invasive species).

Nevertheless, it was always exciting to hear a Puaiohi call, or better yet, sing! The first time I heard a wild Puaiohi sing was while scouting out the slot canyon-like upper drainages of Koaie Stream in the central Alaka’i Plateau. The bird was a good distance downstream of us, but the male’s song echoed so beautifully through the canyon, I couldn’t help but think just how well the Puaiohi fits into its environment. Although I had seen and heard the beauty of the Alaka’i forest, something still seemed amiss. Only after hearing the Puaiohi’s song against the picturesque backdrop of moss- and fern-draped canyon walls cut by babbling streams did I find a track worthy enough to go along with the scene. The Puaiohi do truly belong there, and nothing else can replace them.

'Anianiau-Photo by Mitch Walters

The Battle for Nest Material-‘Anianiau vs. ‘Akeke’e

The Battle for Nest Material-‘Anianiau vs. ‘Akeke’e

(from the notebook of seasonal volunteer Laura Southcott)

This morning, I was checking one of our ‘Akikiki nests and some nearby ‘Elepaio nests close to Halehaha Stream. As I finished up and prepared to go look for new nests, I saw a solitary ‘Akeke’e fly by heading back towards camp. I tried to follow it but I really didn’t have a chance – it was gone. So I turned back up the trail and continued looking for nests. Much to my surprise, within half an hour I had spotted what looked like a nest about nine metres off the ground in an ‘ohia tree. It was large, especially compared to the little ‘Elepaio nests we’ve been finding so often, and shaped a little bit like a waffle cone. I lifted my binoculars just in time to see an ‘Akeke’e jumping into it! ‘Akeke’e nests are supposed to be difficult to find because the birds can be secretive and hard to follow, but this nest was easily visible from the trail. When the bird flew away I decided to stay and wait for the bird to come back to make sure that I had identified it correctly and to determine whether it was still building the nest.

After about ten minutes, a bird arrived. It perched below the nest for a while, and to my dismay it was clearly a male ‘Anianiau. Worse, it had nothing in its beak, so I began to think it might be dismantling an old nest to build its new one. After the bird left I decided to wait for another visit to confirm my suspicions. Then perhaps I could follow the ‘Anianiau to its new nest.

In another twenty minutes, the male ‘Anianiau came back, hopped into the nest, grabbed a beakful of nesting material, and flew away again. A minute later a female ‘Anianiau arrived and did the same. I was disappointed that it wasn’t really an ‘Akeke’e nest (and a little upset at my own lack of birding skills!), but I crossed the nest information out of my field notebook, deleted the GPS point, and tried to follow the ‘Anianiau pair. I wasn’t having much luck, though, so I came back to the first nest to see if I could get a better idea of which way they were flying.

When I got there, I could see a bird perched next to the nest out of the corner of my eye, and I thought I saw a deeply forked tail—one of the field marks of the ‘Akeke’e—but I wasn’t holding my breath. I lifted my binoculars again. I was shocked to see that it was, indeed, an ‘Akeke’e, and its beak was full of grass and small twigs! As I watched it hopped into the nest to add this material to it. It seemed that the ‘Anianiaus had been stealing material from this nest even as the ‘Akeke’e was adding it!

I spent the afternoon looking for the ‘Anianiau nest, which turned out to be less than fifty metres away just over a ridge. I quickly dubbed it the Pirate Nest. We will see which birds—the pirate ‘Anianiaus or the ninja-masked ‘Akeke’es—prevail!

'Akikiki 44-Photo by Lucas Behnke

First ‘Akikiki Nest of 2012 Season

(from the notebook of seasonal volunteer Laura Southcott)

The AK team (as we call the people who search for ‘Akikiki and ‘Akeke’e birds and nests) had a successful start to the season last week as they discovered the first ‘Akikiki nest of the year, and the first ‘Akikiki nest of Ruby’s M.S. Thesis. The nest was discovered near one of our access trails when we noticed the female delivering twigs to the almost complete, mossy structure high in an ohia tree while her mate watched nearby.

While we’ve heard and seen ‘Akeke’e singing and foraging in pairs, we’re still on the hunt for any of their nests. The breeding season seems to be starting up for other Kaua’i forest birds as well. We’ve found five ‘Elepaio nests so far (in fact, one is less than 50m from the ‘Akikiki nest), as well as one each for the ‘Anianiau and Japanese white-eye. All are still under construction, but we expect eggs to be laid soon!”

Pueo vs. Peregrine: Round 1 goes to the Peregrine!

(From the notebook of seasonal technician Alex Wang)

Anyone who has found themselves too close to a nest of a Peregrine Falcon will never forget the cantankerous Kack-Kack-Kack-Kack scream they can utter. But this species is not found on Kaua’i. Thus I was quite surprised to hear this unmistakable call while hiking along the Wainiha Pali on March 20, 2012. Iwas conducting an “AK” survey as part of the graduate work of Lucas Behnke, a student at Colorado State University and employee of KFBRP. Just “listed”as endangered in 2010 the “AKs,” or ‘Akeke’e and ‘Akikiki, have disappeared from their traditional haunts in the last few years, so part of our work is to attempt and document this rapid range contraction and determine where these birds still survive.

While scrambling over the wet and rotten obstacle course known as the Alaka’i Swamp, I rarely look far above the canopy: only as high as the ‘Akeke’e – a Hawaiian version of a crossbill – will forage, which is often still quite high, prying open Ohi’a Lehua buds for insects and larvae. Thus the Peregrine would have most likely slipped by unbeknownst to me if it were not for its harsh and piercing call. I quickly scurried to a gap in the trees and much to my excitement was able to see not only a Peregrine but also a Pueo, the endemic subspecies of Short-eared Owl as well! What was going on?

By the time I got a good look through the trees, it appeared to me that the Pueo was in full retreat, flying hurriedly off to the west while the Peregrine was calmly circling the area. Well, as calm as one of the world’s fastest, most tenacious, and terribly awesome flying hunters can be. While I was unsure whether this was just a territorial dispute or if the Peregrine actually was considering the Pueo a potential meal, based on the battle cry I surmise that there was an altercation of some sort. The naïve Pueo was probably the lucky one, and while I watched the skies throughout the rest of that day and saw the Peregrine at least three more times, I never saw the Pueo again.

Oh, great: there’s another predator for ‘Akeke’e to watch out for!