(ALAKA‘I PLATEAU, KAUA‘I) – From a remote camp, perched on a narrow 3,000-foot cliff, near the top of Wainiha Valley, Justin Hite, and his team from the Kaua‘i Forest Bird Recovery Project (KFBRP), are in the midst of another field season. A season, that is probably the last for the diminutive native Hawaiian honeycreeper, the ‘akikiki.
“This is one of the last places where we’re still seeing a ton of native forest birds, where everywhere else, just in the last couple of years they’ve quickly and suddenly vanished. And we think it’s because of mosquitoes,” Hite explained during a recent eight-day-long egg collection trip.
The usually upbeat and hopeful KFBRP Field Supervisor has lost some of his optimism this season, as before their very eyes he and his crew are likely seeing the last ‘akikiki remaining in the wild. It’s not unexpected, as other members of KFBRP have been documenting increases of disease-carrying mosquitoes on the plateau.
Regulators are on the verge of approving landscape control of mosquitoes in the mountains of Kaua‘i using the Incompatible Insect Technique (IIT), to reduce the likelihood that forest birds will be impacted by avian malaria, carried by female mosquitoes.
While permitting and approval is underway, the KFBRP team continues work in what is arguably some of the toughest terrain around.
Robby Kohley, Director of Aviculture with Pacific Rim Conservation, is the on-site expert working with the forest bird team in the Mohihi region of the plateau.
He’s worked across the Hawaiian Islands and in Alaska and commented, “Each project comes with a different set of challenges. The logistics problems of this project are quite high. Between the weather (mostly wet, muddy, and incredibly steep), and the lack of luck ‘akikiki are having with nests this year, I’d say this one ranks really high on the challenge scale.”
Since late January the recovery teams have been flying into the field, hiking to field camp, and then from there trudging through knee deep mud on unimproved pig trails to reach ‘akikiki nests that had been previously spotted.
Using a camera, mounted on a long pole, they’re able to see the condition of the tiny eggs. If they appear to be in good shape, they then rig up a tethered ladder system to get a team member high into the forest canopy to collect eggs. They’ll climb as high as 48-feet to get them.
So far, they’ve successfully rescued ten ‘akikiki eggs that are placed in a portable incubator and carried, ever so gently, up the trail to camp. They’re then flown out to a brooder house in Koke‘e State Park and then eventually to the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance Keauhou Bird Conservation Center at Volcano.
Hite notes ‘akikiki in the wild are very good at breeding. However, if avian malaria doesn’t strike them down first, rats are picking them off one-by-one.
“This year is an out-of-control level of nest failures,” Hite explained. Typically, the team finds 30 nests each season and almost all of them would fledge young into the wild. “We spotted a female ‘akikiki sitting on two eggs and when we came back two days later to collect the eggs, we found broken, rat-chewed eggshells on the ground.”
Now the field team has the added pressure of trying to control the rat population by setting out dozens of rat traps. If it’s not one thing it’s another and such is the trial and error, learn as you go attitude necessary to do this kind of work.
Adding to the mental, emotional, and physical stress these dedicated and passionate folks face daily, is the opposition to IIT from a small number of opponents.
At the end of a recent eight-day stint in the field he observed, “These birds are only here. They’ve been here the whole time, long before people arrived in the islands. They’re quiet, unassuming, and wonderful. If we lose them, it’s a huge loss, it’s terrible.”
Clearly the human dimension of the fight to save ‘akikiki and other native forest birds is critical. Watch the short video, Saving ‘Akikiki – The Field Team Presses On, at the link below.