From June 2 to June 8, 2018, I visited the Hawaiian island of Kauai. Among my favorite places was the Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge located on Kauai’s northern coast. The wildlife refuge includes a lighthouse, which was built in 1913 to help ships navigate between Asia and Kauai. It also includes rocky coast, which in the spring and summer is home to thousands of nesting seabirds. Kilauea Point NWR was established in 1985 to help protect the nesting seabirds of Kauai. Global seabird populations have plummeted over the last century, and Kauai’s seabirds are no exception. Human-introduced invasive species such as rats and cats have caused the decline of many seabirds of Kauai. However, since the establishment of the refuge, many species have made a comeback. Fences that surround the refuge eliminate the threats of rats and cats, and as a result, birds such as the Laysan Albatross and Wedge-tailed Shearwater have been increasing in numbers.
While I visited Kilauea Point Wildlife Refuge, I saw many nesting seabirds. Most abundant were the Red-footed Boobies that nest in the hundreds along the nearby cliffs. I saw some Red-footed Boobies collecting nesting material from grasses and taking them back to their nests. Others already had nests and were presumably incubating eggs. They showed off their bright red feet to attract a mate. Another common nesting seabird is the Red-tailed Tropicbird, which has red tail feathers nearly the length of its body used for aerial courtship. Its breeding season is from February to October and it nests in shallow caves along the cliffsides. The other tropicbird species at Kilauea Point is the White-tailed Tropicbird, which has even a longer tail than the Red-tailed Tropicbird. White-tailed Tropicbirds, too, nest at Kilauea Point, but during the winter months. One day during my Kauai visit, I returned to the Kilauea Point Wildlife Refuge just before sunset to see Wedge-tailed Shearwaters coming in to their nests. During the day, the shearwaters feed in large rafts in the ocean, coming back to their nests only at night. These shearwaters nest in burrows under the ground that they dig themselves. I saw several hundreds of these shearwaters coming back to their nesting sites at night and it was a remarkable experience to hear their haunting, mournful wails which they do at dusk. Listen to a recording of these birds by Dan Lane (XC234995).
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Adult Laysan Albatross at Kilauea Point, photo by Dessi Sieburth
Laysan Albatross chicks were on lawns and driveways near Kilauea Point, photo by Dessi Sieburth
Although they do not nest at Kilauea, Great Frigatebirds are common visitors, photo by Dessi Sieburth
My favorite birds at Kilauea were the Laysan Albatrosses. At the Kilauea Point Wildlife Refuge, I could see several adult albatrosses flying over the ocean, and by driving on the streets near the refuge, I could see several Laysan Albatross chicks sitting on people’s lawns in a neighborhood built on a cliff. The chicks take their first flight from the top of the cliffs, when they leave to live on the open Pacific waters and they don’t touch land for 3‐4 years. They often return to the same yard where they hatched, despite the fact that they travel thousands of miles away from land each year. Most of the chicks were nearly fully grown and just getting ready to fledge. We spotted several chicks flapping their huge wings. The chicks spend most of the time alone since their parents only come by about once a week to feed their young.
In spring and summer, the refuge is an excellent location for seeing and photographing seabirds. But there are also other opportunities to see seabirds on and around Kauai. One of the best ways to see rare seabirds is to take a trip by boat out to a nearby island, Lehua Island, which I did just after visiting the Wildlife Refuge. While crossing the strait, many seabirds flew by the boat, including a Hawaiian Petrel, a Bulwer’s Petrel, and a Buller’s Shearwater. The Hawaiian Petrel was especially exiting to see because the species is listed as endangered. The Hawaiian Petrel is unique among seabirds because it does not nest close to shore. Rather, it nests in burrows at high elevations in lava landscapes. It was a spectacular experience to see one of the largest populations of nesting seabirds in Hawaii and to go out by boat to see a rare species like the Hawaiian Petrel.
To learn more about the seabirds of Kauai, the conservation efforts to save them, and what we can do to help these seabirds I interviewed seabird biologist and researcher Dr. Andre Raine who works for Kauai Endangered Seabird Recovery Project (KESRP). The KESRP studies and protects endangered seabirds of Kauai including the Hawaiian Petrel.
My interview with André Raine
Andre was born in Bermuda and has been the Project Leader for the Kauai Endangered Seabird Recovery Project for over seven years. Before that job, he was the Conservation Manager for BirdLife Malta in the Maltese islands, where he ran all of the organization’s research projects including seabird research (particularly the endangered Yelkouan Shearwater) and tackling illegal hunting and trapping. He has also worked on conservation projects in the Peruvian Amazon, Zambia, England, Seychelles, Papua New Guinea and Bermuda. Andre has a PhD in Ornithology, focused on the conservation of a European red‐listed finch called the Twite. He also has a BSc in Wildlife Biology and an MSc in Conservation. Andre has a wife, Helen (who is also a seabird biologist) and two children, Callum and Maya.
In terms of his project – KESRP is a joint project of the Pacific Co‐operative Studies Unit of the University of Hawaii and the DLNR Department of Forestry and Wildlife. Its focus is on the three endangered seabirds on Kauai – Newell's Shearwater (we have 90% of the world's population), Hawaiian Petrel and Band-rumped Storm-Petrel. The KESRP works on both research and conservation of these three species to try to reverse the catastrophic declines they have faced in recent decades.
DS: How did you get interested in studying seabirds?
AR: The first seabird I worked on was the critically endangered Bermuda Petrel (also known as the Cahow). I started working with this species when I was a teenager, and later when I was doing my undergraduate studies in Canada, I would come back to Bermuda to help with the Conservation Unit, where one of our focuses was working with the Bermuda Petrel. It was pretty amazing to work so closely with a species which was once considered to be extinct, and it gave me a strong appreciation for seabirds in general - their capacity for finding fish in the vast ocean, their ability to relocate their burrows in their breeding grounds in remote areas in the dark, their incredible migrations etc. I also hand-reared an abandoned Cahow chick to fledging, which I was particularly proud of at the time.
DS: Why were Newell’s Shearwater and Hawaiian Petrel the focus of your study?
AR: The focus of my project is the endangered seabirds of Kauai - and Newell’s and the Hawaiian Petrels are two of the three. They have suffered massive declines in recent years - between 1993 and 2013 the Newell's declined by 94% and the Hawaiian Petrel by 78%. So they desperately need help if they are to continue to persist on Kauai.
DS: How do you use radar to monitor seabird populations?
AR: Radar allows us to see the birds as they transit overhead in the dark - they show up on the radar screens as small blobs, and we identify species based on their speed, the timing of their movement, and their flight behavior. We have 13 radar sites that have been run since 1993, so that’s a very long data set. We can then compare the number of birds counted each year to assess how the numbers have changed over time. The results of this work were published in the scientific journal Condor in 2017.
DS: What are the reasons for the decline in Newell’s Shearwater and Hawaiian Petrel?
AR: There are a number of reasons, all of them due in some way to human activity. They key threats are powerline collisions, light attraction of fledglings, predation by introduced predators (such as cats, rats and pigs), loss of breeding habitat due to invasive plants, and threats at sea which, while less well known can include overfishing, bycatch, climate change and plastic ingestion.
DS: What are some things we can do to help these endangered seabirds?
AR: The best ways we can help as individuals are:
If you have a cat, keep it indoors - cats are one of the major predators of Hawaii's endangered birds in general, and are not supposed to be out on the landscape. It is also safer for the cat as well!
During the period when the seabird chicks are leaving their nests and heading out to sea, make sure that outside lights are dimmed or turned off. Use downward facing lighting and low-intensity bulbs to help reduce seabird fallout.
Try to cut down on your use of plastics — plastics are a huge threat to seabirds, and much of what we use is not needed. Say no to straws, unnecessary packaging, plastic cups, etc!
If you eat fish, source it from seabird friendly sources or locally caught from local and artisanal fishermen.
Keep up to date on seabird issues, keep informed and work in the world of conservation. Our endangered seabirds need all the help they can get!
Special thanks to Andre Raine for giving the interview. My goal is that many people learn about the seabirds of Kauai. If you like to learn more about how to help birds, please visit my website.
Raine, A. F., Holmes, M., Travers, N. E., Cooper, B. A., and Day, R. H. (2017a). Declining population trends of Hawaiian petrel and Newell’s shearwater on the island of Kaua‘i, Hawaii, USA. The Condor: Ornithological Applications 119, 405–415