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Lawsuit Launched to Stop Hawaii’s Airport, Harbor Lights From Killing Rare Seabirds

Conservation groups today filed a formal notice of intent to sue the Hawaii Department of Transportation for failing to prevent bright lighting at state-operated airports and harbors on Kauai, Maui and Lānai from causing injuries and death to three species of critically imperiled seabirds.

The Newell’s shearwater is a threatened species, and Hawaiian petrels and band-rumped storm petrels in Hawaii are endangered species. According to today’s notice from Hui Ho‘omalu i Ka ‘Āina, Conservation Council for Hawai‘i and the Center for Biological Diversity, represented by nonprofit law firm Earthjustice, the department’s failure to protect these native seabirds from harmful operations at its facilities violates the federal Endangered Species Act.

“Since ancient times, Hawaiian fishermen have looked to the ‘a‘o (Newell’s shearwater) to help them find fish,” said Kauai fisherman Jeff Chandler of Hui Ho‘omalu i Ka ‘Āina, which works to protect cultural and natural resources. “They’re an important part of our culture, and the Department of Transportation needs to take seriously its kuleana (responsibility) to protect them.”

The seabirds circle the bright lights at the department’s facilities until they fall to the ground from exhaustion or crash into nearby buildings. Bright lights have contributed significantly to the catastrophic 94 percent decline in the population of threatened Newell’s shearwaters on Kauai since the 1990s. They have also harmed endangered Hawaiian petrels, whose numbers on Kauai have plummeted by 78 percent in the same period.

“Fixing the lights so these magnificent seabirds on the brink of extinction aren’t killed is completely feasible,” said Brian Segee, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Instead, the department is doing everything in its power to avoid protecting these highly imperiled native Hawaiian birds. It’s worse than irresponsible — it’s unethical and illegal.”

Last October the department abruptly broke off discussions with federal and state wildlife agencies regarding its participation in an island-wide habitat conservation plan to minimize and mitigate harm to the rare seabirds on Kauai.

“By withdrawing from talks on Kauai, the department left the county of Kauai and private entities holding the bag to address harm from the airports and harbors, even though the department’s facilities are among the largest sources of illegal death and injury on the island,” said Marjorie Ziegler of Conservation Council for Hawai‘i. “The department needs to fulfill its duty under Hawaii’s constitution to conserve and protect our natural heritage, not stick its head in the sand and do nothing.”

The groups seek to compel the department to comply with its obligations under the Endangered Species Act to minimize and mitigate harm to the imperiled seabirds by securing incidental take permit coverage of its activities on all three islands. The Act requires that citizens provide 60 days’ advance notice before filing a lawsuit to address illegal activities.

“Time is running out for these rare and culturally important seabirds,” said David Henkin, an Earthjustice attorney representing the groups. “If the Hawaii Department of Transportation continues to shirk its obligations under the Endangered Species Act, we’ll see them in court.”

Click to read full letter

Endangered ‘Ua‘u Released Successfully

When it comes to successful wildlife rescue and rehabilitation, the old adage “it takes a village” rings true. An endangered ‘Ua‘u (Hawaiian Petrel) is back in the wild thanks to the rapid response and partnership of many, including Pulama Lana‘i, the Division of Forestry and Wildlife (DOFAW), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), multiple community members, Kohala Dental Center, Maui Save Our Seabirds, and the Hawai‘i Wildlife Center.

All photos courtesy of Hawai‘i Wildlife Center

The ‘Ua‘u was found injured on Lana‘i after a suspected structure collision. The bird was suffering from head trauma, an injury to its left eye, damage to the tip of its beak, and neurological issues. The rescuers coordinated with the Hawai‘i Wildlife Center, the bird was flown to Hawai‘i Island on April 19 and was then brought to the HWC wildlife hospital from the airport by Wheels for Wildlife transport volunteer, Paul McCollam. The extensive list of injuries led HWC to give the bird a guarded prognosis after it was evaluated by HWC Primary Care Veterinarian Dr. Juan Guerra. It was started on an aggressive course of treatment, including antibiotics, eye drops, nutritional support and hydration. HWC staff administered treatment three times a day every day and remained committed to the bird’s recovery.

“This case really highlights the importance of giving downed birds a chance to rehabilitate,” said Samantha Christie, HWC Wildlife Rehabilitation Manager. “This bird would have perished if not for the quick response on Lana‘i and the intensive care provided at HWC.”

The ‘Ua‘u continued its recovery, gaining strength and exhibiting more feisty natural behavior, and on May 1 it was placed on a conditioning pool for the first time. After watching the bird spend multiple days on the pool, HWC wildlife staff determined that the bird’s feathers were able to provide the necessary waterproofing and were encouraged to see the patient exhibiting normal behavior. All signs pointed towards release.

Before the bird was ready to be released, a few last details needed to be addressed. HWC wildlife rehabilitation staff performed a unique procedure using dental epoxy generously provided by Kohala Dental Center to repair the bird’s damaged beak. The day before release, the bird was banded by DOFAW staff with a band that was provided by Maui Save Our Seabirds and flown in the night before. Then she was ready for return to the wild.

Since seabirds naturally fly long distances, HWC was granted permission from USFWS and DOFAW to release the Lana‘i ‘Ua‘u on Hawai‘i Island. The release location, Kawaihae Harbor, was chosen based on the close proximity to the Center. Michael Huber, another HWC volunteer, carefully kayaked the ‘Ua‘u out of the harbor and the bird was released to favorable winds and calm seas. During its initial examination at the HWC wildlife hospital, HWC wildlife staff found a brood patch indicating that the bird was a breeding adult. HWC staff expects the bird to eventually navigate back home to Lana‘i to breed.

The Hawaiian Petrel, or ‘Ua‘u in Hawaiian, is an endangered species that feeds in in the open ocean. This large seabird is strictly pelagic and is only seen on land when nesting. (A Photographic Guide to the Birds of Hawai‘i. Jim Denny. University of Hawaii Press, 2010.)

High Tech Cameras Reveal The Secret Lives Of Kauai’s Endangered Seabirds

High tech cameras placed at remote breeding sites are providing insight into the secret lives of Kauai’s endangered seabirds. As part of the Kauai Endangered Seabird Recovery Project (KESRP), which is a state and federally funded project under the state Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) Division of Forestry and Wildlife, in collaboration with the University of Hawaii Pacific Cooperative Studies Unit, the 14 cameras were placed on Newell’s Shearwater and Hawaiian Petrel burrows during the breeding season last year to collect data on everything from the arrival of adults to the fledging of chicks.

Photo of two Newell’s Shearwaters at their burrow taken with an infra-red camera. Photo by Kauai Endangered Seabird Recovery Project.

Photo of two Newell’s Shearwaters at their burrow taken with an infra-red camera. Photo by Kauai Endangered Seabird Recovery Project.

“These cameras have provided us with a window into a side of the birds that we simply never see,” explained Dr. André Raine, KESRP coordinator. “Watching the birds returning to their burrows after a winter out at sea, preening each other at the burrow entrance or interacting with their chicks at night is really pretty special, but the cameras are also providing critical data to help save the birds from extinction.”

[youtube=http://youtu.be/f2w6hkwmPHw]

The cameras are set on a trigger mechanism to take photos when something passes in front of the burrow entrance. Once the cameras are triggered, they take a rapid series of photos and only stop when the movement has ceased. This means that the cameras record birds entering or leaving their nest sites, or chicks exercising in front of the burrows throughout the breeding season. As the birds only come into their colonies at night, cameras are fitted with infrared flashes so that the birds are not disturbed.

“We’ve recorded birds from the moment they arrive on Kauai in March to the time their chicks depart in October to December,” Dr. Raine continued. “The cameras are a great way to collect data on a whole range of behaviors, such as when the chicks fledge and how often adults come to the burrows to feed their offspring. In this way we are increasing our understanding of exactly what these birds are up to while they are on our island.”

The cameras have also highlighted the threat of invasive species to these endangered seabirds, a problem that is facing Hawaii’s endemic wildlife throughout the archipelago. Cameras have filmed burrows being visited by both feral cats and rats throughout the study period, and have even captured the gruesome moment when a chick was eaten alive by a large rat.

[youtube=http://youtu.be/u2Fgl7cN2Mg]

“One of the achievements of this work has been to highlight how vulnerable these birds are to introduced predators,” Dr. Raine said. “It doesn’t matter how remote the sites are, feral cats and rats are always present and these can have a dramatic impact on breeding colonies. The cameras showed that several of the burrows even had rat nests right at the burrow entrance and feral cats actively investigated burrows on multiple occasions.”

The collection of this type of data using the latest technology is important because Kaua’i holds 90 percent of the world’s population of the Newell’s Shearwater, making it vital for the global conservation of this species. The island also holds internationally important populations of the Hawaiian Petrel.  The data from these cameras is therefore invaluable in terms of guiding on-going introduced predator control efforts in remote montane colonies.

To see a selection of videos taken from these cameras, visit the newly launched Kauai Endangered Seabird Recovery Project website at http://kauaiseabirdproject.org/

New Study Provides First Direct Evidence of Feral Cats in Hawaii Killing Endangered Hawaiian Petrel

A new study by federal and university scientists has provided the first direct videographic evidence of depredation of the endangered Hawaiian Petrel by feral cats. The study affirms large amounts of earlier anecdotal evidence that feral cats are an important factor in population declines of the species and provides important additional information on the behavior of cats at petrel burrows.

Hawaiian Petrel and egg by Kauai Endangered Seabird Recovery Project

Hawaiian Petrel and egg by Kauai Endangered Seabird Recovery Project

The study, which was prepared by scientists from the University of Hawaiʻi, National Park Service, and U.S. Geological Survey, involved the monitoring of 14 Hawaiian Petrel burrows with digital infrared video cameras that produced 819 videos and 89 still photographs during 2007 and 2008 at petrel nesting areas on Mauna Loa on Hawaiʻi Island. The study confirmed the presence of feral cats at eight burrows.

The report says that the effects of feral cats on endangered birds are poorly understood because many endangered species are rare and therefore observed infrequently. In addition, some endangered species are nocturnal and occur only seasonally in remote and inaccessible environments.

All that is true in the case of the Hawaiian Petrel. This species was once numerous and widespread throughout the entire Hawaiian archipelago but now numbers only about 15,000 birds distributed in isolated breeding colonies on Kauaʻi, Lanaʻi, Maui, and Hawaiʻi Island. The birds spend most of their time at sea, and return to land only to breed in barren alpine areas and steep forested slopes, where they come and go from underground burrows nocturnally. Usually, confirmation of breeding is determined by a variety of indirect signs such as the presence of droppings, feathers, footprints, or vocalizations.

Depredation of Hawaiian Petrel adults and chicks at colonies has been frequently documented and attributed to cats based on the condition of bird carcasses and the presence of nearby cat scat.  Analysis of cat scat and stomach contents of feral cats also suggest that cat depredation is occurring. However, the technology does not currently exist to differentiate whether petrel remains came from consumption of live prey or scavenged dead animals.

One feral cat depredation event was recorded on video in 2008 and showed a feral cat waiting near the entrance of a burrow for over one hour.  When the petrel chick emerged, the cat quickly grabbed it. The remains of the chick were found 10 meters from the burrow. Evidence from an additional depredation event was documented in 2008 during a field visit by researchers, while eight other depredation events were documented during field visits in 2007.

The report says that the video data should prove useful in studying both the bird’s nesting behavior and predator interactions. “This information may prove to be beneficial for developing more targeted management strategies for a suite of endangered bird species in Hawaii,” said Dr. Steven Hess of the U.S. Geological Survey.

Videographic evidence already exists for feral cat depredation of another endangered Hawaiian bird, the Palila, while another video shows a feral cat trying to take the egg of a Nēnē, the endangered Hawaiian Goose. According to the study, other strong evidence for the negative effects of feral cats on native Hawaiian seabirds comes from the positive response of bird populations where feral cats have been controlled and from comparisons of Wedge-tailed Shearwater reproduction in the presence and absence of feral cats.

The authors point out that while the depredation of Hawaiian Petrel chicks may limit the recruitment of chicks into the population, the killing of adults by cats may have even more severe consequences.

“This species has delayed sexual maturity, low reproductive potential and extended nestling development, all of which place a premium on survivorship of the adult birds. Further, the birds also have a high degree of mate fidelity and may have difficulty replacing mates that have been depredated,” said Dr. Darcy Hu of the National Park Service.

She pointed out that the majority of numerous depredated Hawaiian Petrel carcasses found in the study area were adult birds, presumably ones that were actively breeding or seeking mates.

“These data provide yet more evidence that feral cats are having an impact on many wildlife species, but especially on birds,” said George Wallace, ABC’s Vice President for Oceans and Islands. “Feral cats are believed to have been at least partially, if not fully, responsible for the extinction of several dozen wildlife species, including the Stephens Island Wren of New Zealand and Mexico’s Guadalupe Storm-Petrel.  Management controls, such as predator control and predator-proof fencing are urgently needed to prevent that from happening to the Hawaiian Petrel.”

One such effort is underway to protect Mauna Loa’s Hawaiian Petrels. The National Park Service with support from the US Fish and Wildlife Service, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and the American Bird Conservancy, is constructing a fence specifically designed to keep feral cats and mongooses out of important Hawaiian Petrel nesting habitat in Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park. Once completed, the fence will protect an estimated 45 active petrel nesting sites and enclose 640 acres of prime nesting habitat.