Rescued shearwaters get second chance

WAILUA — State workers, environmental groups and students joined forces Tuesday morning at Lydgate Park to release several endangered seabirds back into the wild.

Some 45 students from Wilcox Elementary School had an opportunity for a close-up as six Newell’s shearwater fledglings got a second chance at life during the E Ho‘opomaika‘i ‘ia na Manu ‘A‘o event

“These birds were enjoying their first flight but somehow became disoriented and fell,” said Brooke McFarland, Avian Conservation Research Associate with the Kaua‘i Endangered Seabird Recovery Project. “They were examined and are now ready to resume their journey out to sea after someone rescued them after they fell.”

Some 90 percent of the world’s population of ‘a‘o, or Newell’s shearwater, are found on Kaua‘i. The birds, which are guided to the sea on their first flights by the moon, become disoriented by artificial lights. They are known to circle unshielded street, stadium or hotel lights until sheer exhaustion causes them to crash to the ground.

The ‘a‘o is endemic to the Hawaiian Islands, meaning they are found nowhere else in the world, according to Save Our Shearwaters. While the birds spend much of their time at sea, they come to the island to lay their eggs and look after their chicks during the breeding season which runs from April to November, nesting in deep burrows in the interior of Kaua‘i.

“We are thankful for the participation of the keiki of Kaua‘i and the partnership between our Division of Forestry and Wildlife, Kaua‘i’s Endangered Seabird Recovery Project, Save Our Shearwaters, and the Kaua‘i Humane Society in this fifth annual event,” William Aila Jr., chair of the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, said in a news release. “This is a very special opportunity for Kaua‘i’s students to personally experience the difference they can make in the lives of these endangered seabirds.”

Prior to the release, staff members from the KESRP worked with the students at Wilcox School and the KHS engaged the students in educational games and fun facts about some of the endangered species.

Once at the special Lydgate Park release site, McFarland and Emily Haber worked with the students on refreshing some of the facts before turning the E Ho‘iopomaika‘i ‘ia na Manu ‘A‘o, or A Cultural Release of the Native Newell’s Shearwater, to Kumu Leilani Kaleiohi.

Being witness to the endangered birds’ release is a special treat, so a pule of good thoughts is always appropriate, Kaleiohi said, instructing the students.

“Kaua‘i has a unique role to play in the conservation of this species which has been a part of the island’s culture throughout history,” said Dr. Andre Raine, recently hired as the co-cordinator of KESRP. “We can be proud the island is home to almost all of the world’s ‘a‘o, but we also have a responsibility to look after them as the island is the last main refuge of this enigmatic bird.”

The ‘a‘o is listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act and has undergone a dramatic population decline of approximately 75 percent in recent years. The decline is due to a number of reasons including predation by introduced species such as rats, cats, loss of habitat from introduced plants and animals and the effects of light pollution. Threats at sea remain to be fully understood.

“Birds being released today are newly fledged ‘a‘o which have fallen victim to a phenomenon known as ‘fall out,’” said Dr. Marie Morin, SOS coordinator. “‘Fall out’ is when young ‘a‘o on their first flight from the nest to the sea become disoriented by bright lights, especially on nights with little moonlight. They end up circling the lights until they are exhausted and fall to the ground, becoming easy prey for cats and dogs, or can die from hunger and thirst.”

Morin said the birds have a hard time taking off from flat ground, and luckily, these birds were rescued by caring Kaua‘i residents and passed on to SOS which rehabilitates young ‘a‘o until they are ready to be released into the wild.

“This event is a great way for the school children to give something back to our native wildlife,” said Alicia Miyashiro, a Wilcox School teacher. “Awareness-raising events such as these are vital for our students to understand what a key role Kaua‘i plays in the conservation of this rare seabird. Thanks to the support of our community, we can watch the birds flying back out to sea and feel hope there will still be ‘a‘o gracing our island well into the future.”

The Kaua‘i Island Utility Cooperative and the County of Kaua‘i — both of which have faced lawsuits in recent years for not complying with state and federal legal protections for the endangered seabirds — provide support for the SOS program.

• Dennis Fujimoto, photographer and staff writer, can be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 253) or dfujimoto@ thegardenisland.com.

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