WAILUA — Tracy Anderson carefully reaches into a box with small holes cut into the sides. Using a towel, she gently picks up an endangered fledgling Newell’s shearwater and walks over to a group of students from Eleele Elementary School.
“Now, don’t touch,” the coordinator of the Save Our Shearwaters program reminds them before pulling the towel from over the animal’s fluffy black head.
The children gasp in excitement while the bird squirms, attempting to break free from her grip.
This and one other rescued Newell’s, or ‘A’o, were released Thursday at Lydgate Beach Park in front of an awestruck class. The annual release and celebration event, hosted by the Kauai Endangered Seabird Recovery Project and Save Our Shearwaters, offers an opportunity for fourth- graders to learn about seabirds and their connection to Hawaiian culture.
Nathan Banfield of the Kauai Endangered Seabird Recovery Project said the main message for the students is simple: “They have a special bird to their island. This bird is not seen anywhere else, and it is something that they can help protect and save, saying that this is part of our culture, part of our island.”
Kauai is home to 90 percent of the world’s population of Newell’s shearwater.
After showing the bird to the students, Anderson walked over to a platform overlooking Lydgate Beach and handed it to Eleele teacher Tracy Kobayashi.
The bird sat still in her outstretched hands for a few seconds, looked around somewhat confused and lifted its large wings. It took a courageous leap and soared, somewhat awkwardly, toward the horizon and out of sight. The students cheered.
It could be two years before the bird returns to the Garden Isle, Banfield reminded the students.
“I’ll be 11,” one boy shouted from the crowd, referring to how old he’ll be when it does come back.
Fourth-grader Mikaela Depoe said it was her first time watching a shearwater release.
“It was great,” she said of the experience. “I like seeing an endangered bird go off.”
Kobayashi, her teacher, said having an opportunity to personally send one out into the wild was a special experience.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” she said.
While two birds were successfully released during the event, others will have to wait for another day.
Before sending each one off, Anderson assesses their health to make sure they are ready — measuring their weight and wingspan and, if they are ready, tagging them with a metal ring around the leg.
“This guy’s super fat,” she said of one bird, visibly shocked. “He’s huge, actually.”
So big, in fact, that Anderson and SOS technician Christa DeRaspe decide he’ll have to slim down a bit before heading out to sea on his own.
One of the birds that flew Thursday had a healthy weight of almost one pound, while the other was a shade over, according to DeRaspe.
“I’m worried about that guy’s capability of flying right now,” Anderson said, putting him back in his temporary home.
“He needs to go on a diet,” DeRaspe laughed.
During Thursday’s event, Eleele students did an oli aloha before the release and an oli mahalo afterward. During the release the students gave a Hawaiian pule telling the bird that it is OK to fly, and be strong on its journey, according to a release for the event.
The ‘A’o is an endangered seabird found only on the Hawaiian Islands, with Kauai being the last main refuge of the species, according to the Department of Land and Natural Resources.
Populations of the nesting shearwater have declined dramatically in recent years. The decline is attributed to a number of issues, including predation by introduced predators, such as feral cats, rats and pigs; collisions with manmade structures; and fallout of fledglings due to artificial lights.
As birds begin to fledge from their burrows in the interior of the island and fly out to sea for the first time, they become attracted to bright lights along the coast.
They then circle these lights until they become exhausted and crash to the ground in a phenomena known as “fallout.” If they are not subsequently rescued, they get run over by cars or eaten by cats and dogs. At this time of year, concerned citizens are on the look out for downed birds, which they rescue and hand over to the Save Our Shearwaters Project. The birds are rehabilitated as necessary and then released back into the wild.
The two birds released Thursday were fledglings rescued after being grounded by artificial lights.
A second release event is scheduled for Monday with fourth-grade students from Island School.
The DLNR reminds anyone who finds a downed ‘A’o to take the bird to the nearest aid station (found at all fire stations around the island) and leave detailed information on where and when it was found.
You can call the SOS hotline at 635-5117 for more information or to let SOS know that you have dropped off a bird.