ALAKA‘I — A team of six people are now in the Kaua‘i uplands trying to locate a single family of the Hawaiian honeycreeper, the ‘akikiki. The number of birds in the Halehaha area of the native forest on the Alaka‘i Plateau plummeted, and now the team of forest-bird experts and scientists are trying to locate the ‘akikiki family nicknamed Carrot, Napua, Abby and Erica. They are a breeding pair and their chicks believed to be the last remaining ‘akikiki in this section of wet, high-elevation forest.
If found, the birds be flown by helicopter to the Maui Bird Conservation Center operated by the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance.
Dr. Cali Crampton, the leader of the Kaua‘i Forest Bird Recovery Project, is leading the search-and-rescue mission.
“In 2018, we had territories and nests everywhere. This year we were able to only find one nesting pair, and we believe there are only four, maybe five, ‘akikiki left in this entire area. When I first started with the project there were more than 100,” Crampton said. Avian malaria is killing the highly susceptible honeycreepers one by one.
During an exercise earlier this year, four experts in the field were tasked with analyzing all the available data. They were asked to come up with current ‘akikiki population estimates and a time to extinction for the diminutive birds.
They reported the population of ‘akikiki, only found on Kaua‘i, as less than 100 and probably fewer than 50. Most disturbing was their finding that absent landscape-scale control of disease-carrying mosquitoes, ‘akikiki could be extinct in little more than two years. “I think these are desperate times. Ten years ago, there were more than 70 breeding pairs,” Crampton noted.
Birds that can be caught in fine-mesh mist nets over the next nine days will be first taken to a field banding station to be weighed, undergo preliminary health checks, and to have their tiny leg bands checked, which identify them.
Then they’ll be carried down the mountain to a remote field research camp where a tent has been set up to house them and to keep them safe, calm and fed until they can be flown to the Maui Bird Conservation Center. There they’ll join some 40 other ‘akikiki, hatched from eggs collected in the forest.
Peter Luscomb of the nonprofit Pacific Bird Conservation has decades of experience with bird translocations around the world. He’ll be responsible for feeding and caring for the ‘akikiki the rest of the team hopes to capture. “I think it’s critical. The population is crashing, and if these birds are left out in the forest, all indications are they will die,” he said.
Luscomb will treat the birds for avian malaria. “There’s nothing wrong with the ecosystem. The only problem is it’s got mosquitoes and malaria, and once that’s resolved they can be brought back.”
For nearly a decade, Justin Hite, KFBRP field supervisor has spent hundreds of days here, leading teams into the mountain and across valleys to search for birds.
“In 2017 everything looked amazing,” Hite said. “In 2018, fantastic. There were lots of birds and many of them doing very well, with 85% of adult ‘akikiki surviving from one year to the next. By 2019, less than half of the adults had survived. That was our first warning.”