Native species recovering at Mokio Preserve on Molokai

KIA'I MOKU

Jay Penniman of the Maui Nui Seabird Recovery Project sets up an acoustic monitor near the Laysan albatross decoys at the Mokio Preserve on Molokai. The speaker in the foreground broadcasts mating calls for the very rare Laysan albatross during the day, while acoustic monitors record nighttime activity from other seabird species like the wedge-tailed shearwater. -- BUTCH HAASE / Molokai Land Trust photo

On the windswept, northwestern corner of Molokai there is an old cattle pasture that, until recently, was covered in kiawe, buffelgrass and lantana. But underneath the invasive plants, seeds of native species lay waiting, ready to grow if given the chance. Endangered Hawaiian insects found refuge in pockets of the sea cliffs. Seabirds patrolled the coastlines. Their wait may be over.

In 2008, the Molokai Land Trust began to manage Mokio, five miles of coastline between the state-owned Ilio Point and The Nature Conservancy’s Moomomi Preserve. This former pastureland was never developed and is rich in both cultural and biological resources. Seasonal wetlands support the largest population of an endangered fern, ihiihilauakea, or four-leaf clover fern, in the state.

Adze quarries and pre-contact Hawaiian housing sites remain relatively intact. It is promising seabird nesting habitat, already in use by the koae ula and koae kea (red-tailed and white-tailed tropic birds) that nest in the cliff faces and noio (black noddy) that raise their young in caves. But years of cattle and deer traffic have taken a toll on the native plant community.

The first step in restoring the area: fencing out large grazing animals. “Sixty acres are fenced,” says Butch Haase, executive director of the Molokai Land Trust. “We’ve converted a kiawe, lantana and buffelgrass-dominated landscape into a native-dominated landscape.” Seeds of native coastal plants have begun to sprout after decades of dormancy. Volunteers planted seedlings farther inland where the seedbank was depleted by years of cattle grazing. Their efforts are proving successful: carpets of yellow-flowered nehe, ilima and a rare orange ohai now thrive where kiawe and other invasives once grew.

Native habitat attracts native critters. These native coastal plants feed and house critically endangered Hawaiian yellow-faced bees. The low-growing vegetation is the perfect place for seabirds to forage. And they do — the variety of seabirds seen at Mokio rivals that of another birding hotspot in the Hawaiian Islands — Kilauea Point on Kauai. Uau kane (wedge-tailed shearwater), both red-footed and brown boobies and kaupu (black-footed albatross) are nesting here. Moli — the Laysan albatross — has been sighted along the northern coast of Molokai, landing at Ilio, Anapuka and Kalaupapa. This led Haase and his crew to wonder if perhaps albatross belonged at Mokio, too.

Orange-flowered ohai (foreground) are one of the endangered plants that have began to germinate now that invasive species have been removed from the Molokai Land Trust’s Mokio Preserve. Ohai, yellow-flowered ilima papa and other native coastal plants create a low-growing carpet the feeds and houses endangered yellow-faced bees and creates habitat for native seabirds. -- BUTCH HAASE / Molokai Land Trust photo

With rising sea levels threatening primary albatross nesting grounds in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, scientists are trying to increase nesting sites in the main Hawaiian Islands. So Haase, working with the American Bird Conservancy, Maui Nui Seabird Recovery Project, the U..S Fish and Wildlife Coastal Program and the Department of Land and Natural Resources, deployed 14 albatross decoys complete with pre-recorded albatross calls. Within 10 days an albatross had landed, scraping around to investigate a potential nesting site.

This albatross was alone, checking out new territory as young albatross often do, but the amazingly quick response rate is promising. Haase and the rest of the project team hope that within two years albatross could be nesting at Mokio.

That solidifies a deadline for another project at Mokio: the construction of a predator-proof fence to protect ground-nesting seabirds from feral cats, dogs, mongoose, rats and mice. These predators attack the adults and eat their eggs or hatchlings. (Presently, labor-intensive trapping keeps the predator population down). When the fence is complete it will protect 85 acres of potential nesting habitat for Hawaiian seabirds as well as migratory seabirds like kolea and the kioea, bristle-thighed curlew, a shorebird that cannot fly during its winter molt in Hawaii.

The changes at Mokio are dramatic — a cattle pasture transformed into a growing seabird colony now full of native plants. The success so far highlights the resilience of Hawaiian species and their ability to recover when invasive plants and animals are removed. Work at Mokio is ongoing and you can help: Molokai Land Trust welcomes volunteers, both residents of Molokai and visitors from off island. If you would like to help in recovery efforts, send an email to volunteersmlt@gmail.com. Follow the progress of the project at molokailandtrust.org and look for them on Facebook.

* Lissa Fox Strohecker is the public relations and education specialist for the Maui Invasive Species Committee. She holds a biological sciences degree from Montana State University. “Kia’i Moku,” “Guarding the Island,” is prepared by the Maui Invasive Species Committee to provide information on protecting the island from invasive plants and animals that can threaten the island’s environment, economy and quality of life.

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