Enclosures to protect endangered seabirds

Work has begun on two fenced enclosures in the West Maui Mountains that aim to attract two threatened native seabirds to protect them from predators and to encourage them to nest with techniques including broadcasts of their calls.

The Makamaka’ole seabird mitigation project, which was blessed Monday, is part of a First Wind first-of-a-kind project to provide conservation benefits to offset potential impacts of the Kaheawa Wind projects on a ridge overlooking Maalaea, a news release from the wind power developer said.

Two fenced enclosures are being built in the Kahakuloa area to protect the endangered Hawaiian petrel and threatened Newell’s shearwater. Once completed in the April-May time frame, the enclosures will each cover between 4 and 5 acres on state land and will feature barriers including fence skirts to prevent burrowing, intended to keep non-native predators such as rats, mongooses and cats out of the habitat, and monitoring and motion-sensor equipment, the news release said.

In addition, each enclosure will contain specific features designed to attract shearwaters and petrels to nest, including artificial burrows, custom decoys and a sound system that broadcasts shearwater and petrel calls.

The shearwaters, which are rare on Maui, pass directly over the site on their way to more remote nesting sites, said John Lamontagne, First Wind director of communications. The hope is that the birds “will respond favorably to the broadcast calls,” he said.

The petrels actively fly over the area while engaging in courtship behavior, he said. They do attempt to nest near the enclosure sites, but the birds face threats from predators.

The enclosure sites were selected based on their proximity to areas where both birds are active during the breeding season, Lamontagne said. The goal is to see a small number of breeding pairs establish nesting sites in the first few years, steadily increasing with time. He could not provide specific target numbers for the birds but said,”We hope to see a steady growth in the birds’ populations over a 15- to 20-year time frame.”

Kahu Kealahou C. Alika of Keawala’i Congregational Church in Makena held the blessing, which was attended by local residents and members of the Waihe’e Community Association, with whom First Wind has been working.

“This is a unique program the likes of which has never been done before in the wind industry,” said Dave Cowan, First Wind’s vice president for environmental affairs. “We’re proud to have worked with outstanding local and international partners to put in place a program that we hope will provide real benefits for these species for years to come.”

The plan was designed with the involvement of a number of research experts who have had success in designing and implementing similar bird conservation areas elsewhere, the news release said. Those groups and individuals included EcoWorks, a New Zealand-based environmental consultant; SWCA Environmental Consultants based in Honolulu; the state Department of Land and Natural Resources Division of Forestry and Wildlife; and David Ainley, an internationally recognized seabird expert.

The enclosures will be kept in place indefinitely, the news release said. The birds will be carefully monitored by First Wind biologists for at least 20 years using a variety of methods including motion-sensor cameras. Efforts will be undertaken to trap and remove non-native predators from the enclosures over the coming months.

The bird enclosures are part of First Wind’s Habitat Conservation Plan, the first for a utility-scale wind project, the news release said. In addition to the project’s environmental impact statement, the habitat plan was formulated to ensure “a long-term net conservation benefit” for three threatened and endangered bird species and the endangered Hawaiian hoary bat, which could be affected by the wind project.

The first Kaheawa Wind project went on line in 2006, and the second phase began operations in July.

* Lee Imada can be reached at leeimada@mauinews.com.