For the Birds
MAKAMAKAOLE – The West Maui Mountains between Kahakuloa and Makamakaole may be quiet now, but habitat conservationists working on the Makamaka’ole seabird mitigation project are hoping that by this time next year they will be filled with the song of native Hawaiian seabirds.
First Wind, the Boston-based renewable energy company that operates the Kaheawa Wind farms above Maalaea, is in the process of building two bird enclosures – one for the endangered Hawaiian petrel, or uau, and the other for the threatened Newell’s shearwater, or ao – on state land located about 10 miles west of Wailuku as part of its effort to offset potential impacts of the wind farms.
As part of its state and federal permitting to build one of the largest wind farms in Hawaii, First Wind had agreed to put together a habitat conservation plan 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.
On a site visit Thursday, The Maui News got a firsthand look at the shearwater enclosure, which is nearly complete. The predator-proof fence prevents animals from climbing over or under, nearly all the artificial burrows were put in, and many predators have been trapped and removed from the enclosure. First Wind officials called it “a major milestone for the project.”
“When fully operational, these enclosures will protect and bolster Maui’s endangered native bird species for years to come,” Dave Cowan, vice president for environmental affairs at First Wind, said in a statement.
The fence for the second enclosure will be installed within the next couple weeks, with both enclosures expected to be finished by fall, according to company officials.
“We know that there are shearwaters here, but they’re being (preyed upon) by mongoose and cats,” said Steve Sawyer, president of EcoWorks New Zealand, which designed the enclosures for First Wind and has built similar enclosures on other Pacific islands.
Last year, Sawyer brought two specialists with seabird-detecting dogs from New Zealand to help search for remnant Hawaiian petrel burrows on the mountain. After weeks of hiking all over the mountain ridge more than 2,000 feet above sea level, the search team found only dead petrels, and Sawyer suspected that the seabirds were being attacked by rats, cats and mongooses.
“Nobody knows what the production levels are now, it might be zero because the chicks might be being eaten by predators. Now we’ve got a manageable site that we could get materials to and staff,” Sawyer said.
Erica Thoele, supervisor of habitat conservation plan compliance with First Wind, said that the project will not only create a safe haven for seabirds but also help researchers get a better idea of how many there are around Maui and where their breeding grounds are.
“That’s kind of the reason why we really wanted to do this is because there’s not really a good understanding of how many (seabirds) there are. . . . This is one way we’ll be able to monitor and help with estimations across the island.”
Remote-controlled video cameras will be installed in and around the enclosure so that biologists may keep track of the birds’ nesting patterns with minimal human intrusion. Thoele said that after the enclosures are completed, one staff member will check the fence once a week or so to make sure there are no breaches.
Each fenced enclosure encompasses 3 to 4 acres and has 50 artificial burrows for the birds to nest. Sawyer and other habitat conservationists spent the past few months ridding the enclosure of rats, cats and mongooses using traps.
To attract the seabirds to nest, Sawyer is planning on installing custom decoys as well as solar-powered, weatherproof sound systems that broadcast recorded bird calls in the evening hours when the birds usually fly over the area.
The 40 lifelike decoy birds were ordered from a New Zealand company that manufactured props for “The Lord of the Rings” movies, Sawyer said.
“It’s a little bit experimental,” Sawyer said. “I’ve done it with gamut (birds) back in New Zealand and I got fiberglass decoys made, set them up and we tried it. Within a month we had 45 gamuts on the ground amongst the decoys.”
Sawyer hopes that the new techniques will help draw the shearwaters and petrels to the enclosures at the start of the next breeding season in February, though he said it would most likely be a few years before they would see any nests.
“They might land here next year but they won’t nest right away. They may try nesting the following year, but often they’re not very good parents . . . they break eggs or the eggs roll out of the nests, they forget to sit on it so it’s not usually until year two or three that they learn, ‘Oh I’ve got to keep this thing warm to hatch the chick,’ ” Sawyer said.
Still, even if a few birds land in the enclosures next year, Sawyer said he will be “breaking out the champagne.”
A similar predator-proof fence was completed two years ago at Kaena Point on Oahu, and since then, environmental officials say, the area has seen a 25 percent increase in the number of albatross and a doubling of the number of wedge-tailed shearwater chicks.
Native seabirds used to be common “from sea level to the highest mountains,” but had been driven to near-extinction after early seafarers used the birds as food for alii, according to state wildlife biologist Fern Duvall. In recent years, rodents, mongooses, cats and owls have been the seabirds’ biggest threats.
“These are trust resources, valuable Hawaiian species that occur only here,” Duvall said Friday. “The agencies are really trying to make sure there’s no harm done to the species – in fact, that there is a benefit to them in the long term.”
The enclosures will be kept in place indefinitely, and biologists will monitor the project over the course of the next 20 years.
* Eileen Chao can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.