A nearly $90,000 grant from the state Office of Hawaiian Affairs will support efforts by a group working to protect a Lanai forest and watershed and its native plants and animals - including a colony of endangered uau, or petrel seabirds, discovered in 2006.
Tri-Isle Resource Conservation and Development, which is a nonprofit as well as a U.S. Department of Agriculture program, received the $89,770 from OHA to put toward its Lana'i Native Species Recovery Program. The money will be used to protect the Lanai watershed and the uau and support public outreach and education about the uau and the watershed habitat the bird relies on for nesting, according to a news release about the grant.
Lanaihale forest, which ranges in elevation from 2,100 feet to 3,370 feet, is home to the second largest flock of uau in Hawaii, said Jay F. Penniman, research specialist with the Maui Nui Seabird Recovery Project.
DAVID QUISENBERRY photo
This uau on Lanai is a member of the second biggest flock in Hawaii.
JAY PENNIMAN photo
Christine Costales and Mos Masicampo use a burrow scope to study the breeding success of the uau at Lanaihale forest and watershed.
The largest known group of uau has been found on Haleakala with 1,200 nesting burrows recorded, he said in an article for the Maui Invasive Species Committee newsletter last summer. Though research on the Lanai colony remains in the early stages, biologists estimate several thousand of the birds use the site for breeding.
At one time, the uau were Hawaii's largest known bird species and were said to have darkened the skies when flocks took flight, Penniman wrote in the article. Historically, uau have been known to breed on Lanai, and in the 1950s, Lanai ranch manager and naturalist George Munro was concerned that the birds would become extinct.
Fast forward to 2006, when Fern Duvall, a state wildlife biologist, began a research effort to see if the rumors about the presence of uau on Lanai were true.
"Fern and I were together when we found the first bird" in Honoumi gulch, recalled Penniman. "We didn't expect to find them that first day (in mid-March), and then we had no concept we would find so many."
Since then, work has begun to save the habitat and the watershed. Feral cats and the nonindigenous barn owl are two major predators who feed on the uau and their chicks and eggs.
To reduce the threat of the barn owl, which unlike the Hawaiian pueo feeds at night when the uau are out, the recovery program has a permit to hunt them, Penniman said. He also is in the process of designing a trap for the owl but has been unsuccessful so far.
The feral cats are being trapped and removed from the area, Penniman said. Bred in the forest for generations, these cats are quite wild, he added.
On Maui, wildlife officials annually put out notices to be on alert for uau that have become disoriented by lights and collide into tall objects at night. Fences set up to protect the watershed from nonindigenous deer and mouflon sheep were a hazard to the birds. That problem was resolved by placing white tape on the fences to make them visible to the uau. Before the tape, seven bird strikes were reported in 80 hours of observation. That number fell to a single wing graze in 1,000 hours of observation, Penniman said.
Invasive plant life also threaten the habitat of the uau and the watershed. At the top of the list is the invasive strawberry guava that creates thickets that force out native plants. The shallow roots pack the ground and emit a soil toxin that inhibit breeding, Penniman said.
The strawberry guava retains less water as well, making the invasive plant a threat to the watershed, he said.
Strawberry guava control efforts began in 2008 with Castle & Cooke Resort's installation of meteorological towers with 24 guide wires, a potential fatal hazard to flying uau. As part of the contract to mitigate the wire problem, Castle & Cooke also funded projects to restore the habitat and control predators.
Work is under way on a project to clear 3 acres in an area known to be an uau breeding ground. Seeds in the area and plants grown in nurseries will be used to replace the strawberry guava thickets, Penniman said. Those native plants include ohia and uluhe fern, which will create a more hospitable habitat for breeding.
Some of the grant money from OHA will be used to purchase a chipper, which is necessary to rid the area of the strawberry guava. Those plants that have been removed do not simply decay but can take root again if simply left in piles, Penniman said.
It is too early to determine if the work of the recovery program is increasing the population of uau, Penniman said. They are still trying to map out the colonies of uau and can only gather information at night from mid-March to mid-May during the breeding season, he said. Researchers rely heavily on the bird sounds, the "oo-ah-oo" that give the bird its name, to locate the fowl with their night-vision equipment.
Once the birds that spend nearly all their lives in flight lay their eggs, the sounds cease, he said.
The Lana'i Native Species Recovery Program is a project of Tri-Isle Resource Conservation and Development and a program of the Maui Nui Seabird Recovery Project, which operates out of the University of Hawaii.
A likely factor in the program, which until last year was called the Lana'ihale Forest & Watershed Project, receiving funding from OHA was its commitment to hiring people from Lanai. There are four staffers on island and two AmeriCorps workers with the recovery program.
* Lee Imada can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.