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Rare kiwikiu assumed dead found alive in Maui’s Nakula Natural Area Reserve

Bird’s survival provides hope for efforts to save the species

A male kiwikiu perches on a branch during a translocation project in October 2019 that sent 14 captive and wild kiwikiu out into the Nakula Natural Area Reserve on the leeward slopes of Haleakala. While nearly all the birds were found or assumed dead, this lone male was discovered alive 605 days later. — Photo courtesy DLNR

The “remarkable” discovery of a rare Maui bird thought to have died 605 days ago has injected new life into the efforts to keep the species from extinction and validated years of forest restoration work.

A lone male kiwikiu, one of 14 released into the Nakula Natural Area Reserve in October 2019, was heard Wednesday by keen-eared conservationists who’d traveled up the leeward slopes of Haleakala to plant 700 native trees.

“It was pretty remarkable. I was quite speechless at the time and still kind of am,” Zach Pezzillo of the Maui Forest Bird Recovery Project said during a news conference Friday.

Pezzillo was finishing up a morning of planting when he heard what sounded like the distinct call of the native Maui bird.

“There was a bunch of birds singing, and I thought in the distance among all the other calls, I heard a kiwikiu song,” he said. “I didn’t quite believe it, didn’t quite expect to hear it, for sure.”

Identifying bands are placed on the leg of a kiwikiu during the release of the birds in October 2019. — Photo courtesy DLNR

Two years ago, conservationists released a group of captive and wild kiwikiu, or Maui parrotbill, to reforested state land above the 5,000-foot-elevation level of leeward Haleakala in hopes that they would breed and expand across their new home. Nearly all of them fell victim to avian malaria, and the ones who couldn’t be found were assumed to be dead.

Until Pezzillo heard the call on his lunch break.

“I went over to the edge of the gulch there and made a couple whistles, some kiwikiu whistles, just to see if I could get a response, and didn’t hear anything for a few minutes, so I went back down to start eating,” he said. “And then all of a sudden, the kiwikiu started singing.”

Scrambling to grab a pair of binoculars, Pezzillo rushed to the edge of the gulch, peering across the landscape until he finally spotted the bird fluttering into a grove of kolea trees with a black-and-yellow band on its left leg — confirming that this was, indeed, one of the missing birds from the ill-fated 2019 release.

Barely able to contain himself, Pezzillo summoned the other volunteers.

“I was just kind of word vomiting at them, saying ‘kiwikiu, alive, it’s here,’ trying to get everybody to at once be quiet and also quickly come over to the edge so they could try to get a glimpse of the bird as well,” Pezzillo recalled.

All nine of the volunteers “got at least a fairly good glimpse of the bird,” which stayed in the grove foraging fruit, bark and leaves for about 20 minutes.

“It was a very incredible moment to find this bird alive and doing so well,” Pezzillo said. “It looked like a very healthy bird.”

The surviving bird was the first male kiwikiu captured in the Hanawi Natural Area Reserve on the windward side of Haleakala for the 2019 translocation project. Hanna Mounce, coordinator for the Maui Forest Bird Recovery Project, said the bird was tracked for a week after the release, reappearing and vanishing from time to time until researchers finally lost track of him.

“He was particularly rascally,” Mounce said. “He liked to chew on his transmitter and break things off. . . . There wasn’t a lot of reason to hope that he had been able to survive the same disease outbreak basically that had taken the rest of the birds, so the fact that he has and is doing so well out there and has just been evading detection for this long is really unbelievable.”

The bird was among seven who were released at the same time. Five have been confirmed dead, and the other two were believed to have met the same fate.

“Now we need to go see if there’s any possible chance that that seventh bird could be holding out somewhere as well,” Mounce said.

Mounce said the best population estimate for the kiwikiu was 157 in 2019, and assuming they’ve declined since then, there’s likely fewer than 150 left in the wild. Because there are no longer areas on the windward side of Maui where the birds can safely expand, the Nakula Natural Area Reserve “held pretty much all the potential we thought at the time for the species being able to survive in a different habitat.”

“We’re trying to recover these species with threats in the landscape that is moving under our feet while we are trying to implement these conservation actions,” Mounce said. “Here we have this area that we thought was safe and restored and ready to put birds into, and then we released the birds onto the landscape and the majority of them succumbed to avian malaria in a season that had the highest noted mosquito numbers that we’d ever observed there.”

The state Department of Land and Natural Resources’ Division of Forestry and Wildlife and other partners have been working on restoring the native ecosystems of leeward Haleakala, planting more than 450,000 native koa, ‘ohi’a, and other species in the last decade. The deaths of the kiwikiu had wiped out conservationists’ chances to see how the birds would respond to the restored forest.

“We began working on restoring that forest all the way around the mountain 20 years ago, but really accelerating in the last 10 years, and we weren’t really sure we had a good idea that this habitat was now ready to support kiwikiu and other species,” said Scott Fretz, Maui branch manager for the state Department of Land and Natural Resources’ Division of Forestry and Wildlife.

But the survival of the lone kiwikiu shows “there’s a really good possibility what we do have is a sustainable system that can start connecting the habitats and ecosystems around the mountain.”

“What it says is that the work that we’ve been doing and working so hard to do all these years is paying off,” he said.

Both the state and the Maui Forest Bird Recovery Project said the bird’s survival won’t change their tactics.

“In a different world, we wouldn’t have to manage the romantic life of one bird, or move birds to save them, but this is what people have created and what we inherited,” DOFAW Administrator David Smith said in a news release. “The survival of this single kiwikiu doesn’t change the overall plans for saving the species. Preventing their extinction is the goal of the entire program. #1 (the surviving bird) shows us that if we have a good, safe habitat for this, they want to survive.”

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at cuechi@mauinews.com.

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