A paid leap of faith for Hawaiian seabirds

Hawaiian Petrel

Conservationists at Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge in Kaua’i celebrated exciting milestones for two endangered seabird species in 2022, and they look forward to more good news this year.

Since 2015, a consortium of conservation partners, including American Bird Conservancy (ABC), Pacific Rim Conservation and the US Fish and Wildlife Service, has translocated Newell’s Shearwater and Hawaiian Petrel chicks to a fenced area at the predator test called Nihoku. The hope is to establish a new breeding colony for both species, safe from threats such as invasive species and rising sea levels.

Last year, seven years of dedicated translocations paid off for both species. In the summer of 2022, a transferred Newell’s Shearwater returned as an adult to search for a nesting site for the first time, and in the fall of 2022, a Hawaiian Petrel chick hatched by transferred parents managed to s fly away. The news of the Hawaiian Petrel is a particular relief for the team, marking the official start of a colony of Hawaiian Petrels inside the fence.

Newell's ShearwaterA Newell’s Shearwater chick sits in the hands of a recovery worker. Photo by Andre Raine/Kaua’i Endangered Seabird Recovery Project

“I remember when this project started – it feels like a long time ago! – build the fence and bring the first batch of Hawaiian petrel chicks to the site,” said George Wallace, director of international programs and partnerships for ABC. “Due to the long period of time it takes for the species to first reproduce, starting a colony this way is a gradual process, but it works. All the partners have reason to be proud of this one.

Since 2015, conservationists have transferred dozens of chicks of both species to Nihoku to establish a new colony there. After fledging, seabirds typically spend four to five years foraging on the high seas until they reach breeding age, then return to breed at the site where they fledged. That means efforts like these require a leap of faith: conservationists had to persist for years before they knew if their efforts would bear fruit.

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But many consider the risk worth it, because without places like Nihoku, both species could be on the verge of extinction. Newell’s shearwater numbers fell by 95 percent between 1993 and 2013, and Hawaiian petrels by 78 percent during that time. The biggest threat to both species is from invasive mammals like cats and rats that prey on eggs and chicks. These exciting new developments are a sign of hope and a testament to years of hard work, patience and determination by partners working to ensure the future survival of these seabirds. — Rachel Fritts, American Conservatory of Birds

Learn more at www.nihoku.org

This article appears in the March/April 2023 issue issue from BirdWatching magazine.