Mewsings from Millie
Male Maui Parrotbill (Kiwikiu)
Ah, Hawaii. I have never been there myself but I've heard it is very beautiful with its swaying palm trees, crystalline blue lagoons, tumbling waterfalls, stunning beaches and the home to some of the most endangered bird species in the world. In fact, many birds that once inhabited the islands have already gone extinct. Bones have been found that prove there were once bird-catching owls, a tremendous variety of honeycreepers and flightless ibises that are no longer on this earth.
Right now one in every three endangered bird species in the United States is Hawaiian which means that Hawaii's extinction crisis has never really ended. Birds are threatened daily by introduced diseases, habitat loss on an epic scale and non-native predators such as rats, cats and mongooses.
Trying to save the birds that are left seems like an impossible task but there is one person who is hopeful. Her name is Hanna Mounce and she is the coordinator of the Maui Forest Bird Recovery Project. After doing research for nine years from the Pacific Northwest to Costa Rica, she came to Maui and devoted her Ph.D. dissertation to a genetic analysis of the island's most endangered bird: the Kiwikiu also known as the Maui Parrotbill. The total population of the Kiwikiu is perhaps 500 birds and the prognosis for its future is dire.
So, what is Hanna, a sole human being, doing about this daunting predicament? While continuing to monitor the remaining birds in the dripping, wet rainforest, she and her team are creating new Kiwikiu territory from the ground up. On the dry, windy grassland that is the leeward side of the towering Haleakala volcano where herds of feral pigs, goats and cows can be seen kicking up clouds of dust as they move across the hardpan soil, tiny seedlings are being planted and fenced off in hopes of rebuilding a vast and complex forest.
Long ago, Maui's leeward side is believed to have been covered by a great dryland and mesic forest. A mesic forest is a type of habitat with a moderate or well-balanced supply of moisture. Fast growing Koa trees were keystones of the forest helping to recharge groundwater, fix nitrogen, stabilize soils and keep the watershed healthy. Today, logging, ranching and the relentless grazing of ferals have made it impossible for the forest to regenerate.
Currently, the Kiwikiu survives only on the wet side of Haleakala. Hanna believes the birds are out of options having to make do with the forest habitat that is left. The wet forest poses challenges for the bird and she has seen hatchlings die when the parents couldn't find enough food for them in rainy weather.
Moving downslope is not an option because at 4,500 feet the birds will encounter another imported scourge, mosquitoes. If bitten, the birds will develop avian malaria and die. With global warming, the mosquitoes and the deadly diseases they carry will be able to move higher until they invade the last strongholds of the Kiwikiu and wipe them out.
Fortunately, Haleakala is more than 10,000 feet high and could be a haven for all of Maui's birds long into the future if habitat can be restored.
After three years of scouting sites, fencing areas and collecting seeds from native plants, trees and shrubs, Hanna and her crew began planting 7,000 seedlings in their first enclosure.
Last winter, an additional 39,000 plantings were done and the team is now focusing on creating corridors to connect gulches with remnant forest hoping to build enough habitat for at least a few Kiwikiu.
Within five years it is hoped that as many as six pairs of birds will be introduced. The birds will be gotten from the wild and from captive-bred birds and will be supported with food sources.
The project is getting increasing support from ranchers, sugar cane growers and hotel owners who realize the value of a functional watershed. In addition, there is a waiting list of volunteers who can't wait to fly up to the restoration site to plant a tree.
As Hanna sees it, the high stakes in Hawaii are not signs of hopelessness but of possibility.
If you would like to help or find out more go to: mauiforestbirds.org.
Aloha until next time,
Millie, the Muse of Mews
(information courtesy of Audubon Magazine, Sept.-Oct. 2015)