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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, May 9, 2002

Mating fails but rare-bird project continues

By Jan TenBruggencate
Advertiser Science Writer

Researchers expect to take more aggressive measures during the next breeding season after failing this year to arrange the mating of the rarest of Hawai'i's forest birds, the po'ouli.

This po'ouli honeycreeper just didn't meet up with her intended mate.

Maui Forest Bird Recovery Project

There are only three of these Maui honeycreepers left, two females and a male. The three occupy separate habitats within 1.5 miles of one another in the state's Hanawi Natural Area Reserve on the northeast slope of Haleakala.

After 42 days of hanging fine-mesh netting to catch one of the birds, researchers with the Maui Forest Bird Recovery Project trapped a female po'ouli on April 4. The bird was fitted with a tiny transmitter and released into the male's habitat. As far as the research team knows, the two birds never saw each other.

But there was some good news.

"It seems like taking the birds into captivity is less of a risk than we thought. This bird was calm. It didn't fly up against the side of the cage, and it fed readily," said Eric VanderWerf, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The service and the state Department of Land and Natural Resources are partners in the recovery project, and the Honolulu Zoo has participated.

Although a decision has not yet been made, there is a good chance the team will attempt next year to bring the male and at least one of the females into captivity together.

"We are pushed for time. There is no doubt about that," said Jim Groombridge, a conservation biologist and coordinator of the recovery project.

Among the options are capturing two birds and placing them together in a large netted aviary in their native forest. Or they could capture the birds and transfer them to the Keauhou Bird Conservation Center at Kilauea on the Big Island. That facility, run by the San Diego Zoo, has had remarkable success in breeding Hawaiian forest birds.

Science has known of the existence of the po'ouli for only three decades. They were discovered in the Hanawi area in 1973, and since then, their numbers have never been high.

The birds have brownish-gray backs and cream-colored bellies, with a black "bandit's" mask over their eyes. They are quiet birds that weigh about an ounce and are the size of a sparrow.

Contact Jan TenBruggencate at (808) 245-3074 or via e-mail at jant@honoluluadvertiser.com.