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The Honolulu Advertiser

Updated at 3:29 p.m., Sunday, April 22, 2007

Kaua'i survey to count rare native forest birds

Advertiser Staff

Starting this month, the Department of Land and Natural Resources is sending crews of biologists into the forest areas of Kaua'i to conduct population surveys of rare native forest birds to understand whether a suspected decline is taking place, and if so, to determine what areas are affected.

"The results of a 2005 survey deep in the Alaka'i Wilderness Area, as well as recent reports from other biologists and citizens, suggest that populations of the remaining native forest birds may now be in rapid decline due to a collection of threats that may include loss and degradation of habitat, predation by introduced mammals, and disease," said Peter Young, DLNR chairperson.

"Our teams reported a conspicuous absence during these surveys of several species, especially the endemic 'akeke'e, or Kaua'i 'akepa and 'akikiki, or Kaua'i creeper, from many areas throughout the Alaka'i where they have been seen regularly in recent years.

"Although survey results can be highly variable for rare species, we feel that the data and recent reports from Kaua'i's birding community are compelling enough to initiate a series of surveys designed to adequately assess the status of these species," Young said.

"The news is very disturbing but we are focusing efforts to get answers quickly so that we can take action as soon as possible.

"We are very fortunate that our field teams have help from many partners and volunteers, including private citizens/photographers familiar with Kaua'i's birds, scientists from the United States Geological Survey, Pacific Islands Ecosystems Research Center, Kilauea Field Station, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, University of Hawai'i Pacific Cooperative Studies Unit, The Nature Conservancy, Kaua'i Invasive Species Committee, and staff of the Keauhou Bird conservation center," he said.

"We saw the tragic rapid decline and probable extinction of the po'ouli on Maui in the last year or so — that is a clear and powerful reminder that protection and restoration is needed early-on, before populations reach critically low numbers," said Young.

Hawai'i's Comprehensive Wildlife Conservation Strategy (CWCS) recognizes the Alaka'i Wilderness Preserve as a key habitat for numerous native and endangered species of plants and wildlife and a highly diverse unique montane ecosystem.

Teams will be surveying the 16-square-mile Alaka'i wilderness preserve, a mountain rain forest rising at its highest some 4,000 to 4,500 feet in the Waimea district of northwestern Kaua'i.

After the broad surveys are done, DLNR in collaboration with the U.S. Geological Survey will undertake research projects to sample birds for the presence of introduced diseases; and monitor birds to determine whether they are breeding successfully and to examine causes of mortality.

Hawai'i's unenviable status as the state with the most endangered species has spurred implementation of many new conservation programs that are gaining success in protecting rare populations.

Less than 50 years ago, 13 native forest birds made this unique region their home. Sadly, five species of native songbirds have not been seen in many years. The Alaka'i's latest loss has been the 'o'o, a black bird with white-streaked throat and distinctive yellow leg feathers that once were collected for feathered capes for Hawaiian royalty. Efforts are continuing to rescue from extinction at least one bird, the puaiohi, also known as the small Kauai thrush.

"We need to determine whether this is a real decline," said Scott Fretz, DLNR-Forestry and Wildlife, wildlife program manager.

"If it is, one of the causes that certainly comes to mind is the possible spread of introduced disease carried by mosquitoes up into higher elevations. Much of the forest habitat for birds on Kaua'i is below 4,500 feet elevation," said Fretz.

"We have been concerned that mosquitoes may proliferate at higher elevations, especially if global climate change trends continue. Mosquitoes are limited by temperature at high elevations and are typically found at very low densities above 5,000 feet," he said. "Hopefully we will know more in several months what may be affecting these forest bird populations."

The Alaka'i Wilderness Preserve is a haven for rare plants and birds, many of which are on the endangered species list. Of the 71 known Hawaiian bird species, an estimated 24 have disappeared and 32 are endangered. If a thousand flowering species, 120 have fewer than 20 plants growing in the wild. Hawai'i accounts for less than 1 percent of U.S. landmass but 75 percent of its documented plant and animal extinctions.