Giving the gift of flight
• Photo gallery: Bird rehab
BY MAUREEN O'CONNELL
Advertiser Staff Writer
Dozens of white terns carve graceful arcs into the morning sky high above Carolyn Blackburn's home near the southeastern skirt of Diamond Head Crater.
"Watch them navigate down. See how he's trying to get through the wind," Blackburn advises a visitor, as she holds her gaze upward. The sailing bird tips and spreads tail feathers. "It's like watching a plane come in for a landing. They don't even flap half the time."
Within Hawai'i's main islands, white terns (manu-o-Kū), make their home only on O'ahu — primarily along the South Shore. The state lists the bird as a "threatened" species on the island. Blackburn, a certified bird rehabilitator, uses her home as a sanctuary of sorts for terns and other indigenous birds.
"You can't help but fall in love with them. Look at them," Blackburn said, nodding toward a half-dozen fuzzy chicks perched attentively on branches of a beach helitrope tree in her tranquil yard.
"I usually wind up with white terns after a very breezy night, after they have fallen from their trees" along the shoreline or in the Downtown area, Blackburn said. Passersby and others acting as grounded-bird rescuers are typically directed to drop them off at Hawaiian Humane Society or Sea Life Park. Both facilities sometimes send the smaller chicks to Blackburn, who nurtures them for up to five months — until they're healthy and strong enough to thrive in the wild.
"I become their mother just for a short period," said Blackburn, who, over the past three years or so, has taken in about 40 terns. Certified by both state and federal agencies to rehabilitate Hawaiian birds, she has also tended to species ranging from owls (pueo) and stilts to plovers and petrels.
NO DAY OFF OR PAY
Blackburn fell into the role of wild bird handler shortly after her family moved into their home about four years ago. Gardeners had cleared a nearby vacant lot serving as a nesting area for wedged-tailed shearwater ('ua'u kani), leaving 31 chicks stranded. She then teamed up with wildlife agencies and bird experts to care for the chicks and fit them with identification bands.
"We got 28 birds to actually fly away," Blackburn said, noting that one has been spotted on Moloka'i. Some of the seabirds make return trips to the acre lot, now owned by the Hawai'i Audubon Society and called Freeman Seabird Preserve at Blackpoint. The indigenous shearwater, which nests along the coasts of the state's main islands, is among 1,007 species — including white terns — protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. The federal law bans capture or killing of birds, eggs and nests.
As Blackburn got involved with the Hawai'i Audubon's habitat restoration at the preserve, which is still under way, she learned more about caring for young birds from wildlife biologists, such as Linda Elliott of Hawaii Wildlife Center, and set up a small aviary. With its proximity to areas where birds hunt for fish, Blackburn's residence is a perfect site to raise terns and other sea birds.
Less than perfect, Elliott said, is the support system now in place to help Blackburn maintain her rehabilitation work.
"Once you get into it, you find out that it's more than full time. There's no day off, if you have an animal in care. It's 24 hours a day," she said. For Blackburn's family, simply leaving the house means securing the birds in the aviary or house to avoid prowling feral cats and other predators.
Permitted rehabilitators are not paid or reimbursed for food and medicines purchased for birds. And in the Islands, they must turn to private-sector veterinarians because the post of state wildlife veterinarian — last vacated about five years ago — has been cut from Hawai'i's budget. All wild bird rehabilitation here is handled by certified individuals and private-sector operations rather than through state and federal agencies.
NEW BIG ISLE FACILITY
Elliott, who has set up wildlife centers at resorts in the Islands, makeshift treatment facilities following oil spills and has operated the animal hospital at Honolulu Zoo, is now overseeing construction of a Big Island-based wildlife treatment, recovery and educational facility — the first of its kind in Hawai'i.
Fundraising efforts are still under way. But Elliott envisions that sometime later this year the nonprofit Hawaii Wildlife Center will open its doors to serve as a care facility and a "science-based" collaborative resource for rehabilitators.
Blackburn is grateful for such guidance, as she does not hold a degree in wildlife science and the growing birds in her yard demand a lot of attention.
"In the morning, I'll sit out and have coffee in the court yard. If I haven't fed them first, they will actually come and look for me," she said with a laugh.
Blackburn's work with terns focuses on gradual or "soft release" rehabilitation.
Once the chicks start attempting to fly, she said, "I exercise them daily. I throw them in the air and then run and catch them." While getting the gist of flight, they attempt tree-to-rooftop jaunts.
With more confidence, they glide out of sight for increasingly longer periods, returning for smelt feedings, Blackburn said, adding "and then it's almost like they just disappear."
She suspects that when a tern catches its first fish in the island's South Shore waters, "they finally figure out: 'That's it. I don't need to go back." Even so, several do.
A few months after leaving behind the safety and fluttering social scene at Blackburn's home, some terns "come back here and sit in the tree with the new recruits," Blackburn said.
"They know me, but they don't want to get near me anymore. They won't take a fish from me. So, they do go back to nature, and that is what we really want."