Hawaii's Threatened Seabird, Newell Shearwater, Stives To Make Comeback One of Hawaii's most threatened seabirds, the Newell's shearwater, makes its home on the island of Kauai. Conservationists there are fighting to keep the iconic bird from disappearing.

Threatened Hawaiian Bird Strives To Make Comeback

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Lush Hawaii may be a natural paradise, but it's also the endangered species capital of the world. One of the state's most threatened seabirds, the Newell's shearwater, makes its home on the island of Kauai. Gloria Hillard reports on the hard-fought efforts to keep the iconic bird from disappearing.

GLORIA HILLARD, BYLINE: The battered Dodge Durango that belongs to the Kauai Endangered Seabird Recovery Project has a lot of hard miles on it. Today, it rolls over asphalt near a harbor on the island's west side. Behind the wheel is the project's coordinator, seabird biologist Andre Raine.

ANDRE RAINE: This area here is kind of like a microcosm of the urban threats that these birds face. So you've got the power lines there. You've got the lights...

HILLARD: Raine points to an area he calls Nesh Corner - nesh for Newell’s shearwater - because they have found so many of the species here. In the last couple of decades, its population has plummeted 94%. The challenge to the seabirds' survival begins in the mountains of Kauai, where they nest in burrows.

RAINE: You've got this little chick that's sitting up in the mountains in the darkness, completely oblivious to all that's going on around it in terms of all these threats that humans have brought to this island.

HILLARD: A Newell's shearwater chick looks like it's wearing an oversized, gray, mohair hoodie. If it survives the perils of the mountains, feral cats and rats, it will soon be drawn by instinct to take flight to the sea. Raine says it navigates by the moon, unaware of the imposters in its path - artificial lights.

RAINE: They circle the lights, and they end up collapsing, falling onto the ground, where they're then either run over by cars or eaten by cats or dogs.

HILLARD: In addition to light attraction, power line collisions are responsible for the deaths of up to 1,600 adult seabirds a year. And Raine says that estimate is low.

JACQUELINE NELSON: And then we’ll check for collision scuffs.

HILLARD: If found, the grounded and injured birds may get a second chance here, the bird hospital at Save Our Shearwaters. Wildlife rehabilitation technician Jacqueline Nelson is examining one of three injured birds brought in on this day. The bird's black head peeks out from under a pink towel.

NELSON: I think he's going to be a quick turnaround.

HILLARD: The program is funded by Kauai Island Utility Cooperative. In 2010, the power utility, along with the county of Kauai, was named in a lawsuit filed by environmental groups. In that litigation, the utility was found in violation of the Endangered Species Act for causing seabird deaths.

MAKAALA KAAUMOANA: When we thought it couldn't get any worse, it did.

HILLARD: Makaala Kaaumoana represents a native Hawaiian organization that was one of the plaintiffs in the 2010 litigation.

KAAUMOANA: There's room for blame for everyone. But according to the latest information that has been scientifically collected, the utility is responsible for the largest number of take of this species.

HILLARD: Kauai’s power utility declined our request for an interview but says in a statement that it is in full compliance with current habitat conservation plans and, to further minimize impacts on seabirds, is moving some power lines underground and lowering others.

On a wind-swept volcanic cliff, Save Our Shearwaters wildlife rehabilitation technicians Jacqueline Nelson and Mikaela Aroff are getting ready to release rehabilitated shearwaters. The birds wobble a bit in the wind as crashing turquoise waves from below send small showers of spray in the air. Native Hawaiians named the Newell's shearwater for the sound of its call - ah-oh (ph).


HILLARD: If the seabirds take flight today, they will spend three to four years on the ocean before returning to the island.

NELSON: There he goes.

HILLARD: Nelson turns and smiles.

NELSON: Had a good feeling about that one.


HILLARD: And so it went with each of the five birds, one by one, until only one remained behind. This was his fourth trip to the ocean. The young women didn't give up. They held him high, cheered him on until...

NELSON: There he goes.

HILLARD: Soaring higher than all the others. For NPR News, I'm Gloria Hillard.


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