Dr. Hanna Mounce has a lot riding on her shoulders. As the Coordinator for Maui Forest Bird Recovery Project (MFBRP), she’s in charge of the strategy of how to save Maui’s remaining six forest birds.
“I love working in Hawaii because we can really make an on the ground difference for these species one at a time,” says Mounce. “Hawaii species are faced with so many challenges and not nearly the level of support that mainland rare and endangered species get, thus everything we are doing can have an immediate effect. I, of course, put a lot of value on biodiversity and think that any species we lose globally is a tragedy that we should be doing more to prevent. Failure for us is extinction and that’s unacceptable and that keeps me going.”
Hawaii has the unfortunate distinction of being the bird extinction capital of the world. In fact, Michael Walther, President of Oahu Nature Tours, just published a beautiful book titled Extinct Birds of Hawaii, which catalogues all the birds. The book outlines the different extinctions–pre-European contact and post–and includes descriptions of the birds, notations from the journals of collectors and observers from the late 1700s to 1900s–often, the last people to see these birds alive.
“I wanted to let more people know about the catastrophic loss of bird species in the Hawaiian Islands during the last 1,000 years and to help the few species that remain by hopefully increasing support and funding for them,” says Walther. “I started research for the book in December of 2014 and it was completed one year later, December 2015. The quotes are from old books about Hawaii’s birds written between 1782-1960. The majority of the quotes are from books that were published between 1892-1903. During this time, several English bird collectors were actively seeking rare Hawaiian birds for museum specimens and in many cases their descriptions of the birds in life are all that we really know about these extinct species behavior and songs.”
In the book, each bird is accompanied by a glossy color illustration by researcher Julian P. Hume.
“I worked closely with Storrs Olson and Helen James at the Smithsonian Institution on reconstructing the birds in the most accurate, scientific way,” says Hume.” I start by drawing the fossil remains and anatomically putting them together to get the correct shape. Once the color was agreed with Storrs and Helen, I then put them in a background scene and reproduced them in a natural way and often doing behavioral things such as nesting, feeding and having territorial disputes. This was to show that the birds were once alive and doing natural things. Some of them were so bizarre that it was difficult to imagine how they may have looked in life. In particular are the Moa nalos, the giant flightless ducks with tooth-like projections on their jaws. I used my imagination based on the numerous visits to Hawaiian forests to recreate them in a natural setting.”
Walther’s book talks a lot about extinction, but the final chapter is saved for the extant birds–those few survivors–and what we can do about them. He mentions the work of Maui Forest Bird Recovery Project and other similar groups in Hawaii working to save the remaining birds we have left.
“I feel like everyone likes to say Hawaii is the extinction capital of the world,” says Mounce. “It’s not a good label. Our own project has changed over the years. This project started in 1997. Next year we will be 20 years. We started off as a research organization. Some people hiked up into the rainforest on Maui and figured out there are some rare birds there they didn’t know were there. So then they wanted to figure out what is there and what the state of them is. Nobody was even looking at these bird populations in 1997. Just didn’t know.”
Maui’s most critically endangered bird, the Kiwikiu or Maui Parrotbill, was rediscovered in 1967 in a very remote wet rainforest. There are about 500 Kiwikiu left. Then there was the Po`o-uli–the last bird to go extinct on Maui, which happened in 2004, about two years before Mounce started working with Maui Forest Bird Recovery Project. She says that got people aware of the issue, but it was too little too late.
“This group of researchers went up into the forest and discovered this bird, the Po`o-uli, that nobody knew was here,” says Mounce. “Unfortunately by the time they were looking into it, there were 11. Then there were three. But it got people talking about the endangered birds of Maui and putting protections in, like fences and making sure the forest areas were protected, but it didn’t save that species. One really shocking thing for people to learn is that we only have six native forest birds. Three of them are Maui endemic. It’s crazy we have six birds and half of them are only found on this island.”
I’m camped out in the brush, high in the Waikamoi Reserve, with ornithologists Laura Berthold and Chris Warren of the Maui Forest Bird Recovery Project, along with volunteers Zach Pezzillo, Stacy Montemayor and Michelle Smith. We’re talking in hushed tones behind 11 nets we’ve set up in the forest. Those I’m with are banding birds, taking RNA and DNA, and recording health and size of specimens–data the MFBRP will use in their research. Everyone has their fingers crossed that we’ll net a Kiwikiu, but as the day progresses it doesn’t seem likely. We have catalogued Amakihi, I`iwi, Apapane and Alauahio, but no Maui Parrotbill.
“I love working for Maui Forest Bird Recovery Project because it’s a little bit of everything,” says Berthold. “We get to do all of the fun outside work like hiking and camping in amazing, beautiful places. We’re also researching birds and learning more about their biology. But what I like the best is planting and restoring habitat. I notice how the landscape is changing and get to watch the plants grow. Planting trees is great for our environment. More trees means better air and water quality, and more habitat not only for the birds but for the plants, insects, spiders and snails. I like knowing that my work is doing something positive for the world.”
Later, Warren takes me on a quick hike down to the bottom of the Waikamoi, to follow the calls of the Kiwikiu that he can hear.
“That is the sound of the adult calling to the juvenile,” he says. “Look in the direction of the sound with the binoculars.”
Warren briefly demonstrates how to sight a bird from its call. I’m holding my breath, peering through binoculars, and it’s all awkward. But using his tips I sense the slightest movement among the branches, and catch a fleeting glimpse of Maui’s rarest bird. It’s just a dark shadow against the cloudy backdrop, but I can tell that it’s the Kiwikiu by its telltale hooked beak. It’s the highlight of the day for me, even though I saw the other rare birds up close. Clearly, I’m rooting for the Maui Parrotbill.
Over the last decade at MFBRP, Mounce says their scope of work has changed dramatically.
“A heck of a lot of our work now is building new forest,” she says. “Because we have come to the conclusion that these birds will not survive forever in the forest they have. We’re losing more habitat every year because of climate change. With warmer mountainsides, the mosquito population is moving into higher elevations. Mosquitos make the habitat unsuitable because of avian malaria. At the moment there are no techniques that we can apply to mitigate the mosquitos. Hopefully in the future, we will have some more wide-scale mosquito control. The answer for us is that we need new forest habitat. We found that what was really harming the birds was really severe, really wet forest habitat. They don’t necessarily want to be there but it’s the only habitat left for them.”
That habitat is a mere 40-50 square kilometers of remaining high elevation rainforest. MFBRP has been working like crazy to build a new habitat on the leeward slopes of Haleakala on fenced-in state land.
“We’ve been planting since 2011, 2012,” says Mounce. “We have Koa trees that are taller than people now. People get to see the real results of having fences and no ungulates. We partner with the State of Hawaii on building fences. We started with a 420-acre fenced area first. Then there is a larger fence, just over 3,000 acres that is complete. We’re still getting out all of the animals but we’re starting to plant on one side of it. Our goals are to switch back from restoration into more hands on bird management, where we’re going to be moving the Kiwikiu from the wet side to the dry side in about a year. And we’re going to see how they do and hopefully get a population established.”
She knows the move is risky, but trusts her research.
“That is a criticism of this project, too,” Mounce says. “We don’t know if the habitat will be ready. We don’t know how the birds are going to react unless we try. It might end up something like where we have some birds that need to be supported. We might have to have some feeder stations. But that’s okay. That has worked on other parts of the world. The trees will keep getting bigger.”
As Mounce explained it, there’s still a lot avian researchers don’t know about what it takes to sustain a healthy population of birds like the Kiwikiu.
“We don’t know what their minimal habitat requirements are,” she says. “The leeward area we are working in now has really deep gulches that the ungulates could not get to. And there’s existing native vegetation that the goats couldn’t get to. That’s one of our biggest pushes with the restoration–connect our planting with these areas. We really want to get all these trees connected.”
The idea, the dream, is to ring the top of Haleakala with an inhabitable forest for the birds.
“We only have 40 to 50 square kilometers of existing forest,” says Mounce. “The forest is the problem. The biggest issue for Hawaii is this avian malaria that the birds are so susceptible to. We cannot create new habitats just anywhere. It has to be out of the reach of mosquitos. And without an answer to mosquito-born diseases, we’re only looking at the top of Haleakala for available habitat. It has to be 4,700 feet or higher. That really puts a big emphasis on restoring all the high elevation forest that we can.”
And that takes a great deal of effort. Still, right now, it seems to be the best option for the birds.
“We have a vision of creating a native forest lei over the top of Haleakala,” says Mounce. “That would be a ton of habitat and that would be fantastic. The answers aren’t quite as easy as other places that can just set aside a reserve. That is how our project has changed from being a research project and figuring out how many birds are left, to what can we actually do as applied management to increase population and prevent further extinctions. When people ask us what we do–well, we are trying to prevent extinctions.”
The Maui Forest Birds Recovery Project has several ways to donate, plant a tree or volunteer. Go to Mauiforestbirds.org for more information.
To see more images of Maui Forest Bird Recovery Project go here.