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Leap of faith pays off for Hawaiian seabirds

Hawaiian Petrel
A Hawaiian Petrel chick rests in its nest burrow on Kaua’i in 2015. Photo by Andre Raine/Kaua‘i Endangered Seabird Recovery Project

Conservationists in Kaua’i’s Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge celebrated exciting milestones for two endangered seabird species in 2022, and they’re looking forward to more good news this year.

Since 2015, a consortium of conservation partners including American Bird Conservancy (ABC), Pacific Rim Conservation, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been translocating Newell’s Shearwater and Hawaiian Petrel chicks to a fenced-in predator-proof area called Nihokū. The hope is to establish a new breeding colony for both species that is safe from threats like invasive species and sea-level rise.

Last year, seven years of dedicated translocations paid off for both species. In summer 2022, a translocated Newell’s Shearwater came back as an adult to prospect for a nesting site for the first time, and in fall 2022, a Hawaiian Petrel chick hatched by translocated parents successfully fledged. The Hawaiian Petrel news is a particular relief to the team, marking the official beginning of a Hawaiian Petrel colony within the fence.

Newell’s Shearwater
A Newell’s Shearwater chick sits in a recovery worker’s hands. Photo by Andre Raine/Kaua‘i Endangered Seabird Recovery Project

“I remember the start of this project — It feels like a long time ago! — building the fence and bringing the first batch of Hawaiian Petrel chicks to the site,” said George Wallace, director of international programs and partnerships for ABC. “Because of the long period of time to first breeding in the species, it’s a gradual process getting a colony started this way, but it is working. All the partners have a lot to be proud of with this one.”

Since 2015, conservationists have translocated dozens of chicks of both species to Nihokū to establish a new colony. After the seabirds fledge, they typically spend four to five years foraging on the open seas as they mature to breeding age, then return to breed at the site where they fledged. That means efforts like these require a leap of faith — conservationists had to persist for years before knowing whether efforts would pay off.

But many consider it worth the risk because without places like Nihokū, both species could be on track to extinction. Newell’s Shearwater numbers fell by 95 percent between 1993 and 2013, and Hawaiian Petrels declined by 78 percent during that time. The biggest threat for both species is invasive mammals like cats and rats that prey on eggs and chicks. The exciting new developments are a sign of hope and a testament to years of hard work, patience, and determination from partners working to secure these seabirds’ future survival. — Rachel Fritts, American Bird Conservancy


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This article appears in the March/April 2023 issue of BirdWatching magazine. 

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American Bird Conservancy

American Bird Conservancy

American Bird Conservancy is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization whose mission is to conserve native birds and their habitats throughout the Americas. It contributes the “Eye on Conservation” column in each issue of BirdWatching.

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