Guest Blog by Tawny Neal, Cellular/Molecular Biology Major and Intern


I’m back from the misty jungle, tired and dirty but pleased. After a long week in another world, the return to civilization is jarring. It is one of the most astonishing things I’ve ever seen, to lift off in a helicopter from the ranch (Haleakala Ranch) and see the rainforest roll out beneath me, a whole hidden land. It was the feeling of finding a secret door in your garden, and discovering that it leads to a magical faerie world you could not have imagined was there.

The Hanawi Nature Area Reserve is one of the most pristine and untouched places in Hawaii. The only ground access is a 16 mile trail through Haleakala crater, and only those with research permits and the fence building teams are allowed in. Towering old growth Ohi’a trees reach into the sky, a far cry from the stunted shrubs you find elsewhere, and a carpet of ferns and akala cover the forest floor. Our camp is a cabin at around 5000ft, above the mosquito line.

Why Are Native Hawaiian Birds Going Extinct?

Mosquitoes are proving to be the most devastating force in the extinction of native birds, as the mosquitoes bear a deadly disease, avian malaria. Introduced species evolved alongside avian malaria, and are immune. The fragile native forest birds, however, fall in great swathes to the plasmodium which causes illness. Their only hope is the preservation of habitat at a colder temperature than mosquitoes can survive.

The three birds who are the target of the Maui Forest Bird Recovery Project are the Kiwikiu, or Maui Parrotbill, the Alauahio, or Maui Creeper, and the Akohekohe, or Crested Honeycreeper. All three birds are critically endangered.

The purpose of this trip was to try to catch some of the fledglings who hatched this year (known appropriately as “hatch-years”), so we can band them and observe their movements throughout the year. I’m learning the skills of a birder. It takes a trained eye to pick out their movements in the forest canopy, and that is not something I am naturally adept at. However, my ears catch the individual trills and chirps of birds high above me, and I swiftly learned the songs and sounds of all the birds in the area. The chewi-chewi-chew of a male Kiwikiu, or the chrrrrp chrrrrrp of an Akohekohe are often the only evidence you have that you share the area with some of the world’s rarest birds.

How Do We Catch the Birds Without Hurting Them?

We utilize long, tall, nearly invisible nets known as “mist nets.” These are strung between collapsible fishing poles that extend 20 ft high. These nets were set up throughout the forest, along three loops centering on the banding station at the cabin. Our team of seven patrolled the loops every twenty minutes, extracting any birds who were caught and returning them to the banding station to be weighed and examined, then banded and set free again.

Extracting the birds from the nets is a challenging puzzle. Many of the birds in the area are not native, mostly the tiny Japanese White-Eye, the talkative Red-Billed Leothrix, and the sweetly trilling Japanese Bush Warbler. These birds are the ones I learned banding skills with.

Do the Birds Freak Out?

The event of being caught in a net is so foreign and unexpected to birds that they frequently do not struggle, but simply hang quietly, confused. The act of extracting them requires a firm but delicate touch, holding them with one hand while using the other to free wings and heads, blowing on feathers to reveal nearly invisible lines wrapping around shoulders and thighs. Usually the birds will free their own tangled feet when they sense they are otherwise out of the net.

Some birds are calmer than others during this process. The ecologically naïve natives such as the scarlet and gold  Apapane or the tiny green Amakihi simply sit, uncomprehending of what is happening. Red-Billed Leothrix squawk and protest as you remove them, and the fluttery White-Eyes make a break for it as soon as they’re free. Keeping a firm gentle grip on the birds is essential.

What Is It Like?

The first three days of the trip, I was handed every bird who came through the station in order to get comfortable handling them. The feeling of the birds, so soft, weightless and delicate, is one which does not fade. I’ll always remember the impression of their tiny bodies in my hands.

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