Monday, June 20, 2011

Midway's golden gooney fledges

Midway Atoll's golden gooney chick, the first of its species hatched outside Japan, has fledged—flown out to sea, most likely to the rich waters to the northwest.

(Image: The golden gooney chick is still mostly black, but eventually will develop white plumage and a striking yellow-gold head, like its papa, shown here. The chick is seen here sitting under its dad. For more recent shots of the chick, check our previous posts (see links at the end of this story.) Credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.)

“It happened just as most followers of the bird’s short life drama expected, the bird slipping away from the Atoll’s Eastern Island sometime during the day, with no one there to watch,” said a press release from John Klavitter of the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge.

Midway and the other Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, all part of the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, are home to hundreds of thousands of Laysan albatross and black-footed albatross, but only within recent years have these cousins been joined by a handful of short-tailed albatross—also known as golden goonies for their yellow heads.

In January this year, a courtship between an 8-year-old male and 24-year-old female produced an egg that hatched into a healthy young bird. The chick has been knocked around some during its brief life, and was washed from its nest by the recent Japan tsunami.

In May it began stretching and flapping its wings, and in early June began paddling out to sea.

“The chick’s first swim in the ocean lasted 15 minutes. It walked into the lapping waters, paddled out 50 meters, submerged its head for a quick look, sipped some sea water, and then practiced flapping before paddling back to the shore. The chick was last seen the evening of June 15. By June 17 it was gone, most likely headed in a northwesterly direction to the rich and productive waters near Hokkaido, Japan, perhaps to join others of its kind,” a Fish and Wildlife Service release said.

Although its parents are both from Japanese-controlled islands, the birds normally return to their home islands to nest, and wildlife officials hope the chick will eventually settle on Midway for its own family.

“This event is a milestone in our international efforts to expand the range and population of this species,” said Fish and Wildlife Service Superintendent Tom Edgerton, one of seven co-stewards of the marine national monument.

“Once one of the world’s rarest birds, the endangered short-tailed albatross continues to recover,” said Refuge Manager Sue Schulmeister. “Sightings of the species have been relatively rare over the years, even on Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge. In the years to come, following this event, perhaps that will start to change.”

See earlier stories on the young golden gooney at RaisingIslands here, here, here and here.

Jan TenBruggencate 2011

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Rare plants rebound in newly fenced Ka`u preserve

If you fence it, will things come back?

The Nature Conservancy is reporting resounding—one might say rebounding—success at its Kaiholena Preserve at Ka`u on Hawai'i.

“It’s amazing to see the abundance of new plant life. Plants that haven’t been seen in years are popping up all over the preserve,” said Shalan Crysdale, the Conservancy’s natural resources manager at the preserve.

A six-mile, six-foot-high fence protecting 1,200 acres was completed in 2007. The last of the pigs inside the lowland forest area were removed two years ago. The fence also keeps out Mouflon sheep. And the results are heartening.

The most impressive of the returning wild plants is a native vine, the nuku `i'iwi, whose name reflects the similarity in shape and color between its blossoms and the orange beak of the native red `i`iwi bird. An image of the blossom is shown here, courtesy of The Nature Conservancy.

It's a gorgeous blossoming display, and rare, except in fairly pristine native forest.

The evidence indicates that if you don't wait too long to protect native ecosystems, they can heal.

“The resurgence in plant life is a standard response of our native forest to protection from browsing animals. If there isn’t a major weed problem, the natives often come roaring back,” said Sam Gon, the Conservancy's cultural adviser and senior scientist.

Crews walk the fence perimeter weekly to ensure pigs haven't burrowed under it, and falling trees haven't compromised it. John Repogle, a senior member of the Conservancy's Ka`u field crew, said the fence-walkers can see the improvement in environment inside the enclosure.

“Over time, as we do our fence checks, we have seen dramatic changes in the number of rare native seedlings popping up. I would not have thought pigs had such a destructive effect on these particular plants until I saw how many are now germinating and growing to maturity.

“There is moss on the ground now where it was just soil before. When you look along the fence, the ground level on the outside is three to four inches lower than inside the fence. This is erosion caused by the presence of pigs.”

Among the returning wildlife are lobelias: two species of koli‘i (Trematolobelia wimmeri and Trematolobelia grandifolia) and three species of ‘ōhā wai, including one named for Mauna Loa (Clermontia montis-loa).

© Jan TenBruggencate 2010

Saturday, June 11, 2011

First Hawaiian "golden gooney" chick to fly soon

There are few good-news stories on the environmental beat, but the tale of Midway's golden goonies is one.

These charismatic and endangered seabirds are known to professionals as short-tailed albatross, but their regal golden heads give them their popular name.

(Images: Papa golden gooney sits on young chick. Later, big chick nears fledging age. Credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service photos.)

They are rare birds anywhere, and nesting colonies only occur on a couple of small islands controlled by Japan. A few years ago one, then two, then three of them appeared among the massive colonies of Laysan albatross and black-footed albatross in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

This year, a pair produced a live chick at Midway Atoll—the first known short-tailed albatross hatched outside Japan. And since albatross tend to return to their islands of hatching, it's hoped the chick will decide to stay in Hawai`i and establish a small colony here. (They don't always go back to their birthplace. Both parents were banded and are believed to have been hatched at Japan's Torishima Island.)

“We are very excited that the chick, raised by first-time parents, has made it to where we believe it will fledge, perhaps by mid-June,” said Deputy Refuge Manager John Klavitter, deputy refuge manager of the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge.

“This chick is a survivor,” Klavitter said. “Hatched in the middle of a raging storm in January, it was swept 30 meters from its nest during a second storm in February, then survived the March tsunami that caused tens of millions of dollars in damage and the loss of some 100,000 Laysan and black-footed albatross chicks.”

See additional photos of of the golden goonies here.

See previous stories here, here and here.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2011

Friday, June 10, 2011

Kauai utility KIUC has nation's highest photovoltaic penetration

The little cooperative electric utility on Kaua'i has the highest solar power penetration of any utility in the country.

A new report from the Solar Electric Power Association said that in 2010, the Kaua`i Island Utility Cooperative (KIUC) was a national leader in total installed photovoltaic capacity on a per customer basis.

Hawai`i's other electric utilities lag KIUC, but they are also ranked near the top nationally.

(Full disclosure: Jan TenBruggencate, the owner of this blog and author of this article, is an elected member of the KIUC Board of Directors.)

The Solar Electric Power Association report, “2010 SEPA Utility Solar Rankings,” is available online here.

KIUC, which the report says had 3.25 megawatts of installed solar capacity at the end of 2010, has 23,300 customer-members and about 32,700 meters. That works out to about 100 installed solar watts per meter. The top utility in the SEPA ranking, and the only one to beat KIUC, is Southern California Edison 119 watts per customer.

O`ahu's Hawaiian Electric ranked 4th at 94, Maui Electric 5th at 93, and the Big Island's Hawaiian Electric Light 9th at 66 installed solar watts per customer.

But those numbers are last year's news. The big news now, of course, is that KIUC expects to double its photovoltaic production within this calendar year, which should leapfrog it to first place by a very large margin.

As of this writing, installed solar penetration is about 150 watts per meter, and by the end of the year, the number should be well north of 200. As far as the utility figures, nobody else comes close.

To learn more about KIUC and it solar initiatives, see here.

For other info about Kaua`i's feisty little electric cooperative, visit its website.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2010

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Camera-equipped tiger sharks reveal feeding strategy

Stick a camera on a critter, and you learn things.

When Critter Cams were placed on the backs of Hawaiian monk seals, researchers learned that these animals dive deep and actually flip over rocks to get at the prey items hiding underneath. They weren't catching dinner in open water, but trapping it against the ocean floor. Smart.

(Image: Researcher Carl Meyer took this image of a just-released tiger shark with an accelerometer strapped to its dorsal fin.)

The latest such news comes from tiger sharks.

You'd be forgiven for thinking of these big predators as cruising the coastlines, just below the surface, looking for turtles, seals and such, which they'd bite with a great deal of splashing, twisting and tearing.

It turns out that casual predatory cruising isn't the primary pattern. They work hard for their dinner.

Researchers working off the west coast of the Big Island caught and installed both cameras and sophisticated data gathering information on tiger sharks. The gear tracks swimming speed, depth, water temperature and even the animals' acceleration.

The scientific team was from the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa's Hawai‘i Institute of Marine Biology (HIMB), the University of Tokyo, the Japanese National Institute of Polar Research, and the University of Florida.

As always happens in these cases, what they found surprised them.

One pattern was the big tigers' repeatedly diving deep and coming to the surface, a technique researchers called 'yo-yo' diving. And they do it not slowly gliding or cruising, but swimming hard, tails beating constantly.

With the cameras, the team found that the tiger sharks often encountered prey fish, and when they did, there were frequent bursts of speed. The conclusion: All this up and down was probably a feeding technique. By covering lots of water across three dimensions, the sharks were engaging in a strategy more likely to expose them to prey—reef fish in the shallows and pelagic fish in the deep.

“Although we have long debated the reasons for the yo-yo diving, we have only recently developed tools allowing us to directly measure the behavior in sufficient detail to understand what these animals are actually doing,” said Carl Meyer, the Hawai`i Institute of Marine Biology researcher who lead the project.

"These findings are exciting because they have given us unprecedented new insights into the behavior of these huge and difficult to study marine predators," he said

© Jan TenBruggencate 2011