Friday, August 10, 2012

Nihoa millerbirds repopulate Laysan Island, redux

Researchers leave today (Aug. 10, 2012) for Nihoa Island to collect native Nihoa millerbirds, to help repopulate the species on Laysan Island.

(Image: It’s not easy working on remote islands. Here, a team transfers captured millerbirds from Nihoa to a waiting small boat during the first Laysan repopulation effort. Credit: USFWS Pacific.)

Millerbirds became extinct on Laysan, in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, after introduced rabbits destroyed the island’s vegetation a century ago. The rabbits have long since been removed, and Fish and Wildlife Service teams have been working for two decades to restore some of the native vegetation there.

Meanwhile, the endangered millerbird has been vulnerable, since its only population in the world has been on that single, tiny, volcanic island from which it gets its name. 

Nihoa lies 150 miles to the west of Kaua`i, and is the easternmost island of the 1,000-mile long Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument , which encompasses the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

Researchers last year made the first transfer of the birds from rocky Nihoa Island, where they still thrive, to sandy Laysan, which lies 650 miles to the west. Those birds have done well. Twenty-four were moved onto Laysan Sept. 10, 2011, and they have already produced 17 young.

This translocation is a project of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), American Bird Conservancy (ABC), and other organizations. It takes place entirely within the Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refuge and Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument and World Heritage site.

Much of what is known about Nihoa millerbirds was discovered by pioneering zoologist Sheila Conant, a University of Hawai`i professor who studied them extensively starting in the 1980s. She continues to be involved.

(Image: Nihoa millerbird, which will help create a new population of millerbirds on Laysan. Credit: Robby Kohley via U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.) 
“The reproductive success of the first group of birds moved to Laysan is very encouraging and demonstrates that Laysan is quite a hospitable island for millerbirds from Nihoa,” she said. “This second translocation will provide this tiny, new population with the best chance of flourishing. The reestablishment of millerbirds on Laysan is an extraordinary and long-needed step in the species’ recovery.”

The project hopes to capture another 26 birds to bring the total number of transferred millerbirds to 50. A biologist will overwinter on Laysan to monitor the birds.

Habitat restoration and restoring species to their former habitats is a rare conservation event, but it has shown considerable success with birds like the Hawaiian goose or nene, once not present but which is now thriving on Kaua`i. In another example, during the past decade, Laysan ducks have been restored to Midway Atoll, and they appear to be responding well to the new habitat.

“This type of restoration work is sorely needed for other Hawaiian birds,” Conant said.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2012

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