A Few Ways of Looking at a Blackbird*

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A Few Ways of Looking at a Blackbird*

It’s April in Hawaii when the sun sets at 7:00 p.m. I am in position, sitting below a tangle of hala roots at Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge, long after closing.  Dried, sword-shaped leaves litter the ground, amid the tree’s aerial root system, giving rise to one of the hala’s many nicknames, “the walking tree.”
At 7:03, the sun disappears behind a range of mountains, bouncing its rays between ridges and valleys and throwing a golden glow against a 100-foot cliff wall to my left—the home of a thousand red-footed boobies. The sun’s waning light paints the primarily white seabirds a myriad of iridescent colors and reminds me of a Northeast USA landscape in the fall. The birds could be colorful leaves.
This is my third night on duty.  I am sitting on a beach chair in the middle of Kauai’s wildlife refuge—with a rain jacket, binoculars, walkie-talkie, GPS, clipboard and night-vision goggles at my side—looking for a seabird known as the Newell’s shearwater.
“We get to use night-vision goggles?” I had asked when a couple of biologists from the Kauai Endangered Seabird Recovery Project invited me along on this adventure.  By day three, I hardly bother with the goggles.  It’s possible to spot birds through night-vision goggles but impossible to identify any specific bird species.  At least, for an amateur like me.  (E.g. I describe the moon as “full;” biologist Jesse calls it a “99% moon.”  I say “trees;” she says, “canopy.”  I say, “flaps really fast;” she says, “heavy wing-loading.”)
Wedge-tailed shearwaters zig and zag in the sky above, returning to their nest sites after a day of foraging at sea.  Their flight reminds me of oversized bats.  WESH, as the biologists ask us to note on our data sheets, come and go at dawn and dusk, making them crepuscular in nature.  Hundreds of WESH scratch out burrows under native naupaka bushes and other vegetation around the refuge to lay their one egg of the season.  There are so many of these birds around that biologists don’t even bother to count them.  Or strap tiny geo-locator dataloggers—weighing a mere 1.5 grams each—onto their legs.

Newell’s Shearwaters (NESH) are another story altogether. Known to Hawaiians as 'a'o, the seabird measures approximately one foot in length with a wingspan reaching nearly three times that. As seabirds go, kinda small. It has a sharply hooked black bill, good for snagging fish and squid several hundred miles off-shore, and claws that are equally sharp and hooked for burrowing out nest sites and climbing atop trees to launch into flight.
Earlier in the week, a male arrived at the burrow that I have been tasked to watch tonight.  He spent a couple days readying his nest site deep in the aerial roots and leaf litter and performing his unusual mating call.  Before he vacated the now-clean nest site, biologists swooped in to remove the high-tech tag that recorded light intensity throughout the bird’s last five months at sea.  The data would help write the story of these mysterious birds, about which little is known. 

NESH were thought extinct around the turn of the 20th century until one was sighted offshore in 1947 and, then, a whole colony was discovered in the mountains near my home in 1967. In the mid-1990s, population estimates put them at 84,000 individuals, but their remote nesting and open ocean foraging make the species a difficult one to count. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service listed the bird as threatened in 1975, and, today, that colony above my home is no more. It is thought the population has plunged some 75% due to loss of forest habitat, invasion of non-native plants and feral ungulates, predation by cats, rats and owls, as well as light pollution and collisions with power lines.

Before Polynesian arrival, these birds nested on all main Hawaiian Islands. Some people even call them a “foundation species,” because the NESH helped turn porous lava rock into fertile dirt as they scratched out their nests. Today, most NESH nest on Kauai in steep mountainous terrain between 500 and 2,300 feet, where they can get the wind beneath their wings that they need to take to the air. Their biology—the placement of their legs, in particular—makes it difficult for these birds to take off from a flat surface. They use the reflection of the moon off the surface of the ocean like a compass to guide them from the mountains to their foraging waters of the sea.
At 7:45, the full moon—or 99% moon, if you prefer—crawls over the cliff, throwing its light through openings in a patchwork of clouds above.  The red dimmer switch on Mars turns up.  A few stars wink.


When it comes to people, the NESH tend to keep a low profile—foraging for food far off shore during the day and only coming to land, and the remote interior mountains, at that, to nest from April to November. But last year, these seabirds saw quite a bit of the limelight and generated a few—conflicting—viewpoints.

1. In March 2010, four cultural and environmental groups sued Kauai Island Utility Co-Op (KIUC) for violating the Endangered Species Act. Newell’s shearwater—adults and fledglings—were dying each breeding season when birds flew into power lines and utility poles. Deaths were also attributed to “attraction” to streetlights and other facilities, as birds confused artificial light with the moon, became disoriented, circled and fell to the ground where they either became easy prey for dogs and cats, were hit by cars or, simply, starved to death.

Not that the local electric utility had turned a blind eye. For years, they had sponsored the “Save Our Shearwater” program, which encouraged the community to scoop up downed birds—with a towel—and place them in aid stations located around the island. The co-op had also shielded thousands of streetlights. But shielding streetlights wasn’t enough, according to supporters of the lawsuit. Time was running out. Things could be done. In the seabirds’ major flyways from mountain to sea, power lines could be lowered to the level of surrounding landscape, fast-growing trees could be planted to shield the lines, lines could be run under bridges.

2. In the summer, as the Kauai County faced possible federal prosecution for failing to protect the seabirds, the Kauai Interscholastic Federation changed its high school football schedule from Friday night to Saturday afternoon, because, as it turns out, football season and fledging season take place at the same time—same time of year, same time of day—after sunset from mid-September to mid-December.

And, then, as they say, all hell broke loose.

Some football supporters showed up to games wearing T-shirts that said “Buck the Firds.” Some expressed their displeasure in letters to the editor of the local newspaper. Others responded to interview requests from national media.

The New York Times ran a story from The Associated Press that quoted a Kauai football mother, Lori Koga, as saying, “Because we’re in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, we don’t have much to have to offer our kids. On a Friday night, this is what our kids would look forward to. And then they took that away from us.”

Island resident Rich Rapozo, according to the AP, warned that some people were protesting the schedule change by threatening not to rescue downed birds. “They chose the bird over our keiki,” said Rapozo.

3. Living on Kauai’s North Shore, Kathy Valier wrote her own letter to the editor that ran in Kauai’s newspaper, as well as Honolulu’s, titled, “The Birds Need  Our Help, Not Our Hate.”

Referring to the drop in fisheries, she wrote, “They [Newell’s shearwater] are the proverbial canary in the coal mine; their fate presages our own.”

Newell’s shearwater often rely on predatory fish like tuna to drive food sources—likely fish and squid—to the surface, where the birds utilize a technique called “pursuit-plunging,” in which they fold their wings and use them like fins for propulsion to hunt their prey.

According to Valier, “The situation is already very serious. Most little boys easily recognize a make of car — no matter how similar cars are they can distinguish them perfectly — but don’t know what kind of bird is flying past.”

She continued, “And the comment that we don’t have much to offer our kids on Kaua‘i except Friday night football…makes me shake my head. What about surfing, hunting, fishing, boogie boarding?”

4. It’s not that Kauai County hadn’t been warned. There had been consultations, conversations, plans, programs, recommendations, suggestions, hints, threats—even a Senate bill and money allocated. But no retrofitted fixtures to redirect light downward at the county’s sports facilities, including the high school’s football fields. So, the Department of Justice started flexing its muscles—stretching its lawful wings, so to speak.

5. In the book of Hawaiian proverbs and sayings, `Olelo No`Eau, Mary Kawena Pukui includes this saying:

He ‘a’o ka manu noho I ka lua,
‘a’ole e loa’a I ka lima ke nao aku.
It is an ‘a’o bird that lives in a burrow and cannot be caught even when the arm is thrust into the hole.
Said of a person who is too smart to be caught.

6. In an interview with The Garden Island newspaper, local Kauai fisherman Jeff Chandler said, “Losing the birds would create a significant gap in Native Hawaiian culture. Since the ao nest in the mountains and live at sea, they remind us that everything is connected. We look to those birds to help us find fish, something we’ve been doing since ancient times.”

7. In early November, Hawaiian cultural practitioner Sabra Kauka led students in a Hawaiian blessing for those Newell’s shearwaters that were rescued and given a second chance at fledging. Part of a program known as E Ho‘opomaika‘i ia na Manu ‘A‘o, students participated in the blessing and release of birds that were saved by the community and turned in to aid stations around Kauai, as part of the Save our Shearwater effort.


At 7:56 p.m., I see a shadow dive into the canopy above me.  It arrives out of the black sky so suddenly I don’t have time to note its flight pattern or its wing shape, but, even that, I learn, is telling enough.
Whereas WESH tend to bank and glide in figure-eight patterns before landing, the mysterious NESH tend to dive right in, giving me no time to note the bird’s flight or whether the wing profile possesses the straight leading edge of a NESH or the scalloped edge of a WESH.  And, there’s no use trying to spot color, even in daylight.  In general, both birds have dark wings and upper bodies and white bellies. 

At night, under a more cloudy than clear sky, all I can see of this bird as it crash-lands is its silhouette.
The read-out on my phone shows 7:59 when I hear a crunching of dry leaves.
I pick up my radio, “Jesse, this is Kim, do you copy?”
“I copy, Kim.  Go ahead.”
“I’ve got a bird.  Just crashed into the canopy.  But I don’t know what kind.”
“No problem.  Note it on your data sheet, and we’ll check it once the survey ends.”
At 8:23, I wrap my raincoat around me, and at 8:25, the misting stops.

Sadly, the plight of NESH isn’t the only such story in Hawaii. In a 2006 Audubon Society’s list of the ten most endangered birds across the United, States, seven call Hawaii home. All total, 26 known endemic bird species have gone extinct in Hawaii, and 32 are listed as threatened or endangered on the Endangered Species Act.

In the fall of 2010:

1. Kauai County acknowledged that it was guilty of killing Newell’s shearwaters. Under a plea agreement, the county paid $15,000 in fines and agreed to create plans to minimize harm to seabirds during fledgling season at all county facilities; maintain a record of dead, injured or sick birds protected by the Endangered Species Act; notify U.S. Fish & Wildlife of any deaths, injuries or sickness within 24 hours. They also agreed to donate $180,000 toward the species’ conservation efforts and $30,000 to the Kauai Humane Society to help fund the Save our Shearwater program, and establish and fund an escrow account to cover any future “takes.”

2.  KIUC plead guilty to two misdemeanor charges of illegal “take” of an endangered or threatened species. The utility was fined $40,000 and required to pay $225,000 toward the protection of seabirds. But, most notably, KIUC will reconfigure and realign its power lines at important flyways in Kealia, Hanapepe and Kapaa; plant fast-growing trees to shield utility lines along portions of Kuhio Highway at Kealia; and install heat-sensing digital video cameras to monitor shearwater crossings at two locations.

My radio crackles at 8:58.  Another monitor reports hearing a NESH in the underbrush of native naupaka.  No one needs to ask whether she’s sure it’s a NESH, whether her ID is positive.  Whereas WESH and NESH are difficult to identify visually in the air—especially at night—there is no confusion over their calls.  None at all.  They each have a distinct call. They use it in courtship, and to imprint their chicks. When it comes to NESH, scientists say its call sounds like a braying donkey. I say it sounds more like a hyperventilating, pant-hooting chimpanzee.
At 9:08, Jesse reaches into my burrow, removes a bird and, amid smiles and a little relief, collects the bird’s geolocator datalogger. 

*Shout out to Wallace Stevens and his poem, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.”

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