PRINCEVILLE, KAUAI (HawaiiNewsNow) - More than a dozen people were dropped by helicopter into the rugged mountains of Kauai early Monday morning to snatch seven young birds from their nests, never to be returned.
The extreme assignment was part of a decades-long project to protect one of Hawaii's dying endemic species, the threatened Newell's Shearwater, or A'o.
The chicks were taken from their natural home on Kauai's North Shore in the Upper Limahuli Preserve and placed into bins. They were carried up the mountain to a waiting helicopter that flew them to the Princeville Airport. Finally, the birds were driven to their new home at the Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge.
Researchers say this move could be a life saver.
"The predator-proof fence area within the Refuge will provide a safe haven for the shearwaters which, like many other native Hawaiian bird species, are facing tremendous challenges with shrinking habitat and the onslaught of invasive species," said Heather Tonneson, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Kauai National Wildlife Refuge Complex Project Leader.
Newell's Shearwaters are one of only two seabird species in Hawaii that are found nowhere else on Earth, but they have experienced a dramatic population drop in recent years, triggered in part by predators such as cats and pigs.
"We are hopeful that translocation of this first group of chicks will mark the turning point in the downward trend for this species," said Hannah Nevins, Director of American Bird Conservancy's Seabird Program.
The project was first recommended in 1983, and it took four years of direct planning and permitting to move forward.
At the Refuge, the A'o chicks were placed in man-made nest boxes, meant to mimic their natural burrows. They'll be hand-fed a slurry of fish and squid until they leave and fly out to sea as adults. Researchers hope the birds will return to this new, protected habitat to continue their colony when they're ready to breed.