On the public footpath that winds along Makahuena Point on Kauai’s south shore, pedestrians can find coastal views of candy-colored sunsets, crashing waves — and often something more macabre.
“I would see all these dead birds,” said Kalaheo resident Tim Flynn. “So my wife and daughter and I started counting them.”
The Flynn family would count more than a dozen dead seabirds along the path each time they walked there in 2019, Flynn said.
Kerin Lilleeng, who walked the trail frequently after the coronavirus pandemic hit, said she tallied about 100 dead seabirds last year.
On a recent morning, there were at least a half-dozen feathered carcasses. Some of the bodies were headless, or missing a wing or a foot.
Makahuena Point is home to a wedge-tailed shearwater nesting colony. The seabird nests in shallow underground burrows in rock crevices or under naupaka shrubs, returning to the same site annually to lay a single egg.
For feral cats, rats and off-leash dogs, there’s no easier way to find dinner.
And the birds, which are native to Hawaii, have no defenses against these invasive species.
The seabird carnage at Makahuena Point is not a new problem. Year after year, residents have reported bird massacres during nesting season, which runs from April to December.
A dog will drag a bird out of its burrow, shake it like a toy, kill it and move on to the next one, sometimes without ever consuming its prey. Cats, on the other hand, tend to kill and scrupulously eat the nocturnal animals.
Even a single cat has the capacity to quickly decimate large sections of a breeding colony, wiping out multiple adult birds, as well as chicks and eggs.
“If something doesn’t happen, I can’t walk here anymore,” Lilleeng said. “I go into nature to find joy and cleanse my soul and coming here and seeing dead bodies everywhere is not a positive situation.”
Wedge-tailed shearwaters are common on Kauai and throughout the island chain — a fact that Lilleeng said she fears has become a barrier to stopping the bird deaths.
Unchecked threats to more imperiled native seabird species have led to drastic action. In 2011, for example, Kauai high schools started moving football games from Friday nights to Saturday afternoons, forcing players and spectators to endure hot conditions.
The change helped avoid the risk of injury and death that stadium lights pose for the island’s threatened Newell’s shearwaters and endangered Hawaiian petrels and band-rumped storm petrels. Artificial light can confuse the birds, which navigate by moonlight, causing them to collide with utility poles or buildings and fall from the sky.
Although wedge-tailed shearwaters exist in healthy numbers throughout Hawaii, they are not without peril. In addition to invasive predators, the birds face threats from ocean micro-plastics and warming seas.
Coastal development has also chipped away at the shearwaters’ habitat. In 1994, The Point at Poipu, a 200-room condominium hotel, went up on the point’s east end. A dense constellation of seabird nests is located right outside the doors of condo residents.
Another 13 acres of vacant land on the point was owned for a quarter century by Anchorage-based CIRI Land Development. In March, a group of Utah investors bought the property, which consists of a 10-lot residential subdivision, for $15 million.
The development has worked aggressively to deal with the shearwater predation issue, planting seabird-friendly vegetation, installing wildlife monitoring cameras, trapping cats and posting signs that instruct people to keep their pet cats indoors and their dogs restrained, according to Hannah Sirois, a partner at Corcoran Pacific Properties on Kauai.
“This is a serious wildlife challenge,” Sirois said in an email. “We understand there are still people in the neighborhood who feed feral cats, constantly increasing the pressure on birds. We have also seen on camera individuals releasing trapped cats and interfering with the traps.”
The state Department of Land and Natural Resources’ Division of Forestry and Wildlife has also posted signs along the trail.
Both Flynn and Lilleeng said they have called the phone numbers posted on the signs to report bird deaths to the DLNR. They said they never heard back from the agency.
For a time, the wildlife division trapped cats on the point, but later reported that its trapping efforts had “lost effectiveness,” according to Sirois.
The DLNR did not respond to requests for comment.
Alex Dutcher, lead biologist and co-owner of Hallux Ecosystem Restoration, a company that manages predators like cats and rats in remote areas of Kauai, said based on what she’s seen recently, any efforts underway to control predators at Makahuena Point do not appear to be effective.
“Trapping cats is harder than people assume,” she said. “It’s not just tossing out a trap and putting a can of cat food in the back and calling it a day. If you do that, yeah, you’ll catch a couple of dumb cats who are just hungry, but you’re not going to remove the most difficult cats to catch.”
But when done right, predator control can be an effective solution, Dutcher said.
Compounding the problem is the fact that it’s unclear who exactly is at fault for the seabird deaths. An effective predator control plan would likely require some entity — the state, the county, a landowner — to take responsibility.
Failure to do anything about the loss of wedge-tailed shearwaters at Makahuena Point could have long-term consequences for the species’ survival.
“Any native species, no matter how common now, may not be as common in the future,” Dutcher said. “These birds, for how well they’re doing, already have a lot against them.”
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