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Sporting a brand new shiny coat of soot-black feathers, a Tristram’s storm-petrel flutters its wings on the North Shore of Oahu.

The tiny chick’s movement indicates its first flight is imminent, but that’s only its latest milestone. Scientists say this bird at James Campbell National Wildlife Refuge could be the first of its kind to be born on Oahu since humans began inadvertently interfering with their habitats — a significant step for the species in its survival amidst climate change.

Over the course of decades, environmental organizations have been working to bring storm-petrels and other seabirds back from the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands as they face threats from rising seas and other effects of a warming planet. 

Taking Flight

Threats, Old And New

Projections for islands within the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, a 583,000-square-mile protected area around the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, show that with six feet of sea level rise, 26% of land in the region could be lost.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service supervisory wildlife biologist Beth Flint has worked in the northwestern islands for 40 years, witnessing the changes to the birds’ habitats and the development of the nesting sites and the rehoming of birds.

“The most striking and disturbing changes I have seen over the last 40 years … is the complete loss of several small islets and the rapid erosion of some of the larger islands,” Flint said. 

Some islands have in effect sunk and nesting areas have been wiped out during major weather events. More than 100,000 albatross chicks and adults were killed on Midway Atoll following the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan; in 2018, with the sinking of East Island, green sea turtles, monk seals and several species of seabirds lost a key reproduction area.

These incidents provide a glimpse of what might come, environmentalists say.

Midway Atoll’s Laysan and black-footed Albatross were drenched following the 2011 Tohoku tsunami and earthquake and few survived. AP Photo/2011

Because seabirds are social creatures, colonizing entire islands, they are loyal to the sites they imprint on when they are young. So to address the problem, groups like Pacific Rim Conservation relocate chicks taken from the northwestern islands and use them to attract more to the main Hawaiian islands.

For James Campbell National Wildlife Refuge specifically, 511 seabird chicks from four different species – Laysan albatross, black-footed albatross, bonin petrel, and Tristram’s storm-petrel – were rehomed from the northwestern islands between 2015 and 2021 in predator-proof fenced areas. 

And 92% of the chicks that were transplanted made it through the key stage of fledging, returning as adults, according to FWS. 

PRC Executive Director Lindsay Young says one of the organization’s main goals is ensuring there is “no net loss” of land, meaning that for every square yard of land in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, seabirds have an alternative in the eight main islands that stretch from Hawaii island to Kauai. 

Scientists choose what black-footed albatross to relocate based on how much danger they are in from rising seas and storm surges. This is one of thousands of adult albatrosses that nest on Midway. Courtesy: Lindsay Young/Pacific Rim Conservation

Climate change is third on the list of existential threats to seabirds globally, behind invasive species and fisheries bycatch, according to a 2019 analysis of 900 research studies.

So while the main Hawaiian islands provide higher ground and refuge from climate change, they are newly exposed to what they fled: humans, domestic animals and invasive species.

Pigs, cats and rodents pose the greatest specific threat to seabirds, which means fencing is required to keep them safe in their new homes. 

But even some of the islands in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands have suffered the effects of invasive species, such as Midway Atoll, where Laysan albatross have been eaten alive by house mice left on the island after World War II. Not to mention invasive ants that eat seabirds alive.

This map shows the boundary of Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument around the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands in proximity to the eight Main Hawaiian Islands. Courtesy: PMNM

PRC recently started building a new predator-proof fence spanning more than two miles and protecting 168 acres of Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge on Kauai, which meets their “no net loss” goal, according to Young. 

“The next bit will be ensuring that we have populations distributed between all of those sites,” Young said.

Flint says they have already made major progress with the Tristram’s storm-petrel, as the birds will continue to attract others and the population will expand as organizations such as PRC typically relocate enough animals to establish a founding population.

“That’s what we are going for, to build the momentum,” Flint said. “At sea they know exactly what they are doing and they are tough little things. But if they can’t find a place to leave their eggs and raise their chicks they will be (wiped out).”

Guano And Ecosystem Health

After a Laysan albatross landed on the northeastern cliffs of Molokai in January, Molokai Land Trust was told the area might find its first breeding pair soon. 

Molokai Land Trust The Mokio Preserve Albatross decoys near the edge of a cliff as recorded bird chirping echoes from 2 speakers installed near the pinnacle of the mountains.
Molokai Land Trust, like many conservation groups working with social attraction sites, use decoy birds to attract real ones. To hear more about their work, listen to the latest episode of Stemming The TideCory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

“They started by colonizing away on Kauai and then they moved it to, and on, Oahu. And then we were seeing them here,” MLT Executive Director Butch Haase said. “So this is like the next stepping stone in the chain.”

The 63-acre parcel of protected land, surrounded by cliffs and a soon-to-be completed $1 million fence, is also home to wedge-tail shearwaters, which dig their nests underground. 

And the progress for the long-term health of the birds also helps the greater ecosystem. The birds’ excrement, known as guano, acts as a natural fertilizer that benefits both land and sea.

Guano is so prized as a fertilizer that Midway Atoll, still home to the world’s largest Laysan albatross colony, was mined at the turn of the 20th century. The destructive practice spurred some of the earliest environmental protections in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

But, if left in place, guano can help fight climate change. 

“Those nutrients that come through seabird guano actually fertilize nearshore marine systems and add to increased density and diversity of species, for everything from plankton to seaweeds to corals to fishes,” Haase said. 

On top of that, seabirds have been shown to supply key services to ecosystems in the Pacific, according to Brad Keitt, director of American Bird Conservancy’s Oceans and Islands Program.

An albatross comes in for a landing on the north shore of Kauai.
An albatross comes in for a landing on the north shore of Kauai. Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2022

Burrowing birds like shearwaters provide between 15% and 27% of marine-derived nitrogen, which commercial fertilizers mimic, to help plant ecosystems.

“These seabirds have this incredible role, in far more than just seeing them and enjoying them,” Keitt said. “They’re really an integral part of these island ecosystems and the surrounding environment.”  

Compounding Crises 

As sea level rise continues to plague seabirds’ futures, climate change is also making it harder for seabirds to regulate their temperature in hotter weather and find food around the Pacific. 

An albatross with a chick on the north shore of Kauai.
An albatross with a chick on the north shore of Kauai. Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2022

The changes in weather during El Nino and La Nina years typically help Pacific Rim Conservation predict how Laysan albatross will travel to find food for their chicks as they nest. But as fish stocks change their migratory patterns, the birds have to adapt when they fly as far as Alaska, Japan and Mexico. 

“They’re commuting so far for food for their chicks, if that range of where their food is changes and extends even a little bit, it means that they might not be able to get back to their chicks in time to feed it,” Young said, adding that this past nesting season, the survival rates for chicks was lower. “Those give us kind of previews for what’s to come as the ocean changes.”

Because albatross are creatures of habit, chicks are often primed to take flight at the same time of year, during the summer, to catch fish and squid when they’re most bountiful. But as temperatures rise, the time when fish are most prevalent might come earlier.

“It could potentially decrease their long-term survival,” Young said. 

Pedialyte And Fresh Fish

When birds such as albatross are relocated or their parents do not return from their commute in time, groups like PRC play surrogate by feeding them the pound of fish they need daily and Pedialyte to keep them full and hydrated.

Volunteers on Kure Atoll in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands say they regularly have to dig seabirds out of the sand, like this black-footed albatross, whether it’s from tsunamis, stronger storms or rising seas. Cynthia Vanderlip/DLNR

“Everyone’s reading about the infant formula shortage right now,” Young said. “Pedialyte and electrolyte solutions have been through that in the past, and there have been times when we’ve been unable to get enough of that.”

The Laysan albatross poses a particularly tricky situation, as like many of the seabirds, they are nesting in generally hard-to-reach places and they take about five months to take flight after hatching.

That brings up sustainability issues for the conservationists themselves who, when they are hand-rearing birds, have to have that fresh fish and Pedialyte ready for the birds while considering their carbon footprint from travel.

“So it just hasn’t been feasible in more remote places where you might have supply chain issues,” Young said.

Nonetheless, with everything stacked against the birds, Flint of FWS is hopeful for their future as more birds take flight and find more places to live.

They also have a key advantage: They can fly for thousands of miles in search of food and a home.

“It served them well for 30 million years and I hope that continues,” Flint said.

Civil Beat’s coverage of climate change is supported by the Environmental Funders Group of the Hawaii Community Foundation, Marisla Fund of the Hawaii Community Foundation and the Frost Family Foundation. 

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by grants from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation and the Fred Baldwin Memorial Foundation.

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