Restoring a Forest Canopy

by Milt Lum, Contributing Writer

The Hakalau Forest National Wildlife Refuge is a 32,733- acre reclaimed pastureland located at the 5,000 foot level on the windward slope of Mauna Kea, the 13,000 foot volcano on the island of Hawaiʻi. Established in 1985 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service through the purchase of existing ranchland, the refuge is now home to 29 critically endangered species including seven birds, one insect, one mammal, and 20 plants found nowhere else in the world. It is a microcosm of what once populated the mountain slopes and deep valleys of all of the Hawaiian Islands a mere three centuries ago.

The origin of the refuge is attributed to an extensive five- year survey (1976 – 1981) of Hawaiian birds and their habitats by scientists with the support of federal and state agencies. The results of this survey provided the data necessary for the development of the Nature Conservancy’s Endangered Hawaiian Forest Bird Project and the Endangered Hawaiian Ecosystem Project demonstrating the importance of habitat restoration to prevent the extinction of the dwindling population of endemic Hawaiian birds. The sector of land to become the Hakalau was especially rich in its diversity of existing endangered bird species.

Two thousand acres of the refuge were fenced to prevent incursion from animals such as feral pigs and cattle which destroy habitat, and rats, feral cats, and mongoose which prey on the endangered bird species. Within this area an extensive reforestation project was started in 1987 with the planting of 250,000 native koa seedlings. The difference was clearly visible when we arrived at the refuge gate after an hour’s journey over 10 miles on a poorly maintained dirt road with deep ruts and gaping potholes.

Our guide for the day was Jack Jeffery, a retired wildlife biologist for the Hakalau since its inception until his retire- ment in 2008. He pointed with pride to the groves of koa trees along the fence line and the contrasting gorse-infested barren grazing land on the other side. A pair of nene geese, indigenous to the islands and brought back from the threshold of extinction by selective breeding to become the state bird of Hawaii, greeted us on our arrival. The tour of the refuge would be conducted on foot.

Most of the visitors to the refuge are birders or bird photog- raphers eager for a view of these special Hawaiian birds. With Jack as their guide, they are rarely disappointed. Under a clear blue sky, we trudged through a grassy field moist with dew. Our first stop was at a grove of ʻōhiʻa lehua trees whose bright red blossoms attract the nectar- feeding Hawaiian honeycreepers, the scarlet ʻapapane, and the orange-red ʻIʻiwi.

An ʻapapane flew into a thicket of leaves, shaking the leaves as it hopped from branch to branch, before emerging to perch on a red lehua blossom. It remained but for a moment before moving off to the next blossom, then disappearing into the leaves. The squeaky cry of the ʻiʻiwi announced its presence deep within the tree’s foliage. Soon its orange-red body appeared with its distinctive curved scimitar-shaped, salmon-colored bill. On spindly legs it balanced on the flower, dipping its long beak into the succu- lent blossom before flitting off to find another flower. It was an auspicious start to a day forecasted to be wet and rainy. As we proceeded down the path into the forest, Jack stopped and pointed at the gnarly trunk of a large ʻohiʻa tree. That tree has been around since the time of the early Hawaiians who first migrated here from the Marquesas Islands centuries before Cook’s arrival. Nearby there was a koa tree nearly as old.

Even as he discussed the flora of the refuge, Jack had one ear tuned to the different bird sounds that abounded in the refuge. None of the bird calls were like those heard at dawn down in the lowland trees that populate the grounds of the large resorts. He paused and inclined his ear in the direc- tion of a call he had been listening for. “Aki,” he said, and bounded off with us following.

Jack had heard the distinctive call of the rare and highly endangered ʻakiapolauʻau, a Hawaiian honeycreeper with a distinctive bill. The lower bill is thick like that of a wood- pecker while the upper is thin and curved, similar to the scimitar-shaped bill of the ʻiʻiwi. This specialized adaption allows the aki to probe and extract larvae of insects buried in the dead branches of the ʻohiʻa and koa trees. With Jack’s laser pointer directing our eyes to a spot on the trunk of the distant koa, we saw the elusive aki probing a limb and emerging with a white larvae in its bill, a sight rarely witnessed by most birders.

By mid-afternoon the moist air from the warm Pacific had ascended up the mountain and condensed into clouds shrouding the forest canopy in a cool mist. Alas, a day short in time, but rich in experience. I grew up in the islands and had never seen nor had known any of the birds I saw at the refuge. But for the foresight of visionaries like Jack and the commitment to preserve a critical habitat, future generations of Hawaii’s children will be able to view these beautiful birds brought back from the brink of extinction through the restoration of the forest canopy.