Issue 11.5: October/November 2008

Shearwater Revival

story by Christopher Pala
photo by Monte Costa


In the beginning, there were seabirds. Millions once nested on the ground in parts of the main Hawaiian Islands with the same density they still do 1,500 miles away on Midway atoll. With its total lack of land mammals—and therefore predators—the Hawaiian archipelago was a haven for albatrosses, shearwaters, terns and other species.

Then came the Polynesians, bringing with them dogs and rats and a taste for seabirds. Europeans brought cats and mongooses, and pretty soon the nesting seabird population was exiled to a few tiny offshore islets.

Now, along a 15-mile stretch of Molokai’s remote and wind-swept Mo‘omomi Bay, the Nature Conservancy has begun to bring back this nearly vanished population. The project started in 1995 with no thought of birds; the Conservancy started removing thorny and invasive kiawe (mesquite) trees as part of an effort to restore native vegetation, says the organization’s Kathy Tachibana. “Then one day we discovered four burrows of shearwaters.”

Fern Duvall, Moloka‘i’s state wildlife biologist, was alerted. Searching under the kiawe trees, he found the bones of innumerable seabirds, many bearing puncture marks from cats’ teeth. So the Conservancy set out traps for the cats and mongooses, and as the predators disappeared along with the trees that gave them cover, the number of active burrows shot up to 300. Once again, the dunes echoed with the characteristic baby-like cry of the wedge-tailed shearwater. And the birds in turn assisted the Conservancy in their replanting efforts: With the guano produced in the burrows acting as fertilizer, the native plants have grown faster.

If current trends continue, says Duvall, 1,000 new breeding pairs in the next five years is a realistic number. With the return of the birds comes a return of the habitat of ancient Hawai‘i. Young volcanic islands are poor in plant nutrients, Duvall points out, so having millions of seabirds flying around meant the Islands were probably much greener before humans arrived. “And now,” he says, “we’re going to get a taste of what it was like.” HH