HAWAII SCIENTISTS HOPE TO SAVE RARE BIRD

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By Valerie Monson

WAILUKU, Maui (The Maui News, Sept. 11) – One of the last three poouli known to exist has been captured in the forest of the Hanawi Natural Area Reserve, giving ornithologists hope they can save the species that hangs on the brink of extinction.

"We’re smiling a lot," said Kirsty Swinnerton, project coordinator for the Maui Forest Bird Recovery Project in Olinda who accompanied the rare female honeycreeper on a helicopter journey from the forest Friday morning. "And now we’re really motivated to get the other two. One is no good on her own – she needs a mate."

So this is only the first hurdle in the mission to save the poouli – possibly the rarest bird in the world – and breed them in captivity. Already, said Swinnerton, the rest of the team at Hanawi was preparing to move camp to the region frequented by the only male. Another female also remains at large.

Not everyone agrees with the strategy, believing that the birds – members of the Hawaiian honeycreeper family – should be allowed to enjoy their lives freely in their preferred habitat and die naturally. Swinnerton knows those arguments and understands them, but admits that it’s still hard not to do everything to keep the species going.

Alan Lieberman – avian conservation coordinator for the Zoological Society of San Diego’s Center for Reproduction of Endangered Species, which operates the Maui Bird Conservation Center – takes the responsibility seriously.

"Establishing a breeding pair of poouli may be the most challenging task we’ve ever attempted," he said.

The female – she hasn’t been named yet, but she probably will be – was captured at 4:20 p.m. Thursday in a mist net strung up on poles in parts of the forest where she had been observed. Weather conditions, which can be miserable at Hanawi on the slopes of Haleakala, were perfect: cloudy to conceal the fine weave of the net and cool so the bird would remain active.

"We’d actually seen a lot of her in the last two to three weeks," said Swinnerton. "It was better for setting up the nets because we could follow the pattern of her movements."

Swinnerton and her team have been making periodic attempts at capturing the birds for the last 18 months. Ironically, the capture happened on the first day of the most recent trip.

Once the poouli was trapped, she was transferred to a cloth cage that was placed in a special tent equipped with monitors next to the crew’s cabin.

"She was amazingly calm, but she was having a good nip at them (as she was moved)," said Swinnerton. "She’s a strong little thing."

Because the poouli made it comfortably through the night, the decision was made to fly her down the following morning. Swinnerton said Pacific Helicopters picked them up at 7 a.m. and just made it out before the clouds overwhelmed the forest as they so frequently do.

The bird was taken to the conservation center in Olinda where she was placed in quarantine to acclimate to her new, more restrictive surroundings. Gradually, she will be moved into bigger cages.

The poouli were first identified in 1973 by a group of University of Hawaii students who couldn’t believe their eyes. Based on fossil evidence, the birds’ ancestors are thought to have lived in other parts of Maui, including the dryland forests that once flourished on the southwestern slope of Haleakala.

Hawaiian-language expert Mary Kawena Pukui christened the bird with its name because of its black "Lone Ranger" mask.

This is the second time the poouli has been captured. In fact, all three were caught in 1997 and banded, but released because there was still hope they would mate in the wild. That never happened, leading experts to believe the only chance at saving the species was to attempt breeding in captivity.

Because of all the complications of getting the poouli off the mountain, Swinnerton said she and the five other members of the team never got to rejoice.

"They’re coming out of the field next week so we’ll probably get together then," she said.

Until that happens, they’ll most likely be flying high on their own.

September 13, 2004

The Maui News: www.mauinews.com

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