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Shearwaters in crisis

A record number of the seabirds have been found in distress on Oahu in recent weeks

By Leila Fujimori

LAST UPDATED: 3:42 a.m. HST, Dec 9, 2010

A record 784 lost, injured and underweight wedge-tailed shearwater fledglings have been turned in to bird caretakers on Oahu in the last 15 days, prompting concern for the native seabird.

Seabird kokua

If you find a distressed seabird, pick it up from behind, wrapping a cloth around its back and wings. Place it in a ventilated box. Do not feed it or give it water.
On Oahu, take seabirds to the Seabird Rehabilitation Facility at Sea Life Park, in the small wooden building at the right rear of the parking lot.
To volunteer at the facility, call 259-2512.
People may also call the Hawaiian Humane Society at 356-2250 for pickup.
"We're getting really slammed," said Jeff Pawloski, Sea Life Park curator, who suspects high winds and bright lights might be the cause. "It started just before Thanksgiving and we're getting a lot."

Since mid-November, people have taken shearwater fledglings to the park's Seabird Rehabilitation Facility. The 784 brought in triples the five-year average of 260 total per year and nearly doubles the 10-year average of 407 per year.

Last Thursday alone, 100 birds were brought in, but the numbers have begun tapering off this week.

Wedge-tailed shearwaters are not an endangered species, unlike their Kauai cousins, Newell's shearwaters.

Kauai County paid a $15,000 fine and agreed to take corrective measures in September after pleading guilty to violating the Migratory Bird Treaty Act involving Newell's shearwaters. Nighttime football games were rescheduled because stadium lights were creating problems for birds trying to find their way to sea.

But the latest increase in wedge-tailed shearwaters found in distress on Oahu comes as researchers have noted downward trends in numbers and weight.

"It is a concern because of the large number (of distressed birds)," said state wildlife biologist Jason Misaki of the Division of Forestry and Wildlife. "It's definitely going to affect the population if we get a large die-out."

Wedge-tailed shearwaters are the only seabirds nesting on or around the main Hawaiian Islands. Most others -- frigate birds, boobies and terns -- are visitors in transit, Misaki said.

The wedge-tailed shearwaters are valuable to tuna fishermen, who look for them as they flock over schools of fish driven to the surface by tuna, said wildlife biologist Keith Swindle, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service special agent.

People have mostly been finding the web-footed, gray-and-white birds on roadways and in yards in Windward Oahu and Hawaii Kai. But one was turned in Friday from Kapolei and another was recently discovered in a downtown Honolulu parking structure.

Laura H. Thielen, who just ended her term as chairwoman of the state Board of Land and Natural Resources, said, "I was walking Waimanalo Beach, and there were a lot of downed birds on that beach -- some dead, others exhausted. About 10 on a 2-mile stretch."

On Friday, Autumn Sommerville of Kaneohe brought to the Rehab center a shearwater she found at midnight last Thursday wandering in the Kaneohe Safeway parking lot. "I think I have a baby albatross," she said. "What was it doing at Safeway?"

Center team leader Sandra Bingham held the bird by its back end and legs, moving it up and down, as it stretched out its wings. "Overall he's looking pretty good," Bingham said. "No injuries."

California visitor Debbie Stanton plucked one out of the water and two others from shore Friday morning on Waimanalo Beach. "He looked like he was going to drown," said Stanton, who took the birds to Sea Life Park. "He was trying to get out of the water, but he kept getting knocked down by the waves. He was so sweet. I just scooped him up and carried him in my arms. He didn't make any fuss."

Bingham said the main problem for the seabirds is that they are underweight, and many are exhausted. She and a small team of employees and volunteers are swamped with about 130 wedge-tailed fledglings, some still fuzzy with down. Workers hydrate the fledgelings by tube-feeding, feed them small fish and release those strong enough to fly.

Like Newell's shearwaters, wedge-tailed shearwaters become disoriented by bright, directional lighting, including common street lamps and ballpark lights. Newell's, once common on this island, are now absent from Oahu.

Wedge-tailed fledgling are launching their inaugural nighttime flights from nesting grounds on offshore islets such as Manana (Rabbit) Island and the Mokulua Islands, as well as Kaena Point.

But instead of heading out to sea, the young birds, who navigate by the moon and stars, are drawn toward land, often confused and temporarily blinded by lights. They often fall to the ground, where they are vulnerable to cats, dogs, mongoose and cars.

Swindle said recent nighttime work on the Makapuu rockfall mitigation project might be confusing birds on the Windward coast.

State Department of Transportation spokeswoman Tammy Mori said wedge-tailed shearwaters and other birds were considered during its environmental assessment for the project, including nighttime work. But no shearwaters were found during a March 2002 survey, and the assessment concluded the project did not significantly affect any birds. The project manager and contractor reported no incidents or fatalities involving birds, she said.

Recent high-wind conditions may have contributed to the larger numbers of birds being thrown off course, biologists said.

State surveys have shown a decline in the population of wedge-tailed chicks on Oahu's offshore islands in the last 15 years, though stricter enforcement of bird sanctuaries and elimination of predatory rats and weeds have shown to increase numbers of some colonies, Misaki said.

During the past few years, surveys have found that the birds appear to be getting smaller, mostly due to a lack of food such as schooling bait fish and squid, Misaki said.

The number of dead birds likely outnumber the live ones being turned in. Swindle said Friday he picked up 30 dead and 10 live birds in a recent 10-day period.

Swindle discourages residents from trying to rehabilitate the birds and keep them at home. "These birds are meant to ride the wind and shear the water," he said.

To reduce the mortality of shearwaters, residents, businesses and public agencies can minimize the use of outdoor lighting and use downward-facing or shielded lighting and lower-wattage bulbs, the Division of Forestry and Wildlife recommends.

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