On the red mud of Waipahu’s Pouhala Marsh, a Hawaiian stilt flapped its wings, trying to lure away a potential predator of its young.
The predator, Jason Misaki’s white pickup truck, stopped several feet away. Misaki hopped out and walked a wide circle, looking into patches of vegetation for the stilt’s fledglings.
Earlier that morning, Misaki caught three stilt chicks by hand and placed colored bands on the birds’ long legs as part of a survey of the number of stilts born at the marsh.
This year, the number of fledglings at Pouhala is on track to surpass any year since the state began restoring the marsh nine years ago — a sign of its successful recovery.
The 70-acre marsh is the largest wetland in Pearl Harbor and provides an important habitat for the Hawaiian stilt, along with the Hawaiian coot and moorhen, all endangered Hawaiian water birds. Hawaiian stilts number about 1,500 today. About 100 typically feed at Pouhala Marsh at any given time.
Misaki, the state’s wildlife program manager for Oahu, said preserving Pouhala is an important part of saving the stilt, which differs from the North American stilt by having more black on its head and neck.
Misaki said preserving species native to Hawaii is important because "it’s their habitat. These are symbols of Hawaii, a symbol of the people of Hawaii, the landscape and the animals of Hawaii."
There are few places left where the Hawaiian stilts can nest, making the habitats they prefer more valuable.
Before the restoration began, the stilts visited Pouhala, but couldn’t nest because of human activity and predators.
Officials had filled in the marsh to make it into a landfill decades ago, drying the land out and making it difficult for the birds to feed on grubs that live in the mud. The plan for a landfill was discarded, and over the years, the area was neglected and became an illegal dumping ground, a homeless encampment and drug haven.
The state received grants to clean up the marsh in 2002, then removed truckloads of rubbish, chopped down mangrove thickets and hauled away the extra dirt.
The state also controlled predators in the bird habitat. A fence was put up on the mauka side to keep dogs and people from wandering across the preserve. Two streams and the ocean protect the wetland on the remaining sides.
But two stilt chicks were found dead recently with puncture wounds, likely from two dogs that found their way onto the marsh and avoided baited traps. The dogs were eventually shot and killed.
To help the state, volunteer groups have stepped in to clean up and plant native vegetation at the marsh. The Hawaii Nature Center began a wetland restoration project at Pouhala about 10 years ago.
Pauline Kawamata, the center’s volunteer program manager, said volunteers helped remove rubbish such as cars, tires, a horse trailer and tree stumps. The center still holds monthly cleanups at the marsh, during which volunteers can learn about wildlife and the preserve.
"The volunteers really know they’re making a difference," Kawamata said.
This year, state workers have banded 16 fledglings at the wetland and expect the stilts to breed again before the summer ends, Misaki said.
Last year, only 11 fledglings were counted because the birds might have nested elsewhere under the extremely dry conditions.
In 2009, there were 22 stilt fledglings counted at the marsh. The years before that were largely unsuccessful, with only one counted in 2008 and none in each of the two years before that.
Looking through a pair of binoculars recently, Misaki watched a stilt standing along the edge of a lake, wide from recent heavy rain, on the north end of the marsh.
He could see a light-green band on its leg, signifying that the bird had hatched at Pouhala. He said the bands provide data that enable experts to learn how far the birds travel and discover which other areas they frequent.
Misaki suspects the stilts born at Pouhala might be nesting at wetlands across the state, increasing the species’ chance of recovery.