WAILUA, Kauai » Tracy Anderson carefully reaches into a box with small holes cut into the sides. Using a towel, she gently picks up an endangered fledgling Newell’s shearwater and walks over to a group of students from Eleele Elementary School.
"Now, don’t touch," the coordinator of the Save Our Shearwaters program reminds them before pulling the towel from over the animal’s fluffy black head.
The children gasp in excitement while the bird squirms, attempting to break free from her grip.
This and one other rescued Newell’s, or ‘a‘o, were released Thursday at Lydgate Beach Park in front of an awestruck class.
The annual release and celebration event, hosted by the Kauai Endangered Seabird Recovery Project and Save Our Shearwaters, offers an opportunity for fourth-graders to learn about seabirds and their connection to Hawaiian culture.
Nathan Banfield of the Kauai Endangered Seabird Recovery Project said the main message for the students is simple: "They have a special bird to their island. This bird is not seen anywhere else, and it is something that they can help protect and save, saying that this is part of our culture, part of our island."
Kauai is home to 90 percent of the world’s population of Newell’s shearwaters.
After showing the bird to the students, Anderson walked over to a platform overlooking Lydgate Beach and handed it to Eleele teacher Tracy Kobayashi.
The bird sat still in her outstretched hands for a few seconds, looked around somewhat confused and lifted its large wings. It took a courageous leap and soared, somewhat awkwardly, toward the horizon and out of sight. The students cheered.
It could be two years before the bird returns to the Garden Isle, Banfield reminded the students.
"I’ll be 11," one boy shouted from the crowd, referring to how old he’ll be when it does come back.
Fourth-grader Mikaela Depoe said it was her first time watching a shearwater release.
"It was great," she said of the experience. "I like seeing an endangered bird go off."
The ‘a‘o is an endangered seabird found only in the Hawaiian Islands, with Kauai being the last main refuge of the species, according to the Department of Land and Natural Resources.
Populations of the nesting shearwater have declined dramatically in recent years. The decline is attributed to a number of issues, including predation by introduced predators, such as feral cats, rats and pigs; and collisions with man-made structures. The two birds released Thursday were fledglings rescued after being grounded by artificial lights.