Restoring the Forest

Habitat Loss is Threatening Maui’s Rare Endemic Birds. Can Rebuilding the Ecosystem Bring Them Back?

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Maui Forest Bird Recovery
Meghane plants ‘ōhi‘a.

Many species in this native ecosystem are also endemic, meaning they exist nowhere else on Earth. Carried here by wind, wings and water, plants and animals have adapted over eons to thrive interdependently, transforming the islands’ raw landscapes of desolate lava into lush forest. However, more than a century of damage by introduced species has devastated these leeward forests: Cattle, goats and deer overgraze the slopes. Pigs rototill the soil, creating fertile ground for invasive plants that outcompete natives. Rats, mongooses and feral cats devastate native bird populations by preying on their eggs.

Conservation groups like the Maui Forest Bird Recovery Project are committed to stopping that trend.

We arrive at the launch site just as the sun rises over the ocean to greet us, and quickly work to secure sling nets and cables around our equipment. Moments later, a distant chuffing sound announces the approaching chopper. I feel my adrenaline surge as the pilot eases into a soft landing, and I watch the first three members of our team board the aircraft and lift off toward the mountain.

Within minutes, the helicopter zips back to claim our gear; after several delivery runs to and from our camp, it’s time for the rest of us to fly. Soaring up these slopes is a thrilling adventure, offering sweeping views of Haleakalā and its volcanic terrain. We catch a bird’s-eye glimpse of Nakula and her recovering native forest moments before we touch down at base camp.

Maui Forest Bird Recovery
K.J., Meghan and Dan relax at base camp, elevation 5,000 feet. Everything here has been flown in and assembled, from the propane stove to a catchment tank that supplies running water to an indoor sink. A propane water heater provides hot—but trickling—showers, and staff have furnished us with tents, boots, rain gear, sleeping bags, hiking poles, and home-cooked dinners, all the resources for a temporary home in the wilderness.

The realization hits me that we’re isolated in this wilderness for the next five days, with no electricity, modern plumbing, soft beds, or immediate access to resources other than the essentials we’ve brought with us. That, and the skills and knowledge of our team: Chris is the Maui Forest Bird Recovery Project’s restoration and data-management technician. Laura specializes in ornithological research and serves as this grassroots organization’s outreach and logistics technician. “I came here to intern for ten months, and here I am now ten years later,” she smiles. “All of us have degrees and experience in environmental science, biology, etc.” K.J. was an intern before joining the staff; the project’s newest intern, Kristi, previously worked with the Institute for Bird Populations in American Samoa.

Maui Forest Bird Recovery
Our ad hoc Team Kiwikiu poses in rain gear against the chilly mountain mist. From left: Chris Warren, Laura Berthold, K.J. Passaro (standing), volunteers Dan, Andy, Meghane (standing) and Nora, and MFBRP intern Kristi Fukunaga.

Our volunteers’ skills are no less impressive. Andy is a retired pediatrician. (Having a doctor on our team is a bonus!) My partner, Meghane, is an herbalist with a growing knowledge of native-plant properties and wild foraging. Nora works for the Pacific Whale Foundation, Dan for Skyline Eco Tours; with their employers’ encouragement, both have participated in numerous conservation efforts.

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