Restoring the Forest

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

Maui Forest Bird Recovery
K.J. prepares to hook equipment to the helicopter that is our sole transport to and from camp.

Ahh, the great outdoors: sweeping views and ocean breezes nearly everywhere we venture; melodic bird songs from native ‘apapane and ‘amakihi; and some of the most immense native trees on Maui. The crimson lehua blossoms of ‘ōhi‘a trees punctuate the verdant landscape, bursting in vibrant canopies as mythological reminders of enduring passion. (According to Hawaiian legend, the volcano goddess Pele transformed the warrior ‘Ōhi‘a into a gnarled tree when he refused to marry her; the other gods then took pity on his lover, Lehua, transforming her into a flower so the pair could remain together for eternity.)

As tempted as I am to lose myself in these surroundings, we’ve come to work—eight to ten hours a day. Over breakfast, we plan each day’s assignments, divide into teams, then pack our lunches, rain gear, tools, and plenty of water before hiking to designated areas of the reserve to complete our tasks. Thankfully, the helicopter has transported all the materials and equipment to our worksites. Navigating through gulches and steep terrain adds a formidable challenge to each project.

On our first day, Andy, Dan, K.J. and I construct one of nine platforms that will host aviaries for the MFBRP’s kiwikiu release. Meghane and Chris chart growth and survival rates of nascent tree plots the organization has planted over the past six years, and Laura guides Nora and Kristi across the reserve to reset small traps that help eradicate rats and mongooses. (In 2012, the Hawai‘i Department of Land & Natural Resources fenced this 170-hectare section of the Nakula Natural Area Reserve and removed all ungulates, but smaller pests remain a destructive presence.)

Over the course of our stay, we plant trees and continue predator control and forest data collection. At the end of each satisfying-yet-arduous day, the rudimentary shower feels like an absolute luxury.

Evenings find everyone relaxing at camp, sharing dinner and talking story as dusk approaches. On our final night, a sunset erupts like a living painting across the sky.

Maui Forest Bird Recovery
A Nakula sunrise—one of the perks that make all the work worthwhile.

Around 5:30 the next morning, I step outside my tent and see nimbostratus clouds drifting through the forest. The immensity of Haleakalā seems to exert its own gravitational pull on the elemental forces manifesting on its isolated slopes. Everyone is awake, packing and cleaning up camp to prepare for the helicopter’s return. Before we head back to civilization, the clouds part to reveal what becomes my favorite sunrise of the trip. Nakula has a beautiful way of saying goodbye.

Back in the world of concrete and paychecks, I contemplate the five days of conscious collaboration that enabled our team to experience not only the rare beauty of a native Hawaiian forest, but also a deep sense of community and shared purpose. I feel a new connection to this ‘āina (land), and am determined to share this awareness of planetary responsibility. Chris Warren’s words remain with me: “It’s exciting to see what this place will be in the next five years, and ten years after that. It will be a full-fledged forest by then.”

The Maui Forest Bird Recovery Project and the East Maui Watershed Partnership furnish these sobering facts:

  • Hawai‘i has the highest percentage of endangered native species in the United States.
  • More than 90 percent of plants native to Hawai‘i are endemic—they exist nowhere else on Earth.
  • Approximately thirty new plant species arrive in Hawai‘i annually, and many of them pose threats to the islands’ natural ecosystems.
  • Nonnative (introduced) rats, mongooses, and free-ranging cats jeopardize biodiversity by preying on recovering bird populations and competing for vital resources.
  • With the onset of Rapid Ōhi‘a Death (a phenomenon caused by a fungal pathogen previously unknown to science) over the past few years, Hawai’i’s most culturally and ecologically significant tree populations are threatened with extinction within the coming decade.

The Maui Forest Bird Recovery Project is one of several local organizations dedicated to undoing the harm. To learn more about its efforts and the native species it’s working to save, visit



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