Fall 2013

Working Life

As a double major in wildlife ecology and biological aspects of conservation, Barbara Heindl dreamed about one day helping to save a species from the brink of extinction. Now she’s pursuing her passion as a field crew leader for the Kaua’i Forest Bird Recovery Project, a mostly government-funded effort facilitated by the University of Hawaii.
Kauai, known as “the garden isle,” is the oldest Hawaiian island and one of the wettest spots on earth, a paradise noted for spectacular mountains, canyons, waterfalls—and an array of rare native birds.

Even in the context of Hawaii, which leads the nation with 35 birds on the endangered species list, Kauai stands out. Only eight of the island’s original 13 forest birds still exist—and six of them are found on Kauai and nowhere else. Three of them are on the verge of extinction. Heindl’s organization focuses on those three federally endangered species: the akekee, the akikiki and the puaiohi (in photo left).

What do you love about your job? The areas where we work in are absolutely gorgeous, though very challenging to work in. I often describe the forest as a literal jungle gym, and more often than not it’s raining, which can make conducting surveys a mental and physical challenge—but I love it. To top it off, getting to go through all of the data we collect and using that to help inform conservation efforts is really rewarding, enough so that I don’t mind going back into the forest to get roughed up again.

What are the main threats to the three birds you are working to save? The tricky part about Hawaiian avifauna is that they are affected by many threats that all work together. The main ones are predation by non-native rats on nestlings and nesting females and diseases such as avian malaria, which is spread by non-native mosquitoes. That, in turn, has secluded native forest birds to high-elevation forest where mosquitoes are less prevalent, thus limiting the birds’ range. Native forest destruction (and increasing mosquito habitat) caused by non-native ungulates like pigs and goats, whose wallows make excellent mosquito breeding areas, is also a significant problem.

What are your team’s main activities? Primarily we are doing surveys to better understand the relationships between these birds and the native forest, as well as surveys to get better estimates on current population sizes and their threats. Right now we’re doing a lot of nest monitoring, vegetation surveys and rat work. All of our work then influences the five-year recovery plans for these birds.

Why is the survival of these birds important? These birds are found nowhere else in the world and are highly adapted to the forests on Kauai. In particular puaiohi are the only remaining native frugivore (fruit-eater) on the island and are important seed dispersers for the native forest. Akikiki and akekee are primarily insectivores and are excellent indicators for ecosystem and forest health. Other native birds provide services by pollinating specific plants that have no other pollinators. Not to mention the cultural uses by native Hawaiians. The loss of any of these birds would be tremendous both culturally and ecologically.

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