The Akepa, Akiapolaau and Hawaii Creeper are among Hawaii’s rarest endangered forest birds. After years of habitat protection, the birds may be starting to recover.
The Akepa (Loxops coccineus), Akiapolaau (Hemignathus munroi) and Hawaii Creeper (Oreomystis mana) are small, colorful birds endemic to the Hawaiian Islands. They are all part of a subfamily of birds known as Hawaiian honeycreepers. Hawaiian honeycreepers like to nest and forage for insects in the forest canopy, and they are thought to have evolved to fill a niche similar to woodpeckers in other parts of the world.
Populations of all three species declined sharply during the twentieth century due to habitat loss from grazing and logging activities and predation by introduced mammals such as cats, rats and mongoose. Presently, these birds are also being threatened by two mosquito-borne diseases: avian malaria and avian pox. It’s been estimated that some 20 species of Hawaiian honeycreepers have already become extinct in the recent past.
In 1985, the Hakalau Forest National Wildlife Refuge was established to protect and manage endangered Hawaiian forest birds and their forest habitat. The refuge consists of 32,733 acres of land on Mauna Kea, Island of Hawaii. Over 350,000 koa tree seedlings were planted to help restore the forest, and much of the refuge has been fenced off. Now, those efforts appear to be paying off.
On June 25, 2012 the U.S. Geological Survey reported that federal scientists observed Akepa, Akiapolaau and Hawaii Creepers in new areas of the Hakalau Forest National Wildlife Refuge. The birds were identified by their distinctive songs or through visual observations at forest elevations of 4200 feet (1280 meters). It was the first time in 30 years that the birds were observed in lower portions of the Hawaiian Island forest.
Previously, the distribution of the three bird species was limited to cool, higher elevations of the wildlife refuge likely because those regions offer the birds some protection from mosquitoes.
Marcia McNutt, Director of the U.S. Geological Survey, commented on the new findings in a press release:
Hawaii’s native birds face multiple threats from habitat destruction, invasive species, introduced diseases and climate change, with many already having been driven to extinction. The observation of three endangered species possibly expanding their range in a wildlife refuge gives us hope that with some care, the road to extinction need not be a one-way street.
The rediscovery of the three endangered species in the Hakalau Forest National Wildlife Refuge was made possible by a joint U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and U.S. Geological Survey project that was evaluating the potential impact of climate change on avian diseases.
While findings from recent surveys suggest that populations of the endangered birds may be stable or increasing in the Hakalau Forest National Wildlife Refuge, populations in other regions of Hawaii are likely still decreasing according to the 5-year review summary and evaluation reports issued for each species in 2010 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Wildlife officials are considering taking further conservation measures to protect the endangered birds. These measures will attempt to reduce mosquito breeding habitat in Hawaii by draining stock ponds and standing water in residential areas.
Bottom line: On June 25, 2012 the U.S. Geological Survey reported that federal scientists observed three species of endangered Hawaiian forest birds in new areas of the Hakalau Forest National Wildlife Refuge. The birds were identified by their distinctive songs or through visual observations at forest elevations of 4200 feet (1280 meters). It was the first time in 30 years that the birds were observed in lower portions of the Hawaiian Island forest, and the new findings are giving hope to recovery efforts.
Deanna Conners is an Environmental Scientist who holds a Ph.D. in Toxicology and an M.S. in Environmental Studies. Her interest in toxicology stems from having grown up near the Love Canal Superfund Site in New York. Her current work is to provide high-quality scientific information to the public and decision-makers and to help build cross-disciplinary partnerships that help solve environmental problems. She writes about Earth science and nature conservation for EarthSky.