Interview with Andre Raine of Kauai Endangered Seabird Recovery Project

Andre Raine

GN: Hi, everybody and welcome to the latest in our Goodnature A24 interview series. We're super excited for today's guest, Dr. Andre Raine. Dr. Raine is from the Kauai Endangered Seabird Recovery Project in Kauai, Hawaii. The project focuses on protecting endangered seabirds found on the islands of Kauai. Their work includes identification and monitoring of seabirds' breeding colonies as well as conservation efforts to reduce predation of these amazing birds. 

Dr. Andre Raine: Thanks for having me, Ty. I'm looking forward to this talk.

GN: So why don't we start out by having you tell us a little bit more about yourself and also the Kauai Endangered Seabird Recovery Project.

Dr. Andre Raine: Sure. So I've been working with the project for nine years now, the Kauai Endangered Seabird Recovery Project is a State of Hawaii project, which is administered through the University of Hawaii. We focus on the three endangered seabirds that are found on this island. So we have the Newell's Shearwater, which is a Puffinus shearwater, and the island's estimated to hold 90% of the total population of that species.

Dr. Andre Raine: Kauai is particularly important for that species, and its population has declined by 94% between 1993 and 2013. So it's a species that's doing very poorly, but without Kauai, it could very well just be wiped off the face of the earth — so really important for that particular species. We also have the Hawaiian Petrel, which is distributed across several of the Hawaiian islands. Also an endangered species. And that one on Kauai has declined by 78% during the same period of time, so equally doing badly. And then the last species that we tackle is the Band-rumped Storm Petrel, which is a particularly enigmatic seabird. Although it's found across the Atlantic and Pacific, recent genetic work has established that it's different from all of the other populations in the world. So another important Hawaiian species.

Hawaiian Petrel

GN: We actually recently traveled to Lanai to meet with Dr. Rachel Sprague, so we're very familiar with the Hawaiian Petrel. Why is it so important to protect these birds? What is the big picture here?

Dr. Andre Raine: Well, in the past, these birds — if you read the sort of legends and stories from way back when they were found on this island in numbers that darkened the skies, there were so many of them. And every night during the breeding season, they'd fly up into the mountains with all the marine nutrients in their guano, and they'd fertilize the mountains. And so when you think about these huge numbers of birds moving up into the mountains and fertilizing the mountains, they're very much a part and parcel of the environment that has helped to shape the islands that we live on today. The drainages and forests we rely on for our water. So from that point of view, it's really important to ensure that they still persist.

GN: So what are some of the major threats that these birds are presented with?

Dr. Andre Raine: Well, like seabirds around the world, they face a wide range of threats. They've evolved on islands like Hawaii which had no mammalian predators on them and so mammalian predators are a big issue for them. People are always surprised by the fact that no matter where you go on this island, even the most remote mountain top which I'd land in a helicopter with no trails on it — you're going to find cats; you're going to find rats. We've got three species of rat, the black rat, Norweigan rat, and the Polynesian rat. Feral pigs, dogs, and then also the avian predator, the barn owl — which in that classic human way was introduced to deal with rats and by feasting on birds. So they've got a lot of issues with mainland predators.

Dr. Andre Raine: But the other key thing that they face with the humans is power line collisions because they fly up into the mountains every night to feed their chicks or to tend their eggs. They have to pass across the power lines, which are in the islands. We've found that the power lines themselves are responsible for up to 2,000 mortalities a year. If they survive the power line collisions and if the chicks survive all these predators that are roaming around the mountains when they fledge, they get attracted to the lights of the cities and they circle these lights and end up on the ground in a phenomenon called fallout. Once they're stranded on the ground, they're found by cats and dogs or run over by cars unless they're rescued. Then if they survive all that, they've got all the threats at sea, which are things like a bycatch, loss of food stock and the insidious threat of climate change. So they certainly have the cards stacked against them.


GN: That seems like a vast array of problems. Obviously we have a vested interest in the invasive rats. Can you tell us a little bit more about the rats in specific and then maybe also what role do Goodnature traps play in that protection with your team?

Dr. Andre Raine: So of the three rat species, the two ones that are really common up in the mountains are the black rat — that's a ship rat, Rattus rattus and the Polynesian rat, Rattus exulans. And we have started to see Norweigan rats appearing in some of our sites, but for now, the main species that target the birds is the black rat. Black rats will eat both of the eggs and the chicks of both of the species that we're dealing with in the mountains, and certainly they eat Band-rumped Storm Petrels on the cliffs where those guys breed. And it's been a particularly big problem in certain sites.

Band-Rumped Petrel

Dr. Andre Raine: So one of our sites is losing up to a quarter of our eggs and chicks every year to rats. So rat control plays a really important role in this. I mean, obviously the best scenario for pure eradication is eradicating all predators from an area and then building a fence around it, but seeing as some of these sites with birds breeding, the terrain precludes a fence — you've got to go for trapping efforts. Goodnature rat traps have been used and are used in all of our management sites now. We've found that they've been really successful in knocking the black rat rates down which thus resulted in an increase in the reproductive success of our birds.

GN: So how does your team typically deploy them? Would you have them on a grid, are you checking these traps constantly? How big would you say the effort kind of is with the Goodnature traps? Just out of curiosity.

Dr. Andre Raine: Our team is more focused on the seabird monitoring. So for many years actually, we were using the Goodnature traps ourselves and then the management of all the site splits so that there's a seabird monitoring group and a predator control group. We handed all our Goodnature traps over to the predator control teams. So we don't deploy the Goodnatures ourselves, but we monitor how the birds are reacting to the rat control. The traps themselves, they're deployed in most of the sites in a 100 x 50 grid, and we've been trying to ensure with the land managers that the grids are spread across the whole of the sites to create a web to keep the rat numbers down.

Dr. Andre Raine: It's really hard to do in these areas. Talk about highly-convoluted landscapes, dense vegetation and precipitous dropoffs. Some of them are on the edge of multi-thousand-foot cliff faces, steep drainages with rivers and so on. But yeah, the predator control teams have managed to make an excellent grid of the Goodnature traps and as I said, we're seeing some really great results now, rather than watching birds being torn apart on our cameras by rats, we're actually seeing them fledge, which is awesome.

GN: That's great to hear. So in terms of all the efforts that your team is making — whether it's through controlling the cat population, rats or some of the others that you had mentioned — some of the other threats that these birds are being faced with. Have you seen a significant difference because of your efforts with the project? Do you think the tides are turning? Could Kauai ever return to being that predator-free environment?

Dr. Andre Raine: Well, Kauai is a big island and I think it'd be unrealistic to think that we could get the island to a predator-free island as pleasant as that idea would be. But the management sites that we work in, which are some of the largest populations of these birds — certainly. I actually just came back from the Pacific Seabird Group Conference, a meeting in Portland, and I was actually presenting on that very thing.  How effective is predator control and management of predators in these seabird colonies? I used one of our sites, Upper Limahuli Preserve, which is managed by the National Tropical Botanical Gardens, as an example because we've been operating there for 10 years now. So we have 10 years of data and those guys have done an awesome job in terms of controlling all the predators. They have an ungulate-proof fence around the site and they control cats and they use Goodnatures for rats.

Dr. Andre Raine: What we've seen over those years is a massive increase in reproductive success rates for the birds. So after the very first Hawaiian Petrel I ever saw, which was in Upper Limahuli Preserve, was a Hawaiian Petrel chick that had been dragged out of his burrow and killed by a rat. And the second Hawaiian Petrel that I saw was exactly the same thing. So those first birds I saw really drummed home to me to the problem of predators and rats.

Dr. Andre Raine: And now we're seeing these birds fledging and the reproductive success rates have gone way up. And we also measure the health of the colony through acoustic units — acoustic measures that have call-rate estimates. And for both Newell's and Hawaiian Petrels, the call rates have increased pretty much every year. So it really does show that if you control these sorts of hordes of predators that are invading the landscape and knock them back to as close to zero as you can get, then you're going to see an immediate response with the birds because they're not being eaten and they're fledging.  They're heading out to sea and then four or five years later, they come back and are raising their own chicks.

Newell's Stearwater

GN: To piggyback off that, conversely what would happen if these birds were just left to fend for themselves? If none of these efforts were taking place, would the birds stand a chance?

Dr. Andre Raine: Yeah. Well, I sometimes get that. Sometimes people would be like, "Why... They're up in the mountains, they're in remote areas, you can just leave them to their own device and they'll be fine." And we know for a fact that's not the case. There are several colonies now, which we've observed from afar because we can't be everywhere and all of these projects require funding. And so there are certain colonies, there's one called Makaleha there's one called North Fork Wailua, Koluahonu, Kalaheo. All these colonies where there has been no management and no one's been in the colonies. And what we've seen is just a gradual dwindling as they slowly start to disappear. They're being eaten by the predators, they're hitting the power lines, those birds that manage to fledge are being brought down by lights.

Dr. Andre Raine: It's an unpleasant natural experiment because you can see the areas where you're doing the management. The birds are increasing and they're standing a fighting chance, and it's an unpleasant natural experiment in that the colonies where work's being done — you're seeing these birds fledging and the numbers increasing. And then the colonies where no work is being done that we're observing from afar, they're just dwindling out and disappearing. So it really does speak to the importance of management.

Dr. Andre Raine: The birds, unfortunately, can't be left to fend for themselves. Because humans are responsible for bringing all these threats into their environment, and so therefore you need to work really hard to remove those threats because they haven't evolved to deal with mammalian predators. It's not something that they know how to deal with and they're nesting in little holes in the ground. So they're super vulnerable. And if you don't do anything, then these colonies are slowly but surely going to disappear.

GN: So what does the future look like? Is your team expanding your efforts? Do you have any new protection methods or new threats that these birds face and is there hope for the future?

Dr. Andre Raine: That's the question I ask myself a lot, but I feel like you can't be in this business if you don't have hope. I think we're actually in a good position now because we know what the threats are. We know that the birds hit power lines, we know that the birds get attracted by lights, we know that they get eaten by all these predators, but we also know how to deal with it. So with power lines, we've developed laser fences to guide birds over the power lines. We've found then removing the top line on these power lines will massively reduce the birds that hit them. Putting bird diverters on the lines.  Make them more visible so the birds can avoid them.

Dr. Andre Raine: We know how to deal with that, with lights, we know when the birds are fledging and what the wrong lights are. So how to turn lights off during the fledging season. Then with predators, we know how to deal with them. We know how to deal with cats, we know how to deal with rats, like I said, Goodnature is a really important tool there because it's an automatic rat trap that just keeps on going when you leave out there, which is much better than having to go and check traps every week.

GN: Absolutely.

Dr. Andre Raine: So we have all these tools available to us, and lastly, we know where the birds are — we know where the remaining pockets are. So I feel hopeful. It's just that it requires funding. Without funding, these things just don't happen. You're basically in a situation where you do have to continue doing this into the future because the threats aren't going to stop and so therefore you need to keep on going.

Dr. Andre Raine: Our main aim now is to apply all these management types of techniques that we know work, work with our great partners, the various land managers that we work with and the various predator control organizations like Hallux for example. Just working with all these different organizations to impart our knowledge and help guide management actions and then look at new areas where we know birds are — where they're currently not protected and think about, "Okay, how can we find funding to protect those birds.  How would we work within these new environments to do predator control and protect birds?"

GN: Excellent. Yeah, that's super important for people to know. So how can people help? What are some sites they can visit? What are some social media profiles that you can plug, in order to have people help your team out?

Dr. Andre Raine: Yeah, we have our own website. So you just go on Google and search for Kauai Endangered Seabird Recovery Project, and that's got loads of information about our project, who we are, about the birds themselves and about seabirds on Kauai in general. And then we do have a Facebook page — it's the same. Kauai Endangered Seabird Recovery Project and we try to keep that updated with news from the field. We have a lot of cameras on the field so people can get to see what the birds look like because it's often hard to relate to a bird that you've never seen before, especially one that comes in at night in the mountains that you're unlikely to see unless you're during the day out at sea. Seeing these birds in action on the cameras and hearing them just makes that connection stronger. So we have that Facebook page and website, and we encourage people to go check it out and see everything that we're doing and everything I've just talked about.

GN: Well, we really appreciate you taking some time. We know you have a busy schedule, so we really appreciate you letting us know some of the stories and some of the challenges that these birds are facing. And we'd love to have you back to do it again, so we appreciate it.

Dr. Andre Raine: Yeah, thanks Ty. And I appreciate your guys' interest in our project and the birds and the issues that we face and solutions we’ve found. And I’d also like to thank Goodnature for all the support you guys give us.

GN: Well, thank you. We will catch up soon.

Dr. Andre Raine: All right. Thanks.

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