Staying Alive

Staying Alive

Joan Conrow
Published: 05/19/2008


A wedgetail shearwater fledgling prepares for its first flight. [Photo: Hob Osterlund]
I was walking along a north Kauai coastline the other day when I paused to peer into a wedgetail shearwater’s burrow, prompting a friend to admonish: “Look, we woke it up. It was sleeping.”

I felt a twinge of guilt, knowing that nesting seabirds need to conserve their energy as they wait for their mate to return from feeding on squid, primarily, and relieve them from egg-sitting duty. Still, I was more concerned about their vulnerability on this exposed cliff side overlooking the Pacific, where they had little protection from the tropical sun and none from roaming dogs. After all, these birds evolved with no land predators. Only recently, dogs killed a number of wedgies on Oahu. It made front-page news in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, serving as a warning to dog owners to keep their pets confined.

A few years back, a similar scene of carnage happened at this Kauai colony, which is unique because it also houses threatened Newell’s shearwaters. Wildlife managers introduced Newell’s here more than two decades ago to see if these normally interior-nesting birds could also thrive along the sea — a hedge against ongoing disruptions in their preferred habitat. When the big kill occurred, it wasn’t certain if this colony would survive. Both Newell’s and wedgies lay just a single egg each year, and tend the chick for months, so the loss of even one adult is a serious setback. But judging from the number of active burrows on the slope the day I passed by, and the strong, musky scent characteristic of seabirds that hung heavily in the air, it seemed they’d managed to recover. And come September, if they all stay safe, the fledglings will leave their burrows, test their wings and embark on a life spent mostly at sea.