On the first day of my jungle slog in Kauai with seabird biologist Andre Raine, I’m forced to devise a mental glossary to interpret and survive the man’s understated trail assessments. When he announces, “This next section is a bit slippery!” what he really means is “The already terrifyingly steep descent trail has become a vertical mud wall.” His refrain “This part has some tricky bits” translates to “Only advanced spider-monkey Jujitsu will prevent a 3,600-foot plunge to certain death.” And the repeated phrase “It’s a brief trundle away” more accurately means “It’s a godforsaken marathon involving unrelenting pain. You will cry.”
Earlier that June morning a helicopter had deposited us atop a towering and frighteningly skinny forested ridgeline. It was an emerald knife slicing the sky, one of hundreds crisscrossing Hono O Nā Pali Natural Area Reserve in Kauai’s remote northwest, alongside sweeping river valleys and dramatic waterfalls. Raine heads the Kauai Endangered Seabird Recovery Project, and two of his target species, the Newell’s Shearwater and the Hawaiian Petrel, have the unfortunate (for us) habit of nesting in the sheer cliff faces and ridge tops of this inaccessible fairyscape. In no way had this place evolved for human locomotion. And yet there we were, Raine, photographer Tom Fowlks, and I in our spiked boots, waving goodbye to a helicopter that might or might not return for us in three days. It all depended on the skies, which, as the chopper disappeared, began dumping nonstop rain.
True to his surname, Raine has no use for wet-weather gear. “I’ve been up here hundreds of times, and it hasn’t rained maybe twice,” he says as we troop off into the bush. His philosophy: Raingear ultimately fails. Don’t put off the inevitable.
In seconds we were soaked.
Our mission was to locate the 78 underground Newell’s Shearwater and Hawaiian Petrel burrows that Raine had previously documented in this part of the reserve, an area called Pohakea. At each burrow we would look for the presence of an adult, an egg, and signs of predator intrusion. We would gather video from motion-activated cameras, and we would inspect song meters tactically positioned to record birdcalls. Without these checks, which Raine performs religiously each week from May through December, these two endangered species would move closer to extinction. Burrow monitoring provides scientists with what little they know about these mysterious birds; both species spend most of their lives patrolling the open ocean unseen, and when they are inland to nest, they move about only at night. Burrow numbers reflect population numbers, and burrow activity reveals information about behavior and health.
The other reason for monitoring is this: The birds have evolved no defenses against the armies of invasive predators occupying these peaks—rats, cats, pigs, and Barn Owls. (The owls were introduced to deal with the rats, and only made things worse.) Monitoring yields intelligence. Intelligence enables scientists to strike back strategically.
Our first day calls for hiking from the landing zone down a precipitous drainage and then up the other side, to a batch of burrows atop the next ridge. Raine is tall and slender, with long, spindly limbs that make his movement through the bush appear fluid and effortless. Fowlks and I trudge; Raine glides.
“This section is a bit steep!”
Fowlks and I tumble headlong down the drainage, lurching, tripping, sliding, and flailing. There are occasional synthetic straps tied to trees—webbing, Raine calls it—that we use to rappel down backward. But more often than not, we grab frantically at ferns, roots, vines, anything halfway attached to the mountain. Mostly, it’s one continuous ass-slide, the forest flying by in a green, mud-splattered blur, branches slapping our faces, except when the ground crumbles away altogether, and we find ourselves in waist-deep holes. The bottom of the drainage, when it finally comes, is a primeval wonder—a series of gurgling pools and gentle cascades, everything laced with ferns and shrouded in mist. We stop for a brief lunch in the steady drizzle before Raine has us ascending the other side.
“It’s just a brief trundle away!”
When I finally reach the top of the ridge I find Raine sprawled on his side, his arm extended inside a hole beneath an ohia tree. A Hawaiian Petrel had excavated its burrow in the moss-covered space between the tree’s exposed roots. Raine snaps a shot with his camera, withdraws his arm, and shows me the image, a little black-and-white face staring up from the earthy darkness. He taps some data into his iPad, and then we’re off again. At one point, Raine warns that an upcoming burrow “is a bit sketchy,” and he disappears around a bend. I next catch sight of him dangling by one hand from some webbing, his other hand clutching the iPad, his feet pressed against a steep slope, and his gaze locked onto a burrow opening. Behind him the Hanakapı’ai Valley opens up in breathtaking fashion, with the ruggedly famous Na Pali Coast in the distance. Beneath him is mostly air.
It’s a jaw-dropping tableau of a scientist at work. Raine has trained a team of equally dedicated, battle-hardened assistants, who at that very moment were doing the same thing in other corners of Hono O Nā Pali, hanging from cliffs in the rain. “There’s a small group of fanatics that like this sort of thing, running around in the fog, in the rain, on mountain tops, at night,” says conservation biologist David Duffy, director of the Pacific Cooperative Studies Unit at the University of Hawaii, and Raine’s boss. “If they don’t have a bit of fanaticism, they don’t last long.”
Saving species on the brink often requires extraordinary measures, but everything about the Newell’s Shearwater and the Hawaiian Petrel—their enigmatic life cycles, their inaccessible homes, their many invasive enemies—demands something closer to Seal Team Six-level assistance. That’s what Raine provides.
The chances of spying either of these birds in the field, given their nocturnal habits, is practically nil. So two days before venturing into the wilderness, Raine invites me to his office to examine some stuffed specimens. At first blush the two species look similar—dark backs and heads with white undersides, each with long, cylindrical nostrils that are the signature of taxonomic order Procellariiformes, or “tubenoses.” But the petrel has a generally sleeker shape, and Raine explains that it fixes its wings and soars in smooth, graceful arcs. The more cigar-shaped Newell’s is a comparative goofball. “It doesn’t soar at all,” Raine says. “It flaps frantically like it might crash at any moment.” We listen to recordings of their respective calls, and, fittingly, the Newell’s sounds like a braying donkey, whereas the petrel makes a more dignified oo-ay-oo. Raine explains that when hunting at sea, the Newell’s plunges right in, diving to depths of up to 150 feet to grab prey, while the petrel waits for tuna and dolphins to drive smaller fish to the surface.
Still, in terms of their life cycles and general circumstances, these species seem substantially more alike than different. Both spend their initial years entirely at sea, returning to land at age four or five to find a lifelong mate, dig a burrow, and produce a single egg. For several months the male and female alternate incubating the egg and venturing off on epic foraging trips for fish and squid, sometimes traveling thousands of miles. The chick hatches during summer, and by late fall it’s ready for its maiden flight. Thousands of feet up, at night, it scoots to the edge of its burrow, hurls itself into the void, and bolts for the sea, where it remains until breeding age. From December to April the adults also stay at sea, but they’ll return to the same burrow each spring to breed for the rest of their lives.
Hawaiian lore holds that Newell’s Shearwaters once “darkened the skies,” and fossils reveal that Hawaiian Petrels once bred in sizable colonies on seven of the state’s eight main islands. None of that is true today. Sea surveys from the 1990s estimated the Newell’s population at 20,000 breeding pairs and the Hawaiian Petrel population at 4,500 pairs, but a recent study by Raine using radar data concluded that both populations have since crashed, the former by 94 percent, the latter by 78 percent. Today, nearly all of what’s left of the Newell’s population breeds in the mountains of Kauai. Hawaiian Petrels breed in small pockets on just five of the main islands.
To explain why populations are plummeting, Raine takes me to the Kauai Humane Society. There we meet two seabird patients—one petrel, one Newell’s—being treated for recent collisions with power lines. Power lines are the biggest killer of seabirds on Kauai. The second is artificial light. Streetlights and stadium lights confuse fledglings on their maiden flight, causing them to circle wildly and plunge to the ground in exhaustion. If the fall doesn’t kill them, dogs, feral cats, or speeding cars will. From 1979 to 2015, Kauai’s Save Our Shearwaters (SOS) program, which encourages citizens to deliver fallen birds to rehab sites, collected 30,522 Newell’s fledglings. In 2010, the U.S. Department of Justice and a coalition of environmental groups began suing various entities on Kauai under the Endangered Species Act for killing seabirds. One result was that the local utility company—Kauai Island Utility Cooperative—began ponying up millions for conservation, including much of Raine’s funding.
At the Humane Society, Tracy Anderson, the coordinator of the SOS program, is holding a Newell’s wrapped in a towel. The weary little guy pokes his head out. His eyes are a mess, one clouded over, the other already blind. “He’s not improving,” she tells us. Soon she will have to euthanize him. The petrel, on the other hand, has staged a fairly miraculous recovery—so much so that Anderson and Raine decide that it can be fitted with a satellite tag and released. We repair to a lab, and while Anderson holds the wiggling petrel steady in a towel, Raine uses forceps and blue suture thread to stitch a $3,500 transmitter (courtesy of the utility) to its back. The indignant bird bites Anderson repeatedly through the towel with its powerful bill, and she curses back at it. When the procedure concludes, she’s got bruises up and down her forearm, the petrel has an eight-inch antenna jutting from its back, and everyone’s feeling feisty.
The movements of Hawaiian Petrels and Newell’s Shearwaters at sea remain cryptic to scientists, and so, like burrow monitoring, satellite tagging provides crucial basic information. Where are their key feeding grounds? What are the potential threats? Charting the birds’ dispersal with sat tags, geolocators, and data loggers will play an important role in conservation planning. Over four years, Raine and Anderson have attached a total of 48 sat tags to both species, and they’ve tracked birds as far north as Alaska and as far west as Guam.
To release our bird, we drive to Makahuena Point, the southernmost tip of Kauai, and walk out across the black volcanic cliffs. Huge waves crash 30 feet beneath us. It’s windy. If the release succeeds, Raine will be able to track the petrel’s flight on his phone for about 120 days, until the tag falls off. Anderson places the bird on a rock. It wobbles briefly like a drunken frat boy, and then, with a huge gust of wind, WHOOSH, it shoots out over the gray-blue ocean and heads south. Then it disappears over the horizon.
I wake on the second day of our mountain trek inside a wood-floored canvas shelter, a gloriously dry weatherport, staring at a hand-drawn picture of a cat hanging on the wall. The cat is grinning and extending an aggressive middle finger to anyone who would dare try to catch it. This is the feline that in 2014 and 2015 wiped out virtually every Newell’s adult and chick in half a dozen burrows in a corner of Pōhākea called Twin Pu’u, the area where we are headed today. Raine’s team was unable to nab the assassin, and it finally disappeared. The drawing serves as a reminder that as perilous as the birds have it down in Kauai’s populated areas, amid the power lines and bright lights, up here in the mountains, their presumed refuge, they are under relentless siege. Two weeks ago Raine’s team found the bodies of four birds, one slaughtered by a cat, three by non-native Barn Owls.
Invasive predators have overrun every inch of Hawaii, even its loftiest peaks. “Each one has a particular kill signature,” Raine says, as we troop along a ridgeline. Cats chomp off the back of a bird’s head, rip the meat out in chunks, and leave feathers and limbs strewn about. Barn Owls methodically strip the flesh off the neck and breast. Rats eat only chicks, chewing off their heads, and eggs. And pigs simply lay waste to everything—the burrow, the bird, the egg, total devastation.
All of this amounts to a hot ecological mess that Raine seems uniquely suited to address. Raised by English parents in Bermuda, he worked summers for the ornithologist David Wingate, who famously saved the Bermuda Petrel from extinction. One of Raine’s uncles wrote and illustrated A Guide to the Birds of Bermuda, while another spent a notable career saving sea turtles and shore- and seabirds along the Texas coast. After earning degrees in Canada and England, Raine led a series of difficult conservation projects in remote locations, including Kafue National Park in Zambia and the Peruvian Amazon.
But the four years he spent in Malta perhaps best illustrate Raine’s gritty determination. Malta is a flyway for approximately 170 species between Europe and Africa, and hunters indiscriminately blast anything, protected or not. “They’ve got these powerful hunting organizations, and guys drive around with bumper stickers that say, ‘If it flies it dies—bats, swallows, dragonflies,’ ” Raine says. His team entered “no-go” zones in public reserves dominated by hunters and filmed evidence later used to prosecute them. “Andre was all-in for the fight,” says Nicholas Barbara, conservation manager for BirdLife Malta. “He was inspiring.” But success came at a cost. Raine was threatened repeatedly, and his colleagues had cars and farms firebombed. He took the Kauai seabird job in 2011 in part because, compared with the confrontations in Malta, it was a walk in the park.
We’re trudging along a ridgeline when Raine abruptly freezes. “This is a total kill zone,” he mutters. He points directly ahead of us. The next 30-some feet of trail are lined with booby traps. Had Fowlks or I barreled on, we could have ended up in a circular wire snare suspended above the trail, a device designed to capture pigs. Two different kinds of traps for cats sit farther along. Finally, attached to a wooden stake, there’s a Goodnature rat trap—a CO2-fired, tube-like contraption with scented bait. The traps had been set not by Raine but by his allies, the predator control team of Hawaii’s Natural Area Reserve System. Following Raine’s lead, Fowlks and I shimmy carefully over and around each.
Raine assigns me to rat patrol, and I spend the day testing traps, changing baits, and sweeping rat carcasses off ridges. At one point he tells me, “I’m optimistic. We know more about predator control now. We’re getting better at it. As long as we’ve got funding, we can turn this thing around.” In Pohakea, cats killed 12 birds in 2014, but just one in 2016. Pigs killed five birds in 2013 and none three years later. In 2013 rats destroyed eggs or chicks in 4.2 percent of the monitored burrows; that figure fell to 2.5 percent in 2016. The steady improvement reflects better technology (they started using Goodnature rat traps in 2014), along with increased savvy with regard to where to place all of the various kinds of traps they use. In 2017, for the first time ever, no birds in Pōhākea were taken by predators. There are similar traps at the other seven sites the team monitors, and they’ve seen declines in predation across the board.
Still, waves of predators keep coming. From our sky-high perch at one burrow, we can see Hanakāpīʻai Beach in the distance. A year earlier I had hiked to that beach and nearby Hanakāpīʻai Falls. In both places I saw feral cats lurking about and tourists happily feeding them. An estimated half million feral cats prowl Hawaii, many of them aided by people. But the Hanakāpīʻai cats specifically concern Raine. “That’s an especially damaging colony,” he says. “From there they come up into the mountains.”
By late afternoon, as we’re working our way back to the weatherport, and I sense that I’ve reached my daily limit of slipping, falling, burning, bashing, and cramping, I remind myself that things could be worse. Sometimes just initially locating burrows can be like something out of Apocalypse Now. For example, in 2015, acting on a hunch, Raine packed a song meter inside a sturdy, bright orange case and chucked it out of a helicopter in another corner of Pōhākea. A month later, dangling out of the helicopter, he fished the case from the forest with a rope and grappling hook. After the device acoustically verified that the place was lousy with petrels, the helicopter inserted Raine and two colleagues into the jungle, where they split up. At the time there was no weatherport. There were no trails. For four rainy days by himself, Raine scoured the ridges and valleys on foot and ultimately found 58 burrows. “It was like the lost city of petrels,” he says.
That evening, Raine and I don night-vision goggles and sit on a ridge near the weatherport. Typically, his team would wear these to conduct surveys in the wee hours, noting where birds are flying and calling, and then use that data to find new burrows during daylight hours. But tonight we’re simply enjoying some grainy green entertainment. I see a bird approaching, then hear a “swoosh.” “Petrel,” Raine says. “The wings are longer, and he’s not flapping, he’s soaring.” We watch petrels chase each other, swishing, circling, darting all over. It’s courting behavior. We never see a Newell’s, but we do hear their distinctive barnyard call. Later, I doze off to the peculiar sound of jackasses singing in the jungle.
On the final morning of our mission, Raine pulls out his phone and shows me a red squiggly line extending from Kauai to French Frigate Shoals in the northwestern Hawaiian Islands. It’s our little friend, the petrel we saved and tagged three days earlier, sending us satellite data. He’s already flown 450 miles. He’s free as the wind and doing his thing. This clearly pleases Raine. It’s the reason he does this work.
Still, as we spend our last hours bushwhacking and burrow hopping, Raine concedes that the future for these birds remains precarious, despite his best efforts. Along with all the maneuvers up here in the mountains, his team is experimenting with lasers to provide a visual barrier in front of power lines in town. They’re placing song meters all over Kauai to record the distinctive TWANG that results when a bird strikes a power line, in order to identify the island’s most lethal areas. They’re relocating Newell’s and petrel fledglings down to Kilauea Point on the coast, in hopes of establishing a lowland colony. “We don’t know what will work, but we have to try everything,” he says. “There are no silver bullets with these birds.”
Even though the helicopter will be here soon, Raine wants to check a few more burrows. They’re just a trundle away, he insists. But I can’t feel my legs, and Fowlks clearly needs traction. “Right,” says Raine. “You guys stay here, rest up, I’ll be back in a few.” Then he spiders off down the slope and disappears into the bush.
This story originally ran in the Summer 2018 issue as “The Secret Lives of Seabirds.” To receive our print magazine, become a member by making a donation today.