Hawaii Volcanoes National Park has been graced with the sight of a rare juvenile bird that has never been documented at the reserve.
In September, a McNab herdsman named Slater, a member of the Hawaii Detector Dogs, dogs trained to track down invasive species as well as endangered species on the islands, led biologists to the nest of an endangered akeake, or band-rumped petrel.
The “cryptic species” has eluded sighting since populations have declined significantly, Sierra McDaniel, the program manager for Hawaii Volcanoes National Park’s Department of Natural Resources, told ABC News.
Slater, who was actually on a mission to locate the Hawaiian Petrel, another endangered seabird, was able to pick up the scent of another rare species of seabird. In the nest, which was buried underground in a lava tube atop Mauna Loa, the world’s largest volcano, a chick emerged in late October and flew toward the sea about a month later, the park said.
Before human evolution, the bird had a “wide” nesting range on the Big Island, McDaniel said. But by the 1980s and 1990s much of its habitat had been wiped out, and the birds served as food for predators including cats, non-native barn owls and mongooses.
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is equipped with what park officials consider “the largest cat-proof fence” in the country, which could help allow such rare bird species to thrive on its protected land, McDaniel said. The fence contains coated chicken wire with a slack top so if cats crawl up the side, they can’t crawl all the way over the fence, locking up about 644 acres of “cat-free” land, McDaniel said.
The “stubborn” cats on the island are quite determined and have been known to travel as far as 10 miles to sip the chicks – and even the parents – of this endangered species, she added.
“Even at really high altitudes, 8,000, 9,000 feet in the middle of these lava fields, the cats would still travel and eat the seabirds,” McDaniel said.
The news comes as the park celebrates the simultaneous eruptions of two of the world’s most famous volcanoes: Mauna Loa — which hasn’t erupted since 1984 — and Kilauea, one of the world’s most active volcanoes.
While the akeake is found throughout the Pacific Ocean basin, the distinct population segment in Hawaii is relatively small, McDaniel said. There are an estimated 150,000 individuals worldwide, with around 240 pairs known in Hawaii.
The birds are pelagic, meaning they spend most of their lives at sea. But they return to land to nest, and they have “really high site fidelity,” meaning they tend to gravitate towards the regions where they were born, McDaniel said.
Their calls can be heard across the island, but biologists rarely see them, McDaniel said.
“Biologists at the park have known of the presence of Akeake on Mauna Loa since the 1990s,” said Forbes Perry, a biologist at the University of Hawaii, in a statement. In 2019, calls were recorded in the Akeake burrow during acoustic monitoring, indicating nesting, she said.
“It’s such a big deal that we can now work with these dogs that can really help us identify where these birds are nesting so we can protect them at this extremely vulnerable time,” she said.
Specially trained to spot Hawaiian seabirds, Slater found Akeake’s nest in just two days, Perry said.
When Slater spots a nest, he leads his handler toward it or lays beside it to indicate something important is buried underneath, McDaniel said.
Slater was described as “a really good boy” by Jessica Ferracane, public affairs specialist at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.
Park officials had to work closely with the US Department of Fish and Wildlife to get permission to use his services, McDaniel said.