Carolyn Stephens is an endangered species management specialist for the Research Corporation of the University of Hawaii Pacific Cooperative Studies Unit.
Monday, 28 Oct 2002
As I step out of the government vehicle to start my day, a brisk wind hits me in the face. Armed with a plastic one-gallon milk container filled with dry dog food soaked in oil, I start my hike. Although the mention of Hawaii generally invokes thoughts of black-sand beaches and sunshine, I work 9,500 feet in the air, on a mountaintop that has frost on the ground most winter mornings and can still be chilly even in the middle of summer.
This morning, though, it’s not too bad. My thermal keeps me warm enough, although the chill gets through every once in a while. I keep the hand that isn’t carrying the bait in my pocket to keep it warm, and walk down an unmarked trail through lava rock, cinder, and native bushes to trap number one.
My job is not a glamorous one, even as environmental jobs go, but it is extremely rewarding and very important — at least to two imperiled ground-nesting birds. I do predator control to protect the Uau (Hawaiian dark-rumped petrel) and Nene (Hawaiian goose), two endangered birds preyed on by mongooses, rats, and feral cats. The birds’ main line of defense is a network of havahart traps that surround the entire perimeter of the national park. For the predators that sneak through the perimeter traps, we’ve set other traps throughout the habitat of both the Nene and Uau.
With about 400 traps in the frontcountry along eight different traplines and about 125 traps along four different traplines in the backcountry — all of which need to be checked and rebaited at least once a week — my crew and I are never at a loss for things to do. In addition to the traplines, we also have a number of rodenticide bait stations that we check monthly and wasp traps we bait weekly to monitor the number of alien wasps. Once the predator control is done for the week, we have a chance to do some of the more fun work, such as monitoring known Uau burrows and searching for new ones. We also record the bands of Nene when we see them.
Now don’t get me wrong, I love all aspects of my job, even the predator control. Although at times I get covered in vegetable oil or have wet cat and dog food flung on my face, I get to hike outside in one of the most beautiful spots on Earth and know that I am making a difference to two endangered birds. So as I rebait and check trap number one, a smile comes to my face. From trap one, I work my way down the mountainside, slowing descending the six miles back to the office, which is at 6,700 feet.
During the first half of the day, which is about how long it takes me to finish the trapline, the weather changes many times. The clouds and mist roll in and out as I descend into gulches and then climb the muddy banks back out. As I near the end of the trapline, I approach a trap that is triggered. A mongoose is caught inside and hisses with an open jaw and snapping teeth. I pick up the trap and carry it along the rest of the trapline and then back to the office.
Once I reach the office, the mongoose is humanely put down and then a necropsy is done to see what it had been eating. Luckily, there are no signs that this one consumed any birds, but all too often we find eggshell, feathers, or bird bones in the digestive tracks. By this time, it is well past lunch, so I take a break to eat and then begin transferring data from my field notebook into the database. The rest of my day is filled with office tasks — not quite as nice as being out on the mountaintops of Hawaii, but still an important part of the work I do.
Tuesday, 29 Oct 2002
Today is Stairmaster day. For all of you out there who have ever worked out on a Stairmaster, imagine doing so for eight hours. That should give you an idea of what I do when I check Uau burrows. The Uau is an endangered seabird that spends its day out over the ocean feeding and then flies up to the top of Haleakala each night. Using its wings and feet, this bird burrows six or more feet into the lava rock and cinder to build its home.
Before seeing one of these birds myself, I always imagined them to be very agile, since they can dig so well. As it turns out, they are anything but, at least on the ground. Once they have landed, they flounder around on the cinder and rocks; you could never call them graceful. They also need wind to take off again, which is one of the reasons the slopes of Haleakala Crater is such a great nesting place for them. The crater rim usually has at least a small breeze blowing across it and sometimes the winds can reach up to 60 mph or more. Not the best time to be out checking burrows — even in 35 mph winds, I’ve thought I was going to get blown off.
Luckily that’s not a concern today. There is slight breeze and the sun is out, and I’m setting out on our bimonthly burrow checks. There are about 1,000 known burrows throughout the crater, which we mentally separate into eight colonies along the rim, three colonies on the floor, and a handful of miscellaneous burrows here and there. Given the size of the crater, it would take a whole month to check every single burrow. Instead, before each petrel season starts in February, we go through the database of all the burrows in each colony and randomly select a certain number to check.
These randomly selected burrows are called project burrows, and we check them every month. Toward the end of the season, in September, we go through the data from the current breeding season to see which burrows have been active. The ones that are active and have signs of a chick are checked every two weeks — thus, the bimonthly checks.
Today, we are starting with one of the smaller colonies, which has 10 burrows that need to be checked. Because of its small size, it will be one of the easier ones to check, but we still have to hike downhill and sideways and back uphill multiple times — all on loose rocks and cinder, mind you. Walking on cinder is like walking uphill on sand — one step up and a two-step slide back down. Even splitting up the burrows with the volunteer who’s helping me, it still takes us an hour or so to check them all.
Once we get to a burrow, we play detective. We look at the burrow to see if it has been entered — which means looking to see if the toothpicks we placed there are down. If all the toothpicks are still up, we move on to the next one. If the toothpicks are down, the fun begins. We lay down on the cinder and rocks (not always comfortable, I might add), shove our heads into a tiny hole, and use a flashlight to look inside and as far down the burrow as possible. We are looking for shells or shell fragments, down, feathers, droppings, diggings, bones, vegetation, tracks, or odor — anything that will tell us something about the burrow’s inhabitants.
After checking those 10 burrows, we make our way along the crater rim to the next colony. When we’re finished with the second one, we still have time for a third, but at the end of that one, it’s quitting time. We head back to the office and transfer the days’ data and go home. Three colonies isn’t bad for a day’s work.
Wednesday, 30 Oct 2002
I will spend all of today checking and rebaiting 27 traps. Why so long to check only 27 traps? Well, Haleakala Crater has two gaps in it, one on either side. The trapline I’m checking today goes across one of these gaps, which means I have to hike down three miles of switchbacks just to get to the beginning of the line — and then, after crossing the gap and checking all the traps, I have to turn around and come back.
The bait of choice today is wet cat food. To avoid carrying heavy tin cans on a long hike, I empty the contents of five 5.5-oz cans into a plastic bag. Before placing this bag into my daypack, I stick it in another bag. A word to the wise: Never put bait in your pack unless it is double bagged. You don’t want to open your pack to find smelly bait everywhere. This has happened to a coworker or two. One noteworthy event involved frozen squid that had been placed in a Tupperware container but not bagged. Needless to say, as the day heated up and the squid started to defrost, juices leaked out and contaminated the rest of the contents of the pack. For those of you who don’t eat or deal with squid, it has a very potent fishy smell that does not go away easily, even after thorough cleaning. My coworker had a friendly reminder to double bag for quite some time.
After making sure both plastic bags are completely sealed, I mentally go through my checklist: bait, spoon, field notebook, lunch, water, sunscreen, hat, and, most important, raingear. It’s a misty day today, and I don’t want to get caught in rain midway through my hike and come back looking like something the cat dragged in. From the office, it’s a 15-minute drive to the starting point of the hike. As I get out of the car, the resident Nene approaches me. Unfortunately, this bird has been fed by many visitors and has come to associate vehicles with food. This makes our job harder, because it’s tough to protect a bird that heads straight for a moving vehicle. Just this year a bird was killed by a car — not the first to die this way, sadly.
After trying to dissuade the Nene from approaching me or the car, I begin my hike downhill. Down is always easier, and before I know it, I reach the bottom and start heading across the gap. The weather has been fairly agreeable to this point — sunny, but with some high clouds so that it’s not too hot. As I start to hike across the gap, though, the clouds roll in and mist settles all around me. At this point, I wish it would either clear up or just pour buckets. When it’s in-between like this, it’s too hot to wear raingear, but without it, you get soaked from the mist. I decide to put on my jacket but leave the rain pants off. Just as soon as I do this, it clears up, but I know that if I take it back off again, it will start all over again, so I resign myself to being a little hot from the extra layer, at least for now. Today the trapline is uneventful with no catches, so after lunch, I turn around and start my trek back.
When I get back to the bottom of the switchbacks, the fun begins. They’re not really that bad, but today I am feeling a bit sluggish and I know it will be a mental challenge to get back up. I start out trying not to think about where I am, hoping instead to get lost in thought as I did on the way down. Of course, this doesn’t happen, and I find myself constantly calculating how far I’ve come and how far I have left to go: first, the series of short switchbacks, then the backside of the ridge, then two switchbacks on the front, then back over to the other side of the ridge for the second time.
Finally, I get to the “switchback from hell,” as a coworker calls it. This one seems to go on forever, but I like it because once I reach it, I know that I am almost to the top. It puts me onto the backside of the ridge for the third and last time. At the top of the switchbacks I cross Rainbow Bridge, a narrow land bridge, and climb a series of smaller switchback until I reach a gate. Beyond is the home stretch. From the gate, it’s only about 15 or 20 minutes back to the parking lot. Before I know it, I am back in the office to transfer the days’ data and head home.
Thursday, 31 Oct 2002
I’m a little slow getting started this morning, but it seems like my coworkers and I are on the same page, because they are sluggish as well. We have a short meeting to figure out the schedule for the rest of the week, and then a colleague and I head out to do petrels today. Luckily, we are only going up for a few hours. I don’t think I could handle a whole day of Stairmastering again.
I grab the gear I’ll need this morning and head out. The plan is for me to check in with my coworker via radio, then return to the vehicle after I finish checking one colony. By the time I get to the vehicle, she should have made her way down to the park road for me to pick her up. As I head down the crater rim looking at my petrel map, I figure out the path I will take and try to guess how long it will take me to finish. I guess that I should be done around 12:30 or so — at least, I hope I’ll be done by then, because I didn’t bring my lunch with me and we ate my snacks on the drive up.
This colony is bigger than the one I worked in on Tuesday. It’s directly beneath the visitor center, so when you start hiking back up from the crater floor, you have visitors staring down at you as you huff and puff your way to the top. And right when you get there — or even sometimes while you’re still climbing — they yell down, “Whatcha doing?” If you haven’t tried explaining endangered species conservation while working out on the Stairmaster, it’s not the easiest thing to do.
But luckily, I don’t have to go all the way down to the crater floor like I did on Tuesday; I just have to go about halfway down. And today’s hike rewards me: One of the burrows obviously has a chick in it. It reeks like fish (squid in particular, which is their food of choice) and gray chick down covers the entrance. This is both great and a drag at the same time. It’s great because there is a chick inside. These birds only lay one egg per breeding season; if that egg doesn’t make it, the parent birds do not re-nest. It’s a drag because we clear all the signs after we check the burrow, which means that I have to clear all of the chick down. This can take half an hour or more. Down gets everywhere — and just when you think you have cleared it all, you blow in the entrance and you see more waving back and forth at you.
Happily, all of the down at this burrow is clumped at the entrance on the grass and it doesn’t take too long to clear it up. When I look in the entrance to see if there is anymore, I see a large clump of down — but this one is moving up and down. It’s a chick! The chick is behind some rocks, but just about a foot or two inside the entrance. I see its body move up and down as it breaths, an amazing sight. It took me three years before I saw an Uau in its burrow; it’s very rare to see them there during the day. This definitely makes the hike back up to the top worth it.
On my way back up, I check a few more burrows and then radio my coworker to find out where she is and pick her up. We head back down to the office in the early afternoon for lunch, and then I spend the rest of the day entering Uau data into the computer.
Friday, 1 Nov 2002
Party time. Our SCA is leaving tonight, so this is her last day on the job. She will be going back to school to finish up her undergraduate degree. To show her our thanks, we are having a little party for her this morning with muffins and pastries before we go out for the day’s work.
SCAs are great. That’s how I started out. SCA stands for Student Conservation Association. Working through the organization is a wonderful way for people to get experience in environmental jobs and see if environmental work is what they really want to do. My SCA position brought me to Maui with the same project that I am working for now. After my four-month stint as a resource assistant with SCA, I fell in love with Maui and my job — and decided I was going to figure out a way to stay. I ended up working for another endangered species project for a year before a full-time position opened up at Haleakala; when one did, I grabbed it. After we thank our current SCA for the past 16 weeks of hard work she has done for us, it is time to get back to work.
Our next SCA began on the job last week and is still learning the traplines. Today, I will be taking her out on the trapline that starts at about 9,500 feet and goes along the park fence line back to the office at 6,700 feet. We get dropped off and slide down the cinder, checking four traps before we get to the fence line. Once we reach the fence line, we follow it down the rocky slope checking not only traps, but also the fence line to make sure there aren’t any holes or spots where goats or pigs could get through. It’s nice introducing the trapline to someone new. I pick up the traps, and our volunteer puts the bait in them. We make our way down to Trap 33 and then the fence turns, heading toward the office. We follow along it. We come to a trap that has a mongoose in it, but this one is already dead and has begun to decay. Unfortunately, it is past the point for us to get any information from it except the sex and whether or not it was an adult. This one was an adult male. We take it out of the trap, which we then reset.
Along this portion of the fence are seven inn traps we use to monitor the numbers of alien wasps in the area. As the volunteer checks the large, metal traps, I check the small inn traps. After counting 254 worker wasps, I rebait the inn trap with a wasp attractant and hang it back on the fence. We follow this pattern for the next six stations, and then I go back to lifting the larger traps.
This trapline has three gulches along it. As we approach the first one, we hear a goat. Luckily, this one is on the outside of the park. I have found goats with their heads stuck in the fence by their horns as they try to reach the green foliage on the park side. I let our volunteer know that if she encounters this problem, she should push the heads back through the fence. No goats in the fence today, though, and as we climb out of the third gulch we approach a hill to climb. Our volunteer looks at me and asks me to please tell her we don’t have to climb that. Unfortunately, we do — but luckily, it is downhill from there and only 17 traps back to the office. We make it up the hill just fine and back to the office for a late lunch. Time again to transfer data and then process other data until the workday is done.
Well, that’s a week in my life. Make sure to head up to Haleakala National Park if you ever make it over to Maui, but make sure you bring a rain jacket.