Monthly Archives: November 1996

You, too, can volunteer to work at remote refuge

Published November 25, 1996 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©1996 Susan Scott

It sounds like a plot for a movie,” said my sister when I explained why I was going to be out of touch for a few weeks.

I fully agree. There are few places in the world as remote, as fascinating or as full of potential excitement as Tern Island, the main biological research station of the Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refuge.

A day earlier, I had agreed to go to this 56-acre island in French Frigate Shoals Atoll as a U.S. Fish and Wildlife volunteer. Managers there faced an unusual situation – an empty seat on the tiny plane, a short turn-around time and need of help with turtle nests and bird banding.

I thought about the offer for about one nanosecond, then started packing.

The ride to Tern in the six-seat plane takes about three hours. It’s cold, sometimes bumpy and you share the cabin with cartons of soda and boxes of fruits and vegetables.

This is the Cadillac ride to Tern.

The other way is by boat, dreaded by even the saltiest of sailors. If the weather is bad, the three-day trip to Tern can be a nightmare of rough seas and seasickness.

But forget it you do, once you step foot on Tern Island. The place is packed with seabirds, sea turtles and monk seals, all unafraid of humans because they evolved without land predators. Animals here face you with such curious expressions you almost expect them to ask your name. The overall effect is a wildlife version of the mad hatter’s tea party.

Sixteen kinds of seabirds sit on, strut near and fly around every structure, person and plant on the island. Some bird types view human heads as perches. Others see us as moving oddities to swoop down and check out.

Enormous green sea turtles basking on the beaches usually ignore passing people, but monk seals sometimes issue little whoops of warning that sound like perking coffee. Since the atoll is the last main breeding area of green sea turtles and Hawaiian monk seals, these animals are Tern Island’s royalty.

Workers crouch, whisper and generally stay out of the way of these two endangered species. Unbeknownst to the animals, their mere presence has the power to stop all human activity.

Want to go swimming off Shell Beach? Too bad. A seal pup is basking there. Care to read after dark? Close those blinds. The light confuses the sea turtle hatchlings. Time to band some tropic birds? Forget it. Seals have the courtyard today.

One of the things I love about staying in Tern’s dormitory-style house is that animals are welcome inside. During this trip, the back storeroom nearly always held a bucket of hatchling sea turtles to be released that night. Whenever I went for a box of sugar or a bag of rice, I gazed into that bucket for a rare peek at baby sea turtles.

A plover and a band of ruddy turnstones pranced into the house every day to pick up crumbs we left for them on a plate. Chubby, a hand-raised brown noddy, flew in periodically, sitting patiently on the kitchen counter until someone got up and gave him a squid snack. Robby, a sick fairy tern we were nursing, lived on the top shelf of the bookcase.

Monk seals don’t venture inside the house but they love to lean against it and bask, often right under a window. Their belching and snorting is a familiar sound, day and night.

Life at Tern is always interesting but not always easy. Digging up sea turtle nests to rescue trapped hatchlings, crawling under pokey bushes to catch and band birds, mopping floors and pulling weeds makes for long days and sore muscles. But it’s worth it.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service organizes volunteers. Call or write the Honolulu office for an application.

Wedge-tailed shearwaters fall prey to dogs, cats, cars

Published November 18, 1996 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©1996 Susan Scott

Some years ago, several wildlife biologists sat down to a candle-lit dinner in a remote field station of Hawaii’s National Wildlife Refuge. One, a young woman, had just arrived that day from the mainland. The others had been living at the station for months, one for years.

The group was just beginning to eat when a long, low groan issued from somewhere outside.

“What the hell was that?” the station manager said, fork held midair. “It sounds like someone’s dying out there.”

Wide-eyed, the newcomer looked to the others. They shrugged.

The moaning repeated. “Someone’s hurt,” the manager said, standing and reaching for a flashlight. “Let’s go.”

The others all jumped to their feet to follow.

It was a dark night with no moon, no stars. Strong tradewinds and the sound of surf drowned out most sounds – except for the moans.

The manager scanned the nearby dirt, then began to search the two-foot space under the house. The sound of agony was very close now and the newcomer anxiously gripped the manager’s arm as they bent to look.

And then she saw the source of the humanlike groans – a pair of small gray seabirds with sweet, innocent faces. “Oooowwwww,” one bird moaned to the other. “Aaauuuuu,” the second answered.

“Here are your torture victims,” the manager, grinning ear to ear, said to the newcomer. “Wedge-tailed shearwaters, also known as moaners. Welcome to Hawaii.”

The veterans collapsed in laughter and the embarrassed novice marched back to the house. She never quite forgave the manager for his joke. But she did come to love the weird-sounding but adorable wedgies.

Wedge-tailed shearwaters are abundant in Hawaii’s northwest chain, but they also nest along the coasts of the main Hawaiian islands. Since these ground nesters are vulnerable to introduced predators such as dogs, cats and mongooses, most nests are now on offshore islets of the main islands.

Of the 22 marine birds native to Hawaii, wedgies are the most commonly spotted in the main islands. Recreational boaters are familiar with these birds’ graceful, soaring flight just above the wave tops as they “shear” the water.

Fishermen look for wedgies, too. These birds tend to feed in flocks, acting as fish-markers.

Hawaii’s wedge-tailed shearwaters arrive on land in March, singing their strange moaning song to attract a mate. Then the pair dig a burrow and the female lays a single egg in June.

Usually arriving at the nest at dusk and leaving again at dawn, both parents feed the underground chick.

Chicks leave the nest and head out to sea about now, in late fall. Unfortunately, some don’t make it. Lights and power wires confuse and down the birds, which then get killed by predators or hit by cars. Sometimes, the birds sit on sidewalks or lawns, stunned or exhausted. Two such birds have been found already this year on Oahu, one near Diamond Head and one in Waialua.

If you find a downed wedgie, pick it up with gloved hands (their beaks and feet are sharp), put it in a box, and take it to Sea Life Park. Or, call the DLNR at 587-0166. Sometimes, fire stations volunteer to help collect the birds.

When wild animals need a human’s caring touch

Published November 11, 1996 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©1996 Susan Scott

I just returned from three weeks on Tern Island, the main biological research station of the Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refuge. During my visit there, we handled wild animals almost daily.

If we weren’t banding young shearwaters or digging up trapped turtle hatchlings, we were rescuing a booby bird or feeding a starving tern. One team of researchers attached tracking gear to endangered monk seals, truly a rare animal-handling privilege.

“It’s amazing how normal this animal handling seems when you live out here,” refuge manager Steve Barclay commented. “Back home, it almost never happens.”

I remembered this comment as we massaged soapy water into the oiled feathers of a masked booby. Even though the oil was mostly on the tail and wing tips, each of us occasionally ran our fingers over the exquisite white feathers on the bird’s head and breast. “It’s OK; we won’t hurt you,” someone would croon. Or, “You’re such a pretty bird….” Stroke, stroke.

This sounded so familiar that I realized that most of us do indeed handle animals at home – our pets. They may not be wild, but they satisfy a need.

What need this is exactly, I do not know. But the compulsion to pet and talk to animals seems universal among humans. It probably goes back to a time when animals kept us warm at night in our caves.

Wherever it comes from, the human urge to caress animals is not always good for the animals, especially protected species where the rule is strictly hands off. But the impulse can be overwhelming.

Once, I was motoring around Hanalei Bay with a friend in a rubber dinghy. A spinner dolphin made our day by cruising along with us. The animal bounded over and rubbed its body against the boat’s bright red tube.

The dolphin appeared to enjoy bumping up against the boat’s rubber side. It was thrilling to see that sleek gray body gliding just inches from my resting hand. “Do you think it would be OK if I touched it?” I asked my friend, knowing the answer. He frowned.

“Well, it came over here,” I argued. “It communicating with us.”

“Don’t,” my friend said.

I couldn’t help myself. Reaching down with just the tips of my fingers, I ever-so-gently touched that sleek back. Of course, the dolphin was gone in an instant.

The lesson was clear. Wild animals can touch you but you can’t touch them back.

Not all my protected species touches have been so foolish. Once while walking on a remote beach, I came across an enormous green sea turtle whose neck was trapped under a tree root. Apparently, this female had laid her eggs high on the beach the night before, then became entangled in the gnarly plant growth when trying to return to the water.

I gripped the edge of her shell and tugged back with all my strength but she struggled forward, digging herself in even deeper. She weighed hundreds of pounds and was entrenched. I would have to go for help.

Before I left, though, I bent to her face, dry and flaking in the sweltering heat. On impulse, I ran to the waterline, filled my canvas hat with sea water and held it to her mouth. Oh, she was thirsty. While she drank, I talked to her and stroked her head and neck.

The subsequent rescue went well. Four of us were able to dig sand and pull her body free.

The turtle was saved but she wasn’t sticking around for any toasts. She hurried down the beach as if pursued by demons, then disappeared under a wave.

I’m back in the city now where it’s not likely I’ll be having any close encounters with dolphins or sea turtles. But I’ll still handle animals. I’ll pet dogs, play with cats and let cage birds sit on my finger. They may be tame but they’re wild about human attention – and they may even stick around for more.