Tag Archives: Wedge-tailed shearwaters

Help wedgies by turning lights off near shorelines

Published November 5, 2016 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2016 Susan Scott
Wedgies, or wedge-tailed shearwaters, have haunting nighttime mating calls that can sound like groans or screeches. Courtesy Alex Wegmann

Wedgies, or wedge-tailed shearwaters, have haunting nighttime mating calls that can sound like groans or screeches. Courtesy Alex Wegmann

Honu is still inside the Great Barrier Reef, but because we’re on the move and near neither reef, islands nor mainland, the sailing feels a bit like Hawaii. Except we miss the wedgies.

“Wedgie” is the nickname of the wedge-tailed shearwater, the graceful seabird that soars over open ocean waves, nearly touching wings to water.

The windier and wavier the better for these 12-inch-long birds with 2-foot-wide wingspans. In rough weather, wedgies zip through the air-water interface like feathered hovercraft.

I have loved these gray-backed, white-bellied seabirds from the first time I heard them moaning at Tern Island in Hawaii’s Northwestern chain. Their nighttime mating calls ranged from dying groans to tortured screeches, often so humanlike it sounded like we were hosting a wartime field hospital under the house.

But those agonized sounds come from the most charming of birds. Besides their bills forming a permanent smile, wedgies are gentle creatures, perhaps delivering a small peck in fear but quickly settling down in workers’ hands during rescues and ID banding.

Around the Hawaiian Islands, wedgies form what anglers call bird piles, feeding frenzies that occur when large fish chase small fish to the surface. Pity the little fish. In leaping free of tuna teeth, the fish winds up in the belly of a bird.

Anglers look for bird piles to know where to fish.

Bird piles often occur here inside GBR waters, but the ones we’ve seen consist of beefy crested terns, black and white birds that are always having a bad hair day.

Some of Australia’s GBR islands host wedgie colonies, but breeding time here is opposite Hawaii’s. Here the mated-for-life couples are just starting the work of digging a nest, brooding the egg and raising their one chick.

In Hawaii wedgie parents are done parenting for the year. For most of this month, their chicks will be flying from their burrow homes at Kaena Point, Black Point and several islands off Oahu. The lucky ones make it to the ocean on their maiden flights.

The unlucky will get disoriented by lights, hit wires and poles and end up on doorsteps, sidewalks and roads.

The good news is that often the downed youngsters are just stunned and can be saved.

You can help Hawaii’s wedgies by keeping near-shore lanai, garden and garage lights off through November. If you find a stunned fledgling, put it in a covered, ventilated shoe box (they grow up in holes so are calm there) and take it to Sea Life Park. Or contact official wedgie helpers at hawaiiwildlifecenter.org/seabird-fallout-response.html or oahuseabirdgroup.org/how-you-can-help.

Kaena Point is hard to beat for watching nature’s glory

Published November 25, 2013 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2013 Susan Scott

A Hawaiian monk seal basked at Kaena Point last week. ©2013 Susan Scott

Last week I hikedto Kaena Point, a daylong excursion (about a one-hour drive from Honolulu, and a 5-mile round-trip hike). A few days later I got a text from a friend: “Hiking to Kaena Point. Wanna come?”

Leaving Oahu’s mass of buildings and lines of vehicles and walking into that world-class wildlife sanctuary had been like stepping through a magic wardrobe. Could I turn down another such journey? Of course not. I accepted instantly.

In the 1980s the state banned motorized vehicles from the 59-acre space to allow the plants and animals of this rare dune ecosystem (one of the last in the main Hawaiian Islands) to recover. And that they did, especially after the 2011 installation of a cat/rat/mongoose-resistant fence.

During my visits, Laysan albatrosses worked the wind, soaring as only albatrosses can. Other albatross parents had already hunkered down on newly laid eggs, and a few were singing and dancing in their search for mates. About 400 of these native seabirds spend the nesting season at Kaena Point, and the numbers continue to grow.

laysanchick

Wedge-Tailed Shearwater chick. ©2013 Susan Scott

Layman Albatross. ©2013 Scott R. Davis

Layman Albatross. ©2013 Scott R. Davis

 Wedge-tailed shearwaters (the “wedgies” I wrote about two weeks ago) also nest here. Full grown but still downy, chicks are emerging from their underground burrows, blinking in the bright sun. The youngsters are gearing up for the big leap, their first flight to the sea.

Kaena Point is also an ideal place to watch humpback whales and winter waves. Besides the beauty of big surf, the 20-foot-tall waves pounding the shore during my first visit caused four Hawaiian monk seals to choose a sleeping place exceptionally high on the beach. Several residents and visitors, a monk seal expert and 91 Punahou students admired the seals from a respectful distance. (To read about Kaena Point’s seals, and others spotted around the islands, see monksealmania.blogspot.com.)

Kaena Point

©2013 Susan Scott

This westernmost corner of Oahu gets our youngsters out hiking and, at the same time, teaches in the best way: by showing rather than telling. A troop of Kame­ha­meha students arrived as we left.

A sparkling diamond on the pinkie finger of Oahu, Kaena Point proves that given protection from vehicles and introduced predators, wildlife and humans can, even on a crowded island, coexist.

This special state preserve is a good place to visit any time, but especially so this week of Thanksgiving. If anything on this island makes me feel thankful to be alive, healthy and living on Oahu, it’s the precious point we call Kaena.

I’m already planning my next trip.

monk seal

Juvenile Monk Seal, Kaena Point. ©2013 Scott R. Davis


Marine biologist Susan Scott writes the newspaper column, “Ocean
Watch”, for the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, www.staradvertiser.com

©2013 Susan Scott

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.