This blog was written by Steve Howard, a member of the Zoo’s Bird Department. Steve Howard received a Staff Conservation Fund grant from his coworkers at the Houston Zoo to carry out a wildlife-saving project for birds in the Mariana Islands (a chain of islands in the western North Pacific Ocean). We will be posting a series of blogs as Steve documents his work overseas.
Blog entry. 5:30 AM Thursday 4/21
Hello from the Mariana Islands!
I’m returning to the Marianas to continue working with Pacific Bird Conservation on the MAC Plan (Mariana Avifauna Conservation). Once again we’ll be trapping birds of two different species – the Tinian Monarch and the Bridled White-eye to translocate to another island and release. These birds are moved from one island to another due to the threat of predation by an introduced species, the brown tree snake. The islands where these birds are being moved do not currently have brown tree snakes, and this translocation will help ensure the birds’ survival.
So, 20 hours of flights later, I’m here on Tinian! We started out on Saipan, getting all the equipment out of storage. The pictures show us in the process of removing all the crates and boxes from the storage unit and loading it in the truck to take it to the port. It’s then stacked on pallets and put on the barge for Tinian. Yesterday we unloaded the bird boxes that we’ll need to keep the collected birds, and supplies maintain the bird room. Setting up the bird room is a lot of work. There are 85 bird boxes to assemble and a load of stuff to unpack and organize, so it took 9 of us about 6 hours to get it done. So glad we have a team!
Today we’ll take all the field supplies to the field and set up out there! This part is a little tedious, but it’s still conservation work! Every little thing we do these first days will lay the groundwork for what comes next – the fun part.
Still to come – why do we do this?
To find out more about our Houston Zoo staff saving wildlife, click here.
Steve Howard is in the Northern Mariana Islands, working with Pacific Bird Conservation to protect birds and blogging about his experience.
This post was written by Steve Howard
The adventure ends.
Today I left Tinian for Saipan, where I’ll spend the night before heading home. As of this morning, the goal of catching 50 Bridled White Eyes was met, and we were close to 50 Tinian Monarchs. In the coming days they’ll close up the nets and load the birds they have on a boat (one, frankly, which doesn’t look all that seaworthy) and take them to Guguan, an island which is a 14 hour boat ride north. Once there, the transport boxes will be strapped to backpack frames and hauled up the hill in the center of the island on people’s backs. Once in the appropriate habitat the boxes will be opened, and new populations of two threatened species will be founded.
From habitat loss to the introduction of the brown tree snake, humans have done a lot to affect the animals of the Mariana Islands. This time, the affect was positive. I’m grateful to have played my part.
One last thought. I fly tomorrow to Guam, then Tokyo, then Houston. I leave Tokyo at 4:45 Saturday afternoon, and get to Houston at 2:30 Saturday afternoon. I just can’t wrap my head around that!!
The Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Islands is a chain of about 14 islands in the Pacific around 3,000 miles west of Hawaii. For the better part of a decade, a group of bird professionals from institutions accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) have been doing important work in this beautiful and exotic location. The Mariana Avi-fauna Conservation program, or MAC for short, started in 2004 when the local government and the US Department of Fish and Wildlife asked AZA zoos for help to save the bird species of the islands from a dangerous predator.
Here, the bird species are under threat from an introduced species – the brown tree snake. Right across the water in Guam, the brown tree snake has pretty much obliterated the native forest bird species since the snake inhabited the island after stowing away on ships during World War II. When people began to see brown tree snakes on the neighboring island of Saipan, an action plan was created to prevent the devastating losses that were seen in Guam.
The Mariana fruit-dove is one species of bird that zoos like the Houston Zoo are working to protect. This bird is endemic to Guam and the Northern Marianas Islands. Endemic means that the bird isn’t found anywhere else in the world, which highlights the importance of ensuring the fruit-dove’s future. Hannah Bailey, the Houston Zoo’s curator of birds, has done extensive conservation field work across the world, including traveling to Saipan to assist with efforts to help the Mariana fruit-dove.
While in Saipan, Hannah joined a team of dedicated professionals who use nets to capture not only fruit-doves, but species such as the bridled white-eye and Tinian monarchs. Each bird captured is given a physical exam to take important measurements including tail length, wing cord length, tarsus length, and bill length. This information combined with the incoming weight of the birds provides a snapshot of the overall health of the birds. After the health check is complete, a number is assigned to the bird and a band is placed on the bird’s leg.
This team then decides which birds to release and which birds to select for captive breeding programs back in the U.S. This tough work in the jungle is taxing and difficult, but Hannah and other dedicated professionals are safeguarding the fruit-dove’s long term survival and making sure that these incredible species will not disappear into history.
We are taking 20 GOWE and 12 MAFD back to AZA zoos in the US mainland. Their journey is long and we will be there to help them and monitor them the entire way.
We finally are able to book a flight for the birds and us to get to Guam. We work with Star Marianas Airlines and they help us charter a small twin engine plane for us. It seats up to 10 people – or 8 crates of birds and 3 people (plus the pilot and co-pilot).
So far there seems to be one flaw in the plan for departure:
We wake up on departure day and it is a rainy cloudy mess. It seems none of us bothered to check the weather. Her name is Tapah and she is a Tropical Storm that is headed our way. We go ahead and plan for departure. Luckily the storm is far enough away and Guam is close enough that we can go ahead and leave.
We fly to Guam in about 1 hour. The flight was not bad, but we did have to brace the crates well so that they would not move during flight. Luckily my feet (clad in lovely purple flip flops) did the job and held the crates firmly in place. The birds even started to sing mid-flight.
When we land in Guam, before we can even stick our heads out of the airplane, we have to wait for the Customs and USDA officials. The plane and all of its cargo (including us) have to be checked for Brown Tree snakes. Luckily, they know we have the birds with us – so it is not a very long wait.
The Customs agent speeds us through the hidden underbelly of the airport (where I am not sure I was supposed to take pictures?) and approves our and more importantly the birds’ entry into Guam.
We are met by the employees of the Guam Rail lab – they will allow us to keep the birds there overnight. The Rail Lab is where the good folks of Guam work with the endangered Guam Rail as well as the Micronesian Kingfisher. They have a great set-up that works well for our bird’s overnight stay.
We feed the birds an early evening snack and then leave them to rest while we get an early evening dinner and to our hotel room for the night.
The birds have to be back at the airport for their flight at 3 AM. This means we have to feed them around 2 AM.
Burly eyed- we arrive at the Rail lab and feed the doves and GOWE. We get everyone packed up in the car and leave the keys to the building in the kitchen. Walking out to the car it appears we have plenty of time to get the birds safely to the airport. Peter is dropping the birds off, so it allows Ellen and I to go to our hotel and clean up before our 24 + hours of travel that we have in front of us.
But – it is not that straight-forward. As we are getting all of our luggage together, we get a phone call from Peter. There are 7 crates of birds at the airport….. BUT we have EIGHT! Crates….
In the packing of the car, we all forgot the first rule of shipping birds – count your crates before you lock the door. As Ellen and I nervously wait at the hotel for Peter, we contemplate whether or not we can break into the Rail Lab – and what kind of punishment we would be willing to put up with to save our birds. Luckily, Peter was able to contact a Rail Lab employee that was able to come unlock the building and thus preventing our journey into crime for the sake of our birds….
We got all the birds to the flight in time. And they did great during the transportation – however, it took me a few hours to finally stop nervously shaking with worry about forgetting the crate.
Now I just have the 2 – 8 hour flights until I am back in Houston.
We have been worried all week about weather. Not only did the bad weather slow down our trapping schedule, it almost impacted our ability to translocate the RUFA from Tinian to Sarigan. There was a weather “system” developing (the description sounded like a tropical storm system to me). This would severely impact our ability to fly a helicopter to Sarigan with the birds. Thankfully, the storm dissipated and we were able to schedule departure.
So on Monday, we moved 51 Rufous Fantails (RUFA) from Tinian to Sarigan. This is one of the largest translocation that MAC will be undertaking. They were accompanied by Department of fish and Wildlife staff as well as one MAC team member.
To say it is a trip of a lifetime (for both the birds and the people) is a colossal understatement.
Last year, Peter Luscomb and Herb Roberts, the MAC team leaders, chose me to accompany the birds on translocation so I can accurately describe the amazing journey.
Sarigan is a small uninhabited island in the CNMI chain. In the early 1900s, it was a German penal colony. Sparsely inhabited, it was turning over to Japan after World War I. After WWII, there was a small population on the island and it was used mostly for a coconut plantation.
It has always been difficult to reach Sarigan. There is only one small area that a boat can safely come ashore. This is why we use a helicopter and even this is not an easy task.
To release the birds, the helicopter company needs to make sure they have enough gasoline stores on the island to refuel. They generally keep several large barrels of gasoline on the island for this purpose.
We flew to Sarigan in a little less than 1 hour. It is an unnerving feeling flying this far without seeing land. It makes you appreciate how vast the Pacific Ocean is…
We land in a field that is one of the few flat areas on the island and release the birds in the near-by forest. It is an amazing, safe, sanctuary for these birds. No people, no predators…
We do pass other smaller islands on the way – the closest island to Sarigan is not part of our translocation plans. Anatahan is an active volcano. After the release, we fly over the crater and see the green sulfur water that has filled the caldron.
Sarigan is the last island we will be able to take a helicopter too. Unless there is a change in the plan, all other translocations will take place using a boat.
This journey will take over a day there and back and will come with its own logistical challenges – but as we are all ready for the challenge, we happily await next year’s work.
After we trap all the birds we are hoping to get, we end up with a room of 14 MAFD and 24 GOWE.
Each day then becomes fairly routine, feed and monitor all the birds to make sure they are eating, pooping, and acting normally. I spend a great deal of time each day looking at the output of birds.
The MAFD feeding is straight forward. Doves are pretty, but not always very smart. So when they are brought into a holding situation, they have to be taught to eat. They normally find food up in trees, not on a plate in front of them. Learning to eat from a tray can be stressful, so we plan on teaching the birds to self-feed once they are back in the mainland US. To maintain the weight and health of the birds, we tube feed the doves a specially prepared gruel 3 times a day. Thankfully, the doves take to this process very easily and after the first 1-2 feedings, they are calm and often just step off our hand back into the holding box after being fed.
GOWE are small birds. They generally weigh between 15 and 20 grams each. That is about the weighed of 3 or 4 nickels.
For such a little creature, they are amazing little food consumption machines.
The diet that is provided for the GOWE is pretty simple. They get fresh water at all times, a small bowl with live mealworms, a ½ tablespoon of bird pellets (multi-colored pellets that smell but DO NOT taste like Fruit Loops) and a piece of ripe papaya.
It is the papaya consumption that is the most amazing.
Every morning, each GOWE gets a piece of papaya that weighs roughly 20-25 grams.
By the middle of the day, that piece of papaya generally is gone – all but a small sliver of papaya skin. It could not be cleaner if it was cut by a professional chef with a sharp paring knife.
Depending on the appetite and the weight gain of the bird, some of the GOWE will eat 3-4 pieces of papaya a day in addition to the pellets and mealworms that they are offered.
Roughly calculated, that is approximately FIVE to SIX times their body weight a day that they are consuming. All while maintaining a healthy weight…. I wish I could eat that way with the same results.
Since we are split between the 2 islands this year, I set-up the birds by my-self. In previous years, I have worked as part of a team. A zoo veterinarian and I would process the birds together. We would get the birds in and do a quick physical exam, blood sample (via a toenail clip), get a weight, take body measurements, and then put an individual metal leg band on each bird for identification.
This year, it is just me. I quickly get the birds weighed when they arrive and provide them with a band.
The health assessments generally take place a day or 2 after arrival so that the birds can settle in.
When the vet arrives, Deidre Fontenot from Disney’s Animal Kingdom, we work together on a plan for the health checks.
We start with doing health assessments on the GOWE – today there are 12 that need checks. It is a fairly quick process:
1. Quick check of the eyes, mouth, mouth and overall condition
2. Listen to the respiration and heart rate
3.Toenail clip to get a drop of blood for a slide
4. Kiss on the head for good luck (a VITAL part of conservation).
The doves are a little bit more difficult. Many birds are what is called Sexually Dimorphic – this means you can tell the males from the females because they look different. In MAFD, the males and females look exactly the same. To bring birds back into the AZA population, we really need more females than males (we are hoping to bring back 12 hens for the AZA population).
So we have to figure out the gender of each bird we catch. We hoped that like some small bird species the males and females might look different until different light conditions. To figure this out, we took the birds in to a dark room (the bathroom) and put them under a Black Light – while they looked really in these conditions – there was not discernibledifference.
So we had to go the surgery route. We prepared to determine the gender via laparoscopy, which is shinning a very bright light into the body cavity to find either testicles or ovaries.
We set up a small surgery area in one of the hotel rooms. It is poorly lit at best; but at least we feel like we can get the area mostly clean. It is not the best place I have assisted with surgery, but it will work for our needs.
The doves are provided anesthesia to make them sleep. A small incision is then made in their left side and the laparoscope is inserted in the body cavity. The vet looks for the gonads – a small area that looks like a grape cluster for the girls and 2 round marble like structures for the boys. Once we know the gender, we turn off the anesthesia and wake the bird up.
We get the process down to about 10 minutes per bird. We marked each holding cage with either a pink or a blue sticky note to label if the doves were male or female. After we trapped 14 doves, we ended up with 7 males and 7 females – so we are planning on taking 5 males and all 7 females back to AZA zoos.
Each time a bird is caught it is placed in a field crate and held until it can be transported to the bird room. It is 12.4 miles from the hotel to the dove trap site. It is .6 miles between the dove site and the GOWE site. I have put over 200 miles on the rental car in the past day.
Back and forth back and forth …. All of this on an island that is roughly 16 miles long and 2 miles wide.
Bird Island at Sunrise
It takes me about 22 minutes to get from the site to the hotel; 28 if I get stuck by one of the 5 stop lights (although one of the lights is off in the evening). Sometimes – it takes 30 minutes if I hit the lights and the school zone is active.
Rush Hour in Saipan
The sites on the road to and from the trap site often hold interesting views: a coconut crab crossing the road,
the beautiful but tragic view of Suicide Cliff that is still riddled with holes from the heavy artillery fire of World War II,
and the tourist transportation “Saipanda” Bus.
I take the birds in to the hotel and get them set up in their holding cages. We can see what the birds are doing and even get weights without having to catch them.
Now that we have birds set-up, it is time to monitor the eating and have the vet check the birds and determine the sexes.
Tonight we have 8 GOWE and 6 MAFD. So tomorrow, I can only hope for more.
The plan was for 5 of us to head back to Saipan when the Tinian group got settled in and started catching birds. We arrived back in Saipan on the 15th and keeping with the flexibility theme we have run into some hurdles.
We got back to the summer holiday hotel and were able to pretty quickly set- up the bird room. Pretty straight forward: 15 MAFD (Mariana Fruit Dove) boxes and 24 GOWE (Golden white-eye) boxes.
Also, we had to seek out food for the GOWE. We generally bring in a supply of papaya; as the availability of really ripe papaya varies on the island. Because of complication with flight availability, we were not able to bring in the papaya. This year, I was really worried. When we would drive to and from our trap sites (& at our trap site too), the wild papayas are still hard and green. However, I luck out… at the local fruit market I find several perfect ripe papayas. So at least the bird room is ready for action.
I wish I could say the same is happening in the field. On Tuesday evening we went out to check the trap sites. Looking around we see 3 good locations for doves nets. For the next 2 hours we clear areas with machetes, saws and pruners to open spaces for the nets. The entire time we hear a symphony of doves calling all around us. We then move over to the forest sites and clear 2 more lanes for the GOWE trapping. It is hard sweaty work but somehow satisfying.
Wednesday, the plan is to get up early, set nets and start trapping. We achieve the get up early part…
I dropped my coworkers off at the trap sites- my duty for the morning was to buy fresh fish and ship it to Tinian. It took a few hours and a lot of haggling to get $2.50 a pound but I was finally in possession of 4 tuna, packed in a cooler to be sent via Star Airlines cargo to feed the flies. I thought this would be the harder part of the day.
Back at the net sites, the 20′ metal poles are being troublesome and setting up the nets is taking much longer than anticipated. By 2 PM we have 5 nets up (3 doves, 3 forests). We rest for a short time and then open nets from 3-6 PM.
This too is fraught with difficulty. It keeps on raining. We open and close nets several times and in Between the rains the humidity sky- rockets. It feels like a sauna.
At the dove site- we catch 2 collared kingfishers. And then have to reset one of the nets in the pouring rain. They don’t fare much better at the forest GOWE site- a few birds but no GOWE.
At this point we plan for an extra early departure on Thursday morning. We make it out to the trap sites by 6:15. I go to the dove site with Kurt and Scott and we are setting up the first net when the rains really start. The forest site has it a little better. They get gentle sprinkles but at the dove site- maybe because of the location on the island- we get down pours.
After the rain lets up, I head up the road to see if I can figure out where the doves moving to and eating. I get up about 150 yards and the skies open. In the distance there is a small shelter and a cattle water trough. I have to go over 2 barb-wire fences and waist-high lantana riddled with spiders, but I do make it to the shelter before being soaked to the bone.
I wait out the squall and watch the spiders around me. The sun comes out and I get a brief view of a beautiful rainbow.
Here’s to hoping there is a group of female MAFD at the end of this rainbow.
All day long it is sun/rain/ sun/ rain…. Nets up, nets down. Wet, dry, wet, dry.
At the end of the day the total was sparse- but we did end up with 3 MAFD and 6 GOWE.
We forgot the needles and syringes… and there is no hospital on Tinian – oh and these are really not the easiest items to procure anyway….
While we hope we will not need vet supplies like this, we will need a few for emergencies. So if you are on an island in the middle of no-where and have no hospital – you go to the Police Station. Thankfully, we were able to get about a half dozen needles and syringes for use.
The next step for us is finding net sites. Ideally what we are looking for is a forested area that is not too dense that is near some open areas where birds will cross over to different forest patches. There is just the place on Tinian for such work… Runway Able.
Tinian has a very famous/infamous place in world history. I am constantly moved that so much history can be contained on an island that is smaller than the Inner Loop of 610 in Houston. Runaway Able is part of 4 runways that were built by American forces in 45 nights and days in July 1944 after Tinian was taken from Japanese control by the US Navy. As the home of the Twentieth Air Force XXI Bomber Command, Runway Able was the launching point for the B-29 Superfortress bomber “Enola Gay” as well as the B-29 bomber “BocksCar” that delivered the atomic bombs that ended World War II.
This historic air base was abandoned after 1947 and the 4 runways, Able, Baker, Charlie, and Delta, were allowed to return to nature. Today, the runways are still visible and there are many monuments to the many people who fought on both sides of WWII. The taxi-ways and auxiliary roads are over-grown with both native plants and non-native Tangen-tangen trees. All of the area is ripe habitat for the birds we are seeking.
It takes some time and planning and working in very humid rainy weather. We also have to be very wary when we are setting up nets – it is a banner year for Boonie Bees, a type of aggressive paper wasp that likes to attack when it is disturbed. We set-up nets and catch 4 rufous fantail
. We want to start slow so that we can keep up with the food source – the flies.
Feeding flies to flycatchers is not an easy task. Rufus Fantails like to “hawk” for their food. This basically means that they catch food while flying. So to encourage the birds to eat – the flies have to … well, fly.
Peter Luscomb, the retire General curator at the Honolulu Zoo and the co-founder of Pacific Bird Conservation organization, designed a unique way to provide live flies while minimizing (maybe) the frustration to the care-givers. We take a petri dish and melt a small hole in the bottom of it. We cut the top part so that it will slide off the top easily. Then we hold the covered dish over a screen funnel in the top of the fly trap. The flies will crawl up into the dish. We try to load anywhere from 40-60 flies in the dish. The biggest trick is (other than getting the flies into the holding cage with the rufous fantails) is that 50 flies can lift the lid of a petri dish if you aren’t watching. So we have to fill the dish, place it carefully on our carrying tray and then put a rock on top.
The other issue with the flies is that they eat dead fish – so when you have a container of a couple thousand flies – they smell like dead fish too. This does not generally make us friends at the hotels where we stay – but we manage and the Hotel owners are understanding of the needs to conserve these birds.
After we load up the fly dishes, we have to feed them to the rufous fantails. We carefully place the dish into the holding cage and then QUICKLY pull off the lid and shut the door. This allows the flies to fly and the rufous fantails to chase them. Of course we have escapes – of the flies. By the end of the first day, there are already dozens of flies, flying free around the bird room. If we get desperate for food, we can always net them and try to get them in the rufous fantail boxes.
We trap on and off the next day, the weather is keeping us on our toes. Rain, sun, rain, sun… we close the nets during the rain so that the birds don’t get trapped and then soaked. We end up with about 15 rufous fantails at the end of the day. Luckily the fish we are using to trap flies is really ripe and the flies are swarming and being trapped. So we have plenty of food.
On Tuesday – about half of us are going back to Saipan to start trapping golden white-eyes and marianas fruit dove. As we are planning for the trapping schedule on Tuesday, the Police Chief of Tinian arrives at JC’s restaurant (one of the 2 restaurants on Tinian) to find us. He was looking all over the island for us – the Marines will be doing a military exercise and the runways need to be cleared by 9 AM. So our morning trapping will be delayed by the military… I am not sure if that is better than delay from the weather or not.
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