Working with Pacific Bird Conservation (Part 3)

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


fishing pole netToday I learned how to put up a 12-meter mist net! We’ll be trapping birds along one of the old WWII Navy runways which has been almost completely taken over by the forest. The best place to set up the net is in a break in the vegetation. So where the forest has grown in from both sides of the runway, but there is still a space in the middle, is the perfect place. The nets are stretched between twenty-foot tall poles, which are rigged so they can be raised and lowered like a flag. The poles are supported with 4 guy lines that are tied to concrete nails pounded into the asphalt. So I learned how to tie knots today – the clove hitch and sheet bend – how to pound in concrete nails without breaking off the head (learned that the hard way), and how to tie the guy lines so they stay tight.

We also put some nets up in the forest. These are easier to set up because we can tie the lines to trees and put stakes in the ground. After we’re done setting a net up, if it’s not going to be used, it’s tied up so we don’t catch anything by accident. The pictures are of a net fully open and of a net closed up.

closed netsPreparations are complete now for the trapping and care of the birds. We can net them, transfer them to the transport box, get them back to bird room, put them in the cages we assembled already and feed them there! We’ll keep them in the bird room cages until they are taken, by 14 boat ride, to the Island of Guguan and released. We will go back to the woods this afternoon and start netting.

Working with Pacific Bird Conservation (Part 2)

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

working on the boxesToday we’ll be setting up the bird room. The hotel has given us a large room to keep the birds in after they are caught. And what is behind all this work? The Brown Tree Snake. The snakes reached Guam sometime in the 1950s, probably on a cargo ship. They are very curious animals and will climb into containers to investigate, and wind up traveling with the cargo. They eat birds and chicks from the nests, and the birds here have no defense. The birds on Guam were all but wiped out. The fear now is that the snakes will find their way to the other islands. The birds on the smaller islands are also vulnerable to loss from severe storms.

So birds are caught, put into small cages temporarily and carefully monitored, banded, and then released on other islands to start new populations. These form a sort of safety net against loss of birds in the original habitat.completed boxes

So, today I learned how to put the cages together, and then we assembled ninety of them.

Once the bird room is ready, we start catching birds!

Working with Pacific Bird Conservation

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 begins! Sort of. I’m on my way to the Northern Mariana Islands to work with Pacific Bird Conservation. We’ll be moving birds (Tinian Monarchs and Bridled White-eyes) to another island to establish a safe harbor population. This is to increase the chances of the species surviving a disaster, man-made or otherwise.

This is my first time working in the field and I’m so excited to see what it’s like! But my plane was late leaving Houston, I got to Honolulu two hours late, and I missed my flight to Guam. So I haven’t started my adventure just yet. But there are worse fates than being stuck in Hawai’i for a night!

Star Air to TinianI finally made it to Tinian! It was another long flight from Hawaii to Guam, then a 50 minute flight to Saipan last night. This morning we flew a tiny plane from Saipan to Tinian – a flight of 5 minutes. We checked into the hotel, then went to see the areas we’ll be trapping birds. We’ll be setting up mist nets next to the runways built and used during WWII! That’s Tinian, a mix of old and new. There are a lot of non-native plants in the forest, brought there by people, but the forest is still full of native birds.

bargeWe then unloaded all the supplies that were barged over (in a barge that looked barely sea-worthy) from Saipan. This was all we will need to trap, care for and transport the birds to their new home.

Tomorrow we’ll set it all up. I’m tired but so happy to have the chance to be here and help with this project. I’ll be posting more in the next days about what we’re doing here and why, but now, time for sleep!

Pollinator Pals in the Naturally Wild Swap Shop

Meet the first of the Houston Zoo’s Pollinator Pals!

 Ollie, Drake and Ginger are regular traders in the Naturally Wild Swap Shop, and now they are also Pollinator Pals! They each picked out the plant they wanted to grow and what pollinators they wanted to attract. Ollie planted hyacinth bean to attract hummingbirds, Drake planted passion flower vine to attract gulf fritillary butterflies, and Ginger planted milkweed to attract monarch butterflies.

Drake planting passion flower
Drake planting passion flower

Pollinators are extremely important to us, and they are declining. Our lives would be severely impacted by the loss of any of our pollinators. Many of the foods we eat rely on pollinators.  Fruits, vegetables, nuts, spices, cotton, alfalfa (for the cattle we rely on), honey, coffee, agave, chocolate and more!

Ginger gives a thumbs up for her milkweed seeds
Ginger gives a thumbs up for her milkweed seeds

How does one become a Pollinator Pal? Plant a pollinator garden! It can be as small as a potted plant or as large as a full scale garden. Once your garden is planted, take some pictures and bring a report about it to the Swap Shop to earn points. Then as

Check out Ollie's hyacinth bean seeds
Check out Ollie’s hyacinth bean seeds

your garden grows and attracts pollinators, bring in reports on what you have seen and how the garden is doing. Your points can then be spent in the Swap Shop for some amazing natural items.

Learn more about the Naturally Wild Swap Shop!

Corals to Curassows: Wildlife Saved Across the Globe

From Houston Toads to sea turtles, corals to curassows, Houston Zoo keepers, veterinarians, other staff and volunteers are working to help save many species from extinction.


Here’s a visual recap of some of our successes in 2014. Click on the images to find out more about these victories for wildlife!


The Houston Zoo vet clinic not only treats zoo animals, but for years has cared for injured wild sea turtles rescued from the Gulf of Mexico. In 2014 alone we saved 89 turtles!


The Houston Zoo manages the captive breeding programs for the Attwater’s Prairie Chicken. We have breeding facilities both behind the scenes at the Zoo and at NASA’s Johnson Space Center.


Gorillas in the wild are endangered, and the Houston Zoo works with several organizations in Africa to protect and save them: Conservation Heritage – Turambe, Gorilla Doctors and GRACE.


The Houston Zoo supports the Lemur Conservation Network who work to save this unique group of animals in Madagascar. In 2014 through our support they replanted lemur habitat with 12,000 native plants!


The Houston Zoo has partnered with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Texas State University, and Texas Parks and Wildlife in an effort to recover the wild Houston toad population. Our goal is to keep this unique amphibian species from being lost to extinction forever!


Our Veterinary staff travels to the Galapagos Islands to assist with efforts to remove non-native animals introduced to the Galapagos that compete for resources and threaten the Galapagos tortoises.


The Houston Zoo has been working to save these birds since the 1970s – there have been more than 50 blue-billed curassows born in Houston.


We provide vital financial support to rhino conservation programs which enable community members to conduct anti-poaching efforts and monitor critical rhino populations.


You help wildlife just by visiting the zoo! A portion of each Houston Zoo ticket purchased goes towards protecting animals in the wild.

Sabinga's Updates: Zoo Staff Visits Attwater's Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Range


I got to accompany Dr. Joe Flanagan Houston Zoo vet and other Zoo staff to the Attwater’s Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge (NWR), located approximately 90 kilometers west of Houston, Texas. This refuge is home to last population of Attwater’s Prairie Chicken.  They are a stocky brown, strongly barred grouse with lighter colored lines with short, rounded and dark neck.  The Attwater’s Prairie Chicken has undergone rapid declines, and has already disappeared from a number of U.S. states in which was formerly found, and only less than 100 in the wild and only found in Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge (NWR).

The Houston Zoo is working together with U.S. Fish and Wildlife and other wildlife organizations to protect the Attwater’s Prairie Chicken from extinction. The Zoo also works hard to educate the community about the plight of this rare species.  The Zoo breeds and raises this rare bird on Zoo grounds and rears the chicks until they are big enough to release them into the wild. Houston Zoo bird staff take them to the Attwater’s Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge to start their life in the wild.  U.S. Fish and Wildlife closely monitors them in the refuge. This shows the importance of the partnership between the Zoo and the government the same as how Save the Elephants works closely with the community and the Kenya Wildlife Service.


Prairie Chickens are endangered because their habitat has disappeared – their tall grass has been plowed for farmland and covered by cities. Their breeding habitat has been challenged by heavy grazing by cattle, although some cattle ranches maintain good grassland habitat suitable for them.  Many people in this area still do not know how special prairie habitat is and how close to extinction this species is.

Loss of the habitat was prime reason for downfall of the Attwater’s Prairie Chicken. Females lay a dozen eggs and they take a period of 3 weeks to hatch, only 30 percent of nest escape predators that include, red fire ants, coyotes, snakes, skunks and raccoons.

Houston Zoo together with U.S. Fish and Wildlife fitted radio transmitter collars on birds they release into the wild for close monitoring.  These collars are very interesting – they are small enough that they do not affect the bird weight-wise while flying.


I got to join the Houston Zoo team to replace a radio collar on an individual.  To my surprise the bird that we had to replace the collar was from the Houston zoo.  I saw the I.D. bracelet that is put on every bird reintroduced into the wild.  This experience was magical for me because I thought radio collaring was only for large predators and mammals.  I was excited to join the team, and I was surprised at how difficult it was.  The collaring is done at night when it’s dark, in the tall grass, and swampy and muddy ground.  We had to be careful of pot holes in the ground and snakes .

Jeremy’s wet foot was full with mud!

Collaring a prairie chicken was even tougher than collaring an elephant. Collaring two prairie chickens took us more than three hours!  Sometimes we got lost because the prairie is so flat and it made it hard to navigate.

In my many years with Save the Elephants I have collared many elephants so that their movements can be traced, their populations counted, and poaching operations can be thwarted. This work continues to take place in the Kibodo, Samburu, and Mount Kenya regions in order to conserve elephants.  But, this work with the prairie chicken was very inspiring, because many of the Attwater’s Prairie Chickens in the refuge are hatched at captive breeding programs at a few U.S. zoos including the Houston Zoo to conserve the species.



Sabinga collecting marine debris in Galveston

The Houston Zoo is excited to welcome a new intern who comes to us all the way from Kenya, in East Africa. Sabinga is in the United States participating in the Community College Initiative Program (CCIP). The Community College Initiative Program is a program of the U.S. Department of State, administered by Northern Virginia Community College onbehalf of the Community College Consortium (CCC) in partnership with Houston Community College. While participating in this program, he will join us at the zoo as an intern to learn all about what a modern-day zoo is like! Sabinga is already part of the conservation community as he has been working with Save the Elephants in Kenya for over 8 years. He will be documenting his experiences at the Zoo and we will share his thoughts with you here on our blog! Stay tuned for more!

Working to Save Birds in the Marianas Islands

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.

fruit dove

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.

vet check birdWhile 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.

Attwater's prairie chicks are here!

The Houston Zoo has already hatched 209 Attwater’s prairie chicks this Spring!

APC Eggs 2014-0001-2318

All of these guys have made it through to the next stage of their lives and will stay with us here at the Zoo until they are ready for release as strong juveniles into the wild!

apc april

Attwater’s prairie chickens are vanishing from the coastal prairies of Texas. It is estimated that less than 100 of these birds are left in the wild, so the Houston Zoo has breeding facilities both behind the scenes at the Zoo and at NASA’s Johnson Space Center to help revive the wild populations.  When the birds hatch and grow large enough, they are slowly introduced and then released into the wild, where they will support the already existing populations.

If you are inspired to give these chicks a stronger chance for survival, help them out by learning more, or even donating!

Prior to departure – ALWAYS count your crates!

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).

Our plane awaits - with the crates being loading in.
Our plane awaits – with the crates being loading in.
Roomy interior with all window seats!
Roomy interior with all window seats!

So far there seems to be one flaw in the plan for departure:

Tapah might just interfere.
Tapah might interfere.



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.

Our stormy departure!
Our stormy departure!

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.

At least my pedicure held up!
At least my pedicure held up!

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.

Waiting for inspection
Waiting for inspection

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.

Customs Officer helping us move the birds
Customs Officer helping us move the birds
Can I take Pictures here?
Can I take Pictures here?


The dark underbelly of the airport (or the elevator to customs)
The dark underbelly of the airport (or the elevator to customs)



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.

It is 2 AM - I am sleepy and so are the MAFD.
It is 2 AM – I am sleepy and so are the MAFD.

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….

the forgotten crate - hiding in plane sight!
the forgotten crate – hiding in plain sight!

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.

Waiting for departure

We have to hold the birds going back to the US in a quarantine situation for 7 days prior to departure.  The hotel room we are using qualifies as an appropriate quarantine area.  We also have to work with Guam and Hawaii to get import permits – as both these areas are very strict about what animals come into and go out of each island.

Our humble quarantine area for the birds
Our humble quarantine area for the birds

Most challenging so far is getting the birds from Saipan to Guam.  Our normal carrier, Freedom Air, is no longer flying.  We used to use Continental Micronesian, but with the merger with United, there have been changes to the planes used and we cannot always transport live birds on the planes.  So we wait, and look at all options.

While waiting, we work on one of the other aspects of the MAC program that we are currently developing.  Disney’s Animal Kingdom has helped the MAC program by setting up an education component.

This year, we are all participating in a community education outreach.  The Environmental Expo has  environmental groups from all over CNMI participating.  When the 3 day Expo is complete we will reach about 1800 middle  school age children.  We work with them and their schools to promote native wildlife, conservation, and environmental responsibility. Our participation even made the local paper!

Here are a few pictures of the day’s activities:

Environmental Expo
Environmental Expo


The ONLY time it is OK to kill a snake - BTS education booth at the expo
The ONLY time it is OK to kill a snake – BTS education booth at the expo


Laulau Bay Conservation Banner
Laolao Bay Conservation Banner with a GOWE mascot
Brown tree snake
Brown tree snake at the education booth
A trap that is used at airports to stop the spread of the Brown Tree Snake
A trap that is used at airports to stop the spread of the Brown Tree Snake
Brown tree snake trap on the fence at the Saipan International Airport
Brown tree snake trap on the fence at the Saipan International Airport







Houston Zoo's Jessica Clark and Honolulu's Susan Arbuthnot talking to school kids about the MAC program
Houston Zoo’s Jessica Clark and Honolulu Zoo’s Susan Arbuthnot talking to school kids about the MAC program
The "Save the Birds" education board created by Disney's Animal Kingdom for the MAC Program
The “Save the Birds” education board created by Disney’s Animal Kingdom for the MAC Program
Jessica and Susan talking about the birds of CNMI
Jessica and Susan talking about the birds of CNMI
A Reef fish finishing up at the Expo
A Reef fish finishing up at the Expo

The MAC co-founders, Peter Luscomb and Herb Roberts, will also be meeting with the 19 school principals on Saipan to discuss future education opportunities and partnerships.

In addition to this outreach program, we worked with our first CNMI intern this year.  Shirley Taitano is a Sophomore at the Northern Marianas College.  She is studying environmental science and she worked for 7 days with the Tinain field crew.  Shirley is a bright and energetic student and worker.  Her participation is the first step in getting  more community participation in the MAC project.

2014 MAC Field Team: 10 different zoos participated and our intern from CNMI
2014 MAC Field Team: 10 different zoos participated and our intern from CNMI

As we continue to take care of the birds each day, we spend the extra time discussing how we can make an impact on CNMI; both the people and the birds.

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