BY TIM SCHOMMER
It’s a balmy 80-degree day in August at the U.S. Army Garrision’s Pōhakuloa Training Area (PTA) on Hawaii’s Big Island. The wet, brown nose of Slater, a conservation detection dog, systematically surveys the air just above the ground, searching the cracks and crevices of the volcanic landscape for a unique scent. He’s trying to catch a whiff of the rare ‘ake’ake or band-rumped storm petrel, a small, endangered sea bird that spends most of its life at sea, returning to land only to breed. Slater’s keen sense of smell eventually zeros in on a narrow crevice in the rock. After some additional monitoring of the area from PTA’s Natural Resource staff, including wildlife experts from Colorado State University‘s Center for Environmental Management of Military Lands (CEMML), the spot is confirmed to be an active ‘ake’ake burrow, one of only six active burrows that have been located at PTA since the breeding colony was first discovered in 2015.
The ʻakeʻake is an elusive species, and the birds leave very little trace when they enter or exit their burrows. Unlike other bird species that have a tendency to linger around a burrow’s opening as they come and go, leaving bits of guano or footprints in the dirt, the ʻakeʻake come and go quickly. Hawaii’s hard volcanic landscape also makes tracking footprints impossible. To add to the difficulty, ʻakeʻake are small, the size of an American robin, and are nocturnal, leaving their burrows only at night to fly over the sea in pursuit of fish and crustaceans.
The natural resource team employs various methods for identifying the presence of the ʻakeʻake and its burrows. They use audio recorders to try and capture the sound of the bird’s call and night vision cameras to try to photograph them entering or exiting an area. They even tested a technology that can detect heat signatures of creatures in the vicinity.
“Unfortunately, one of the disadvantages of living in a lava field area is that lava retains so much heat,” said Rogelio Doratt, a CEMML wildlife program manager. “Everything glows and it makes it very difficult for us to differentiate between heat signatures.”
The use of sound recorders helped the team identify the general presence of the birds at PTA, but it’s impossible to pinpoint a specific location solely based on sound. Without conservation detection dogs like Slater helping to narrow the search area, it’s like finding a needle in a haystack.
“The landscape is a giant lava field that has all of these natural tubes and openings that are maybe 10 to 12 inches high,” said Lena Schnell, a biologist and senior project manager for CEMML. “These natural tubes can go back 3 to 6 feet and they will lay a singular egg somewhere along the passageway.”
These passageways naturally twist and turn and the birds typically go quite far back in order to protect themselves from the elements and to avoid predators. So the team is unable to identify a burrow just by peering in the opening, and there are countless openings.
All these challenges hindered the team’s search for the ʻakeʻake. However, in 2014, during a trip to New Zealand to visit colleagues working in conversation, a team member learned about the use of detector dogs for a variety of conservation activities. When she returned to Hawaii, she told the team about it and they decided to give it a try at PTA. The next challenge was finding a dog that could locate the burrows. The first dog they brought in, Maka, needed to be trained to identify the specific scent of the ʻakeʻake. She had been trained to track the Hawaiian goose, bats and other birds, but not this particular species. However, the problem was that no ʻakeʻake burrows had been located yet, so the team didn’t have a scent to use for training.
They eventually reached out to colleagues on Maui who were capturing sea birds and banding them. The PTA team shipped over a bunch of washcloths to have the Maui team hold the birds in the clothes as they banded them and capture the general odor of sea birds.
Finally, in 2015, using a combination of night vision game cameras and acoustic monitoring in areas where dog searches had picked up scent, the team captured a photo of an ʻakeʻake peeking out of a burrow, the first confirmed burrow in the entire state of Hawaii.
The team has continued to use detector dogs ever since. Slater began his job this summer at PTA after the retirement of the previous dog team. He started odor training in July and has already proven his abilities by locating an active burrow on his first outing. During his second visit, Slater identified two additional sites that may be burrows. Natural Resources staff will deploy surveillance cameras to monitor these new sites and hopefully will detect additional ʻakeʻake activity. “Working with the conservation detection dogs and their handlers has been rewarding and we couldn’t find the burrows without their help,” said Doratt.
Monitoring ʻakeʻake burrows provides valuable information to develop better management strategies to protect vulnerable breeding birds from introduced predators such as cats, mongoose, rodents, and barn owls. By managing these threats to ʻakeʻake, PTA in partnership with CEMML is helping to ensure a more secure future for this endangered sea bird.
“Environmental stewardship is an extremely important part of the PTA mission,” said Lt. Col. Kevin Cronin, U.S. Army Garrison PTA Garrison Commander, as part of a press release shared by the installation in September. “Our environmental division is dedicated and works tirelessly to support this mission, protecting endangered and threatened species, as well as cultural sites. I am immensely proud of them.”