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Rare bird seen on Mauna Loa for first time before eruption

National Park Service

Scientists spotted an elusive creature on Mauna Loa for the first time about a month before the volcano erupted.

Conservationists are equally as “transfixed” by the sighting of a young ʻakēʻakē, an endangered nocturnal seabird, as they are with the historic eruption, officials with the National Park Service said in a news release.

In a video captured by wildlife cameras, the fluffy little fledgling emerges from its high-elevation burrow and seems to poke around for something to eat.

Biologists set up the cameras to monitor the burrows after a “really good boy named Slater of Hawai’i Detector Dogs” sniffed out the nest. The dog also found three Hawaiian petrel nests, according to the release.

But now that the volcano has awoken after a near 40-year slumber, are these endangered avians in more danger?

The National Park Service says no.

“The ʻakēʻakē and ʻuaʻu burrows are protected within the park’s 644-acre cat-proof fence and are not threatened by the current eruption of Mauna Loa,” the news release said.

The biggest threats to their safety, at least in Hawai’i, are “predation by non-native barn owls, cats and mongoose, and disorientation from artificial lights,” officials said in the release. That’s because like Hawaiian petrels (ʻuaʻu) and other seabirds, ʻakēʻakē fly to their breeding grounds in the cover of darkness.

To help protect them, people can control their pets, especially cats, and use dark-sky friendly lighting, officials said.

The detector dog found the nest in September, and biologist Charlotte Forbes Perry observed the ʻakēʻakē chick inside its burrow weeks before it emerged. She confirmed it as the first known nest in Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park.

“Biologists in the park have known of the presence of ʻakēʻakē on Mauna Loa since the 1990s. In 2019, ʻakēʻakē burrow calls were recorded during acoustic monitoring which indicated nesting. The lack of visual signs like guano at their nest sites make them extremely hard for humans to locate,” Forbes Perry said in the park’s new release.

She leads a team of scientists out of the University of Hawai’i Pacific Cooperative Studies Unit, where they study seabirds in the park under a permit from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

ʻAkēʻakē are also known as the band-rumped storm petrel, and they’re very small, according to the American Bird Conservancy. Adults weigh about as much as a golf ball. They are “ash black with a wide white band on their squarish tail,” and they nest on isolated islands and spend the remainder of their time at sea.

Globally, the population is estimated at about 150,000, with 240 pairs known in Hawai’i, the release said.

Another ʻakēʻakē burrow was found at the U.S. Army Garrison Pōhakuloa Training Area in September, and these two nests are the only documented nests in Hawai’i.

“We are ecstatic by these finds, and detector dogs are an invaluable resource to help locate these elusive birds,” Forbes Perry said.

Users on Twitter commented on the exciting news. “Pele brings change and life, in so many ways,” one wrote, referring to the Native Hawaiian deity of fire and volcanoes. According to legend, Pele dwells at the summit of Kīlauea on Hawaii.

This story was originally published December 7, 2022 1:42 PM.

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Brooke (she/them) is a McClatchy Real-Time reporter who covers LGBTQ+ news and national parks out west. They studied journalism at the University of Florida, and previously covered LGBTQ+ news for the South Florida Sun Sentinel. When they’re not writing stories, they enjoy hanging out with their cats, riding horses or spending time outdoors.