During a good winter, when water levels remain high at the Kealia Pond National Wildlife Refuge, 120 or more endangered Hawaiian coot nests have been counted at the coastal wetland.
This year, with the leeward side of Maui suffering extreme drought conditions, only a handful of nests were found at the north Kihei pond, according to refuge Manager Glynnis Nakai.
Low water levels also discouraged nesting by endangered Hawaiian stilts, she said.
There’s no telling whether the drought will have a long-term impact on native bird populations.
"We can only hope that they are traveling to Kanaha Pond or other islands where there is sufficient habitat," Nakai said.
Other drought impacts, from withered landscaping to runaway brush fires, have been felt across Maui’s leeward areas and are expected to persist through the summer.
The National Weather Service said the 2009-10 "wet season" in Hawaii from October to April ranks as one of the driest in the last 55 years. During that period, rain gauges in Kihei measured only 3 inches of precipitation, about 21 percent of normal rainfall for the period, and the total for Lahaina was less than 2 inches, 11 percent of normal.
Kula, home to many farms and livestock operations, was a little wetter, with 8 inches of rain, only 44 percent of normal.
Kevin Kodama, senior hydrologist with the National Weather Service in Honolulu, said the El Nino climate system, characterized by unusually warm ocean temperatures in the equatorial Pacific, was "the big reason" for the dry winter.
Although El Nino is fading, Kodama advised against hoping for significant rainfall anytime soon.
"It’s not looking good. It’s typically dry during the summer, and we’re not expecting much relief," he said. "To make matters worse, the U.S. Climate Prediction Center is predicting a drier-than-normal dry season."
The U.S. Drought Monitor shows extreme drought conditions already stretching from Wailea to Lahaina and covering the western two-thirds of Molokai, as well as some leeward areas of the Big Island.
In dry times, the Kealia wildlife refuge can pump water from a brackish well into the main 200-acre pond, but not nearly enough to flood the vegetation favored by nesting coots, Nakai said.
"We never received the rain, so our water level in the main pond is really low, even though we were pumping throughout the winter," she said.
Other wildlife are impacted by the drought, with Maui’s troublesome axis deer population compounding problems for already struggling cattle ranchers by consuming precious but sparse new growth on parched pasturelands.
"The dry winter didn’t bring any rain that settled into the soil very deeply. There’s no regrowth," said William Jacintho, whose family-run Beef and Blooms has about 100 head of cattle on a couple hundred acres in Waiakoa and Haiku. The ranch produces certified organic beef.
"If there’s no rain, whatever the deer eat, it doesn’t grow back," he said.
Jacintho and other ranchers have had to buy extra feed to supplement grazing, and many are culling their herds by shipping cattle to Mainland feedlots earlier than usual, while the animals are still in good shape.
Those ranchers who can, move their cattle to pasturelands in wetter, windward areas, said Jacintho, who heads the Maui Cattlemen’s Association.
"My guess is that the earliest we’ll get a break is November. We haven’t had south and Kona rains this year," he said. "It was a long summer for 2009 and a very light winter. It keeps stacking up, and cattle ranches are shrinking and shrinking."
The plant nursery component of Beef and Blooms is faring better because of a readily available irrigation source.
"As long as county water comes out of the meter, it’s all good," Jacintho said.
The nursery waters its bedding flowers and other landscaping plants by hand to conserve water, he said.
The county Department of Water Supply has requested voluntary 5 percent and 10 percent reductions in water use by Upcountry and Central Maui customers, respectively.
Kodama, the weather service hydrologist, said it’s too early to predict whether next winter will bring much-needed rains.