On the red mud of Waipahu’s Pouhala Marsh, a Hawaiian stilt flapped its wings, trying to lure away a potential predator of its young.
The predator, Jason Misaki’s white pickup truck, stopped several feet away. Misaki hopped out and walked a wide circle, looking into patches of vegetation for the stilt’s fledglings.
Earlier that morning, Misaki caught three stilt chicks by hand and placed colored bands on the birds’ long legs as part of a survey of the number of stilts born at the marsh.
This year, the number of fledglings at Pouhala is on track to surpass any year since the state began restoring the marsh nine years ago — a sign of its successful recovery.
The 70-acre marsh is the largest wetland in Pearl Harbor and provides an important habitat for the Hawaiian stilt, along with the Hawaiian coot and moorhen, all endangered Hawaiian water birds. Hawaiian stilts number about 1,500 today. About 100 typically feed at Pouhala Marsh at any given time.
Misaki, the state’s wildlife program manager for Oahu, said preserving Pouhala is an important part of saving the stilt, which differs from the North American stilt by having more black on its head and neck.
Misaki said preserving species native to Hawaii is important because “it’s their habitat. These are symbols of Hawaii, a symbol of the people of Hawaii, the landscape and the animals of Hawaii.” Continue reading
The Nature Conservancy says rare native plants are once again thriving in a Big Island forest preserve now that a fence is keeping out pigs and mouflon sheep.
The animals, which are not native to Hawaii, destroy native plants and habitats by trampling on vegetation. The animals accelerate erosion and pollute the water supply with feces and diseases.
The nonprofit organization installed an animal-proof fence around its Kaiholena Preserve in Kau in late 2007. It took the conservancy and local hunters another year to remove all the pigs from the 1,200-acre lowland forest preserve.
The Nature Conservancy said Tuesday the nuku iiwi, a native vine traditionally found in Kaiholena, is among the plants that has returned. The vine’s reddish-orange flower resembles the curved bill of the iiwi honeycreeper.
National Park Service firefighters have spent the week trying to prevent the wild fire ignited by Kilauea Volcano from spreading through a protected rain forest that is inhabited by endangered Hawaiian plants and animals.
Nearly 100 acres of the 2,750-acre east rift zone’s special ecological area, an intact lowland rain forest, have already destroyed in the fire ignited March 5 by an eruption at the Kamoamoa fissure.
As of today, the Napau wildfire on the east rift zone of the Big Island’s Kilauea volcano has destroyed 2,000 acres approximately seven miles southeast of the Kilauea Visitor Center.
The area is the home of the endangered Hawaiian bat, Hawaiian hawk, and other uniquely Hawaiian plants and animals such as Hawaiian thrush, lama and sandalwood trees, happy face spiders, carnivorous caterpillars, and Hawaiian honeycreepers said Gary Wuchner, National Park Service fire information spokesman.
Mardi Lane, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park spokeswoman, described the area as “pristine.”
“It best represents what Hawaii was and is a seed source for plants and refuge for birds,” Lane said.
“It is a living laboratory of Hawaiian plants and animals.”
Firefighters will be working to keep flames from spreading beyond the 100 acres of the refuge Continue reading
The last specimen of a rare Hawaiian orchid on Kauai will be joined next week by a half-dozen of its descendants in its home.
An Illinois botany professor who successfully reproduced the Platanthera holochila is expected to bring about 90 plants to Hawaii next week.
The orchid is extinct on Oahu and nonexistent on the Big Island, but Maui has about 20 plants living in the wild and about 20 live on Molokai. The only known specimen on Kauai lives in the Alakai Swamp within a fence that protects it from goats and pigs.
One of three orchid species endemic to Hawaii, the plant is the rarest of all three and appears somewhat unglamorous for an orchid, said Wendy Kishida, Kauai coordinator of the Plant Extinction Prevention Program.
It can grow to be several feet tall with hundreds of greenish-yellow flowers that bloom from spikes around the stem, according to some descriptions.
Chipper Wichman, director and chief executive officer of the National Tropical Botanical Garden on Kauai, said botanists have seen the plant’s population decline over 20 years from about four plants to one. He said no one has been able to propagate the plant.
“This is really a success story,” he said. “This is a huge breakthrough for us.” Continue reading
LANAIHALE – For decades, researchers thought the last major colony of Hawaiian petrels in the islands nested on the slopes of Haleakala.
Then about a decade ago, wildlife biologist Fern Duvall was working on Lanai when he noticed a petrel burrow. He kept the discovery in the back of his mind for six years, until he was able to return to the island to follow up.
“We just went to see if we could detect any birds at all,” Duvall said. “It turned out that not only could we find birds – there were thousands of them. We think it’s the second-largest known concentration of Hawaiian petrels.”
Duvall suspects that the birds have thrived on the slopes of Lanaihale – Lanai’s only large mountain – because the island has so little development and few urban lights.
The night-flying birds depend on starlight to navigate and often become disoriented and crash in urbanized areas.
“Lanai disappears after dark,” Duvall said. “We think the birds cue in on this absolute darkness.”
The qualities that attracted the birds to Lanai also helped them go unnoticed for decades – and still makes it tough to get an accurate estimate of the population, said researcher Jay Penniman. Continue reading
What began as a handful of wetland ponds with dozens of birds overlooking Pearl Harbor has turned into a refuge teeming with hundreds.
The number of native birds, including endangered Hawaiian stilts called ae o, in the ponds at Waiawa and Honouliuli at the Pearl Harbor National Wildlife Refuge has been rising since the early 1990s, when a conservation recovery plan was developed, said David Ellis, refuge project leader.
Federal wildlife officials built fences to help keep out predators and began controlling invasive plants and managing water in the ponds.
“There’s been a very noticeable increase,” Ellis said. “There used to be only a few wetland birds that used these ponds ; now we commonly see hundreds, an important step for endangered species.” Continue reading
A bird conservation group says the endangered short-tailed albatross has nested in the far northwestern edge of the Hawaiian islands — the first time the species has done so in the United States.
The American Bird Conservancy said Wednesday nests for the white and black feathered seabird have been found at Kure and Midway atolls.
The atolls are about 1,300 miles northwest of Honolulu in the largely uninhabited Papahauamokuakea Marine National Monument.
Until now, the short-tailed albatross has only reproduced at two sites.
One is Torishima island in Japan. The other is in islands controlled by Tokyo and claimed by Beijing, called Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China.
Feather hunting devastated the species at the turn of the 20th Century.
Scientists are on the trail of the little-understood meat-eaters like the California cobra lily and Venus’ flytrap, in decline amid rampant poaching and other human encroachment.
By Amina Khan, Los Angeles Times
Reporting from Quincy, Calif. —
“This is the easy part,” says Barry Rice, half-sliding, half-falling down a ravine through a latticework of dead branches.
Decades ago, lush stands of Darlingtonia californica — emerald plants coiled like fanged cobras ready to pounce — grew at this spot in the northern reaches of the Sierra Nevada.
Deep in the ravine, the air is hot and dead. Pieces of bark that have sloughed off trees make every step a danger — nature’s equivalent of a thousand forgotten skateboards cluttering a driveway. Slate tinkles underfoot, and the ground feels like stale angel-food cake: stiff yet porous.
Rice, a botanist at UC Davis, is not the first to hunt the cobra lily here in Butterfly Valley. In 1875, amateur botanist Rebecca Austin fed the plants raw mutton and carefully observed how they digested it.
Yet to this day, much of the plants’ biology and habitat remain unknown — which is why Rice is here, trying to find established populations.
Near the bottom of the crevice, the ground becomes moist. The air cools and softens. This is where the cobra lilies would be. “When you see them, they look almost like animals,” Rice says.
But there are none to be seen.
Rice does find meat-eaters in some of the other places he checks out on this July weekend. But in three of seven places where they used to be, the plants have vanished. It’s a sad story that is playing out across the country in the valleys, bogs and bottoms where carnivorous plants once thrived.
The cobra lily, also known as the California pitcher plant, is comparatively lucky: Its stocks may be dwindling but its broad habitat affords something of a safety net.
Many of its brethren are faring far worse: insect-devouring butterworts, bladderworts, sundews, other pitcher plants and most famous of all, the Venus’ flytrap. The bulk of their U.S. habitat has disappeared, especially in the Southeast, mostly because of human encroachment of various kinds: development, poaching and suppression of naturally occurring wildfires.
Woodland fires remove taller foliage that keeps the stubby meat-eaters from getting enough sunlight. But because of development, allowing fires to burn in their habitats is often out of the question.
In California, alders have grown tall enough in some places to shade out the cobra lily.
In Georgia, botanists have hacked through thickening Appalachian forest in an effort to save the state’s last remaining colony of mountain purple pitcher plants.
In North Carolina, of about 250 Venus’ flytrap sites that existed in the 1930s, about two-thirds are left and just 32 have a good shot at survival, said Rob Evans, coordinator of the North Carolina Plant Conservation Program.
What plants remain are often plucked from swamps and bogs by poachers and hawked at roadside stands, farmers markets, nurseries or on the Internet.
“I remember visiting [one site] for the first time 30 years ago and there were probably 50 acres where you couldn’t take a step without there being a flytrap, and 30 years later, not a flytrap to be found,” said Johnny Randall, assistant director for conservation at the North Carolina Botanical Garden. “Literally hundreds of flytraps had been poached out of there.”
They possess a notable trait bequeathed by as much as 125 million years of evolution: the ability to capture and digest insects (and reputedly rats, in the case of Nepenthes rajah of Borneo, which can grow more than 3 feet high). Because they draw nutrients such as nitrogen from the carcasses of bugs instead of relying on their roots to extract minerals from the ground, they can live in the poor-quality soil found in bogs.
Most meat-eating plants passively trap their prey, relying on a bug’s clumsiness or carelessness. Sundews exude a sticky substance that traps insects; the many varieties of pitcher plant just wait for bugs to fall into their vases.
Some, like the cobra lily, have downward-pointing hairs to prevent insects from climbing out, and transparent patches on their leaves to trick bugs into heading for false exits.
The Venus’ flytrap is one of the few that actively traps its prey. When an unsuspecting fly, lured by scent, lands on a trigger vein in the leaf, the leaf snaps shut like a jaw, caging the victim with sawtooth-like spines.
Carl Linnaeus, known as the father of modern taxonomy, at first dismissed reports of the plant, convinced that such a thing could not exist. Charles Darwin, in his little-known work “Insectivorous Plants,” said that of all plants, the Venus’ flytrap was “one of the most wonderful in the world.”
Its native habitat is limited to a few parts of North and South Carolina, where by some estimates there are as few as 35,800 left. Many more survive “in captivity,” flytraps being one of the few carnivorous plants grown for a wider market.
Plants cultivated legally can be purchased in nurseries or the garden sections of hardware stores and supermarkets.
But taking carnivorous species from protected areas is illegal in many states. Law enforcement officials in the southeastern U.S. have learned to look for the telltale signs of poachers: A pickup truck parked on the side of the road bordering swampland is a giveaway.
Sgt. Jeremy Wall recalls heading into North Carolina’s Green Swamp one day in fall 2007 after getting a call from members of a hunting club. They’d spotted a Nissan pickup on the side of the road in the middle of the 16,000-acre swamp.
Wall suspected drugs at first: The swamp provides cover for anyone looking to grow marijuana. Then a man emerged from the woods with a backpack, and Wall knew what he was dealing with. The pack was stuffed not with pot, but with purple pitcher plants. The man and two companions had uprooted 500 of them, Wall said.
Still, they faced minimal punishment: The typical fine for a first offense in North Carolina is $100, plus a $125 court fee.
Sometimes poachers don’t pay at all. Lt. Matthew Long of the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission once encountered a truck sitting on a road in the Green Swamp, with no driver in sight. He and other officers followed the trail into the swamp, nearly stumbling over two women who had collected 295 flytraps.
“We stepped on them, laying flat down on their bellies, faces down, camouflage, kneepads,” Long said. “They were digging into [the plants] with butcher knives.”
Hey ladies, he recalled asking. What’s going on?
Oh, we were just taking a nap, they replied.
The women were arrested but were later released without having to pay fines, according to the local district attorney’s office.
If the risks of poaching are low, so are the returns. The plants sell for 25 cents each on the black market, said Ron Robertson, an enforcement officer with the North Carolina commission.
Nevertheless, poaching “is in an upswing,” Long said. “Because of the economy, people are more desperate.… Even people who are scared to death of snakes — that’s what they’re willing to do.”
Most law enforcement agencies don’t have the resources to pursue poachers aggressively. That’s why it’s rare to catch them in the act. Instead, federal and state officials and conservation groups focus on keeping secret the locations of remaining sites and on educating the public on the need to respect and preserve meat-eating plants.
In Oregon, officials have set up a site dedicated solely to the preservation of the cobra lily.
In North Carolina, the Nature Conservancy operates the Green Swamp, home to at least 14 different species of carnivorous plants, as a preserve. When poachers are nabbed, conservationists and government officials help replant the confiscated species in secret locations on protected property.
Sometimes, the best way to save native carnivorous plants is to kill nonnative ones, said Rice of UC Davis. Overenthusiastic amateur collectors have taken to transplanting meat-eating species in wild lands far from their native habitats. This can introduce disease and other invasive plants, Rice said.
He makes a merciless example of any interlopers he finds, hoping that enthusiasts will think twice about sticking plants where they don’t belong.
In California’s Butterfly Valley, Rice’s loud “Aha!” rings out in a forest glade. He has spotted a sundew from New Jersey, Drosera hybrida, hiding among its Californian cousins in an inch-deep layer of water.
He kneels and plucks it out of the soil. “Carnivorous plant growers will just die at what I’m about to do,” he says minutes later, having climbed out of the valley and onto the road.
With ceremony, he holds the uprooted alien high in the air, then drops it and grinds it to bits with his heel.
Copyright © 2010, Los Angeles Times