Three rescued Hawaiian stilts, or ae’o, with food color dye on a flank were successfully released at Waiakauhi, a coastal pond at Four Seasons Resort Hualalai, back into the wild Sunday and could be seen browsing the shoreline for snacks. Within minutes, a pair of juveniles flew over to meet them. (Three Ring Ranch/Special to West Hawaii Today)
Three rescued Hawaiian stilts, or ae’o, with food color dye on a flank were successfully released at Waiakauhi, a coastal pond at Four Seasons Resort Hualalai, back into the wild Sunday. (Three Ring Ranch/Special to West Hawaii Today)
Feral cats chased these three rescued Hawaiian stilts, or ae’o, into the water off Honokohau Harbor. When attempts to reunite the chicks with their parents failed, they were reared at Three Ring Ranch in Kailua-Kona and later released at Waiakauhi, a coastal pond at Four Seasons Resort Hualalai. (Three Ring Ranch/Special to West Hawaii Today)
A stuffed animal, named Uncle Toucan, was wrapped in a blanket the same color as the rescued Hawaiian stilts’ mature parents was used during the rehabilitation and rearing process. The intention was to avoid any human bonding or association to human voices for food. (Three Ring Ranch/Special to West Hawaii Today)
Three endangered aeo got their first taste of freedom Sunday after a rehabilitation lasting more than two months.
The young Hawaiian stilts toddled and foraged along the shoreline of Waiakauhi, a coastal pond at Four Seasons Resort Hualalai. Within minutes, the trio was joined by two juvenile aeo. If it wasn’t for the red, green and blue food coloring dye on the trio’s flanks, it would have been impossible to distinguish them from the wild pair.
The release marked another success story for the Three Ring Ranch in Kailua-Kona and illustrated the power of community working together to protect the environment.
On May 20, a fisherman watched feral cats chase three aeo chicks into the ocean off Honokohau Small Boat Harbor, then dip-netted them from the water and contacted Three Ring Ranch.
Co-owned by Ann Goody, this 5-acre nonprofit exotic animal sanctuary is home to a variety of creatures, including zebras, nene, hawks, owls, flamingos and reptiles. It also holds state and federal wildlife permits for rehabilitation and possession of raptors and endangered species.
Only two rehabilitators, possessing the required federal permit and specialize training, exist on the Big Island: Three Ring Ranch and Kailua-Kona resident Steve Snyder, said Jennifer Miller, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service migratory bird permit biologist.
Goody said she tried to reunite the precocious chicks with their parents on the opposite side of the harbor, but feral cats on that bank were spotted eyeing the birds, making it unsafe to leave them.
A slender wading bird that grows up to 15 inches in length, the aeo has been listed as endangered since 1970 because key wetlands were being altered or destroyed. They prefer shallow water no more than 7 inches deep. Nesting sites are typically on exposed mudflats and low islands, adjacent to water and vegetation. These vulnerable birds also faced threats from predators such as cattle egrets, mongoose and feral cats. Disease is another threat, said the Fish and Wildlife Service.
“The total aeo population is estimated to be between 800 to 1,100 birds, depending on the amount of rainfall in any given year. Wetlands are essential for natural foraging areas to feed juveniles,” Goody said. “Currently we are in a long period of drought, and the total numbers may have fallen to under 1,000, with an estimated 80 to 120 on this island. The population on the Big Island is restricted to the Kona Coast. Cattle egrets are a major threat to young birds and our exploding population in Kona is of great concern.”
The rescued chicks were taken to Three Ring Ranch, where they were reared on a diet of chopped fish, krill and live prey. Initially, they were fed 10 times a day, but that was eventually reduced to four times daily. They also bonded with a stuffed animal named Uncle Toucan, during their stay, which was intended to avoid any human bonding or association to human voices for food. They were not handled or held, Goody said.
The goal, she added, was to return the birds to their natural environment.
Throughout the entire process, Three Ring Ranch reported to the state Division of Forestry and Wildlife, as well as Fish and Wildlife Service. Both agencies provided guidance and suggested good habitats for reintroduction. The first release site proposed was Kaloko-Honokohau National Historic Park, but the feral cats and mongoose there dissuaded everyone involved. Approval was then sought for the Four Seasons Resort Hualalai, a place deemed “the best chance of a normal return to the wild,” Goody said.
This year alone, 15 offspring were born at Waiakauhi, and the area already had wild birds about the same age as the saved trio. Additionally, the resort has an extensive natural resources program, which employs traditional practices and modern techniques to preserve and restore the land it occupies. It also performs predator control, catching feral cats and bringing them to the Hawaii Island Humane Society, said David Chai, the resort’s natural resources director.
Protecting aeo is important because of their long legacy in Hawaii. Not only are the birds part of the natural environment, but also the Hawaiian culture, Chai said.
As of Tuesday afternoon, two of the birds were spotted at Waiakauhi, successfully integrating with the resident population, and the third aeo with a red patch on its flank had flown somewhere else, Chai said.