Friday, August 19, 2005


Black and white sooty terns, on the ground, and red-footed boobies, in a dead tree, are two species of birds that nest on Tern Island, French Frigate Shoals. The NOAA ship Hi'ialakai can be seen in the background.

Tern Isle is busy haven
for nesting seabirds

Hawaii educators experience
thousands of birds from 19 species
in all their raucous glory

Educators aboard the Hi'ialakai set foot on dry land at Tern Island, French Frigate Shoals, Wednesday for the first time in five days.

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As soon as they did, there was a cacophony of cawing, screeching, squawking and other noises pouring from the beaks of thousands of seabirds.

There were sooty terns and white terns, brown noddies and black noddies, masked boobies, brown boobies and red-footed boobies -- by the thousands. Wedge-tailed shearwaters, red-tailed tropic birds and great frigate birds by the dozens.

This 30-acre island, just 6 feet above sea level, is bird central for the Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge, managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, includes all the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (except Kure and Midway atolls) and the near-shore ocean out to 60 feet deep in most places.

Every inch of the Tern Island is populated by nesting seabirds, with the exception of the coral-sand runway for six-seater prop planes. And if Fish and Wildlife staff and volunteers do not shoo birds off the runway several times a day, they will lay eggs there, too.

Nineteen species of sea birds nest at French Frigate Shoals, a coral atoll that has a total of 73 acres of land above sea level. No one species stays here year-round, but it is always busy, with birds courting, mating, sitting on their eggs or tending their chicks.

And all that activity is more than enough to keep Angela Anders, a doctoral candidate, quite busy.

Anders told the 10 Hawaii teachers visiting the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands what to expect at Tern Island before their arrival.

Seabirds spend the majority of their life at sea, either on the wing or floating on the water, Anders said. But to reproduce, the birds need land, no matter how small, to lay their eggs and tend their young until they are able to fly.

Researchers have learned, for example, that albatrosses can live past 50 years and that seabirds synchronize their watches on when and where to mate, Anders said. And the multitude of birds share space by dividing up the nesting space.

Some nest in burrows underground, some above it, others under bushes and some in bushes, Anders said.

And they divide up the food supply: Some fish on the ocean's surface, some dive under the waves, some fish near shore and others go far to sea; some feed at night and some by day.

But the sheer density of the birds on Tern has to be experienced to be believed.

You cannot take a step here without watching your foot to avoid ground-nesting and burrow-nesting birds. On every limb of every bush, shrub or stick, a bird is nesting. Birds perch on propane gas bottles, on metal pilings, on roof edges, on anything.

"There's no time of the day or night they are totally quiet," said Jennifer Tietjen, Tern Island manager for the Fish and Wildlife Service. "They're always talking to each other."

Maggie Prevenas, a Maui grade-school teacher, found the bird-filled day at Tern topped her expectations.

"Was this a great day or what?" she asked.

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