U.S. FISH AND WILDLIFE SERVICE VIA AP
In this photo, Leona Laniawe, a U.S. Geological Survey biologist, releases a Laysan duck on Sand Island in Midway Atoll.
Midway's Laysan duck population gets infusion
Twenty-two endangered Laysan ducks bred on their namesake island have been released at Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge, and federal wildlife officials say they will help ensure that the rare waterfowl doesn't become extinct.
Conservationists fear a hurricane, tsunami or disease could wipe out all the small nocturnal birds with multihued brown feathers and a white ring around the eyes.
Laysan ducks, also called Laysan teal, once ranged across the Hawaiian Islands but now reside naturally only on Laysan Island.
It's the second time wildlife biologists have introduced a population of the endangered birds to Midway as "insurance" against sudden extinction.
Last year, 20 Laysan ducks were shipped from the island about 1,000 miles northwest of Honolulu. They surprised scientists by producing chicks during their first nesting season. The transplanted ducks weren't expected to breed until next year.
The new birds were selected after six months of field research, said officials with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, based on weight, sex, health and age. Only a single duckling was taken from each brood.
Scientists used hand nets, headlamps and radio signals to capture the ducks on the night of Oct. 4. Each bird was tucked in its own box and transported in an air-conditioned cabin aboard the chartered ship MV American Islander.
Once on Midway, they were taken to aviaries on nearby Sand and Eastern islands, where they were closely monitored and fed local insects and seeds.
Nine males and seven females were released on Eastern Island between Oct. 7-19, while five females and one male were released on Sand Island. Each bird was released with a radio transmitter and leg band so that scientists could monitor their behavior in the wild.
Scientists Nigel Jarrett and Jimmy Breeden have been camping on Eastern Island for the past three weeks, first caring for the ducks in the aviaries then monitoring them after they were released.
"I never imagined I'd see a free-living Laysan teal," said Jarrett, an aviculturist for the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust. "It has been a highlight of my career to help ensure this species will continue to exist."
The introduction of rats to the Hawaiian Islands caused the ducks to slowly disappear, island by island, until the only known population remaining was on Laysan Island.
The Midway Duck Translocation Project started more than eight years ago, when scientists began looking for a way to ensure that a passing hurricane or tsunami did not wipe out the species on low, sandy Laysan.
Midway was identified as a potential new home for the birds because the island is free of rats and other predators and because the conditions were right for monitoring the birds after release. Conservation crews constructed aviaries, removed trees, dug a series of shallow ponds and planted an imported plant called makaloa, favored by the ducks.
To date, 19 of the 20 ducks transported to Midway last year are doing well, wildlife officials said. One male duck died in December after an altercation with an aggressive Laysan albatross.
Five of the six females brought to Midway nested, producing 62 eggs that resulted in 10 ducklings. The latest population count of 55 Laysan ducks includes four new ducklings hatched last week on Midway.