Caring for the Waimea Valley with Crystal Thornburg
We all play in our local environments, but how many of us take the time to help care for them? Patagonia surf ambassador Crystal Thornburg shares this story about how she and some of the crew from Patagonia Hale'iwa have been volunteering to help restore a portion of the Waimea Valley.
[Hale'iwa store manager Paul Carson, conservationist Laurent Pool, and Crystal Thornburg clear an invasive plant species from a pond in the Waimea Valley to make way for the 'Alae 'ula. Photo: Kelly Perry]
Throughout the past several years, I have been volunteering in Waimea Valley on the north shore of Oahu, Hawaii with other Patagonia staff as part of the Patagonia Employee Internship Program. Just down the road from the Haleiwa store, Waimea Valley is known for its natural beauty surrounded by native, endangered, and indigenous plant and bird species.
While participating in many activities involving ecological restoration, one project that we have been practicing for years has become one of our favorites: a process called air-layering. Working with native and endangered plant species, normal propagation techniques may not always be successful, so we use a process called air-layering, which can be used to propagate large, overgrown plants that might have a lower success rate otherwise.
While working with plants in the valley, I would notice a little black bird with a bright red bill known as a moorhen walk by, looking like a chicken but more similar to a Rail. Recently, I learned more information regarding this bird, the native Hawaiian moorhen. This bird is known as an endemic subspecies of the Common moorhen, and is a non-migratory bird. Its Hawaiian name is 'Alae 'ula (Gallinula chloropus sandvicensis).
Waimea Valley is also known as a pu'uhonua or place of peace and safety. Waimea staff and volunteers are doing just that for the 'Alae 'ula – working diligently to protect these endangered birds. The valley, also a place of great historical significance and a repository for Hawaiian spirituality and culture, contains several myths and legends that the staff shares with guests.
Valley education staff tell visitors about the important role 'Alae 'ula play in Hawaiian legend. 'Alae 'ula were thought to have known the secret of fire, but chose to withhold the skill from man. When Hawaiian Demigod Maui finally tricked the 'Alae 'ula into sharing the secret, he punished the bird for withholding the secret for so long. Maui burned the 'Alae 'ula’s head with a hot stick, hence the red frontal shield of the 'Alae 'ula. 'Alae 'ula translated from Hawaiian means red shield. The legend of the bird is still passed down today.
Working with Conservation Land Specialist, Laurent Pool, we were able to learn more about the birds’ habitat along with their daily rituals. In Hawaii, the population size is difficult to calculate due to their shyness, but estimated average count is at about 314 biannually. In Waimea Valley there are now about 10 'Alae 'ula, which are utilizing the habitat. The 'Alae 'ula breed year-round, producing between 2-7 chicks per brood. They are resourceful eaters wandering around the valley looking for creatures such as, worms, mollusks, aquatic insects as well as algae from nearby ponds. They spend most of their time in the ponds building nests and feeding. In the ponds 'Alae 'ula appear to like the 50:50 ratio for emergent vegetation to open water.
The 'Alae 'ula usually build floating nests on the surface of the pond. Due to the decline in population, the Haleiwa staff and I build rafts made with bamboo, leafs, and banyan vines to encourage mating within the existing population. These nests have been placed in two ponds and are monitored daily for use. To keep predators such as, mongoose, cats, rats, bullfrogs in control, we maintain the habitat by weeding, daily monitoring, and identification band sighting surveys.
The day after we built the rafts, Laurent Pool, Patagonia Haleiwa store manager Paul Carson and I returned to eradicate an unknown invasive plant species from the pond. The invasive plant was taking over the native plants in the pond as well as making it difficult for the 'Alae 'ula to move freely throughout the pond. The over grown plants also disables the 'Alae 'ula from spotting predators. In, old hole-filled waders we worked our way through the pond in chest high water pulling out the invasive plant. The three of us had a system going, pulling the plants out, placing them on a bodyboard, pushing it back to the next person, then they would unload the plant filled bodyboard onto a tarp on the water’s edge. Continuing the process for about three hours we made way for the 'Alae 'ula and two newborns. The family seemed very excited to have their habitat back. They moved about eating up all the creatures stirred up by our activity.
Unfortunately, just a few weeks after restoring the pond, the two newborn chicks went missing. It is thought that the native Auku'u known as a Black Crown Night Heron might have a role in the disappearance because it is also a known predator. Although there aren’t any chicks at the moment, nesting is starting to happen. The 'Alae 'ula are moving sticks around which is an indication of nesting. The low reproduction rate of 'Alae 'ula in Waimea Valley may be due to a few different factors. One being that there might be only one female or one male out of the remaining six birds. There is no way to tell the sex of the 'Alae 'ula, so it is difficult to determine. Another reason may be due to the size of the pond areas. The habitat might not be suitable for larger numbers of 'Alae 'ula. Either way, we will continue to monitor the behaviors and wellbeing of these beautiful native Hawaiian birds for future generations to enjoy.
We have had one chick survive in the last year. He or she is now 7 months old and his/her shield is getting more and more red everyday.
Volunteering at Waimea Valley gives us the opportunity to learn about the cultural, and ecological importance of this significant area. Being able to work here also allows us to form bonds between the Haleiwa store staff and our local community. It is a wonderful experience seeing progress throughout the years we have been volunteering here. All of us at the Haleiwa store are honored to be part of the Volunteer crew in Waimea Valley and hope to continue our work for years to come.
[Building rafts out of bamboo for the floating nests. L to R: Hiromi Hasagawa-Suitt, Tracy Foyle, Kyle Foyle, Crystal Thornburg, and Laurent Pool. Photo: Kelly Perry]
[Finished rafts with leaf nests. L to R: Crystal Thornburg, Kyle Foyle, Tracy Foyle, Laurent Pool, and Hiromi Hasagawa-Suitt. Photo: Kelly Perry]
[Launching the rafts into the pond. Photo: Kelly Perry]
[Aloha! Photo: Kelly Perry]
Our thanks go out to Crystal for taking the time to send this story and photos. You can see and hear more of Crystal in the movie Sliding Liberia. She also appears in this short Patagonia surf video and on the Patagonia mini-site, Bend to Baja.