Night vision binoculars, a scent dog, and video cameras have caught band-rumped storm petrels coming and going from their volcanic nests for the first time.
March 20, 2019
In the four years that Nicole Galase has been studying band-rumped storm petrels on the Island of Hawai‘i, she has worn through five pairs of hiking boots, thrashing their soles on the rough lava fields of Mauna Loa. But Galase isn’t complaining, as the countless kilometers of travel have paid off: she is the first biologist to unequivocally locate these secretive seabirds’ Hawaiian nesting sites, concealed deep in volcanic lava tubes.
“Stormies,” as Galase fondly calls the seabirds, are thought to be in decline globally and are officially listed as endangered in the United States. They spend most of their lives far out at sea, ranging across the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and never touching land outside of the breeding season. They confine their nesting colonies to remote islands and hide their nests underground, coming and going only at night. Ancient bird bones found by archaeologists suggest that the seabirds have nested throughout the Hawaiian Islands since before Western contact, but modern-day evidence of breeding was, until now, circumstantial. While there were reports of nighttime calling, and occasional sightings of adults in breeding condition, or of fledglings, no researcher had ever found nests sheltering eggs or chicks.
Back in 2014, Galase arrived at the US Army’s Pōhakuloa Training Area on the Island of Hawai‘i to lead a seabird research project, a joint initiative of the army’s natural resource program and Colorado State University’s Center for Environmental Management of Military Lands. Previous acoustic monitoring showed that band-rumped storm petrels frequented the Pōhakuloa area—a high plateau between several volcanoes including Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea—during the May to November breeding season, yet no one could prove they were nesting there. The 28-year-old new hire’s assignment was to catch them in the act.