It was a dark and stormy morning… Volunteer Day at Kawainui Restoration Ponds

March 19, 2014

By: Robyn Sweesy

It was a dark and stormy morning. . . 

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Kawainui Restorations Ponds looking toward the pali. Several ae‘o forage at the far end of the pond. (Photo: Rick Quinn)

Team HHF Planners love to volunteer.  On the dark and stormy morning of March 1, 2014, we headed to Kailua for the monthly Volunteer Day at the 40-acre Kawainui Restoration Ponds.

Outfitted in rain boots, reef walkers, and sneakers, we gathered at the edge of Kawainui Marsh to meet Division of Forestry and Wildlife (DOFAW) biologist James Cogswell for our orientation.

The ponds provide habitat for endangered Hawaiian coots (‘alae ke‘oke‘o), moorhens (‘alae ‘ula), stilts (ae‘o), and ducks (koloa maoli).  For more information about these endangered birds, go  here .  In 2013, the Army Corps of Engineers completed construction of the eleven terraced ponds in a portion of the marsh that was overgrown with invasive plants.  The ponds vary in depth from 18 to 24 inches, and the edges slope very gently, providing muddy flats where the birds can forage for seeds, plants, and insects.  Special fencing surrounding the ponds keeps predators, such as dogs and pigs, out.

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Wildlife biologist James Cogswell (left) manages the ponds and oversees the monthly Volunteer Days. (Photo: Rick Quinn)

Many clusters of cattails―a plant commonly seen in wet areas―were growing in the ponds.  To a certain extent, their presence is welcomed, since some of the bird species hide their floating nests among their vegetation and use their leaves as their preferred nesting material.  But each cattail seed spike has as many as a quarter-million seeds, and these are easily dispersed by the wind.  Uncontrolled, cattails would eventually create such dense colonies that the ponds would be uninhabitable by the birds.  (Note:  Cattails also grow—more slowly—from rhizomes.)  Wide open spaces at the ponds are especially important for the ae‘o:  they lay their eggs on the mudflats without nests and need visual access to their eggs while foraging so they can quickly defend against predators if necessary.

Our main task was to clip and collect the cattail seed spikes before they were mature enough to release their seeds.  In some places, we could reach the cattails from the ponds’ earth berm edges; in other locations, we waded into the ponds.  In the process, we discovered a coot nest with eggs and an old floating nest complete with a cattail ramp for easy movement out of and back into the water.  The birds—all four species—kept close tabs on our whereabouts and adjusted their positions to forage a comfortable distance from us.

We trimmed cattail seed spikes to control the dispersal of seeds in the ponds.  Cattails provide vegetative cover and nesting material for the endangered species, but without control, they would eventually create such dense colonies that the ponds would be uninhabitable by the birds.

We trimmed cattail seed spikes to control the dispersal of seeds in the ponds. Cattails provide vegetative cover and nesting material for the endangered species, but without control, they would eventually create such dense colonies that the ponds would be uninhabitable by the birds. (Photo: Rick Quinn)

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Left: While clipping cattail seed spikes, we discovered an ‘alae ke‘oke‘o nest floating among the cattails. The nest was made with cattail leaves. Right: The birds that made this cattail leaf nest constructed it with a ramp (back left) for getting out of and back into the pond. (Photos: Rick Quinn)

We helped anchor wood pallets toward the center of ponds to provide nest-building opportunities safe from predators such as feral cats and mongooses. (Photo: Rick Quinn)

We helped anchor wood pallets toward the center of ponds to provide nest-building opportunities safe from predators such as feral cats and mongooses. (Photo: Rick Quinn)

One of our HHF team volunteers helped Jim anchor wooden paletts in the middle of a pond to create nest-building opportunities for ‘alae ke‘oke‘o and ‘alae ‘ula.  Surrounded by water, the eggs are safe from predators, such as feral cats and mongooses.

We also installed several ‘uki plants, which HHF Planners donated.   Although this native Hawaiian sedge grows elsewhere at Kawainui and provides food and shelter for endangered waterbirds, it had not yet made its way to the ponds.

We introduced ‘uki to the restoration ponds.  ‘Uki is a native Hawaiian sedge grows elsewhere at Kawainui and provides food and shelter for endangered waterbirds. (Photo: Rick Quinn)

We introduced ‘uki to the restoration ponds. ‘Uki is a native Hawaiian sedge grows elsewhere at Kawainui and provides food and shelter for endangered waterbirds. (Photo: Rick Quinn)

At 12:00, Jim announced that our work session was complete, and we gathered together our clippers, shovels, gloves, buckets, and bags of cattail spikes.  The three hours had flown by, and surprisingly it had not rained at all.  Throughout our time there, we could hear the sounds of the birds, mostly the ae‘o alerting our presence, and we were awed by the expanse of the Ko‘olau from our view inside the former volcanic caldera.  A hose and bathroom were available at the adjacent DOFAW management and research station for cleanup before leaving Kawainui.

The work of volunteers is needed to help maintain this new habitat for some of Hawai‘i’s most endangered waterbirds.  Volunteer Day is every first Saturday of the month from 9:00 a.m.–12:00 noon.  A  Signup Link is here.

DOFAW is also looking for community organizations to adopt a pond and commit to maintaining it on a regular basis.  If your organization is interested, contact Jim Cogswell for more information, james.m.cogswell@hawaii.gov.

For HHF Planners, this was an invaluable learning experience for our part in the ongoing Kawainui-Hāmākua Marsh Complex Master Plan Update for DOFAW.   HHF Planners has been involved with Kawainui-Hāmākua since 2000; projects include the 2002 Kawai Nui Gateway Park Environmental Assessment (EA), the 2003 Kawai Nui Marsh Pathway Plan and EA, and the 2011 Kawainui Marsh Wetland Restoration and Habitat Enhancement Project Master Plan and EA.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Robyn Sweesy grew up in the “Coconut Grove” area of Kailua. Back then she considered Kawainui a special place even though it was commonly called “the swamp.”  Her work on the Kawainui-Hāmākua Marsh Master Plan Update and participation in stewardship opportunities and activities at Kawainui-Hāmākua has increased her knowledge and appreciation of its amazing natural/cultural resources.  Robyn’s affinity with Kawainui factored into her decision to become a landscape designer/planner and focus on natural resources planning, sustainability, and the use of Hawaiian plants.

 

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