October 29th-November 20th 2012
Michelle Wilcox

Figure 1. Michelle Wilcox with a highly curious Laysan Finch (Photo by Robby Kohley

Figure 1. Michelle Wilcox with a highly curious Laysan Finch (Photo by Robby Kohley)

On November 4th all personnel were evacuated from Laysan Island, and the camp was closed for the duration of the winter season.  The problem began with a medical issue (everyone is okay), but was exacerbated by the fact that the winter season prevents boats from landing in the area.  Thus, evacuation was used as a preventative measure to ensure human safety.  The camp will reopen in March of 2013, at which time I, along with another biologist, will return with the Fish and Wildlife Service’s habitat restoration crew to monitor Millerbirds through the summer.The current wave of breeding was nearing its end with only two sets of nestlings left when I departed.  Another fledgling was added to the population for a total of 29 Millerbird juveniles produced by translocated birds in 2012.  The number of adults molting their feathers was increasing, and we suspect they will now begin their winter quiet period.  In the winter months last year, Millerbirds were difficult to detect because the birds spent this time quietly foraging in the depths of the naupaka shrubs, and the males were not singing their territorial display songs as often.  On the bright side, I would say that if there were a BEST time of the year to halt our observations, it would be during the winter.

When we return in March, we expect to find the birds in the middle of their first wave of nesting for the year 2013.  It will be interesting to see which pairs remain together and which adults move around to new partners or new territories, which young birds begin breeding before they are a year old, and which birds, if any, cannot be found and may not have survived the winter.  The birds should do fine despite the absence of their human peeping-tom neighbors.

Figure 2. The sun sets on this tour of Laysan Island, only to rise again in early 2013 (Photo by Michelle Wilcox)

Figure 2. The sun sets on this tour of Laysan Island, only to rise again in early 2013 (Photo by Michelle Wilcox)

My ‘Nature Sight of the Week’ goes to the ubiquitous and gregarious Laysan Finch (Telespiza cantans) (Fig 1.).  This endangered species is endemic to Laysan Island; they persisted despite the decimation of the vegetation on the island by rabbits in the early 20th Century.  We speculate that one of the reasons this species survived when others – such as the Laysan Millerbird, ‘Apapane, and Laysan Rail did not – is that they are curious generalists.  Gangs of them are found in almost every habitat type on the island busily pecking at everything to see if it can be eaten.  While you are standing in place looking through binoculars they will hop onto your boots and start pecking at the grommets and laces.  When you stick your head into a naupaka bush in search of Millerbirds, a few finches will hop over, inches from your face, to take a look at you.  We caught this finch because he decided to investigate whether the nets we had set up to capture unbanded Millerbirds were edible.  In camp they land on the screen door of the kitchen and work on tearing the screen with their bills so they can get inside and explore for edibles.  They have also pecked holes in our propane gas hoses and made their way into personal tents where they leave ‘tokens’ of their respect.  Although sometimes annoying, they provide entertainment for behaviorists like myself.  I cannot wait to return to Laysan Island and learn more about their social system; indeed, there is so much more on Laysan to explore!

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