Marine Corps Base Hawaii --
Disguised in brown camouflage, they blend into the mud and grass to avoid detection for their survival.
They are infant offspring of Hawaiian stilt, named aeo in Hawaiian, and a species of endangered native birds currently nesting around Nuupia Ponds at Marine Corps Base Hawaii. The base is home to approximately 10 percent of the population, and MCB Hawaii personnel take part in several projects to keep the birds alive.
“We’ve seen a growing population statewide due to increased pest and habitat control,” said Todd Russell, the natural resources manager at the base’s Environmental Compliance and Protection Department. “Their habitat on base is essential to their survival.”
When aeo are newly hatched, their main defense is using their brown fine feathers to conceal themselves in a rocky and muddy habitat. Russell said the chicks are especially vulnerable at this stage because they can’t fly. The infant offspring rely on good camouflage and distractions from adult stilts to escape predators.
“Those first couple of years are the hardest,” Russell said. “But if they make it, their survival rate is very high.”
If they live to adulthood, the birds grow taller with white and black feathers and long pink legs. The aeo is a variety of the species living only in Hawaii, with unique colored patterns. Russell said the birds make nests for eggs from March to mid-September, and right now is the peak season of nesting season.
Marines actively ensure aeo and other native species have room to grow by removing invasive pest plants that push out the birds and their food supply. Combat Assault Company from 3rd Marine Regiment and the environmental department annually host “Mud Ops,” when amphibious assault vehicles train in the mudflats to clear away the invasive mangrove and pickleweed. Mud Ops is held just before birds begin to pair together and when all the birds can fly away safely from the large vehicles.
During the last three years of Mud Ops, Cpl. Matthew McKelvey, a vehicle commander with Combat Assault Company, 3rd Marines, has operated one of the AAVs. He said being able to combine Marine Corps training with conservation efforts makes him proud. McKelvey said the annual training has also been an opportunity to learn more about Hawaii’s natural environment.
“I was surprised at how dangerous invasive plants can be,” said McKelvey, a native of Spring Grove, Ill. “The ecosystem is very fragile.”
Volunteers also clear out invasive plants by hand during Weed Warrior Project outings held all through the year. Russell said the additional effort could make the difference, especially when it takes three weeks for the infant birds to learn how to fly.
“In some nests, all the chicks make it,” he said. “In other nests, none of them survive. The average is about one chick per nest surviving.”
Aeo are also at risk of attack from invasive animals, said Aaron Nadig, a fish and wildlife biologist with the Pacific Islands Fish and Wildlife Office. His office studies the aeo and other native animals in Hawaii.
“The biggest thing we can do is provide a good habitat,” he said. “We can also control invasive predators.”
Nadig said the birds face predators including feral cats, dogs, bullfrogs and mongoose. One of the reasons why no pets are allowed on the Nuupia Running Trail is to prevent the animals from hunting down birds, Russell said.
Aeo chicks have already been spotted this season near Fort Hase Beach and along restricted areas near the Nuupia Ponds Running Trail.
McKelvey said seeing these positive results from his unit’s training is encouraging.
“Mud Ops is a great dual partnership with our unit and the environmental department,” McKelvey said. “It’s good training, and it feels great to help the birds out.”
With help from MCB Hawaii, the aeo have a chance at long life. Pacific Islands Fish and Wildlife Office researchers said so far the oldest bird they’ve encountered is 29 years old.