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Hawaiian Petrels Get Ready for First Flight

November 2, 2012

It’s a precarious time of year for one of Hawai‘i’s rarest endemic seabird species, and the national park is keeping a watchful eye on its small population.

The ‘ua‘u, or Hawaiian petrel (Pterodroma sandwichensis), is a federally endangered native seabird, and the only known nests on Hawai‘i Island are within Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park on the lower alpine and subalpine slopes of Mauna Loa. Wildlife biologists estimate that only 50 to 60 breeding pairs are left here. 

'ua'u by Jim Denny

Hawaiian petrel, or ‘ua’u, in flight. Photo courtesy of Jim Denny

In November, young ‘ua‘u leave their nests for the first time and fly at night to the ocean searching for food. A primary threat to fledglings are bright urban lights that cause them to become disoriented and fall to the ground or collide with structures.  Once grounded, it is difficult for ‘ua‘u to take flight, leaving them extremely vulnerable to cats, dogs and mongooses.

While a primary threat on other islands, groundings are not as common on Hawai‘i Island, likely due to a much smaller population of ‘ua‘u combined with minimal urban lighting, particularly in and around the national park.  The last grounding in the park was in 2006.  As a result, the park modified existing lighting to be downcast and shielded on the top, and the park pays careful attention to all new lighting to ensure it meets requirements to minimize disorientation.

“People might be aware of the petrels on Maui since there are many more birds up at Haleakala National Park, in the thousands. However, most folks aren’t aware that we have petrels here on Hawai‘i Island as well. ‘Ua‘u numbers are so low here that the odds of encountering them are rare.  The fact that we have only a handful make it important that we protect these remaining few,” said Dr. Rhonda Loh, Chief of Natural Resources Management for the park.

Hawaiian Petrel courtesy of Jim Denny

Hawaiian Petrel courtesy of Jim Denny

Adult ‘ua‘u arrive on land in early spring and nest in underground burrows, entering and leaving after dark.  The female lays a single egg in May.  Both parents take turns incubating for 60 days and then feed the chick until it fledges in November or early December.

'ua'u fledgling near nest

Hawaiian petrel fledging. NPS Photo

‘Ua‘u are 16 inches from head to tail, have a three-foot wingspan, and are dark grey on top and white below. They make a variety of calls and one sounds just like its name: oo-AH-oo.  

CLICK HERE and LISTEN to the call of an ‘u’au courtesy of David Kuhn,

If you find a grounded seabird in the national park, please contact dispatch at (808) 985-6170. Outside of the park, contact the DLNR Division of Forestry and Wildlife (808) 974-4221.

In 1987, Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park was designated a World Heritage Site due in part to the high number of endemic species, like the Hawaiian petrel, it protects. This year the park celebrates 25 years of World Heritage by offering a series of educational programs about the natural and cultural resources in the park. To learn more about Hawaiian petrels in the park, watch this 6-minute video with the park’s Natural Resources Managment biologists Jill Lippert and Darcy Hu.


8 Comments leave one →
  1. Grif Frost permalink
    November 10, 2012 5:58 am

    Aloha! Thank you for this article which we read in the Ka’u Calendar. My wife and I saw a petrel in the ice ponds in Hilo two nights ago…it looked a bit disoriented but now that we know what it was and a bit about it, thanks to your article, I am guessing it is AOK as it made it to the ocean.

    • Pacific Island Ranger permalink*
      November 10, 2012 6:10 am

      Great to hear!

    • HAVO PAO permalink*
      November 10, 2012 8:14 am

      Aloha Grif, this is Jessica at Hawaii Volcanoes. By chance did you or your wife get a photo of that petrel? Mahalo!

      • griffrost permalink
        November 13, 2012 10:25 am

        Aloha! We did not. If we see it again will do so.

  2. HAVO PAO permalink*
    November 8, 2012 2:02 pm

    Mahalo Damon!


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