A pair of nene gees walk through a ranch at Puu Kapu in Waimea this past week. (COURTESY PHOTO BY CAROLYN WONG AUWELOA)
Nene graze on the Waimea Middle School field in August. (COURTESY PHOTO BY WMS TEACHER JAMILYNN MAREKO FOR NHN)
A pair of nene are discovered in the wild. (COURTESY PHOTO FOR NHN)
There were seven of them grazing on the sports field first thing on a late August morning. The students had never seen them before and didn’t know how to react. The teachers gazed in appreciation and hypothesized that climate change may have driven them from their home range. Photos were snapped over the course of their weeklong visit, as people wondered why this flock of nene had decided to visit Waimea Middle School.
“It was a very special experience — a gift,” said Holly Sargeant-Green, garden leader at Waimea Middle School’s Mala’ai Garden.
The wonder surrounding the visiting nene was not unique to Waimea. For the past few months, pairs and flocks of these endemic Hawaiian geese have been visiting homes, schools, and ranches on Hawaii Island, in places that they haven’t been seen in living memory, said Joey Mello, wildlife biologist with the State Division of Forestry and Wildlife.
Sixty years ago only 30 nene remained on the planet, driven to near extinction by hunting and non-native predators, especially mongooses and feral cats. Even today, after intensive efforts to bring up the population through captive breeding and habitat protection, the nene is the world’s rarest goose.
Because mongooses were never introduced to Kauai, that island has a large and growing population of nene. Five hundred birds had been regularly grazing on the golf course of the Kauai Lagoon Hotel, which is situated between the runways of the Lihue airport, said Mello. The inevitable conflict between airplanes and geese led to a decree signed by Governor Abercrombie in 2011 to relocate nene to Maui and Hawaii Island.
The first 240 birds, mostly mated pairs, arrived here in 2012, and were wing-clipped and held at a state wildlife facility on the slopes of Mauna Kea, said Mello.
“The goal was to get them acclimated to the upland habitat where our resident nene have been successful for the past 20 years,” he said. The birds raised their goslings, molted, then flew free to explore the island this past summer.
“The majority of the birds stayed in the upslope flyway, but a few pairs have been exploring lowland habitats, from Upolu to South Point, and are coming into contact with people, their cars, and their pets,” he said.
“Nene are like cattle with wings,” said Mello, referring to their food preference of grazing on short grasses. They seek out mowed lawns, grazed pastures, and are a common sight on golf courses across the island.
The apparent tameness of nene can lead to their demise, warned Mello. “The number one thing people can do to protect nene is to NOT feed them,” he said.
Feeding the nene may contribute to their extinction, he said. It brings them into contact with people and their pets. Most nene deaths are due to predation by cats, dogs, and mongooses, as well as being hit on roads.
As more geese are relocated to Hawaii Island, more frequent visits of these wild nene to farms and schools could provide opportunities for education about rare native Hawaiian wildlife.
“The kids didn’t know that nene were endangered, and how unique it was to have them at our school,” said Sargeant-Green. “We taught them to leave them alone, to be respectful.”
Nene are a common visitor to Parker Ranch’s upland pastures, where the ranch leaves water troughs on during dry times for nene and other birds, said Nahua Guilloz, senior manager with the ranch.
“Our heritage and our mission are to care for the land,” said Guilloz. “The nene remind us of how important wildlife are.”
“The nene is an icon of Hawaii. We celebrate them,” she said.
The public is encouraged to help track the wanderings of these relocated nene by reporting sightings of nene on Hawaii Island. Call the East Hawaii Division of Forestry and Wildlife office at 974-4221, and leave a message with the location and number of birds, as well as your name and phone number so that researchers can contact you for more information.