Story & Photography by Cody Roberts
The first rays of dawn have yet to illuminate the Olinda forest above Makawao town. It’s 5:15 in the morning, and the crisp mountain air revives our senses as we gather outside the headquarters of the Maui Forest Bird Recovery Project. Nine of us are poised to embark on a conservation mission to help restore a native Hawaiian forest, and prepare a supportive habitat for the imminent release of the critically endangered kiwikiu (Maui parrotbill) into the Nakula Natural Area Reserve. Over the next five days, our small group of volunteers and project leaders will become like family, living and working together in the wilderness.
One of our guides, Christopher Warren, explains that “the Maui Forest Bird Recovery Project was created to stop the ongoing extinction of Maui’s honeycreepers,“ kiwikiu among them. “Hawai’i once had more than fifty species of honeycreepers. Today, Chris says, “it’s remarkable that even in the most intact forests on Maui, there are only six species of Hawaiian honeycreepers left. The birds we have now are only a small part of the family that was once here.” (Sadly, fewer than 300 kiwikiu are now estimated to exist in the wild, mainly inhabiting the wet ʻōhiʻa forests at high elevations in windward East Maui.)
To prepare for departure, Chris and our other guides Laura Berthold, KJ Passaro, and Kristi Fukunaga help the rest of us load our packs—stuffed with nearly a week’s worth of clothing, food, hiking gear, tools and equipment—into their two waiting trucks, and we’re off. We traverse Kula Highway as it snakes upcountry past Kēōkea and ‘Ulupalakua, then descends the leeward southeastern slopes of Haleakalā into Kaupō, where a helicopter will transport us to our base camp nearly 5,000 feet above sea level.
During our stay, we will plant over 1,000 specimens of native Hawaiian flora, including ōhiʻa and koa (dominant trees in the Hawaiian forest canopy) along with shorter sub-canopies of māmane, pilo, a’ali’i and kanawao shrubs. This symbiotic collection of plants creates ideal habitat for the kiwikiu and several other critically endangered birds. As the clouds sweep across the mountain, moisture collects in the trees and trickles slowly down to the forest floor, filtering through layers of lava rock and eventually augmenting the watershed that supports all life. (The benefits of a vital native forest extend to the islands’ human residents as well, providing our most efficient, clean, and renewable source of fresh water in the islands.)
Many of the endangered species in this native ecosystem are endemic, meaning they exist nowhere else on Earth. Carried by wind, wings and water, plant and animal communities here have adapted over aeons to thrive interdependently, transforming the islands’ raw landscapes of desolate lava into lush forest. However, more than a century of damage by introduced species has devastated these leeward forests: cattle, goats, pigs and deer overgraze the slopes and literally rototill the soil—creating fertile ground for invasive plants that outcompete natives—while rats, mongooses and feral cats decimate the native bird populations by preying on their eggs. Conservation groups like the MFBRP are dedicated to reversing this trend.
We arrive at the launch site just as the sun rises over the ocean to greet us, and quickly work to secure sling nets and cables around our equipment; moments later, a distant chuffing sound announces the approaching chopper. I feel my adrenaline surge as the pilot eases into a soft landing, and I watch the first three members of our team board the aircraft and lift off toward the mountain.
Within minutes, the helicopter zips back to claim our gear; after several delivery runs to and from our camp, it’s time for the rest of us to fly. Soaring up these slopes is a thrilling adventure, offering sweeping views of Haleakalā and its volcanic island terrain rushing beneath us. We catch a birds-eye glimpse of Nakula and her recovering native forest moments before we touch down at base camp.
The realization hits me that we’re isolated in this mountain wilderness for the next five days. This means no electricity, modern plumbing, soft beds, or immediate access to resources other than the essentials we’ve brought with us, and the skills and knowledge of our team.
Chris is the Maui Forest Bird Recovery Project’s restoration and data management technician. His colleague Laura specializes in ornithological research and serves as this grassroots organization’s outreach and logistics technician. “I came here to be an intern for ten months, and here I am now ten years later,” she muses with a smile. “All of us have degrees and experience in environmental science, biology, etc. Our main goal right now is to recover the kiwikiu, the most endangered Hawaiian honeycreeper.” KJ signed on in 2017 after a one-year internship, and the project’s newest intern Kristi joined MFBRP after working with the Institute for Bird Populations in American Samoa.
The skills of our volunteer team are no less impressive: Andy is a retired pediatrician, my partner Meghane is an herbalist with a growing knowledge of native plant properties and wild foraging. Dan and Nora have participated in numerous local conservation efforts through the encouragement of their employers Pacific Whale Foundation and Skyline Eco Tours.
Ahh, the great outdoors: sweeping views and ocean breezes nearly everywhere we venture; melodic bird songs from native ‘apapane and ‘amakihi; and some of the most immense native trees on Maui. The crimson lehua blossoms of ʻōhiʻa trees punctuate the verdant landscape, bursting in vibrant canopies as mythological reminders of enduring passion. (According to Hawaiian legend, the volcano goddess Pele transformed the warrior ʻŌhiʻa into a gnarled tree when he refused to marry her; the other gods then took pity on his lover Lehua, transforming her into a flower so the pair could remain together for eternity.) This place is alive and I love it.
As tempted as I am to lose myself in such idyllic surroundings, we've come here to work—a full eight to ten hours in the forest every day. Over breakfast, we plan the day’s partnering field assignments, then pack our lunches, rain gear, tools, and plenty of water. (Thankfully, the helicopter has transported all the materials and equipment to our worksites.) Each two-to-four person team hikes to designated areas of the reserve to complete a set of daily tasks. Navigating through gulches and steep mountain terrain adds a formidable challenge to each project.
On our first day, Andy, Dan, KJ and I construct one of the nine deck platforms designed to host aviaries for the MFBRP’s upcoming kiwikiu release. Meanwhile, Meghane and Chris chart the growth and survival rates of nascent tree plots that the organization has planted over the past six years, and Laura guides Nora and Kristi across the reserve to find and reset the small traps that help eradicate lingering rats and mongooses.
(In 2012, the Hawai‘i Department of Land and Natural Resources fenced this 170-hectare section of the Nakula Natural Area Reserve and removed all ungulates.)
Over the next four days, we alternate teams to plant trees, continue predator control, and forest data collection. At the end of each satisfying-yet-arduous day of work, the rudimentary shower feels like an absolute luxury. Evenings find everyone relaxing at camp, sharing dinner and talking story as dusk approaches. On our final night, a marvelous sunset erupts like a living painting across the sky.
Around 5:30 a.m. the next morning, I step outside my tent to find nimbostratus clouds drifting through the forest. The immensity of Haleakalā seems to exert its own gravitational pull on the elemental forces manifesting on its isolated slopes. Everyone is awake, packing and cleaning up camp to prepare for the helicopter’s return. Tents collapse one after another, and the transport nets quickly reclaim everyone’s gear. Before we head back to civilization, the clouds part to reveal what becomes my favorite sunrise from the trip. Nakula has a beautiful way of saying good-bye.
Back in the world of concrete and paychecks, I contemplate all that I’ve witnessed in this fragile paradise. Five days of conscious collaboration enabled our team to experience not only the rare beauty of a true native Hawaiian forest, but also a deep sense of community and shared purpose. I feel a newfound connection to the ʻāina (land) of Hawai’i, and find myself determined to help share this awareness of planetary kuleana (responsibility) . “It’s exciting to see what this place will be in the next five years, and ten years after that,” I remember Chris saying. “It will be a full-fledged forest by then.”
Aloha, a hui hou, Nakula.
(‘til we meet again)
Sincere mahalos to the Maui Forest Bird Recovery Project for all their efforts and dedication to restore and preserve Hawaii’s ecological resources for future generations.
Mahalo nui loa kākou, e malama pono.