Kakawahie: the Molokai Creeper
British ornithologist Scott Barchard Wilson discovered the Moloka'i creeper in the late 19th century while lost on a trail in the Moloka'i forest. He was hiking with a Hawaiian guide in the highlands of Kalae near what is now the R.W. Meyer Sugar Mill and Museum, when a penetrating mist brought the visibility in the forest down to zero. He later wrote:
"While we were wandering about and searching for the trail, I heard a curious sound-a continued chip, chip, chip, not unlike the sound of chopping wood. At first I did not think it could belong to a bird; soon, however, I was undeceived, as a flash of brilliant orange colour passed us in the fog."
His journal describes a method of study foreign to 20th century ornithologists. "The continuous metallic note enabled me to get within range and I fired, bringing down two birds, which proved to be male and female. Soon afterwards I shot another of the bright-colored males. We had by this time hopelessly lost our way, and the consequences might have been serious; so we were extremely glad to hear revolver shots at no great distance, which proved to be fired by Mr. Meyer's sons, who had come in search of us."
Wilson collected the Moloka'i creeper and other birds and sailed back to England with their pelts and his journals. F.W. Frohawk made artistic renderings to depict the birds in nature.
Little did Wilson know that the Moloka'i creeper was on the verge of extinction. Hunting the bird for its colorful feathers to stitch into Hawaiian capes and for use in musical instruments and ceremonial implements had reduced the population before western explorers reached Moloka'i's mountains. Grazing, farming and logging by newcomers cleared many forests. The introduction of other birds into the Hawaiian islands also reduced the habitat for the kakawahie before Wilson arrived.
The last living specimen was seen in 1962 at Ohialele Plateau, one of the most isolated ecological niches in Hawai'i, located above Pelekuna Valley. This plateau is part of Kamakoa Preserve, which is managed by the Nature Conservancy and spreads across 2,744 acres of Moloka'i. It is home to more than 250 kinds of Hawaiian plants and remains a sanctuary for other endangered forest birds amakahi and apapane.
Management can include fencing out feral pigs and goats, weeding the area of certain foreign plants, and sometimes capturing fledglings and raising them in a captive breeding program. Once a captive colony of the birds is established to ensure reproduction into the future, some birds are released into the forest. For more information on Moloka'i's endangered species, call the Nature Conservancy at 808-553-5236.
For information on captive breeding programs that seek to increase the population of endangered Hawaiian birds, call the Peregrine Fund at 808-985-7218.