Two years of work to explore the seismic changes underway for North America’s birds culminates this week with the release of our book, “A Wing and a Prayer: The Race to Save our Vanishing Birds.’’ We thought we’d celebrate its arrival in bookstores by sharing some of our favorite stories over the next few weeks.
The book is about birds, of course, but it’s also about the people who devote their lives to chasing them all over the hemisphere, often under grueling conditions. One of the most impressive scientists we met was André Raine, who spends his time in the rainforests high in the mountains of Kauai, Hawaii, struggling to save endangered seabirds such as the Newell’s Shearwater and Hawaiian Petrel.
When we followed him up into the mountains on a rainy June day two summers ago, the steep, muddy pathway had turned into a treacherous waterslide. The trail happened to follow the ridge of a cliff that dropped 3,000 feet straight down to the Pacific Ocean. Halfway along the path, he happened to mention, matter-of-factly: “If you’re going to fall, fall to the right. If you fall to the left, it’s all over.’’
That was a glimpse of the daily hazards of protecting these birds from a long list of predators including owls, feral boars, pigs, rats and cats that feed on the birds and their chicks. Raine and his team gradually found ways to fence off the colonies where the birds breed, set up traps to catch those predators that still get in, and use sound recorders to gradually track the birds’ populations as they grow once again.
The work has left its mark on Raine. His knees are weakened from the the endless miles of trudging through the rainforests and camping out on the hard ground. But you’d never know it from his relentless gait, pushing through the jungle to reach the bird colonies. He has a world-weary look when he sits down to talk about the battles he’s waged over the years against poachers, illegal hunting and sometimes violent encounters in work in Africa, South America and Europe before coming to Hawaii. But all that seems to lift when he starts talking about his seabirds.
We loved the way he explained the importance of birds to the lush, exotic flora of the Hawaiian islands that sits on top of the volcanic base formed millions of years ago. The only reason this paradise exists today, he says, is because of the ancestors of the birds he’s trying to save.
“It’s because of the birds these forests are here,’’ said Raine, who with his wife, Helen, have worked together on all kinds of birds and now own their own company, called ARC, for Archipelago Research and Conservation. “They were here in ridiculously large numbers, you know, with guano everywhere, helping to create the soils and helping to spur plant growth.’’
Added Helen Raine, “If you think about a series of volcanic islands popping up in the ocean of bare lava. How did it all get like this? The seabirds are a massive part of the answer to that question.’’ And that is still the case today: “They’re definitely a really important part of the ecosystem,’’ she said.
That makes their work to protect and preserve the birds all the more compelling, and the story of how they’ve pulled this off is one of our favorites in the book. It’s found in Chapter Eight, titled “When All Else Fails,’’ on the unique challenges of preserving birds in Hawaii, the world’s capital of extinction.
We hope you’ll read our book: It’s available now in bookstores, and here’s a link to where you can find it online.