A Bird Named "Kansas”
Herkimer wildlife biologist names endangered species after home state
When Megan Friedrichs raised her government-issued Leica binoculars to study a bird she’d been tracking on the north slope of Mauna Kea, she saw something that set her heart racing. There, beside an adult palila fitted out with a radio transmitter, was a second bird, hopping and fluttering its wings. As the adult began feeding the second bird, Friedrichs studied its legs and plumage. “Holy cow,” she thought. Then she fumbled for her radio.
At best guess there are approximately 3,000 palila (Loxiodes bailleui) left in existence. Once considered nearly extinct, the species is now restricted to the Big Island of Hawaii, specifically to the mamane forest on the west side of Mauna Kea, the 13,796 foot volcano whose summit bristles with observatories. Relocation programs have focused on starting new colonies of the small honeycreeper on the north slope, as well as improving suitable habitat and eradicating non-native predators. Friedrichs had just found a fledgling, which meant that the population had not only increased by one, but relocation efforts were successful.
It also meant that she had naming rights to the young bird, a tradition among the wildlife biologists in the program. Once it was captured and banded along with a second bird from the same breeding pair, she and her partner were asked to name the birds. Her partner picked “Iki,” a Hawaiian word for “small.” Friedrichs chose “Kansas.” Which made the young bird unquestionably the only endangered species on the Hawaiian Islands to be named after the 34th state of the union, if not the entire world.
Photos by Megan Friedrichs
“I think it started as young kid,” Friedrichs said. She was explaining how a native of Herkimer, Kansas, ended up chasing rare birds on a small island halfway around the world. “I started hunting with my dad when I was really young, and ever since then I’ve always enjoyed being outside. I really didn’t like being indoors.”
Indoors is something Friedrichs rarely is. Her work week consists of monitoring the relocated population of palila for nesting behavior, which means most days she’s outside following birds using radio telemetry. It’s hot and windy, trudging through scrub forests sprouting in black sand or lava rock, which absorbs the heat. When she finds breeding behavior or evidence of nesting, she marks the spot using GPS units.
She also assists in capturing birds for banding. Mist nets are very fine nets that are strung in areas birds frequent; when a bird hits the net, it becomes entangled and can’t escape. Banders remove the birds and, after measuring and weighing them and, occasionally, taking blood samples, tiny colored bands are clipped to their legs. The bands are how birds are differentiated in the wild. Friedrichs said her group places around ten such nets in her area.
In addition to the bands, some birds are fitted with small radio transmitters, which can then be tracked by handheld receivers.
Since the species is endangered, only senior biologists are allowed to handle them. “I get to watch them do it,” she said.
Home during the week consists of a rough base camp on the side of the mountain. They sleep in small A-frames made out of plywood and plastic, about seven feet wide and three-and-a-half feet tall. Water is caught in a catchment, similar to a big horse tank, but it has to be filtered due to the prevalence of leptospirosis, a bacteria borne by the urine of rats. If the water runs low it has to be hauled up from the main village, about a three-hour drive away. Conservation is a way of life. Showers are taken only once a week. The camp is very isolated. Amenities include running water, a propane stone and a refrigerator. There is no Internet access.
Weekends are different. They sleep in the town of Volcano, just outside Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, but they’re rarely home. “On weekends I do all my traveling,” Friedrichs said. “I try to see as much as we can while I’m here.” Most of the time is spent on the beaches or sightseeing.
Friedrichs is herself a fledgling of sorts. She graduated from K-State only last May and immediately began applying for various posts around the country. This was her first posting as a wildlife biologist, though it wasn’t the first time she’d been out of Kansas. Part of her schooling had been in Australia.
Her stint in Hawaii runs until the middle of August. Already she’s applying for new posts, hoping to stay with birds if possible and mammals if not. “I’m not interested in wasps or insects,” she said. “At some point I’d like to become more specialized and get a masters in a specific area.”
The life of a wildlife biologist has been compared to taking a vow of poverty. Friedrichs agreed. “You’re definitely not in it for the money,” she said. “You don’t get paid very much. You do it because you love being outdoors and working with animals and conversation.”
The palila restoration project is one part of an extensive campaign to preserve Hawaii’s endemic species. Habitat loss and the introduction of feral cats, rats, mongooses, pigs and sheep have all taken their toll. Palila depend on the mamane forest for the majority of its diet, as well as for nesting sites and shelter. Though animal trapping has reduced the number of predators and the removal of sheep and pigs has stabilized the mamane forests, the palila population has not shown an increase in numbers. When fledglings are found, it’s cause for celebration.
Friedrichs had been on the island for only around four weeks when she found the bird. She said her supervisors were impressed, and very excited. “Anytime you find them nesting or having babies it’s a huge deal,” she said. “You know what you’re doing is working.”
Nor were her bosses the only ones impressed. Back in Kansas, her parents, Steve and Peg Friedrichs, and her older sister, Brooke, were equally excited. “They think it’s pretty cool,” she said.
Though Friedrichs is just starting her new career, she said she can’t imagine doing anything else. “It’s a fun job. I’m getting to help an endangered species so it has a chance. Which a lot of Hawaiian birds don’t,” she said. “I hope it works.”
As for the fledgling she found, she said the name came easily to her. “I’m proud of being a Kansan and thought it would be cool to name a bird Kansas,” she said. “I’m just trying to represent my state a little bit.”