Josh Higa '19: Champion For Endangered Birds of Hawai'i
While the National Park System is perhaps best known for preserving some of the country's picturesque landscapes, it also helps preserve some of the nation's iconic creatures.
Josh Higa ’19 is working to conserve two endangered species on Maui in his work with the National Park System. A biological wildlife technician at Haleakalā National Park, Higa’s work focuses on the park’s populations of nēnē, also known as the Hawaiian goose, and the ’ua’u, also known as the Hawaiian petrel. Indigenous to the islands, both birds were nearly eradicated but are making a comeback.
The effort is personal to Higa, who grew up on Maui and returned after earning his Pacific degree in environmental science in 2019.
“These species have evolved so differently from their mainland counterparts,” Higa said. “They can only be found here in the Hawaiian Islands. It is a privilege to be able to say that I have helped protect these animals. It puts a lot of things into perspective.”
By the turn of the 20th century, the nēnē disappeared from Maui thanks to destruction of native habitat by landowners developing large plantations. By 1950, only 30 nēnē were estimated to be living in Hawai’i. Today, the population is nearly 4,000 birds. The nēnē was downlisted from endangered to threatened in 2019 but remains the rarest goose in the world.
The ’ua’u, however, continues to struggle for survival. The endangered petrels typically nest at high elevations, burrowing into mountainsides or in lava tubes anywhere from three to 30 feet deep. The ‘ua’u’s burrowing nature makes it hard to identify how much habitat is truly affected within the park.
Higa’s job includes hiking on the park’s namesake mountain and grasslands, evaluating if the populations are increasing. For the ‘ua’u, that means checking mountain crevices for eggs for nesting sites. For the nēnē, Higa and other biologists walk the park’s grasslands, checking for eggs and evaluating the status of the population within the park.
“We’re searching throughout the mountain, the shrub land areas and pretty much anywhere else that isn’t a road or the summit. We’re walking around, trying to find the nesting sites,” Higa said. “We’re trying to see who has made a nest, how many eggs have hatched. For the rest of the season, we will try to see how many of them have successfully raised young goslings.”
Fortunately, those habitats escaped the ravages of the August wildfires on Maui. But with fires burning close to the park, Haleakalā remained closed most of that month, allowing staff affected by the fire in nearby Kula to clean up and regroup.
Approximately 60% of Higa’s job is dedicated to native species monitoring. The other 40% is focused on predator control, many of which were introduced to Hawai‘i by explorers and colonists. Feral cats, rats and mongoose feast on fledglings, tipping the balance of nature against two species that have no predators that are native to the islands.
“It’s so humbling to have worked with these endangered species and knowing that you have a hand in helping protect these species from extension,” he said. “Their population is improving, which is so wonderful to see, but there is still so much work to be done.”