Aloha Aina Workforce: Focus on Kauai Forest Birds

Malama Kauai, through the Aloha Aina Workforce Program has placed two workers at Kauai Forest Birds Recovery Project: Allie Cabrera and Kelly Pummill. They are spearheading a mosquito project and learning all about the scientific processes to save critically endangered Kauai forest birds.

Allie, left, and Kelly demonstrate how the fan generated mosquito trap works.

The birds under the care of KFBRP include the federally endangered ‘Akeke’e, ‘Akikiki, and the exceptional Puaiohi, of which only 500 known specimens exist. Other forest birds they track are ‘Apapane, ‘Anianiau, Kauai ‘Amakihi, Kauai ‘Elepaio, and ‘I’iwi. Check KFBRP’s website for drawings and info about these rare birds, 6 of the 8 of which only are found on Kauai.

Mosquito Project

The Workforce Program happens to land in the off-season for forest bird research and conservation. Conservationists spend this time protecting the living environments of the birds and studying what endangers them. Allie and Kelly, among other things, are working on a project to study mosquitoes, which are the spreaders of avian malaria. Their efforts have been successful enough that their supervisors are free to focus on other tasks. The main mosquito in question is the culex mosquito. Through their research, KFBRP seeks to understand where they come from, when they are here, and how efficient conservationists must be to aid the birds.

Allie’s main job is field work, in which she hikes into strategic zones to set traps for mosquitoes, retrieve them and study them. There are three main traps they work with, and Allie is learning how to repair their machinery, both in the field and in the office. The first is a cylindrical trap with a battery operated fan that pulls them in. The second is a trap to lure lady mosquitoes looking to lay eggs in “stinky water” (there are two flavors). The third is the GAT trap, which catches bugs on sticky cards that are then examined under a microscope and dried.

Allie showing off the boxes for growing larva.

Allie travels into the forest and sets traps weekly at 4-5 sites and at a few roadside traps, and then returns to check on them. At times she walks through water with guides looking for larva to bring to the office for breeding. She’s learning to identify the different mosquito breeds and can tell the culex, the main culprit, from the aedes and the egypti.

Kelly also takes day trips into the field for trap setting and retrieval. Her main task, though, has been creating an equipment inventory and a standard operating procedure for handling the equipment. This is a big job, as there is a veritable mountain of equipment required for work in the field. There are traps and trap components, batteries, bags, packs, tubes, liquids, fans and a thousand items to make the project work. Also, KFBRP does rat eradication measures and that has its own set of equipment that needs sorting and cataloging.

Kelly checks sticky traps under a microscope for mosquito populations.

Career Transitions

Kelly spent most of her work life in food service but developed a love of nature and birds in particular while volunteering at the Institute for Sea Bird Research in Alaska.

“Working with Forest Birds has changed her mind about what I am able to do. The opportunity to get into this field and really engage in science is a game changer. The coworkers and staff are very supportive and really want to see us get something out of the program.” 

Kelly Pummill of Kauai Forest Birds Recovery Project

Allie has a degree in Environmental Science and used it for teaching and working with kids. Most recently Allie worked at Koloa Zipline and ATV and started a collaboration with the Makuahiwe Cave Reserve to showcase Kauai history. In a fascinating connection, she says that the Cave Reserve expresses a history of birds on Kauai. They show fossil evidence of forest birds and how they have retreated to higher elevations with the increase in global temperatures.

“I am so grateful for the CARES Act. To get a job like this you need very specific experience and I have gotten it.”

Allie Cabrera of Kauai Forest Birds Recovery Project

A Difficult Field Made Easy

Back in the office, Allie and Kelly support the mosquito project by breeding specimens in controlled boxes and studying them. They also examine sticky traps to count a cross-section of bugs. Many mosquitoes are preserved in a solution for further research. All of their research is in conjunction with the Department of Fish and Wildlife and specimens are cataloged and sent there. And all data is logged extensively into digital databases.

Entering data is a main component of the scientific process.

Conservation has traditionally been a difficult field to enter. One needs the proper degrees and proper experience and as such, conservation outfits tend to hire off-island staff. With their experiences and training at KFBRP, Allie and Kelly now have resume items that will help them obtain a career in conservation and encourage Kauai island non-profits to hire talent from Kauai.