by Thalya DeMott
In Mānoa Valley and many other areas of O’ahu, residents are familiar with the night-flying shearwaters and their distinctive calls, often described as the sound of a baby’s cry. The wedge-tailed shearwater, recognized by its grey-brown coloring, is one of the most common seabirds of the Pacific and Indian oceans.
In contrast, the endemic and rarely seen ‘a’o, or Newell’s shearwater (Puffinus newelli) is smaller and more striking in its black and white plumage, and its call has been described as a donkey’s braying.
Over 100 years ago the ‘a’o was believed to be extinct, but in 1947 a sighting occurred offshore of Kaua’i. In 1967 a breeding colony was observed in the steep cliffs of northwest Kaua’i where an estimated 90% of the ‘a’o breeding population is still based.
‘A’o mate for life, nesting in dug-out burrows on remote and near-vertical slopes, safe from predators. A breeding pair raises one chick per season, from April through November, with the parents feeding at sea all day and returning to the nest only at night. Pelagic from December through March, the ‘a’o skillfully dive to depths of over 150 feet in pursuit of squid and fish, “flying” underwater by propelling themselves with strong wings and webbed feet, before shooting to the surface to gracefully take flight. Shearwaters drink seawater and remove the salt using desalinization glands, releasing the salt through their nostrils. State and federally listed as threatened, they are often disoriented by artificial lights and injured by power lines and poles. On O’ahu, if you find a downed seabird in need of help, please call the Hawaiian Humane Society.