VOLCANO, Hawaii (KHON2) — In the sprawling 19,000 acre forest of Pu‘u Maka‘ala Natural Area Reserve on Hawai’i Island live some of the endangered species of Hawai’i. One species of the the Hawaiian honeycreeper known as ʻakiapōlāʻau struggles to survive in the tide of modern global warming as two species of Hawaiian honeycreepers hang on the edge of total extinction.

One ʻakiapōlāʻau in particular is named Christmas, or Mele. He got this name from researchers because of his red and green leg band that is used to identify him.

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Christmas is like the other ʻakiapōlāʻau who live in the reserve. He is nine-years-old, and researchers believe he is the oldest living ʻakiapōlāʻau.

Christmas has a long, curved beak that allows him to enjoy the nectar of native flowers that accommodate the shape of his bill. He uses that same beak to forage for insects on branches of indigenous trees and for larvae on the forest floor.

Currently, there are only 1,900 ʻakiapōlāʻau left on the planet. They are endangered. From habitat loss to invasive species like mosquitos and predators, these Hawaiian honeycreepers have struggled to maintain their numbers.

“1,900 birds seem like a high number, but ʻakiapōlāʻau have been on the endangered species list since 1967 because of their low population and reproductive numbers, a fragmented population and habitat loss. However, aggressive forest restoration, predator control and removal of feral ungulates in the natural area reserve and by neighboring watershed partners is painting a really heartening story,” explained Bret Nainoa Mossman, bird researcher.

  • Christmas, an ʻakiapōlāʻau, is being examined by a researcher. They are an endangered species of Hawaiian honeycreeper that live in Pu‘u Maka‘ala Natural Area Reserve on Hawai'i Island. (Photo/Department of Land and Natural Resources)
  • Christmas, an ʻakiapōlāʻau, is wearing bands that identify them in the wild. They are an endangered species of Hawaiian honeycreeper that live in Pu‘u Maka‘ala Natural Area Reserve on Hawai'i Island. (Photo/Department of Land and Natural Resources)
  • Christmas, an ʻakiapōlāʻau, is being examined by a researcher. They are an endangered species of Hawaiian honeycreeper that live in Pu‘u Maka‘ala Natural Area Reserve on Hawai'i Island. (Photo/Department of Land and Natural Resources)
  • Bret Nainoa Mossman is examining Christmas, an ʻakiapōlāʻau. They are an endangered species of Hawaiian honeycreeper that live in Pu‘u Maka‘ala Natural Area Reserve on Hawai'i Island. (Photo/Department of Land and Natural Resources)
  • Christmas, an ʻakiapōlāʻau, is being examined by a researcher. They are an endangered species of Hawaiian honeycreeper that live in Pu‘u Maka‘ala Natural Area Reserve on Hawai'i Island. (Photo/Department of Land and Natural Resources)
  • Christmas, an ʻakiapōlāʻau, is being examined by a researcher. They are an endangered species of Hawaiian honeycreeper that live in Pu‘u Maka‘ala Natural Area Reserve on Hawai'i Island. (Photo/Department of Land and Natural Resources)
  • Christmas, an ʻakiapōlāʻau, is being examined by a researcher. They are an endangered species of Hawaiian honeycreeper that live in Pu‘u Maka‘ala Natural Area Reserve on Hawai'i Island. (Photo/Department of Land and Natural Resources)
  • Christmas, an ʻakiapōlāʻau, is seen in its natural habitat. They are an endangered species of Hawaiian honeycreeper that live in Pu‘u Maka‘ala Natural Area Reserve on Hawai'i Island. (Photo/Department of Land and Natural Resources)
  • Christmas, an ʻakiapōlāʻau, is seen in its natural habitat. They are an endangered species of Hawaiian honeycreeper that live in Pu‘u Maka‘ala Natural Area Reserve on Hawai'i Island. (Photo/Department of Land and Natural Resources)
  • Christmas, an ʻakiapōlāʻau, is being examined by a researcher. They are an endangered species of Hawaiian honeycreeper that live in Pu‘u Maka‘ala Natural Area Reserve on Hawai'i Island. (Photo/Department of Land and Natural Resources)
  • An ʻakiapōlāʻau is seen in its natural habitat. They are an endangered species of Hawaiian honeycreeper that live in Pu‘u Maka‘ala Natural Area Reserve on Hawai'i Island. (Photo/Department of Land and Natural Resources)
  • An ʻōmaʻo is examined by a researcher. ʻŌmaʻo provide a great deal of needed reforestation for Pu‘u Maka‘ala Natural Area Reserve which gives the ʻakiapōlāʻau a greater chance of survival on Hawai'i Island. (Photo/Department of Land and Natural Resources)

A species of bird that is helping to revitalize the ʻakiapōlāʻau’s habitat are ʻōmaʻo. These birds provide a great deal of needed reforestation of the area which gives the ʻakiapōlāʻau a greater chance of survival. There are nearly 100,000 of them on the Big Island.

“We’re also particularly excited about the ʻōmaʻo because they eat fruit and are doing some planting [forest restoration] for us. They’re actually helping us to regenerate the native forest even quicker than if we were doing it ourselves,” said Mossman.

ʻŌmaʻo are protected from symptoms of avian malaria which is wreaking havoc on Hawaiian honeycreeper populations. However, it does not preclude them from eventually succumbing to the impact of malaria. This in combination with predators like felines and rodents do pose a problem for the long-term survival of ʻōmaʻo.

“They seem to be able to live with the disease, but malaria coupled with predators is still driving them to decline in numbers,” explained Mossman.

Thanks to the tireless efforts of park managers over the decades, ʻakiapōlāʻau populations have been able to be maintained. One of the things that is helping with this is the planting of thousands of koa trees. But, even this can be precarious as it takes ten years for a koa tree to become habitat worthy for ʻakiapōlāʻau.

Researchers said that Christmas has offspring. The younger ʻakiapōlāʻau moved from the northern part of NAR down to an area in the south where 10,000 koa trees were planted.

“It’s rewarding to see a ʻakiapōlāʻau we banded as a baby in this kipuka, and he has now settled in a completely different place. So, we’ve seen three generations of ʻakiapōlāʻau in the five years I’ve been working here,” said Mossman.  

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“It’s been really nice to see that we can keep tabs on these birds, track their relationships and observe how they’re taking advantage of what we’ve created for them. Something more to celebrate this holiday season,” concluded Mossman.