Reclaiming Wetlands for The Birds of Kauai

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Kekaha wetland

The Department of Land and Natural Resources announced the acquisition of 105 acres of former sugarcane land for a wetland sanctuary to protect endangered birds in the Mana coastal plain of Kauai Hawaii. This multi phase project will re-establish habitat sites that were long ago lost during sugarcane operations at Kekaha Sugar Co.

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The nearly 15,000 acres of land that comprise the Mana coastal plain stretches from the sleepy former sugar town of Kekaha to Polihale beach. It has a rich farming history. The land has been in production since the 1860’s, first growing cotton to supply the north during the Civil War. Then, rice production in the 1880’s to satisfy the hunger of a growing population of Asian immigrants. Then a transition to sugarcane that began in 1890’s till 2002. Presently it is used by several multi national agri businesses with very familiar names for seed research. Just driving along the highway you can see their test plots of corn, sunflower, soy bean, and rice.

With land elevations from sea level to approximately 25 feet at the foot of the west Kauai mountains. The soil type ranges from calcareous sand mixtures to black heavy clay with high plasticity. These soils combined with high groundwater levels caused fits in a fast paced agricultural operations. Wet winters meant fields would sit fallow for months despite pumping 7-10 million gallons of brackish water per day at the Kawaiele and Nohili out fall stations, in a failed attempt to keep the land dry. However, what was a bane for the farmer in the winter was a temporary paradise for the coastal birds and migrating fowl.

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In the low lying areas makai, or oceanside of the highway is a 37 acre refuge that is a current habitat for coastal birds of Kauai, created by the mining of sand by the sugar company, natural groundwater percolation, and canal water. On any given day you can pull off the highway, walk inside and be treated to the songs and antics of coots, terns, and the Gallinule or moorhen, as they search for food in these shallow waters.

Stay on the high ground and walk between the ponds, find a comfortable seat and observe. Bring something to sit on such as a mat or chair, the sand is powdery soft but you may find a briar or thorn in a tender spot if you aren’t careful. I sit behind waist high weeds and after ten minutes or so I find the local residents tend to forget me as they sift the water for food.

I enjoy the late afternoon for viewing. There are added side benefits at this time of the day.

You can still work on your tan The Mana sun even at 5.30pm can still pack a wallop so if your sensitive to our sun use liberal amounts of sunblock.

Joyful colors Bring your camera, the birds may be at a distance for close up photography but you will have ample opportunities catching the colors on the west Kauai cliffs.

Bird activity The birds are feeding and interacting quite boisterously at this time of the day with their neighbors. Sit quietly and you will be rewarded.

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Phase Two of the Kawaiele Sanctuary
The recent announcement of the new 105 acre site will improve greatly on available area for Kauai’s bird life. The first grant will provide funding for clearing the land of debris and identifying capped wells for its water source. DLNR biologist Mr. Jason Vercelli wants to use higher quality artesian water that was not available for the current sanctuary. Higher quality water will greatly diminish the chance for invasive weed and fish species to take hold. Fencing will be required to prevent feral animals and pigs from destroying habitat.

Future grants will help establish a student learning center and visitor overlooks for everyone to enjoy this special resource. The preliminary work has begun and there is no official time table for completion but once the ponds have been established and filled the birds will come for all of us to enjoy.

Tell us your best thing to do on Kauai.

Lee Morey is the owner and principal broker at Coldwell Banker Turtle Cove Realty in Kalaheo, she writes frequently about Kauai real estate and fun things to do when visiting the island. She can be reached at 808-651-6720 anytime.

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