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Birding, poetry, and Hawaiian honeycreepers: An interview with Nathaniel Watkins

Updated: Mar 20

19 March, 2024

By Alexander Trifunovic

Nathaniel Watkins with two Eastern Whip-poor-wills (Antrostomus vociferus) during a field season in central Illinois. Photo courtesy of Nathaniel Watkins.

 

Nathaniel Watkins is an avian field biologist and avid birder who has done research and conservation projects in North and South Carolina, Texas, and Illinois, and is currently working for the Maui Forest Bird Recovery Project in Hawai’i. I spoke with Nate to ask about his field experience and the work he has been doing with Hawaiian honeycreepers on the island of Maui.


  1. How did you first get interested in birds?

NW: I had a late start compared to a lot of people in the bird conservation world. I got to Lees-McRae and fully intended on doing wildlife rehab forever, and once I was there, I started taking care of the birds and only had a basic knowledge of birds. I hung with one of the senior mentors that was into birdwatching, I got some Sibley flashcards and started learning the birds, and then I started going outside. My first real spark bird was with Mary Marine on the Yonahlossee Overlook when we went to find a singing male Mourning Warbler during our summer clinicals. It took an hour of slowly following the bird until he popped up on a branch and sang in the open, and I got some photos that I am still happy with today. After that, I just started birding all the time going to the Elk Valley Preserve, doing local birding at home, and taking trips. Once I became a senior, I did my omega project on the temperature effects on songbird feeding frequency, and that was when I knew I wanted to do research-based work instead. I totally shifted my entire career path in that one semester. 

Nate (right) at Mackay Island National Wildlife Refuge working on a King Rail research project. Photo courtesy of Nathaniel Watkins.


2.              Do you have a favorite bird or group of birds?

NW: The honeycreepers (Drepanidae) are really creeping up on me; I have a soft spot for them. I usually tell people nightjars (Caprimulgidae). They’re understudied, interesting, have great vocalizations, and their cryptic patterning is otherworldly. I worked for five months in central Illinois on a declining Eastern Whip-poor-will project where we worked from 7:00 pm to 3:00 am every day doing nest searching, banding, and tracking tagged birds. It was a very different kind of field work. I have a couple ideas for master’s projects floating around, and one is on Chuck-will’s-widow or Common Poorwill. I took this job to see if I would hate the field work, but I enjoyed it. It would probably be a lot scarier somewhere like California with bears and mountain lions, but in Illinois the most dangerous thing is a badger. The worst thing that happened to me was I had a large moth fly into my ear, and I had to go to the emergency room; it took two minutes for them, but it was an hour of stress for me. I was the only one out there during the blood moon, and to be out working during a lunar event like that was pretty gnarly. I remember looking for Buff-collared Nightjar in Arizona at Buenos Aires. It was windy, and my friend thought he heard one so we went past a gate we probably shouldn’t have. We saw headlights, so we ran but then my friend told us not to run because they're going think we’re illegal immigrants so close to the border. Then we really started freaking out, but it ended up just being some random guy driving around at night.     


Eastern Whip-poor-will in the hand. This species hunts for moths and other flying insects, and it uses its large eyes, broad mouth, and rictal bristles (sensory structures similar to whiskers) to navigate and capture food at night. Photo by Nathaniel Watkins.

 

3.              What led you to your current position doing bird research on Maui?

NW: I started doing summer clinicals at Lees-McRae, but in hindsight, I would’ve probably done an unpaid internship during that summer. It would definitely give someone a leg up. After the first year being graduated, I landed a gig in coastal North Carolina at Mackay Island National Wildlife Refuge in Currituck working with a grad student studying King Rails. We were nest searching and finding King Rail, Least Bittern, Virginia Rail, and American Bittern nests. It was four months of work, twelve hours a day six days a week, and they paid me only 400 bucks right at the end. I took the risk and ate as cheap as I could that whole time. Ultimately, I had a wonderful time, and I made such good friends who I still speak to. My initial goal was that I am a birdwatcher first and a biologist second, so I was going to pick jobs with species that I want to see. With my young bird knowledge, I picked King Rail because they are hard to see, so if I’m working with them, I’ll definitely see one.

Nathaniel with a fluffy King Rail chick at Mackay Island National Wildlife Refuge. Photo courtesy of Nathaniel Watkins.

 

My next field job led me to Fort Cavazos (then called Fort Hood) in central Texas working with Black-capped Vireos. The crew was so excellent, and we enjoyed working together. The four of us moved into a two-bedroom apartment without ever meeting each before. We jived so well, and we all came back the following year to work on the same job. My friend Brendan went on to work in Kaua’i, and I almost went to Rota to work with Mariana Crows, but instead I started a job working at the banding station on Kiawah Island, South Carolina. It was great experience, and I got to band a lot of birds. After that I did my whip-poor-will job in Illinois, and then came back to the banding station where I was the assistant lead bander. I still banded a ton of birds, but I took a back seat to let the new people have the same experience I did. It was a taxing seven-day job since migration doesn’t stop on the weekends, and a 5:00am wakeup for four and a half months. After that I tried to stay in Charleston, and I ended up scoring a job with South Carolina and Georgia Department of Wildlife Resources with Red Knots of the migratory subspecies rufa. I was re-sighting banded birds every day, scoping flocks of 800 to 3000 birds for eight hours counting and reading flags. Towards the end of the season, we used a cannon net to catch 200 birds and band them. The flags are alpha numeric, with lime-colored flags for the US. I got to band a lime flag that was *N8, and that sounds like Nate, which was pretty cool. After that, I came out here in August to Maui.

A nest of young Black-capped Vireos (Vireo atricapilla) at Fort Cavazos, Texas that are part of a long-term monitoring and conservation effort for the species. Photo by Nathaniel Watkins. 


4.              What are some of your favorite memories from your fieldwork over the years?

NW: Anyone that does fieldwork could write a book for themselves. I’ll try to pick one for each. For the King Rail position, there was a day where the four of us were nest searching all day, we found 3 King Rail nests so we were doing amazing, and all we could think about was Waffle House. We usually didn't cook together but something was in the air, and we were all on board, so we got back and made the biggest batch of hash browns you've ever seen and played DnD after. I also remember seeing a rail cast a pellet, which until that day I had no idea they even did that, and it led me down a research rabbit hole looking into bird digestion and gastroliths. For my Texas adventures, even mundane life was a real dream. I remember my boss telling me about something called the vireo sway display that he had only seen a few times. When they are courting a female, sometimes the male vireos will extend their legs, spread their wings, and flutter them while rocking back and forth and singing incessantly. Probably my third week in the second season, I saw a bird I had caught a couple days before swaying for a female. I carried a camcorder around for the rest of the season in case I saw it again.

Black-capped Vireo (Vireo atricapilla) in the hand at Fort Cavazos, Texas. This species breeds only in Texas oak scrub habitat and was delisted from the Endangered Species Act in 2018 after intensive conservation efforts, but it remains a species of conservation concern. Photo by Nathaniel Watkins.

 

One of our bosses in Texas got us into writing haikus and poetry about these birds, and I've truly taken it and ran. While working at the banding station on Kiawah Island, each person would write a post for the day, and I included a haiku with all of mine. They’re easy and not too much to do even if you’re tired. I really enjoy writing poetry, and I post the ones I think are decent on my Instagram. The whip-poor-will job was pretty sweet. During my third or fourth week, we caught five that night and I banded two. The more interesting thing was I got to band a female that I recorded singing. I heard this weird bird singing that had a volume and vibrato that I couldn't explain. I kept playing the playback and we caught her, and as far as I know, this is the first recording of a female whip-poor-will singing. Our last night of banding there was equally as nice since we caught one for each person to band. We also caught the first hatch year whip-poor-will, which was exciting since it is unheard of to capture a whip-poor-will in same year after fledging, but it also meant we missed a nest. We also caught one of the birds with a temperature sensor we had deployed earlier in the season, so it was a really great way to close it out.

A young Eastern Whip-poor-will in the hand outfitted with a tiny radio transmitter. Photo by Nathaniel Watkins.

 

For the Red Knot job, every day was lovely. I got sunburnt, but I saw dolphins feeding almost every day and I got to kayak with dolphins most days. I saw a bird whose band I could hardly read since it was so faded. We looked it up and this individual was 18 years old. The oldest known Red Knot was 22 and known as the “moonbird.” He was a long-distance migrant from Argentina to Canada that flew the distance from the Earth to the moon in his lifetime. There are other moon birds out there and I met some that are getting up there. This season here on Maui has been pretty incredible. On one banding trip we caught 4 Kiwikiu and 3 ‘Akohekohe, and people who have been working here a lot longer than me had never caught that many ‘Akohekohe in one go. And we continued to have this kind of success. On another trip, we caught a male Kiwikiu known as MAPA1 that was translocated to a different part of the island a few years ago. It was believed he died of malaria, but he ended up returning to almost the exact location he was captured from originally. They are so hard to catch, so to recapture this bird was pretty special. 

Nate holding a Red Knot (Calidris canutus rufa) in coastal South Carolina. This subspecies of Red Knot is highly migratory and flies from Argentina to breeding grounds in the arctic and back every year. They have critical stopover sites along the way, such as coastal South Carolina and the Delaware Bay. Photo courtesy of Nathaniel Watkins.

 

5.              What does a typical day and week look like for you in Hawaii?

NW: It’s weather dependent and the forest terrain is rough. Some days you walk through a dry streambed and then it rains and you’re walking through a stream on the way back. Honeycreepers are the hardest group of birds I have had to catch since they are unresponsive to playback, and they are hard to trick again once they recognize it’s playback. We were attempting to capture birds for prophylactic malaria treatment and to start a captive breeding population of Kiwikiu. We did a fair amount of banding and disease sampling, which is part of the reason we band native and nonnative birds. It just makes sense to band everything, so you know when you’ve captured a bird and tested it for malaria. Our trips were long, usually five days of camping up in the forest. Our schedule was typically 10 days on 4 days off, and I’d spend the days off snorkeling, birdwatching, and packing for the trip. All our sites are a five to fifteen minute helicopter ride above the forest, and our equipment is flown in with giant sling bags that can weigh 600 pounds. Heli-ops start around 7:30am, and depending on how many camps we send people to, it takes a few hours. Slings go first then people since you don't want to get stuck up there with no food. On my last trip, we had ice in the forest, and we got stuck for an extra three days. It was rainy and with the fog there was no way a helicopter could safely land or get close to us. So, we were stuck, and it was 35 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit every day. Since it was gross weather, we all sat together in our sleeping bags and read books. We always pack extra food for this reason.

Doing fieldwork with critically endangered Kiwikiu (Pseudonestor xanthophrys) on the eastern slope of Maui. This unique Hawaiian honeycreeper is restricted to the remote montane rainforest above the reach of mosquitoes and avian malaria. Photo courtesy of Nathaniel Watkins.

 

After you get dropped off at camp, we would set up tents. For some of the sites, we can use the cabins that were built up here for Po’ouli collections when there were only a few birds left. We still use those cabins as shelter, but if you don't have those, we set up the communal tents and set out gear. If there's still time, we pack our bags with poles, nets, and a banding and bleeding kit, and head up into the forest. If you catch a bird, you hike them back to camp in specialized boxes, or keep trying until 4:00pm, then make dinner. Typically, we do a communal dinner setup where you cook for everybody and someone cleans, and it usually works out day-wise that you only cook and clean once for everyone. The next day, you have your breakfast and coffee and then you're out there the whole day.

The Po’ouli (Melamprosops phaeosoma), a honeycreeper endemic to Maui, was declared extinct in 2019 by the IUCN and in 2021 by the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Photo by Paul E. Baker, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

 

We also do a fair amount of predator control. In our core ranges for ‘Akohekohe and Kiwikiu, we have predator control grids with A24 traps. Everyone in bird conservation on Hawaii uses them. We also run body grip traps that catch invasive mongoose and rats, and we have big metal box traps in case one type is more effective. Predator control involves resetting the traps and putting out fresh bait. It can be smelly, but it’s for the good of the birds, and being able to help them in any way is worth every smelly whiff. Another part of being up in the forest, apart from the workday, is looking for insects at night. There are just so many cool insects. It’s hard to get people excited about the birds here, and a lot of native Hawaiian people don't know about their native birds. Even more so, there are many undescribed species of insects in the forests because of how secluded some of these sites can be. I go out with my camera and headlamp to take macro photos, and sometimes you come up with things that have never been described. Everything out here is spectacular, including the plants. Ohia trees are the big one as they are important to honeycreepers and make up most of the forest canopies. I saw one of the oldest trees on Maui a few weeks ago, and we sat and had lunch next to this tree we call the Mother Ohia. There's truly always something to marvel at when you're up there.

‘Akohekohe (Palmeria dolei) in the hand on Maui modeling his fancy new leg bands. This is the largest extant species of Hawaiian honeycreeper found only on the island of Maui. Photo by Nathaniel Watkins.


6.              What are the best and worst parts about working with birds in Hawaii?

NW: For the worst parts, I hate rain personally. I love what it does for the ecosystem, but I hate standing in the rain. I've learned to not let it bother me so much. My second to last collection trip, I had two Kiwikiu that were somewhat interested in the playback, but never came close enough to see. I was cold and wet, and it was raining the whole time and I had to do that for another two hours before I could hike back to camp. The other worst part is the general lack of bird knowledge the native people have. It sucks to be here as a white mainlander coming to work, because you just know it should not be you doing the work. It should be a native Hawaiian that is enthused to do the work. There is nothing inherently wrong with me being here, but I would give my place in a heartbeat to a native Hawaiian in conservation that could do this job. It would be better that way. When you ask people what their favorite bird is here on Maui they'll say Common Myna, or they’ll say chicken because Red Junglefowl are everywhere. I'm past the point of worrying about non-native birds being here, and truthfully if there weren't any birds in the lowlands that would be even more sad. I'd rather hear Common Myna and Zebra Doves than hear nothing at all since I can't do anything about it. Even these invasive species can spark somebody’s interest in birds. Seeing a myna do something funny could make someone ask a question about birds, and it could send them down their own path to bird conservation.

 

A view of Maui, Hawaii. Photo by Maurice Chédel.

 

The best part of the job is just being in such a magical place! In North Carolina, we get called a temperate rainforest, and growing up you think of the Amazon rainforest, but this is a crazy rainforest. We get more rain than anywhere on Earth, specifically the Alaka’i Swamp on Kaua’i is the wettest place on Earth. I don't like rain, but the growth the forest has is way too cool. Having birded on Kaua’i with Brendan, it's pretty different. Kaua’i needs help on everything. I’iwi is rare on Kaua’i, but here on Maui I hear 40 a day while up in the forest. You can really appreciate Maui for a snapshot of what Hawai’i was. Being able to be with Kiwikiu and ‘Akohekohe before the ‘Akikiki level extinction crisis is pretty spectacular. I know it’s hard to think about, and hopefully we won't get to the point of the ‘Akikiki with the work that we do.  

Kiwikiu in the hand showing off the robust, hooked bill of the species used to dig into tree bark and extract insects. The English name for this species is Maui Parrotbill, and its current Hawaiian name was given in 2010 with a traditional naming ceremony. Photo by Nathaniel Watkins.

 

7.              What would you say the outlook is for birds in Hawaii?

NW: Birds in Hawai’i as a whole, I'd say pretty good. ‘Akohekohe seems to be doing okay right now. We're trying out some different mosquito control techniques, like dropping mosquitoes that have been inoculated with Wolbachia so the males will pass on their infertility and slowly decrease the population of mosquitos. We’re testing it in a small area, and we’re trying to get grant money to do it more widely. We’re also spraying BTI, which is a safe larval insecticide that is sprayed over the forest and makes its way into pools where mosquitoes breed to render the eggs useless. We’re going at it from all directions. Climate change is obviously the big one, and it's allowing the forest to warm up and that allows mosquitoes to move higher up the mountain. As Maui Forest Birds, we can’t stop climate change on our own, but we're doing everything we can aside from that to help. Kaua’i is doing BTI and IIT for mosquitoes. It's not even too late for ‘Akikiki, because we have captive breeding facilities with some stowed away and doing well. We’re currently working on a reintroduction of ʻAlalā (Corvus hawaiiensis) on Maui this year. Also known as the Hawaiian Crow, this species has been recognized as extinct in the wild since 2002, but fortunately there is a captive breeding program that provides some hope of its survival. On the Big Island, things are going well for now. If this mosquito stuff works, we’ll integrate it statewide, but it will take time. 

‘Akikiki (Oreomystis bairdi) in the hand. Also called the Kaua’i Creeper, they are endemic to the misty Alaka’i Swamp, which was too cold for mosquitoes until recently. One bird, a female named Pakele, remains in the wild with the rest of the population in captive breeding facilities. Photo by Carter Atkinson, USGS, Public Doman, via Wikimedia Commons.


8.              What would be your advice to other young people looking to pursue a career in ornithology? 

NW: Be open to lots of different things. Be friendly with your coworkers during jobs and internships. It will not only make your life easier while you’re there, but it’s also a game of who you know sometimes. Be good about communal living since that's one of the coolest things about it. You just get to hang out with your coworkers, and it brings you into this experience and adventure. Do internships, even poorly paying ones while you still have financial support. Get out there and apply.

Nathaniel with a Red Knot in coastal South Carolina as part of a project with South Carolina and Georgia Department of Wildlife Resources. Photo courtesy of Nathaniel Watkins.

 

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