Art meets conservation in an effort to save native birds

David Hyrenbach and Rick Oania-Elam measure a shearwater – Courtesy of Brice Myers

Since the beginning of the semester, WCC ceramics students have been collaborating with and The Hawai‘i Audubon Society to build and install a series of nests at the Freeman Seabird Preserve on O‘ahu. Led by California-based artist Nathan Lynch and bird specialist David Hyrenbach of Hawai‘i Pacific University, this merger of art and environment aims to help increase Hawai‘i’s seabird populations and set the stage for similar projects in the future.

Hawai‘i’s sea birds are a valuable link in our ecosystem and an important part of Native Hawaiian history and culture. Ancient Hawaiians once used seabirds such as the ‘ua‘u kani or wedge-tailed shearwater to find their way to fertile fishing areas or land. Although the birds are common in Hawai‘i and even listed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature as of “least concern” due to their stable populations, the birds still face many challenges in Hawai‘i, the vast majority of which are human-caused.

For instance, humans brought domestic pets such as cats and dogs and invasive pests such as the mongoose and rats to the islands, all of which prey on the birds. The development of the birds’ habitats into urban areas, agriculture and ranch land can also result in the trampling of their nesting sites by cattle and humans. The birds’ habitats decrease every year, and what’s left of them can be polluted by dangerous litter such as plastics that can kill the birds when ingested and invasive plants that grow over their nesting sites making them unusable.

The cityʻs skyline and its bright lights also confuse and disorient the birds at night. Many die from collisions with power lines, buildings and vehicles. In addition to these myriad threats, every year we consume more and more fish, further depleting the birds’ only food source.

By building on the knowledge of these birds and their habitats, students in California designed and constructed innovative ceramic nests that exclude or prevent most predators from gaining access to the chicks inside. They constructed and installed 90 nests on Ano Nuevo, an island off California between San Francisco and Santa Ana, to restore this nesting site and were thrilled to see the nests in use later that year.

With the help of Lynch and his entourage, ceramics students at WCC adopted this process and have similar plans for the nests they have constructed and will be installing at the Freeman Seabird Preserve in Black Point in late November. Ceramic artist Forest Leonard, who assisted in building these ceramic nests, said that he was inspired to join the project because the nests will support new life that may travel hundreds of miles away and return to something his hands helped create.

“As a ceramics artist, it’s interesting to learn the process and take part in a unique non-conventional project like this one,” he said. “I’m proud to have been involved with a new and revolutionary use for clay.”

Hyrenbach, who maintains the nesting site at Black Point, said they plan to install four nests later this month in addition to the 60 or so already in existence. He is optimistic about helping the birds however stresses the importance of collecting accurate and consistent information.

“The weight and measurements of these birds’ wings and feathers are important to help us see the larger picture of what is going on with them,” he said.

Hyrenbach said he hopes that the information collected will be used to better understand the birds and help us co-exist with them here in Hawai‘i and abroad.

WCC ceramics and art instructor Bryce Myers said plans are in the making to create a course at WCC that will combine and teach the biological as well as artistic efforts involved in such a project. For more information on ways you can get involved, go to or


by Rick Oania-Elam, Ka ‘Ohana Staff Reporter