Today 250 to 300 nene call Haleakala National Park home. Veteran wildlife biologist Joy Tamayose has monitored the birds’ progress for the past two decades. Tamayose has a slight build, talks a mile a minute and is known for outhiking new recruits. She can usually be found in the park’s hinterlands searching for nests, checking Andrade’s old traps or affixing bands to birds’ legs for future identification. Once she found a bird with a Slimbridge tag—which meant that its owner was a sage thirty-seven-years of age. Most nene live twenty, at most thirty years.
Tamayose says 2011 was a good year for Haleakala’s nene: Forty goslings fledged. Nesting nene tend to be secretive, tucking nests under pukiawe bushes and covering them in soft down, but once their youngsters take flight, the gregarious birds emerge from hiding and the sociable flocking season begins. From June to November a symphony of multitonal honks ricochets against the steep crater walls as nene families mingle and new breeding pairs form.
Nene mate for life, so it’s fitting that two of their guardians at Haleakala National Park are likewise committed. Cathleen Bailey, who supervises the park’s endangered bird operations, first visited Haleakala as an awe-struck high school volunteer. She fell first for the majestic park’s wildlife and next for its dashing aviation manager, Tim Bailey. He and Cathleen met while banding nene; she helped corral the wily birds while he tossed a throw net. When the couple wed in 2002, they tattooed a nene design on their ring fingers.
Tim Bailey has spent a good chunk of his twenty-year career airborne. From above he traverses Maui’s most pristine wilder- nesses, descending to control predators, repair fences and prevent fires. His dedication to natural resource management is rooted in his native Hawaiian heritage, he says: His ancestors treated plants and animals as extended family, and he does the same. “It’s my kuleana,” he says, referring to the Hawaiian concept of personal and social responsibility. Tim has literally written that kuleana on his face: In addition to the nene tattoo on his ring finger, he wears a traditional facial tattoo that reflects the nene’s flight pattern. A train of dark triangles starts behind his ear, reminding him, he says, to listen for guidance from his ancestors before speaking or acting.
Tim notes that the nene were mentioned as a guardian species in the Kumulipo, the epic ancient creation chant that Tim calls the Hawaiian almanac. “The native birds were the smart ones. They led us to water, to food. The nene has a genetic structure to migrate, but it stays here. I too can choose to go here or there, but I remain.”
As it turns out, Haleakala isn’t prime habitat for nene. The national park capping Maui’s tallest peak is safe because it’s actively managed for predators, but the high-elevation climate is almost too cold for the birds. Nutritious foliage in the crater is sparse, fresh water nonexistent. While nene don’t need ponds like most waterfowl, they do gravitate toward them. Thus, Haleakala’s geese continually escape their protected confines to explore golf courses around the island and paddle across whatever water they can find. Rather than frustrating the nene’s current caretakers, this wild behavior delights them. “Nature has no protocols,” says Tim. For her part, Cathleen hopes Maui residents will respond with appropriate wonder if a few native Hawaiian geese happen to alight in their backyards.
This June marks not only the fiftieth anniversary of the nene’s triumphant return to Maui but the start of the species’ resurgence statewide. After their successful reintroduction to Haleakala, nene were released elsewhere on Maui and other islands. At last count there were 386 nene on Maui, 480 on Hawai‘i, 112 on Moloka‘i and 1,000 on Kauai—almost 2,000 birds total. Today the charismatic bird is so commonly seen at Haleakala that park staff have difficulty convincing visitors that nene are endangered. “This is one of the best success stories,” Cathleen Bailey says. “Not just for conservation, but culturally. It’s what everybody hopes for: to have an endangered species thrive.”