Kealia Pond National Wildlife Refuge
Accessibility: The National Wildlife Refuge System is working to ensure that facilities and programs are accessible to visitors. Please contact the refuge office for information about accessibility at this unit of the National Wildlife Refuge System.
Kealia Pond NWR welcomes visitors at the refuge headquarters, located on the site of an old aquaculture facility at milepost 6 of Mokulele Hwy. (Hwy. 311). The office is open 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. Staff can provide brochures describing the native Hawaiian waterbirds and migrants one can see in and around the old fish farm impoundments.
Hawaiian stilt, Hawaiian coot, and black-crowned night heron are the most commonly observed native waterbirds. During the March-August nesting season of the Hawaiian stilt and coot, access must be limited to the office and parking area in order to prevent disturbance of nesting females and young of these endangered species.
Fall and winter provide the best viewing, and visitors may walk cleared paths along the dikes of the old aquaculture facility to access the main body of Kealia Pond.
Hawaiian duck and migratory waterfowl including northern shoveler, pintail, lesser scaup, mallard, common merganser, American and Eurasian wigeon and teal can sometimes be seen at a distance. Except for the Hawaiian duck, these birds are migrants from North America and eastern Asia. they arrive at Kealia in the fall, when rains swell the pond; shoveler and pintail are most abundant.
Shorebirds seen in Hawai'i are all migrants. They breed in Alaska, Canada, and Siberia and spend the winter in the tropics. Incredibly, they fly 2,000 miles or more nonstop across the ocean to reach Hawai'i; some continue on to the south Pacific after stopping to feed and rest. At Kealia Pond, these birds usually forage at the outlet and mudflats on the refuge, and on adjacent beaches. These sanderlings, ruddy turnstones, wandering tattlers, Pacific golden plovers, and a variety of other coastal migrants including yellowlegs and several species of sandpipers can be seen at relatively close range during the winter months.
In addition to native and migratory birds, a number seabirds and introduced species can be observed on or near the refuge. In the winter, gulls and terns that are rarely seen in Hawai'i may be found her. Ospreys are also regular winter visitors from the mainland. Introduced doves, finches, and cardinals are common. Cattle egrets, brought to Hawai'i from Florida to control insects on ranches, have become a threat to native wildlife; they compete with native birds for food and nest sites and may also prey on chicks. Kealia Pond teems with introduced tilapia and minnows; native fish such as awa (milkfish) and aholehole (silver perch) also occur.
A roadside pullout, boardwalk, and kiosk with self-guided interpretive exhibits (all accessible to people with disabilities) have been planned and are anticipated to be constructed soon along the coastal dunes and refuge wetlands near milepost 2 of North Kihei Rd. (Hwy. 31). All of the above listed species are visible from this location at some time during the year.
Although hawksbill sea turtles nest on the adjacent beach from May through December, they generally emerge only at night, are extremely rare, and must be left undisturbed if this endangered species is to remain in the Islands. A life-sized bronze sculpture of a nesting female and her eggs will provide visitors with a glimpse of this marine turtle's life history.
From November through March, close to a mile of elevated boardwalk will also provide excellent opportunities to view humpback whales, which reproduce and calve in the near-shore waters of Maalaea Bay. Viewing scopes are planned for this location to allow visitors to watch whales on the ocean and waterbirds in the wetlands, from the same scenic overlooks along this coastline.
The refuge office is located about a mile north of the town of Kihei. Look for the familiar U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service logo (with the dark blue fish and goose) at the entrance to a gravel road located immediately at milepost 6 of Mokulele Hwy. (Hwy. 311). The office is less than 0.5 mile down this unimproved road. Parking is limited; groups of more than 20 people please phone ahead. The planned roadside pullout, boardwalk and kiosk with self-guided interpretive exhibits will be constructed soon along the coastal dunes and refuge wetlands near milepost 2 of North Kihei Rd. (Hwy. 31).
Kealia Pond NWR is of primary importance for endangered Hawaiian stilt and Hawaiian coot. Intermittent flooding and siltation created shallow mud flat areas, pickleweed flats, native sedge margins, and expanses of open water that provide suitable resting, feeding, and nesting habitat for endangered waterbirds. The drying of the pond in the spring benefits these native birds. 'Ae'o (Hawaiian stilts) time their nesting so that their young can probe for invertebrates and small fish in the newly-exposed mud.
The pond also supports diverse resident and migratory bird populations. It is one of the most important areas in the State for wintering migratory waterfowl. Migratory shorebirds also congregate here to take advantage of food exposed as the pond recedes. As the pond shrinks, fish are crowded into the remaining water, making them easy prey for 'auku'u (black-crowned night-herons).
Kealia Pond NWR lies adjacent to Maalaea Bay along the south central coast of the island of Maui, Hawaii, near the town of Kihei. The main body of the pond is separated from the Pacific Ocean by a narrow band of coastal sand dunes and N. Kihei Rd. Kealia Pond acts as a natural sump within the floodplain of its 56 square miles watershed. At the turn of the twentieth century, this natural basin was 6 to 8 feet deep, but since then it has filled in with silt-laden runoff from agricultural fields.
Today it averages 1 to 2 feet of brackish water covering 50-400 acres, depending on the season. The great majority of the land surrounding the pond is planted in sugar cane owned by Alexander and Baldwin Co. In summer, the pond often shrinks to less than half its winter size, leaving a crust of pure crystalline salt at its margins. Kealia (pronounced keh-AH-lee-ah) means "the salt-encrusted place," and Hawaiians gathered salt here for centuries.
At Kealia, as in other Hawaiian wetland refuges, control of exotic plants is a year-round battle. Over 90 percent of the plants you see here are aggressive introduced species such as Florida mangrove, pickleweed, Indian marsh fleabane, and California bulrush. Native plants such as 'aki'aki (saltgrass) and 'akulikuli (sea purslane) have become scarce.
Without human intervention, exotic plants will quickly choke open water and mud flats, a situation seen throughout the Islands. This has had a direct impact on wildlife. At the turn of the century, about 40,000 ducks wintered in Hawaiian wetlands; today that number is around 2,000. Four of the five native waterbirds are now classified as endangered.
Introduced animals have also affected native Hawaiian wildlife. Cattle egrets compete with native birds for food, and may eat their chicks. Mongooses, rats, cats, and dogs eat ground-nesting birds, and their eggs and young. Predator control is an ongoing effort at Kealia.
Controlling water levels is another vital aspect of habitat management, particularly during the nesting season. Too much water and nests can be flooded, or the water is too deep for chicks to forage; too little water and hatchlings will have to travel too far to find food. Planned flooding and draining also helps keep alien plants from growing in areas needed by birds.
The refuge also works with neighboring landowners and the public to restore and protect the coastal sand dunes that provide nesting habitat for endangered hawksbill sea turtles.
Kealia Pond NWR
P.O. Box 1042
Kihei, HI 96753-1042
Phone (808) 875-1582
Fax (808) 875-2945
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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