Going To The Birds

Working at one of the most beautiful places on Kauai is just a side benefit for Padraic Gallagher, interpretive ranger at Kilauea National Wildlife Refuge. In the bigger picture, he says, ‘We’re trying to save birds, but we’re also trying to save ourselves.’

Hawaiian geese (nene) waddle by wide-eyed visitors while fuzzy wedge-tailed shearwater (uau kani) chicks snuggle in naupaka-enshrouded burrows at Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge (KPNWR). This northernmost point of the main Hawaiian Islands is where hundreds of seabirds gracefully dance in the air, delighting visitors and providing them with an opportunity to get up close and personal with these rare native species.

“You see something different every day,” says Padraic Gallagher, the refuge’s interpretive park ranger.

From great frigates (iwa) and red-footed boobies (a) that reside at KPNWR year-round to Pacific golden plovers (kolea) and Laysan albatross (moli) that visit for several months each year, Gallagher enjoys watching their unique behaviors as the seasons unfold. He also likes working with the public and watching people form connections with the birds and the surrounding environment.

“I really like that I’m doing something that’s making a difference,” he says.

Gallagher interacts with refuge visitors on a daily basis and is the only full-time ranger on staff. His focus is on environmental education and raising awareness of the plight of Hawaii’s seabirds.

“If we don’t have public awareness, then there’s no hope,” he says.

Gallagher meets people from around the world and never tires of answering the same questions.

“I have to tell myself, ‘It’s new to them; every single person I see, it’s new to them,'” he explains.

His prestigious position also has a not-so-glamorous side.

“My job involves a lot of poop,” he jokes.

With the recovering nene population comes an increase in the volume of fecal matter that must be evacuated every morning before visitors begin to arrive. But the rewards of his job are worth getting a little down and dirty. By educating the public, he can help modify problems, such as decreasing the use of plastics and making sure trash is discarded properly so that it doesn’t become litter that inevitably washes into the ocean, where wildlife can succumb to its detriments.

“We’re trying to save birds, but we’re also trying to save ourselves,” says Gallagher. “We don’t know what the linchpin is that you pull out and everything comes down. We’ll be that card at the top of the heap.”

KPNWR is one of more than 500 national wildlife refuges throughout the United States and parts of the Pacific. It is often the last chance of survival for many endangered species. There are two other national refuges on Kauai: Hanalei National Wildlife Refuge and Huleia National Wildlife Refuge, which protect the wetlands and their birds, including the Hawaiian moorhen (alae ula) and Hawaiian stilt (aeo). While some U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service areas are closed to the public to allow protected species a greater chance to recover, as well as a place for biologists to privately conduct studies, the main function of KPNWR is educating and providing people with access to species they wouldn’t see anywhere else.

Gallagher continues to find Hawaii’s birds fascinating. In fact, watching a Laysan albatross take its first flight is “one of the greatest things to see,” he says. His favorite bird, however, is the Pacific golden plover, which spends its summers in Alaska and is currently sporting its tuxedo-like traveling attire or mating plumage. The small birds will travel more than 2,500 miles nonstop at a speed equivalent to running a 4-minute mile for 80 hours.

Gallagher, who is originally from Illinois, wasn’t always so knowledgeable about birds. He has a history degree from Benedictine University and worked for Arthur Andersen as a logistics adviser for a number of years before joining AmeriCorps VISTA in Utah. He received a noncompetitive status for federal jobs and landed a position with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management before transitioning to Fish and Wildlife Service. The opportunity to take his current position came about in 2009.

“I wasn’t going to turn that down,” he says.

And he’s grateful he didn’t. Being part of an endeavor that helps perpetuate native species is something he doesn’t regret.

“We’re trying to make sure they can thrive and live,” he says.

KPNWR is open Tuesday through Saturday from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Visit fws.gov/refuge/kilauea_point for more information.