Welcome to Friends of Keālia Pond National Wildlife Refuge,

a nonprofit formed in 2014 to advocate for the Keālia Pond National Wildlife Refuge.

Keālia Pond National Wildlife Refuge, established in 1992 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, is a 704-acre natural wetland in Kihei, Maui.

It is home to the endangered Hawaiian stilt (ae‘o) and Hawaiian coot (‘alae ke‘oke‘o) as well as to indigenous black-crowned night herons (‘auku‘u) and one of the largest populations of migratory shorebirds in Hawaii. In addition, the Refuge manages coastal beach strand habitat for native plant species, endangered hawksbill turtles (honu‘ea), threatened Hawaiian green turtles (honu), and nesting wedge-tailed shearwaters (‘ua‘u kani).

For more information about Keālia Pond NWR, visit https://www.fws.gov/refuge/kealia_pond/

Maui bird watching at Kealia Pond

A Huge Mahalo to everyone who entered our First Annual Photo Contest!

Taking a walk on the wild side at Kealia Pond

By Mia Charleston


Nicknamed the “patron saint of swamps”, author Henry David Thoreau once wrote “I enter a swamp as a sacred place, a sanctum sanctorum . . . I seemed to have reached a new world, so wild a place . . . ”. Fortunately here on Maui, there is a team of volunteers and the Friends of Kealia Pond (National Wildlife Refuge FKP) who share Thoreau’s view of wetlands. They are focusing their efforts on restoring the native plant communities in the Kealia Pond National Wildlife Refuge, that reflect the ecology of what might have existed before human settlement of the Hawaiian islands.

In 1992, the Kealia Pond National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) was established to preserve, restore and protect wetland habitat crucial for endangered waterfowl such as the Hawaiian coot (‘alae keʻokeʻo) and the Hawaiian stilt (aeʻo) which utilize the area for foraging and nesting. The U.S Fish and Wildlife Service manages the refuge, encompassing over 700 acres. Not only does the refuge have a large wetland ecosystem, but it also contains tropical shrublands and a coastal dune.

Maui bird watching on the Kealia Coastal Boardwalk

I had the pleasure of touring all three habitats with long-time volunteer and land steward, Sonny Gamponia, who is also a member of FKP. According to Sonny, in the 1980’s Rene Sylva began planting sandalwood, wiliwili and Pritchardia beccariana, a native loulu plam. Forest and Kim Starr extended the native plant community by restoring a section of the dunes with ʻakiʻaki, aweoweo and kou. Jack Hazen planted more trees in the mid-1990’s, volunteering at Kealia Pond until he was 91 years old! His work can be appreciated to this day as you drive through the visitor center entrance where hala and wiliwili trees welcome guests as they enter the refuge.

The Coastal Dune

In an effort to reestablish the ecological integrity of the ecosystem, volunteers have been conducting small experimental plantings. Their goal is to increase native plant growth and decrease invasive plant species (marsh fleabane, kiawe, buffel grass and pickleweed).

To track changes over time, two variables are measured: 1) proportion of native plant species among the grasses, ground cover, low shrubs, tall shrubs and trees in a given area; and 2) proportion of native root coverage of 10 x 10 meter sections of the same area. Both variables increased comparing from 2014 to 2017. Documentation of these changes can be seen at the following link: https://kealianwr.smugmug.com/Ecology

Increasing the root density with diverse native plant communities (ʻākulikuli, paʻu o hiʻiʻaka, pōhuehue, ʻilima, maʻo, naio, naio papa) has transformed small degraded sections of the dunes and coastal strand into functional habitat for pollinators and potential nesting sites for hawksbill sea turtles and wedge-tailed shearwaters.

Maui bird watching at Kealia Pond National Wildlife Refuge

The Tropical Shrubland

One of the main objectives in the Kealia Pond NWR Comprehensive Conservation Plan for the tropical shrublands is to enhance habitat in order to attract the endangered ‘ōka‘i ‘aiea (Blackburn’s sphinx moth). A pollinator garden has been planted behind the visitor center primarily to attract the moth. Sonny is hopeful that the small native shrubland projects surrounding the pollinator garden will connect to provide habitat
of scale for endemic insects like the Kamehameha butterfly, koa butterfly, the Hawaiian yellow-faced bees, as well as the Hawaiian hoary bat.

In 2007, Stephanie Pau and a group of researchers studied soil samples from the middle of Kealia Pond. Pollen from 28 plant families were identified as having existed between 2500 BC to the 900 AD. At present, 14 of the 28 prehuman settlement species are growing on the refuge. There now nearly 50 species of native plants growing in small patches on refuge property including ʻaʻaliʻi, wiliwili, maʻo, kou, ʻākia, naupaka, hala, naio and ʻakiʻaki grass.

The Wetlands

The wetlands of Kealia are inundated with invasive Indian marsh fleabane, pickleweed and kiawe. Small patches of ʻakiʻaki grass and makaloa and kaluhā sedge remain. Once the invasive plants have been removed, wetland grasses spread on their own. Rhizomes from these essential wetland species can be used to expand critical wetland habitat for the Hawaiian stilt, Hawaiian coot, nēnē and migratory shorebirds.

Along with these projects done by community groups and individual volunteers, Sonny has his own pilot project to utilize small aeroponic systems to propagate native plant species. The aeroponic units would decentralize plant propagation from a single small greenhouse and expand native plant propagation to the general community.

Maui Bird Watching

An example of the aeroponic kit being used in a pilot propagation project at Kealia Pond. This picture shows a small bale with a rooting plant on top.

Kealia Coastal Boardwalk

After purchasing a couple of aeroponic kits, Sonny built his own using materials from local hardware and gardening stores. He monitored propagation times and survival rates of native species used at the refuge.

The basic principal behind aeroponics is to suspend plant cuttings where root structures can be exposed to a mist of water and nutrients at regular intervals, basically replacing soil. Why replace the soil? According to studies performed by NASA aboard the Mir space station using adzuki beans, “Aeroponics systems can reduce water usage by 98 percent, fertilizer usage by 60 percent, and pesticide usage by 100 percent, all while maximizing crop yields. Plants grown in the aeroponic systems have been shown to
uptake more minerals and vitamins, making the plants healthier”. From the https://www.nasa.gov/vision/earth/technologies/aeroponic_plants.html.

The Friends of Kealia Pond is working on a project to loan aeroponic units to volunteers who wish to propagate cuttings for the native plant restoration projects at the refuge. Participants in this program will transplant the rooted cuttings into small bales of native grasses and native seeds. These bales, about the size of a loaf of bread, are “cured” and planted in shrublands wetlands and dunes at the refuge.

Based on the continued accumulative efforts of FKP, it seems hopeful they will obtain their goal of restoring the native flora to Kealia National Wildlife Refuge.

Sonny wanted to acknowledge that the restoration projects would not be possible without the pioneering work by Rene Sylva, Anna Palamino, Forest and Kim Starr and the Native Hawaiian Plant Society. The whole ecology of the Hawaiian tropical shrubland and coastal strand is near extinction. The trend is slowly being reversed with projects at Haleakalā National Park, Mākena, Kanahā Pond and Waiheʻe Wetlands and Coastal Dunes. Restoring native plant communities is the best gift we can give to the ‘aina.

If you would like to learn more about the refuge, the Visitor Center is open M-F from 8:00 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. and the coastal boardwalk is open seven days a week from 6:30 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. You can find Sonny and the FKP volunteers on Tuesday and Thursday mornings from 9:00 to 11:00.

Maui Bird Watching | Keālia Pond National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center

Thank you so much to Sonny Gamponia, his wife Diana Lyons, and all of the wonderful volunteers like Frank Krau and Carl Griffith, as well as the staff at the refuge who I met during my tour. Your work is truly motivating. Mahalo.

First published in the NHPS Newsletter, February 2019, pages 1-3, reprinted with the permission of the Native Hawaiian Plant Society.

Hawaiian Stilt | Maui Bird Watching

Mission Statement and Goals

Friends of Keālia Pond National Wildlife Refuge is dedicated to helping the Refuge achieve its mission of conserving and protecting essential wetland habitat by promoting a better understanding and appreciation of the natural environmental and native species of Maui County and, in particular, Keālia Pond NWR.
Our goals are to:
• Support the mission of Keālia Pond National Wildlife Refuge.
• Improve visitors’ experience by building trails, installing benches, and providing shady spots and viewing blinds.
• Increase visitation levels by sponsoring activities and events.
• Develop environmental and education activities for school groups, service clubs, and others.
• Offer volunteer assistance with refuge projects, such as citizen science, wetland restoration, and control of invasive species.
• Establish fund-raising sources through memberships, donors, and gift shop sales to support the above activities.
• Advocate for Keālia Pond National Wildlife Refuge.