Friday, December 11, 2009

A challenge – and bounty - for one of Kauai’s endangered birds

A pair of gallinules beside the Waipa Stream

Four years ago, experts estimated there were less than 300 Hawaiian gallinules – ‘alae’ula - left in the world. They were nearly all in two locations on Kauai. They are normally so shy and hard to count that that 2005 estimate was an optimistic guess. The real number could have been 200. No-one has counted since.

In the last two weeks, after local flooding, between 2 and 4 have been killed every day as they tried to cross a small section of road beside the Hanalei River. Up to 50 lost in two weeks - and no response at all from the state department paid to protect them.

The casualties occur just after the bridge crossing of the Hanalei River. A constant stream of tourist and local traffic cuts through the wetland at 30- 40 miles an hour. Tourists are gazing into the distance at the awe-inspiring scenery; but locals frustrated by the unpredictable speeds are just as guilty. No-one is thinking of the tiny little dark bird trying to cross the road between their wheels.

Elegant in the water - look at the long toes for gripping and climbing submerged rushes ..

The ‘alae‘ula don’t normally cross the road like this, and are not usually victims of road kill. Something happened during the recent flood to drive them from their secret territories.

It was thousands of years ago that a few small-winged gallinules somehow managed to cross two-and-a-half to three thousand miles of ocean and reach the Hawaiian islands. Once here, they adapted, evolving differences that distinguish them from their mainland ancestors. They have become much darker, the tarsi and toes show changes, as well as their voice, and they have been on the endangered species list for several years after most of their wetlands were drained and multiple predators were brought to the islands.

A shy bird, always alert and ready to hide

‘Alae ‘ula have a wealth of history and mythology linking them with the native people. They gifted fire, and all of them belong to the beautiful goddess of the moon Hina.

Found a plum!

There is another, more positive, ‘alae’ula activity happening right now. On Kauai, they have formed a bond with a certain species of tree that for several months in winter scatters generous numbers of juicy plums across the ground. In recent history, every native plant the birds once depended on was grazed by cattle or ploughed up, and is no longer available. But among the thousands of trees that were introduced to prevent erosion there is one called the Java or “China” Plum. For several months throughout the summer it produces panicles of blossom that attract all kinds of nectar-eating birds and insectivores. During the winter, for several months, the same tree scatters its fruit on the ground, fulfilling the need for fruit in the diet of wild birds.

Java Plum trees in the Waipa Valley

At least three endangered species are enjoying its fruit just now. As well as the ‘alae ‘ula, koloa (Hawaiian Duck) and nene (Hawaiian Goose) gather hungrily beneath the trees. There is some competition. In the last two days an ‘alae’ula has been searching beneath one very prolific tree close to the river every hour. The koloa are there at dawn and dusk. But a fruiting java plum tree will bring them into the open even in the brightest hours of the day. Nene always check the ground beneath these trees as they pass, and it is not unusual to see the three endangered species feeding together under a single java plum tree.

Close-up of the prolific fruit

Unfortunately, all that fruit is an inconvenience to people. The Java plum is regarded as a “weed tree” – especially by anyone who unwittingly parks their white car underneath it and returns to find it covered with hard-to-remove bright purple stains. It is among the first tree to be removed when people move into an area.

However, it is clearly playing an important nutritional role for these endangered species at a time when two of them are on the very brink of extinction, Koloa hybrids now outnumber pure koloa because of introduced mallards. The ‘alae’ula’ has a shrinking habitat, extreme vulnerability to predators, and competition for food resources. It would be sad if the next generation of children could not marvel at the fire-giving bird, or gazing in wonder at the moon and imagining Hina could no longer see her cherished bird.

Searching for more plums. The tip of the bill is already stained purple.

For now it is heartwarming to watch these endangered birds feasting together – sometimes with comical results. The koloa especially take the whole fruit in their bills, but are unable to close them. They lean their heads back and roll the fruit around as violet purple juice drips from their mouths, staining their tongues purple. The ‘alae ‘ula, with their sharp-pointed bills, have a more precise peck that removes the pulp from the seed on the ground but leaves the yellow tips of their bills in various stages of purple.

Female Koloa rolling a plum in her bill. Note purple staining of tongue and bill discarded plum on the right after the fruit has been removed.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

An Unexpected Visitor...

Heading back to the studio...

I was trying to concentrate above the sound of geese. I kept hearing their loud territorial calls and the squeals of the defeated as they battled outside for a desirable nesting site close to where old trees overhang the river, very near the window at my desk.

It was almost impossible to focus. When a dominant goose chases a rival, he grabs a beak full of feathers - usually in a most sensitive area, at the butt, where their fragrant powder puffs are (they have a powder which is released from scent glands located there). Then the aggressor tugs until the feathers come out, and the poor victim squeals in such an agonizing way you just want to run out and try and help. But they are wild geese, and emotions and hormones are flooding their brains just now, so there is little you can do.

I was working on a difficult part of the drawing of a life-size bird, where the breast feathers merge, decrease in size and change color, in a faint diagonal pattern. Details like this are missing from photographs, you almost feel the growth as you depict it, there is a rhythm revealed if you get it right… and I kept losing it.

Just then I heard a scratching at the screen door. and turned to see a goose ”asking to come in”. One foot was raised as he tried to step through the screen, but slid down, confusing him. I opened the door and he slipped inside. Outside, the battles still raged.

It was last winter’s young from the green-banded pair, now a fully-grown teenager, just developing his neck collar, but too young to breed this year. He was still following his parents and getting chased away by them - and every other goose around. Life is tough at the bottom of the pecking order.

But he was obviously an inventive thinker. He’d already climbed up 12 steps to get to the door, as the house is built on stilts - something no other goose has ever done. I thought he would panic, so I left the door wide open. He padded in bold and curious, looking around the room, and then walked from my studio into the open door of the living room. He stopped at the floor-length window and studied outside where he could see the other geese still battling and chasing. He had a ringside view.

Returning from the front door, after looking out of the window...

After watching for a few minutes he went to the front door and looked through the screen. I opened it for him, but he turned around and came back, looking up at chairs and settee. Then he wandered towards the bedrooms, but the doors were closed. Next he came back into my studio, looking out the back door, and then back again to the living-room window. He knew his way round now, and showed no sign of leaving.

I’ve noticed before that at this age they seem to be at their most curious, and prepared to investigate things that older geese ignore. As a lone sibling, his actions were isolated. At this time in their lives, siblings being “evicted” by their parents tend to stick together.

I went back to my desk and began to work again. Here was a living model, relaxed and still. It must have been about half an hour before he left the way he had come, but instead of descending the steps he jumped to the handrail and perched for a few minutes before flying down.

It was quiet outside now. His parents had the spot they wanted and were sitting in the shade by the water. Another pair had settled under the mango tree, and the pair with three little goslings were on the lawn. Their young goslings give them immunity most of the time, the other geese rarely attack them. It does happen, though. You can see the other males trying to suppress their instinct to chase, their necks tremble and they “moan”.

He would lie low and follow the parents when they went to roost for the night. If he kept at a distance, that would be allowed.

I had a job to do when he left. He had pooped several little calling-cards over the bamboo floor and a couple on the mat. They were magenta /purple in color, full of Java plums. Luckily I’d folded the fine woven mat out of his way in time.

Note to blog readers.
Apologies for not posting for so long, we were in Washington State for 6 weeks, and since coming back I’ve been focused on getting an outdoor wetland created in a field on our property before the winter rains arrive. It’s already attracting different visitors, and I’ll post pictures soon.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Love and War Among the Hawaiian Goose

Love is definitely in the air among the nene this month. Love – and war… Hormones are changing.

We have already had a sample of the noisy territorial disputes to come. A note in my journal for last year mentions that on June 28th many new pairs of geese and small groups arrived in the valley within hours of each other, and began exploring. I was curious to see if there was any noticeable change this year to the peaceful predictability that has settled amongst the different mini-flocks. Early every morning the regulars arrive from the Crater Hill direction and settle in their familiar groups and favorite places, returning the same way before dark.

Morning of June 26: New nene arriving to explore the Waipa valley in preparation for the fall/winter nesting season.

This year on the 26th we saw exactly the same phenomenon. Dozens of new nene began arriving and spread out exploring the wider area, still in their own small summer flocks, made up of established pairs with grown young and single birds – and some of the males were already focusing on their females. A few began “shoulder honking”, following the female’s every step and honking with their necks outstretched close to her ear. This coincides with a new vigor in their chases of other males that they may have tolerated a month ago.

On the 28th June this year Oma’o Dad was mindlessly placing nesting material around himself as his mate slept beside him. When they left, there was a neat arc of dry mango leaves, roots and stems where he had sat.

These are early days; the wars have yet to build in volume and intensity, as chases become fights for the best areas. This bonding and assertiveness lasts a long time. The first nests here were not established until September last year, and this end of June burst of activity seems to herald the beginning. Peaceful tolerance has returned only temporarily.

Where the Waipa joins Hanalei Bay. Geese can often be seen from here as they head back towards Crater Hill in the evening.

In earlier posts I talked about a male who abandoned his mate while she was on the nest, leaving with a female we called Nahe. He and his mate had been a devoted pair for several years, and since their number bands are only five numbers apart, this suggests they may have known each other as goslings.

He was very strong - the beta male - and could hold his territory from all other male birds except the alpha bird of this area.. After every battle he would return victorious to “present” himself, with chest expanded, beak pointing skywards on elongated neck, and stand proudly before his mate. He accompanied her day after day as she searched different areas for a nesting site, but when she chose her place, the separation began. He sat in another place they had also both favored, calling for her.

He showed little interest in the nest she made in a mosquito - infested area, preferring an overgrown breezy spot beside the river, and it was during this time of sitting alone he formed his attachment with Nahe, a first-year bird, and mated with her.

He and Nahe behaved like a couple, but would occasionally go to stand guard together near the nest site. But when he heard the voices of the young goslings, he left Nahe and walked to the nest and gazed at them. Then he became fiercely protective, chasing everything - including Nahe - away from his family.

The upper Waipa Stream

Now he followed his first mate, who led them higher up the river valley. Nahe was abandoned. She called in anguish for two days, and then followed the family trail. When she located them, she walked at a distance behind the family, never wavering even though she was courted by other males.

The Beta male cleared away any male that attempted to court her, but stayed defending his family for two months , occasionally seeking Nahe out and ”presenting“ to her as if she was his real mate. But when mate number one got up to leave with the goslings, he always joined them.

When the youngsters began their first flights, he and Nahe left together and did not return. His first mate stayed alone with the two young ones, was accepted by the alpha pair, and had a high rank within the flock, but her two young became the omega birds. Without a male to protect them, they were chased by every adult and have become thin, nervous birds. On occasion their mother defends them from another female, but never from a male.

This is unusual behavior among supposedly-monogamous nene, especially a successful nesting pair. Conrad Lorenz studied monogamous, non-migratory graylag geese for most of his life, living alongside them. He noticed the same phenomenon on only three occasions, involving just two males. He described it as an intense, passionate attraction - as if the geese were smitten with each other.

Bernd Heinrich, in his study of migratory Canada Geese, thought the timing of the arrival at their nesting site after migration played a crucial part in pair-bonding. Possession of the nest site seemed to be critical with them. But the nene do not migrate, they travel together to slightly different locations for nesting. It is interesting that the nest was a pivotal factor in this story, their separation first occurred over nesting preference.

The passion between Nahe and the male was obvious, and is still there, as well as her grief when he left. They were by the river yesterday. He was an eager male, honking beside her face, edging her towards his chosen nesting area of last year with shoulder pushes.

June sunset over Hanalei Bay

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Endangered Birds, Nesting In the Rushes

My drawing of alae'ula courting in the rushes

The large patch of native rushes across the river from us has held many surprises. The rush is a beautiful native plant, in full flower just now. Dragonflies and damselflies, emerging from the aquatic phase of their lives, climb the smooth stems to dry their new wings. There are particular days when there are so many hatchings of an individual species, the air is full of their rainbowed wings.

One farmers' market this month stands out vividly, as it coincided with a hatching of a giant blue dragonfly, the largest I’ve ever seen - must have a six -inch wingspan. They flew between shoppers, dozens at a time; a small clearing in the centre contained hundreds of them. They hovered and flew so skillfully in the crowded area - but no-one gave them a second look!

One year the endangered Alae’ula nested within the rushes close by, (endemic gallinules, also called mudhens, or moorhens), and this year a pair of koloa (endangered native ducks) are there, much more often than usual.

The ducks mated at the river's edge, and though the mating was short, the larger gathering of accompanying males took hours to depart. It was an extremely wet day, heavy fast rain, splashing as it hit the surface of the stream. You could see the water level rising by the minute as rain-flow from the hills reaches here very quickly; the type of weather my grandparents called “lovely weather for ducks”.

The mating bird is obscuring the female - the koloa on the left is the male-in-waiting...

Koloa began flying in, landing in twos and threes on the water The female bird was caught in the water by the male, and half-carried him on her back as she swam to the edge of the rushes. There were several other males in attendance; one remained very close throughout but did not try to intervene, apart from briefly climbing on the males' back to make a pile of three!

More ducks were gathered in the stream, one to two feet away, paddling on the spot and turning in an excited manner. There was no fighting, just waiting. Afterwards most of them bathed, with much splashing and preening, and stayed long after the event. They were not nearly as shy as normal.

It was hours before the last onlooker took flight, and at least one bird still sat in the rushes. They might both have been there, as she seemed to retreat further in. The darkening day and continuous rain made it impossible to identify the color of the beak. Beak color is a useful guide to their sex. Adult males often have an olive-green bill, whereas the females' are in tones of warm brown, difficult colors to discern in the shadow of rushes.

In Hawaiian Birdlife, (1972) Andrew Berger describes a nuptial flight of two or three birds climbing to around a hundred feet and chasing in small circles, the favored male always closest to the female, a second suitor sometimes diving on the pair, and small chases ensuing. We see variations of this often in the valley, and the same exuberance they display in the air seemed present in the water. The three remaining males that took no part in the event remained close in a little triad for a long time too.

Mother with six of the seven ducklings (the seventh is hidden in the rushes)

Now, weeks later, the mother has appeared with her young ducklings still with their egg tooth. She appears at first glance to be a single bird. The rushes are perfect for the babies, who all vanish at times into the narrow channels, slowly reappearing again. There are seven of them. Their first days will be hard. The introduced bullfrogs are large enough to take one of these tiny birds; owls, egrets and herons are also predatory, especially when they are small and there is the ever-present threat of feral cats and dogs.

As an endangered species, they are facing many challenges - but their biggest threat comes from introduced mallards. A much larger duck, mallard males are very aggressive, and interbreed with the tiny native Koloa. A koloa male stays with his family - but not a mallard.

In just a few short years the island of Oahu lost its tiny native koloa to mallard hybrids, and Kauai now has the same problem. It is still possible to see koloa, especially in Hanalei - but where will we be in two years? Hanalei on Kauai is the only place left to easily see pure Koloa ducks

Below are two links for those interested.

Alae'ula: Dad feeding baby

Near the bay, the Waipa Foundation has restored an old fish pond, a small spur off the main river. They have planted large areas of native wetland species there and a pair of Alae'ula (mudhen) used it this year for their nesting-place. The nest was well hidden in the thickly planted marginal vegetation, and the tall rushes offered shelter for their tiny young.

These birds are a special favorite of mine, they show each other much affection by preening, and the care shown to their chicks is more marked than a lot of waterbirds.

They have only one chick left now, half-grown, and even though it can feed itself, both parents are diligently feeding it. The rest of the clutch will have been lost to some of the same predators that attack koloa.

We watched a heron leaving the wetland, and as it flew low past the rushes where the family were, the male alau’ula ran towards it, leaping in to the air to peck at the much larger bird as it passed.

It is especially nice to watch them in this habitat, full of native plants. One plant grows in and out of the water, just high enough to almost obscure the young, but growing from the mud means they can search the soft ground in relative safety. This is a very endangered bird; some scientists estimate there may be only a few hundred left, but almost certainly less than a thousand - nearly all of them on Kauai.

The Hawaiians are fond of it too. It holds a special place in their mythology, giving to the people the gift of fire. All alae‘ula belong to Hina, the moon goddess, and they appear in many shape-shifting stories.

Dad preening Mom, with the baby between them


Koloa Hybridization Paper
This short report has a graph on page 3 showing how quickly Oahu lost their Koloa.
In 1990 there was less than one mallard hybrid present in every wetland studied. In just two years, by 1992, the koloa were virtually lost, every wetland contained more hybrids than koloa, and by 1994 the ratio was 8 hybrids to one pure koloa.

Endangered species newsletter
Open Kia Moku Vol1 issue 2 2006
An interesting newsletter on ways we can help.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

First flights, and solar power

The two babies from the nest near our home, featured in earlier posts.

Good news! We managed to free the nene from the fishing line that had tangled in its identification band. These thick plastic bands may help wildlife workers identify and track the birds, but the way they overlap forms a hook on the poor bird’s leg which is all too easy to catch on things, especially thin monofilament fishing line (see last month’s blog).

The line was a tangled mess, wound repeatedly around the ankle and the band, forming a large ball that trailed several feet of line behind. Removing it was a delicate task. One strand of line had tightened, and cut an eighth of an inch deep into the bird’s ankle. I wish the person who put on the band could have seen it. The bird did not struggle, but has not forgotten, and moves away nervously if we are too near - but at least he walks normally again.

Oma'o baby stretches his wings...

Oma’o baby made his first flight during the last week in March. He hatched in December, so he is now nearly four months old. The twins are about three weeks younger, but began making low flights, a few feet high, along the line of the river between their favorite places. Their first real flight was on April 6th.

Something was upsetting Oma’o Dad when he arrived in the late afternoon without his family. He began using the “Where are you?” call, a very piercing sound. The birds with him were his two daughters from last year, the mate of one of his daughters, and three outsiders that are never allowed to get too close.

After about twenty minutes, Dad’s calls were answered from a distance, and a formation of six geese, flying several hundred feet high, passed across the front of the mountains, faded and reappeared, circling, lower above the river. It was Oma’o Mum with baby and the twins from the nest, on their very first flight with their parents - Dad leading - in a formation of six.
You could see them turn their heads and veer slightly as they passed, looking towards the vocalizing birds on the riverbank without breaking formation. They made a wide circle, in constant vocal contact. Dad Oma’o became very agitated; his vocalization gained in intensity, producing a chord instead of a single note, and speeding up as he ran back and forth on the riverbank, the other grounded birds joining in the calls.

On the next fly-by, they made their first landing attempt, difficult in this small opening between trees. Mum Oma’o made a perfect almost vertical descent, while the young birds made a river landing, running and flapping along the surface of the water. The two other parents landed in the field.

When the nene awake from a sleep, the first thing they do is stretch their wings, followed by running and flapping - the adults join in flapping their wings quickly, but walking gracefully. Some of these adults have not flown since they began nesting in October, six months ago, as this year they had to nest a second time because of pig attacks. All their plumage is new after molting.

Oma'o mum in the bath, baby beside her, Dad perching on his favorite mango root

These Waipa birds, three families and a few outsiders, which behaved so territorially in the breeding season, have become a flock, and behave like completely different birds. They sleep close together, and move to new grazing together. Just like people, there are tensions within the group; the more dominant males expect respect from the younger birds, and one female will not tolerate Nahe near her who is the female her mate was with while she was nesting.

We’ve had so much rainy weather, with flashes of sunlight between, and rainbows every day. There is one that often appears just before sunset in the East across the bay, a full arc from the ocean to the mountains, and many times another will form above it. Two nights ago the two color bands were broad and intense, and reflected in a tide pool on the beach, forming circles that connected the reflections with the true rainbows overhead.

Ulili, the wandering tattler, flew between them, landing close to the colored water reflection. In the background, three Hawaiian outrigger canoes were crossing the bay. It was one of those magical moments, just before you realize you forgot to bring your camera.

Even on cloudy days, our new solar system is fully charged. We are 100% solar now, computers, fridge, washing machine, water etc, By lunch-time, the system is charged, and as soon as there is an affordable plug-in car, that will be running on sunlight too. It feels good; at last we’re free of power cuts, and will soon be free of fossil fuels.

The system was fitted last year, and this has been our first winter. Kauai electric began a “net metering” scheme, offering to buy extra solar power from people with power to spare, but for some reason they only do it with a tiny percentage of those who’d like to take part, and the waiting list is huge.

Perhaps they need to invest in storage for surplus solar, rather than proposing another fossil fuel power plant. Maybe the many reservoirs left on the island from its sugar planting days could be used, with water pumped to a higher level in the day and allowed to flow back, generating power through the night when there’s no sun.

Waiting for apples... For my sister in England, who loves horses.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Kanohona Music Festival & Nene update...

Our neighbor is The Waipa Foundation, the vision of a far-sighted Hawaiian friend, David Sproat, who decades ago stopped development of this valley. The whole ahupua’a, a traditional land division from the mountain to the ocean, had been given to the Hawaiian people by their last Queen. Forced to give up her throne by America, she abdicated rather than see any of her subjects killed…. Gun ships were poised in the harbor.

A large section of the valley is now in taro cultivation, and a weekly poi day is open to the community, who share in the making of poi which is then distributed amongst the community. Thousands of Koa trees have been replanted, along with many other endangered species, including sandalwood, a difficult achievement as in its early years it is semi-parasitic, needing other plants to survive. This was once known as Sandalwood valley before the trees were harvested for export generations ago.

There is a beautiful young specimen in the farm’s own native plant garden, and also rows of delicious mamaki, the famous tea plant, a member of the nutritious nettle family.

Next to Hanalei Bay, an ancient fish pond has been restored from rubbish and scrub and replanted with large swathes of native plants. Endangered birds now frequent the area again. There is a small ropes course and campground; it is also the home of some magnificent outrigger canoes. Small groups of Hawaiian children come from all the islands for camps and to learn.

Some weekends there are canoe races in Hanalei Bay and campfires at night by the beach. Many of the children are fully bilingual, being educated in their native language. We are given privileged glimpses of a way of life that few non-Hawaiians get to experience, and of which most visitors are unaware.

Sometimes there is a hula facing the mountain, or ukulele music under the big Kukui tree. Sharing stories of our separate homelands under the moon with visiting islanders from Ni'ihau, the forbidden isle. Or a tiny brown striped wild piglet chasing stick with the Labrador, both with wagging tails. The end of February was the First Annual Kanahona Festival, a full day of continuous Hawaiian music, art and craft. Through the week, tents began appearing in the field, until Friday night, when some musicians began warming up and gentle Hawaiian songs drifted into the house, later lulling me to sleep. All next day excellent musicians took the stage as I worked contentedly to their songs.

After the conch was blown honoring the directions, the dancers entered carrying individual ti leis, wrapped in the leaves of the plant. The plant is regarded as a purifier and guardian of its surroundings. A delicious ceremonial drink can made from its root. They are planted around every home for protection in the same way as rowan was planted in Scotland to keep away evil, its woven branches wrapped around the horns of cattle, byres, or over the threshold, amulets of its wood or berries or leaves around the necks of children. Notice the hat in the foreground woven from local pandanus, with a band made from feathers - a modern application of an ancient skill.

One of the dances was special to this valley and included the taro, still grown here. Another was of a vision from Waimea, a reminder to hold fast to the culture. It was all very beautiful, the arc of mountain ridges ever present in the background.

When the dancers left, the chanter who had beat out the rhythm on the drum stepped from the side to take her bow. Along with the ti lei she wears yellow leis, another example of surviving feather work.
The dancers were described as the best of the best on the island. Stacy the farm manager, dances at the front left, next to the tall male dancer.
Food and artisans, environmental awareness, fragrant plants a skilled flower weaver , were all placed around the main seating area.
If interested, check my friend Heidi’s blog with pictures of Poi day and the outrigger adventure we were treated to when she visited recently. Also the Waipa foundation has its own website.

The young nene grew rapidly in February; eight weeks after hatching they look like smaller dark versions of the adults. The last thing to change will be the distinctive neck. The final feathers that form the black collar will not be complete until next year and are good for identifying unbanded birds, as each is unique.

One male bird in the valley is trailing yards of fishing line, that has matted and snagged on the large band the bird sanctuary uses for field identification. The thickness of the band acts like a hook and I’ve seen this before with these bands, which are much thicker than the state band on the other leg. The bird is already limping, but impossible to approach.

the twins from the nest are pictured eating the hanging Spanish moss that is accessable. There used to be an orchid here too, along with a thick covering of lichen, now all eaten up to the level the nene can reach. In the past an extinct large relative of the nene had the advantage of at least twice the reach for gleaning the lichen- and epiphyte-rich forests. Its beak, similar to a turtle's, was ideal for tearing. Watching the nene at this tree it's easy to imagine.

Some of the many quick sketches I made following the babies growth. Though small and rough, they document the changes from egg to fully-feathered birds, and might make a nice little booklet when gathered together. I'd love comments.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Under the Wolf Moon

On the night of the full moon in early January, we walked down to Hanalei Bay, the quiet side, where visitors rarely go.

The only tracks on the sand were those of sand crabs and a lone Ulili (Wandering Tattler) who is over- wintering on the beaches and wetlands here. Say u lee lee lee lee lee and you’ll have an impression of his voice as he flies low over the water. I got a picture of the remote mountain streams where they go to nest in Canada and Alaska, and it reminded me of the remote stream I lived beside for 10 years in the Pacific North west, where a dipper nested - another lover of untouched wilderness.

Ulili (Wandering Tattler)
Wintering in Hanalei from the frozen North 2008/9, after a 2500-mile flight over the ocean.

There was still the fiery afterglow of sunset when the moon appeared above the horizon in the east. It was huge, and dwarfed the Norfolk pines in front of it; they could have been mosses, illuminated by some ancient planet. This was the closest to the earth the moon would be this year. The rain clouds had thinned and formed pink bands that settled horizontally across the lower half, and beneath it, were pale rounded shapes squatting like elders. The Hawaiian people remember a lot of their cloud lore. To our ancestors in other places, this was known as the Wolf Moon. We watched it rise and give the illusion of shrinking. It doesn’t really shrink, it ‘s just that the sky is so big. It was dark enough now to see the first stars, and a bat hunted over the edge of the ocean. As it flew over a jagged bit of reef, there was ulili, relaxed and settled for the night, sharing the view.

I’d been working on a drawing of the nene nest, the moment of hatching, and wanted to include the potential of these perfect white eggs, trying to show their winged forms as an after image behind, but now the moon became important too, they were “ born under the wolf moon”, as were some of the monarch butterflies that kept fluttering past as I watched the nest. Now there is a unique Kauaian monarch, that has evolved here since they are said to have been introduced. It is a darker brown, with pale under-wings, which reminds me of the finch that has lost its orange coloring since coming here because of changing diet.

So all month the picture has been growing, and still has some things that need resolved. I’ve been mixing media too, still trying to come to grips with tropical colors and climate.

Born Under The Wolf Moon ... work still in progress

The nene are growing fast. The two younger ones developed nasty pox-like sores, beside the beak and on the legs - the places where mosquitoes bite - and some birds are lost this way every year, but…… they seem to have healed. It is possible. The older one glows with health. I wish I could share the softness of his long gray down, that’s shedding now as his feathers grow in. His mother, Oma’o mum, is the only parent so far to have moulted, losing nearly all her flight feathers in one day under the old lichen-hung plumaria tree. I have nene quills, if anyone needs them for calligraphy.

The Nene twins from the nest ... now about a month old

Oma'o gosling ... a few weeks older than the twins

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Hanalei Electrical storm and nene goslings

The new mother incubated the last egg, one more night, but at first light, the family of four set off into the long grass of the valley. In the distance they rested in a shaft of sunlight under an old java plum tree, and then they were gone- I hoped I’d see them again. The last egg never hatched.
During the long incubation, the male had formed an attachment to Nahe, a young unbanded female born here last year. She had become a second mate, but the sound of the young birds after they hatched had drawn him back to the nest and he stayed watching their movements, fascinated.
After the family left, Nahe arrived, and called for her absent mate for almost two days in the distinctive, trumpeting contact call that nene pairs use when separated. She searched their favorite places, eventually following their exact last route across the field, could she scent him?
By evening thick clouds rested in the valley, the mountain peak was just visible and there were faint rumblings of thunder.
That night one of the liveliest electrical storms I’ve experienced began. At its peak, bursts of blinding light and deafening explosions struck simultaneously overhead, shaking the house. Rain poured down faster than it could drain away, creating a roaring sound. In the blasts of light everything was illuminated, neon-bright palm trees were casting dark shadows across the ground every few seconds. The whole sky lights up, I’ve never seen a fork in Hanalei- it must be what is called sheet lightning. I hoped the young family were clear of fast floods. One advantage to this kind of weather is it must keep predators near their home base and stop them picking up a trail.
The swollen river at dawn reflected a rose-colored sky, and Nahe was there still calling.
Around the old nest were pools of standing water, a debris-line showed where water had flooded the area. I lifted the remaining egg and was surprised by the weight. The white eggs are very large in proportion to the bird and must be difficult to lay. When Nahe’s mother left in November, her body was visibly swollen with eggs, and she spent a lot of the last few days sat in the sun-warmed water of a little ceramic paddling pool. It must have been soothing.

New Year’s Day and the nene return

In the early afternoon Nahe’s mother arrived, with a new baby beside her. Mum and Dad oma’o, (green in Hawaiian), are the only green-banded birds in the area and oma’o Dad (green dad) owns the valley. He is the Alpha male and can have any territory he chooses. They left here on November 10th when oma’o Mum was ready to lay. Their first nest this winter was attacked by pigs, and their new nest must have been a distance away, but they were returning now with one baby, about two and half weeks old
It made the lovely continuous sound of nene babies, a softly whistled cheep, and stood as close as possible to Mum. They settled under some ti plants, in sunlight the young bird’s gray down twinkled as it looked around with wide innocent eyes.
Ten minutes later, entering through the “nene door” ( a hole in the fence), the yellow-banded birds returned after two days away, and their two young were still safe. They didn’t seem bigger, but were much steadier on their legs. There was a lot of tension between the adults. All four adults began to hiss, stretching their long necks out low and waving them around “snakelike” in the air. But the presence of the young birds altered the territorial prerogative, and they were allowed to stay.There was an uneasy tolerance. Nahe had found them too, and was followeing them. Here was a monogamous nene male with two mates.
When the young birds first saw each other, they ran towards each other, but Dad oma’o would not allow the two younger babies near, and hissed, even gently nipping one of them.
These two babies were then about five days old, and still retained their egg shaped body and remnants of a small pink egg tooth, which they had used to free themselves from the egg. Their down was so fluffy raindrops didn’t penetrate, but balanced on the hair tips like tiny diamond beads. They ate the weed-rich grass, and showed no reaction to an explosion of thunder overhead. The storms continued intermittently for several days.

We see them every day just now. The two young birds are now one and a half weeks old and the older one three and a half weeks. They are all traveling by water, and spend most of the day sleeping and grazing. The single chick interacts much more with the adult birds than others I’ve seen, perhaps because he’s single. He does spend many minutes looking at his reflection in the little pool where his mum used to sit.