Thursday, May 5, 2011

Island Fever

Ok, so it's been a while...

As a matter of fact, this is my first post about Hawaii, and I'm about to leave in 2 1/2 weeks for the desert Southwest. So I'll probably be making several post about Hawaii over the next few weeks and trying to keep this blog current.

One of the things I love most about Hawaii are the birds. Unfortunately, it's only one of the things I love least about the islands as well. Let me explain. Aldo Leopold said it best in A Sand County Almanac when he wrote "One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen. An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise."
I came across an old Hawaiian saying today.

Lele au la, hokahoka wale iho
I fly away, leaving disappointment behind

And that is exactly what has happened. Before man set foot on the Hawaiian Islands, 128 species of birds called these islands there sole home. Polynesian settlers brought with them change that wreaked havoc, ecologically speaking. About 60 species of birds are now known only from sub-fossils. Captain Cook paved the way for a second round of invasion, bring new changes and aggressive alien invaders and another 35 species were lost forever. About 36 remain, some clinging precariously to survival only in cages, others pushed far into the trackless wilderness and still declining even there. Hawaii is paradise, without a doubt, but to me it's a scarred and lonely paradise. The once extensive rainforests have been logged, grazed, farmed and developed into near oblivion, the remaining patches relegated to the uplands, invaded by exotics and existing only in fragments of intact forest. 

'Anihinihi ke ola
"Life is a precarious position" 

And so my heart is torn. The birds of Hawaii are beyond expectations. Bright red 'Apapane by the dozens flitting through the canopy, joined by flame-orange bossy 'I'iwi chasing them from their favorite trees, wheezy sounding 'Amakihi moving through the understory, flashes of yellow in an otherwise green world. 'Oamo loudly proclaim their annoyance at intruders in their domain, inexplicably shivering their wings every waking moment. Spunky 'Elepaio search the giant treeferns for unlucky insects, unphased by our presence. The proud I'o may even deign to show itself occasionally, soaring high overhead and searching for an easy meal. And if you're lucky, you'll see something truly exceptional, like the 'Akiapola'au, with its top, curved mandible a stark contrasting it's short, squat bottom mandible, joined by the fiery 'Akepa twittering to itself through the canopy, and the elusive Hawaii Creeper creeping it's way up the trunks of the massive Ohia giants, all three species down to a few thousand birds each. And that's it. I've just described all the native forest species one could hope to see on the Big Island, with the exception of the Palila, which doesn't occur in our study site. It gets lonely, sharing the forest with the same few species day after day, month after month. I can't help but mourn for that which was lost, through negligence, apathy and ignorance. 

So it's with mixed feelings I count down the final days here. If I weren't a birder, I could probably live here the rest of my life. I could get used to lounging on the beach, hiking to waterfalls and scrambling across lava flows. I could adapt to the slower pace of life, learn the pidgin, get used to paying three dollars for a box of pasta and $6.00 for a gallon of milk. But I'll never be able to get used to beaches devoid of gulls, endless plains lacking even a single native bird and forests missing the lions share of their former avian glory. And I'm antsy. I've reached the 3 month mark, and I'm looking to the horizon, orienting east and a little bit north, getting ready to move on. I'll be back someday, hopefully soon. There's still hope for the birds that remain, and I'd like to play some small part in preserving them for future generations. 

More to come, hopefully with more pictures and less gloom.