Thursday, June 16, 2011

A (belated) post about the Big Island

Currently in Arizona, I've decided it's time to update my blog about my last field job, studying birds in Hawaii. The temperature currently hovering somewhere over 100 degrees, reminiscing about Hawaii birds seems way better than doing anything outside at the moment.

So here goes. First up is the ever present and absurdly
common Apapane. Undoubtedly the most common native songbird, there was rarely, if ever, a time when several of these guys weren't cavorting around in the canopy overhead. Sipping nectar from the also-absurdly-abundant Ohia Lehua flowers is their second favorite past time, right behind being unnecessarily sneaky about the location of their nests.

Also locally abundant, but not absurdly so, are one of my favorite birds, the I'iwi. Pronounced Ee-ee-vee (as in beet), because while the Hawaiian language only had 13 letters, they make those 13 letters as confusing as possible. I is pronounced as e, w is pronounced as a v, and 4 vowels in a row are not uncommon. Anyways, there is some debate among leading scientist (by that I mean me vs the rest of my field crew) as to what color these birds really are. The answer, of course, is orange. I mean look at that birds. It's more orange than an orange. You can practically smell it. Well, don't do that, they apparently smell like old canvas. Favorite past times include handing upside down from Lehua flowers with their ridiculously oversized bill designed to reach the nectar of flowers now extinct, squawking raucously and declining steadily. Also, bullying smaller songbirds and refusing to cooperate in our nest searching efforts.

Next up is the spunky Amakihi. Seen at left with some new jewelry, these warbler sized birds specialize in fooling optimistic birders into thinking they are indeed the much rarer critically endangered Hawaiian Creeper. They are also one of the only birds to develop a degree of resistance to avain malaria, along with the Apapane allowing them to recolonize some of the lowland habitats that still retain some native forest, though it's vanishing fast. Among the most curious Hawaiian bird, I'd often find them watching me watching them.

 By far the most coolest extant Hawaiian bird is the absurdly named Akiapola'au. With a beak like a swiss army knife, these birds use their heavy bottom mandible to chisel for grubs in Koa trees, then yank the grub out with their long, curved upper mandible, as demonstrated by the female to the left. Adapted to fill the woodpecker niche, this critically endangered honeycreeper was hit hard by invasive rats, avian malaria and the loss of the old growth Koa forests upon which they rely for food. A captive breeding program, combined large tracts of native forests set aside for their protection, provides hope that they won't go the way of so many other Hawaiian species. They join the
bright red tiny Akepa, the inconspicuous Hawaiian Creeper and the grosbeak like Palila on the list of critically endangered songbirds of the Big Island, all of which are in serious trouble but through the tireless efforts of scientists, are still holding on in the upland rainforests of one of the most unique ecosystems on earth.

Thats all for now, stay tuned for more updates as the temperatures in Arizona continue to preclude anything but sitting in air conditioned comfort.

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