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Encounters With the Birds of Hawai’i Volcanoes

KIPUKAPUAULU–Within an area Hawaiians hold sacred, the realm of the gods thousands of feet above the ocean on Big Island, a spectacular biodiversity hot spot known locally as “Bird Park” is an excellent place to observe and hear the avian species of Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park.

Our group reporting for the early morning bird count during the National Park Service/National Geographic BioBlitz on Saturday was escorted through the area by Dale McBeath and Cindy Granholm, volunteers who spend a lot of time with the feathered species in the park.

Kipuka is the Hawaiian term for an “island” of old-growth trees surrounded by recent lava flows. Kipukapuaulu is a fine example: lush forest of towering trees, grasses, and plants of every kind to feed and shelter birds and insects.

Kipukapuaulu has not been without serious environmental setbacks. At one time the area was used to ranch cattle. That was stopped decades ago, but the legacy is many introduced species of plants, animals, insects and birds that still impact the area today, in spite of valiant efforts by the park authorities to bring them under control.

Bird Extinction Capital

Tragically, Hawaii is the “bird extinction capital,” Cindy declared once we had participated in the oli komo (a traditional Hawaiian chant to ask the elements for permission to enter the area and for the blessing of learning from what we might see and hear).  “There were about 140 native species of birds” in the islands, she explained as we set foot on the 1.2-mile circular trail. “Now the list is down to about 43, of which 33 are endangered. Ten of these 33 endemic bird species listed under the Endangered Species Act have not been seen in decades and are most likely extinct.”

A hundred species of native birds have apparently disappeared from the chain of islands as a whole. Only six native species can be found in Kipukapuaulu.

 

This chart indicates that of the 16 species of birds known to inhabit Kipukapuaulu, only six are native. Photograph by David Braun.
This chart indicates that of the 16 species of birds known to inhabit Kipukapuaulu, only six are native. Photograph by David Braun.

 

As native birds decline and disappear, foreign species have to some extent taken their place, among them pheasants, francolin and others introduced for hunting, and caged songbirds that might have escaped, perhaps during a hurricane.

 

Kalij Pheasant. Photo by Jen Shook National Geographic.
Kalij Pheasant. Photo by Jen Shook National Geographic.

 

But regardless of their origin, just about all of the birds in Kipukapuaulu and other parts of the lower slopes of Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park are said to be in decline, in part because of loss of indigenous trees and other habitat that provide food and shelter, but mainly because of a rampant plague of introduced mongoose and the spread of avian malaria. Big Island is no longer the paradise for birds it was long ago.

 

This photograph made by Dale McBeath is a juvenile 'I'iwi (Scarlet Honeycreeper) inside Bird Park just a few days before our walk with Dale and Cindy. “Unfortunately, it'll be dead with a week or two (if not already) from avian malaria carried by mosquitoes,” Dale said in an email. “They currently reside from 6,000 feet up to the tree line (only a few hundred feet higher), and this beautiful one was at the kipuka at 4,300 feet. Sigh. “Still, what a beauty!  The juveniles are getting their adult plumage, changing from dull grey to the vibrant reds/oranges.  During this transition, they uniquely go through the color transition. This one followed the food down from altitude, probably the koa flowers and the blooms of the Ohia Lehua trees. It's colors and patterns are as unique as a finger print for this day, for this week.  Later on he'll be bright red.  After that you can only tell male/female by simple behavior patterns, by the way they flick their wings.  Hope he makes it. Maybe he'll be the one that survives, passing his immune genes on to the next generation?”  
This photograph made by Dale McBeath is a juvenile ‘I’iwi (Scarlet Honeycreeper) inside Bird Park just a few days before our walk with Dale and Cindy. “Unfortunately, it’ll be dead with a week or two (if not already) from avian malaria carried by mosquitoes,” Dale said in an email. “They currently reside from 6,000 feet up to the tree line (only a few thousand feet higher), and this beautiful one was at the kipuka at 4,300 feet. Sigh.“Still, what a beauty!  The juveniles are getting their adult plumage, changing from dull grey to the vibrant reds/oranges.  During this transition, they uniquely go through the color transition. This one followed the food down from altitude, probably the koa flowers and the blooms of the Ohia Lehua trees. It’s colors and patterns are as unique as a finger print for this day, for this week.  Later on he’ll be bright red.  After that you can only tell male/female by simple behavior patterns, by the way they flick their wings.  Hope he makes it. Maybe he’ll be the one that survives, passing his immune genes on to the next generation?” 

 

Much of the walk with Cindy consisted of hearing rather than seeing the birds, and it was inspiring to watch her picking out different species just by listening to them. With each bird she identified she provided a brief description of their preferred habitat and their role in the ecosystem. Hearing about the birds, I soon realized, also involved learning about the plants they use.

Our walk was not without its observations of some other Hawai’i Volcanoes’ iconic species, including the Kamehameha butterfly, endemic to Hawaii, as well as the minuscule blind snake, an introduced species from the Philippines that looks a lot like an earthworm.

But for all the stories of loss and extinction, Kipukapuaulu is also an example of redemption. Much of the alien vegetation left by the cattle ranchers has been cleared and is now under control; native trees are re-establishing themselves; and somehow at least a few surviving species of birds are hanging on in the face of predators and disease.

 

A third-year Akepa male. They don't get adult colors until the fourth year, says Dale McBeath, the photographer. “There are such a few left. This was taken in the rain with a 500mm lens up on the side of Mauna Kea (where the telescopes are), in a reforested area that can only be reached by permit. The look on his face sort'a says it all. One of my favorites of the hike.
A third-year Akepa male. They don’t get adult colors until the fourth year, says Dale McBeath, the photographer. “There are such a few left. This was taken in the rain with a 500mm lens up on the side of Mauna Kea (where the telescopes are), in a reforested area that can only be reached by permit. The look on his face sort’a says it all. One of my favorites of the hike.

 

Official Kipukapuaulu Trail Guide (National Park Service)

12418031_10153900711084116_8462971761216697621_nDavid Braun is director of outreach with the digital and social media team illuminating the National Geographic Society’s explorer, science, and education programs.

He edits National Geographic Voices, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society’s mission and major initiatives. Contributors include grantees and Society partners, as well as universities, foundations, interest groups, and individuals dedicated to a sustainable world. More than 50,000 readers have participated in 10,000 conversations.

Braun also directs the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship

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Comments

  1. Brooks Rownd
    Upper Waiakea Forest Reserve
    May 28, 2015, 6:28 pm

    Although i’iwi aren’t found much at Kipuka Puaulu, they are not particularly unusual at the same ca. 4000 foot elevation in some other areas of the island. The habitat varies considerably around the island. 6000 feet is actually a little above the core of their population range, in part because of ranch deforestation or open lava fields above 6000 feet. They’re most numerous about 4800-6000 feet on the windward side.

    Also, the hawaiian goose, native short-eared owl and kolea (pacific golden plover) can occasionally be found at Kipuka Puaulu, so there’s at least 9 natives.

  2. Brooks Rownd
    Upper Waiakea Forest Reserve
    May 28, 2015, 6:02 pm

    The introduced passerines, including cage birds, were either escapes or deliberate introductions. (Hurricanes aren’t the reason, and 2014 was the closest we’ve come to a hurricane on this island.) A wide variety of species were introduced intentionally over the years, and many of those did not survive. The Pyle Monograph (available on the Bishop Museum web site) details the likely origins of many of the introduced birds, and the old bird introduction groups such as the Hui Manu.

  3. gary mcbeath
    United States
    May 18, 2015, 8:06 pm

    The pictures are beautiful, can’t wait to see it for ourselves. The content of the story was breathtaking. What a remarkable place!