Wednesday, August 10, 2016

A Bird Tragedy

The boardwalk is one or two boards wide, and goes through beautiful forests in Koke'e State Park on Kauai.
As recently as 10 years ago, these woods were filled with birdsong. Along the Alaka'i swamp trail you would have seen and heard them constantly. In fact, the name of the trail in Hawaiian means "cacophany of birds" according to our guide Jim Denny.

Today the woods are nearly silent. Native birds are dying of two mosquito-born diseases: avian malaria and bird pox. We saw very few individuals, and only some of the species that used to populate the area and fill it with their songs and calls.

Jim Denny was a wonderful guide, and knew where birds might be. Unfortunately he's been seeing fewer and fewer birds over the last years as they have been diminishing in numbers very rapidly. His sorrow at losing them is very evident. Right: his book of photos of Hawaiian birds with description of the birds and their habitat, which I've enjoyed and I recommend.

We drove in his 4x4 truck down a terrible puddle-and-pothole filled road to the trail start. The trail goes mostly through wooded areas with various types of trees, and there's one long stretch across a bog. This bog, our guide told us, is remarkably absorbent. After rainfall, the ground swells up, and water drains away for days. In the bog are native plants; some of the trees in the woods are native to Hawaii and others are introduced.

Along the trail as we hopefully watched for the birds that never came, we were mostly quiet. We talked a little about birding and about birders that Jim Denny has guided over his long experience. At one point he said "I once guided a woman who had seen 8000 species; she had the world's record" which we recognized of course as the extremely famous birder Phoebe Snetsinger. He didn't know at the time that she was so famous. Later, we asked if his truck had ever become stuck in the mud, and he said only once, when he was guiding Phoebe and went further than usual -- she had pushed it out.

The walk itself was stunningly beautiful. Frequently, one overlooks the canyons and very steep, fern-covered hillsides. A fence along part of the trail is meant to protect parts of the area from the numerous wild boar that roam the island -- descendants of pigs brought by the Hawaiian people around 1000 years ago as well as of a larger species of pigs brought by Europeans. (We wouldn't want to see a pig, and didn't see one.)

At times I felt that I'd been dropped into a painting by Henri Rousseau and surrounded by large houseplants and vines. When we left the boardwalk part of the trail, we were on steep slopes with rather alarming mud holes, which I managed not to step into.

We saw whole hillsides of ferns, which grow everywhere as it's very wet. Not far from the park is the wettest
place on the planet, with 1-2 inches average daily rainfall over the entire year.

The ginger plant is dramatic, colorful, and fragrant. Unfortunately it's also a very
aggressive introduced plant and dangerous to the native vegetation and life. 
Len did take some beautiful bird photos of the small number of birds we saw on our walk and just afterwards at the Pu'u o Kila overlook, also in the park:

An 'Apapane, a native bird, with its favorite native flower, the ʻōhiʻa lehua,
a species of flowering evergreen tree in the myrtle family.
An 'Anianiau, endemic honeycreeper.
The bird on the left is an adult of the species Kauai 'Elepaio, ready to feed an insect to a juvenile (at right.)
We watched two young birds sit patiently in a tree as both adults brought them food.


Esme said...

How sad. This is not a good thing.

Kitchen Riffs said...

That's really too bad -- wildlife has it much tougher than most people think. When we lived in Florida we planted our yard as habitat for native birds and butterflies -- it was wonderful. Anyway, lovely scenery -- but that doesn't make up for the disappointment of not seeing many birds.

Jeanie said...

I'm none too thrilled with mosquitoes these days. This is so very sad. The walk sounded very interesting and the photos you and Len took really tell a story. How fun for you two to have a good guide on this walk.