On Service and the Unusual Bird in Waikiki

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On Service and the Unusual Bird in Waikiki

Posted by: Kim Steutermann Rogers
Destination: Oahu
Jan 20, 2014

view of waikiki beach from groin at queens

Yesterday, I spent the morning on Waikiki Beach, walking and pausing to eat hot, malasadas from Leonard's Bakery with a man who represents two of my greatest loves: the ocean and books. 

We walked the length of Waikiki from San Souci Beach to Outrigger Waikiki and back, and as we sat on a bench overlooking the water, a trio of white birds fluttered along the ocean's edge. I may have been the first to mumble, "Look," through a mouthful of the most delicious sugar-coated fried dough ever, but he had already identified the birds in his mind and was already thinking about their birdy attributes.

Carl Safina is the award-winning and best-selling author of numerous books on science and nature. The New York Post called him the “Thoreau for the twenty-first century.” He’s a scientist, activist, advocate, and, as he told those of us fortunate enough to work with him at a recent writing retreat, an observer and a seeker. 

The birds were white terns, which go by Gybis alba in scientific circles and manu-o-Ku in Hawaiian, and can regularly be seen in and around Waikiki and Honolulu, where they come to breed from January to July. It’s quite an unusual relationship these pelagic seabirds have with the city, choosing big, heavy, stable trees in which to nest—the more stable the tree, the better, because the egg is laid in a knot or fork or a slight depression in a branch. There is no nest of twigs and grass. Both parents take turns incubating the egg for just over one month and, then, take turns foraging at sea for food, returning with goodies like needlefish stashed in their long bills. These smallish seabirds can live for up to 18 years.

White terns are indigenous to Hawaii, and the vast majority of the population nest in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Oahu is the only main Hawaiian Island where the birds breed and to celebrate the bird’s seeming attraction to the city, it was adopted as Honolulu’s official bird in 2007.

“Since I’ve been in Honolulu,” Carl Safina told me between bites of malasada. “I haven’t looked at them in my binoculars, but they really are one of my very favorite creatures in the entire universe. I mean they’re like incredible. Because when they’re around you a lot, they do a thing that nothing else I know of does, no other wild bird, which is hover in your face, and they make little buzzing noises that sound like a jaw harp. The other thing is they’re making eye contact. What their mental experience of that and what motivates them is, of course, unavailable to us, but the feeling that they’re trying to make some kind of contact is inescapable. It doesn’t seem like they’re responding as though you’re a predator. They don’t have predators in nature. It seems like a visitation.”

This simple enough looking bird might buzz you as you catch a wave in Waikiki and it skims the surface of the water for fish, all contributing to make the white tern, undoubtedly, the coolest bird in town.

Today, as we observe the life and work of Martin Luther King, Jr., I am wondering if MLK ever came towaikiki beach at queens Hawaii. I wouldn't be surprised. Mark Twain, Robert Louis Stevenson, Georgia O'Keeffe, and Ansel Adams made it here.

Now, those people are all artists, you might be thinking, of course, they'd be drawn to Hawaii, an exotic place filled with inspiration for painting and photographing and painting a picture with words.

But I am no longer surprised by the draw Hawaii has had on people over the years. And as I think about Martin Luther King today, I think about this quote, attributed to him.

“Everybody can be great…because anybody can serve. You don’t need a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.”

The white tern is listed as threatened by the State of Hawaii.There are some 250 nesting pairs on Oahu. Another bird I love, and for which Carl wrote the book, Laysan albatross, are listed as threatened by our Federal government. Over the weekend, I discovered two Laysan albatrosses killed, most likely, by dogs. I won't sugarcoat it for you. There have been several incidents on Kauai this season of loose dogs killing nesting Laysan albatrosses--birds so committed to their nests that they will not abandon their egg, even in the face of snapping jaws and snarling fangs. Today, a team from NOAA is on Kauai looking to attach cameras to Hawaiian monk seals, so scientists can get a better idea of the critically-endangered marine mammal’s foraging ecology and stop the four percent annual downward trend of the seal’s population. In our oceans, the delectable Bluefin and Yellowfin tuna fisheries are collapsing.

Carl and I talked about all this--and more, for a future blog post--and I was almost embarrassed to ask the question I am sure Carl gets asked nearly every day, because the answer is so obvious. But I did. "What we can do to help—the fish in the ocean, the birds of the air, and the animals on the land?" I asked. And he told me, “If you’re committed to something, it means doing something.”

And that’s why there are also the good stories in the world of conservation—the burgeoning populations of Green sea turtles and Humpback whales; the return of Short-tailed albatrosses to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Because someone took action. Alone. Individually. And collectively. Again and again and again.

People like MLK and Carl Safina understand what it takes to make a difference in this world. It comes down to one word: service. 

I got a wallop of inspiration in the past two days—first with Carl Safina on our walk yesterday and, second, today reading about the diligent work and words of Martin Luther King, Jr. that kept appearing all over my Facebook feed. In a way, those reminders were like white terns, fluttering in my face, making eye contact, and humming encouragements from another realm. Because the white tern is also known by its nickname--the fairy tern. And darned if fairies aren't known for carrying messages.

I’m newly inspired to serve. How about you? 


Malia Yoshioka | Jan 21, 2014 05:46 AM

What a beautiful post. As you know, my word this year is Passion. I've been revisiting the things in life that I've been passionate about, and trying to reconnect with those I've lost in the past few years. Thank you for the inspiration here - volunteer projects were always a part of my life and I didn't even realize until now that they've been missing. :)

Mary | Jan 21, 2014 09:49 AM

Thanks for the continuous inspiration.

Barry Elliott | Jul 11, 2014 04:37 PM

Hi Kim, Mark Twain certainly visited Hawaii and wrote some ringing words about his visit that have resonated with me in my absence: No alien land in all the world has any deep strong charm for me but that one, no other land could so longingly and so beseechingly haunt me, sleeping and waking, through half a lifetime, as that one has done. Other things leave me, but ti abides; other things change, but it remains the same. For me its balmy airs are always blowing, its summer seas flashing in the sun; the pulsing of its surf beat is always in my ear; I can see its garlanded crags, its leaping cascades, its plumy palms drowsing by the shore, its remote summits floating like islands above the cloud rack; I can feel the spirit of its woodland solitudes, I can hear the plash of its brooks; in my nostrils still lives the breath of flowers that perished twenty years ago.Cheers, Barry.

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