An Amateur Birder on O'ahu
by Pam Mandel
[Editor's note: From time to time, OutriggerHawaii invites guests to blog on View from Here. Regular visitor to Hawai'i, blogger and fellow bird nerder
recently went birding on O'ahu.]
It's a short walk from my position as an unsophisticated bird looker to birding mania, to some kind of performance attire, a laminated card, and a pair of very expensive binoculars. Thing is, I am inscrutably fond of birds. I pretend not to know them by name, but really, I do, I look them up and more and more, I recognize them by voice, too. After all, a coot does not sound like a duck, not one bit, really, and those little red hatted cardinals sound nothing like the morning doves that make such an appealing racket as the sun comes up over the Pacific.
Hawai'i has a few species of birds that you can't see anywhere else -- the state bird, the nene, a goose, and the honeycreeper, neither of which have chosen to show themselves to me. I have spotted the 'alae 'ula -- the endangered Hawaiian moorhen -- on O'ahu, though you can see them on Kaua'i too. In spring of 2009 while visiting Waimea Valley I was lucky to see a black puff of feathers, an 'alae 'ula chick, but I learned later that this little one didn't make it -- in spite of his protected home in this beautiful nature reserve, the chicks still have to escape hungry predators. The moorhen plays a critical role in Hawaiian mythology, she held the secret of fire until Maui bullied her into giving it up. A pair of moorhens were paddling around in the waters of the Ka'elepulu Wetlands; one with a badly damaged leg. It's hard to know that they're endangered and see an injured one; I wouldn't mind if she'd send me a postcard to let me know how she's doing.
The same waters are home to the Hawaiian stilt, the a'eo, a bird on impossibly long legs for its' body. The a'eo is another endangered bird, also suffering from reduced habitat and predators. These guys stalked about the shallows poking at the waters, elegant and kind of funny at the same time. Our guide, from O'ahu Nature Tours, pointed out that the bird's ankles -- do birds have ankles? -- are actually way up the leg, so the a'eo is striding about on tiptoe. There were coots ('alae ke'oke'o) as well, a little too far away to get a good look at, even through the hefty telephoto lens I was carrying that day. I like coots for their funny little hooting meets quacking song and their big noses, they have a certain Groucho Marx appeal and I can't help imagining them in heavy eyeglasses. That is not very scientific, I know, and disrespectful to a bird whose habitat has been transformed willy nilly into real estate, but I can't help myself.
On that same spring trip where I was introduced to the 'alae 'ula chick, I also met the 'auku'u, the black-crowned night-heron, standing politely on a sign that pictured... the 'aku'u. It is my sincerest desire that all birds self identify so effectively, making it easy for an amateur birder like me to remember them. I was delighted when I spotted the 'auku'u in the tidepools at Ko'Olina, helping himself to tiny little fish as the sun went down and the tide came in, I knew him right away and stalked as close as I could to take his picture.
Red crested cardinals are all over Oahu and while they're darned attractive, they're an introduced species from Brazil. Mynas fill the trees and make a stunning amount of noise at dusk -- they came from India. Rock doves, pigeons to mainlanders like me, populate the hotel balconies and eaves, one boldly strided into my hotel room when I neglected to shut the screen door, probably hoping to catch an episode of Animal Planet on cable. There are spotted doves and zebra doves too, all of them introduced, all of them common in parks and public spaces -- and there are a myriad of sparrows who will land on your buffet breakfast plate if you leave it unattended.
It's the native species that interest me most, the birds that define Hawai'i's ecosytem. The hedge outside my mainland window fills up with little brown sparrows, but when I see the 'auku'u, I can't help but notice how he's different -- and similar -- to our own blue herons. I ponder how the coots have a Hawaiian accent compared to those that paddle the waters near my Seattle home, and a bird who holds the secret of fire? That's a bird worth remembering. I say I'm not much of a birder but I think of them by song and shape and history. And when I'm in Hawai'i, I seek them out and call them by their names.
Pam Mandel lives in Seattle, Washington. She has flickers and hummingbirds in her backyard and is regularly visited by a specific pair of crows. She blogs about travel at Nerd's Eye View.