It’s just another Friday afternoon at the refuge, and I am blogging from “Birdville,” a.k.a. Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge.
The skies overhead are clearing, after a surprising squall provided a bit of cloud clover and respite from the hot sun. Not enough rain fell to clean the windshield, much less soak the soil outside the wedge-tailed shearwater burrows and leach its nourishing bird guano deep into the ground. Hawaii skies are like that. They sneak up on you.
I say hello to Jen at the fee booth and congratulate her on her recent promotion to volunteer coordinator. We chat about my upcoming weekend at Nualolo Kai along Napali Coast to weed, plant and rebuild rock walls on behalf of Napali Ohana. I ask for her tips on what not to forget to pack.
I walk on, wave to Tiffany at the visitor center/gift shop and stop at the east cove overlook to check for Hawaiian monk seals. None. But there is something white down there. And something black. I pull out my binoculars and realize the white thing is, sadly, a dead Laysan albatross chick that didn’t quite make fledging. It takes me a couple more hours and a visit from Tour Guide Steve to realize that black thing is not a twisted-up t-shirt but, really, the chick’s outstretched wing. To come so close.
I don’t point out the dead bird to visitors. Instead, I talk about the juvenile red-footed boobies learning to flap their wings and take off from their nest sites across the cove in the ironwood trees, where, for the past three months, they sat perched, their clawed and webbed feet wrapped tightly around a tree branch as their downy fur turned to real feathers and their mothers and fathers took turns bringing them periodic meals of fish, squid and, hopefully, not too much plastic from the sea.
A couple from Oregon stand next to me. They ask about the birds. In particular, that big, black one. A great frigatebird, I say. Or, ‘iwa in Hawaiian, which means thief. I explain how the seabird with a seven-foot wingspan sometimes chases down red-footed boobies for food rather than face a potential soaking in the sea. Because their feathers are not super waterproof, they may get waterlogged. They may not be able to take off again. And just like that a frigatebird zips by, chasing down a juvenile red-footed booby. With a white breast, I know the bird is a female. She sneaks up behind the juvenile and jumps on it, using a long, curved and menacing bill to give the smaller bird a good tweak. The juvie emits a loud squawk. The couple beside me squeal, and the red-footed booby retreats to the trees. The frigatebird flies off, only to target another juvenile and perform the same routine. She is trying to get the booby to regurgitate food. It doesn’t, but, had it, the frigatebird would have, no doubt, tucked its wings and stooped, much like a peregrine falcon, in hopes of catching a mid-air meal. When I see this, I am always convinced our military planes stole everything they know from great frigatebirds.
In the mean time, red-tailed tropicbirds buzz the cliffside, landing and/or thinking about landing, where their chicks sit in precarious nest sites waiting for their own meals. Out of the corner of my eye, I see a dark blur. I turn my head to see a wedge-tailed shearwater skim the ground and head out over the cliff, where the ground gives way to air and, far below, ocean. The shearwater wings its way out to sea. That’s weird, I say. I don’t usually see wedge-tailed shearwaters take off in the middle of the afternoon. They tend to be crepuscular, one of my favorite words.
The couple is delighted.
Where is Thomas? I think. Thomas is a local photographer who may be more attracted to our seabirds than I am.
I’ve been at the refuge for an hour now, and I’ve yet to make it all the way to the edge of the peninsula where the lighthouse sits. I can hear Brett working on the lighthouse’s renovation, but I can’t quite see the whole thing. I can tell there is still black netting surrounding the catwalk. It serves as a windbreak for Brett, perched up there with a “needle gun,” removing layers of paint and rust and exposing the catwalk’s bare metal. It’s a noisy process, most days, but not today. I take a quick scan with my binoculars. Brett and two young men are applying a grey substance to the cleaned metal.
More juvenile red-footed boobies scamper by. Their flight reminds me of a toddler learning to walk. Red-tailed tropicbirds flutter backwards into their cliffside perches. A frigatebird chases another frigatebird and, out of no where, four more frigatebirds appear, chasing one of their own--presumably a lucky one that just noshed on a meal of some sort.
The couple expresses even more joy. A man joins them in their delight, running toward me to share the picture he’s just captured of a frigatebird harassing a juvenile red-footed booby.
Where is Thomas? He’s missing all the action.
On NESH hill, I see Megan. She is an AmeriCorps intern, and she is stalking a nene. Later, she will tell me that it’s injured--limping with a swollen foot. Nene are not easy birds to catch.
I focus my binoculars under an ironwood tree to check on a red-tailed tropicbird chick, its downy fur mostly replaced by white and black feathers. I hand my binoculars to the couple, and they take a look.
They act like they’ve won the lottery. This was the best $5 admission fee they’ve ever spent. I adore people like this couple from Oregon. They ask if I was born and raised in Hawaii. No. Why I moved here. I like Kauai. Where I used to live. Kansas City. They share that they are originally from Iowa--a state that borders Missouri. I say I’ve “done RAGBRAI,” a 500-mile bicycle ride that crosses Iowa, and we are now nearly best friends.
Finally, Thomas shows up. Where have you been? I ask. He reports he’s been on the refuge, elsewhere, for nearly two hours, captivated by something--a person or a bird. The refuge is like that.
The Oregon couple reports that there is a swarm of bees hovering over the sidewalk between here and the lighthouse. A swarm of bees, I ask. Really? Really?
And they’re right. A swarm of bees flies low over a bush. I think it looks like a mini tornado. The swarm cuts off traffic to and from the lighthouse, people are hesitant to pass too close.
Well, now, this is a new one, I say, and call another volunteer, Caroline, in the fee booth. She sends Mike, the assistant refuge manager, up. He confirms that they are honeybees and the queen must be on the move. It’s happened before, he says. It takes 15 or so minutes for the bees to settle down. Unfortunately, they do so in a naupaka bush right next to the Laysan albatross sign. Too close. Mike says he’ll probably have to call a beekeeper to come in and move the queen. He assigns one of our new maintenance workers, a man named Wade, to keep watch until the refuge closes at 4:00. Wade has a great southern accent and an infectious excitement about anything and everything Kauai. I like Wade.
The Oregon couple doesn’t want to chance it. This is the second day of their honeymoon. Their afternoon, thus far, could be described as bliss—marital and bird. A few bee stings would shatter that. They are the kind of gamblers who turn down the double-or-nothing and take the money and run. On Cash Cab, they would happily walk away from the Video Bonus question. I don’t blame them one bit.
A group of seven white-tailed tropicbirds flash their bright, white tails over the west cove, their usual hangout, and Thomas, thus far nonplussed by the action at the refuge, actually shows a little excitement.
The bees settle down, and I make my way to the lighthouse. Two nene sit on the grass inside the fence where Brett is working on the lighthouse renovation. I swear they are watching him. I haven’t seen it yet, but I’ve heard the nene have started exhibiting courtship behavior again. That means, the males will be guarding soon. That’s when they get mean. Some meaner than others.
I am the only volunteer up at the point today. Lee left for Wisconsin a few weeks ago. Charlie is in Oregon. The Goodman’s in Virginia. Laurel’s tucked in her artist’s studio and out of the sun. My all-time favorite ranger and good friend, Christa, is in Maine. I miss them all.
So, I wander down to the gift shop. Tiffany takes me a tour of just-hatched wedge-tailed shearwater chicks. There’s one behind the water fountain. There’s one in back next to the staircase. And something’s happening under that bird, she says, and points to an adult under a bush at the entrance to the gift shop. It was facing the opposite direction just five minutes ago, she says. I call her the shearwater midwife. She calls herself the bird granny. Tiffany predicts there will be a newly-hatched chick under that adult within two days.
And, then, it’s time to close.
It’s just another Friday afternoon at the refuge. I love it.