Birding at Kealia Pond National Wildlife Refuge

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Birding at Kealia Pond National Wildlife Refuge

Posted by: Kim Steutermann Rogers
Destination: Maui
Apr 04, 2012

It must be like buying a new car. After you pull away from the dealership in your shiny, new-smelling automobile, you see the same make and model everywhere--passing you on the highway, parked next to you at the grocery store, slowing to turn in front of you.
 
There might even be a name for the experience.
 
It's that way, for me--with birds.
 
It helps that I'm starting to know what to look for, just as when we bought a used vehicle recently, I learned the shape of the headlights and the shape of the maker's logo. Now, when I pass my husband on the road--he headed home; me going on an adventure, or some such thing--I don’t wave at every silver pick-up on the road.
 
Last weekend, I was roaming Kauai's north shore, checking on the Laysan albatross chicks that I monitor, when I saw an adult circling a stretch of land that I'd only casually traversed before. The seabird with the six-foot wingspan dropped its landing gear--feet--in the way that Laysan albatrosses do when they are coming in for a landing. But it didn't touch pale-flesh-colored, webbed feet to land. Sometimes, it takes a few tries, a few circles, a few aborted attempts, because Laysan albatrosses are not known for their precision take-offs and landings. (And, yet, I’ve seen a few stick landings that would give Mary Lou Retton a run for her money.) In their defense, Laysan albatrosses are seabirds and spend the vast majority of their lives at sea.
 
So, I investigated the area and found a previously unidentified nest and a Laysan albatross chick sitting upright and alert, cute as could be, as if it was saying, "About time you found me," but more likely just waiting for its parent to time its landing and regurgitate the golden nectar--a smoothie of squid, fish and fish eggs.
 
Earlier this month, when I was on Maui, my rental car naturally gravitated to a familiar place for me--a national wildlife refuge. Like Kilauea, where I volunteer (on Friday afternoons, stop by some time), this one is dedicated to birds.
 
Kealia Pond National Wildlife Refuge is located at the south end of the isthmus that runs between East Maui's Kihei and Wailea and West Maui's Lahaina and Kaanapali.
 
About a mile-long boardwalk runs behind a stretch of coastline, commonly called Sugar Beach. This is part of the National Wildlife Refuge system, and it's located right in the middle of Maui, not some remote, inaccessible wilderness area. Across the road from the boardwalk sits Kealia Pond, one of the largest lowland wetlands left in Hawaii and the largest on Maui.
 
A major rainstorm had just swept through Hawaii when I arrived, and the wind tunneled down the isthmus in a fury. It wasn't raining, but a parade of kids blew by me, racing to get to the pavilion--and a picnic--at the end of the boardwalk. One girl stopped to walk beside me.
 
"Have you seen any stilts?" I asked her.
 
She shook her head, two brown braids whipping around her head. "No," she said.
 
"Coots?" I asked.
 
The braids whipped some more.
 
A call from up ahead, a girlfriend or sister, I don't know, and my new friend took off, feet pounding, braids whirling again.
 
I love seeing kids outside--in nature, and running. It reminds me of my childhood, before 24-hour news cycles, hundreds of television channels and instant internet information.
 
In 1965, I read on a sign, 200 acres of wetlands existed in Kihei, east of Kealia Pond. But due to development and roadways, an acre here and there, by the time 2002 rolled around, only 70 acres were left. It may seem like we can't stop development in this growing world of ours. Nature is like that, too, ever expansive. But, at some point, the loss of habitat for our native plants and animals leads to irreversible conclusions, like extinction. And that's why I like the National Wildlife Refuge and National Parks systems, among others. They ensure nature has a home--and sometimes, like Kealia Pond, it’s right in the midst of ours.
 
Two kinds of native birds call Kealia Pond National Wildlife Refuge home.
 
The endemic Hawaiian coot, or ‘Alae ke’oke’o, is named for its white frontal shield, more pronounced than its ancestor the American Coot. It forages for food by diving under water. It prefers shallow ponds and marshy areas.

The Hawaiian stilt, or Ae’o, sports some serious long legs. Once you get over its bright pink legs, you next notice its needle-sharp, long, black bill. Sometimes noisy, these waterbirds are black above and white below. They prefer to feed in shallow water or the muddy shores of ponds. If need be, they will trudge up to its belly to feed on aquatic arthropods and insects on the water’s surface or just below.

"Look. Look," my braided friend called when she saw me approach the pavilion at the end of the boardwalk. She'd ditched her picnic lunch and hopped like a pogo stick, her chin barely cresting the boardwalk's railing. I gave her my binoculars for a better view. Maybe she'll grow up to become an ornithologist.
 
According to a pamphlet at the spiffy, new Kealia Pond National Wildlife Refuge visitor center, more than 1,079 Hawaiian stilts and 584 Hawaiian coots have been observed at the pond one time.

But there’s more. Like the Black-crowned night-heron, ‘Aku’u, and the Pacific golden plover, Kolea. And Ruddy turnstone, ‘Akekeke. And Sanderling, Hunakai. And the cross-bred Mallard and native Hawaiian duck, Koloa.

visiting goose with hawaiian duck hybridsIn the winter months, while Humpback whales breach, birth and compete for matings rights, some visitors stop by, especially after a big storm.

A quick Google search revealed something called the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon. This is when someone happens upon an obscure piece of information--often an unfamiliar word, fact or name--and soon after encounters the same subject again and again. I’m not sure if it applies to my car analogy. Or birds.

Because after my stroll on the boardwalk, I stomped around in the mud at Kealia Pond, and I saw plenty stilts and coots for which the place is known. But I also checked the Greater white-fronted goose, I think, and White-faced ibis off my life list. They stood out like sore thumbs. Interestingly, though, I haven’t seen a single one since.

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