SI Vault
Kenny Moore
September 25, 1978
Encumbered by vines, hobbled by lava, an intrepid writer and his faithful photographer companion take part in a unique survey of Hawaii's disappearing birdlife
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September 25, 1978

If The Ie Ie Don't Get You, The A'a Will

Encumbered by vines, hobbled by lava, an intrepid writer and his faithful photographer companion take part in a unique survey of Hawaii's disappearing birdlife

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Kluetmeier selected a nearby tree—a dead one—and began to ascend, broken branches raining on Burr. "Do you have to be so close?" whispered Scott, concerned that the racket might spook the brooding hawks from the nest. Because his tree was the only one with an unobstructed view, Kluetmeier pretended not to hear. The hawk held fast, its mate watching intently from the top of a koa tree. Kluetmeier fastened a rope to his perch, then came down. "I'll be tied up there at 5:30 in the morning," he said. "Anything you care to know about Hawaiian hawks?"

We had begun, five days before, amid an evacuation scene at the Volcanoes National Park Headquarters, a dozen bird surveyors and botanists and us, all tugging at packs, cramming in last-minute socks and beef jerky. Life in the rain forest means life in the rain, so every pack, every sleeping-bag cover had to be lined with waterproof plastic garbage bags. Conversation was inaudible over the crackle of the bags. We got glimpses of maps, one showing that Transect 57 ran through "Devil Country," one showing the work done by the botanists, who have divided the forest into 49 different habitats, each defined by its predominant vegetation. The bird findings will be compared with plant distribution to discover, perhaps, the particular sorts of places that need to be protected.

The essential reason for the survey, which is a joint effort of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Forest Service and the State of Hawaii, is basic research, although it will have political repercussions. Despite past observations, no one has been able to say how many species of Hawaii's endemic birds survive, or what their populations are or exactly where they live. The history of bird study since Cook's voyages is rife with untimely fires and shipwrecks that destroyed collections and notes. Little was written about birds by the early missionaries, traders and planters. And the Hawaiian rain forest is so dense that what few observers there were looked only in the easiest places. "If you go in the wet, steep, rugged valleys, you never know what is going to turn up," says Eugene Kridler, the endangered-species coordinator in Hawaii. To illustrate, he cites the case of the po'ouli (Melamprosops phaeosoma), a little cinnamon-and-gray honeycreeper with a white-and-black face. The po'ouli—a whole new species and genus—was only discovered in 1973 by two University of Hawaii students studying the Hana Rain Forest on Maui. Both are working on the present forest bird survey, Jim Jacobi as a botanist, and Tonnie Casey, known as "Golden Ears" for her ability to pick up birdsong at great distances, as a bird counter. During our week she was a "rover," serving as an extra hand to help out on the five separate transects that were surveyed concurrently.

The frenzy of the packing subsided, and Kluetmeier and I began to be given appraising glances. As our boots were inspected, the abrasiveness of lava was mentioned. Our rain gear had to be displayed, the amount of our water judged; in all this, it seemed, the durability of our good spirits was the main item in question. "You're going to regret this, you know that," said Fred Ramsey, a professor from Oregon State, who was the project statistician who had put in enough time on transect to form an opinion of the work. "I've found that you can tell people what it is like, and then tell them again," said Burr with a fierce sort of fatalism, "but until they're really in there they simply can't conceive of it."

Scott, a calm, determinedly reasonable man, did not dwell on the coming ordeal. "I get some of my best thinking done on transect," he said, passing out our rain covers.

As we drove south from Volcanoes Park around the immense mass of Mauna Loa, he discussed the basic principles of Hawaiian ecology, prime among them that the 2,500 miles of open sea separating the islands from the nearest land mass was for hundreds of thousands of years an almost insuperable barrier. Continental life forms were blown, carried or floated to a Hawaiian landfall very rarely, but once there they found paradise. It has been suggested that the islands' 58 forest birds are descended from fewer than 15 ancestor species, perhaps only five. "In terms of the ages of the Hawaiian Islands," wrote Berger, "only one successful invasion every 300,000 years would have been required for the establishment of the 15 bird ancestors." Down through those millennia, the few birds, plants and insects that made it responded to the incredibly varied habitat in the islands by evolving into dozens, sometimes thousands, of species, each adapted to its peculiar range. Because there was little competition, many species' defensive attributes were no longer needed for survival. There were no plant-eating mammals, so the raspberries lost their thorns. Some birds (a long-extinct rail, for one) lost the power of flight. Immunity to many diseases faded away, as it would for the Polynesians. Hawaiian creatures ended up fantastically divided in species, each of the gravest delicacy.

This kind of isolation-bred vulnerability has come about on many islands. Of the 161 kinds of birds that have vanished since 1600, 149 lived on islands, 22 of them on Hawaii. Once there were 1,060 types of land snails in Hawaii, some living all their lives on a single tree. Now, half are extinct and the rest threatened. Fifty-three percent of the 1,700 endangered plants in the U.S. grow in Hawaii. The cause of this decline is that Hawaii's moat shrank. Polynesians came from Tahiti around 500 A.D., bringing jungle fowl, pigs, dogs and rats. Cook, the first European contact, brought cattle, sheep, goats and measles. All these hardy organisms found paradise, too, easily decimating competing Hawaiian forms of life, including the Hawaiians. In the 19th century livestock was allowed to run wild, and by trampling ground cover and feeding on seedlings of native trees destroyed thousands of acres of forest. By the 1930s great clouds of dust blew from the denuded sides of Mauna Kea. Mosquitoes carrying avian diseases contributed to the forest birds' decline in lower areas. The list of the extinct lengthened. The spectacular Hawaii 'o'o, shining black with golden shoulder and tail feathers sought by the Hawaiian makers of regal feather capes, was gone by 1900.

In 1883 the Indian mongoose was introduced on the Hamakua coast of the island of Hawaii in hopes that it would control the burgeoning rat population. Instead, the mongoose preyed on all ground-nesting birds. The nene, the beautiful brown-and-white barred native goose that is Hawaii's state bird, declined from more than 25,000 individuals toward the end of the 19th century to about 30 in 1952 because of mongoose predation, as well as that of feral pigs, dogs and cats. A contributing factor was the unfortunate happenstance that the nene hunting season coincided with the breeding season, about which little was known. This meant that for every goose on a Hawaiian dinner table, several goslings were starving up on the mountain. Wrote Berger, "Kauai, the only main island on which the mongoose has not been introduced, is the only island which still has all of the endemic birds known to have occurred there since 1778." That was in 1972. Since 1976 the mongoose has been seen on Kauai.

On the island of Hawaii the surviving native birds shrank back into the forest. The alala, or Hawaiian crow, which is distinct from North American crows in being a true forest bird instead of favoring open farmland, was thought to be down to a breeding population of 20 pairs by 1974. Small songbirds such as the palila, the 'o'u, the 'akiapola'au and the 'akepa were seen less and less frequently. They were placed on the endangered-species list, but their terrain was so horrid of passage that no one knew for sure their numbers.

"This is really a 19th-century type of study," said Scott as we left paved roads and began a four-wheel crawl to the upper reaches of Transect 57. "It is essentially descriptive, finding out what is there. On the mainland they do detailed studies of physiology, of life cycles, of how species use resources. But we have not even seen half the species in Hawaii nesting."

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