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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"They had mules," said Scott, recalling turn-of-the-century birders. "Huge canvas tents, great roaring fires—"

"—and more birds to see," said Burr.

"Yeah. They shot a few themselves."

Dinner over, we went straight to bed.

We were brought to consciousness fearfully, in the dark, by a loud, thrashing, chewing noise, as if Burr's and Scott's tent were being devoured by a 5,000-pound caterpillar. It was the sound of plastic bags being stuffed with bedrolls.

In the silence that followed, we heard Scott whisper, "Listen to the elepaio." It was faintly dawn, signaled more by the birds than by the light. Ring-necked pheasants squawked, wild turkeys gobbled, North American cardinals sang their short, liquid song. All these birds were around us because residents of the islands, while historically unmoved by native birds, maintained a passion for bringing in foreign ones. (Paradoxically, biologists speak of introduced birds as "exotics." In Hawaii an English sparrow is an exotic.) A movement called Hui Manu (Bird Club), organized in Honolulu in 1930 for the introduction of exotic "songsters," hoped to make Hawaii "the Aviary of the World." More than 150 species were introduced; at least 32 have become established. "The general philosophy seems to have been, 'If one species doesn't survive, let's try 10 more,' " wrote Berger. "How many diseases and parasites were introduced with these birds is not possible even to guess." Besides intentional introductions, occasional storm-blown birds straggle in but seldom breed. A lone golden eagle has lived on Kauai for the last 10 years.

The most resistant and adaptable of the native birds was the one Scott had first heard among the foreign clamor. The elepaio is a small, brown, white-rumped bird, similar to a wren, said to call its own name. For us it said four syllables, but usually had poor diction. Curious and bold, the elepaio appears in Hawaiian legend as a judge of good canoe timber. If it pecked on a fallen tree, the wood was unsound. If it called out "Ona ka ia" ("Sweet the fish"), the wood was good. We were to listen for a week, but no elepaio ever said that. Either there are no good canoe trees left or the whole legend is spurious.

After a fast breakfast, Scott and Burr broke their half of camp and were off on their careful counting. So they could work undisturbed, Kluetmeier and I dallied for an hour, admiring the sunrise over the gentle curve of Mauna Loa, lamenting our ignorance of birds. Kluetmeier took pictures of songbirds, and remarked that a slide of the grosbeak finch could end up in the SPORTS ILLUSTRATED photo files with no one recognizing it. The grosbeak finch was last seen in 1896. We recalled the answer Tonnie Casey had given when asked at what time of year she had discovered the po'ouli. "July 27, 1973, 1:30 p.m.," she had said, grinning. "I saw a bird I didn't recognize about six feet away and I turned and snapped a picture. Instant immortality."

Kluetmeier did that a lot the first few days, because he didn't recognize anything. "Only bird here is the yellow slickered morning crackle," he said, wadding up the plastic our oatmeal came in.

We were educated gradually. We had gone no more than half a mile in pursuit of our guides when we found a note pinned to a shrub saying "look for the elepaio nest." At length we found it, neatly tied into the top of a mamane, and Kluetmeier stalked the most common bird on the island. We pressed on. The way led through an understory of juniperlike pukiawae, up 20-foot cliffs, through masses of eye-threatening sticks. We rested often, once photographing dung beetles rolling their scatological sustenance. They do it with their back legs.

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