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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Ultimately, thought about these birds turns back on the thinker's own species, on the strange inconsistency that lets us destroy the commonplace and treasure the rare simply for its rareness. If 'o'os were as numerous as starlings, we would kill them as casually as we do starlings. Is it logical to find one death more significant than the millions that preceded it only because it is the last?

Yet man is the only creature who would sadly mark the passing of another. In the naming of our species we have said that we are sapient, that we are defined by our wisdom. A case might be made that the saving of these birds, involving human effort and sacrifice, is a manifestation of that wisdom. Otherwise we shall stay one with the mosquitoes and the mongooses, following the law of nature to its inexorable letter.

It seems a law of sorts that scarcity draws attention. Rare birds and animals inflame our urge to hear, to see, to possess before it's too late. This may be because to have a Mike Scott come out of the forest in 10 years and say, "Do you remember how the voices of the alala were so musical? Well, they're all gone now," is to hear a sentence that tolls for all of us, albeit in a way no one need panic over—our moat is uncrossable, so far.

Even a man like Tim Burr, devoted to ameliorating the birds' plight, when he speaks of going to Kauai's Alaskai Swamp in search of the Kauai 'o'o—perhaps a dozen survive, the last members of the genus—seems more the inspired seeker than the dispassionate scientist. "I don't want to wait until 1981 [when the forest bird survey will reach Kauai], I want to see it now, watch it, listen to it, see its postures."

Birders, not ecologists but the kind who fly across continents simply to add a melodious laughing-thrush to their life lists, sometimes suffer their voyeur's desire so intensely that it can threaten its own object. Peregrine falcon young are stolen from nests once the location leaks out. Rare species' eggs find a ready black market.

When Kluetmeier and I awoke the next morning, the sun was high and hot. Already this was a day of luck. We had been allowed a luxurious sleep. Then, finding that the transect ran up onto a lava flow, we made a lucky guess. Walking parallel to the heading, we strolled on smooth stone and then on green, springy pasture while the biologists had to labor over a'a. We rejoined them in camp on lumpy grass, and when I slung down my pack and knelt to drink, the hawks announced their presence with screams.

The following morning, Kluetmeier was tied up in his tree waiting for another exchange of hawks on the nest, and maybe a glimpse of eggs. Burr and Scott, green with jealousy, were gone down the transect, devotedly keeping their station counts. I puttered around camp, coming upon a round, six-foot-deep hole in the lava where a tree had stopped the ancient flow, then burned away. Now a pretty peperomia grew down there, safe from livestock, decorating the bones of a cow that had fallen in and died some years before.

I heard a yell. Several words, but all I could make out was my name. I ran. It was a quarter mile, uphill over tricky outcroppings, to the hawk tree. Kluetmeier had inched too high on his rotten observation post, I knew, and now lay broken and moaning on the rocks below. As I crested the last ridge I heard him moaning, but he was still safely bound to his snag.

"The hawks attacked me!" he said, exultant, staring into the eye of an io on a branch not 15 feet away. Then he told the story. "Assume it was the female on the nest all night. So first thing this morning the male settled in from out of nowhere and sat by me and posed for 15 minutes, preening, checking me out. He didn't seem too concerned. I complimented him profusely. He had his back to me and I asked him to turn around and he did. Then he hopped off and took a little glide down to the nest. Both birds stood there a second and had a little conference. She flew to a branch and stretched. Then he flew up and took a pass at me. He came over my head looking mean and went into a long glide away to that far tree. I was trying to focus on him in flight when I felt a jolt on the back of my head. The female had blindsided me!"

Kluetmeier kept running a hand through his hair. "She didn't use her talons, just a fist, a shove, really, as if she were trying to dislodge me. I yelled. My heart doubled in rate. She landed right there where she is. I know I can protect my face, but I wonder about climbing down."

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