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Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Our Date with Pele

Small Indian Mongoose near the patio in Kona

Not all that bright and early, Ron, Jeannie, Stephie & I headed for Volcanoes National Park.

Yellow-billed Cardinal eyeing my burger buns

We took our time, even stopping for an early lunch of burgers and fries at the Shaka Hut in Naahehu. I enjoyed my lunch, but enjoyed the birds there even more; Northern Cardinals, the ever present Common Mynas and some Yellow-billed Cardinals.

We were in for a series of surprises. Our first stop in the park was the steam vents, where hot underground volcanic lava sends steam out of fenced holes large enough to lose an elephants in.
Ron & Jeannie enjoy the free facial steam treatment provided by the park

Steam rises from the ground in the meadow opposite the fenced vents
We intended to continue on the auto drive that circles the caldera rim, but it was closed. Gak! It was open on my last visit in 2005. A ranger told us the Kileaua volcanoe's activity was sending clouds of deadly gas, wafting over the rim drive so it was no longer safe to visit. Wow! The volcano only seemed to be resting - it is currently reaserting itself as a LIVE volcano.

We stopped for a view of the Kilauea Volcano. Though we were all impressed by Kilauea, I was thrilled to at long last see four White-tailed Tropicbirds rise up from the caldera, soaring high in the sky, their streamer tails whipping in the wind and shut up, no I couldn't get photos of them and NO, I don't want to talk about why!  [Management regrets Ms. Miller's sulkiness over the Tropicbirds business, but have no fear, she'll blabber on any second now... Oh, there she goes!]
Stephie, Ron and Jeannie hiking over to the Caldera overlook
View from the overlook - Halema'uma'u is blowing steam!
Photo-op at Caldera Rim
Our next stop was the main Hawaii Volcano Observatory & visitor center. Closer looks at the steaming vent were possible there. I was excited to find a coconut on the overlook wall. I asked a Ranger about the coconut and he confirmed my suspicion - the coconut was a present left for Pele, the Volcano Goddess by some of her many admirers. The name of the steaming vent is Halema'uma'u (House of Ferns) and that is Pele's home. I suspect Pele is keeping the home fires burning.
An offering for Pele sits on the rim overlooking Halema'uma'u
After touring the visitor center, we went to the Thurston Lava Tunnel. Ron, Jeannie & Steph went for a hike through the tunnel, and I opted - no surprises here - to instead do a little birding in the upper trail amid the rain forest trees. Afterwards we piled into the car and headed down to the oean to see what the volcano was up to on that end of the island. Again, we had a surprise! The drive takes one along a lava strewn hillside, with the ocean at the bottom. I looked and looked for HUMONGOUS steam cloud that was present in 2005, and guess what - it is gone.

My photo from 2005 of the ocean bound lava stream

Back in 2005, an underground stream of liquid magma poured into the ocean. The new lava had buried under the oceanside drive, almost cleaving the ocean rim drive in two. A makeshift interpretive center had opened and people hiked a meandering trail out to see the lava enter the ocean. Back then, just hearing the trail was a balmy 110 degrees due to the hot lava - not to mention hearing a tourist had been sucked into a suddenly appearing lava hole, easily convinced myself and Jeannie from attempting the hike. But now, in 2012, the lava flow into the ocean is, for now, ended. We parked at the old interpretive center and climbed down to for a view of where the hot lava had previously boiled the ocean water.

The Lava no longer flows into the ocean along the shore - for now
The Gang of Three enjoying the ocean view
Stephie ignored signage and didn't realize she was
squatting on top of the lava arch over the ocean - YIKES!
At the ocean's edge, once back on solid land with the rest of us, Stephanie said she was hoping a whale or some Spinnner Dolphins would swim by. I said, "there are turtles out there too..." and just as I said that, a Hawaiian Green Turtle popped up out of the surf just below us.

Catching it's breath before diving back below
Next on our Park tour, as we headed toward the road that would take us back up to the Kileaua Caldera, we spotted the Pu'uloa, 'the long hill' where ancient Hawaiians carved and chipped petroglyphs on the lava rock. Ron and Stephanie headed out over the nearly non-existant trail while Jeannie and I kept the car seats nice & toasty.
Far on the horizon you can see Ron & Stephanie about to disappear as they headed out
 They hiked the 1.4 mile trail and brought back these interesting pictures of Pu'uloa. They said there was a long boardwalk surrounding the ancient artworks.

You can see bits of the old carvings and holes left by Hawaiians long ago
I thought the neatest carving was this one of a sea turtle like the one we saw a little earlier in the day

A carving of an ancient warrior
When Ron & Stephanie returned we headed back up the hill,where the gang hiked the Thurston Lava tube while I did a little birding. Afterwards, it was twilight and Ron drove us back over to Kilauea. We wanted to drive to the main overview by the volcano museum but it seemed half the island had the same idea, so we were directed to the smaller overlook we'd visited earlier in the day where I had viewed the White-tailed Tropicbirds. There, we were awestruck. We learned how Kilauea got it's name as we viewed 'Ke 'ā weo i ka lani': the 'reddish glow lighting up the sky'.

Ke 'ā weo i ka lani, (Reddish glow lighting up the sky)
We all wanted a closer look a the hypnotically glowing pit. Jeannie and I stalled at heading off with Ron & Stephanie for the museum and its overlook. By the time we headed out, they were long gone, it was passing twilight and the trail - we couldn't even see it. As we galumphed along, stopping for gawks at the firey volcano, at one point we realized we skirted a sheer drop off into the caldera to our left. Yikes! It was time to put in a praise or two to Pele, in hopes she wouldn't want us to visit her in her Halema'uma'u home down below. Finally, after much careful stepping and guesswork as to where the trail might be, we reached a spot where we could look up and see the stone wall that surrounded the museum. Now - how to get up there!

Full moon on the right, flaming crater in the middle, the steep climb upward to the right where the sun attempted to set.
What was before us was steep incline, 2 ft wide with the climb about one story high. The path upward was strewn with lava rocks, from bowling ball size down to golf ball sized pebbles. Knowing we were, as they say, 'asking for it' we gingerly teetered up the rocky slope. The footing was as unsure as I've set my fat feet on in decades. About half way up the narrow path we crossed path with others on their way up and I marveled they could managed to shimmy past the fat lady (who would be 'moi') but they managed. Then Jeannie got ahead of me and bless her heart, she reached out for me, "Need help?"  How adorable was that! I knew if I took her hand and slipped we'd both careen down steep sides of the ramp and break every bone in our bodies. The only reason we made it up the remainder of the slope was further up the slope,  a man and his wife, with one flashlight between them, shone the light down at our feet. That allowed Jeannie & I could make reasonable guesses where we ought to put our feet. Then we made it to the top - Eureka! We were alive and miraculously, sound of limb!
A bundled offering made of coconut leaves I spotted earlier in the day,
certainly an offering for Pele - the sort of thing my ankles owe Pele for her assistance
We enjoyed our viewing of the flaming gleaming pit. You couldn't see any flames but the whole of the Halema'uma'u pit glowed red and billows of steam continue to pour out of it. It was just as firey in the day time of course, only the bright daylight kept the presence of the lava flames invisible. When we met up again with Ron and Stephanie they were astonished that we had even thought to, much less managed to climb the rocky slope. They'd have bet the mint we would have stayed put in the lower caldera overlook area. Nope! Jeannie the nimble and Claire the bumble-footed had done the impossible and come out of it, sound of limb. I think we owe Pele a coconut or other emblem of respect for her assistance in our twilight climb. Next time Pele! Next time!

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Mr. Toad's Wild Ride - 4WD on Mauna Kea

Mauna Kea - the White Mountain
Having visited the Big Island twice now, I decided it was high time for a visit to Mauna Kea, where  native Hawaiian birds, the likes of I'iwi and Akiapola'au, flutter about in the ancient rain forest. So before I left California, I called the Big Island's Fish & Wildlife office, letting them know I intended to visit the secluded Hakalau tract. It was like a cool spy movie; I was instructed to call them back with my rental car's licence plate. Then they would  re-call me with the secret combination to open the tract gate into the land parcel of birdies galore. Hurrah! I was going to see some genuine, rare & exotic tropical birds.

The Saddle Road - Mauna Kea in the distance on the left
 Soon, coffee at the ready, I was motoring up Saddle Road. It used to be the godawful road from hell, but these days it is much nicer. Mind - those who prefer their roads without narrow bits that only allow one car at a time, and motion sickness inducing roller coaster like undulations will hate it. Happily I thought it was fantastic.

I kept stopping to photograph wild turkeys and I was gratified to discover a bird, new to me, imported, long ago established as an island bird, Erckel's Falcolins - a kind of giant wild partridge.

Turkey and four Erckel's Fancolins
Spotted flock after flock of Wild Turkeys in the fields around Mauna Kea
Then, when I eventually reached the top of the Saddle Highway, I found what two previous trips to the big island hasn't produced - Nene Geese!  WOOO HOOOO!  These 'lifer' Nene (nay-nay) were smack on the side of the highway near a field of lava rock. They looked dead bored but I can tell you I wasn't. When I was a kid, the population of Nene got to a rock bottom 40 birds so you can imagine how sweet it is their numbers now steadily rise, though, particularly on the Big Island with it's stupidly imported Small Indian Mongoose population, Nene are still considered endangered.

My at-long-last, first look at Hawaiian Nene Geese.
 After gloating and preening myself on my Nene spotting, I headed up the Mauna Kea access road, in search of the Hakalau tract. In true Claire-bear style, I was immediately lost. I soon drove up to what a complex of buildings I fervently hoped, against all common sense, would turn out to be wildlife refuge offices. Uh... no.

I discovered the Mauna Kea Observatory complex

Guess what? There are observatories on Mauna Kea! Ok, right here, let's insert a big, Claire-sized DUH. Well, things like observatories pop up when you're so absorbed by one area of science (Ornithology) that you tend to ignore other areas, such as Astronomy.

Inside the Mauna Kea Visitor Center

I put in a visit to see what there was to see - interesting for sure, but I was chagrined the visitor center personnel had no clue about the mysterious wildlife refuge I inquired about. No cross-crossing of the sciences on Mauna Kea I guess.

There was a telescope set up for viewing the SUN. Yes, that's right, the SUN!
Finally I did something I am loath to do - I read the instructions to get to the Hakalau. Yes. It's OK here if you shout "DUH".  Further back along the Mauna Kea Access Road, was a 4 wheel drive Mana Road that would get me to the refuge gate. It was rough & tumble, but what the heck, I was wheelin' it on the Big Island - Whoo hooooo!  Near the road's start was an ominous pit & a sign reading 'KAPU' which is Hawaiian for 'If you know what's good for your arse, KEEP OUT'. I did. I kept out. 

It wasn't more than 10 minutes when I found myself, staring with disbelief as I marveled the luck I sometimes have. Up on the Mauna Loa, high in a tree sat an I'o - a Hawaiian Hawk!  Back on my first visit to the island in 2005 I saw one briefly soaring in the distance, but this time I was viewing the island's only native raptor, up close and personal.The bird sat on a naked branch while I watched & photographed it from the jeep.


Then spreading its impressive wings, it floated below me on the hillside, resulting in even closer photos.

This bird spoiled me with its poses
As far as I was concerned - if I saw not another bird for all the hassles I'd taken thus far, the volcano and I were square.

The next birds that showed up - and rather often, were more Nenes. I spotted 3 pair of Nene and one solitary bird.

Pair of Nene - one on the left is bent over, feeding
Solitary Nene looking cheerful enough
There were plenty of other birds - flock after flock of wild turkey - honestly, I lost track of their numbers, and a solitary male Ring-necked Pheasant. I found the ever-present Pacific Golden Plovers hunting insects in the mountain meadows and more of the interesting Erckel's Fancolins, the African import.

Erckel's Fancolin
The instructions I had said the distance to the Hakalau Tract was 16 miles, but at day's end, I realize they must have meant that distance to include from the Saddleback road to the start of Mana Road. Good place for another 'DUH' here. The last 100 yards or so were attrocious. The road was a drop down a lava rock strewn cliff and the jeep's breaks did not work  during the drop at all! I was wildly lucky I didn't crash the jeep into the cliff or off the side of the drop. I wondered if I was going to be able to get the jeep back up onto the main road. Are you wondering why did I even drive down that torturous road? Weren't you paying attention - I was 4 Wheel Driving in Hawaii!

The last 100 yds to this gate & sign were a doozy!
I might have finally made it tthrough the gate into birdie wonderland, but it was now 3 o'clock. In two short hours I was due to return the jeep at the Kona airport. Even if it weren't for that, if I parked the jeep outside the gates, it was 2 miles on foot to the actual rain forest where I could see some birds. There was nothing for it but turn around and head back to Kauai-Kona. Whew! Narrowly missed having to hike that dreaded 4 mile round trip! 

Mother Nature being kind, I saw the same I'o on the way out, that I'd seen on the way in. Still beautiful and rather mysterious looking as fog rolled up Mauna Kea.

I'o posing as the evening fog rolls in

So, my exotic birding on the Big Island rather fell short of the mark, but I had fun anyway. I got a call from a v. sweet ranger lady Monday morning. I was told there was an open house on at the Refuge Headquarters and in the hoopla, they forgot to call me back with the gate combination. Oh well. No big deal. If there's a next time, I'll be taking that 4 wheel drive again.

The Big, Not-So-Big-Tsunami Adventure

Sushi leisurely sails by, daring you to ignore its tasty savoriness
HEY!  Was that a plate of spicy tuna going by there?!

Post Volcanoes National Park, on my drive back to Kaila-Kona, I called Ron, Jeannie & Stephie so we could meet up for dinner. After much discussion - there are a lot of choices for din-din in Kona - we settled on Sushi.

The sushi made its way past us on a lazy susan and we could just nick what we liked as it sailed by. Each plate is color coded for its price. V. dangerous place for myself and my wallet because I can eat sushi until the pipi come home (pipi, which is pronounced 'pee pee', is Hawaiian for 'cow').

I had my rental jeep with me, so after din-din, Stephie came along with me, and before we headed back to the time share, we stopped at a nearby Keahou shopping mall. There was a festival of some sort going on & Jeannie wanted to a look see. Then, just as we were headed back to the time share WAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!
Our ears were blasted with the siren's blast. I freaked. Had martians taken over Big Island? Was the appocolypse at hand? What the hell man, what the HELL!?
A lovely Pipi
Ignorning the din, we got back to the time share and turned on the TV. A 7.7 magnitude earthquake hit the Charlotte Islands in Canada and a Tsu-freakn'-nami was on its way to Hawaii!

I mean, you could have knocked me over with a pipi.

Ok, I guess you could knock me over with a pipi under any circumstances, but you get my drift, I was thrilled with excitement and just a little scared - I saw those horrifying Japanese Tsunami videos, and they began to play in my mind over and over again. Were we about to be floated out to sea, with flotsam & jetsam of what used to be the Big Island? The Tsunami was due to hit the entire state, and all its island at 10:28 PM., Hawaii time.

Evacuation buses added to the dire feelings of the moment

We decided to do what most people do in the face of dire emergency - pretend nothing was happening. Would have worked too - but around 9:30 PM BIT (Big Island Time), there was a pounding at the front door. The management came by to demand we high tail our touristy rear-ends up to our Tsunami staging area, which was the shopping mall we had been at a couple of hours earlier. 

We took the jeep up to the Keahou shopping mall, and there we joined the other tourists and locals in what was to be a long, exhausting wait. The movie theater was open, and though the others went to see if there was anything worth seeing - there wasn't - I didn't want to see any movie. Why see a movie when real life was, at the moment, a little more exciting than What She Said.

None had had a good night's sleep in at least a few days, from our pre-vacation jitters.  Every 20 minutes or so the sirens would go off, as though intent on keeping us at wit's end. Jeannie, Stephie and I found a nice spot from which we could spy the ocean in the distance. I figured if I saw the ocean retreat and disappear I would just lie down, have a heart attack and be done with it.

The entirety of Hawaii was on alert, all the low lying areas were evacuated, or were supposed to be. You won't believe this, but I hear there are idiots that like to pretend there is no emergency so they can stay put and not have to go anywhere.

These signs hold new meaning for me
 I was miserable. I sat coiled up in the jeep, trying to asleep. I really ought to have gone walk-about. Ron was wandering around and said many of the locals took advantage of the emergency to set up and sell food & drinks. Jeannie and Stephie sat on a low stone wall, waiting for us to be released from our late night purgatory.

Finally, around 1 AM when we were all on our last nerve, rumor shot through the crowds we would soon be released. We jumped in the jeep and drove to the exit, where, finally, the police relented and we were all allowed to drive back to our residences. I'm telling you, when I finally dropped into my bed in the wee hours I was out cold. Early start for birding Mauna Kea in a few hours? Uh... nope.

Final word on the Tsunami - uh... it was canceled. Can you do that? Apparently. The average waves that hit Hawaii were so small no one would have noticed. The highest waves, 2.5 feet hit Maui. Anyone complaining about that? No. Just HELL no. Hawaii had the best tsunami, which is no tsunami at all.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Aloha Ekolu Dancers!

Hula Kahiko Statue at Kona Airport
I know I'm back in Hawai'i when I see these three bronze wahines mid-step in their traditional Hula. Once again, the lucky rabbit I was born under the sign of, worked its magic, and my amazingly sweet friends, Ron, Jeannie & Jeannie's daughter Stephanie, invited me to accompany them for my 3rd trip to the Big Island, and my first trip to Kauai'i. Aloha ekolu (3) Maidens!

Spotted Dove inside Oahu Airport

Our nearly 5 hour flight to the Big Island was delayed by 3 hours, a good thing because had our flight run on time we'd have likely missed it. So when we made it to Kona it was twilight, and we were tired. On previous trips, I reserved the final two days of the trip to rent a car and bird off on my own. This trip however I wanted to bird a reserve that is only open on weekends so shortly after landing, I picked up a rental 4WD jeep so I could spend my first 2 days on the Big Island, birding.  Saturday morning I decided I was too sleepy for an early start so I decided to visit a good birding spot, the Thurston Tunnel, located in Volcanoes National Park.  I was pretty direct about getting there, only stopping at the tiny roadside park, Waiohinu Park, in the sleepy town of Naalehu along the way. Common Mynas, House Finches and other birds bathed in puddles and were perturbed at being viewed in such delicate positions.

'Excuse me... don't you see I'm bathing here?' - Saffron Finch (introduced species)
Yellow-fronted Canary - another introduced species
non-native, Japanese White-eye:  photo by Hearman

Once at Volcanoes NP, I skipped the usual tour, as I knew I was bound to tour the park later in the week with Ron, Jeannie & Stephie. Instead I avoided the tourists, meandering through the shady rain forest, which echoed with the roar of loud bird song. I could spot the tiny Japanese White-eyes shooting through the canopy, and what I imagine may have been a few of the more exotic forest species, but those birds were just too fast for me. I did manage to spot and even photograph an old favorite - a genuine native Hawaiian species, the scarlet red Apapane.  The species is lucky to still be common, not having declined in numbers as high as other native species in the face of Hawaii's unfortunate Bird Malaria problems.

Apapane, a cherry red species of Hawaiian honey creeper.
Volcano National Park Rain Forest - with hammock-like spider's webs
The only other native Hawaiian species I enjoyed dropped onto a branch so close to me I almost had to back up to get photos with my telephoto lens. The bold Oma'o, a Hawaiian Thrush,  announced itself with a brusk call notes. Well aloha to you too!

Bold Oma'o 
 On my drive northwest, back to Kona, I stopped to buy some fruit in Naalehu. The ladies were quite friendly & talked me into purchasing probably twice as much fruit as all four of us could eat in the week we'd have on the island.

Saturday Farmer's Market
The colorful pink ones are Dragon Fruit, the knobby green fruit are Custard
Apples (Cherimoya), apple bananas (my favorite!) and oranges
I decided to treat myself to stopping at South Point, the southernmost tip of the United States.

The cliffs at Ka Lae

Pan'o'rama'jama shot along the shoreline

At day's end I felt I'd not exactly pushed myself birding-wise, but then again, the previous day had been a marathon from 4AM until I finally hit the pillow around 2AM California time (3 hrs later in Hawaii). Decided to cut myself some slack and be not happy, but THRILLED with the birds and the shots I'd managed on the south of the Big Island. As I drifted off to sleep I mused over other sights I'd enjoyed over the day...zzzzzzzzz

A Grant's Zebra and his donkey friend in a pasture along the Mamalahoa Highway.
Mouflon Sheep, also spotted along the highway
The skies over the Pacific during the island hop from Oahu to Hawaii, the Big Island