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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.

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