In no particular order:

  1. The first turtle of the season was a new turtle to the project. We nicknamed T151 “Dory” because she false nested four times in four nights at Pohue before finally laying eggs during the day. Very un-turtlelike. Seeing this 180 lbs. mother Hawksbill in the flesh definitely ranks in my top ten.
  2. Our first hatchlings were also at Pohue. We nest-excavated in mid-July and found three hatchlings that we then assisted to the ocean. Miniature versions of the massive adults, their shells have an orange sheen to them that reflects brilliantly off of the setting sun. We always release in the evening when it is cooler. Definitely ranks in my top ten.
  3. My most recent trip at Apua had T155 come up at around 6:30 pm while it was still light out. I raced up to the coral pathway with my camera and planted myself right behind a bush of naupaka, where she would amble right into my scope. We are supposed to keep completely still when mothers come up, in order not to spook them right back to the ocean. We also cover their heads with a towel when we restrain them because it calms them down. This means that there is very little opportunity to actually observe the faces of the Hawksbill, so having her crawl up right into my camera scope during the daylight was definitely a top ten moment.
  4. Halape beach has a slightly brackish pool a few hundred yards inland. Blanketed by trees and high cliffs, this pool is home to a species of large endemic shrimp. Rinsing off all the salt and sweat in “the crack” and cooling off from the blistering Hawaiian sun was definitely one of my favorite moments of the whole summer.
  5. Walking north up the Apua coast, one finds a multitude of natural sea arches. The sea spray often creates brief rainbows, and the lack of trees offers a full 360-degree view of the Volcanoes National Park backcountry. Taking strolls up the coast was definitely a highlight of every backcountry trip.
  6. Hiking of Apua to Halape, we stop to beach check Keauhou. This beautiful beach is home to an even more beautiful coral reef. I snorkeled for the first time ever in these reefs and it took my breath away. Large spherical reefs that looked almost Dr. Seuss-like are home to hundreds of species of fish that I had never seen before. Swimming with them was magical. It offered an aerial view of schools of yellow tang, needlefish, and goatfish, to name but a few. One of my most memorable outdoor experiences ever.
  7. During one of our days off, we drove down to Hilo and visited Richardson beach. In a tiny pool that was sheltered from the waves, we swam with no less than eight Green Sea Turtles. We could have ridden them if we wanted. One was at least 250 lbs. This was one of my most memorable wildlife experiences ever.
  8. On other one of my days off, I drove two hours north with another intern to visit Waipio Valley. It was raining the entire time and we couldn’t even see the valley from the overlook because it was so foggy. We hiked down and jumped into the stormy ocean. Something about swimming in the rain is intensely satisfying, and we were offered ghostly views of barely visible lush-green mountains and tall waterfalls. This was definitely a surreal top ten experience.
  9. When a mother turtle starts to nest, it often takes her twenty minutes, and she goes into a sort of trance. At this point we can turn our lights on and talk quietly around her. We check for tags and injuries, and measure her carapace lengths and widths. Watching a deep hole fill up with over 150 ping pong ball sized eggs under a brilliantly starry sky was easily one of my favorite moments whenever we observed them nesting. 45 days later, hatchlings are breaking out of these eggs. Crazy.
  10. One of the best moments I had here was having 45 hatchlings emerge from a nest at once, and the following day excavating the nest, and finding 88 more hatchlings. We released all of them in the evening. Watching one of nature’s most secretive and exclusive moments was a special thing indeed. I have plenty of other moments, but those are my top ten!


Written on August 15th, 2017 , Uncategorized

The mountain is on fire

Ghosts billow in the voggy haze,

Writhing and roiling under a smoke-choked sky while

Slashing rivulets of rubies dance across the shadows,

As if hidden puppeteers wished to will the ghosts to life,

Taking form, encapsulated beneath Pele’s armor

Fantasies of savage vengeance under a bloody moon.

Barren desolation stretches from the spectre-filled abyss

Life and death locked in fundamental combat

Unknown Millennia of entrenched warfare scribbled on sulfur-caked scrolls

Shock troops erupt in dense formation at the crater’s edge

Twisting and breaking to mount the century-long charge.

Different ghosts dwell here

Piercing sunlight refracts off of still morning mist

And indistinct forms shimmer at the edge of consciousness

The call of the Coqui penetrates even the thickest night’s silence

Booming out, it rides the salt-laden wind

As of a drummer boy in blue.

Sudden rushing sounds signal the gushing of fleeing Nene

Their powerful wings beating in time to the rumbling drums.

A cacophony of silence suddenly grips the scene

Shrieking cries from mysterious throats interrupt the dark nothingness

And the bristles of hoary bats stand erect on gargoyle spines.

All at once, a sigh from Pele,

The mood shifts, pale moonshine illuminates all

Smoke continues to billow, but as if the fire has been doused,

By cool, cool water.

Written on August 6th, 2017 , Uncategorized

When I stepped off the plane into the small Hilo airport, I immediately heard high-pitched, two-note calls from what I at first thought must be some sort of bird. Having just taken an Ornithology class at Dickinson, I was eager to start identifying some of the native Hawaiian birds, and the airport seemed as good a place as any. Upon arriving at the outdoor baggage claim though, and craning my neck to look up at the rafters, I saw no evidence of birds of any kind. I would later find out the that mysterious call belonged to that of the coqui frog, a native of Puerto Rico. Introduced sometime in the 1990’s, this invasive amphibian has no natural predators, and can be detrimental impacts on native pollinators. The coqui frog is just one of many introduced species that have made Hawai’i their permanent residence, and though I hear its call almost every night, I have only ever seen a single individual.

Profile Point at Apua Beach

Many of Hawaii’s introduced species are from mainland United States, South America, and parts of Southeast Asia. I took a taxi from the airport and arrived at the hostel that I would be staying at for one night. Leaning out the window of my room, I could still hear the relentless peeping of my amphibian friends, a sound that never truly stops. Over the rooftops of Hilo, I recognized house sparrows and house finches flitting over the rooftops, common occurrences in Pennsylvania. Already, the first three animals I had observed were not native. The next morning, while driving to the National Park after being picked up by my project supervisor, I observed many large, dark-brown birds scurrying around on the shoulders of the roads and perching on the power lines. Upon further inquiry, they were identified them as Mynah birds. On the Big Island, I see Mynah birds everywhere I go. They were brought over from India in 1865 to deal with pest problems, and have since traveled across the entire Hawaiian chain of islands. They are gregarious and aggressive birds. It took me a while to get sick of them though, they are quite striking in appearance. A black head with a sharp yellow bill and a yellow ear streak gives the bird a fierce expression. Its black head morphs into a chocolate-brown body ending in long yellow legs. Its wings have a prominent white stripe that make the Mynah bird easily identifiable in flight. Their call however, is an ugly screeching noise, one of the reasons why this particular bird has fallen out of my favor. I also saw Spotted Doves and Zebra Doves, natives of Southeast Asia, and Saffron Finches, a native of South America. I saw Rock Doves and Mourning Doves as well, and was somewhat less excited.

Backpacking in Backcountry.

During the few days that I am out of the field, I attempt to go on at least one hike around the park. With 150 miles of trails, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park offers a variety of opportunities to glimpse different wildlife in different habitats. I have seen the tiny red ‘Apapane flying along the crater ledges, and White-Tailed Tropicbirds soaring on the updrafts above the Jaggar Museum. I have seen and heard Japanese Bush Warblers, and the familiar Northern Cardinal. I have approached Nene, the beautifully colored Hawaiian Goose, to within an arm’s length. In the gloomy lighting of the sulfur pits, I observed an ‘Io, the Hawaiian Hawk, and seen the native “elepaio hawking for insects between the Ohi’a Trees. I once glimpsed the Hawaiian Amakihi, only for a moment in the forest outside of the Kilauea Military Camp. Kalij Pheasants consistently streak across the roads around our employee housing complex. I have yet to see the elusive I’iwi, or the Hawaiian Honeycreeper, though that is mostly due to my lack of transportation to higher elevations within the park, the height that I’iwi prefer.

Birds that I have seen out in the field include Pacific Golden Plovers, a species of Frigatebird, a Black-crowned Night Heron, a Hawaiian Coot, a Bristle-Thighed Curlew, a Wandering Tattler, Yellow-billed Cardinals, a Barn Owl, and as usual, the ever-present Mynah bird. Most likely I have seen additional species of shorebird, but they are admittedly hard to identify, and are flighty as colts. Enough about birds though, let’s move on to other animals.

Again, I will start with the invasives. The first thing I noticed was the unusual number of dogs, it seemed like every house that I pass on the Hilo roads has one or two dogs chained up to a fence in the front yard. I have also seen goats, sheep, and cats wandering around tied up or left to their own devices. On many of the beaches, cat tracks are found in the mornings. They are one of the worst predators of Hawksbill nests and hatchlings, as well as native bird species. Driving past some of the more rural areas, herds of horses can be seen cantering through scenic valleys of long grasses. Cows can also be spotted in these areas. At one of the beaches we monitor at, a group of wild goats stalks the lave fields, sprinting rapidly away whenever we get too close. Though I haven’t seen any, feral pigs are huge problems that dig up nests and dig up native vegetation that is good nesting habitat for Hawksbills.

Hiking out of Halape Beach

The natives though! This is the cool part. I’m not even going to bother researching the hundreds of fish that I have seen, but just imagine every size and every color on the spectrum. At least three species of sea urchins, two types of crabs including the ghost crab, and at least four species of eel can be found at all of the beaches that we monitor. One evening, my fellow volunteer Ted and I were exploring tide pools when we spotted four dark shapes in the water, they turned out to be spotted eagle rays. That same night we observed the only native mammal to these islands, the Hawaiian Hoary Bat. What a spectacle. It came out around dusk hawking for insects for almost twenty minutes next to our chairs.

Hawaii has an abundance of life, much of it in the ocean surrounding the island. Many places have been developed, but it is still easy to find pristine wilderness areas if you know where to look. At some point I will come back to the big island to properly explore it. Many species are rapidly declining in numbers, and who knows how long they will be able to continue the fight against man’s encroachment. Go and explore these places while you can, because every day it becomes slightly less likely to spot a green sea turtle, or a hoary bat. Hopefully though, it is becoming more likely to see Hawksbill sea turtles. Thanks again to the Dickinson Internship Grant Program for making this summer possible.

Written on August 6th, 2017 , Uncategorized

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Protecting the Hawksbill – Connor Liu

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park