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