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Live From the Big Island

Live from the Big Island:

Last week I wrote about seeing the birds on the Hawaiian island of Kauai. Kauai is really beautiful and the birds weren’t too bad either, but alas I didn’t see an ‘I’iwi, which is my goal. So, we flew to the Big Island, where hopefully I’ll have better luck. Hawaii’s largest island is also called “Hawaii.” But instead of making people say, “Hawaii, Hawaii,” they just call the big island, the “Big Island.” Got it? Got it?

We landed in the town of Hilo (hee-low), which is on the Big Island’s east side. The people there were very nice, but Hilo is not one of those fancy resort towns we saw in the early Elvis movies, and could seriously use a fresh coat of paint. However, Hilo does have one of the world’s largest Japanese gardens (outside of Japan). The park is filled with flowers, pagodas and little Japanese bridges that really don’t go anywhere. The park also had several interesting birds, including quite a few Nutmeg Mannikins and a bunch of Saffron Finches. Saffron Finches, which aren’t a spice but are actually tanagers from South America, are brilliant yellow with orangey faces. This was a new bird for me so, of course, I took about 4,000 pictures of them. If you need one let me know.

We rented another oceanfront house (and actually got it this time). As I was unpacking the car I heard my wife yell something about birds in the ocean. I ran over and saw Black Noddies landing on the lava cliffs in front of our house. Black Noddies are tern-like seabirds, with handsome black bodies and a white head patch. This was another new bird for me, and you guessed it – I took 4,000 photos of the noddies as well. Anyone need a noddy pic?

Not far from our rental house is Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. A lot of folks like to get up early, drive to the top of the Kilauea Volcano and watch the sunrise…I am not one of them. (Sunsets are more my speed.) But we did make it to the park by mid-morning and took a quick drive down the “Chain of Craters Road.” This road runs along various historical eruption sites, which sounds pretty cool, but got old very quickly. I mean how many old craters do I need to look at? Our last stop was at the Jaggar Museum (named after an MIT scientist, not Mick). The museum overlooks the Kilauea Caldera (i.e., another boring crater). I didn’t even want to get out of the car. I came there to look for birds, not old gravel pits. Well, I was wrong about this particular gravel pit. Not very far from where we stood was a pool of bright red, bubbling molten lava. Actually, the lava was doing more than just bubbling; it was shooting ten feet into the air. Wow! It was like watching one of those movies we all had to sit through in Earth Science class, only this was very real and wicked awesome. (I guess this is why they call it Volcano National Park; suddenly the name made sense.) We stood and watched the show for nearly an hour before finally taking a break for lunch. (My wife hates to miss lunch.)

After lunch we drove over to the park’s visitors center. I immediately walked up to the first ranger I saw and asked her the same question I ask every park ranger, “Where are the best places to see birds?” Over the years I’ve asked this question to dozens of different rangers, at dozens of different national parks and 100% of the time I receive the same answer: “Oh, I’m sorry. I don’t really know much about birds. The gal/guy who knows about them is off today.” This time was no different. The woman at the counter had just started giving me the standard, “Oh, I’m sorry…” line when Travis (my new personal hero) stepped in and asked me, “What species of birds are you looking for?” With a surprised, and now timid voice, I answered, “’I’iwi’.” Travis told me that ‘I’iwi are no longer regularly seen in the park. But before I started to cry, he suggested that I drive to the “Saddle Road” (a road that runs across in the middle of the island). He said I should try three trails: “Kaulana Manu, Pu’u O’o and Puu Hulu Hulu.” Huh? What the heck did he just say? Travis saw the blank look on my face so he grabbed a piece of paper and actually wrote down those strange words from memory. It was very impressive. I thanked him a million times and headed out the door, guarding Travis’s paper like it was a hundred dollar bill. This is my map to the ‘I’iwi, I thought.

It was too late in the day to make the long drive over Saddle Road. Instead, we decided to hang around in the park until it was dark. We now wanted to see what the molten lava looked like at night. In the meantime, we went for a bird walk, of course. On the walk I found a bird that has a great name, a Melodious Laughingthrush. This bird, like many types of soy sauce and certain neckties, is an import from China. We also saw several Kalij Pheasants (from the Himalayas) and plenty of Yellow-fronted Canaries (Africa) and a sweet pair of ‘Elepaios (I have no clue how to say this one), which are tiny flycatchers and are actually from Hawaii. It was good to finally see a real native.

By now it had gotten dark so we headed back over to the volcano. This is when I realized that we weren’t the only ones who wanted to see molten lava at night. The viewing area was packed, windy and very cold (in Hawaii?). Still, it was fun as we all watched the glowing lava light up the night sky. However, I was now less interested in the lava and was thinking more about tomorrow’s trip to Saddle Road…and perhaps finally seeing an ‘I’iwi. Stay tuned.