Bundled against the chill of a dewy morning, we settled on the lower slopes of Mauna Loa volcano, a landscape interrupted on Hawaii’s Big Island. Around us was a forest that had grown up over a centuries-old flow, but for half a mile in either direction were cindery stretches of bare lava from more recent events. In the greens and grays of the woods, little molten explosions brightened the ohi’a trees, whose brilliant red blossoms feed several species of endemic Hawaiian honeycreepers, small nectar-feeding forest birds.
Even before we’d spotted a single bird, we knew that we were in the right place, thanks to the ear of Jack Jeffrey, a former biologist with the State of Hawaii who now guides birding and photography tours. Just a few minutes from the parking lot of the Puu O’o Trail, he began identifying call after call. There were twittery trills, raspy kazoo blasts and what could have been R2-D2 chirps and beeps straight off the “Star Wars” soundtrack.
Jeffrey explained that recent research has traced the ancestry of nearly 60 species of nectar-loving Hawaiian honeycreepers back to a flock of finches from Asia that arrived nearly 6 million years ago (even before all the islands had formed). Of those 60 species, only 18 remain today. The honeycreepers, along with many other native animals and plants, have suffered pressures from development and from introduced predators and diseases. With so many unique species facing extinction, Hawaii is often described as the endangered species capital of the world.
Photographer Kim Hubbard and I spent eight days in Hawaii in December, mixing birding on Oahu and the Big Island with other sightseeing. We found that bird-watching served as a lens on the islands, allowing us to meet locals who were passionate and expert enough to share their insights and help us step off (or in one case very much onto) the beaten path.
Scientists from the Smithsonian using DNA data sets to outline the evolutionary family tree of the Hawaiian honeycreeper have determined that the 56 species of the native bird evolved from the Eurasian rosefinch.
In another important finding, the researchers linked the timing of the evolution of the honeycreeper to the formation of the four main Hawaiian Islands.
“It was fascinating to be able to tie a biological system to geological formation and allowed us to become the first to offer a full picture of these birds’ adaptive history,” said Helen James, a research zoologist at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History and an author of a paper on the study.
Fern Duvall, state Forestry and Wildlife Division wildlife biologist, who was not involved with this study but is working with two of the authors of the paper, James and Rob Fleischer, on a similar project with shorebirds, called the findings “dynamic” and “unique.”
Putting the research in context, Duvall noted that many bird experts believed the honeycreepers to be descendants of the house finch of North America. Instead, the researchers say the Eurasian rosefinch from Asia is the mother bird of the species.
As for the evolutionary discoveries, Duvall said it had been theorized that there was a link between the biologic and geologic development of the birds to the islands. The scientific connection made in the study is new, he said.
“For them to show that that is the case is dynamic,” he said Wednesday. “I think it’s an excellent example that birds’ forms are tied to diverse habitat types.”
The Nature Conservancy says rare native plants are once again thriving in a Big Island forest preserve now that a fence is keeping out pigs and mouflon sheep.
The animals, which are not native to Hawaii, destroy native plants and habitats by trampling on vegetation. The animals accelerate erosion and pollute the water supply with feces and diseases.
The nonprofit organization installed an animal-proof fence around its Kaiholena Preserve in Kau in late 2007. It took the conservancy and local hunters another year to remove all the pigs from the 1,200-acre lowland forest preserve.
The Nature Conservancy said Tuesday the nuku iiwi, a native vine traditionally found in Kaiholena, is among the plants that has returned. The vine’s reddish-orange flower resembles the curved bill of the iiwi honeycreeper.
National Park Service firefighters have spent the week trying to prevent the wild fire ignited by Kilauea Volcano from spreading through a protected rain forest that is inhabited by endangered Hawaiian plants and animals.
Nearly 100 acres of the 2,750-acre east rift zone’s special ecological area, an intact lowland rain forest, have already destroyed in the fire ignited March 5 by an eruption at the Kamoamoa fissure.
As of today, the Napau wildfire on the east rift zone of the Big Island’s Kilauea volcano has destroyed 2,000 acres approximately seven miles southeast of the Kilauea Visitor Center.
The area is the home of the endangered Hawaiian bat, Hawaiian hawk, and other uniquely Hawaiian plants and animals such as Hawaiian thrush, lama and sandalwood trees, happy face spiders, carnivorous caterpillars, and Hawaiian honeycreepers said Gary Wuchner, National Park Service fire information spokesman.
Mardi Lane, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park spokeswoman, described the area as “pristine.”
“It best represents what Hawaii was and is a seed source for plants and refuge for birds,” Lane said.
“It is a living laboratory of Hawaiian plants and animals.”
Firefighters will be working to keep flames from spreading beyond the 100 acres of the refuge
Conservationists, Hawaiian scholars and state and federal officials are holding a blessing and naming ceremony for one of Maui’s rarest birds.
The endangered avian species has been known as the Maui parrotbill.
On Sunday it’s due to be formally bestowed with the Hawaiian name kiwikiu in a ceremony at Haleakala National Park.
The Hawaiian Lexicon Committee — a body that finds Hawaiian words for things, beings and concepts — accepted kiwikiu as the name in May.
Scientists estimate there are only about 500 kikiwiu remaining in the wild.
The stocky, honeycreeper is olive-green and has a yellow breast. The birds have a short tail and a relatively large parrot-like bill.