Even equipment failure can’t ruin Hawaii

June 5, 2009 

Imagine flying to Hawaii on a working vacation, the Swarovski binoculars packed in the overhead bag, the anticipation of seeing new-to-me birds at an all-time high.

Then, when the first birding opportunity arises, raising those high-end binoculars (for which I worked part-time in the county park two summers cleaning outhouses and campsites) and focusing one of the ubiquitous myna birds and … staying unfocused because the focusing wheel was on the blink.

Cursing was followed by whimpering, partnered with anger and despair, disappointment and disbelief. I wanted to curl up in the car and suck my thumb.

All was not lost, of course. We did see several new species, a few of them up close, and identified one by its call.

The most interesting incident occurred on Maui, while sitting on a beach listening to snorkeling guide Suzzy Robinson of Maui Snorkel Tours.

Even though this was my first dive, I can’t imagine a better guide. The Washington-raised ex-Boeing sheet-metal mechanic leads more than 1,000 snorkelers a year, clearly showing her love for people, the ocean and life.

We were sitting in a circle as Robinson talked about photographs of the fish we’d probably encounter. Nearby, a female red-crested cardinal was hopping around, dining on sand life, getting closer and closer.

Then through a small gap in our circle, she hopped through, surveyed the landscape, looked at Robinson’s book opened to colorful fish and hopped through the circle.

The bird was familiar but that behavior was a thrill.

Loud warbling was heard on a hike into the Halawa Valley on Molokai. Guide Hawika Foster identified it as the elepaio, an adaptable and feisty native Hawaiian flycatcher belonging to the monarch family.

The six-inch-long elepaios, considered guardian spirits, assisted canoe-builders searching for the right tree by joining them in the forest and landing on a suitable tree.

One Molokai sign said “Nene Crossing.” The Hawaiian goose is the state bird. We usually saw them in small groups. When Captain Cook arrived, there were about 25,000 nenes. They nearly went extinct before breeding programs and protection started to increase the population.

Smaller than the Canada goose, the nene is still threatened by mongoose and feral cats and dogs. If a nene survives past the first three months, it could live to be 25 years old.

Leading us into Maui’s Mauna Lei Arboretum was Jaclyn Schlindwein, a graduate of Evergreen State College. She’s involved in environmental education at Maui’s Ritz Carlton’s and Jean-Michael Cousteau’s Ambassadors of the Environment program.

On the hike, a small songbird darted from tree to tree, here and gone in a flash, there and quickly hidden again. The Japanese white-eye had a slightly curved black bill, a yellow forehead and shades-of-olive feathers.

Hawaiian’s most common bird has distinctive white rings around the eyes.

The good-looking black francolin was often seen. The main identifiers (there are two other francolins) of these game birds are the white cheeks and chestnut collars.

We saw other birds, including small zebra doves, common around resorts; cattle egrets, brought to the islands in the 1950s and now a roadside attraction; and the ubiquitous common myna, imported from India to control pests but now close to near-pest status in some areas.

All in all, not bad for someone with dead binoculars.

Sharon Wootton can be reached at 360-468-3964 or www.songandword.com.

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