Saturday, November 17, 2007

A First Encounter with Birds in Hawai’i

I just got back from Hawaii. I did not go to the islands to watch birds. I went to help with grandchildren, handle luggage, cook, and to be a tourist. Nevertheless, whenever possible I paid attention to the birds.

When I travel to a new place, I learn about the place, and its bird life, in advance. In the case of Hawaii’s birds, this book knowledge came from two slim volumes. From these guides, I learned that the birds most sought after by birders would be very difficult to see. These endemic species are largely confined to mountainous forests; they are often rare, many are endangered, and some may be extinct. On the other hand, in the areas where human impact is the greatest, Hawaii’s bird life has become an avian melting pot, with alien species from around the world having found open ecological niches where they can thrive. Since even most these alien species were birds I had never seen before, I approached the islands with anticipation and expectation.

A good rule of thumb in this journey of life is to keep limits on one’s anticipation level. To wit: the first bird I saw after traveling some five thousand miles was in the Maui airport’s baggage claim area. While corralling luggage, and recounting the checked bags of six people, I noticed birds flying about. With no glass walls or electronically controlled doors, and oblivious to all security stations, House Sparrows scavenged the terminal for crumbs dropped by weary travelers. Yes, House Sparrows - those ubiquitous little brown birds that occupy the ecological barrens in our cities and towns, and even wander into the lush gardens of the rural village where I live.

Ah well. I was still in anticipation. The next morning I was up at dawn. With coffee in hand, I stood on the lanai (the Hawaiian word for porch or deck, in case you’ve never been to the islands), watched the sky lighten, saw the cloud caught on the mountain peak of West Maui turn pink, and listened to the cacophony of bird song. It was wild, noisy ... and new. It seemed like some thirty or more birds were greeting the new day. Through several more cups of coffee, I listened and watched, and began to impose some order and make identifications.

None of the birds I saw that first morning were endemics. All are native to somewhere else in the world. The rooster that was crowing may have the best claim to being a true Hawaiian bird. It was a Red Junglefowl, a chicken brought to the islands by the first Polynesian settlers a millennium and a half ago. Occasionally during our time in Hawaii, we saw one that was tethered, but most were free ranging, feral or semi-feral, and in the jungles, truly wild birds. And stunningly beautiful! Just as noisy, but much plainer, was the Gray Francolin, a game bird introduced from India, that was foraging on a nearby lawn and flew briefly to the roof of our house.

During the course of the morning, I identified new birds and sorted out the many songs and calls I was hearing. Eventually, I thought I was recognizing some familiar sounds - a mimic who was repeating songs in triplet, a clear “chip” call, and snatches of a warble. They seemed familiar because they were familiar: Northern Mockingbird, Northern Cardinal, and House Finch. Each behaved just as I would expect them to behave on any day of the year in Vermont. The mockingbird sang from the tip-top of a palm tree. The cardinal skulked through the lower thicket, his presence betrayed by his brilliance.

There were doves, the Spotted and the Zebra, both Asian natives, both occupying the niche we might associate with our Mourning Dove, both with haunting coos like our dove.

Two small songbirds were common in our yard. The Java Sparrow was unlike any bird with the “sparrow” name in North America. Far from being a little brown bird, this sparrow is warm gray with a black cap, a bold white cheek, and a large beak (proportionately bigger than a cardinal’s) that is bright red at the base, fading to white at the tip. The Japanese White-eye is a green, warbler-like bird with a bright white eye ring. Both are beautiful birds, but as alien species in Hawaii, they often move into the habitats of native species and pose a threat to those species.

As I have already written, standing on the lanai with my cup of coffee that first morning, I heard at least thirty different birds. If you have been counting, you will realize that I have named nine species. The other twenty-one plus birds that I heard that morning were the Common Myna.

The Common Myna, native to India, is a close relative of our European Starling, and like our starling, is an adaptable and successful introduced species. It looks something like a juvenile starling with a dark head cap. It has a yellow teardrop behind the eye, bright yellow legs and beak, and shows large, splashy white patches on its wings when it flies.

The myna does not often mimic other sounds, but it doesn’t need to. Its repertoire of whistles, squawks, and chatter is diverse ... and loud ... and constant. Imagine the various calls and screams made by a flock of Blue Jays, then throw in the additional variability of the mockingbird, catbird, thrasher, and starling, and you begin to get a sense of the myna’s vocal presence.

I know that the myna is alien to Hawaii, and as such, probably poses threats to endemic species, but I liked the myna. It travels in pairs and gathers in flocks. It gleans insects - or anything else edible - around airports and hotels, on golf courses and lawns, in landscaped gardens and dense tropical jungles. And all the time, it is chattering.

The Common Myna was simply entertaining - a starling with the roguish love-ability of a Blue Jay. That first morning a pair landed on the lanai and hopped toward me. When I stepped tentatively in their direction, they hopped back. When I took two more steps, they flew to the railing, then the roof. One more step on my part, and they flew to a palm. They chattered to one another, then changed trees and squawked some more. When I ignored them, they came back to the lanai and we replayed the whole scene.

It took me another day to formulate a theory about this behavior, and a third day to test the theory. With the help of our four-year old, we placed some stale bread crumbs on the railing of the lanai, then pretended to do something else. Sure enough, one myna came right to the crumbs, and a second one followed. We repeated the experiment. This time the pair came together and gulped down the crumbs. They also talked with each other, and it seemed to me that one of them said, “It took that dummy long enough to figure it out.” And the other one agreed. I tried to explain to them that back home the Blue Jays are too impatient to wait around and beg, while my chickadees thank me when I feed them. But the mynas didn’t seem to care about my explanations.

Which reminds me - I’d better go check my bird feeders.


Larry said...

It must be great fun to see new birds in this setting.-Weren't cardinals introduced to Hawaii also?-btw-lovely photo.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your wonderful photos and stories of these wonderfully fun creatures. I noted what seemed to be a cardinal on Maui yesterday but only the head was red vs. the whole body. I am not a bird identifier but a definite lover of them. Thanks again.


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