The “melting pot” of Hawaiian birds

Just back from 10 days in Hawaii, a region with one of the most screwed-up ecosystems on the planet. As a birder, it was certainly a fun trip, as I added at least 30 “new” species to my life list. Of those 30, however, only one-third were native to the Hawaiian Islands.  No area of the United States has suffered a greater loss of native bird species than Hawaii.  The reasons are many, but they all have a man-made origin. The devastation began when the islands first became populated, and ecosystems were directly impacted by mankind. Forest clearing and the introduction of fire certainly had an impact, but other anthropogenic factors were the most devastating.

There are no native reptiles or amphibians on the Hawaiian islands, and only one native mammal, a species of bat.  However, with the arrival of man came rats and mice, cats, as well as introduced mongoose that were brought to the islands to control the rat populations.  These introduced mammals all were new predators of eggs, young birds, and even adult birds…threats Hawaiian birds had never had to deal with before. Introduced pigs, goats, and sheep devastated the natural vegetation of the islands.  Disease also has had a devastating impact on Hawaiian birds, as introduced avian malaria has wiped out entire species and devastated other species.  Introduced plant species have changed the vegetative composition of Hawaiian ecosystems, and even now, a new fungal disease has started to wipe out Hawaii’s Ohi’a tree, one of the most common and important forest tree’s for Hawaiian birds.

For someone from South Dakota, it’s thus a fun place to bird, but it’s also sobering. Hawaii has certainly become a “melting pot”, regional ecosystem experiment, where birds, plants, and diseases from all regions of the globe are thrown together…winner take all. Unfortunately it’s the native plants and animals that are losing in this experiment.

Here’s a sampling of some of the birds I was able to photograph, and a bit of information as to where these now well-established “Hawaiian” birds actually originated.

Hawai'i 'Amakihi - Chlorodrepanis virens

An ‘Amakihi, specifically, the Hawai’i subspecies. Similar subspecies are found on O’ahu and Kaua’i. This is a native species. They are one of a very few Hawaiian honeycreeper species that has continued to thrive, despite all the ecosystem changes. They were quite common on our visit to the Big Island, and I found them on both the dry and wet sides of the island.

Erckel's Francolin - Pternistis erckelii

There’s no shortage of “gamebirds” now on the big island. Many species of pheasant, quail, and other similar birds have been introduced. This was one of the most common that we saw on Hawai’i, an Erckel’s Francolin. We found them on dry grasslands on the western side of the island, forest edges, and even forest clearings in the wet rain-forests of the eastern side of the island. Nasty looking spurs on these guys…I’d bet the males use them to good effect during the breeding season.

Yellow-billed Cardinal - Paroaria capitata

20 years ago, before I started birding, my wife and I visited O’ahu. Even as a non-birder I noticed the striking Red-crested Cardinals. It wasn’t until I became a birder a few years later that I learned they weren’t native. Hawai’i island doesn’t have the Red-crested Cardinal, but they do have a similar looking bird, the Yellow-billed Cardinal. They are native to parts of South America, but were introduced to Hawai’i several decades ago. They’re not actually closely related to cardinals, they are a species of tanager. We found them in a variety of settings, all over the island, but they certainly have adapted well to a human presence. They were almost ubiquitous in and around suburban settings and parks.

Photo of White-tailed Tropicbird - Phaethon lepturus

This one was a huge surprise to me! We were visiting Kilauea’s main crater, an active crater with a lava lake at the bottom, when I saw multiple white birds streaking through the sky in and around the crater rim. I never got close enough for a great photo, but it was quite obvious what they were once I got my binoculars on them…White-tailed Tropicbirds! I certainly wasn’t expecting to find a tropical sea-bird flying around the crater of an inland volcano, but these guys actually nest on the cliff walls in and around Kilauea’s summit! They are native, and given their unique habitat choice on the island, they are one species not heavily impacted by anthropogenic activity. Their choice of nesting location shields them from the rats, cats, and mongoose that have devastated other nesting birds on the islands.

Photo of African Silverbill - Euodice cantans

One of the best places I birded on Hawai’i was on the slopes of Mauna Loa, between 5,000 and 7,500 feet above sea level. There were many native mamane trees on the dry eastern slopes, and these dry woodlands with scattered trees and grasses were wonderful for a wide variety of species. This included native Amakihi and Elepaio, but also included MANY non-native species. That included roving flocks of these guys, African Silverbills. They are a native of western and central Africa.

Photo of Red-billed Leiothrix - Leiothrix lutea

Another non-native species that was common in the dry mamane forests on the slopes of Mauna Loa…Red-billed Leiothrix. Beautiful birds, these guys were mingling with mixed flocks of other small birds, including the native Amakihi. They are native to southern China and the Himalayan region.

Photo of 'Apapane - Himatione sanguinea

Like the Amakihi, this is another of the few native Hawaiian honeycreepers that seems to still be doing well…the ‘Apapane. They are still quite common and widespread on Hawai’i. Wherever we found Ohi’a trees on the wet, eastern side of the island, we found ‘Apapane. Alas though, even the few native Hawaiian honeycreeper species that have survived are faced with devastating population losses. The Ohi’a tree on which these guys depend (shown in this photo) have been subjected to a new fungal disease that just started devastating Ohi’a populations on Hawai’i in 2010. In the few short years since, large areas of Ohi’a-dominated forest have been affected. We ourselves saw huge swaths of forests with all the large Ohi’a trees dead. So far the fungus is confined to the island of Hawai’i, but it’s a horrible development for Hawaiian birds that are so dependent upon this plant.

Photo of Grey Francolin - Francolinus pondicerianus

Another of the non-native Francolin’s, this is a Grey Francolin. These weren’t nearly as common as the Erckel’s Francolin, and they seem to be restricted to the dry lowlands on the western side of Hawai’i. I also saw a number of Black Francolin on Hawai’i, but wasn’t able to get a photo of them. The Grey Francolin shown here is native to southern Asia.

Photo of Nene - Branta sandvicensis

The state bird of Hawai’i, the Nene. We saw them flying over on occasion, but the ONLY place we ever saw them on the ground? Golf courses. Nene nearly went extinct several decades ago until captive breeding was used to rebuild the population. Despite seeing them on a number of occasions on Hawai’i, it’s not a complete conservation success story. Populations on the main island of Hawai’i are still likely not self-sustaining. As ground nesters, eggs and young are extremely susceptible to predation from rats, cats, and mongoose. Even brooding adult birds may be attacked. Without captive breeding, it is unlikely the species would survive on Hawai’i.

Photo of Zebra Dove - Geopelia striata

A Zebra Dove sitting on a fenceline. A native of southeastern Asia, these guys are EVERYWHERE on the Big Island, particularly in and around urban and suburban areas. Zebra Doves have pretty much become the equivalent of Rock Pigeons in the continental United States…a species that is found everywhere humans are found.

Photo of Yellow-fronted Canary - Serinus mozambicus

A beautiful, yet non-native, Yellow-fronted Canary. They are native to sub-Saharan Africa. We found them in a number of habitats, but particularly on woodland edges with grasses and grass seed available nearby.

Photo of Black Noddy - Anous minutus

A Black Noddy…specifically the Hawaiian sub-species, known locally as the Noio. When visiting southern part of Hawai’i, we saw them on multiple occasions, cruising in and around the coastal seacliffs upon which they nest. A native seabird that seems to still be doing quite well.

Photo of Saffron Finch - Sicalis flaveola

One of the first birds we saw after getting off the plane in Kona were a pair of absolutely gorgeous Saffron Finches near the Airport. Beautiful, found in many places all over the island, but alas, not native. They are a tanager relative native to South America.

Photo of Eurasian Skylark - Alauda arvensis

European settlers introduced some of their favorite European species in multiple locations throughout the globe. One of their favorite birds from “back home” were Eurasian Skylarks, a song known for their melodious songs. They are now well established on the Big Island, and we saw them EVERYWHERE on the grassy western slopes of Mauna Loa.

Photo of Pueo - Asio flammeus sandwichensis

For our first 4 days on the island, we stayed at an area about 20 miles north of the Kona airport. Despite driving across several parts of the dry, western part of the island in those first few days, it took THREE FULL DAYS before I finally saw a bird that was actually NATIVE to Hawai’i. That bird was a “Pueo”, the local name for the only native owl found in the Hawaiian islands. Most think it’s a subspecies of the Short-eared Owl. There was one road on the western slopes of Mauna Loa where I had incredible success finding these guys, including 5 individual owls in one 8-mile section of road one evening.

Photo of Pueo - Asio flammeus sandwichensis

Both the first and last native bird photos of our trip were of a Pueo. This was our last evening on the island, with a lone Pueo sitting on a fence post on the western slopes of Mauna Loa.

 

Geologic Therapy – South Dakota Agates, Petrified Wood

Buffalo Gap National Grasslands - Kadoka

A typical view of our newly discovered geologic nirvana, near Kadoka, South Dakota. The eroding bluffs reveal their treasures contained within, with the surrounding ravines and flatlands literally covered with agates, petrified wood, and other geologic goodies. Click for a larger view. Photos of all the geologic goodies are at the bottom of this post.

Yeah, it’s been 4 weeks since a blog post.  It’s been a rather stressful last few weeks, thus the general lack of birding, or blogging about birding.  The stress comes from being a scientist and having all of my funding coming from federal programs that happen to have the word “climate” in their name. My work focuses on landscape change and trying to anticipate what future landscapes will look like, and while it necessarily focuses on potential impacts of climate change, that’s not the major focus.  No matter…with the word “climate” in my funding source and appearing occasionally in my published work, it’s work with a big red bullseye target in this political environment.  Hence the stressful few weeks, dealing with budget cuts, and the stress of having to re-orient staff and resources….”re-orient” being the most friendly way to say it.

In the last few weeks though, it has given me some time to think about life priorities.  I hate to say it, given how I love my job, but it has made me realize that work is pretty damned low on the totem pole of ranked priorities.  What I have done more in the last few weeks…spend time with my wonderful son, including what has been absolutely wonderful “geologic therapy”.

What’s that you say? You’ve never undergone geologic therapy to get over your troubles? I highly recommend it!  At work there’s a wonderful guy who has been there forever.  He’s a geologist by training, and is always eager to share his knowledge and enthusiasm about geology.  It was a morning a few weeks ago, literally just a couple of hours before I found out about the budget cuts, that he came into my office and the topic turned to good places to find rocks and fossils in South Dakota.  He excitedly talked about a location on the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands, took me back to his office, and printed out maps to show me exactly where to look.  Wonderful, I thought! It sounded like so much fun, and I imagined that perhaps at some point later this summer, I might try to visit the location!!

“Later this summer” turned out to be the very next day!  After hearing of the budget cuts, I had to get away from work. That next day I took the day off, and my son and I headed west to the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands near Kadoka, South Dakota.  It’s a bit of a jaunt from our part of South Dakota…3 1/2 hours to be exact…but the long drive was definitely worth it.  It turned into a “geologic therapy” day that helped me at least temporarily forget about everything at work.  It was SO much fun, prospecting for rocks and fossils with my son, that we again made the long drive yesterday and had another wonderful day on the Grasslands.

The location is on the northwest edge of the Grasslands.  It’s an area of eroding bluffs, softer material in which agates, jaspers, rose quartz, petrified wood, and other geologic goodies are embedded. When you first arrive at the site, it’s rather astonishing to see the landscape literally covered with a smorgasbord of rocks, ranging from pebble sized up to rocks the size of your fist (and a few larger ones).  As you walk the rocky grounds around the bluffs, the variety of materials around you is rather incredible. Agates are the major attraction here, with gorgeous Prairie Agates found strewn throughout the area, as are “bubblegum agates” and water agates.  We haven’t found one yet, but the famed Fairburn Agate also can be found here, a unique, incredibly beautiful agate for which South Dakota is famous.

Pieces of petrified wood are also found in the area, and the variety there is also rather amazing.  Pieces range from thumbnail size up to chunks up to a foot long, with a wide variety of colors and textures.

Because of these two visits, both my son and I have become smitten with “rock-hounding”! In the past few weeks, we’ve also bought a tumbler and the necessary materials for polishing our finds. It’s a process that definitely tests the patience of a young teenage boy, given that there are four individual steps for polishing, each of which takes about a week as you progress to ever-finer grits in the tumbler.  The polishing part itself is a fascinating process, as many of the agates and petrified wood pieces REALLY start to come alive in the polishing process, with a dull outer coating giving way to some incredibly beautiful patterns underneath.  We still haven’t completed the polishing process on a batch, but hope to have some finished rocks shortly.

It’s a wonderful area to visit if you have any interest in geology or science in general. Unlike most places in the state, it’s also 100% legal to take what you find!  Badlands National Park is right next to the location we were searching, an area known for its geologic “goodies”, but also an area where collecting of rocks, minerals, or fossils is illegal.  On these locations in the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands, however, collecting is allowed. The Buffalo Gap visitors center will be able to direct you to multiple locations where agates, petrified wood, and other minerals may be found.

Some photos of the goodies!!

Prairie Agate - South Dakota

One of the most beautiful Prairie Agates we’ve found in our two trips there so far. The “holly-leaf” look at the bottom had me excited at first that we found a Fairburn agate, but no, I think it’s just a very beautiful Prairie Agate. Note this is wet to give it a bit of a look of what it might look like polished.

Prairie Agates -South Dakota

Several Prairie Agates from yesterday on the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands

Bubblegum Agates - South Dakota

(Mostly) Bubblegum agates, a cool form of agate that really stand out from the banded prairie agates. When you first see some of them lying on the ground, they truly do look like pieces of chewed up bubblegum.

Petrified Wood - South Dakota

A number of different varieties of petrified wood from yesterday. The range of colors and textures is amazing.

Prairie Agates - South Dakota

Closer view of some of the prairie agates

Petrified Wood - South Dakota

There were a few really big chunks of petrified wood we found, but this is the biggest that we kept (about 6-7 inches long).

Petrified Wood - South Dakota

Another piece of petrified wood, this one with a grayish tone that is much different than some of the others. The detail and wood patterns are so incredibly detailed on many of these.

Prairie Agate - South Dakota

Another beautifully banded prairie agate

 

Yellowstone Winter – Geothermal Features

I’m still trying to find to time to process photos and video from Yellowstone. I only had half a day to walk around the Upper Geyser Basin at Yellowstone, but it was really magical. I started walking the basin a bit before dawn, and it was 2 hours before I finally ran into another human being.  The only sounds that you heard were the gurgling of the Firehole River, and the hissing, bubbling, roaring sounds of the many geothermal features in the area.  A wonderful morning, and a morning I thought I’d try something different (for me, at least).

I’m still a neophyte with regard to video. Even with a DSLR that shoots wonderful video, I very rarely actually try it. I did use my Canon 70d for some video in Yellowstone last week, but most of the time when I wanted video instead of still photographs, I found myself using my iPhone 7.  I frankly don’t use my iPhone for much of anything, really, and haven’t ever really used it for photography or video. Last week though I quickly found just how wonderful video quality can be using an iPhone. I’ll still always love shooting with my DSLR, particularly given my focus on birds and need for a long lens, but it’s nice knowing that I’ll have good video capabilities as well, just by carrying my phone.

Here are several videos of geothermal features in the Upper Geyser Basin and in the Fountain Paint Pots area of Yellowstone.  So beautiful in winter, and the geothermal features have such a different look in the extreme cold.

This one is “Red Spouter”, a unique little hot spring/fumarole from the Fountain Paint Pots region. It’s a very new feature geologically. It didn’t exist until the massive Hebgen Lake earthquake of 1959, an event that changed a lot of the geothermal features in the park.

Fountain Paint Pots is adjacent to Red Spouter.  I’ve seen the area in summer, when there’s more water available and it’s more like boiling water than boiling “mud”.  It was rather cool to see the thick bubbling mud on a cold winter’s day.

The highlight of the trip was just after I arrived at the Snow Lodge near Old Faithful.  The only way into the area in winter is by snow mobile or snow coach. I took a snow coach, and arrived at the Snow Lodge just as the sun was setting.  We were told Old Faithful was likely to erupt in about 30 minutes, so I checked in, grabbed my camera, and headed for the geyser.  The sun had already set, with just a bit of light still in the western horizon.  I was rather shocked to find that I was all alone, rather stunning for someone who has been in Yellowstone many times during the summer months, and was used to throngs of people in the Old Faithful area.  The eruption started, and I still was literally the only person watching. My only company?  A pair of coyotes that loped in and started hunting around the boardwalks.  A magical, solitary moment I’ll never forget.

Castle Geyser is a feature we’ve seen several times before in summer during our Yellowstone visits. It’s always interesting, with a large cone structure and some beautifully colored bacterial mats growing in the hot water runoff.  However, we’ve never seen it erupt. Seeing it actually erupt on a morning where the temperatures were about 10-below zero was truly wonderful.  The noise, the incredibly tall plume of steam, and again, having it all to myself…a great treat.

Morning Glory Pool in the Upper Geyser Basin is such an iconic feature, and I had to see it in winter. It’s only about a mile walk down from Old Faithful, and while the boardwalks and paths weren’t maintained, enough snowshoe and cross-country skiing traffic had occurred that it was “walkable”, even without snowshoes. Morning Glory is always beautiful, but alas, even in the 20 or so years since we’ve been going to Yellowstone, you can see a difference in the colors.  It’s not as vibrant any more, due to visitors throwing debris in the pool that interferes with hot water movement into the pool. Still a beautiful feature though, particularly against a backdrop of snow and ice.

It’s not just the big iconic geothermal features that are an attraction in the Upper Geyser Basin. There are SO many little hot springs, geysers, and fumaroles that at times it’s hard to know where to look.  This little feature is called “Scissors Spring”.  Certainly a high-temperature feature, as it was vigorously boiling the entire time I watched.

One of the first erupting geysers I encountered on this cold January morning was tiny “Little Squirt” geyser.  What it was lacking in size, it made up for in “spunk”! A fun little geyser to watch.

One of the bigger eruptions that occurred while I was there, Grotto Geyser put on a nice early morning show when temperatures were still very cold.  It was fun watching the hot water shoot up into the 10-below air, and come falling back down as a puffy, steamy cloud.  A fun eruption to watch, and one that continued for quite some time.

Another little feature, called “Ear Spring” — It’s not just the geothermal features themselves that are cool when you’re walking through the geyser basins.  The beautifully colored bacterial mats that grow in the hot water can be truly spectacular.  A beautiful little area of these were found right around Ear Spring.

This is one of the first videos I shot this morning, a panorama of the entire Upper Geyser basin, right as the sun was coming up. This one gives a great idea of the isolation, and the beauty, of winter in the area.

Finally, a video of the aptly named Firehole River that winds through the Upper Geyser Basin. There are numerous geothermal features right along the shores of the Firehole, with warm water keeping the river clear of ice all year round. The warm water in the river was certainly an attractant to wildlife, with Canada Geese, Common and Barrow’s Goldeneye, Common Merganser, and Mallard all birds I saw while walking through the Upper Geyser Basin.

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