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  • Writer's pictureAllan Sander

Enjoying Erupting Ecosystems

Updated: Mar 27

What a wonderful way to end the day, strolling along the Kealia Coastal Boardwalk.  Actually, our arrival on Maui allowed us about two hours to squeeze in some birding before sunset.  “There is much less water than last time.”  Describes the scene.  Indeed, so much so that not a single species of waterfowl is present.  

Except for a pair of coots, the only other activity is from some Pacific Golden Plovers (Pluvialus fulva),

Black-necked Stilts (Himanotopus mexicanus),

and a Wandering Tattler (Tringa incana). 

Oh, out comes a foraging night-heron (Nycticorax nycticorax) from behind some reeds.

A nice big yawn and its time to start a night of foraging.

Scanning the paddocks, I find others standing vigilant at their posts.  Sadly, the most activity comes from the tree-lined windbreak behind us, consisting of non-native doves, cardinals, and house sparrows, next a pair of Japanese White-eyes fly in - behind this lies Maalaea Bay. A Black Francolin (Francolinus francolinus), an Asian exotic, calls from the drier sections of the marsh.  I inadvertently photographed a bird from the far reaches of Kealia Pond NWR.  The intent of the image was to I.D. some ducks when I noticed an odd shape standing behind them.

(It is in the gap between the lone bird on the left and the two birds on the right.)

A few adjustments and the male's white cheek patch comes into view. “Surprise, a Black Francolin!"

This revelation brings up a birding ‘ethics’ query, “Is this a countable bird?” Especially if it is to be added to one’s life list.  Granted, it is an introduced bird, bringing up another 'issue' but let us set that aside.  So, there never was a visual I.D., it was only heard and now unbeknownst to you, it was captured on your camera.  “Is it a countable bird?!”  

Back to enjoying the moment.  Ocean views between the trees has me second guess what transpired, until a second spout indeed reveals just that, Humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae)!  The large spine of this leviathan breaks the surface followed by another of much smaller stature. 

After giving birth in this quiet bay ‘sanctuary,' it is important to build up the newborn’s strength for its journey of 3000 miles to the coast of Baja California, Mexico.  This becomes a daycare center for learning, too.  Today’s lesson is “Do the lobtail!” 

The mother’s fluke can attain a width of up to eighteen feet and with the musculature of a 30+ ton animal, tail slapping makes for quite a splash!  Many theories surround this behavior including communication, play, or defense.  In Humpbacks the premise is to frighten schooling fish into a denser swarm for an easier meal.  The youngster requires a little more practice as it flails about in all directions.  I cannot ask for a finer “Aloha!” than this!

The friction between two tectonic plates creates instability on a massive scale.  The pressure that is released is explosive.  Recently (in geological times) unabated molten lava spewed from cracks in the earth’s crust.  Layer upon layer cooled and hardened from under the depths.  Ultimately it breached the surface like a whale, except it did not ‘sound’ back into the depths.  Instead, these earthen conduits increased their mass by spouting liquified rock under clouds of steam to create this archipelago.  It is the youngest volcanic island group that arose from multiple eruptions, about six million years ago; it spans over 2,000 miles across the Pacific Ocean; it is the Hawaiian Islands.

After last night's beautiful Maui sunset...

...this morning's adventure has us heading up to the Haleakala National Park (HNP). Haleakala volcano created Maui’s lush alpine highlands. 

Here intermittent patches of brush and trees have taken hold.  Much of this vegetation is not indigenous to the island, but many of the local birds have adjusted to these alterations.  The towering eucalyptus trees provide sweet blooms for the island’s endemic honeycreepers like the Iiwi, Apapane, and Amakihi.

The cedars and pines add to the ground dwelling habitat of the Maui Alauahio, creeping around the base and probing between the furrowed strips of bark.  Two birds unique to this location is the Akohekohe, or Crested Honeycreeper, not common by any means but hopes are high for a sighting, as for the Maui Parrotbill, it has become so rare that only those involved with its protection are allowed along the eastern slope of the park.  This higher elevation site is its last stronghold.  

The gates to HNP opened just a half hour earlier and just beyond it is our first stop at Hosmer’s Grove.  Here, a well-established stand of cedar, spruce, and Eucalyptus trees preside. Several short trails loop among these lofty trees or into open, rocky habitat, dominated by sedge and low growing brush.  The Māmane (Sophora chrysophylla) is a native tree with bright yellow, pea-like flowers.  All three of the aforementioned honeycreepers forage their branches for food:

Hawaii Amakihi (Chlorodrapenis virens)

Apapane (Himatione sanguinea)

I'iwi (Drepanis coccinea)

I had hoped to find them feeding among the boughs of another flowering beauty, the 'Ohi'a (Metrosideros polymorpha) - another time.  The track eventually leads you back to one of the two campsites in the park.  The place resounds with birdsong.  Like a young child, I excitedly grab my camera gear and bins to begin my search for these melodic artisans.

Fortunately the birds go about their daily activity, indifferent to my presence.  The Apapane have adapted to feed high up among the Eucalyptus trees but will come down to forage among the lower blooms of Māmane. 

One bird obliged me with its jumbled song of trills, raspy squeaks, and whistles. 

This bird, like so many of the higher elevation breeders, has succumbed to the introduced avian malaria pathogen spread by the mosquito. *Its expansion a result of global warming.

Amakihi were the most skittish, rarely could you approach the birds, they would have to come to you.  Listen, locate then lie low and anticipate the bird’s movements to capture an image. 

The more audacious I’iwi, with its ‘loud’ crimson vestments, raucously paints the sky. 

It is as if fiery embers have spewed forth from the earth’s core, and now burn their way across this palette of blue.

The charismatic I’iwi easily steals the show.

A key find was to see the Nene (Branta sandvicensis), Hawaii's state bird. We had no idea that a pair has been given the sobriquet, 'Camp Hosts.' They idly graze about the picnic area most of the day.

It was difficult to depart. As we wind our way down, the alpine meadow gives way to private residence with exotic landscapes and forest tracts.  Along the shoulder avian non-natives like Gray partridge, Northern cardinals, and Common Mynas make their debut.  Our plan is to visit the coastal salt marsh visitor center of the Kealia NWR.  We hope the fish-ponds will present us with more migratory shorebirds and waterfowl that we missed the day before.

“We’re going to pass the airport, right?  I was told the Bristle-thighed curlew can be found in the open grassy areas around the airport.  Do you want to check it out?”   “Sure, let’s do it!”  On our arrival the roads were busy and the fields had not been manicured, sadly, this one stop would suffice.  As we were departing the area we inadvertently discovered a little gem, the Kanaha Pond.  In 1951 it became the island’s first wildlife sanctuary but progress resulted in landfill as a result of dredging the nearby harbor; other alterations resulted from World War II’s military presence.  On top of that, these 143 acres must compete with the surrounding industrialization of Kahului and its airport. 

A chain link fence dictates the preserve’s boundaries, of which you are kindly reminded to close the gate once you enter.


Only a few meters in we find a small flock of Turnstones feeding in the grassy fringe.  Stilts wade in the shallows. 

Behind them among the submerged vegetation is a White-fronted Ibis, an uncommon migrant.  A Laughing Gull sallies past, another such visitor. The darker color made it an easy find among the many Western Cattle Egrets (Bubulcus ibis) flying by.

From the tops of palms, these egrets dressed in uniforms of white, preside over its northern end.  Most of the hours’ time is spent as a photo shoot with the Black-necked Stilts (Himantopus mexicanus).

Our last stopover is to check out the Nature Center at the Kealia Wildlife Refuge and its fishponds.  The Center is very informative.  I inquired about the curlew and was told Molakai was the main 'wintering' island for the birds.  However, the James Campbell National Wildlife Refuge on Oahu has seen a recolonization from a handful of birds up to one hundred over a twenty-year period.  Enough chit chat,“Let’s find some birds!”             

Raised berms allow access to the fishponds.  Along the way some zebra doves zip past as a pair of mynas squabble amongst themselves.  We find a golden plover in one of the clearings before the vegetation thins out to open water.  The forward portion of this mosaic is divided into smaller ponds with no shoreline vegetation.  The water depth is quite shallow, scattered about are nearly a hundred or so stilts

Mixed in are turnstones...


...and more plovers. 

The main body of water requires a scope to spot any activity across the surface.  Only several coot seem to be present.  Tis the breeding season for the Hawaiian Coot

(Fulica alai), so access to their nesting habitat has been closed. 

Again, the absence of waterfowl is apparent.  The only species we find happens to be the fourth recorded sighting for a Long-tailed duck (Clangula hyemalis), very much off course from its normal range.  Its survival is questionable.  Apparently, it has been relatively inactive for some time now.  It is an Arctic breeder wintering along the coasts of the lower forty-eight or on the Great Lakes.  To have this bird huddled alongside a coconut out here in the South Pacific is quite the contradiction.

Our trip was short, but long-lived are the moments.  The Hawaiian archipelago is an ecological conundrum.  Its island habitat is geologically young, evolving, and sensitive.  Introduction of non-native species can explode at an alarming rate with adverse results.  This tale is but a preamble of man’s deleterious influence, not only here in Hawaii, but across the globe.

Location: Maui, Hawaii

Date: January of 2024

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