Lifers indicated in bold
When the American Birding Association added Hawaii in 2016, the decision was met with mixed reactions. Many birders, including myself, praised the ABA for giving attention to the thriving birding community in the islands and saw it as an opportunity to raise awareness for their unique species, as well as the fact that it's a state. The main reason I supported the inclusion of Hawaii is that my overwhelming interest in birding first took off there. However, others berated the decision for trivial reasons like "the native species will all be extinct in a few years" or "there's too many exotic species, you're basically served lifers on a golden plate," or "it's not geographically or ecologically North American," and the most common one: "it makes ABA listing a factor of money and not skill." I'm honestly convinced the reason they like to hate on ABA countable Hawaii is because they think it's cool to resist a decision by a major organization. Throughout this chapter, I will address these arguments as well as telling the story like I usually do. The "lifers on a golden plate" argument fell apart as soon as I stepped out of the airport. It was late at night, and even then, there were still birds around: two immature chickens near the car rental center. Even though this was a species to be expected from the area, I did not jump at the chance to add them to my yearlist. As I learned from Redpolling, the majority of the chickens in Hawaii are just that, feral chickens. When Polynesians first arrived in Hawaii around 1,000 years ago, they brought with them all the plants and animals they needed, including taro, sweet potato, coconuts, dogs, pigs, and of course chickens. Anatomical and genetic evidence suggests that these chickens, known as Moa in the indigenous language (not to be confused with the giant relatives of tinamous I've written about in the past) were more closely related to the wild Red Junglefowl found in southern and southeast Asia. European and American settlers brought their own domestic chickens with them, as well as predators such as mongooses that caused the extinction of all the Polynesian chickens everywhere except the two westernmost islands, although the backyard chickens on Kauai escaped after hurricanes ravaged the island in the '90s, blowing the birds into the forest where they encountered the Polynesian stock and hybridized with them. Since I knew these chickens couldn't be counted, I did not pay too much attention to them.
The next morning, I patrolled the garden and pool area of the hotel we were staying at in search of those exotics that are everywhere. From my room, I heard a Zebra Dove and a White-rumped Shama, an Asian species of flycatcher introduced in the 1930s. In the area of the pool I saw more Zebra Doves as well as a Spotted Dove or ʻEhakō, one of only six introduced species in the state to have an indigenous name; the others are the junglefowl as I've mentioned, Rock Pigeon (Manu nūnū), Indian Peafowl (Pikake), Common Myna (Pihaʻekelo), and House Finch (Manu ʻai mīkana). Other birds in the area I saw were Japanese White-eyes (Warbling White-eye as of August 2019), the most abundant bird in the state and also the most harmful to endemic birds as a vector of mosquito-transmitted diseases; a Japanese Bush Warbler in the garden area along with two captive Nēnē, so I did not count the latter; a Red-crested Cardinal, which is as closely related to a Northern Cardinal as a Summer Tanager is to, for example, a Paradise Tanager (if you flip the Paroaria cardinal and the Piranga tanager, you get the accurate family relationship), as well as a Pacific Golden-Plover or Kōlea just as it started to rain. My plan for today was to start at Ke'e Beach to look for Black and Brown Noddies (Noio and Noio kōhā respectively), go to Hanalei National Wildlife Refuge for the endemic waterbirds of the islands, then to Kīlauea NWR for seabirds, to Wailua Falls for Greater Necklaced Laughingthrush, and lastly to Kauai Lagoons Golf Course for any exotics I didn't pick up at the other spots. At a scenic overlook, we stopped to photograph more of the feral chickens, but an actually countable bird I saw was a flock of Chestnut Munia, an estrildid finch.
Driving along the coast of the island, I spotted Java Sparrows, which are not related to either American or Eurasian sparrows, but estrildid finches like the Chestnut Munia (they're in the same genus). As we were nearing Ke'e Beach, the road was closed past Wai' oli Stream because of the heavy rains, hampering my plan to get the noddies, although I managed to get a Scaly-breasted Munia as we were turning around. Fortunately, the road through Hanalei National Wildlife refuge was not closed, and we were able to drive down it and get good looks at African Silverbill, Nēnē (Hawaiian Goose, but I shouldn't have to say what it is in English), Hawaiian Stilt (Aeʻo, a subspecies of Black-necked Stilt), Hawaiian Gallinule (ʻAlae ʻula, subspecies of Common Gallinule), Hawaiian Coot (ʻAlae keʻokeʻo), and Hawaiian Duck (Koloa maoli). Along the road, I also heard a Chinese Hwamei singing. Six species in just a half hour, and 17 so far today. I'm starting to think this is like being served new birds on a golden plate. Also, you may be wondering which argument I will address next, now I will tackle the "it's birds are not North American" excuse. Case in point: most of the endemic birds I saw today are phylogenetically closer to New World species than those from Africa or Asia like the other birds I saw. The Nēnē is a member of Branta, a predominantly North American genus of geese, their closest relative is the Canada Goose. Hawaiian Stilt and Gallinule are each subspecies of Black-necked Stilt and Common Gallinule, both are widespread in the Americas. The Black-crowned Night-Herons ('Auku'u) and Short-eared Owls (Pueo) are also widely distributed around the world except for Australia and Antarctica. This also applies to species on other islands and ones I haven't seen yet*; Hawaiian Crows (ʻAlalā) are closely related to Fish and Mexican Crows on the mainland, Hawaiian Hawk ('Io) is phylogenetically closest to Broad-winged and Short-tailed Hawks, all the thrushes in the archipelago are solitaires, and Hawaiian Petrel (U'au) and Newell's Shearwater ('A'o) used to be considered subspecies of Galapagos Petrel and Townsend's Shearwater, both of which breed in the eastern Pacific. The Hawaiian Duck, while it looks like a Mottled Duck, is actually more closely related to the Pacific Black Duck, a widespread species in Oceania, which makes sense for a population to wander north and establish a population that over time, with no similar breeding species becomes similar to Mottled Duck lacking sexual dimorphism to avoid hybridization. Historically, the Nēnē and Koloa Maoli were widespread throughout Hawaii, but hunting and habitat loss have negatively impacted both species, both numbering in the thousands. While the goose has been recovering, the duck has suffered a lot more thanks to a close relative: Mallards. As many people familiar with bird biology know, Mallards are some of the most horny birds, challenging Smith's Longspurs for their sex drive. Male Mallards will try to mate with any duck, and Mallard lookalikes (Hawaiian, Mexican, Mottled, etc...) are no exception. Most of the Hawaiian Ducks in the state are Koloa Maoli-Mallard hybrids, with the most genetically pure populations.
When we got to Kīlauea refuge, I suddenly remembered that we couldn't get to the lighthouse because of the government shutdown. Great... Anyway, we were still able to bird from the parking lot, where we got several Great Frigatebirds (ʻIwa), lots of Red-footed Boobies (Ā), and a Wedge-tailed Shearwater (ʻUaʻu kani). While scanning, I shouted "ALBATROSS!" as a Laysan Albatross (Mōlī) flew by. This was not really a rare species for Kauai, but nevertheless, it was one of the species that first got me interested in birding nearly four years ago. In fact, the albatrosses breed on Kauai in off limits areas of Kīlauea refuge and even in suburban Princeville. A White-tailed Tropicbird (Koaʻe kea) circled the cliffs near the coast, and a Brown Booby ('A) flew by in the distance.
Lastly, we tried for Greater Necklaced Laughingthrush at Wailua Falls, but due to the heavy rain, we did not get too far... Now I understand why Kauai is the wettest place in the world. Thankfully, we did not need to get out of the car at Kauai Lagoons Golf Course, so we just birded by car and look for flocks of munias. Among a mixed flock of Scaly-breasted and Chestnut Munia, I found a Common Waxbill and a Red Avadavat.
All the endemic songbirds in Hawaii have been heavily impacted by avian malaria to some extent, but on Kauai, the decline has been one of the most drastic. Until about ten years ago, the Alakai Plateau used to be a stronghold, then birders started reporting a population crash. Where honeycreepers, elepaios, and thrushes were once everywhere, the forests were beginning to feel empty. Due to climate change, mosquitoes, which were once restricted to the lowlands, found their way into this sanctuary where very few birds were resistant to malaria. I knew finding these birds was going to be the polar opposite of a walk in the park. To increase my odds of finding them, I reached out to Mandy Talpas of Hawaii Birding Babe, a professional guide based in Oahu who specializes in client-customized tours on all the main islands. When I told her that I was a young birder, and doing a big year for the first time, she was eager to help. Our initial plan was to bird the Mohihi-Waiele trail in search of the three most endangered species: 'Akikiki, 'Akeke'e, and Puaiohi, then bird the Alakai Swamp and Pihea trails for Kauai Elepaio, Kauai Amakihi, Apapane, and Anianiau. Unfortunately, because of a thunderstorm predicted to roll in, Mandy suggested we stick to the latter and bird along the roads of Kokee State Park, to which we agreed. Early that morning, Mandy picked my dad and I up in a 4-wheel Jeep that, believe it or not, we had actually considered renting ourselves. Though a little sleepy, we were all enthusiastic to start our day and try for the endemic birds. As we were leaving the hotel area, a large flock of Rose-ringed Parakeets flew over. I wanted to look for this species at a known roost the day before, but we ran out of time, so their flyover saved me an additional trip. As we began our ascent up Waimea Canyon, Mandy spotted an Erckel's Francolin, a gamebird from the Ethiopian Highlands, on the side of the road.
Remember I mentioned that there are two distinct populations of chicken in Hawaii? Now we were about to see the countable one. The last stronghold of the Polynesian Moa is in Koke'e State Park, where many endemic species can also be found. Wild junglefowl can be distinguished from domestic chickens and hybrids by the color of their legs, which are gray instead of yellow. As we arrived in the central meadow of the park, we saw six Polynesian Red Junglefowl standing around. These were the purest of the fowl, a relic from before Europeans took over. They looked, sounded, and acted like regular chickens, but the Moa were more wary of humans, not as dependent on humans as their domestic counterparts. This was an exotic I had no problem counting because there was no danger of it ruining my reputation (I don't even have to remind anyone what it was).
When we passed the meadow towards the plateau trails, we came to a fork in the road: one leading to the Alakai Swamp Trail, the other to the Mohihi-Waiele Trail. Mandy said she thought it might be safe enough to try for the latter, and I agreed. Were we pushing our luck this time? We hadn't even begun our hike when the first honeycreeper of the trip, and for me, ever, an ‘Apapane, flew past us. After taking a picture of what we looked like before the birding started, we made our descent deeper into the forest...
On the descent, as we all struggled to keep our balance, we heard a Kauaʻi ʻAmakihi and my father was the first to lose balance. We then had to cross a cold, fast-flowing stream, and on the other side I found a Kaua’i Elepaio in a tree. Shortly after, it started raining, but that wasn't enough to deter us, we still had a long ways to go before we got to the native forest where the endangered species were most often seen. All of us put our physical limits to the test. About half a mile in, the weather started to turn nastier. A thunderstorm rolled in, and as a group, we decided it would be best to cut our losses on the three rarest endemics and turn back. (I knew bringing bananas with us was going to be a bad idea) While driving back to a lookout to wait out the thunderstorm, I helped Mandy record footage of us driving through the storm.
The essence of honeycreeper-ness"
An hour passed, and Mandy gave us a choice: we could either try for I'iwi and other endemics on the Pihea Trail, or we could bird along the road in Koke'e State Park. Naturally, I chose the latter. With the three most endangered birds out of mind, I turned my attention to an equally coveted honeycreeper: ‘I‘iwi, the 2018 ABA bird of the year. Of the birds endemic to Hawaii, the ‘I‘iwi (or Scarlet Honeycreeper if you like to be boring) is the one I wanted to see most. Brilliantly crimson colored with a long pink decurved bill, Doug Pratt calls it "the essence of honeycreeper-ness." The only way to truly appreciate it is to see it. On Maui and Hawaii, they are easy to see at many high elevation spots, but on Kauai, the area around the junction of the Pihea and Alakai Swamp trails is one's best bet. To prevent hikers from damaging the native vegetation, a boardwalk runs right through the forest. Not too deep into the boardwalk, and not even in the native forest, we saw a yellowish honeycreeper fly over the trail and briefly forage at the top of an ohua. I thought it was another amakihi, but Mandy said that it was an ʻAkekeʻe! After we had to turn back on the Mohihi-Waiele Trail, I was doubting if we would see one, and I was definitely shocked to see one. Good thing we got rid of the bananas when we did. Moving further into the forest, we came across more ‘Apapanes, several cooperative Elepaios, and two ʻAnianiau, the smallest of the honeycreepers.
Well into the native forest, I had begun to see the effects of avian malaria and climate change on the forest firsthand. From listening to ABA podcast episodes with Doug Pratt and Mike Parr, I was prepared to have a hard time looking for these birds, but I wasn't expecting the forest to be this silent. We heard very few birds singing apart from introduced species, cavities in logs and trees where Puaiohi and Kamao once nested were empty, even the 'Akeke'e we happened upon was because of sheer luck. I was beginning to wonder if, like the Northern White Rhinoceros*** and the Vaquita, a critically endangered porpoise only found in the Sea of Cortez, time was running out for the 'Akikiki. It was a sobering reminder on the massive impact. I had read about how humanity has caused the demise of once abundant species like the Passenger Pigeon and Quagga, and even entire ecosystems like the mammoth steppe and coral reefs, but now that I was in such an ecosystem that has suffered greatly to human meddling, I felt a deeper connection to the global biodiversity crisis. Moving further into the forest, we came across more ‘Apapanes, several cooperative Elepaios, and two ʻAnianiau, the smallest of the honeycreepers.
A mile and a half in, near the junction with the Alakai Swamp Trail, we heard a creaking call coming from an 'O'hia Lehua tree. Mandy said that it was an ‘I’iwi. Hearing this bird wasn't enough, even for me, so we all decided to stay in the area and hope it would show itself. "There!" I said as I saw some finch flying around the Ohias, likely the ‘I’iwi but it could have also been an ‘Apapane. We heard the ‘I’iwi calling several times, then eventually heard fragments of its crazy bubbling and whistled song, which this recording does a better job of capturing than I can describe. After successfully locating an 'I'iwi, we turned back to go to one more location in the higher elevations.
Lastly, we birded along the roads in Kokee state park, where an Anianiau posed nicely for us.
It was getting late, so we began our descent back to sea level. Working our way back down the road leading from Waimea Canyon, we scanned the road for more Japanese Bush Warblers, Black Francolin, waxbills, and Pueo. Once back at lower elevations, we scoured several spots near the coast where Saffron Finches, a tanager like the Red-crested Cardinal, had been seen, including a recent report by a friend of Mandy. We circled several grassy areas where Saffron Finches had been seen, then decided to call it a day. Still think the ABA was serving lifers on a golden plate by allowing birders to count most of the introduced species? When Mandy dropped us off back at the hotel, she half-seriously offered to take me with her to the Big Island to get more birds, but I had to decline. Back in the room, I was able to see the full extent I got covered in mud. Even though we missed 'Akikiki and Puaiohi, I am still hopeful for the future of these species as we learn more about them. Studies conducted with nest boxes and even the most conservative forms of rat control have been proven to be effective in conserving Puaiohi populations, and a captive breeding program for 'Akikiki by the San Diego Zoo is building up a viable population will help restore.
Like with Southeast Arizona, missing certain species is good incentive to try again. Now I just have to figure out a way to get in...
With the north and center of Kauai cleaned up for the most part, I turned my attention to the south side of the island to clean up a few species before going on a whale watch in search of pelagic species. My four targets on land were the two Asian francolins on the island (Erckel's Francolin is from the African clade): Black and Gray, Wandering Tattler or ʻŪlili, and of course, Saffron Finch. We started by driving down a dirt road, stopping occasionally to listen and watch, then turned back. On the way out of the road, I heard the call of a Gray Francolin. On the way to the next spot in search of the tattlers, I heard the display call of a Black Francolin, a sharp “keek, keek, kek-ke-kek,” and spotted a Saffron Finch feeding on the side of the road. I thought birding at Salt Pond Park was going to be easy: just find a spot to park and scan the pond. Well, we had some trouble finding a place to look before discovering an easily accessible pullout. Wandering Tattlers, like many shorebirds, breed in the Arctic and winter to the south. This bird's wintering range spans mostly islands in the Pacific, where caution is advised to separate it from the Gray-tailed Tattler, but also on the west coast of North America down to Peru and also the eastern coast of Australia. The intense glare made it difficult to see plumage details on the stilts, plovers, Ruddy Turnstones, and Sanderlings on the pond, but by shape I was able to pick out three Wandering Tattlers in the pond.
If any location in the ABA area was tailor-made for excellent seabirding, it would be Hawaii. These islands rise straight up from the abyssal plain, so seabirds do not have to travel far from land in search of food. In fact, Mauna Kea is so tall, that if Mt Everest and the Big Island were placed next to each other, the island would actually be taller! We boarded a whale watch in the hopes of seeing some of these birds; with a focus on noddies, tubenoses, Red-tailed Tropicbird (Koaʻe ʻula), and possibly Onychoprion terns or Masked Booby; but also cetaceans, turtles, sharks, and Hawaiian Monk Seal. The trip that had gone this morning from this boat had success on the west side of the island, so naturally, I thought we would be going there. Actually, we went east from port, which I was confused about. Leaving the port, I picked out a low-flying Black Noddy and a Red-tailed Tropicbird flying near the coast. Near a pristine beach, we saw several Green Turtles (Honu) and, most exciting to me, Hawaiian Monk Seals (‘Ilio holo i ka uaua) all hauled out on the beach! These seals, which are endangered and endemic to Hawaii, are more common in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands and are rare, but increasingly common, around the main islands; especially Kailua Kona in Hawaii, Lahaina in Maui, Waialua in Oahu, and Poipu Beach in Kauai. While most sea turtles only come ashore once a year to lay eggs, Green Turtles are known to haul out on shore other times of the year. Once we headed offshore, we saw a Brown Noddy and only a few Humpback Whales. Back in the harbor, we saw another Green Turtle and a Brown Booby circling for fish.
I wanted to end the year on a high note, so for the last day, I decided to look for more albatrosses and give Greater Necklaced Laughingthrush a last ditch effort. When we got to Princeville, I spotted a bird that was actually much rarer. Along with a Nēnē, there was a Snow Goose grazing on the golf course. On the golf course, we saw one albatross, plus an additional one at Kīlauea NWR
The Snow Goose was a nice bonus, but there's still one bird I still needed and had enough time to look for: Greater Necklaced Laughingthrush. The last of the introduced species I needed on Kauai, this was one of the hardest. A shy species, they are difficult to see well, but most often heard before they are seen. The best place to look for them is near Sleeping Giant on the Kuamo'o Nounou Trail. My socks were still muddy from the Mohihi-Waiele Trail, but my boots were still wearable. After gearing up and putting on bug spray, we set out. I heard many calls and songs, but most of them were Hwameis and mynas. Around 350 ft in elevation, I heard what I thought was a laughingthrush, but I wasn't too convinced. A mile into the trail, it started raining again. I thought I heard the same call as before, so I decided to go back and check it out. Back at the spot I had heard the first potential laughingthrush, I heard another. I listened to a laughingthrush recording on Merlin to make sure I wasn't going crazy. I heard the whistling call again, and this time, I was certain it was a Greater Necklaced Laughingthrush, putting me at a final total for the year of 544 species! Satisfied at last, we left the forest and returned to the resort.
2018, in as few words as possible, was a big year. I had traveled all over the continent, seen hundreds of amazing birds and wildlife, explored places I had dreamed about exploring, and made lasting connections with countless birders. Of the 543 species I saw, about 150 of them I had never seen before in the ABA Area. Over the course of the year, I had grown a lot, both as a person and as a birder. I used to think of birding as a game of numbers, but as I birded more, I realized it's not just about the list, it's about the quest to find them, the people you meet that share your interest, constantly improving yourself to become better, and, of course, the birds you see along the way. I want to thank all the people who've followed along on my adventure, both in person and online.
To be concluded...
*I excluded Millerbird (Ulūlu) and the Hawaiian Crakes from this point because even though they are members of widespread genera in the Old world and Oceania (Acrocephalus and Zapornia respectively), neither group is too accessible for birders, as the Millerbird lives on the off-limits island of Nihoa and all crakes in Hawaii are extinct. Laysan Duck also has a genetic close relationship with the Pacific Black Duck.
**The good Jurassic Park, which is the 1993 one (as if there's any other good choices... not)
***I have to specify Northern when talking about White Rhinos, which as a whole are not in danger of extinction. Southern Whites have larger populations.
In the first part of my island biogeography post, I talked about how animals got to islands, giants, dwarves, copycats, and adaptive radiation (I suggest clicking this link if you need a refresher). Now in part 2, I will talk about one of the downsides that animals living on islands face: vulnerability to a variety of threats. Just a warning: I will be talking about touchy subjects including climate change and feral cats in this post, which I have learned from experience is a subject people do not like to talk about and often ends in a fight. Please keep it civil in the comments, otherwise I may have to delete some comments on the subject.
There are examples of how fragile island ecosystems are present in the fossil record long before humans evolved. One such is of one of the many islands bathed in the azure waters of the Tethys Seaway during the Jurassic Period that would one day become the bedrock of Europe. As I mentioned last time, animals living on islands that are normally larger on the mainland are smaller due to constraints of space and resources, and this was no different for the Lagenberg quarry in Germany. Dinosaur fossils found there are mostly of dwarf taxa found elsewhere in Portugal, Africa, and North America such as an island species of the megalosauroid Torvosaurus, diplodocoids, stegosaurs, several indeterminate theropods, and a miniature brachiosaur known as Europasaurus, which was found in a large assemblage which suggests that a herd of these tiny sauropods drowned en masse and were scavenged by crocodilians and fish as evident by tooth marks on the fossils. About 35,000 years after the sediments of the drowning incident were deposited, a series of large tracks suggesting the formation of a landbridge which led to a faunal overturn of the site. The resident Torvosaurus has been estimated to be 13 feet in length, whereas the arriving theropods were estimated to be between 23 and 26 feet long if reconstructed as a relative of Allosaurus, which had been found in North America, Portugal, and possibly East Africa. It's possible that the creators of the tracks hunted the mini dinosaurs, who stood no chance against the larger invaders, to extinction. Sound familiar?
What first made the wildlife of the Galápagos islands recognized around the world was not for Charles Darwin's observations on natural selection, but as a food source. Pirates would use the islands as a hideout from Spanish naval forces while stalking the oceans to plunder cargo ships laden with riches from the Spanish colonies in the Americas sailing to Europe. The islands didn't have much mineral use to the pirates, but instead they served as a limited but substantial source of fresh water for the pirates and more importantly as a source of food. If you guessed that pirates hunted the tortoises for food, you would be correct. Giant Tortoises were a preferred source of food for sailors, pirates, and whalers because they were docile and large enough to feed several crew members. Ship crew members would often capture as many tortoises as they need and bring them aboard to kill later; seabirds and sea lions were often slaughtered on the beaches. Intensive harvesting would take a heavy toll on tortoise numbers, whose late age of reproductive maturity and low likelihood of hatchlings surviving could not keep up with the pressure of hunting.
The animals of the Galapagos weren't the only ones to fall victim to the appetites of sailors, as one of the most famous extinct animals in written history (second only to mammoths if cave paintings count as writing) was also a soft target for hungry seafarers, I'm of course talking about the Dodo. Pop culture has painted a picture of this island inhabitant as so slow and dumb, it was destined for extinction, but the reality about this giant is much different. Comparisons of brain size to body size leads scientists to conclude that Dodos were actually fairly smart, and depended more on smell than sight to find the abundant fruit on the island, supplemented with small land vertebrates and shellfish. Dodos weren't dumb, they had lost all adaptations to avoid predators because there were none on their island home of Mauritius until humans arrived and exploited them as a source of fresh meat like with the tortoises of the Galapagos
When pirates, whalers, and sailors arrive on islands such as Mauritius or the Galápagos, they often introduce livestock such as sheep, goats, and pigs to provide an additional source of food for when they pass through the areas in addition to the native mammals, seabirds, tortoises and/or Dodo. However, introducing such herbivores to an island can have disastrous effects as they trample and browse on native plants down to the roots if not properly contained, preventing the plants from regrowing.
One of the most widespread introduced species on islands is one that was not intentionally released by humans. Rats and ants have found their way to many island groups as stowaways on ships and plants, and with no predators on the islands, they rapidly spread upon making landfall. In large swarms, Little Fire Ants (Wasmannia auropunctata) drive native insects out of forest habitat and attack ground nesting birds and reptiles which have no enemies. Rats are particularly dangerous for native birds because they prey on nests, eating the eggs and chicks as well as the adults and competing with them for food. To protect their sugarcane crops, plantation owners introduced Small Indian Mongooses (Herpestes javanicus) from India to Molokai, Maui, and Oahu and have since spread to every Island except Lanai and Kauai, hoping they would prey on the rats. This did not go as planned because the rats are mostly nocturnal while the mongooses are diurnal and instead targeted the eggs and hatchlings of native ground-nesting animals instead such as chickens, francolins, and Hawaiian Geese. Goose numbers were around 25,000 when Europeans first arrived in Hawaii in 1778, but by the 1950s, they had been reduced to 30
As if two introduced mammalian predators wasn't enough for Hawaii's endemic birds to deal with, they also have to battle mosquitos that transmit deadly diseases such as Avian Malaria. It results when a blood-borne parasite, Plasmodium relictum, is transmitted from infected birds to healthy birds by mosquitoes under suitably (warm) temperatures. Once infected, many birds die. Thus, the introduction of mosquitoes made it possible for native birds to become infected, given that a reservoir of disease was present, such as invasive birds like the Japanese White-eye and Red-billed Leiothrix. It's estimated that P. relictum has caused the extinction of a third of the 55 species of Hawaiian Honeycreepers present when Europeans arrived. The survivors retreated to higher elevation forests where cooler temperatures inhibited the growth of the parasite, but many fell victim to the disease...
If the idea of an entire island disappearing underwater sounds ridiculous, guess what: it actually happened! East Island is a low-lying islet surrounded by shallow reefs in the French Frigate Shoals, part of the Northwest Hawaiian Islands, and one of the most important nesting sites for Green Sea Turtles in Hawaii, most of which were born on the island. East Island recently made news when storm surge by Hurricane Walaka washed away most of the island, leaving a 150 foot sliver behind. While the reduction in size of East Island has not directly been linked to anthropogenic climate change, it it contributes to the strength and frequency of hurricanes like the one that overtook the island. Part of the theory that hurricanes will become more frequent and stronger is because warmer water provides more energy to feed them, which has been reinforced by computer simulations that produce more intense storms with rising ocean temperatures. To quote an article from the New York Times: “This is probably a forebear of things to come.”
Tropical storms often have massive impacts on tropical islands, and none were nearly as damaging as Hurricane Iniki in 1992 (around the same time Jurassic Park was filmed and may have inspired "Hurricane Clarissa" from The Lost World novel, Steven Spielberg even included footage of the storm making landfall in the associated scene when Dennis Nedry shuts down the parks security system and the Tyrannosaurus escapes). Iniki made landfall on the south-central portion of Kauaʻi, bringing its dangerous inner core to the entire island. Storm surges reached 6 feet high in most parts of the island, sometimes reaching 18 feet with waves as high as 35 feet causing a debris line more than 800 feet inland. Thousands of homes on Kauai were either damaged, destroyed, or lost completely. Agriculture was also heavily impacted by Iniki. Though much of the unharvested sugar cane crop was severely damaged, tender tropical plants like bananas and papayas were destroyed and fruit and nut trees were uprooted or damaged. On the island, one person died when struck by debris, while another lost her life when a portion of her house fell on her. Offshore, two Japanese nationals died when their boat capsized. The Kauai Nukupu'u was abundant until the 1800s when clearing of forests for agriculture destroyed much of its habitat and forcing them to take refuge in the Alakai plateau along with many of the other endemics. The damage caused to the island by Iniki may have led to the nukupu'u's extinction, as they were not seen after 1996.
I added this video of a Kaua'i O'o singing at the end mainly to show how great the impact of humans is on island endemics. One of the few recordings of a Kauai O'o is of the last male alive at the time singing for a mate that will unfortunately never come. "Now his voice is gone"
To end on a good note, I should mention that all hope is lost for island biodiversity, as there are many I've done lots of research on conservation groups whose work focuses on islands, and here are some of my favorites:
Lifers indicated in bold
While I was looking through my photos from Arizona, drawing on my computer, and debating if I should go for the Great Black Hawk in Maine, I noticed a photo of a hummingbird taken at the Paton Center right before the battery died that didn't fit with Broad-billed. "I think this is a Violet-crown..." I muttered to myself. It didn't have the violet in the cap, but the white throat was enough for me to identify this as a Violet-crowned Hummingbird, although southeast Arizona is short on similar Amazilias that I could confuse it with; one which is Green-fronted Hummingbird, which has a deep green crown, the two rarely overlap in range. Make that one more until I hit 500!
By this time, I had seen a nice variety of local and continent-level rarities for the year. However, the one bird that I’ve dipped on more this year (and my life, as a matter of fact) than any other is Black-headed Gull. Over the course of 6 months (January-April and October-now), I had chased any reported Black-headed Gull I could get word of and checked every flock of Bonaparte’s Gulls I came across on the off chance I would find one myself, to no avail (although one Bonie flock in Montauk yielded a Little Gull), only beat out by Sandhill Crane and Eastern Screech-Owl for the number of times I struck out this year. The first nemesis bird I ever had, and the only one comparable to the number of times I failed to find it, was the Peregrine Falcon. For years, I kept looking upwards until I finally saw one at Hawk Mountain in 2015. Next was Golden Eagle, which I thought I had until a reviewer for Wyoming told me the photos I uploaded were actually that of a Bald Eagle. Then Merlin, Long-eared Owl, Henslow’s Sparrow, Black-headed Gull, and Connecticut Warbler found their way onto the nemesis list; I had scored on the falcon, the eagle, the owl, and the sparrow in that order, but having given up on looking for the warbler after a month, the gull stood as my ultimate nemesis. Kenny Bostick and his search for a Snowy Owl in The Big Year had nothing on me and the Black-headed Gull (which ironically, I often see Snowy Owl on my first try for them). In a text chain with Ryan Zucker about my stats, he told me that I should “look for the BHGU at Jones Beach for #500,” which I agreed to, having set up a 500th species teaser icon with a generic flycatcher silhouette with a large question mark in the center, and several species that had the potential to be #500 hidden from view, one of which was the gull, the other was a Barnacle Goose. When I got to the coast guard station, there were several gulls there, but none had the red legs or dusky underwing I was looking for.
Like the Pink-footed Goose I've mentioned earlier, Barnacle Geese are a common "wrong way" migrant in North America. The majority of them winter in Europe, but breeding populations in Greenland sometimes get confused and fly south with Canada Geese. On migration and their wintering ground, Barnacles act no different from other geese; in their Arctic breeding grounds, however, they take nesting to the extreme and choose to lay their eggs on high cliffs where Arctic Foxes can't reach them. This means newly hatched young have to jump from heights that rival the nest-falling antics of Wood and Mandarin Ducks. I had planned to look for a Barnacle Goose that chose to winter in eastern Long Island for a few weeks, and I needed to break up the monotony of looking for the Black-headed Gull. I scanned flocks of Canada Geese at two separate locations before calling it a day, but by the time I realized I had been checking the wrong spots, it was too late for me to turn back...
The morning after, I went back to the coast guard station, but once again, there was no gull with little red feet to be seen. I was wondering if I would ever get Black-headed Gull…
Well, now we know how it's surviving.” - Nate Swick
You knew this was coming, with a notable lack of any easy birds in NY left, how could I resist chasing the rarest bird in North America at the time? Of course, I am talking about the Great Black Hawk in Maine. For birders, this rarity’s tale needs little explanation, but for everyone else: In late April, a Buteogallus was photographed at Sheepshead lot on South Padre Island, later identified as a Great Black Hawk by the lack of a thick subterminal band, white uppertail coverts, and its size; larger than a Common Black and smaller than a Solitary Eagle. The bird was last seen flying to the northeast, destination unknown… Later, in August, another Black Hawk was supposedly photographed in Biddeford, Maine, of all unlikely places. At first, birders considered the sighting to be a hoax, but subsequent identification of the plants in the photo as Japanese Knotweed and Red Maple confirmed it was in the Biddeford area, which, coincidentally, also is where the ABA area’s first Variegated Flycatcher was found. Many birders had toyed with the idea that it was the same Great Black Hawk seen in South Padre Island earlier in the year, and was confirmed through comparison of Alex Lamoreaux’s photos from Texas and Francis Morello’s photos from Maine (see footnotes). The hawk stayed for two days before flying out to sea, heading for a still unknown destination, then turned up in Portland towards the end of October before disappearing again. Surely it would be headed south now, which is what we thought, until it was posted to What’s This Bird? again, in a video of it eating a squirrel and flying off with it. Unlike the last three times it was seen, black feathers were noted, and there was snow on the ground. However, an urban park in Maine is not an ideal place for a tropical bird of prey, which was additionally identified as the Central American subspecies. "This bird is doomed," I thought as temperatures in Maine steadily dropped...
I anticipated the worst when I saw that snowstorms were in the forecast for Portland, but as finals were drawing to a close for me, I read an article on Audubon saying that this bird was STILL ALIVE after two snow storms! I decided that was enough incentive for me to go up to Maine to see this survivor. After a night of sweet talk, my mom finally agreed to go after finals. I had initially planned to go to Maine over the summer to get all the Atlantic alcids, Arctic Tern, Spruce Grouse, and to clean up breeding birds that I missed in migration; but that didn't work out, but if it had, this would've been my second trip to Maine this year. I don't let most rarities go until I have no other choice, except maybe the Barnacle Goose, so as a fail-safe on the off chance the hawk was gone when I got there, I planned backup stops to ensure I would get to 500: one on the way up in Rhode Island for a Black-headed Gull (I was getting tired of missing the Jones Beach bird), and two on the way back to seawatch for murres in Massachusetts and for Tufted Duck in Connecticut respectively. Straight off the ferry, we headed right to the spot where the gull has been seen. As we were arriving at the spot, I shouted "THERE!" in excitement when I saw the white stripe on the primaries characteristic of Chroicocephalus gulls, but I wanted a closer look to make sure it wasn't a Bonaparte's anyway. Upon closer inspection when the bird had landed, this one definitely had the lighter mantle and most importantly, deep red legs and bill. "This is it," I said, "This is a Black-headed Gull!" What an excellent bird for #500 this was. Satisfied with having conquered a major nemesis, we headed north for an even bigger prize.
The next morning, my mom and I went straight to Deering Oaks Park after breakfast to look for the Great Black Hawk. I checked every tree it could be roosting in, then when another birder came up to me, I learned it was seen on Grant Street, not in the park itself. I followed him to a line of other birders with their optics trained on this hardy little Great Black Hawk as he feasted on a recently killed squirrel. I capitalized on the opportunity and did something I rarely do: captured video of the bird in action. After months of following the story of this legendary vagrant, I was genuinely thrilled to finally see this bird for myself and experience it with other like-minded birders, which was a far better experience than with the self-proclaimed "Hot duck." As we walked back to the park, a Bohemian Waxwing flew over, 501 and 502 respectively, but depending on the taxonomy you follow, the Great Black Hawk could be 500 for the year instead of 501. I follow eBird's taxonomy/the Clements Checklist, which splits the Mexican Ducks I saw in Texas from Mallard, while the American Ornithological Society treats them as conspecific (I changed taxonomies after this year's lack of favorable splits). Using Clements/eBird, 500 would be Black-headed Gull, while it would be Great Black Hawk under the AOS Check-list. If you follow the International Ornithological Union's taxonomy, which splits a bunch of stuff that AOS and Clements don't such as Audubon's Warbler, Mangrove Warbler, and Scopoli's Shearwater, 500 would be Lesser Nighthawk; not as exciting of a 500 as an ABA first or your former nemesis. Irregardless of what taxonomy you use, one thing is constant: just as I had begun the year with a code 5, I was about to end it with a code 5.
On the way home, we drove through a storm that was equally intense as the one on the way up to get to a seawatch spot in Rockport, which has had some excellent alcid movement earlier in the week. Most of the birds I saw here were scoters and more Common Eiders, along with a few surprises, such as a male Harlequin Duck and a flyby Thick-billed Murre. As it was too dark to try for the Tufted Duck when we arrived in Connecticut, the murre would be my last new bird in the continental ABA Area without a literal Christmas miracle.
On Christmas Morning, I went out to Montauk in search of a Common Murre reported there, but had no success. That night, my needs alerts were silent. There were no more easy birds for me to get on Long Island. The resident pair of Great Horned Owls was calling to each other, another sign that spring was on the way. For me, it was a sign that it's time to move on and finish the big year with a bang…
To be continued…
Link to What’s This Bird? posts: https://www.facebook.com/groups/whatsthisbird/permalink/1941890982526285/
Francis’s map of the hawk’s sightings: https://drive.google.com/open?id=1pH6FQm-bacY-L0K8Mzk4ktEKPEVskA1J&usp=sharing
As many of you know, I will be traveling to the Hawaiian Islands to complete my Young Birder Odyssey big year. I thought this trip would also be a good way to revive my evolutionary biology series that I've skimmed the surface with in my posts on redpolls and feathers, now I'm going to discuss how islands affect the evolution of the animals living there, and I will primarily be using various examples from the Hawaiian Islands to help provide examples of what I discuss, including giant waterfowl, long-legged owls, and of course the native honeycreepers that rival Darwin's finches as an example of adaptive radiation from a common ancestor (sorry if you were expecting me to write a post on them). Because Hawaii unfortunately lacks the dwarf elephants, monitor lizards, tortoises, ratites, lemurs, azdharchids, tiny iguanodonts, and some of the other animals featured in Trey the Explainer's Biology on Islands video, which I have watched numerous times in preparation for this post, so I will borrow examples from Madagascar, New Zealand, Indonesia, the Galapagos, Mediterranean, West Indies, California's Channel Islands, and others to supplement the Hawaiian examples when helpful.
One sixth of all land area on earth is geographically separated from everything else. Unlike continents, islands are small and secluded. This isolation means only a few selective organisms can exist on them, if they can get there in the first place. There are three main ways animals get to islands: by flying or swimming there, by crossing natural land bridges that are now underwater, or as castaways of storms. Many birds were able to fly from the mainland to islands, often blown off course or intentionally, and establish themselves there. Seals are long-distance travelers that in many cases can also swim to islands if they need to. Another interesting case is of the Komodo Dragon (Varanus komodoensis), which is theorized to have originated in Australia and moved north to escape the receding forest habitat as deserts took over following a landbridge to New Guinea and Indonesia. However, the islands inhabited by dragons today were never connected to Australasia by the landbridge, so scientists theorize the dragons colonized them by swimming (they are surprisingly good swimmers). Inclement weather can blow flying animals off course on migration, leaving them stranded on islands as well. This is how the ancestors of the native bird species and subspecies got there, as well as those of the native arthropods and Hawaiian subspecies Hoary Bat. In short, most of the native wildlife in Hawaii got there by accident.
A land-bridge is an area of a continent that is exposed when sea levels are lower, allowing animals to travel between the future islands and the mainland. This is how life has been able to cross between the Americas and Eurasia during the many intermittent periods in history from the Cretaceous to the Pleistocene when the Bering Land bridge connecting Alaska and Russia was open due to lower sea levels. Another interesting land bridge relevant to island biogeography is one that existed in northwestern Europe called Doggerland. During the last ice age, sea levels were lower, and the British Isles were connected to the rest of Europe by a grassy plain called Doggerland that will one day rest at the bottom of the North Sea. These plains supported a variety of European megafauna including mammoths, bison, horses, lions, Megaloceros, rhinos, reindeer, and nomadic humans. Over time, as the climate warmed, these humans and animals were forced to migrate to higher elevations in Britain and the Netherlands as sea levels rose due to melting ice sheets and a tsunami off the coast of what is now Norway.
The rafting theory states that animals sometimes trapped mats of vegetation that blow out to sea during storms, and when they reach the nearest island, they are able to colonize the new land. This is how all of Madagascar's native land mammals got there as well as the ancestors of the iguanas and tortoises in the Galapagos.
Foster's rule, also known as the island rule or the island effect, is a biological rule stating that members of a species get smaller or bigger depending on the resources available in the environment. The rule was first stated by J. Bristol Foster in 1964, in which he compared 116 island species to their mainland varieties. He proposed that certain island creatures evolved into larger versions of themselves while others became smaller. He proposed the simple explanation that smaller creatures get larger when predation pressure is relaxed because of the absence of some of the predators of the mainland, and larger creatures become smaller when food resources are limited because of land area constraints.
The more famous residents of definitely the giants. In the absence of predators or competition for resources, animals living on islands have grown enormous, such as the moas and Haast's Eagles of New Zealand or the Galapagos Tortoises. Despite the presence of kiwis in New Zealand, the closest relatives of the giant moas are a clade of South American paleognaths called tinamous, which are still capable of flight. Despite their size, moas had one predator before the arrival of humans: Haast's Eagle, which had a 3 meter wingspan. Like the moas, they became extinct shortly after humans arrived. The Galapagos Tortoises are the most famous of the living giant tortoises, but another species of giant tortoise, the Aldabra Tortoise, lives on an island northwest of Madagascar with which it shares it's name. Earlier, I mentioned that Komodo Dragons evolved in Australia and moved northward, there was an even bigger monitor lizard related to the dragons to inhabit Australia known as Megalania or Varanus priscus, which became extinct due to climate change along with its preferred prey of giant kangaroos and wombats. Even Hawaii had its own giant flightless birds (a common theme on islands in the Indo-Pacific). In addition to living and extinct species of Hawaiian Goose or Nene, the Southeast islands were home to four species of flightless geese known as Moa-nalos and the Giant Hawaiian Goose (Branta rhuax).
Islands can also decrease the size of the animals living there due to limited resources and space. One of the most nocticable examples are the Channel Island Fox and Pygmy Mammoth, smaller relatives of the Gray Fox and Columbian Mammoth that live on the mainland in California. I've included other examples, such as Giant Anteater-sized ground sloths and pygmy chameleons
Convergent evolution is when two unrelated animals evolve similar appearances in response to similar environments. One example of convergence that I find most fascinating is one of two Island species imitating each other. In the absence of rodents on New Zealand, a group of ratites shrunk to fill the role of nocturnal opportunists. Kiwis traded flight for a longer bill and an enhanced sense of smell to hunt for insects and worms on the floor of the temperate rainforest, at the cost of good eyesight. What I find most interesting, possibly even more interesting, is that Hawaii has its own version of a kiwi! The Kaua'i Mole Duck (Talpanas lippa) was a flightless species of Duck related to modern-day stifftail ducks (Ruddy, Andean, Lake, Maccoa, Blue-billed, and White-headed, genus Oxyura) that like the kiwis and Kakapo, also gave up flight to hunt for smaller animals on the forest floor at night. Talpanas is unfortunately extinct, but if they were still around, finding one would have been on my list of birding priorities once I got there. Some other cases of convergent evolution in Hawaii include stilt-owls (genus Grallistrix) which evolved long legs similar to resemble those of phorusrhacids, Secretarybirds, and giant flightless Cuban owls of the genus Ornimegalonyx (unlike these owls, Grallistrix kept the ability to fly); and the Hawaiian Honeyeaters, which resemble the honeyeaters of Australasia so closely, they were considered to be part of the same family before elevated to full family status (Mohoidae)
New Zealand isn't just home to flightless birds and monstrous raptors, the islands also act as a time capsule from the age of the dinosaurs. Dense forests of tree ferns and podocarps similar to those in the Lord of the Rings series are found on both islands, and are where many episodes of Walking With Dinosaurs were also filmed. These ancient forests are home to two ancient creatures from the Mesozoic: the Giant Weta and the Tuatara, both coincidentally appearing in Spirits of the Ice Forest (episode 5). The Tuatara looks like a lizard, but is from an unrelated order called Rhyncocephala. Competition from lizards elsewhere has driven Tuataras into extinction, and now survives only on a few small islands off New Zealand’s coast.
Adaptive radiation is the diversification of a clade from one common ancestor to fill a variety of niches and exploit the abundance of food sources in their new environment. This is the reason I chose to use Hawaii as my example location in this blog post. Most people typically think of the tanagers of the Galápagos when adaptive radiation comes to mind, but I’ve chosen the Hawaiian honeycreepers not just out of personal bias, but also because their bill shapes reflect a greater divergence than that in the Galapagos and they’re more colorful (reds, greens, and yellows are more appealing than different shades of gray and brown, sorry Darwin). About 4 million years ago, the ancestors of the drepanidid finches, most likely a flock of rosefinches from the Asian mainland based on genetic analysis, was blown or flew naturally to Hawaii. Some of these finches had genes that gave them large grosbeak-like bills, others had those for long, thin bills, and others had genes for short, straight bills. Over time, finches would mate with birds that had bills which would best enable them to feed themselves and provide food for their young until they could only mate with birds of similar bill shape. This is called speciation. In Hawaii, most of the native finches can be divided into five categories: Generalists like the ‘alauahios and ‘Anianiau; nectarivores like the I’iwi, mamos, ‘apapanes, ‘Ākohekohe, and ‘Ula‘aihāwane; frugivores like the Rhodacanthis grosbeaks, koa-finches, palilas, ‘Ō‘ū, Telespiza finches, and Lanai Hookbill; gleaning insectivores like common ‘amakihis, ‘ākepas, ‘Akeke‘e, and Greater ‘Amakihi, and bark-picking insectivores like the ‘Akialoas, nukupu’us, ‘Ākiapōlā‘au, Kiwikiu, ‘Alawī, ‘Akikiki, and Po‘ouli. Some, such as the ‘akialoas, ‘amakihis, and ‘Ula‘aihāwane blur the lines between niches, exploiting multiple roles based on avalibility of food, and the Laysan and Nihoa finches have even been known to eat the eggs of seabirds when seeds and insects are scarce
Living on an island can not only alter the physical appearance of a species, but also their behavior. Island species
However, being less responsive to predators can also work against a species, and that is what I will talk about in part 2...
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