Friday, March 29, 2013

Breaking in the Sun on Maui

Karyn and I just finished a fabulous Spring Break on the Hawaiian island of Maui. This could be my last spring break as I will soon be graduating with my Masters of Science degree in Raptor Biology. The trip was sort of a celebration of the successful defense of my thesis and sort of just because.

We chose Maui for an easy vacation that was not too expensive. It had been a number of years since we had scuba dived or snorkeled, so the water was the main attraction. For snorkeling there are definitely better places to go as Hawai'i has lower abundance and diversity than other locations due to its remote location, but we had some great experiences in and out of the water. We had planned to scuba dive but the operators wouldn't take us without a refresher dive. It has been seven years since our last dive in St. Croix; their limit was three years. We thought about trying to fit in a refresher dive, but chose instead just to snorkel - less hassle and less expensive. The other highlights of the island were a good compliment.

The Monsters of the Deep.

One of the great aspects of snorkeling or diving in Hawai'i is the abundance of Green Sea Turtles. We would see them most every day, on some trips as many as three per snorkel. We could watch them surface right off the beach of our condo and snorkeled with them there as well. Turtles are one of our favorites and played an important role in my move to pursue an encore career in biology. The Earthwatch trip we took back in 2006 studying Leatherback Sea Turtles in St. Croix was very influential.

Hawai'i is also a great place to see Moray Eels. We would see three different species, at least that we could identify - Yellow-marginned, White-Mouth, and the last we think was a Banded Moray. White-tipped Reef Sharks graced our presence on two different snorkels. Two potentially mating Octopi were pretty cool as they changed color and texture to blend into the reef. We would observe many creatures including surgeonfish, butterfly fish, and trigger fish. The Butterfly fish included Threaded, Long-nose, Tear-drop, Four-spot, Millet-seed, and Bandit along with others I am sure. Our two favorite snorkel spots were Honolua Bay and the point just south of Polo beach. Honolua Bay provided turtles, sharks, morays, squid, and one morning before anyone else got there, a huge "bait-ball" of fish. This ball was dizzying to swim through as thousands of fish all parted and flashed their scales as they turned. Polo beach presented many turtles and fantastic coral formations.

Thar She Blows!

We were hoping to see whales while on Maui and were even considering a whale watching trip. Little did we know that Humpback Whales would have a near constant presence off the shore. In the evening we would sit on our patio and watch them blow, spy-hop, peck-slap, tail-slap, and breech. Whenever we would look, we would see whales. On our boat ride out to Molokini to snorkel, we stopped twice to watch whales close in to the boat. The first stop was for a "competition pod" of males competing over what presumably was a single female. The second group was a female with calf. We could see others off in the distance. While snorkeling we could hear the whales underwater. It was fantastic.

Humpback Whale - Peck-slap.

The Terrors of the Sky.

Similar to snorkeling, you wouldn't choose a trip to Maui just for the birds, especially not in March. However, we would get in some great birding and would observe 13 new species we had never seen before. If the sea birds had been in mating season, this number would have been higher. Unfortunately, a number of the birds we would observe were introduced or invasive species. For example, the Japanese White-eye that would visit the tree just off our deck was beautiful, but was also an introduced species as was the pervasive Common Myna. However, the birds that we were most excited about were the native forest species which we happened upon almost by accident.

We had heard about a special hike at Hosmer's Grove. A friend of ours, Robyn, that lives on the island was hoping to take us there. It is by reservation only and they only take 15 people once a week. Unfortunately, we weren't there on the days it was offered. One day as we were driving up the volcano to hike in the crater we pulled out at Hosmer's Grove and saw that there was a short hike that was open to the public. As soon as I stepped out of the car a bright red 'I'iwi flew by about 30 feet away. This was the single bird that I most wanted to see! Boom! We would see a number of others on the short hike. What makes the 'I'iwi so impressive is its bright color. Red is believed to be the most expensive pigment for a bird to produce. It is considered by biologists to be an honest signal of the fitness of the individual. These birds really know how to show it off. The 'I'iwi is currently listed as a vulnerable species by the IUCN.

'I'iwi - Native Forest Bird.

Next up was another red stunner, the 'Apapane! Like the 'I'iwi, the 'Apapane is an endemic Hawaiian Honeycreeper. Honeycreepers fulfill the ecological role that hummingbirds fill on the mainland. These birds are at risk through habitat degradation, predation by invasive predators, displacement by invasive birds, and attack by invasive pathogens. We humans really know how to screw things up. These birds are now trying to hold on in a non-native forest planted to compensate for the native Koa forest that we destroyed.

'Apapane - Native Forest Bird.

The third species was as impressively green as the above were red. The 'Amakihi flashes in the sunlight, but then quickly disappears in the foliage.

'Amakihi - Native Forest Bird.

Had I been better prepared I might have found the fourth native forest species in the area, the 'Alauahio. This bird forages on the ground under cover and is supposed to be more common than the three we saw, but we weren't looking in the right place. Maybe next time.

The Pacific Golden Plover was a remarkable find. We were very excited for the first one we saw, but we didn't have our camera with us. Upon returning to our condo, an adult male in breeding plumage was foraging about 5 feet away! What a beauty!

Pacific Golden Plover - Male - Breeding Plumage.
Pacific Golden Plover - Non-breeding Plumage.

The local Kealia Ponds National Wildlife Refuge provided some great views of the Hawaiian Black-necked Stilt, Wandering Tattler, and Sanderling and some very far off views of the Hawaiian Coot.

Hawaiian Black-necked Stilt.

On Our Own Two Feet.

The only real hike we did was the Sliding Sands trail down into the crater from the summit. It's an odd hike as you drive to the top of the mountain and then hike down from there. The landscape is almost devoid of life except for the endemic threatened Silversword plants and the odd introduced Chukar. We hiked down as far as we dare and then back out. We arrived at the top just in time as the rain started to pour.

View down into the crater (fog not steam).
Silversword - Threatened Species.

The hike in Iao Valley turned out to be a 15-minute paved loop path. From a hike perspective, it was a bit underwhelming, but the scenery was great. This was the only steep-sided tropical valley we visited on our trip.

'Iao Needle.

We would like to thank our friend Robyn for the fabulous dinner at Io's in Lahaina! The mushroom risotto was to die for, and Karyn raved about the Honey Sage Martini.

Parting Shots.

Brown Anole (Introduced)
Our condo.
Common Myna (Introduced).
Cattle Egret (Introduced).
Red-crested Cardinal (Introduced).
Northern Cardinal (Introduced).