Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Native Birds, Up Close and Personal

My kitchen window overlooks a deck, and right next to it I have an avocado tree that never bears fruit but sets flowers. This morning I happened to be out there on the deck, coming back to the house while holding the aerial roots of an 'ohi'a tree, something I collected to show a class.

Suddenly, three 'apapane swooped down and alighted upon the avocado tree. They were singing excitedly as they started thrusting their sharp ebony beaks into the avocado blossoms, sipping up sweet nectar. They were only 10 feet away from me! I stood very still and held 'ohi'a roots in front of my torso, thinking that maybe they'd consider me something forest-like and benign, that I was some sort of mutant 'ohi'a tree.

So I thought I'd experiment. I whistled back them, trying to imitate their song. And, oddly enough, they seemed to answer. They couldn't possibly be regarding me as friendly, I thought. Usually these birds are shy and keep their distance from humans, preferring the upper canopy of the forest. I decided to dismiss that romantic idea for the moment.

But then, just for kicks, later in the day, I thought I'd try to call them back. So I went outside with a long lens, picked up the 'ohi'a roots, and whistled the same call I'd heard earlier in the day. To my amazement, two 'apapane quickly reappeared and flew into the avocado tree, drawing near as though I had announced lunchtime! Then those two flew away, and to my astonishment three more immediately took their place.

Whether my clumsy bird imitations did the trick or no, for a few magical minutes I was treated to a rare close-up glimpse of how these brilliant crimson creatures move about and interact. Simply enchanting!

Yes, 'apapane feed on native and nonnative plants, but you don't see these birds at lower elevations due to several factors, including avian malaria. (Mosquitoes are rare at 3,500 feet elevation -- it's too cold.) I have to admit, though, that although these native birds will feed happily from many kinds of plants, more often than not they prefer to take up residence in native Hawaiian trees.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Native Birds in Your Backyard

Native Hawaiian Rainforest Birds in Backyard, Volcano, HI
'Apapane, 'Amakihi, 'Oma'o

How many native Hawaiian birds are in your backyard? If you live in a coastal area and have a big, grassy lawn, you might get an occasional visit from kolea, or golden plover. Kolea winter in Hawaii August through April, so now they are earnestly raiding urban lawns - don't worry, they aren't doing any damage, just fattening up on insects, getting reading for their return migration to Alaska. Kolea are highly territorial and usually return each year to the same place, so if you have one in your yard chances are you'll see it again next year. If you don't have a dog or cat, that is.

If you like to put out fancy bird feeders and fill them with commercial seed imported from North America, of course you will attract North American birds, plus other former pets/escapees that have done very well in Hawaii's balmy climate. In the most densely populated areas of Hawaii, it's now rare to get a glimpse of native birds in your backyard. Natural habitats have been so altered by humans that native Hawaiian birds, which are often highly specialized, can't survive.

But if you are lucky enough to live in an area where there are native birds, instead of putting out a bird feeder consider planting native bird food plants. 'Amakihi, for example, are generalists that feed on a variety of native plants, and there have been reports of 'amakihi populations reestablishing in the lower elevations of the Puna district on the Big Island. Many native birds like sipping from 'ohi'a lehua blossoms, and 'ohi'a is easy to grow in wet, humid locations.

Since I live in a rainforest, I rarely see marine birds in my area, though this past year I think I heard a shearwater's odd groaning call above my house. That bird uses moonlight to navigate at night and, sadly, most likely was it disoriented by the bright lights in the upland areas now inhabited by humans.

How many bird songs can you identify in your backyard? And how many are native?

Monday, March 15, 2010

Hawaii Backyard Conservation Booklet

An excellent reference for every homeowner, Hawaii Backyard Conservation is FREE and available for download here. It's chockful of fabulous ideas and suggestions for low impact, environmentally conscious, sustainable gardening.

Sponsored by City and County of Honolulu
Department of Environmental Services Storm Water Quality Branch, Hawaii State Department of Transportation Highways Division, Hawaii State Department of Land and Natural Resources Division of Forestry and Wildlife, Honolulu Board of Water Supply, and the University of Hawaii College of Tropical Agriculture & Human Resources
Dept. of Natural Resources and Environmental Management.

Read it and be inspired!