Winter Swells on Kaua‘i

It seems that Winter has arrived. Hawai‘i has just two discernible seasons, Summer and Winter…or Hot and Cold.

Of course, ‘cold’ is a subjective term. This week the temperature in Princeville dropped to around 60°F in the middle of the night. Since the same week brought blizzards and 6 foot drifts to parts of the mainland, I recognize this is hardly likely to gain much sympathy, but when it feels sufficiently cool to warrant something other than a thin sheet on the bed, that tends to be news around here.

Along with cooler weather, Winter on the north shore brings rougher seas and higher surf, sometimes particularly dangerous and vicious. Drownings are sadly too frequent at this time of year. Most residents quickly learn to respect the winter surf, but visitors don’t always understand the dangers of hidden rip currents or ‘rogue’/sneaker waves.

The huge swells on November 13 triggered a high surf warning along the north and east facing shores, from Ke‘e Beach to Anahola. Steve and I drove out to Lumaha‘i Beach, a beautiful spot to witness nature at its finest. The impressive seas had drawn a small crowd, both residents and visitors.

At one point we noticed a couple close to us; a husband was attempting to capture a photo of his wife with the waves crashing behind her. He appeared to be waiting for the perfect moment, the one memorable shot.

The largest sets of waves can be some minutes apart, so we heard him tell his wife to be patient, but each time he was about to press the shutter on a sufficiently impressive set, she heard the almighty crash of surf behind her and leapt out of the way. She had my sympathy! When the large sets come through, the surf will encroach many feet further onto the beach, and can easy whip your legs from under you if you’re not watching.

With each attempt he became more exasperated with her. He seemed a bit of a jerk, but who am I to judge…could be he was a lot smarter than he looked…could be he’d recently taken out a life insurance policy on her and was looking for a quick claim! 😉 I suggested she offer to have him stand on the shoreline and for her to take the photo! She appreciated the joke, he didn’t!

Later that day, I was volunteering with my friend Alice at the Kīlauea Point National Wildlife Refuge; our regular Wednesday afternoon slot. In between chatting with a record crowd of visitors who were awestruck by the Point and views, I captured some more video of the swells, and of our less dependable and lesser known north shore equivalent of Po‘ipū’s Spouting Horn.

Kīlauea Point Lighthouse Centennial

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May 1st was the 100th Anniversary of the Kīlauea Point Lighthouse – an auspicious date, not least because it’s also my brother’s birthday (though he’s a tad younger!) 😉

With the lighthouse fully restored to its former glory after over two years of intensive restoration from top to toe, this year’s Centennial celebrations were particularly special.

It was a packed week of activities from Wednesday May 1, when the lighthouse was re-opened for back-to-back guided tours, through Sunday May 5, when the town of Kīlauea hosted their community parade and huge open-air party, to celebrate the town’s 150th Anniversary.

Louise BarnfieldI was one of the lighthouse guides who thoroughly enjoyed sharing its history and the incredible restoration work with our visitors.

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Until about four years ago, when it was closed for safety reasons, the lighthouse was open for tours just once a year, on Lighthouse Day, the first Saturday of May. Now we’re waiting to hear whether we will be able to offer tours on a more frequent schedule. It would certainly be sad if the inside couldn’t be enjoyed by more visitors, as it has a fascinating story to tell.

On Saturday May 4 the lighthouse was re-dedicated and re-named in honor of the late Senator Daniel Inouye who played a huge part in gaining sufficient federal funding for the restoration. The initial effort had come some years ago from just a few local enthusiasts who started a fundraising campaign and generously pitched in with the first donations. When Senator Inouye heard of the venture, he took a personal interest in supporting their efforts.

IMG_6128The full day of celebrations started with traditional songs and hula dancing, building up to the early evening dedication ceremony with the hauntingly beautiful opening and closing chants that sandwiched a number of emotional speeches.

At dusk the light was lit (just a stationary light, the lighthouse is no longer operational and the lens doesn’t rotate). The crowd watched as darkness fell and the beam strengthened.

At the same time, the wedge-tailed shearwaters were returning to roost after a long day at sea. They buzzed over our heads as they swooped down into their burrows deep in the naupaka that surrounds Kīlauea Point, and the air was filled with their cries (captured at the end of the video below). Apart from this one day a year the refuge closes at 4pm, deliberately to leave it to the birds, so this was a special experience.

Our albatross girls

I must have compiled half a dozen or more posts since my last of December 28. Unfortunately, they were all composed in my head, either while driving around the island (plenty of time for contemplation at a maximum of 50mph), or during one of my frequent bouts of insomnia (which I attribute to age, not location!) So, apologies for the extended absence and, obscenely belatedly, Happy New Year…or, rather less belatedly, Gung Hay Fat Choy!

One of the most frequent topics for my mental musings is our local population of laysan albatross. I briefly mentioned some weeks ago that they were/are back on Kauai.

Nov 2012: returning albatrosses find their mates

Nov 2012: returning albatrosses find their mates

They started returning mid- November. Once one appears, it seems they all stream in. After courting and mating, all the nesting pairs concentrate on incubating their (single) egg and raising their chick.

Each parent takes it in turn to fly all the way back to Alaska to feed (yes, seriously, a round-trip of roughly 6,000 miles), while the other is dedicated to sitting full-time on the egg. They swap every two or three weeks until the egg is hatched, then more frequently as the chick grows, often covering the round-trip in only four or five days. Not surprisingly, the nesting bird is too hungry to hang about for long once its mate returns to relieve it.

So, during this incubation stage, the neighborhood goes a little quiet for a while.

IMG_5386However, the activity level picks up considerably early in the new year, when the non-nesters start appearing.

"If I stand really still, perhaps they won't notice me."

“If I stand really still, perhaps they won’t notice me.”

Non-nesters include those adults who for one reason or another do not have a partner this year, as well as the three to seven year old juveniles who are not yet old enough to mate, some of whom have returned to the island for the first time since they fledged (they usually spend the first three years at sea).

Each chick is banded before it leaves the nest; Kīlauea Point and Princeville chicks are given a ‘KP’ prefix. Last year, KP338 and KP643 nested on the border between our home and our neighbor. I learned a little about this pair at that time, but, since we only visited our new ‘vacation’ home for a week or two in February 2012 and again that April, we didn’t see the whole process through all the stages. However, we did find out that they are both females.

We were surprised to discover that female pairs are quite common. It’s not known why this happens, but they are definitely as dedicated as their male/female counterparts in incubating the egg. When both females lay an egg, one of the eggs has to be removed, as they only have the resources to incubate and raise one chick. Of course, the chances of them having a fertilized egg are somewhat limited…but not impossible, since there’s sometimes a randy male hanging around the neighborhood ready to jump their bones when they first return to the area!

Sadly, last year’s egg was not fertile. In some cases, an adoptive egg can be given to an all-female pairing. A program was instigated some years ago to replace infertile eggs with proven fertile eggs from pairs nesting on PMRF (Pacific Missile Range Facility) land. The idea was to reduce the PMRF colony of laysan albatross to avoid collisions with aircraft by relocating the eggs prior to hatching, since an albatross will typically return to the area where it hatched.

Initially, adoptive eggs were relocated to the KPNWR (Kīlauea Point National Wildlife Refuge) only, but it was later extended to those birds nesting on private lands (such as Princeville).

This wasn’t an option for our pair last year as, for some reason known only to herself, 643 decided to move two doors down to lay and incubate her own egg, while 338 was left alone at the original nest site. Without two adults to incubate an egg, there’s no hope of success, since, as I already mentioned, they must take it in turns to leave the nest to feed.

KP338 and KP643 (with 643's egg)

KP338 and KP643 (with 643’s egg) at the top of the slope

This season, the same pair returned, and this time ended up with their nest just a few feet from our garage, on the edge of the driveway. Not that that was their original intention! They started off tucked behind a sago palm and a bird of paradise plant, at the top of a small slope.

643 laid her egg first, on December 4, and left 338 to incubate it.

KP338 followed her egg after it rolled down the slope

KP338 followed her egg after it rolled down the slope

338 laid her own egg the following day, slightly to one side … unfortunately, it was closer to the slope and at some point during the day, presumably while 338 was shuffling around and beginning to pull some grass around her to form a nest, the egg rolled down the slope.

KP338 on the eventual nest site, admiring her reflection in the car!

KP338 on the eventual nest site, admiring her reflection in the car!

At least, 338 had the sense to follow her egg and sit on it! (An albatross will often ignore an egg that has accidentally rolled out of the nest, and will stubbornly remain on the nest while the egg goes cold – not the sharpest tool in the box!)

On the positive side, since 338 was by now nesting some distance from the sago palm, it was easy to remove 643’s egg without causing 338 any grief.

To avoid disturbance, the ideal is to keep at least 15 feet away from nesting birds but, given their location, that’s simply not feasible for us, or at least for the car, this year. Thankfully, neither 338 nor 643 seem too bothered by our comings and goings (though, of course, we don’t open the passenger door right next to them). At the risk of imposing human characteristics on these beautiful creatures, our pair do now seem to recognize our voices and appear quite comfortable on their accidental nesting site.

We had hoped that their infertile egg would be replaced with a PMRF egg, but sadly this year the State has decided not to extend the adoption permit to private lands. 😦 So, for now, our pair continue to incubate their egg, with no hope of hatching a chick. At some stage either the egg will break or the pair will simply give up hope and abandon the nest. They have been particularly faithful to each other and to their nest this time, despite the egg relocating itself, so we’re hoping they will have another go next year.

This chick (less than a week old) was hatched on a neighbor's front yard

This chick (less than a week old in the photo) was hatched on a neighbor’s front yard

Meanwhile, the happier news is that we now have 18 chicks in Princeville.

We’re enjoying watching the little balls of gray fluff grow, day by day, in our neighborhood.

Once again, I highly recommend Cathy’s blog, My Albatross Diary, as an excellent and entertaining source for more detailed updates on our Princeville chicks, an insight into albatross parenting, and many more great photos and videos.

A typically atypical week at the Refuge

I do thoroughly enjoy my volunteer sessions at the Kīlauea Point National Wildlife Refuge (KPNWR). The less informed might imagine it a somewhat repetitive, uneventful role: hang at ‘the Point’, chat with visitors, explain about our seabirds, talk story about the lighthouse history and restoration, occasionally politely ask someone not to eat, drink, smoke (or whatever else they’re doing that they’re not allowed to do at the refuge), watch for birds, dolphins, and whales…

However, the routine is never quite routine. Take last week, for instance:

The annual bird count:

IMG_4784The annual Christmas bird count is held across the States. Our contribution was to walk around Kīlauea Point on Sunday morning (Dec 16), counting any birds (not just seabirds) that we saw or heard.

IMG_4774As you might imagine, birds being birds, this is not a precise, scientific process!

In the case of the nēnē, it’s not so difficult. Many of them tend to hang out in pairs at this time of year, grazing in a few open areas, and it’s easy to read their band codes without disturbing them, with the help of binoculars.

On the other hand, the Japanese White-eyes and the Kōlea aren’t so cooperative; they don’t stay still for long and aren’t banded, so there’s no way of knowing if we’ve counted the same bird twice (or 10 times)!

IMG_2319Then there’s the colony of red-footed boobies that roost on Crater Hill. Try counting hundreds of distant white dots on a hillside as they constantly take to the air, swoop and land again. In this case, we learned the accepted method was for each individual to pick a small area and count, say, 25 birds, then estimate the number of similar sized areas across the entire hillside and multiply the two. Finally, we took an average of all the counts. Our individual counts ranged roughly from 800 to 1000 birds, so I was relieved we weren’t expected to count every one!

Even though not precise, the annual bird count is a useful, long-established, exercise that indicates trends in bird populations. It’s a regular event on the refuge’s calendar that provides an enjoyable morning for volunteers to get together with rangers and other experts to cover parts of the refuge that we otherwise don’t frequent. You might think about finding a bird count near you next year!

The great escape:

img4813-copyThe following Wednesday, on an extremely windy afternoon, a visitor’s baseball cap was whisked off his head and settled on top of a high bank of naupaka. The cap had significant sentimental value, having belonged to a deceased relative, so the poor chap was desperate to retrieve it.

We made several attempts to hook the cap on the end of a very long pole (what a pity I was too involved in the whole process to think about snapping a photo), but neither the wind nor the cap would cooperate and it finally dropped further into the deep shrubbery, out of reach.  So we called in the cavalry, one of our rangers eventually clambered to the rescue, and man and cap were happily reunited!

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The gosling photoshoot:

Proud nēnē parents and their brood of four newly-hatched goslings were one of the main attractions last week.

They emerged from their nest under the naupaka and gradually worked their way along the west edge of the refuge behind the protective fence, nibbling at the grass.

IMG_4834A number of visitors went to extraordinary lengths to capture a photo of these tiny youngsters at the closest possible range!

Smoke without fire:

IMG_4824At the northern-most tip of Kīlauea Point is the islet of Moku’ae’ae, and on the east side of the islet is a fork in the rock with a hidden lava tube that occasionally spouts a plume of sea spray high into the air. This event is neither frequent nor regular; it depends on the swells hitting the cleft at precisely the right angle and height.

Unlike the more famous Spouting Horn near Po’ipū, we can go many days without seeing this spout, but we were treated to repeated displays last Thursday.

Every day is different – different conversations with visitors, different weather conditions, different sea swells, different number of bird and whale sightings – so I’m looking forward to many more entertaining, illuminating and unexpected events at the refuge in the new year!

Striptease at Kīlauea Point

It been an exciting week at Kīlauea Point!

After almost 4 months of extensive ‘undercover’ renovations, the lighthouse has been disrobed.

It was tough having to mollify numerous visitors, many of whom had traveled thousands of miles hoping to view the lighthouse only to find it shrouded from railing to grass.

Of course, we have had our various seabirds to distract them, and in particular the wedge-tailed shearwater chicks that have featured in more than one recent post; but, for just a few of the most curmudgeonly, even those weren’t sufficient diversion.

This week, however, all that’s changed!

The lighthouse has been stripped naked, and it’s looking glorious!

As we watched the scaffolding being removed on Wednesday afternoon, bit by laborious bit, I was surprised how elated I felt.

When I returned the following afternoon, all the scaffolding was down and being cleared from the site. There is still some work left inside before the week-long centennial celebrations that start on May 1, 2013, but the renovations are currently comfortably ahead of schedule.

The added bonus this week is the return of the albatross.

The first arrived on Sunday, and we currently have four birds on Albatross Hill, to the west of Kīlauea Point.

They’re not easy to see, even with binoculars, from the Point, but I was treated to a brief hike over the hill with one of the staff on Thursday, before I went ‘on duty’.

KP184 was the most accessible of the four, though we were careful to keep our distance, so I was grateful for my zoom lens. Interesting how she it settled down in a semi-seated position. Still, it’s perhaps not surprising if she it was a tad weary after her long journey from Alaska.

Why ‘she’ and ‘her’? Because she’s banded on the left leg. Females are banded on the left, males on the right (except when the rangers very occasionally get it wrong!) 🙂  (see correction below)

Stop Press: Knowing that several albatross had arrived at the refuge, I’d been excitedly anticipating the return of our Princeville ‘residents’; today we had news of the first arrival. My neighbor and fellow Refuge volunteer, Cathy Granholm, has studied our local albatross for many years; she regularly checks the nests in yards and golf courses throughout Princeville, keeping detailed notes, and her blog is full of wit and wisdom. She takes a rest from blogging while the albatross are away, from August to November, so I was delighted to read her first post of the season today, and am looking forward to many more informative and entertaining posts over the next few months.

*CORRECTION*

I’m indebted to Cathy, not only because she bothered to read my post ;), but also because she quickly set me right about the banding. It seems that they can’t band albatross females and males differently, because the only definitive way to confirm the sex is by taking a feather and doing a DNA test. Apparently, all their ‘personal bits’ are very well hidden, on both genders!

It is true that the nēnē (Hawaiian geese) are banded left-leg for females, right-leg for males, and I had been reliably (I thought) informed the same method was used for the albatross. However, in the interests of retaining good relations, I will refrain from disclosing my source; suffice to say that, at the time, I was confident the information was accurate. Now I’m beginning to understand how the Beeb and Newsnight got themselves into such deep doodoo! 😦

Returning roosters at Kilauea Point

…and, by roosters, I do not mean the omnipresent Kauai chicken!

At the Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge (KPNWR) the Wedge-tailed Shearwater chicks (‘Wedgies’) are getting close to fledging. The oldest of the visible chicks will probably be gone within the next couple of weeks. Which means the adults will no longer return to feed them. Adults and fledglings will all (individually) fly south to the Gulf of Panama for their winter vacation.

So, Steve and I headed out to the overlook at Kilauea Point just before sunset one evening last week, hoping to catch a glimpse of the adult Wedgies returning to their burrows and their chicks dotted around the Point.

If they did, we missed them! However, while we were waiting, we were treated to the marvelous sights and sounds of the Red-footed Boobies returning to their roosts.

The adults have bright red feet (I guess their name gave that away, didn’t it!), and also a very blue bill – a bizarrely beautiful color scheme.

These boobies stay with us year-round, and the evening ritual is evidently a popular sight, as we were joined by a number of visitors while we were there.

Our next ornithological treat will be the return of the Laysan Albatross from their Summer break in Alaska which should be any day now! During the three-month break between last seasons fledglings in July and the anticipated adult arrivals, I’ve been enjoying some local albatross stories and photos posted by Bob Waid, a neighbor and fellow volunteer at KPNWR.

Fledging Wedgies

I’ve been cataloging the progress of our Wedge-tailed Shearwater chicks over the past three months (mostly the same one near the lighthouse building), as it is the most accessible, having been laid and hatched above ground instead of in a more typical burrow).

I’ve snapped at least one photo a week since it was a couple of weeks old.

I’ve watched it grow from a tiny ball of almost white cotton wool, through various stages of grey fluff and the appearance of its flight feathers.

It has morphed into an adult as I’ve watched. Its chest is now whiter, with only patches of the grey chick-fluff remaining, and it is far more active, though still not moving more than a yard or two from its nest.

One day soon, I’ll arrive for my afternoon volunteer stint, to find an empty nest. I’ll be disappointed not to see the chick, or to share it with visitors, but delighted to know it’s fledged safely and is on its way down south.