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.

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.

Celebrating National Wildlife Refuge Week: A Retrospective

Last Sunday (Oct 14) was just the first day of a fun, eventful, and informative National Wildlife Refuge Week.

KauaiThe USFWS (US Fish and Wildlife Service) rangers organized several guided hikes for the public to see parts of the Kaua’i wildlife refuge lands that are very rarely open to anyone outside the Service.

The groups were limited, with reservations required, and the places were all filled very quickly. So the rangers also provided additional guided hikes for the volunteers. Lucky us! 🙂

For the first of the two hikes, last Tuesday, my friend Alice and I planned to carpool ‘down south’ to join a kayak/hike group on the latter hike portion of their Hule’ia National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) tour.

Newell's shearwater at Lydgate ParkFortunately, Alice (thank you so much, Alice!) had learned that the Save Our Shearwaters team, with the help of a class from a local school, were planning to release a number of Newell’s shearwaters. Typically, at this time of year, these are injured or disorientated fledglings that have been rescued and nursed back to health.

Local school children helped release the shearwatersSo, we left Princeville early and headed to Lydgate Park on the East shore, arriving just in time to see the last of seven birds that day sitting on the release platform and surveying its surroundings (we would have been a tad-plus-a-smidgeon earlier, but yours truly remembered she’d forgotten her hiking shoes, which resulted in a 10+ minute round-trip delay – sorry, Alice).

Less than a couple of minutes after our arrival, we witnessed Newell’s shearwater #7 spread its wings, take off and confidently head out to sea – what a cool sight!

Lydgate ParkLydgate Park itself is also pretty cool. There’s a huge great maze-like structure, several stories high, that’s been built for kids (small and not-so!) with numerous decorative plaques dotted throughout the walkways.

Lydgate Park

So, of course we had to check that out before heading to the meeting point at Nawiliwili small boat harbor (with just a minor detour to Costco for a restock of alcohol as requested by ‘him indoors’)! 😉

Hule'ia NWR

The hike took us through the wetland area that was once a network of Hawaiian taro fields, but is now maintained for the endangered wetland birds, as well as to preserve the Hawaiian cultural history.

Mike Mitchell, Deputy Project Leader at the US Fish and Wildlife Service, ‘talked story’ as we wandered through the refuge, pointing out native and invasive plants and detailing the effort that was required to restore the wetlands after many years of disuse, as well as the ongoing maintenance.

Hule'ia NWRThe refuge is tucked away inland to the west of Nawiliwili Harbor and the Menehune Fishpond, with the Hule’ia river bordering the refuge to the south.

It was a wonderfully serene, quiet area, with the only outside noise coming from an occasional and distant helicopter…oh, and one microlight (which Alice told me she’d once experienced, which made me rather envious).

On Wednesday and Thursday afternoons, I was back at the lighthouse for my regular volunteer sessions. Although many of the visitors were unaware that it was NWR week when they first arrived, there were plenty of large posters and additional information for them to learn about all the refuges throughout Kaua’i, Hawai’i, and the other States.

Crater HillOn Friday afternoon, we were treated to a final volunteer-only hike to Crater Hill, part of the Kilauea NWR that includes Kīlauea Point, with its lighthouse, then spreads to the east along the coast.

We saw the colony of red-footed boobies from a completely different angle than we usually observe from the lighthouse, and were able to get much closer to them.

Juvenile red-footed boobieWe sat for ages on the hill, watching the adults and juveniles soar around us, and learning fascinating details about our Kaua’i seabirds from Beth Flint, FWS SeaBird Biologist. Boy! She was a wealth of knowledge, and so entertaining with it! She’s based in O’ahu, but I do hope she’ll return to us for future hikes.

Then we wandered across the cliff top, with fabulous views along the coastline, as well as across Kilauea.

We saw wedge-tailed shearwater chicks nestled in their cliffside burrows, loads of red-footed boobies, white tailed tropic birds, and great frigatebirds, including a large group of males (surprisingly, since at the lighthouse we see predominantly females and very few males) soaring around the cliffs.

Oh, and we were thrilled to spot a stingray, way down below us in the ocean close to shore. I snapped a photo of that too, but you wouldn’t thank me for subjecting you to it…it just looks like a small black dot; still, I know that dot’s a stingray!

Stingray, honest it is!…On second thoughts…

…you see, like I said…just a black dot!

After the hike, I helped Sheri, one of the rangers, set up for the free movie night that the USFWS had organized for the entire community at the old Kīlauea Theatre (now home to the Calvary Chapel). I grabbed a tasty pannini (to go) from Kīlauea Bakery (love love love their website!), and then enjoyed the show with the rest of the crowd.

The first of two movies was a recent short documentary called ‘Endangered Hawaii’, narrated by Richard Chamberlain and highlighting the plight of Hawaii’s endangered birds, including many species that are sadly already extinct. It was particularly interesting for me to see several familiar faces from the USFWS who were interviewed for the documentary, with many shots of Kaua’i including the refuges we visited earlier in the week. If you’re interested in the demise, but more importantly in supporting the protection, of these species, please purchase and encourage others to enjoy the DVD.

The feature film was ‘Oceans’; a Disneynature film released in 2010 (enjoy some spectacular clips in this trailer on YouTube). This movie was narrated by Pierce Brosnan. The narration was a tad slow-moving at times, but the underwater cinematography was truly remarkable, and left me utterly bewildered as to how they were able to capture many of the shots (that is, when I even remembered that a camera was there)!

Well, that’s another week of my life gone – kaput! Still, it was certainly interesting and thought-provoking, and one that left me with many impressions and fabulous memories, so I guess I shouldn’t complain too much at the speed of its passing!