The Hawaiian rainforest, I’m finding, has a way of getting under your skin.
Not just in the mud that’s permanently engrained itself in the ridges of my hands and under my fingernails, or in the leptospirosis infections that I’m sure I play chicken with every day that I slip in a stream. Something about this habitat—well, I’m sure it’s a feature of my nest-searching job, too—forces me to pay attention to this place and its inhabitants.
It’s so different from other rainforests (say, the Amazon): like them it’s a mossy wall of green in all directions, but unlike them the tangled scene is seldom interrupted by colour. There are, for example, few gaudy flowers below the canopy. There are almost no butterflies. The swarms of colourful beetles and bugs I used to see in Peru are nowhere to be found, and most of the birds are greenish-yellow.
But then I take another look. If I’m atop a ridge, I can look out over the canopy and notice that a few ohia lehua trees have started blooming, creating a red spot on the green carpet. And the ‘apapane and ‘i’iwi, two brilliant scarlet birds, are foraging in abundance among those flowers. I find few butterflies, but if you know where to look you’ll notice moths—tiny, perfectly camouflaged as moss or lichen or fallen leaves, hidden in plain sight. The lobelias are starting to bloom, too, and you’ll find long tubular flowers in strange shades of purple-green tucked in among spiky leaf clusters. (The Hawaiian lobelias have undergone an adaptive radiation, one ancestral species splitting into many different ones, as they co-evolved with long-beaked bird pollinators.)
It’s not just the visual environment that unfolds itself like this. Kaua’i’s birds are often quiet and frustratingly difficult to distinguish by ear, but they’re also sometimes difficult to see. I’ve had to attune my ears to them, and while I’m far from confident at identifying them by their calls, I’ve found I’ve developed a knack for hearing when I’m near a nest. While before I found nests mainly by randomly stumbling across the ones that happened to be near eye level, now I listen for the female bird or the nestlings begging, and try to pinpoint the nest from those calls. And suddenly I’m so very aware of what birds are around me and what they’re doing, instead of treating them as pretty background noise.
I mention nestlings because we’re now at a stage in the project where we spend more time monitoring nests to see when they fledge or fail than we do looking for new nests. Watching nestlings that are about the leave the nest is quite the experience. They are—well, the parallels to human teenagers are all too obvious. They do strange things for no reason. Their behaviours are a mixture of baby things and grownup things: they’ll try to fly, but then they’ll step back into the nest and beg for food from their parents. (Something they keep doing after they fledge, I should note, which makes the “empty nest” metaphor a bit more nuanced!)
I found an ‘i’iwi nest last week that I thought was close to fledging (I’m certain they’ve actually fledged by now, actually, but I haven’t heard from the people currently in the field monitoring them). ‘I’iwi (that’s pronounced ee-ee-vee) are everyone’s favourite native Hawaiian bird: they’re bright red with black wings, about the size of an American robin, and have pink legs and a huge, downcurved pink beak. They are mainly nectarivores, and they make a huge range of weird, squeeky, creaky calls. Their colourful plumage plus the strange noises makes them an odd combination of goofy and dignified. At least, that’s the adults. The juveniles are green where their parents are red, but their beaks are still huge and pink. And the nestlings (like most baby birds) have colourful gapes—the insides and corners of their mouths are bright orange-yellow, a cue that encourages the parents to feed them. In other words, they are all goofy and no dignified. The two chicks in the nest I found are even more so, since they still have a bit of their baby down: they each have two fluffy white “ear” tufts coming out of otherwise greenish-grey heads. They’re as big as their parents and hardly fit inside the nest, and their Gonzo-esque beaks hang over the sides. They could fledge at any time–their flight feathers are all in—but they just won’t. They’ll perch on the nest’s edge and flap, and the braver of the two will step outside onto a convenient twig, but it always steps right back in. Not that I blame them; it was a cold, rainy week and I’d rather stay in a nice warm nest too!