Home & Garden Columns

Wild Neighbors: Ghosts of the Alaka’i

By Joe Eaton
Thursday May 13, 2010 - 09:30:00 AM
Crossroads in the Alaka'i Swamp, Kaua'i.
Ron Sullivan
Crossroads in the Alaka'i Swamp, Kaua'i.

One last Kaua’i column and I’ll have gotten it out of my system.

Early on in our visit we spent a day in the Alaka’i Swamp, in the highlands of western Kaua’i. Not strictly a swamp in hydrological terms, it’s more of a bog where rainwater has collected above an impermeable layer of lava. It even has bog plants like the carnivorous sundew, the same species that grows in the Arctic tundra, probably transported to the island on the plumage of a migrating Pacific golden plover. There are patches of stunted ‘ohi’a trees, similar to the pygmy forests of the Mendocino coast. 

This is one of the last remnants of the old Hawai’i. Most of the plants are native, despite the incursion of kahili ginger: canoe-quality koa trees; ancient ‘ohi’as that have fallen over but refused to die, upholstered with ferns, vines, and lilies; lobelia relatives with arcuate flowers. In the absence of grazing mammals, some have dropped their defenses, resulting in stingless nettles, clawless catbriers, and mintless mints. 

That’s true of the birds—the real draw for us—as well. We saw and heard plenty of exotics, including incongruous northern cardinals, white-rumped shamas, and Japanese white-eyes. But in the Alakai they were outnumbered by natives, mostly Hawai’ian honeycreepers or drepanids—“dreps” for short. Drepanids are one of the great exemplars of how evolution works in an island setting. “They make Darwin’s finches look sick!” said a tour guide on the Big Island a few years ago.  

From a common ancestor something like a North American goldfinch or housefinch, the honeycreepers diversified into at least 51 species, each with its own anatomical and behavioral specializations. The drepanid tool kit includes long curved bills for probing flowers, crossed mandibles for prying open buds, heavy parrotlike bills for crushing seeds.  

Unfortunately, most of these remarkable birds have gone extinct: 

a first wave when the Polynesians cleared the lowland forests for agriculture, then, within the last century, a second driven by mosquito-borne diseases like avian malaria. By the time the government got around to conferring endangered status on some of the survivors, they had been reduced to remnant populations at altitudes too high for mosquitoes. Other groups of birds, like the native thrushes related to the Townsend’s solitaire and the extraordinary o’os, met the same fate. With reduced numbers, they were vulnerable to environmental catastrophes. Several Kaua’i species have not been seen since Hurricane Iniki. 

A few are hanging on in the Alaka’i. Knowing our chances of finding these birds on our own were virtually nil, we hired a local guide, David Kuhn, to take us there. Access involved a tortuous dirt road that our rental PT Cruiser could never have managed, then a hike along a boardwalk trail. Kuhn, a sound recordist who captures the voices of humpback whales as will as songbirds soundshawaiian.com , took us to the junction of the Alaka’i Swamp and Pihea trails, then down a side path to an opening in the forest. One by one, the birds checked in. 

We were visited by Kaua’i ‘elepaios, active and personable Old World flycatchers that reminded us strongly of wrens with their cocked tails and loud chatter. A pair of crimson ‘apapane flew by, and a scarlet i’iwi stopped to nectar at one of those curved lobelioid blossoms, its long orange bill a perfect fit for the shape of the flower. Then came a bright yellow male ‘anianiau, a small, short-billed bird something like a Wilson’s warbler, and a greenish Kaua’i ‘amakihi with a longer, more curved beak. The ‘elepaio, ‘anianiau, and ‘amakihi were endemic Kaua’i species; the ‘elepaio and ‘amakihi have close relatives on other islands, but the ‘anianiau is truly one of a kind. 

Another target eluded us, though. We may have heard the upslurred chirp of the ‘akeke’e, a goldfinch-like bird with a black mask, but none ever showed itself. Kuhn said the species had been getting harder to find lately, which sounded ominous. He staked out a couple of spots they were known to frequent, but no ‘akeke’e. Two other birds, a honeycreeper and a thrush, would have required a serious slog into the depths of the Alaka’i. 

We couldn’t complain, though, about the best day’s birding we’d had in years. It was a privilege to see as much as we saw—a window into a vanishing world.  

The birds of the Alaka’i are still in grave jeopardy. Although the place is mosquito-free for now, global warming is expected to expand the insects’ habitable zone. Some native songbirds may be evolving resistance to the malaria pathogen, but others may not be able to adapt fast enough.  

I picked up a two-CD set of Hawai’ian bird calls in preparation for the trip. It includes the only recordings of a Kaua’i ‘o’o, a lone male in the Alaka’i, singing his heart out. It seems inevitable that some of the species we saw there will sooner or later join him in the chorus of ghosts.