Natural Connections: Flown To Hawaii

"Arriving to Hawaii on relatively large wings feels impressive, but not impossible."

Natural Connections: Flown To Hawaii

Bright blue waves crashed on a white sand beach that drew me in like a magnet. I left my parents napping in the truck. They were worn out after a week of adventures in Hawaii. Standing on the edge of the Pacific Ocean, I was surprised by how much the lush green hills of Maui’s north shore reminded me of summer in the Sawtooth Mountains along the North Shore of Lake Superior.

The silhouette of a soaring bird caught my eye. At home they would have been an eagle. Here, the forked tail identified the bird as an ‘Iwa, or Great Frigatebird. Wings are one of the main ways that life gets to Hawaii, and boy do frigatebirds have wings! Their seven-foot wingspan is the largest of any seabird commonly found in Hawaii. Weighing only 3 pounds, they have the lowest wing loading of any bird on Earth! That’s in stark contrast to our Common Loons, who have the highest mass-to-wing-area ratio of any bird who can still fly.

While our loons make impressive migrations to the ocean each winter, frigatebirds make regular trips across thousands of miles of open sea, returning to Hawaii or other islands to breed. This makes them indigenous to Hawaii: they are native here, but not only here. Of all the wings bringing life to Hawaii, these seemed the most effortless and natural. Flying long distances across open water is what they are built for. Even the airplanes coming and going constantly require more energy in flight. Other winged arrivals probably required a bit more luck.

At a different beach, in the Kealia Pond National Wildlife Refuge, we spotted another amazing, flighted arrival. Kōlea, or Pacific Golden Plovers, live up to their names, even during the non-breeding season. As we walked the boardwalk at sunset, the light illuminated the golden shades in the mottled feathers of these small shorebirds. Like us, they come to Hawaii to escape cold weather elsewhere. In the lovely warmth, they feast on insects to fatten up. Starting in late April, they begin an incredible 8,000 mile migration back to their breeding grounds in Western Alaska. While most return to winter in Hawaii, some head to New Zealand, Australia, Southeast Asia, and the Horn of Africa.

Throughout our journey, I photographed several more species of little shorebirds who also breed in the Arctic. ‘Akekeke, or Ruddy Turnstones; Hunakai, or sanderlings; and ‘Ulili, or Wandering Tattlers. All of these continue to make impressive flights every year, and so they are generally considered to be part of global populations who share genetics.

A few other waterbirds arrived on Hawaii, probably accidentally blown in on a storm, and stayed. Ae‘o, or Hawaiian Stilts, have been isolated on the islands long enough to have become their own subspecies, distinct from the ones who live in North America. This subspecies is endemic to Hawaii, which means they are native here, and only here. We sought them out near the headquarters of the Kealia Pond National Wildlife Refuge. The whole place smelled of rotting fish, and tilapia carcasses dotted the drought-dried edges of the ponds.

Ae‘o may be the most elegant birds I’ve ever seen. Standing 16 inches tall, with natty, tuxedo-like, black-and-white plumage, they wade through muck on long, graceful pink legs. The contrast between their snazzy plumage and the mudflats where they use their slender black bills to forage for worms, fish, and crabs is comical. The fishponds and flooded fields where Native Hawaiians grew their traditional food called taro used to be great habitat, but changes in the economy have destroyed that for everyone.

Also in this wetland, we spotted ‘alae ke‘oke‘o or Hawaiian coots, and Hawaii’s native duck, the Koloa Maoli, which looks a lot like a Mallard. The ancestors of both of these waterfowl arrived so long ago that they are now considered new species, endemic to Hawaii. To my eyes, they still look like home.

Arriving to Hawaii on relatively large wings feels impressive, but not impossible. Enter, dragonflies! Throughout Kealia Ponds, we spotted their much smaller wings everywhere! Not all dragonflies and damselflies in Hawaii are native. Some arrived with humans. But the ancestors of the endemic ones are older than the islands themselves. The insects got their start on early islands who have since eroded away into mere pinnacles of rock. With all that time, they’ve evolved into 26 species and subspecies found only in Hawaii. A cousin to our Green Darner dragonfly has a record wingspan of 6 inches!

The big wings of an ‘Iwa, the migratory wings of Kōlea, the small wings of Ae‘o, and even the metal wings of an airplane, are all impressive ways to arrive in Hawaii. But my favorite story of winged arrivals begins with a flock of rosy finches from Asia who get blown way off course and land in a tropical paradise. In a version of Darwin’s finches on the Galapagos Islands, they evolved into a rainbow of species. I can’t wait to tell you more!

Emily’s award-winning second book, Natural Connections: Dreaming of an Elfin Skimmer, is available to purchase at www.cablemuseum.org/books and at your local independent bookstore, too.

For more than 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Our exhibit: “The Northwoods ROCKS!” is open through mid-March. Our Winter/Spring Calendar of Events is ready for registration! Follow us on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and cablemuseum.org to see what we are up to.

Last Update: Jan 03, 2024 6:50 am CST

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