Natural Connections: Nenes And Blueberries In Hawaii

"With small, pointed, waxy leaves and bright berries, many of the plants reminded me of species I’d find in bogs in the Northwoods."

Natural Connections: Nenes And Blueberries In Hawaii

My parents and I didn’t spend all our time looking up for rare birds in Hawaii. After walking the Pu'u O'o Trail, we drove just a few miles down the road to the Kaulana Manu Nature Trail. The route through a lovely kipuka – a vegetated area in a sea of younger lava flows – was lined with plant identification signs.

With small, pointed, waxy leaves and bright berries, many of the plants reminded me of species I’d find in bogs in the Northwoods. We’d been puzzling over the plants while birding, and now a sign next to a shrub with pink berries identified it as Pūkiawe. Cross-referencing with my iNaturalist app, I discovered that it’s in the Ericaceae family, along with cranberries, blueberries, and black crowberry. No wonder it looked familiar! The interpretive sign also mentioned that the berries are eaten and dispersed by nēnē geese.

ʻŌhelo, read the next sign. The scientific name, Vaccinium reticulatum, told me it was a type of blueberry without even consulting my app! The berries are red to orange, though, and are sacred to the volcano goddess Pele. No berries may be eaten without tossing a few to Pele first. I’m pretty sure the nēnē geese skip that part, as the berries are a major part of their diet, and the geese are a major part of seed dispersal for the plants.

The next plant, with tiny, pointy, evergreen leaves and shiny black berries looked just like black crowberries, but a little research informed me that they are in the coffee family. Kūkaenēnē, the Hawaiian name, translates to “nēnē dung.” The berries not only look like nēnē scat, they also show up in nēnē scat after being munched on by the birds.

After reading all these references to nēnē geese, we were anxious to see one. Besides being handsome, with buff-and black diagonally striped necks and black faces, nēnē are the state bird of Hawaii, and one of the most endangered waterfowl in the world.

Just like the ʻApapane and ʻIʻiwi I wrote about last week, the ancestors of these geese were blown off course to the Hawaiian Islands and then stayed there, although the geese only arrived about half a million years ago, vs. five million for the honeycreepers. The Canada geese-like birds radiated quickly into at least seven different species, including the nēnē-nui or great nēnē, which were nearly four feet long and weighed almost 20 pounds. Unsurprisingly for birds that big, most of the geese species became flightless or nearly so.

When Polynesians arrived on the islands with dogs, rats, crops to grow, and mouths to feed, the geese quickly diminished. By the time of European contact, only the nēnē still thrived, and only on the Big Island. With the addition of mongooses, cats, cattle, goats, and more land use changes brought by Europeans, the numbers of nēnē declined precipitously to just 30 birds in 1952.

Captive breeding, reintroductions, and protection under the Endangered Species Act brough the nēnē back from the brink. Their success requires several of their breeding strongholds in national parks to remove and exclude non-native predators. Fences can make things difficult for nēnē, though, since they are adapted to migrate between low elevation nesting areas and foraging areas higher on the volcanoes.

Descending the Saddle Road into Hilo, we kept our eyes open for nēnē. We’d read that they sometimes hang out on golf courses, not unlike their Canadian cousins. No luck. The following day we met an “Institute-on-Demand” guide from the Friends of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Upon hearing we really wanted to see a nēnē, she took us on a quick detour through the grassy lawns of the Kilauea Military Camp within the park boundaries. No luck on geese, although my dad spotted a Snickers bar in the general store.

On our first day on Maui, we drove the almost endless switchbacks to the top of Haleakalā National Park. At the top of Puʻu ʻUlaʻula, we chuckled at the many non-native chukars who strutted around the parking lot, and we stopped to photograph nēnē crossing signs along the park road, but still no luck.

As the Sun was getting low, and daily clouds obscured the rest of Maui, we gave up and began navigating our way back down the tight switchbacks. Pulling into a trailhead to let a faster car pass us, we found a single nēnē casually ripping grass at the edge of the pavement next to a “do not feed the nēnē” sign. With enthusiasm that far surpasses any I’ve ever felt at seeing a Canada goose, we exclaimed at our good luck and began snapping photos.

In addition to having the elegantly striped neck instead of just a white chinstrap, nēnē have longer legs and shorter wings than Canada geese, as adaptations to their more terrestrial lifestyle. Since some of the terrestrial places they live are lava flows with rough surfaces, their feet have less webbing and more padding. Almost every nēnē in the park sports leg bands as well, to assist scientists with research and monitoring. We admired the handsome bird in the last rays of the setting Sun. Then the goose casually crossed the asphalt, ducked into long grass next to the outhouse, and disappeared.

A few days later, having landed in Minneapolis, I went for a sunset walk down by the Minnesota River. As a skein of Canada geese honked over my head, I felt a little flash of connection. With blueberries, basalt, and geese in common, Hawaii and home don’t feel nearly as far apart as they used to.

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 24, 2024 7:52 am CST

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