In January of this past year a pretty amazing thing happened: two nēnē whooshed down at Mid Pacific Country Club in Lanikai, the first time that wild nēnē have touched down on Oʻahu since the 1700's. After delighting golfers near the fifth hole, they later settled down at James Campbell National Wildlife Refuge on Oahuʻs North Shore. Within a month the pair had nested; another month later three goslings hatched out. Experts identified the special geese as K59 and K60, the "K" indicating Kauaʻi as their original home, specifically the Kauai Lagoons golf course. Turns out the links was a favorite spot for quite a few nēnē, but due to its close proximity to Lihue Airport, 200+ of the geese were translocated to the Big Island in an effort to reduce the risk of a bird strike at the airport. Itʻs believed the pair were flying back to Kauaʻi for the breeding season. Happy to have them do a little island hopping.
Once plentiful on all the islands, the nēnē population was down to less than fifty or so individuals in the early 1950ʻs, a result of habitat degradation, hunting, and predators such as feral cats and mongooses. Today, they are climbing back, thanks in large part to captive breeding programs. The population now hovers around 2500, with birds on all the major islands with the exception of Oʻahu. The largest numbers are found on Kauaʻi, most likely due to the lack of mongooses (though they have recently been identified there) as well as lots of lowland habitat. On Hawaiʻi and Mauʻi, they tend to be found at mid and high elevations.Though related to the Canada goose, nēnē are smaller and more terrestrial, with feet showing reduced webbing and padded toes for waddling on rough terrain. Vegetarian grazers, nēnē browse on a range of leaves, berries, seeds and flowers to start their day off right.
Here's a beetle that will make your plumeria shudder. It's the plumeria borer, Lagocheirus undatus, and it's no friend of the blossoms that spread so much aloha here in the islands. Getting to about two centimeters in length, you can i.d. this hefty beetle by the antennae which are longer than its body, and darker brown blotches at its "waist." It's a species of longhorn beetles, family Cerambycidae, which is a large family, but has several members that earn the dubious distinction of being pests. The plumeria borer larvae are known to drill beneath the bark of the plumeria; you may notice a small hole on the stem with black ooze. Insecticides don't have an impact as the damage occurs internally. Withered stems need to be cut of and destroyed pronto! The adult pictured above decided to pay me a night visit, and while I admire its beauty, I love the beauty of my plumeria a whole lot more.
Before the summer slips away, I have to pay tribute to my friends in the sky - the beautiful summer triangle that presently dominates the sky from dusk ʻtil dawn. As I laid back on the lawn of the Waikiki Shell last week, I noticed gorgeous Scorpius climbing high, and then took in the triangle, as Jack Johnson sang "Constellations," and all felt right with the world. The summer triangle is a great place to start learning the summer constellations, and my favorite star guide is H.A.Reyʻs "The Stars" (yes - the same man who wrote Curious George had his head up in the stars).
The triangle is made up of three bright stars in three separate constellations: Deneb, in Cygnus the Swan; Altair, in Aquilla the Eagle; and Vega, in Lyra. This is a huge asterism (the name given to a star pattern that isn't a constellation), and easy to spot even in the city lights of Honolulu. Looking east at nightfall, find the brilliant blue-white Vega. Cast your gaze a bit lower and to the left, and there's Deneb, the northernmost of the three. Extend your arm and make a shaka - thatʻs the approximate distance from Vega to Deneb. Looking at Deneb, you are seeing the light that left that star approximately 2600 years ago - around the time that LaoTse and Buddah walked the Earth. Oh, my stars! The southernmost star is Altair, a shaka and a-half from Deneb, marking the head of the eagle. Lyra and Aquila straddle the Milkyway, and the Deneb and it's swan lie on the plane of the Milkyway, as if this swath of distant stars in our galaxy points the way to the swan's migratory path south.
For the crew of the Hokuleʻa, this triangle represents the three points of the Navigator's triangle, Huinakolu, and is part of the third star line, Manaiakalani. Deneb is known as Piraʻetea (a.k.a. Hawaʻiki), and corresponds to Hawaiʻi; Lyra is called Keoe and is the heavenly representation of Rapa Nui; and Altair takes the Hawaiian name Humu and represents Aotearoa. Drawing a line from Pitaʻetea to Humu, and extending the line southerly, the third star line continues on to Pimao (Sagittarius/ the "teapot") and to "The Big Fishhook of Maui, Ka Makau Nui o Maui, the glorious Scorpius.
Striking a pose against the martian landscape at the summit of Mauna Haleakalā, the rare ʻāhinahina, or silverswords are presently in bloom, and wowing visitors. The inflorescence is worthy of the attention it gets from the one to two million visitors to the park, and its been said that this is a particularly good year for flowers. Silverswords are long-lived, anywhere from 5 to 90 years, yet flower just once, at the end their lives. This final reproductive event usually occurs in the summer months, when the silvery rosette sends out a stalk, sometimes as large as six feet, covered with as many as six hundred maroon flower heads. The resemblance of the flower head to a sunflower is a clue to its membership in the daisy family, Asteraceae. Viable seeds are critical for this threatened endemic. As they cannot self-pollinate they rely on insects, such as the yellow-faced bee to do this for them.
While the inflorescence is simply stunning, the rosette of silver leaves is nothing to sneeze at either. Growing only on the slopes of Haleakalā at altitudes of 7000 to 10,000+ feet, the succulent and hairy leaves are adaptations to the arid, windy, and cold alpine environment. The parabolic reflector shape of the rosette aids in focusing sunlight towards the growing shoot tips, keeping them warm. A brethren subspecies, similarly remarkable, is found on Mauna Kea.
Me and you and you and me, no matter how they toss the dice, it has to be, the only one for me is you, and you for me...
So dear is the māmane tree to the palila, one of the larger Hawaiian honeycreepers. They prefer to nest in it and a good 90% of their diet consists of the immature seeds, leaves, flowers, nectar, and caterpillars found on it (naio berries sneak in as a food source too, but not by a long shot!). Among the largest of the Hawaiian honeycreepers, palila can get up to around seven inches, and sport a stout, rounded bill perfectly adapted for eating unripe māmane seeds, which contain bitter alkaloids that are toxic to other wildlife. Sadly, it is the only finch-billed honeycreeper remaining of sixteen. Critically endangered, and confined to the māmane and māmane-naio subalpine forests of Mauna Kea, palila move up or down the slopes depending on the availability of their favorite seeds. The steepness of the southwestern flank means that trees at various elevations will be flowering and seeding at different times, thereby providing a year-round food source. As a result, most palila are found on this part of the dormant volcano.
When food is in good supply, nesting usually begins in the spring, often in the higher branches of good-sized māmane. Eggs generally hatch in about two and a half weeks. The juvies are characterized by a yellowish beak and white wing bars. Male and female adults have a dark bill and yellow head; in males the yellow extends to the nape, in females the nape has more of the greyish feathers of the upper back. Males also have darker lores - the area between the bill and the eyes.
So what happened?
The story of the decline of the palila is a complicated one, with many factors perhaps playing a role. Anything that affects their special māmane affects them, including drought, development of the land for agriculture, and grazing ungulates. In 1978, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals mandated the removal of feral sheep and goats from the critical habitat of the palila. With the numbers of grazers much reduced, the māmane forest has a chance to rebound. Yet overgrazing by these creatures has allowed the spread of alien grasses and shrubs, such as fountain grass and gorse, which increase the risk of fire in this dry habitat. Avian malaria, rats and feral cats, as well as predation by the pueo, have also contributed to the decline of palila. And if that isn't enough, parasitoid wasps affect the caterpillars they eat. But all is not lost! The Mauna Kea Forest Restoration Project is working hard to educate the public and to restore and protect the critical habitat of the palila. Also fighting the good fight is the Keauhou Bird Conservation Center, raising and releasing palila. Imagine how the world could be, so very fine...So happy together.
Look out millipedes, Haematoloecha rubescens is in town, and from what I can gather, heʻs looking for you. There is little information to find on this colorful fellow, but it would seem it made its arrival here in Hawaiʻi in 1970 from tropical regions of Asia, with a particular appetite for the garden centipede, Oxidus gracilis. Like its kin in the family Reduviidae, this red assassin bug is a predatory insect known for its slim neck, long legs, and segmented rostrum, a projection off the head that is used to pierce its victim. The bite delivers a saliva that liquifies the insides of its prey, which is then neatly hoovered out. The bright red and black coloration, known to biologists as aposematism, is a warning that the organism is not to be messed with.
Bug or Beetle? True bugs, such as this one, undergo incomplete metamorphosis: eggs are laid, but there is no larval (grub) stage. The immature bugs hatch out and look somewhat like their adult forms; several molts will get them to that point. Beetles undergo complete metamorphosis like butterflies. As adults, true bugs they have two pairs of wings, like beetles, but the covering wings form an x-shape; beetles covering wings form a straight line down the back when at rest. Another difference is in the mouth parts. True bugs have a straw-like appendage for piercing and hoovering; beetles have mandibles for chewing.
Just a mere one to three centimeters, this native of the Caribbean has found its way to many new locations, including Hawaii. The nursery trade is the most likely culprit, spreading this species through infested plants and landscaping materials, thus its name, the Greenhouse frog. It shares the same genus as the coqui frog, though smaller and most certainly, quieter, with a soft call that some describe as melodious. Like the coqui, it is a direct developing frog - there is no tadpole stage. No standing water needed, the eggs are laid in damp areas, such as in leaf litter, or under logs, with the little froglets emerging from the eggs in a few short weeks. Greenhouse frogs are nocturnal, and not normally seen, though they may venture out a bit in the day after a rain. Iʻve never seen one in my yard, though students often find them in the landscaping at the school where I teach. Dinner consists of insects, spiders, worms, and snails, some of which are native and threatened. This, plus the fact that native birds compete for similar resources, has earned this guy a page in the Global Invasive Species Database. Little though they may be, they have big potential to become "A Little Hop of Horrors."
Snug as a bug in a rug, the Hawaiian spiny lobster, Panulirus marginatus, spends its days hunkering down under rocks, or in the nooks and crannies of the reef. These coveted spots are shared with two other species of spiny lobster, but this colorful, nearly sixteen-inch banded spiny lobster is the only endemic one. Lacking the big, honking claws that the Maine lobster is so famous for, they rely on sharp, forward-facing spiny projections on the upper-sides of their body for protection from predators, including monk seals, octopi, and most certainly, humans (see below). At night they emerge from the rocks and hard places to do some hunting of their own. Scavenging is a part of their resume as well; their willingness to snarf up the occasional dead fish keeps the reef tidy and contributes to the health of the reef ecosystem.
Spiny lobsters are capable of communicating and sounding warning calls by means of stridulation - the rubbing together of two body parts to make a rasping noise. Unlike crickets that stridulate by rubbing their wings together, these sea bugs (as crustaceans are sometimes called) produce sounds by moving their antennae. This results in a soft tissue called the plectrum to stick, then glide, stick, then glide - cello players know what I mean - over a file near the eyes, creating a sound something like running your finger down a comb. An advantage of this is that they can make these noises even when they are in the vulnerable time after moulting.
Once threatened from overharvesting, pressure on ula poni was relaxed a bit in 2000 when a commercial lobster fishery in the NWHI was closed, and the area was designated a protected marine sanctuary under the Hawaiian Islands Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve. Here in the MHI, ula cannot be taken May through August, females are off limits year round, and males must have a carapace length of three and one quarter inches. Spearing is prohibited. Check http://dlnr.hawaii.gov/dar/fishing/fishing-regulations/marine-invertebrates/ for updates. Consider that it takes a good eight years for the lobsters to reach maturity. And further consider that overharvesting by humans means less for young monk seals.
Every dog has its day, and it's today that the dogbane family gets a front and center post. It all started when I went out in my backyard this morning, marveling at the beautiful, vining Stephanotis in bloom. At the same time, the large seed pods of this plant have ripened, going from a smooth green pod, to a yellower, wrinklier version, and some have split open. Inside are lots and lots of tightly packed seeds, each with a silky sail. The seeds and pods so reminded me of milkweed, I had to get online to see if they were in the same family. And indeed, they are. Milkweed used to belong to its own family, but has recently been reclassified in a subfamily of the family Apocynaceae, (pronounced a-pos-ih-NAY-see-ee, or a-pos-ih-NAY-see-eye) the dogbane family. Dogbane members often (but not always) have a milky sap, which can be poisonous. Their leaves are simple (meaning the blade is whole - not divided into leaflets), and often opposite to each other (two leaves arise on opposite sides of the stem from the same node) or whorled (several leaves arise from the same level on the stem and encircle it). The petals may be fused or partially fused, and are usually five-lobed.
With this general information, I began to look around my yard, and the plants in the neighborhood, thinking about which might be related. And, wow, it turns out many of our tropical ornamentals are in the dogbane family. I immediately thought of the crown flower, the plumeria and the yellow allamanda, a vining plant with yellow trumpet-like flowers, and yup - they're all in the family. Add to that list the natal plum, the Madagascar periwinkle, vinca, the be-still tree, maile, oleander, and mandevilla - and there's plenty more. Seems the neighborhood has gone to the dogs.