Sunday, February 19, 2017

An unexpectedly great day!

An unexpectedly great day!  We set out today to explore the nether (southern) regions of the Big Island, in particular the new section of Volcanoes National Park (called Kahuku, formerly a large cattle ranch).  We did do that, but we also did a bunch of other things, including seeing more birds than we have on any other day this trip.

The first thing we did was to make the walk in Kipuka Puaulu again, this time getting there at 7 am.  We had the kipuka to ourselves until we were nearly done with the walk, a couple of hours later.  The first photo below shows Mauna Loa beautifully lit up by the early morning sun.  We have only rarely seen Mauna Loa with such clarity, and not long after I took this photo the haze rolled in.  Mauna Loa is a shield volcano with no large cinder cones, so in profile it looks like a little mound.  The summit of Mauna Loa is about 20 miles from where I took that photo, and is 13,679' high (about 9,500' higher than where I took that photo).  It sure doesn't look like such a massif!  The rest of the photos are from the loop trail in Kipuka Puaulu.  Debbie did the walk much faster today than she did just a few days ago – our walking is doing her a world of good.  Her knees are feeling pretty good, too.  We heard far more birds than we saw, but we did see a few (documented later in the birding section).

After we finished this walk, we high-tailed it for Na'alehu – the southernmost town in the U.S.  The drive took us through Ka'u, the southeast area of the Big Island.  It was clear there in the morning, and the scenery from a roadside pullout quite beautiful (at right).  We drove through Na'alehu and a couple of smaller towns until we got to the entrance for the new section of the National Park, Kahuku.  We were hoping that we'd be able to drive up into the old ohia forests a couple thousand feet higher in elevation, but the upper slope sections are completely closed, even to hikers.  The reason is a good one, though: they're trying desperately to prevent infection of those stands by the Rapid Ohia Death fungus – and so far, they've been successful.  We could, however, drive part way up, so we did.  We were glad we took the time, because the upper elevations of the part that's still open are a riparian environment with former pastureland mixed with ohia trees – similar to the old Parker Ranch on Mauna Kea, but with ohias instead of koas (see first photo below).  That area was full of birds, and we got some great bird watching in there (species listed later in this post).  The second photo shows a fence post that someone rather stupidly sawed flat on top.  The resulting standing water hosted organisms that have severely damaged top of the post.  In these parts (where they get a lot of rain) one would think they'd know better!

After leaving Kahuku, we headed for Ka Lae, the southernmost tip of the Big Island.  We passed a coffee house (Ka Lae Coffee) along the way, and naturally Debbie wanted to stop in for a drink (she might be addicted :).  As the link says, the coffee was good and the service was very friendly.  Even better: there's an orchid nursery attached!  After we got our coffee we ambled through a couple of shade houses there, gawking at their gorgeous horticultural orchids:

Ka Lae itself was interesting, but not particularly scenic in general – and we saw darned few birds down there.  We did enjoy the views of wind-swept trees (the winds there are nearly constant and fairly strong), and rolling meadows with lots of horses and cows.  The first two photos below were taken from the western side of Ka Lae, looking south first (showing Ka Lae itself) and then northwest.  We drove down to Ka Lae, where there was a crowd atop the 50' bluffs.  I parked and got out for the short walk down to the bluff tops while Debbie waited in the car, as it was a bit too rugged for her.  I wanted to see the hoist that I remembered, that would haul boats in or out of the water there.  They were gone, and a fisherman there told me that had been done years ago because people were getting hurt or even killed using them.  The people swarming the bluffs were mostly families, picnicking or fishing, and a few tourists gawking – except for one thirty-something Japanese woman that I shan't soon forget.  She was accompanied by a professional photographer and the normal suite of equipment for outdoor portraiture: reflectors, flashes, color meters, a Nikon camera and a big honking lens.  She was sitting on the bluff top, just inches from the edge, posing for photos, with people on both sides of her.  Most striking of all: she wore a pair of skimpy shorts, and nothing else, unless you count the bright blue paint on her nipples and her cherry red lipstick.  Lots of people were watching, but nobody seemed to be offended.  Interesting.  The main question I have is why the blue nipple-paint?  The last photo below shows the remaining field of wind turbines.  The last time we were here was something like 20 years ago, and at that time there was a vast field of wind turbines – at least 100 of them, maybe more.  Now just these few!  What happened?  Well, the same fisherman I mentioned earlier told me that the original owner of those turbines went bankrupt, and the turbines fell into disrepair.  Some burned up, and a couple even fell over.  There was a big flapadoodle, and eventually the state levied a sales tax surcharge to raise the funds to demolish them.  As you drive down to Ka Lae, you'll pass the boneyard of the parts they tore down, including many sections of the large-diameter steel support shafts that held up the turbines themselves.  An epic green fail, it seems...

By this time Debbie and I were hungry, so we headed back north to Na'alehu and the restaurant she'd picked out: Hana Hou, the southernmost restaurant in the U.S.  As we walked in, delicious aromas wafted all around us, and we noticed that the patrons all appeared to be locals.  Debbie had the Santa Fe quesadilla (stuffed with roast pork and onions), and I had the fish and chips (locally caught ono in panko crumbs, with potatoes and slaw).  Both were excellent, and the portions were generous.  Our waitress was friendly and welcoming.  The whole experience was nice.  And filling. :)

After we were done eating, we planned to head back to our cottage at Hale Ohia.  It was still relatively early, though, so we took some side trips along the way hoping to see a few more birds.  The first few attempts we made were complete duds, but then we hit the freaking jackpot.  First we turned off State 11 onto an unnamed road (that's not even on Google maps) just south of mile marker 54.  This road meandered through beautiful macadamia nut orchards with stretches of forest interleaved, until it ended up just outside of the town of Pahala, where it intersected Maile Street.  We saw lots of birds along that road, and also lots of flowers.  Then we meandered a bit until we spotted Cane Haul Road on the map.  That road, much to our surprise, was paved all the way back to Na'alehu, twelve miles or so away.  It's an alternate route to State 11 that we didn't even know existed, despite all the many times we've visited and explored here!  And, more to the point, it is vastly more beautiful – high enough to be in areas that get rain, so the trees and the understory plants were dense and lush.  On the Pahala side we passed though macadamia orchards and coffee plantations; on the Na'alehu side we went through riparian pastures.  Gorgeous!  Plus, bazillions of birds that we couldn't stop to look at because it was getting towards dark.  We ended up in Na'alehu on the same street that Hana Hou was on, right back where we'd started several hours earlier.  We're already making plans to return that that area for an entire day next week, to explore and do some serious birding.  After that, we just high-tailed it for Hale Ohia.  A few photos (more on our next visit there):

Last but certainly not least, our birds.  We spotted many yellow-fronted canaries, several cardinals (both northern and red crested), lots of Japanese white eyes, several saffron finches (those things hurt your eyeballs they're so bright), one pair of akepa, lots of common amakihi and apapane, bazillions of myna, and many kolea.  I had a quality sighting of a bird that's not in our bird book: the size of a house finch, striped brown-and-white mottling on its breast, a chocolate brown back and head, a dark finch beak with black markings all around where the beak meets the head.  Finally, we saw our first nenes of this trip: a pair flying to the east into the Ka'u desert, at dusk.  I could only identify them by their unmistakable goose silhouette, but there are no other geese here so they had to be nenes.

What a great day we had today!

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