Trip yields ‘lifers’ for unkept list of finds

Trip yields ‘lifers’ for unkept list of finds

Before everyone reading this column loses their mind over the accompanying picture, let me put your “rare-bird alter” minds at ease and confess I actually shot the photo on the Hawaiian island of Kauai, a mere 4,600 miles away from my own backyard.

To say that’s the furthest I’ve ever traveled for a photo is a gross understatement and also a mild stretch of the truth. My wife and I didn’t go to Hawaii just for the birds. The trip was a once-in-a-lifetime adventure to celebrate my 60th birthday and at the same time visit a dear friend who lives on the island. That same friend not only happens to work at one National Wildlife Refuge, but also volunteers at another and possesses an almost encyclopedic knowledge of the island she’s called home for over 20 years. The birds were a bonus — and a huge one at that.

It often seems to come as a surprise when folks find out I have never kept a life list of birds. It’s not that I’m opposed in any way to tabulating my sightings. Goodness knows I do my best to document them through photography, but I figure I’ve already squandered 60 years not adding checkmarks in the back of my birding books. Why start now?

Frankly, if I did hold a life list, the trip to Hawaii would have delivered so many easily scored sightings I’d be almost ashamed to share them. It was like shooting fish in a barrel, and with 63 of Hawaii’s bird species existing only within the chain of islands, it would be like having a 20-meter head start in the 100-meter dash. I saw things I could barely believe — and that was just on the drive from the airport to our rental.

That our friend arrived to a life in Hawaii from elsewhere is emblematic of much of the island’s population. It seemed like nearly every resident we met was from “away.” The same could be said of many of the bird species that now call Hawaii home. The islands were first permanently inhabited a mere 1,000-2,000 years ago. That’s nothing in terms of geologic time. Imagine an island paradise entirely untouched by humans.

As is the nature of man alone, he quickly began to alter the landscape to fit his own needs. Species of plants — typically agricultural or medicinal — and food-stock animals were transported from homelands for utilitarian purpose. Many bird species were brought in as singers or decorative additions to the landscape. Rats weren’t invited at all, but nevertheless came along for the ride. All have thrived.

Each new arrival was of consequence to the delicate native habitat. Endemic species suffered greatly and irreparably. Each arriving wave of civilization brought along its own set of new additions, and their success was such that every one of first half-dozen “lifer” bird species I encountered upon my own arrival to Kauai were actually transplants from other lands that had arrived within only the past 100 years or so. That fancy red-crested cardinal in the accompanying picture? It traveled even further than I did to get to Hawaii, arriving from Brazil in the cargo of a steamer during the 1930s.

I’ll share more of my Hawaiian adventures in the coming weeks. Be sure to tune in.

If you have comments on this column or questions about the natural world, write The Rail Trail Naturalist, P.O. Box 170, Fredericksburg, OH 44627, or email You also can follow along on Instagram @railtrailnaturalist.

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