During our trip to the big island of Hawai’i, Emily and I spent time exploring Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park. With just under two million visitors spending time in the park last year, Hawai’i Volcanoes has some unique cultural and natural resources that draw people into the park at all hours. Perhaps I will write a longer blog detailing the park’s many attractions in the future, but this article is about one specific feathered resident of Hawai’i.
One of our outings took us to the aptly named Devastation Trail, which is an easy walk that takes you through a landscape that was buried in falling cinders from an eruption that took place in 1959. As you walk the one-mile paved loop, you can hear the native birds singing above you in the bows of the ʻōhiʻa lehua (oh-hee-ah lay-who-ah) trees and in the ʻōhelo (oh-hell-low) shrubs. Once you pass through the forest, you are faced with a nearly barren landscape with minimal signs of life returning to the area.
A Brief Bit about the Nēnē Goose
The official bird of the State of Hawai’i since 1957 (that’s two years before Hawai’i became a state), the nēnē is the world’s rarest goose. Endemic to Hawai’i (native or restricted to a certain country or area), the nene goose is believed to have arrived in the Hawaiian Islands shortly after they were formed (roughly 500,000 years ago). Smaller than a Canadian goose, by about half the body mass, the medium-sized nene is not migratory and spends so much time on the ground foraging for food, mating, and nesting that introduced predators, such as mongoose, feral pigs, rats, cats, and of course humans, decimated the nene population until the early 1950s when there was only 30 believed to have existed in the wild.
Although the nene population is not even close to what it was pre-contact with Europeans (estimates are upwards of 25,000), thanks to conservation and education the nene goose population is still on the rise. Today, there are roughly 2,500 nene found on the islands of Hawaiʻi, Maui, Molokaʻi, and Kauaʻi. A pair of nene were introduced on O’ahu back in 2014, and they had offspring, but I could not find any more information on whether they have been sighted recently.
And now back to a parking lot
Trying to keep a safe and respectful distance, I grabbed my 70-200mm zoom lens from the trunk of our rental car and laid down in the grass to get a few shots. I assumed the geese might get spooked, so I got a few quick shots in, but after a few minutes, I realized the nene did not care about us, so I took my time and composed a few pictures worth sharing.
Nene #872, named after the numbered band on its leg, was quite the professional model. I think I could have taken pictures of that particular nene all day long and neither of us would have gotten tired of it. A few times, I actually had to back up because the nene seemed so comfortable foraging close to humans.
Our day in the park was already a good one (any day in a national park is a good day), but spending time with nenes 872 and 838 made that day unforgettable. Being able to take photographs of an endangered wildlife species, observing them from a safe distance in their natural habitat is the kind of opportunity people dream of when they drive into most national parks (at least it is what I dream of when heading into a national park).