We arrived in Honolulu, Oahu, late on Monday, 1st June, from Dallas, Texas, and after about an hour's wait, caught an inter-island flight to the Big Island, Hawai'i (Hawai'i is the island's actual name, but was given to the chain by Pai'ea Kamehameha [meaning “the lonely one] who ruled as last war chief/first king). From above the island appeared heavily fissured with steep verdant razorback ridges.
My hanai sister, Leilehua Yuen, had invited me to Hawai'i, to run workshops for women in birdwatching tourism, and give them some strategies for dealing with insensitive comments that often greet hula performances. This followed on from similar work I'd done with Kunwinjku people in western Arnhem Land.
Leilehua greeted us at the Hilo airport with leis and a now famous song, Oli Alo ha, written by Mary Kawena Pukui. She took us to her family home, a large white 1930s bungalow sitting high above the street in a large overgrown tropical garden. The house had belonged to her grandfather, one of the first indigenous Hawaiian physicians. Leilehua lives with her husband who looks after his aged mother, but spends some time each month repairing the house so that her husband and she can eventually return.
In Leilehua's garden that first day we saw only introduced birds - Japanese White-eye, Mourning and Zebra/Peaceful Dove, Java Sparrow, and Northern Cardinal. Oh, I did see an Hawaiian hawk, way off in the distance.
Over 1000 plants, vertebrates and invertebrates have been introduced over the past seven decades, including frogs, carpenter bees, mosquitoes and the lowland plants. Mosquitoes carrying avian malaria, have helped to bring about the extinction of much of the lowland avifauna.
Introduced plants include Australian tree ferns which are sold in nurseries and grown in gardens throughout Hilo.. Leilehua has Hawaiian tree ferns in her garden and while they look quite similar to the blow-ins, there are important differences when it comes to using the fronds in traditional ways. For a start the Hawaiian fronds are much softer and easier to use.
The next afternoon three women turned up at the bungalow, the hula dancers for the traditional show that Leilehua holds in the local Palace theatre, and it was most intriguing to see them go through the Maile (forest spirit) dance. This particular presentation was in honour of Trails week. I was to be involved as well.
Leilehua was a protege of Auntie Nona Beamer, an Hawaiian cultural authority who began studying hula, at the age of three. As an adult she studied anthropology at Columbia University. She gave the first authentic performance of ancient hula at Carnegie Hall, in New York. In Nona Beamer's book on Hawaiian chants and rituals (the Institute for Polynesian Studies, 2001, she writes that “the foundation of the Hawaiian culture is the language.”
The knowledge of the Hawaiian language brought home the loss of language and culture among my Kunwinjku relatives, exacerbated by the highlighting of English and Western education to the detriment of other education and language. Traditional education of Kunwinjku children is holistic, and on the outstations they learn by “doing and observing.” There is an Hawaiian adage that says it beautifully - Ma ka hana ka 'ike – In the work is the knowledge. Leilehua stressed the importance of 'upena, the net or matrix of knowledge. As in a fishing net, no knot is more important than the other.
On the Wednesday morning, Michael and I walked through Hilo to the historic Palace Theatre where the performance was to take place. I sat with Oke Ona, an 87 year old hiker with whom I was to speak on walking trails, Oke Ona in Hawaii and me in the Top End of Australia.
As the curtains retreated swirling from the stage, Leilehua entered wearing traditional dress. She began with the welcoming chant she had performed for us at the airport. She then switched to English explaining to the audience how the Indigenous men had chosen trees to cut down, by watching the behaviour of ‘Elepaio, Chasiempis sandwichensis, a type of flycatcher. Leilehua says this bird is a kinolau (body form) of the goddess Lea, a goddess of canoe carvers. ‘Elepaio would seek grubs by probing the bark of trees. If it flew around a tree and instead of settling down to probe, flew off, then that was a sound specimen to be cut down. Leilehua then began the chant used by the men as they hauled the log down the mountain, the audience joining in.
Leilehua made an offering to the gods of the forest, and then handed it to me to carry on stage. Once there Oke Ona and I talked about the necessity of being prepared and staying safe while hiking.
One day Michael and I walked to the beach. Few birds were in evidence, and only Ruddy Turnstone was on the shore – three standing on a rock. I wanted to look for more shorebirds, but not having a car made this difficult. On another visit to the shore, this time with Leilehua, I saw from a distance a small flock of Least Sandpipers and what appeared to be a Ruff, judging by its size and flight pattern.
Indigenous Hawaiians have names for most shorebirds, and some feature greatly in the culture. For instance, Wandering Tattler, is called Ulili an onomatopeic name. Police whistles are also called Ulili, after the resemblance of their sound to the bird's call. Leilehua tells me that Ulili is not to be confused with Uli, the god of procreation, cited in wedding ceremonies!
Hawaiian language is very comprehensive. For instance there is even a word to describe the begging posture used by young birds and some females – nenene.
One morning we we visited the Kipuka Pu'u Huluhulu at Mauna Kea. A kipuka is an area of high land surrounded by lower, younger lava flows. From this large hill-like mound one can see the huge shield volcano Mauna Loa.
Dry forest on this kipuka is dominated by three important trees, the Mamane, Sophora chrysophyla (family Fabaceae)which is the main food source for an endemic bird, the Palila; the red-flowering ohi'a-lehua, Metrosideros polymorpha (Myrtaceae) important for two little red songbirds, the 'Apapane and the 'I'iwi, and the Okoa, Acacia koa (Fabaceae). The scarlet flower of the Ohi'a has long stamens and resembles that of a eucalypt or Xanthostemon. The Okoa has long phyllodes, very much like that of many Top End acacias. I was surprised to recognise so many indigenous Hawai'ian plants in families found in the Top End of Australia.
The first bird we spotted at the beginning of the climb, was an Erckel's Francolin, one of several introduced gamebirds. As we climbed small, yellow-headed birds began to follow us in pairs – Palila. They were rather hard to get a good look at as were some gorgeous scarlet birds - 'Apapane - feeding on a flowering Ohi'a, and so we sat down to see whether they'd come in. No luck so we kept on climbing.
Near the summit, we spotted several more birds. Most were house finches, a shock to Leilehua who had seen no introduced birds on her last visit five years ago. However, there were also little, plain birds that flew rather awkwardly – Hawai'i Creeper.
Entering the Koa forest we saw more Palila. More shocks were in store however – we sighted Indian mynahs and Japanese White-eye. Leilehua mentioned that the area used to be covered with snow in winter, and that often visitors would turn up in t-shirts and shorts. Now it seemed, snow was rare, and introduced avifauna and avian malaria were working their way into some of the last refuges on the endemics.
Leilehua, as a renowned maker of leis and cultural practitioner, knows her plants backward by their Hawai'an names, even the relatively insignificant ones. There are names for all forms and all parts of the plants. I shared my scientific and Indigenous (Kunwinjku) knowledge of plants and birds with her. It was an experience we both enjoyed.
Everywhere we went Leilehua made a lei or offering of plants, and sometimes salt, to various gods.
A few days after we arrived, Leilehua held a lei-making class. We drove to a town called Volcano near the Volcanoes National Park, to collect Kamaluhia, and then onto Park Headquarters where they filled out the necessary forms to allow us to carry out cultural duties within the park. Dean Gallagher, one of the rangers, and I had a long chat about birdwatching tourism etc, and I promised to send him my book Birds of Australia's Top End.
We drove up one of the roads, stopping every now and then to look at plants. In the traditional way we had to drive to where we would first collect and then move down so we didn't retrace our steps. When we stopped Leilehua made an offering and placed it on top of a rock in sight of Mauna Loa. But the wind, blowing strongly, threatened to topple the little leaf-bound parcel, and so she placed it behind the rock.
Prior to this Leilehua had shown us some lava tree moulds. These were holes up to five metres deep made where lava had flowed around trees and solidified. The trees then caught fire in the continuing flow, leaving the holes. We didn't wish to collect along the roadsides where visitors could see us, and so entered the forest, being very careful to walk where there were rocks. Lava tree moulds could be anywhere, and we didn't wish to risk a sudden drop!
Moving downhill to our next stop, a Koa forest, Michael and I were delighted to encounter some Elepaio. They were confiding little birds that looked, and behaved, like a hybrid between a fantail and a fairy-wren. Then, driving past a Ohi'a we spotted some red birds – Apapane. But one had a long beak and a “rusty door” call – 'I'iwi. It wasn't keen to make another appearance and Kamaluhia had to feed her baby so we left. Kamaluhia, like Leilehua, is very keen to learn about Hawai'an birds and birdwatching tourism, and I promised that next trip I'd run more workshops.
After dropping Kamaluhia home with a promise to return in a few hours to show her lei-making techniques, Leilehua took us off to see the volcanoes from Jaggar Museum. The museum is named for Dr. Thomas A Jaggar who came to Hawai'i in 1909 to serve as director of the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory. His concern for society resulted in improvements to the forecasting of eruptions, earthquakes and tsunamis. From the museum we looked into the smoking caldera of Halema'uma'u.
I had hoped to see Nene, the indigenous goose now the state bird of Hawaii, and Koa'e, White-tailed Tropicbird roosting in the crater. Unfortunately there were no Nene in the grounds, and we couldn't explore too widely as a gas alert was in place. Elevated sulphurous gases (sulphur dioxide) had made driving around the crater dangerous. Sulphur dioxide levels were 700 tonnes per day compared to the average rate of 140 tonnes per day. The island was on orange alert, with molten lava present in a funnel-shaped cavity in the floor of the crater.
So we went instead to the big caldera, Kilauea 'iki, parked at the top and went for a walk in the drizzling rain. Hundreds of feet below us, on the smoking floor of the volcano, were walkers. As I watched them, a bright orange bird with a short beak flew past – 'Akepa. We then drove to the Volcano Hotel where we saw many 'Apapane.
It was late by the time we returned to Kamaluhia's home. But she needed to know lei-making techniques in order to show them to relatives she was about to visit. So Michael and I entertained baby Nigel while the two women sat cross-legged on the floor. Then Michael took charge of Bubs while I joined in the class.
The next day, a Sunday, we joined a group of volunteers from E Mau Na Ala Hele, members of the Pu'u Wa'awa'a Volunteer Work Program and Mike Donoho of the Division of Forestry and Wildlife in clearing a path through a forest. This particular area has won funding to clear weeds, namely Fountain Grass Pennesetum sp. and Silk Oak, an invasive grevillea, from a public hiking trail, part of the historic Pu'u Wa'awa'a Ranch, and put in habitat for Nene.
On the way we spotted Yellow-billed Cardinal, a South American species, hopping around the carpark near a shopping centre. When we stopped near the park where we were to work, flocks of Yellow-fronted Canaries in the invasive Fountain Grass, and a few Japanese White-eye were the only obvious birds. Near the park building was a dam under construction. A pair of worried Hawaiian stilts flew round in circles, and so I moved away thinking they might have young – this was later confirmed by the ranger.
At least fifty volunteers turned up to remove stones from the track. One I got to know was Cindy Evans, a state MP. She, Leilehua and I heaved stones together, all the while talking. We covered topics from birdwatching tourism to motor cycles.
We left early as I had to prepare a presentation to give the next day. However, as usual, we became side-tracked. First, a couple of friendly horses hung their heads over the fence for a pat. Then I spotted Saffron finches – we'd seen them before in Hilo, but not as well. On a fence nearby sat some rather pale finch-like birds – Warbling Silverbills, another introduced species.
On the way back to Hilo Leilehua asked if we'd like to see the site where the film Waterworld was made. It proved to be a huge valley, Waipi'o, overhung with trees that looked very much like paperbarks Melaleuca leucadendra. Nearby hopped a Yellow-billed Cardinal and so I took its photo! Far below, Koa'e glided over the breaking waves.
And of course we couldn't miss the highest waterfall on the island – Aka. A most beautiful place, but, sadly, Leilehu couldn't find one native plant. And the only bird in sight was a Japanese White-eye, and the only frog we heard, the Coqui, Eleutherdactylus coqui (family Leptodactylidae, a family not found in Australia) introduced from Puerto Rico. I couldn't help comparing the place with the Australian waterfalls I'm familiar with.
On the Monday, I gave my last talk, a Kope Kope Coffee House. Elaine, a delightful lady of Japanese ancestry, who had worked in the Congressional Library, Washington DC, came to collect us as Leilehua was busy - she had conducted a wedding service in the morning and was now running a hula class. Elaine greeted Michael and me with beautiful leis she'd made by hand, placing them around our necks and then hugging us.
Elaine was avidly interested in native plants and birds, and on reading of my talk in the local newspaper, had decided to come along, as had several other people. Elaine said she often had Pueo, Short-eared Owl, and 'Io, Hawaiian Hawk in her garden. Michael and I had seen the latter from Leilehua's garden, along with a large raptor, its wings held in a dihedral Of the latter bird Leilehua said there were odd records of Steller's Eagle being blown in on storms, along with other Palearctic birds, but this one didn't come close enough for me to ID.
Leilehua is a world-authority on early monarchy styles of Hawaiian feathered regalia, Kahili – the royal feathered standards (analagous to a coat of arms), from the period around 1778, and is interested in doing a PhD so that this knowledge is not lost. She has begun compiling information on Hawai'ian birds, with my help.
We left early the next morning for home. Leilehua sang to us as she had done on the first day, and we promised we'd be back.
The next morning, our last full day in Hawai'i, I looked out the kitchen window to spot a medium-sized brown bird wearing what appeared to be white eye-liner heading across the lawn into the bush - Melodious Laughing Thrush, yet another introduction.
At Sydney Airport, the television program Border Security was being filmed. To our relief the officer was professional but very friendly. I told him that I’d scrubbed my boots with nappy cleaner both entering and leaving the US. He approved. Soon we were on the flight back to the NT.
Michael and I would like to thank the following people especially, for helping to arrange this trip and for sorting out various problems along the way: Alana McBride (great service and advice, my dear friend) and Melita Zaknic; Fred and Anne Weinmann; Nicole Duplaix; Ron Felzer; Muriel Horacek; Bob Sanger; Sky and Anne Hilts; Meredith B. McGuire; Gerald Kyle;
Ellen Prediger; Ross and Lyn Silcock (special mention to Lyn for her efforts in obtaining antibiotics for me); Ros and Don Pevsner; Jesse Pope; Stewart Skeate; Ellen Rudolph; Margo Smith; Anne Lindsey and Nancy Easterling; and the one and only Leilehua Yuen.
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