Nature / Uncategorized

Halemaumau Crater – an unexpected place for bird watching

There has been ongoing activity at Halemaumau Crater since the series of eruptions in 2008. While the permanent lava lake is relatively benign, the incessant volcanic smog emissions have caused health concerns and various inconveniences to locals near and far. I suspected that all creatures, not just humans, avoided the crater – despite being majestic, it was a barren place, and surely, no creature would want to, or be able to call such a harsh environment home.

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Halemaumau Crater

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Volcanic smog in Halemaumau Crater. The white speck is a White-tailed Tropicbird  (Phaethon lepturus)

I was wrong. A small moving white spot caught my eye within minutes of admiring the view of the crater from Jaggar Museum. It appeared to be a bird, but what would a bird be doing in the smoky crater? There was no food, no fresh air, and the pyroclastic deposits didn’t make the place look cosy either.

A ranger shared all he knew of the peculiar bird with me – his story never ceases to fascinate when I retell it.

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Photograph of a white-tailed Tropicbird (Phaethon lepturus), taken by Bettina Arrigoni

“That’s the White-tailed Tropicbird (Phaethon lepturus), we call it Koa’e Kea in Hawaiian. They’re seabirds that come up here during nesting season to lay eggs. They like nesting in the caldera because the slopes are extremely steep. See how they are almost vertical? It makes it virtually impossible for the rats and the mongooses to get up and take the eggs. But you can never be too sure – that’s why they’re still on guard and circling around. They’re monogamous birds, so they only lay one or two eggs each season and become very invested in rearing the young. One of them stays to incubate the egg while the other gets food – they have a real partnership going on. They’re around all the craters in Big Island”.

Next question – why are the mongooses and rats up there?!

-end-

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