‘Akaka Falls

One of my first stops on the rainy and windy windward side of the island was the impressive ‘Akaka Falls.

When I pulled into the nearly full parking lot, the rain had ceased, for now. I might have a short window to get a sketch in.

So I hiked with purpose, passing others with selfie sticks. I kept an eye on the clouds as I moved along the mile long loop trail and they looked like they could squeeze out a mild downpour at any moment. Hopefully not this moment!

Before I got to the waterfall viewing platform, I had already had pre-visualized the sketch. I knew because of the ever changing weather conditions, that I would have to work quickly, so that meant brush pen. I also wanted to simplify the form of the falls adding ink to frame the white of the paper which would represent the water of the waterfall. Short, quick, concise and hopefully not smeared by rain.

I could hear ‘Akaka Falls first before I saw it. Heading down the paved path, the free-flowing waterfall came into view.

I oriented my sketchbook vertically, uncapped my brush pen, and started sketching. While I was sketching, I had a sense that I was being watched. This often happens when I am sketching at a popular destination. A kindly women remarked, “That’s beautiful! I could never do that!” I though about which of my standard responses I would use and I went with, “Well I don’t watch a lot of television.” And I reassured her that anyone can draw, it just takes willpower and practice. That seemed to stop her in her tracks.

Walking down the path to “Akaka Falls.

“Akaka Fallsisa free-falling falls. In this case, from the top of the falls to the pool below, water falls 442 feet, twice the height that Niagara Falls falls.

This women is thinking, “I bet I could draw this.”


Birding Pu’u O’o Trail

One of my first destinations on the Big Island was not the beach or swimming pool but to the southern flanks of Mauna Kea to look for endemic Hawaiian birds. This is the birding hotspot Pu’u O’o Trail.

The trail started over a lava flow and soon descended into the verdant rainforest. The trail was marked with lava rock cairns. As long as I kept the cairns to my left, I wouldn’t stray from the trail.

The forest was a riot of bird song and despite my years of birding experience and notching up almost 1,700 species worldwide, I felt like a novice again. The birds were easy to hear but much harder to see. Hearing their songs was like listening to a foreign tongue, which I couldn’t understand, despite listening to recordings of many Big Island endemics. For some reason Kurt Vonnegut’s quote about the difficulties of writing came to mind, “When I write, I feel like an armless, legless man with a crayon in his mouth.”

I was finally able to get a decent look at a Hawaiian endemic, one of the most common endemic forest birds, the bright red honeycreeper called ‘apapane.

Butt-view of the endemic honeycreeper, ‘apapane.

On my wishlist was the most iconic Hawaiian honey creeper: the endangered i’iwi, but while I know what it looked like, I struggled to identify it by it’s voice. It doesn’t help that the ‘apapane have an series of varied and confusing calls that could have been mistaken for it’s more famous cousin.

I planned to hike the first two miles of the trail. This part snakes through a kipuka. A kipuka is an island of mature forest that has been isolated by lava flows. In these environments, bird life is intensely concentrated. Indeed it is a birder’s paradise!

In the mid canopy I heard a song that resembled the beeps and pips of R2D2. It belonged to the endemic thrush called ‘oma’o. It can only be found on the Big Island. It stayed in view long enough for me to take a series of photos. I enjoyed brief time with this Big Island endemic.

‘Oma’o, an endemic thrush only found on the Big Island.

After about two miles, I made it to the edge of the forest and the trail wound off south into the dark lava fields. I had not yet seen my number one target bird, the i’iwi, but I though I might have heard it. Or was that just another ‘apapane?

I retraced my steps, this time the lava cairns were to my right. I would have another opportunity to see the elusive i’iwi. This time I felt I understood the forest and it’s hidden fauna, just a little better but so far away from mastery. My Hawaiian birding training wheels where still firmly attached.

At the edge of a clearing I thought I heard the honeycreeper, and a few seconds later a bird appeared on the top of a tree singing. Long downturned beak, vibrant red plumage and black wings. 

The impressive i’wii was mine!

Kipuka in the foreground and the snow covered peak of Mauna Kea, the tallest mountain in the Hawaiian Islands.

Volcanoes of Hawai’i

The two volcanoes that dominate the island of Hawai’i are Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa.

Volcanoes are the genesis of the largest island in the Hawaiian Island chain and volcanoes continue to add to the acreage of the younger island in the chain.

The volcano Mauna Loa (meaning Long Mountain) makes up about 50% of the total land mass of the Big Island. And from it’s base on the sea floor to it’s peak, it’s considered the tallest mountain in the world, about 2,972 feet taller than Mt. Everest.

Since 1843 (when records were first kept) Mauna Loa has erupted 33 times. One eruption in 1863 caused a 7.9 earthquake, the largest quake ever recorded in Hawaii.

Perhaps because of it’s vastness, Mauna Loa does not appear as prominent as it’s northern cousin, Mauna Kea. Mauna Loa’s peak appears as a tall rounded hill unlike the tall pointed alpine peak of the Alps which tends to be our quintessential version of a mountain.

At 13,803, Mauna Kea, meaning White Mountain, is the highest mountain, above sea level, in the Hawaiian Island chain. It’s snow covered peak is visible, when not shrouded in clouds, can be seen from many points in the northern parts of the island.

Both volcanoes were on my “to sketch” list and I sketched them with broad pen brush strokes, attempting to capture the overall form, rather than the details.

I find when I’m field sketching with a brush pen I am more likely to sketch because I can work quickly, leaving more time in the day for more sketches. This was my approach with the two sketches of Mauna Loa and Kea.


Kona Pelagic

I was happy to see that a pelagic birding trip was scheduled while I was on the Big Island. It is an excellent opportunity to add some wanted lifers that I would not be able to see with feet firmly planted on solid ground.

We boarded a fishing boat in the wee hours at Honokohau Harbor. While Captain Brian was going over safety, I saw a bird that was flying over from the north: white-faced ibis! This is a rare bird in Hawaii and a good omen for the pelagic.

We headed out into the waters west of the Big Island. Looking off to the northwest looked to be another part of the Big Island but in reality was the island of Maui. To our south, fishing boats where headed off in parallel paths to the big fish fishing grounds. Five minutes out of the harbor we saw our first marine mammal, spinner dolphins.

Our first pelagic bird was a brown booby and then we where seeing a smattering of wedge-tailed shearwaters, the most common shearwater in these waters (lifer!). Within the mix of shearwaters were sooty shearwaters, the most common shearwater off of the west coast of California.

Just after 8:00 AM the bird activity started to pick up with the rare (for these waters) Juan Fernandez petrel. Our guide Lance, pointed it out as it crossed our bow heading to the starboard. This was a new bird for me and it was followed by other lifers: Bulwer’s petrel and sooty tern.

Off to the starboard, Lance called out a much desired tern for this trip: white tern (this bird is also known as common fairy-tern and white noddy). The white tern can be easily seen in Honolulu parks, where it nests in trees, laying a single egg right on a flat, horizontal branch.

A little further south and we can upon a Hawaiian petrel, resting on the water! This was later followed by a mottled petrel, both were lifers for me. I was slowly coming to a birding milestone: 1,700 world species seen. If my math was correct, which is always in doubt, I was one bird away from 1,700! I wondered what it would be and if it would even be on this pelagic.

We got great looks at the Hawaiian petrel before it flew off.

I looked up to the bridge where Captain Brian was blasting reggae. I asked Brian, “How’s the view up there?” His response surprised me, “Come on up and have a look!” Now being invited to the bridge simply does not happen on California pelagic trips. Things are just a little more looser or friendlier or both here on the islands. I climbed up and while it was much more pitchy up here (luckily I never get seasick) the view was incredible.

The view from the bridge was outstanding!

Shortly afterward we spotted a tiny bird on the water. It was like an old friend because red phalaropes are frequently seen on Californian pelagic trips.

A short time later I spotted a tropicbird flying towards our position and something looked at little different, the bird was awfully white. I called out, “Red-tailed tropicbird!” Lance got bins on the bird and confirmed it. And just like that, red-tailed tropicbird became my 1,700th species seen on planet Earth! I celebrated with a high-five from Captain Brian!

How did I identify a tropicbird I have never seen before? I did my homework. This pre-trip spread compared the three species and red-tailed really stood how with is’s all-white dorsal side. It also helps that is has a bright red streamer flying behind!
This is a white-tailed tropicbird seen on the pelagic. Note the black on the wings and the white tail.

One of the things I like about pelagic birding trips is that it’s not just about birds. Birders tend to appreciate all nature and so most boats will stop to look at marine mammals. In California I have seen different species of dolphin and porpoise and humpbacked, gray, and blue whales. The only marine mammal we had seen on this Kona pelagic were the spinner dolphins, just outside the harbor. But I didn’t think we would see a shark! In this case a hammerhead!

The menacing dorsal fin of a hammerhead shark.

This pelagic was an amazing experience and I saw many birds (eight of them lifers), some dolphins, and a shark.

I can’t image coming to the islands and not taking in it’s incredible flora and fauna.

Why sit by a swimming pool when you have the Pacific Ocean?

Note: Much thanks to our pelagic birding guide, Lance Tanino. If you are in need of a birding guide on the Big Island, I would highly recommend Lance. He really knows his Hawaiian birds and he knows where to find them! Check out his website at: www.


The Place of Refuge

For me, the Big Island is not all about laying by a pool, sipping Mai Tai’s, or 100% Kona coffee, and listening to Martin Denny.

I wanted to get to know about Hawaiian culture, pre Captain Cook. What was life like on the Big Island before it was the “Big Island”?

Probably the best place on the Big Island, or perhaps any island, to learn about this past is Pu’uhonua O Honaunau National Historic Park, The Place of Refuge.

The Place of Refuge is south of Kealakekua Bay. I arrived when the park opened at 8:30 and almost had the place to myself.

Pu’uhonua O Honaunau has a feeling of peace and power and deep spirituality. This has been regarded as an important center by native Hawaiians for centuries.

A brush pen field sketch of a Ki’i of a Hawaiian god.

In ancient Hawaii, the kapu system (taboo laws) governed the lives and behaviors of the common people. There where many ways to break a kapu law, for instance, men eating with woman, your shadow (or footsteps) crossing that of a chief, or hunting or fishing out of season and many, many more. The nobility believed that if a taboo law was broken that it would incur the wraith of the gods and as a result cause volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, earthquakes, or lava flows. So the punishment for for breaking kapu was severe: death.

But there was a catch. If you could get to a Honaunau or Place of Refuge, before getting caught, you would be given amnesty, be blessed by a priest, and then be sent home on your way. But first you had to get there, either by running or swimming or both!

Pu’uhonua O Honaunau is such a Place of Refuge and parts of it are well preserved. This was a refuge for many centuries until kapu laws were repealed in 1819 by King Kamehameha II.

The heiau or temple was built about 1650. And it housed the bones of 33 chiefs.

Probably two of the most photographed Ki’i or Tiki statues on the Hawaiian Islands. These two guardians represent Hawaiian gods. These carvings are so much better and more detailed than the Tiki statue at Kona Kai Swim and Racquet Club of my youth.

I wandered round the park and then found a place in the shade, across Keone’ele Cove to sketch the panorama that included the Royal Grounds, Great Wall, Hale o Keawe, palm trees, and carved Ki’is (featured sketch). This was a wonderful meditation as sketching in the field almost always is. I paused at times as people snorkeled in the cove from the snorkel hotspot known as “Two Step”. I also watched a Pacific golden-plover forage on the reef, along with the introduced yellow-billed cardinal. The sketch I made in the shade is the featured sketch.

Bonus fact: This historic park is one of the few places in Hawaii where the Hawaiian flag can fly alone without the US flag.

The Great Wall was constructed over 400 years ago and is 950 feet long and 12 feet high.

Mauna Loa, the Long Mountain

I look forward to seeing and sketching the world’s largest volcano on the planet earth, Mauna Loa, the Long Mountain.

The volcano is so big, and such a major part of the island of Hawaii, that is tough to get a firm perspective of the mountain, so I was going to have to get a little creative with my viewpoints on how to capture the mountain in sketch.

I before I stand before the mighty mountain, pencil and sketchbook in hand, I wanted to do a pre trip sketch to help put the scale of Mauna Loa into perspective.

A volcano I had visited in recent memory was Mount Lassen. This was a volcano that had erupted sometime ago (in May of 1917) but it was clear to see in quite easy to sketch. I was looking forward to comparing both of these volcanoes and how they were alike and different.

A brush pen sketch of Lassen Peak from October 2020.
A spread on the different types of volcanoes at Lassen National Park. Mauna Loa is a shield volcano, which is a volcano that is a broad dome with gentle slopes extending to the ocean floor.

For my spread about Mauna Loa, I based of my sketch on part of a map I picked up at REI. The map was produced by Franko Maps and is titled “Hawaii Adventure Guide”.

The specs of Mauna Loa are incredible. It’s the largest active volcano in the world. It rises 13,100 feet above sea level. But if you look at the base of the seafloor where Mauna Loa rises, it is a 32,000 ft making it the largest mountain on planet Earth. That is almost 3,000 feet taller than Everest. Mauna Loa extends for 74 miles and covers half of the island of Hawai’i and it’s area adds up to about 85% of the area of all the other Hawaiian Island combines.

One of Mauna Loa’s eruptions produced the largest earthquake in Hawaiian history.

Mauna Loa is a very active volcano having erupted 33 times in recorded geologic history. It’s last eruption was in 1984, which is a extremely short time ago on the geological timeline. That eruption came within seven miles of Hilo.

Will Mauna Loa erupt again? It is not a question of “if” but “when”.


Gull Puzzles: Venice Beach

I was listening to a radio program and the subject was about how puzzles have become more popular during the pandemic. There’s always been one sort of birding puzzle that has also gained popularity in recent times but is also a puzzle that turns a lot of birders off, and that is gulling.

For a long time birders just dismissed a flock of gulls and didn’t try to pick through them. To the untrained eye, gulls look the same and if there aren’t adults, then they can be very problematic for identification. One flock can contain a range of ages and two members of the same species, roosting right next to each other, many look like entirely two different species.

Now there is a much better understanding of gull plumage through all their various life cycles and there are quite a few books that provide identification techniques and photographs on identifying gulls in all their ages.

On my Monday President’s Day I headed to the coast to try to puzzle over some gulls. One of the best spots on the San Mateo County coast is Venice Beach, just north of Half Moon Bay. Here Pilarcitos Creek snakes it’s way into the bay.

Anywhere along the coast where there is a broad sandy beach with a freshwater steam can be a good gull roost. The freshwater attracts the gulls because here they can preen and wash and rest. To me, a bathing gull is a joyous sight to behold.

Lots of gulls on Venice Beach with many coming and going. I predicted there where over 300 birds.

At Venice Beach there where about 300 gulls resting on the beach or floating in a raft just off shore. I set up my scope on the bluff above the creek and beach and started scanning the flock.

I was seeing a lot of gulls of different species and ages: western, California, herring, and glaucous-winged. But I was looking for a gull that stood out from all the rest of the flock. Perhaps a gull with a yellow bill and dark earmuffs or a shockingly white gull with a black-tipped pink eraser bill. I was looking for rare gulls. A gull that stood apart.

And then I spotted the large white gull of the High Arctic but my view was obscured by the undulating roll of the beach so I headed up along the bluff for another look. It was worst. The gull was hidden between the Surfline and the beach. I wasn’t helped by that fact that parts of the flock where flushed when a beach walker decided to amble through the flock, taking a video, no doubt, to impress their eight followers on TikTok.

Also there where many gulls coming and going. But I didn’t see a large white gull take to the air so I assumed it was still among the 300.

I continued scanning the flock looking for that puzzle piece that didn’t quite fit in. On one of my scans I came across a smaller gull that was preening, hiding it’s beak in it’s back feathers. I didn’t need to see its beak shape or color to know that this was a rare California coastal gull. The darkness around its nape and the dark “earmuffs” were the giveaway. I was looking at an adult black-legged kittiwake! When it turned it’s head back I saw it’s all yellow beak.

The adult black-legged kittiwake with it’s dark “earmuffs’ and yellow beak.

The black-legged kittiwake (Risso tridactyla) is not often seen from land south of it’s nesting territory, so seeing a roosting kittiwake on a California beach is always a treat. In order to see a roosting kittiwake would mean a trip to coastal Alaska in the breeding season.

I got some documentation photos before the flock was flushed by another beach walker and I never saw the kittiwake again.

I continued to try to re-find the Arctic visitor and there where many gulls to pick through. After about ten minutes a gull that was bathing in the creek stood out like a sore thumb: a large white gull with a bicolored pink and black bill, this was a first winter glaucous gull!

Gulls bathing. There is no doubt which is the white gull of the High Arctic!

The other gulls where keeping their distance from the glaucous, and for good reason. While the great black-backed gull is recognized as the largest gull in the world by length and wingspan, the glaucous can often be heavier.

In Audubon’s The Birds of America the glaucous is called the Burgomaster Gull. A Burgomaster is a European term for a chief magistrate of a town. Indeed the glaucous is the mayor of the beach. This big barrel chested gull maintains a circle, at beak length, from other gulls. This is the dominate gull in the flock even though this bird was a first winter immature.

The other gulls keep their distance from the Mayor of the Beach!

Nest Watch

How do you make education “real” for students? It’s all about making it local and creating connection.

I have always wanted to connect my students to the natural world around them. That natural world can be experienced in our own school community. From our schoolyard I have seen many interesting avian species. And if student are around, I want to share this with them. I have pointed out a pair of adult bald eagles circling above the food court or a passing peregrine falcon (I’m sure most missed it!)

Just to the north of the upper grade playground, I noted a nest below the canopy in a eucalyptus tree. In all honestly, I had seen this nest over the past few years. This is a red-shouldered hawk nest and I was interested to see if it was going to be used again this year.

Red-shouldered hawks tend to reuse their nest across generations and I did not know how many years this nest has been in use.

An early morning field sketch of the RSHA nest.

On a Friday I brought my scope and tripod to school and I wrote “I Spy” on our agenda just before recess. This generated excitement among my students and I didn’t explain what it meant.

I introduced my students to my telescope (scope for short) and explained its uses and advantages over the naked eye (getting closer to wildlife without disturbing them) or using binoculars (seeing more details).

Pointing the scope at the nest was like a revelation to many of my students because it became magic, making the unseen, seen.

Students saw the nest but at the moment, in mid February, it was not yet occupied. But over the nest few weeks as I birded in the field, I started to see the signs of the changing of the seasons.

A crow flying with a twig, morning bird song, copulating red-tailed hawks, two red-shouldered hawks circling together and calling.

And then, on March 13, I drove to the street nearest the nest. In the distance I heard the local red-shouldered hawks calling. These are the most vocal hawks on the West Coast, despite the fact that the red-tailed’s call is more famous. From my right, a red-shouldered appeared and made a B-line to the nest! This was an amazing sight to see. I wanted to share this with my student the following day.

The red-shouldered hawk doing a bit of nest-keeping.

Nature doesn’t always do what you want it to. Just as I set up my scope to observe the nest, a red-shouldered flew from the nest, which a few students saw.

This made me more determined that we should have a weekly “Nest Watch” and share our observations with the rest of the school community.

To be continued. . .

Sans watercolor.
After a few washes.

Kona Kai Ki’i

Part of my planning for a journey is picking the right journals.

For the Big Island I chose two Stillman & Birn Beta journals. One a hard cover and the other soft cover. I like to break these journals in with a pre-trip sketch or two.

With my softcover Beta, I reached back into my very early connection with the Hawaiian Islands. This is not hard to do, considering I grew up in the state of California.

In the Bay Area in the 1950s there was a fascination with Polynesian or Tiki culture. The very first Tiki bar was open in Emeryville and it was called Trader Vic’s (opened in 1934). The restaurant soon became a chain and they claimed to have invented the Mai Tai cocktail. I remember a huge garlic shaped, wooden shingled Hawaiian themed restaurant on Stevens Creek Boulevard. The building was surrounded by a mote and tiki torches. It was called Don the Beachcomber and reflected the interest of all things Tiki. The restaurant is now gone but Trader Vic’s is still open and selling Mai Tais.

This also reflected that Hawaii officially became a state in 1959, which open the doors to its culture, food, and cocktails.

I spent summers swimming at the swim and racquet club where my family had a membership. It was named Kona Kai Swim and Racquet Club. The club was founded in 1958 and was an oasis in a sea of apricot and cherry orchards.

Kona Kai means “Sea of Kona” and the name of the club certainly does not reflect the club’s surroundings but reflects the Polynesian craze of the time (think: Trader Vic’s, Martin Denny, Mai Tai, Hawaiian shirts, and Don Ho.) The club still exists where it is still an oasis but among Apple’s buildings and the Kaiser hospital that towers above it.

To go along with the Hawaiian theme of Kona Kai, an artist from Maui was hired to carve a Ki’i or Tiki statue to greet members at the entrance. The sculpture was finished in 1967 and it remains at the entrance. It was this Ki’i that I intended to sketch on the first page of my Kona journal (featured sketch).

While I was sketching the statue a man got out of his car and we struck up a conversation about the statue. He told me that the previous week, the woman who hired the artist from Maui, had come to Kona Kai to take some pictures. The man turned out to be the tennis pro. He filled me in about the history of the Ki’i and he noted that it had recently been repainted.

It still looked good for being a wooden 55 year old statue that was exposed to the elements. And despite the astronomical rise in real estate prices in the area, Kona Kai still exists as a thriving swim and tennis club.

It was good to see that a piece of my Silicon Vally past was still in existence while many memories have been bulldozed and covered up.


Hawaii Odds & Ends

Pretrip planning would not be complete without a map.

I was excited to be visiting the Big Island for the first time and one of the best ways to get to know a place is to map it. Drawing imprints information better than any other note taking strategy. Drawing is an active, not a passive, pursuit.

There are two distinct sides to the largest and youngest island in the Hawaiian Island chain. The Kona side (west) and the Hilo side (east). The Kona side is the more sunny and the most popular side. Hilo is on the windward side and experiences more rain (about 130 inches per year) than the leeward or Kona side. I planned to visit both sides. And sketching a map of the islands, helped me put towns and sites into perspective.

I also did a spread that is a visual checklist of some of the sights and experiences I wanted to encounter on the Big Island (featured sketch). Snorkeling at the Cook Monument at Kealakekua Bay, Mauna Kea, Birding on Saddle Road, Pu’uhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park, manta rays, ‘Akaka Falls, Hawai’i Volcano National Park, Kona coffee, and a tropical reef fish called a Moorish idol.