Big Sound on the Big Island: Coqui Frogs

While the Coqui frog is lionized in its native Puerto Rico as the unofficial National animal, the diminutive frog is the scourge of the Hawaiian Islands!

There are 16 species of Coqui frogs whose common name is onomatopoeically named for their loud mating calls: “Ko-kee”. This small tree frog is about the size of a penny (15-80 mm). But they have a very big voice.

Their calls can reach 100 decibels. To put that in some context, that’s louder than most power tools, dishwashers, food blenders, or a diesel locomotive from 100 feet away. And their calls are slightly less louder than your average rock concert.

On the Hawaiian Islands this frog is an invasive species. It was unintentionally introduced in the late 1980s through imported nursery plants. The frog competes with native species for food (mainly insects) and they have no natural predators (the Indian mongoose does not climb trees) so in some parts of the islands they have reached levels of 2,000 frogs per acre!

The Coqui frog, along with the common myna, finds itself on the IUCN’s list of the 100 of the World’s Worst invasive Alien Species. While they are harmful to native wildlife, they are they harbingers of many a sleepless night.

On the Kona side I had no problems with Coquis and it wasn’t until I was on the windward side and specifically the town of Hilo where I encountered their dubious reputation.

And they are notorious around the Dolphin Bay Hotel. This Hilo mainstay is a wonderful family run hotel just across the Waikuku River from the historic downtown. The staff are friendly and informative and the rooms are a pleasant throwback to another era (it was built in 1968).

But what is not so pleasant is the incessant chorus of frogs from dusk to dawn. Shutting all the windows and blasting the fan can’t completely cover the frogs! So I used one of the traveler’s best tools: earplugs.

The Dolphin Bay Hotel provides complementary earplugs.

Black Noddys

While I got a lot of my target species on the Kona pelagic, I had not added any noddys to my list, either black or brown.

One of the the most beautiful drives I experienced on Hawaii was in Volcanoes National Park along Chain of Craters Road.

It starts off just near the Visitor’s Center in the heart of the park which seems like it’s stuck in a perpetual rain cloud. Indeed the rain forests that flank the road are lush and something out of the Jurassic Period. One expects a T. Rex to cross the road at any moment.

After a few miles heading downslope towards the Pacific, you cross the alien barrens of lava flows.

This 1973 lava flow covered the Chain of Craters Road. The Hawaiian goose or nene can be seen here. When I saw one, I made sure I didn’t feed it.

You eventually wind down via a few hairpin turns, altered by lava until you can see the Pacific Ocean, about 40 minutes drive from the Visitor’s Center. When it gets close to the ocean, the road parallels the lava cliffs. Within a mile I would run out of road as the lava flows reclaimed the road and closed it for the foreseeable future.

Off to my right and with the naked eye, I spotted black birds skirting above the waves. This could be only one bird: Noio or the Hawaiian black noddy.

I stopped the car and walked to the edge of the cliff to get a better look at the birds through binoculars. The bird’s scientific and common name comes from the noddy’s lack of fear around humans, making them easy to catch. The genus Anous, comes from the Greek, meaning silly, without understanding, and mindless. In English a noddy is a fool or simpleton. It is certainly not easy to catch a good photograph of the noddys as they strafed the waters and disappeared around (or into) cliffs. They are sea cliff nesters and I enjoyed my time with them as they flew to the lava cliffs and foraged in flocks, on the Pacific waters.

A black noddy, photographed from shore.
Two noddys flying from the lava cliffs where they nest.

Snorkeling Kealakekua Bay

Probably one of the more touristy things I did on the Big Island was taking the Fair Winds II to the amazing snorkel site at Kealakekua Bay and the Captain Cook Memorial.

This marine sanctuary is reported to be the best snorkeling site in the entire state. CNN Travel, Smithsonian Magazine, and Travel and Leisure all include the Big Island on their lists of the top snorkel sites in the world and they all specifically mention Kealakekua Bay because of its mix of technicolor coral, large numbers of fish, turtles, and dolphins and it’s deep history.

It is here in January of 1778 that British Explorer James Cook, “discovered” Hawaii. He named his new discovery, the Sandwich Islands, to honor his patron, the Earl of Sandwich. At first, Cook and his crew were welcomed by the native people but that soon soured. On a later visit on February 14, 1779, Cook and his crew were killed by the Hawaiians.

Before I left the mainland for the Big Island, I did a little homework by doing a spread about fish I wanted to see at Kealakekua Bay, by sketching the fish beforehand. Identifying them in the water would be a little easier. I titled the sketch, ” A School of Hawai’i Reef Fish”. I ended up seeing seven out of the twelve fish that I illustrated.

The Fair Winds II is a double-decker catamaran that can handle one hundred people. We were a few short of triple digits as we headed out of Keauhou Harbor, the same harbor I set off from to see manta rays.

The boat ride south was about 45 minutes and Captain Dante, kept his eyes open for marine mammals such as spinner dolphins and humpback whale. Off to our starboard side we saw two humpback whales showing off their flukes as they dove down. After a pause of the cetacean encounter, Cap. Dante throttled up and we headed off to snorkeling paradise.

While we where nearing the bay, I spotted one of the birds on my wishlist flying over the waters to the southwest: a white-tailed tropicbird. This bird was likely flying back to it’s nest site, on the high cliffs that surrounded Kealakekua Bay. While we where in the bay, I spotted many more of these tropicbirds circling above the cliffs.

On the north side of the Kealakekua Bay, near where Cook was killed, there is a 27 foot high obelisk erected to Cook’s memory. The Fair Winds II pulled up just offshore of the monument for the snorkelers to grab a few shots. We then moved just to the south to our mooring.

As I was slathering on another layer of reef-safe sunscreen, I looked up at the cliffs, trying to find more tropicbirds, I spotted a dark bird with a forked tail and long, pointed wings. This was the classic silhouette of a frigatebird, in this case, a great frigatebird. Lifer!!

Now it was time to get wet and see fish. The Fair Winds II has many ways to enter the water: two slides on the bow, a high dive on the second story amidship, or steps off the stern. There was a jam at the stern steps as snorkelers fussed with their fins that I took the fourth option of egress: a big step off the side.

Once the bubbles cleared and I adjusted my mask, the colorful world of Kealakekua Bay came to life. Yellow tangs, Hawaiian sergents, black triggerfish, peacock groupers, parrotfish, and orangespine unicornfish. This was like visiting another planet!

Snorkeling and SCUBA diving (I’ve been certified since 2000) feels like flying. Flying above the hills and mountains of the coral reef. The fish are other “birds”. You cross over one “mountain range” and drop into a sandy valley that has it’s own collection of fish.

I swam toward the shoreline and I came upon a pair of exquisite Moorish idols. I had only seen these fish in the aquarium, and now here they were in their true and wild environment.

I passed over a shallow reef, careful not to kick so I wouldn’t damage the reef on impale myself on a sea urchin. I floated down into the next “valley” of sand and I saw a most desired fish. This was the official State fish of Hawaii and I had memorized it in second grade. It was a humuhumnukunukuapua’a or “fish that grunts like a pig”. This is Rhinecanthus rectangulus or the wedge tail triggerfish. I dove down to get an eye to eye view of the humuhumnukunukuapua’a, the fish was clearly on it’s patch of sand as it didn’t swim far from it’s sandy stronghold. Lifer!!

I had been somehow waiting for this moment since 2nd grade! And I loved it!

Sketching notes: I sketched the cliffs above bay in between snorkels from the top deck of the Fair Winds II. I later added the names of the fish I encountered in the bay on the cliff face.


A Troubled Paradise

While most see the Hawaiian Island chain as an unspoiled tropical paradise, the islands have a darker side.

The islands also bears the undesirable moniker of “The Extinct Bird Capital of the World”.

Over 200 years ago, early scientists described and categorized the native avian endemic species of the Hawaiian Islands. Unfortunately now, over half of these endemics are now extinct. Fading away to diseases, competition from introduced species, and habitat loss.

Native Hawaiian species are under assault from so many sources. These threats have all been brought to the islands primarily by humans.

When you first step off the plane, the first bird you see is most likely introduced. Most visitors, who don’t head up into the higher rainforests will not likely ever see a true Hawaiian endemic species. Over 150 avian species have been introduced to the Hawaiian Islands, where they are known as “alien” species.

The bird that I encountered most, the bird I jokingly labeled Hawaiian starling, is the common myna. This bird was introduced to Hawaii in 1865 and originally hails from India and Southern Asia. The myna was introduced to the Hawaiian Islands to help control agricultural pests. But now they have a large breeding population that competes with native species for food resources and nesting sites.

A common myna, doing what it was brought to Hawaii to do: eat bugs.

The myna has also been introduced in Australia, New Zealand, and Madagascar. It is listed on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s list of the 100 of the World’s Worst Invasive Alien Species. Three out these invasive species are birds and all three: common myna, red-vented bulbul, and European starling can be found in Hawaii.

All the invasive species compete with the sometimes less resilient natives species. It is not just avian species that decimate the locals but one of the largest mammalian land predators on the Hawaiian Islands (which is not very large) preys on ground nesting species eggs such as the state bird of Hawaii, the nene or Hawaiian goose.

The one endemic Hawaiian bird that visitors might encounter on the Big Island, especially if you play golf, is the nene or Hawaiian goose. This group was found grazing on a golf course. Note the human intervention, which saved the nene, in the leg bands.

The nene has since been brought back from the brink of extinction by extensive human efforts through protection and captive breeding programs. It would be a sad sign to have your state bird go extinct.

This is the terror to any ground-nesting bird, or any creature that can’t out run, climb, or fly this hyperpredator the Indian mongoose.

The Indian (small Asian) mongoose (Herpestes javanicus) was introduced to Hawaii in 1883 to control rats on sugar cane plantations. This prolific predator is also on the list of the 100 of the World’s Worst Invasive Alien Species. Good thing this mongoose cannot climb trees or more bird species would be affected.

Many of the introduced species have lived and thrived on the Hawaiian Islands for over a 100 years. They are countable on lifelists but many birders want to find the endemic Hawaiians before there disappear from the face of the Earth.

The absolutely stunning male common peafowl (known as a peacock) has been a resident of the Hawaiian Islands for over 150 years. They were first introduced, from India, in 1860.
The flawed beauty of the male kaliji pheasant. Flawed because it is an introduced game bird from the Himalayan foothills. It was the most common bird seen in Volcanoes National Park, usurping the common myna for a brief part of my travels.

‘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.”


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.


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.

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.


Big Island Endemics

It had been along time since I had set foot on a Hawaiian island.

The last time was on a family vacation and the island was Kauai. Before that, I had been badly sunburned while snorkeling in Maui. Mom did tell me to wear a t-shirt. Always listen to your mother!

I guess I had avoided Hawaii for a number of reasons, too many to note: too crowded, too touristy, too much introduced flora and fauna, too expensive. My idea of a vacation has never been about laying on a beach getting a tan (see above about Maui snorkeling).

Instead, I go on vacation, waking up at ungodly hours and learning as much as I can in one day. I sketch, bird, sketch some more, walk and hike, learn as much as possible, take a few photos, visit some historical sites, look at architecture, and make time for lunch, repeat. At times my vacations can seem like a job! No sleeping in here. The closest I come to a “vacation” is doing a bit of natureloafing.

But there is one island in the Hawaiian Archipelago that I have not yet visited (Well actually there are a lot more). This is the youngest island, it is merely a million years old and it is still forming today. This is the island of Hawai’i and is also home to Mauna Loa, the world’s largest volcano.

It is also home to some of Hawaii’s endemic birds. And thats what was drawing me to the Big Island (pun intended). Many of the endemic avian species are endangered and I wanted to see as many of the unique birds as I could. the avifauna of Hawaii had been decimated by introduced species such as the black rat and the Indian mongoose and disease carried by not native mosquitos. This has resulted in the loss of 65% of Hawaiian avifauna.

When I planning a trip I like to started with a little hardbound notebook, in this case a Leuchturm 1917. While this is not a watercolor notebook, I like to add an illustration to the front page. In this case I chose to draw the Hawaiian State Bird, the endemic nene, or Hawaiian goose. It is fitting that a state entirely surrounded by water should be the only state with a waterfowl as it’s State Bird.

Well to wet my appetite, I started sketching some of my target species. I’ve learned that when I sketch a bird I have not yet seen in the field, the process helps me etch it’s forms and fieldmarks into my eye. I have that image at the ready for when I might see the bird, for real.

With any list of endemic species the state bird of Hawaii has to top the list. It is the nene or Hawaiian goose. I sketched this beautiful goose and it anchored the left side of my spread. On the right side I sketched another target bird, the Hawaiian honeycreeper: i’iwi. Both of the species are relatively easy to seen on the Big Island.

Another target bird for the Big Island is the Ae’o, the Hawaiian subspecies of the black-necked stilt.
The akispolaau is probably one of the most sought after Hawaiian honeycreepers. It is only found in high-elevation rainforests on the Big Island. I will definitely try to add this amazing and endangered species to my life list!