Wednesday, March 17, 2010
Native Birds, Up Close and Personal
My kitchen window overlooks a deck, and right next to it I have an avocado tree that never bears fruit but sets flowers. This morning I happened to be out there on the deck, coming back to the house while holding the aerial roots of an 'ohi'a tree, something I collected to show a class.
Suddenly, three 'apapane swooped down and alighted upon the avocado tree. They were singing excitedly as they started thrusting their sharp ebony beaks into the avocado blossoms, sipping up sweet nectar. They were only 10 feet away from me! I stood very still and held 'ohi'a roots in front of my torso, thinking that maybe they'd consider me something forest-like and benign, that I was some sort of mutant 'ohi'a tree.
So I thought I'd experiment. I whistled back them, trying to imitate their song. And, oddly enough, they seemed to answer. They couldn't possibly be regarding me as friendly, I thought. Usually these birds are shy and keep their distance from humans, preferring the upper canopy of the forest. I decided to dismiss that romantic idea for the moment.
But then, just for kicks, later in the day, I thought I'd try to call them back. So I went outside with a long lens, picked up the 'ohi'a roots, and whistled the same call I'd heard earlier in the day. To my amazement, two 'apapane quickly reappeared and flew into the avocado tree, drawing near as though I had announced lunchtime! Then those two flew away, and to my astonishment three more immediately took their place.
Whether my clumsy bird imitations did the trick or no, for a few magical minutes I was treated to a rare close-up glimpse of how these brilliant crimson creatures move about and interact. Simply enchanting!
Yes, 'apapane feed on native and nonnative plants, but you don't see these birds at lower elevations due to several factors, including avian malaria. (Mosquitoes are rare at 3,500 feet elevation -- it's too cold.) I have to admit, though, that although these native birds will feed happily from many kinds of plants, more often than not they prefer to take up residence in native Hawaiian trees.