Report from Ranger Rogers: St. Pat and Scat

St. Patrick must have been a friendly guy. I suppose all the raucous celebration of him is testament to that. Because his day—Tuesday, March 17th—seemed to put everybody in a good mood at Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge last week. As if the place itself (gorgeous) and the wildlife (cool) living there isn’t enough to make someone’s day.

Not a whisper of wind stirred the air around the 101-year-old lighthouse when I made my 200-yard walk to the end of the peninsula that morning. Not even a ripple of waves fluttered across the surface of the ocean, a palette of blues so dramatic that when I reached up to remove my Maui Jim’s and see what color the ocean really was, I realized I wasn’t wearing my polarizing sunglasses. The ocean really was that blue.

nene, hawaiian goose, endangered species
Endangered poop.

One of my tasks each morning before the refuge opens to the public is to collect scat. That is, scoop poop. In particular, the droppings from our endangered Hawaiian goose, the nene, a distant cousin of the Canada goose that has adapted to life in Hawaii with less webbing on its feet, longer legs, and a smaller body.

Let’s talk about the nene. As the short story goes, we were down to 30-some individuals in the 1950s when a captive breeding program in England got started and saved the species from going extinct. The first of these birds bred in captivity were released into the wild at Volcanoes and Haleakala National Parks in the 1960s. But they weren’t self-sustaining. The habitat may not have been ideal. Predators, in particular, mongoose, were definitely a problem. But it wasn’t until the early 1990s when a group of nene were released on Nihoku–also known as Crater Hill, part of Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge—that the species got a good foothold on its recovery. Today, the entire population exceeds 2,000 with a good half of that found on Kauai.

I’m a big believer in what I call, “time in the saddle.” It’s a phrase that comes from my long-distance bicycling days. Author Malcolm Gladwell says it takes 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery in a field. Basically, the more time you spend doing anything, the better success you’ll have at it. When visitors stop by Kilauea Point and ask when’s the best time to see whales, I say, “There is no best time. All I know for sure is that the more time you spend watching, the more you’ll see.”

nene, hawaiian goose, endangered species
Nene: a good word to know for crossword puzzles.

It took eight years of hanging around Kilauea Point for me to witness a nene drop a feather in molt. Ranger Christa and I had already scooped up all the endangered poop we could find. In the process, we’d collected an inordinate amount of nene feathers off the ground. Apparently, a nene or two was molting, as they do every year replacing the old with the new. When they molt, Christa said, they’d be grounded for six weeks before—with shiny, new feathers–they could fly again.

So, how does it work? I asked. Does the bird pull the feathers out as it preens? Or do the feathers just fall out singly as the birds walk about grazing on grass and naupka berries?

Christa wasn’t quite sure, but it didn’t take long for the answer.

Right as the refuge was opening and Ranger Christa and I took our spots to direct traffic, a couple nene walked by us in front of the head light keeper’s old house. I could see some feathers hanging vertically off the bird’s wing. I must have said something, because Christa was looking, too. We watched as the nene, a female, dipped her head and started preening her wing and one feather fell to the ground. So, that’s how they do it, I thought, one at a time, the way a child loses his baby teeth. But that wasn’t all. The bird twitched her tail feathers, stretched her wings, and shook all over. And with that a dozen more feathers fell to the ground as my mouth fell open.

Now, with her primary flight feathers gone, a saddle of white feathers running across her rump are visible, an easy way to ID molting birds. Since then, I’ve scooped more poop, found more feathers, and spotted many more molting birds.

That fun experience put me in a good mood, but St. Patty had more in store for me.

I was in the fee booth when a man approached wearing a University of Missouri visor. As an alumna of the first university west of the Mississippi, I started singing the school’s fight song, and the visitor finished it. By the time he left the refuge, he’d purchased a Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge hat and given me the MIZZOU visor.

Another visitor gave me a lei made of plastic shamrocks.

st. patrick's day t-shirt
Words fail me;-)

Perhaps my biggest laugh of the day came at the very end. A woman approached wearing a green t-shirt from the number one rival of my Missouri Tigers. It said, “Rock Chalk Shamrock.” I told her she wasn’t allowed on the refuge dressed like that. Then, I saw her ankle tattoo, a Jayhawk, the mascot of the University of Kansas. “This is a bird refuge,” I said. “I know birds.” (That last was a bit of a stretch. I really only know the birds at the refuge, perhaps ten different species.) “And that, that Jayhawk, isn’t a bird.”

She took it all in stride, and I took her money (and photo) and let her in the refuge.

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