Alakai Swamp ©Thomas Knight

Alakai Swamp Adventures, Part 1

Me in the Alakai Swamp on a sunnier than normal day ©Thomas Knight
Rain gear was a must, as it provided places to pocket fragile gear which couldn’t get wet.

While involved in some fieldwork, I spent three months living in Hawai’i, primarily in the Alakai Swamp on the Hawai’ian island of Kaua’i. My cunning plan was to record the songs of some of the endemic Hawai’ian honeycreepers, and then to run some playback studies of the different species from different islands. I planned to look at response rates between different species and between islands to see how learned dialects between and among species may have affected speciation in Hawai’ian honeycreepers. During this trip I visited several of the Hawai’ian islands to record different species, but the bulk of my time was spent in the Alakai Swamp. I chose the Alakai Swamp because that was where the highest concentration of the remaining species and individuals of these rare birds could be found.

Interestingly, the Alakai Swamp had, not long prior to my trip, been considered the rainiest place on the planet. It was at that time considered only the second rainiest place, but since I was there during the rainy season, I was still solidly impressed with the amount of precipitation. Within a day I had come to the realisation that there was absolutely nothing that I could do which would keep any of my belongings drier than what I could generously call “moist”. Even though the tent which I was living in was waterproof, the fact that heavy clouds rolled through nonstop meant that water still made its way into the tent every time I needed to enter or exit. Although the water entered as a gas, it stubbornly refused to remain gaseous for long once inside my tent. Ah well, such is life.

Woes from the wetness

Unfortunately given the circumstances, my work involved using electronic recording equipment, which would not work after reaching a certain base level of dampness. Anticipating this, I had brought a large number of waterproof bags & desiccation pouches. Even so, after a while the equipment needed to be dried out and I would have to take it with me down to the beach to bake in the sun for a while. The beaches were the exact opposite of the swamp; where the swamp was nearly eternally in clouds and rain, the beaches were the hot, sunny tropical paradise that most people imagine when they think of Hawai’i. Hawai’ian monk seals (Neomonachus schauinslandi) were sunning on the beaches alongside tourists in swimwear and tropical fishes in the lagoons and ocean. After being wet constantly for weeks at a time while tramping through the cool jungle, I can’t pretend that the short stays on the beach to dry out my equipment weren’t appreciated. Although I bathed daily in brisk mountain streams, my belongings were not so lucky, and mildews and molds formed quickly on nearly everything despite my best attempts to maintain a modicum of cleanliness in my tent; my damp, damp home away from home.

A pair of Hawai'ian monk seals sunning on the beach in Kaua'i ©Thomas Knight
A pair of Hawai’ian monk seals sunning on the beach in Kaua’i ©Thomas Knight
A pair of Hawai'ian monk seals sunning on the beach in Kaua'i ©Thomas Knight
A Hawai’ian monk seal sunning on the beach in Kaua’i ©Thomas Knight

It’s not all wet…or is it

You would have thought that the first thing that I would do upon escaping from my waterlogged paradise on the top of the mountain would be to dry out by lying on the beach. If you thought that, you do not know me at all. First thing I would do on each trip to the beach was to submerge myself into even more water by snorkeling in the ocean. The little beach which I would travel to had a shallow lagoon surrounded by a breakwater, full of colourful lagoon fishes. After the breakwater it dropped down to a volcanic bubble which green turtles (Chelonia mydas) would rest in and which reef fish loved. The jetty leading out to the breakwater was full of tide pools, which in turn were chockers with the most amazing species of fish, including the beautiful little snowflake morays (Echidna nebulosa) and sea cucumber seen here.

Snowflake moray (Echidna nebulosa) in a tidepool in Kaua'i ©Thomas Knight
Snowflake moray (Echidna nebulosa) in a tidepool in Kaua’i ©Thomas Knight
Snowflake moray (Echidna nebulosa) in a tidepool in Kaua'i ©Thomas Knight
Snowflake moray (Echidna nebulosa) in a tidepool in Kaua’i ©Thomas Knight
Sea cucumber (Actinopyga spp.) found in a tidepool in Kaua'i ©Thomas Knight
Sea cucumber (Actinopyga spp.) found in a tidepool in Kaua’i ©Thomas Knight

Back to work

When I was not drying out my equipment though, I was spending all day, dawn until dusk, wandering the jungle, looking for native honeycreepers to record. It was typically not too difficult to find birds, but recording them was much more of a challenge. Although birds usually like to sing in the morning, they do not typically sing that much if it is raining. This is a challenge when you trying to record bird song in the second rainiest place on the planet during the rainy season. Much of my time was spent following feeding birds in drizzle or heavy fog, hoping against hope that the mood to sing would become too strong for even the terrible weather to hold them back. Sometimes they would even sing in the rain, singing to put Gene Kelly to shame. More often than not though I would instead find myself recording snippets of song between rain showers. Fortunately, most birds will put their hearts into a good burst of song when the sun breaks through after a bout of rain. If I managed to track a bird long enough there was an excellent chance that I would be rewarded in the end. Assuming that the rain ever stopped at all that day, of course.

An 'i'iwi (Drepanis coccinea) in Kaua'i foraging ©Thomas Knight
An ‘i’iwi (Drepanis coccinea) in Kaua’i foraging ©Thomas Knight

If you are curious to see more of the Alakai Swamp, I have posted more photos of my trip there in my Gallery, so feel free to pop over and see some better photos of it in all its glory. In addition, I will post more about my trip to the Alakai Swamp in a future post.