Thursday, December 4, 2008

Pie in the pan, cold chili in the can.

I started to write this one on the back of my e-ticket reservation print-out while sitting on a beach in Kauai. Roughly three sentences in my efforts came to an abrupt halt when two of the more permanent residents of the beach campground began chasing each other, loudly demonstrating the ways in which a four letter word, beginning in “F”, can be used to express extreme dislike. These are the sort of memorable experiences that are completely lost when one stays at fancy resorts with private beaches, gourmet restaurants, and bed sheets. Never fear, we had a trip full of memorable experiences…. But perhaps I should start at the beginning.
My housemate, Joe (the same one of GI Joe infamy), and I went to Kauai over the thanksgiving holiday. Our attempts to find additional traveling buddies were met with the same excuse from all fronts: “Kauai costs money. I have no money.” You don’t get paid all that much to go play in Hawaiian forests and lava fields all day and thus all park interns are perennially broke. In the end it was just Joe and me, and we planned only as far as the plane tickets and rental car.
By 1pm on Thursday Joe and I had exhausted our plans, having both made it to Kauai and picked up our funny looking, bright red, rental car (a “Caliber”, what were the designers thinking?). Now winging it, we decided it might be a good idea to get some camping permits. Our attempt at being law abiding campers was thwarted when we arrived at the office and discovered that they were observing that federal holiday known as Thanksgiving. Oops, probably should have called ahead on that one. Next stop was food, we had plans to camp until Monday and needed some provisions. Fortunately we scrambled in and out of an ironically named grocery store, Big Save, about fifteen minutes before they closed for the holiday. We couldn’t find any fuel for our camp stove, but we certainly weren’t going to starve immediately.
Stocked with canned chili, noodles, and pineapple soda (a mistake) we were ready to begin our adventure and headed out from Lihue to the south side of the island. One of the remarkable things about Kauai is abundance of chickens. They are everywhere; begging in parking lots, perched on impossibly steep cliff sides, cock-a-doodle doo-ing at two in the morning. We checked out the spouting horn, where waves crashing against lava rock send a burst of spray twenty feet in the air and moderately amused tourist stand behind a protective fence taking pictures. Unimpressed by most things that can be accessed by car, we returned to our car to find an activity that we could drive to and then hike to.

We found a suitable hike down the road and spent the rest of the afternoon scrambling around limestone ridges and gazing down at impossibly blue water. I spotted a shearwater (that’s a bird, folks) hunkered down in a rock hole and that was really exciting, almost as good as a turtle. As the afternoon wore on we grew decidedly, stomach growling-ly, hungry. Upon finally reaching our destination beach we promptly turned around to hike back to food (it was a little late in the day for swimming, anyway). On the hike back it was decided that pizza would be the best way of celebrating the holiday. Unfortunately once back on the road we soon discovered the pizza place was closed, as was every single other eating establishment on that side of the island. I guess that isn’t too surprising given that it was 5pm on thanksgiving. We headed out to a beach at the end of the highway for the night. It was dark by time we arrived so we ate our cold thanksgiving chili out of the can while sitting on some driftwood next to the car. For dessert was the grocery store pumpkin pie, which I must say, doesn’t hold a candle to the one I made the week before.

The pie reappeared for breakfast the next morning at approximately the same time as the rain clouds. The beach was lovely but the surf made swimming out of the question so we headed out for some adventure at Koke’e state park. On the way to the park we stopped at a coffee shop and I had the best mocha of my life. I think it would still have been amazing even if I hadn’t spent the past night in a hammock being eaten alive by bugs (nope, still haven’t learned to set up a tent).
Koke’e state park is up in the mountains on the west side of the island. It offers incredible views of the whole Ne Pali coast and some amazing hiking. We picked a nice easy 8 mile stroll and set off towards the Alakai swamp. I have a lot of pictures from the trail and in nearly all there is Joe, ahead of me up the trail. I generally would not consider myself a slow hiker, but Joe’s casual hiking pace is a speed I typically only assume when being chased by a horde of enraged rhinos. Sometimes he actually runs. I don’t.

Eventually the trail, which was slick and muddy from the get go, was replaced by a boardwalk as we approached the swamp. Cruising across the planks, the mesh nailed to wood clattered and rang; as our feet strummed the boardwalk banjo we undoubtedly scared off every bird within miles. For the majority of the hike in we had incredible views but as we reached the look out at the end of the trail a thick wall of fog blanketed everything. There was a small crowd on the viewing platform looking hopefully into the milky white expanse which, it turns out, should have been a view of half the island. Walking back through the swamp in the thick fog reminded me a little of that part from Lord of the Rings, you know, when Frodo, Sam , and Gollum are walking through the swamp with all the dead people? Good thing we had such a nice, noisy, boardwalk to scare off all the living, and non-living, creatures.

That night we got our pizza and then headed towards the north side because we wanted to hike along the famous Ne Pali Coast the next day. We spent the night in a hostel (bed sheets!!!) and it was probably a good thing we didn’t camp because it was absolutely pouring in the morning. The rain seemed to be letting up by 9 so we headed on up the coast towards the trail. It was closed; something about flash flood warnings. Alright, no hiking on the north side. Swimming was also out of the question as most beaches were sporting waves large enough to crush small cars.
One nice thing about Kauai is that it has a wet side and a dry side. Our rainy side plans had been stricken so we headed back to the dry side. And this is how we ended up a beach camp ground with crazy people. Actually the camp ground was quite full so the few crazy people make up only a tiny, but loud, fraction of its inhabitants. We spent the afternoon lounging on the beach and for dinner had cold pasta boiled the morning before at the hostel. The pumpkin pie made a final appearance and was deemed inedible due to the new found growth of small white bacterial colonies across the surface of the filling. If the scientific world ever runs out of agar I think I know a substitute. The camp ground was packed so we claimed a spot on the sand; the stars were incredible and the sound of the waves softened the shouts of the crazy people, making for an almost good night’s sleep.

The next morning we headed back up to Koke’e park for another gorgeous 8 mile stroll up mountains and across cliff sides. It was stunning, even that part where the trail was washed out and I thought I was going to fall into the valley 3,000 feet below. Out of the park, back down in Waimea, we visited Jo Jo’s Shave Ice for some fruity flavored amazingness. Shave ice (there is no d) is great, but when you combine it with vanilla ice cream I think it might actually become an addictive drug. Just thinking about it…. Need to stop to wipe the drool of my key board….
With plans of attempting another hike on the Ne Pali coast we headed back up to the north side of the island for the night and found a nice beach park to camp in. It was comforting to watch the small children run around with multi colored glowsticks, much nicer then the crazy people shouting obscenities. One small child stole our flashlight, but for the price of a cookie promised to put it down and never touch it again.
In the morning we headed out to the end of the road and were happy to see that the trail was open. We flew home that evening so there wasn’t really time to do a major hike. Instead of the 22 miles we had originally planned we hiked about two, and then found a beach for the rest of the afternoon. The weather was glorious, the water brilliant, and the snorkeling mediocre. The fish were really cool, but the coral was sadly almost non-existent. None of the large number of other beach goers seemed the least bit bothered by this and the water was filled with remarkably pale people snorkeling about in a few feet of water. I suspect that the snorkeling was better out farther across the reef but I was not going to attempt that without fins, a buddy, and a little assurance that I wouldn’t be swept out to sea.
All to soon it was time to return to Lihue, hand back the keys to our awkward little rental car, and catch a flight back to the Hawaiian island we call home. Living in paradise is tough, isn’t it?

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Some pictures

Kayaking to Captain Cook cove for snorkeling

smoke plum from lava entry to ocean. Wow, there are a lot of people! I hate having to share paradise with others!
Is it wrong to make my own birthday cake?
I think I have replaced schoolwork with baking. In college I used to fill my “free” time with studying and other academic activities. Suddenly free from tests and homework I find myself with hours of open evening time, which are now filled with flour, yeast, sugar, and teetering piles of dirty dishes. I have stopped buying bread from the grocery store ($6 for a loaf of sandwich bread is absurd anyways) and my boss likes having cookies at work so much that he provides flour and butter. Which brings me back to the topic of birthday pastry. I make other people cakes, my birthday is in a few days, and I want a pumpkin pie. So, is it weird to bring my own birthday pie to work? I have already made it, so I guess it would be even odder to make my own birthday pie and then hide it (Pie? What pie? Oh, you mean the one the whole house now smells like…. Right, that pie). I think that settles it, I will have to share my pie, but don’t expect me to sing to myself!
I also made challah, which somehow morphed into challah-zilla in the oven. Not that that is really a problem; I like making bread that covers more surface area than many north eastern states.
On an unrelated tangent I present a short narrative titled “My field partner, GI Joe”:
Joe and I do a lot of field work together. When we go out ant-mapping he always leads. The leader finds the gps points and lays bait cards for the ants. It is generally the harder job, but also more fun (in a machete wielding ,jungle trail blazing, sort of way). I am usually stuck as the follower when I partner with Joe. This means I don’t have to create a trail, but rather have to exactly follow the one my partner laid an hour before.
On Monday Joe and I were assigned to a transect that can be technically described as heavily vegetated. While I settled down for an hour long nap Joe pulled out the machete and dove into the brush. A half hour later I heard him yell at me, sharing the obvious fact that he had made it less than 60 meters into the veg. At 45 minutes it was my turn to dive into the 6 foot tall wall of spiky plant life. Joe’s already stomped and chopped it down a bit, so it’s definitely easier for me…. but…. Joe has an annoying habit of walking straight through brambles. He wears heavy rain pants even when it’s sunny so that he can do this, laying trails of flagging through swaths of saber toothed blackberry vines. My lightweight rain pants would be instantly shredded by these plants, and none of my field pants offer much protection against this evil greenery. Joe marches through the brambles, invincible, and then I follow on tiptoes, wincing and cussing my whole way through.
The leader lays flagging so that the follower can follow it to the bait stations. Good flagging courtesy implies that flagging should be tied somewhere obvious on the path to be followed, preferably at eye level. While wallowing through dense stands of Pukiawe, in which movement is akin to swimming through mattress springs, the flagging suddenly disappears. Dammit Joe!!! While searching the nearby brush for neon blue plastic I happen to glance down at my feet. There’s the flagging tape, tied six inches off the ground. Dammit Joe!!! He got sick of wading through the brush and decided to crawl under it instead. The flagging was perfectly at eye level, assuming the follower was lying on the ground under the bushes. Of course, I had no choice but to follow (one bait station was actually set in the middle of all this) and had ample opportunity to practice my army crawl over the next several hours. I will crawl under Pukiawe, but when the flagging tape disappeared under a bramble, Dammit Joe !!! (When question later, he claimed the bramble was too big to just walk through … what is wrong with going around obstacles?!?). After 6 hours of following GI Joe through Joe’s Boot Camp I emerged out onto the road. During the transect each bramble thorn drawing blood added new words to the lengthening list of things I was going to call Joe when I next saw him. With a final crash I landed back on the road and there he was, sitting in the car. I guess that would have been the time to fling some of those words I had been rolling around in my mouth for the last 5 hours, but that would have taken way more energy then I wanted to expend.
Moral of the story: Get more than 3 hours of sleep on work days or fieldwork sucks!

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The lava ate my shoes

This weekend I volunteered to help a grad student, working in the park, check for nest activity in a colony of Hawaiian petrels nesting on top of Mauna loa. Petrels eat fish and fly all the way up to the Aleutian islands for their preferred meal. This fish eating marine bird happens to make its nests at 9,000 feet in rock crevices on top of a big volcano and, is thus, not exactly your typical shore bird. In retrospect, I am not quite sure what I was thinking when I volunteered myself for this. It was interesting to see the nesting sites and to learn about petrel conversation (they are doomed), but the hike was killer. The first two hours were on a trail climbing 2000 feet up the side of a volcano- not a problem. Then we turned off the trail, onto the lava.
Lava comes in two general flavors: pahoehoe is smooth and friendly,like walking on a rumpled sidewalk. Its angry cousin, a a, has the consistency and stability of fresh sourdough croutons. Fields of a a consist of irregular chunks, ranging from the size of brussel sprouts to beach balls, every edge razor sharp. It destroys hiking shoes with the tenacity of a school of small, rubber-loving piranhas, leaving fuzzy halos of shredded sole around bedraggled boots.

After leaving the trail we spent the next three hours tromping across a landscape that blended the less appealing aspects of mars, Mordor, and the moon. What are these birds thinking? (actually, they used to be wide spread but after the introduction of the nastiest of invasive species (that would be people) it’s nesting area shrank significantly. Maybe this mountain top wouldn’t be the petrels’ first choice either, but it’s so darn hard to get to that it’s the only habitat left undestroyed?). In the early afternoon we arrived at the first of the nests to be checked. The nests are deep burrows in lava crevices. The chance of seeing an actual bird is small, so we were checking for sign: fresh poop, feathers, birdy smell, and cat-eaten birdy bodies. We did this until the sun, and the temperature, began to drop. We headed to a semi-permanent camp supplied with some gear, water and food by periodic helicopter drops. Every time I find myself shivering, in Hawai’i, it surprises me. As it dropped into the low 40s on Saturday night I was really happy that I had long underwear, in Hawai’i.
We were up shortly after sunrise and as I drank my black coffee I silently crossed high elevation, a a covered volcanoes off my list of future field work locations. Nothing against elevation or volcanoes, I just don’t like a a rock.
We checked the remainder of the nest cavities that morning and then set out across the a a flows towards the trail, the car, and home where frozen pizza was waiting for me. The nesting area was interesting, but not quite worth the hike (about 6 hours each way). I am glad I went, but next weekend I think I will go snorkeling.
So that’s what I do for “fun”; work has been far less strenuous. We went up to Hakalau to check the bug traps up in the trees. Three days of climbing were great, and, unfortunately, our last trip. We had beautiful weather: blue sky, brilliant greens of grass and trees, and bright red birds (Apapane and I’iwi).
In the lab I have been given additional, exciting, tasks. To supplement my ant IDs and caterpillar care I now count moths and ….. drum roll…. sort bird shit. To be fair, it is important endangered bird shit. Fecal samples were collected from hundreds of native and non native birds on the islands. Most of these birds are at least partly insectivorous and by identifying the various insect bits in their poop it is possible to figure out feeding niches, competition for food resources, and that sort of important scientific stuff. Right, so I can’t tell a psyllid femur from a beetle tibia to save my life so my job is to sit at the microscope and separate out all the identifiable bits from the unidentifiable crap (literally!). I put the bug bits in a tiny bottle and give them to the PI, who sits in his office all day identifying caterpillar mandibles and spider legs. Isn’t science great?! Actually, science is great, but sometimes just a wee bit tedious (in retrospect, looking at salamander slides wasn’t all that horrible, hmmmmm).
My lab here didn’t get funded for the spring so I am definitely coming back to the mainland. I am starting to look for spring jobs, anyone have any suggestions?. I think it would be interesting to work on research relating to white nose syndrome in bats. This subject has now held my interest for almost a month (beating my usual attention span of three days), I am 200 hundred pages into a book on bat ecology, and now I just have to work up the courage to contact people working in that area.

Tree climbing/rainforest photos

Tuesday, November 4, 2008


I think it is time to construct hammock 2.0. My first hammock (version 1.0) has suited me quite well for the last two years, but it has some serious deficits. In good weather these issues can be overlooked, however there is nothing quite like a little rainstorm to bring certain deficiencies out in the open.
On Saturday night we were camping on a beach on the Kona side of the island, which is typically the drier side (but November is, undeniably, the wet season). In an attempt to pack light, I brought only my hammock, and a tarp in case it rained. I figured that, in the unlikely event of precipitation, I would toss the tarp over myself and stay dry. I forget that beachside rainstorms are generally accompanied by howling winds, the sort that refuse to let tarps stay put. So, it’s dark and raining and while my two camping mates have already retired to their nice dry tents, I am outside stubbornly attempting to tie an unruly tarp to my flapping hammock. Eventually the tarp and I reach a truce; it will stay attached to the hammock as long as I don’t expect it to actually keep me dry. Good enough. I climb into my sleeping back and spend the next several hours holding various parts of the tarp in an attempt to curb its incessant flapping and smacking of my head. The rain and wind eventually died down, unfortunately their replacement was worse. It turns out the unpleasant weather was keeping the even less pleasant insects at bay. I spent the rest of the night acting as an all-you-can-eat buffet to a population of biting flies. My housemate commented that, maybe, I should bring a tent next time. I think she might have a point, at least until I have a chance to make a hammock with a rain-fly (see, I don’t need schoolwork or research to occupy my time!).
Despite the less than ideal sleeping conditions, this past weekend was AWESOME. We drove over to the Kona side for some serious beach time on Saturday and Sunday. The first beach we went to, Hapuna, was the touristy, white sand, resort sort of beach.
Convinced that every body of water in Hawai’i must have snorkeling, I brought my mask and snorkel and spent a half hour staring at perfectly white, empty, sand. I did see a flounder, and that was really neat, making my snorkeling attempt slightly less pathetic.
We sat on the beach until the sun set, and then headed off to our camping spot.

All day the weather had been perfect, but by time we reached the trail head to our camping beach it was raining. We sat in the car discussing why it was a bad idea to hike to the beach in the rain until it stopped raining. We scrambled down to the beach and set up camp just in time for it to start raining again. On the hike down I impressed my camping mates with my cane toad catching skills (with that much eye shine they are hard to miss). I forgot to take a photo to add to my collection of Hawai’i herps, but really, it was just a cane toad, not even a big one.
I woke up the next morning to a perfectly blue sky without a cloud in sight. The black sand of the beach was edged in casuarina pines (not true pines, but they look like them) and beyond the band of pines stretched a green valley that had once been used for taro farming, but was now completely wild.
After briefly enjoying the amazing surroundings the rest of the group declared it was time to hike out. Having gone to bed at 7:30, both of them had been up since before sunrise, less then patiently waiting for me to wake up (which I did annoyingly late- at 8am).
As we hiked out we dripped sweat while enjoying breathtaking views of the whole coastline.

We made a quick, two hour, stop at a coffee shop in the town of Hawi (pronounced “Havi”) before heading to another beach. While sitting at the coffee shop we pulled out our big book of Big Island beaches and looked for a nice one between our current location and home. We quickly found one that sounded good and declared it the one of the day. Having already proclaimed it our beach goal, we discovered that the description spanned two pages. The second page informed us that our beach of choice was favored by the local nudists.
Undaunted by such warnings we drove down the coast towards the beach. Upon arriving at the trail we were immensely amused to see numerous signs stating that “nudity is prohibited by law and subject to fine”. Our book is about 25 years out of date. Resigned to perpetuating tan lines we walked in and staked a spot on the sand. I grabbed my snorkel and headed straight for the water. The coral was ok, the fish were pretty good, but the turtles!!!!
Ooooooooh there were turtles!!!!! I was paddling along admiring some shiny fish when a Green turtle floated into my field of view. Completely ignoring my squeals of delight, it continued to graze on the algae on the rocks. As I watched my first turtle three more came into view, and then a bit later a few more wandered by. Wow. Sea turtles are sooooo cool. I eventually made it back to shore where I stood in front of my friends jumping up and down saying “turtle turtle turtle” while vaguely pointing towards the water. One of them humored me by taking the mask and snorkel to go look; returning 15 minutes later to report that, yes, there was a turtle.
Yay turtles.
Eventually it was time to head back to home sweet HAVO (Hawai’i Volcano National Park). Along the drive we decided that the one thing that could make the weekend even better would be ice cream. At 4:59 we pulled into the parking lot of our favorite ice cream shop and, as they closed at 5, sprinted to the front door. They let us in, glared, but gave us our ice cream.
I like ice cream almost as much as sea turtles.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008


Before I go into great, lengthy, detail on my weekend beach adventure I have a message to my readership:
I love it when people make comments, it lets me know that people haven’t completely forgotten my existence. However, I like comments even more when I know who wrote them. See, otherwise I have to make assumptions such as it must be grandma who wants more pictures of herps.
Wow, I didn’t know my grandma knew what a herp was!!!
Next time I visit the grandparents I will have to give them a whole slide show of herp pictures!
So, save both my grandparents and me from the grave misunderstanding that would ensue- sign your comments (you people know who you are… and I don’t).

On Friday we were out ant mapping at Kahuku Ranch, the ex-cattle farm that will someday be part of the park. Part of our transect happened to pass by the Giant Pit-Crater of Awesome-ness (not the official name, but I highly suggest that park adopt my nomenclature system). I had pictured in my head a huge bottomless pit, and while that mental image had no relationship to reality, the actual pit crater was really neat. It was round, several hundred meters across and deep, and the bottom was completely forested. It was as if a circle of the forest dropped a couple hundred meters below all the surrounding woods. Being isolated like that, it seems like an area that could have all sorts of nifty things: unicorns, bigfoot, lost dinosaurs, etc. We climb up trees all the time in search of insects, it wouldn’t be completely out of the question to repel down a crater to “search for ants”.
Highly unlikely, but would be soooo cool (even if there turned out to be no unicorns).

(digital media fails to capture the awesomeness that is the pit crater)

All week I fantasized about another beach trip, this time without the soccermom minivan full of unruly “children”. Sometime in the last few weeks we stepped into the wet threshold of the Hawaiian rainy season where sunshine is no longer a daily guarantee. On Saturday morning I woke up to a grey sky and the sound of water pouring from the gutter outside my bedroom. Ignoring the weather (I am going to get wet at the beach anyways…), my housemate dropped me off at the trail head for a 10 mile hike to the nearest beach. It was a wet, but pretty, hike.

I passed through miles of black pahoehoe lava fields where bunches of red, orange, and green grasses sprouting along the rock edges gave the terrain the appearance as if aflame. Of course, these same fiery colored grasses also collected ample quantities of rain water, which was then transferred to my pants. Within an hour I was soaking wet from the waist down. Conveniently, by then I had dropped 1000 feet in elevation and it was relatively warm . I reached my beach of choice by early afternoon and met several park volunteers who were living there to monitor sea turtle nests.
I am not kidding here, the job of the turtle interns is to camp on a pristine Hawaiian beach for 6 days at a time, waiting for turtles to show up. Every night they have to patrol the beach hourly (6pm -2am) to spot incoming turtles, and they are expected to trap feral cats and mongooses, but that’s about all they are required to do. I showed up right as they were about to head to a favorite freshwater swimming spot, formed by a water seep in the lava field alongside the beach. I followed the turtle folks to “the Crack” ( I swear, that’s what they call it), a hidden pond of brilliant turquoise water filled with large aggressive shrimp. While the rest of us swam, one turtle intern sat on the rocks, trying to integrate the word “cloaca” into a song she was writing about sea turtles. They do spend a lot of time on the beach with just the turtles.

I eventually wandered off to go explore the larger, saltier body of water and enjoyed my own private beach, complete with some coral and coconut palms, for the rest of the afternoon. Towards the late-ish end of the afternoon I decided I needed a coconut. I spent half an hour bashing at it with a stick to get it out of the tree, and then another half an hour smacking it against a rock to get it open. Yep, a university degree and I am pretty sure that my pathetic coconut attaining techniques would make me an outcast in early hominid society. As I sat on a rock along the wave’s edge, eating my coconut and watching the water slide up and down the white sand, I couldn’t help but think: this is awesome.

As the sun was setting I wandered back to the main beach. I strung my hammock above the sand between two palms and then joined the turtle crew for a few of their beach surveys. It was pretty late in the turtle nesting season, and unsurprisingly, there were no turtles (adults or hatchlings) to be seen. I retired to my hammock and swung to sleep under a spectacular starscape unmarred by the lights of civilization.
In the morning I flopped out of my hammock onto the sand, found a coconut, and ate it for breakfast while sitting on the lava rocks just beyond the water’s reach. I rolled up my hammock and sleeping bag and hiked two miles down the coast to another beach (Keauhou) where I found some of the most spectacular snorkeling I have ever seen. Surrounded by a protective circle of lava rock was a shallow lagoon carpeted in an incredible quilt of multicolored corals. The water was beautiful, the coral, pristine, and the fish shiny, but eventually it was time to head up the trail again for the ten mile hike back towards civilization, Monday, and the humdrum daily life on top of a sulfur-belching tropical volcano.

the sun came out, and my camera ran out of batteries, so here is a picture to illustrate what it was like. this is a very accurate rendering, or course.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008


Cows are a serious field work hazard. Seriously.
We are doing a significant amount of our work mapping ant distributions on some property that used to be a cattle ranch and now belongs to the National Park. Despite no longer, technically, being a cattle ranch there is a surprisingly large population of cows roaming the premises. Sure, one cow isn’t so scary, but when you walk around a bend in the road and suddenly find 50 of them staring at you (and believe me, cows stare), then they are a little intimidating. So far they always run away, but what if one morning a cow woke up and realized, “Hey, I am bigger then a person!”. Suddenly the cows wouldn’t be running away, in fact, they might even be running towards me; and that is a scary thought.
An additional fun thing that comes with cows is fencing. Barbed wire is annoying, but fairly obvious. It’s the electric fences that you have to watch out for. You would think, being a Berkeley graduate and all, that I would be smart enough not to get shocked by the cow fence… that would, however, be an incorrect assumption. So, life is generally good, except that I manage to run into an electric cow fence about once a day. Which, amusing to me, I watch a cow jump clear over today. Clearly those fences are working.
And, if getting myself shocked by the fence wasn’t bad enough, today I got my boss shocked, too. I was setting out the baitcards for the ant survey and flagging each one. My boss was an hour behind, checking each card and removing the flagging. After five hours of this we reconvene and she looked a tad bit peeved.
Calmly she asked, “ are you mad at me?”.
My response “umm, no… why?”.
And her answer, “ Because you were tying your flagging tape to the electric fence.”
Oops? I guess I won’t be asking for a letter of recommendation any time soon…. In my defense, the fence is the most obvious place to tie the flagging, and my usual ant mapping partner has yet to complain about getting shocked by it.
In conclusion, I am not unsure which is the bigger fieldwork hazard, me or the cows.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Niche expansion in the common minivan

The government has lots of rules that it expects its employees to follow. We use government vehicles for all fieldwork, and are allowed one trip into town a week, as long as we park discretely in places where we might, conceivably, be doing government business. Allowed: grocery store, post office, hospital, airport, etc. Not Allowed: Beaches, camp grounds, anywhere fun. It is all about image- you don’t want tax payers complaining that we are using government cars to go snorkeling.
After two weeks in Hawaii it was time to visit a beach. Three geology interns who couldn’t rent cars on their own were asking around for people who would be willing split costs but do the renting and driving. In theory the plan was great… which was how I ended up as the minivan chauffer for the weekend. Not complaining exactly, just next time I want to feel like a soccer mom/bus driver I will volunteer myself for another one of their trips. Ok, so that part sucked, but overall it was a great weekend because I got to swim with dolphins, see sea turtles, chase geckos, and visit some sweet beaches.
After an obligatory stop at Wal-mart (grumble, grumble goes the bus driver..) we headed out of Hilo towards beaches, turtles, and foot long centipedes. We visited the Black Sands Beach known as a good spot for Green Sea Turtles (Chelonia mydas).

True to its reputation there were a half dozen turtles basking on the sand, and several dozen tourists ogling at them. The green turtle s in Hawaii are unique in that they come onto the beach in the day to bask and rest. Signs quite clearly say to give the turtles at least 15 feet of space, but this is lost on most of the onlookers.

While it was amazing to get to see the turtles, right there, on the sand and in the water, it was also depressing and frustrating to watch people pester them. Sure, you can tell one person to back up and give the turtle space, and maybe they will even listen to you, but you can’t sit at the beach all day doing that. We joked that maybe next time we would bring our orange vests and radios and people would take us seriously. But even if that were to work for the few hours we were around, really, people just like harassing wild animals if they can. The only way to keep us from harassing the turtles would be to completely close the beach. Would I give up my privilege to see the turtles if it meant they would be spared the harassment of the general population? Yes, I think I would. But, I also think that that is really sad. Really, people, why can’t we appreciate the wildlife without poking it?

So, after a thought provoking visit to the Black Sands Beach we climbed back into the minivan and headed to South Point, the southernmost point in the US, where people like to jump off the cliffs into the water.

At this point we knew that we were close to the Green Sands Beach, which was our next beach going goal. Certain group members forgot to bring a map, or any directions to any of the places they want to go… so we asked some locals. “Just follow this “road” this way for a ways, you can’t miss it” . OK, it wasn’t really a road, and we were not driving a high clearance four wheel drive vehicle. This is where we expanded the niche of the minivan, and probably took a few years off my life. Thirty minutes of the sketchiest driving I have ever done and we made it to the beach trail head (which was also accessible by a nicely paved road…).

After a pretty 40 minute walk on cliffs above the water we reached a small beach with olive green sand. It was sort of pouring rain, but if you are already in the ocean a little more water can’t hurt! No snorkeling, but we played in the waves for while enjoying a nearly private beach with incredible views.
We eventually made it back to the car, had to navigate it across the series of dauntingly deep ditches that separated us from our paved exit route, and headed to our campground. After driving around lost and passing the campground entrance four times without finding it, we finally (after asking for directions) made it. We showed up well after dark and found the area occupied by a number of slightly shady vans that proceeded to come and go sporadically through out the whole night. Joe and I went off to search for geckos around the bathrooms. We found lots of geckos, and black widow spiders and foot long poisonous centipedes. Chasing the geckos was entertaining, and seeing the first huge centipede was exciting.

But then we saw another, and another, and then some deadly spiders, and then another centipede, and more spiders…. All in a twenty square foot area. When we shared our findings with the rest of the group suddenly everyone was sleeping in the minivan and I was left alone in my hammock outside. I was more concerned about the sketchy vans then the invertebrates, so by the time I watched the sun rise at 6:30 I had only had a few hours of sleep.
Loaded the kids back on the bus and headed on the next part of our great beach adventure. Of course we missed the turn for the beach they wanted because they didn’t know its name, but after stopping at a coffee shop we figured out where we were going (2.5 miles back down the road). We explored the City of Refuge, a historical and sacred area, and then headed next door to the beach for some snorkeling.

The snorkeling was great with healthy coral filled with fish and eels… and dolphins! The reef dropped off a few hundred meters off from the shore and in the deeper waters were dozens of spinner dolphins. I had an excellent time exploring the reef and swimming around with the dolphins for a couple of hours. The dolphins swam in either pairs or pods, occasionally with young, and every once in awhile one would jump completely out of the water and spin high in the air.

Back to the bus and on to Kona to do some final touristy things before heading back to Hilo. We visited the Kona Brewery , learned about beer making, tasted some beers (oh, wait, I am designated driver…. ), and bought some large jugs of brew to bring home. Leaving Kona around 7 we finally pulled into the park around 11.

It was quite an adventure, I think I will need a few weeks of work to recover from it.
Loco Moco: rice topped with a hamburger patty, topped with gravy, topped with a fried egg. A "traditional" Hawaiian dish.

skink (Lampropholis delicata)from Hawai'i Volcano National Park. Not native to the islands, but still pretty.


Work this week was great. We traveled to Hakalau, a bird reserve that is closed to the public, to do a monthly sampling of invertebrates living high up in the trees. Hakalau is probably some of the nicest remaining high elevation rain forest in Hawaii and is home to many of the highly endangered bird species. While I didn’t see anything extraordinarily rare and endangered (I was supposed to be insect searching, not bird watching!), it was hard to miss birds like the bright red I’iwi flitting around and feeding in the bright red blossoms of the Ohia trees. This was the prettiest area I have seen in Hawaii so far, and I forgot my camera. Luckily we will be traveling there every few weeks for bug work, so I should get a second chance to have a camera handy.
Work isn’t all frolicking around in the waist high grass of the rainforest understory. In fact, in Hakalau the work involves climbing from the understory up towards the canopy to collect insect samples from traps set 30-70 feet up in trees. Over the course of three days three of us climbed about 75 trees and collected samples from 100+ traps. The weather was amazing. Generally it rains continuously (something to do with being a rainforest), but we had sunny blue skies every day.
Walking between sites in the forest required some coordination and care as the ground was covered in (nonnative) grass that was several feet deep. From above, the grass looked fluffy and soft, but under the lush greenness was hidden fallen trees, rocks, and various other discrepancies in ground flatness. More than once I dodged a tree fern only to fall into an unseen hole, always while carrying a climbing rope, 20 gallon bucket containing samples, and an insect sweep net.
Now back home at the volcano I am getting better at my ant identification. Its simple: just follow a dichotomous key through characteristics like the number of nodes on the petiole, gaster constriction, carinate and reticulate frons, and adpressed setae (just to mention a few). Biologists love fancy big words. There is a whole dictionary of insect terminology and it now resides next to my microscope. Now I just need to figure out how to work this new vocabulary into daily conversation. (Nope, can't think of anything....)
In upcoming news: the great beach extravaganza, hopefully accompanied by some relevant photos.

Monday, October 6, 2008

On Wal-Mart, spam, and papayas

At first glance these three nouns may appear completely unrelated, but actually, if you squint, tilt your head funny, and use a lot of my imagination, they are closely interconnected. Food is outrageously expensive in Hawaii; a loaf of white sandwich bread will run you over $5, a block of cheese runs 5-8$ (and this is not fancy cheese, we are talking about the basic white and orange types here). During our weekly grocery run to Hilo one of my housemates, Joe, wanted to go to Wal-mart to check out camping gear. While walking the half mile between the entrance and the camping gear we stumbled upon the food section and discovered cereal priced at only $3.50 a box. What a deal! This must be why people like this place so much. In addition to cheap fruit loops and a large variety of moderately priced junk food, Wal-mart also had a wide selection of spam.
The previous day I had told Joe that I would be willing to try spam if it came in turkey. Surprise surprise, Wal-mart offered whole cases of turkey spam. Not allowed to chicken (or should I say “spam”) out, I now have a tin of turkey spam sitting on my shelf. At only $2.00 it was a bargain, now I just have to eat it.
I survived my first encounter with Wal-mart, but what has that to do with papayas? According to Joe, Wal-mart is a lot like a papaya: both can be described with “not much going for it”. Another similarity: they are both cheap. Milk is $5 a gallon, but I can get five papayas for a dollar (that is 25 papayas for the price of one gallon of milk)! So, the same day I experienced Wal-mart I also bought myself a 20 cent papaya. I ate half the thing and gave up; one of my house mates finished it for me. Next week, I will buy another papaya, I will eat it, and maybe I will like it. If not, there is always the week after, and the week after that....

Friday, October 3, 2008

petroglyph in the pahoehoe lava

road closed due to lava, that plume in the background is from lava hitting the water.

A week in Hawaii, and this is as close as I have gotten to the beach (yep, that's a cliff)

It’s 5 o clock on Friday and I have just finished my first week of work. Of course, when I say work I really mean crashing through underbrush in search of elusive and invasive ants. Mapping the ant presence around the park is our main goal, however little things like rain and high sulfur dioxide levels periodically force us into retreat, back to the comforts of lab: microscopes and all the frozen ants you can key out and count.
Assuming you are now wondering how one maps ants, it goes something like this:
Two people pick a transect to do together. The first person sets out armed with tuna fish goo (aka ant bait) and bait cards and sets a station every 100 meters. An hour later person #2 comes along and checks the bait cards and the surrounding area for ants. Any ants silly enough to be lurking around are sucked up with an “aspirator” into a vial and returned to lab to be identified. In this age of modern technology, our ant collection device is basically a bottle with a cork and two drinking straws sticking out of the top. Point one straw at the ant and suck on the other, and if you are lucky, the ant goes into the bottle. I have yet to swallow an ant, but it is only a matter of time and uncoordination until the inevitable happens.
Our primary transect area is full of pokey bushes and a a lava fields. On these sites person #1 gets to carry a machete and look like an adventurer on safari (ant safari, that is). While the second person doesn’t get to carry a big sharp knife, the orange vests and army surplus pants we all wear are enough to convince most onlookers that we must be doing real science (and know the directions to any trail in the park). The transects full of unpleasant plants and lava have a tendency to be in the path of the vog. Vog…. Volcanic fog: heavy on the rotty egg stench with an essence of headache. When the vog comes creeping in we go running out. This has been the story for the last two days, so instead of mapping the shrub land we have been mapping the trails around the main park area (ie where all the tourists hang out). This makes for excellent fieldwork. We walk on nice trails and get to see cool things like smoking calderas while searching for ants and looking official in our orange vests and camo pants.
Today, as person #2 in the ant survey, I had to wait for an hour to hit the trail. Conveniantly, the lava tube was a half mile away. LAVA TUBES ARE AWESOME!!!!! I jogged over to the lava tube and as I crested the top of the trail I found myself facing four school buses, three tour buses, and a small squadron of minibuses. OK, so I was going to have to share the lava tube with the tourists. The first section was well lit, and full of shrieking running kids, still cool though. After ~200 meters the first section ended with a large hole and some concrete stairs back into the tree ferns, Ohia trees, and non-native ginger plants. On the other side of the stairs was a gate, allowing entrance into the rest of the (unlit) lava tube. Out comes my headlamp and in I go!

After the family with three small shouting boys realized the sign was serious when it said flashlights necessary, I had the whole lava tube to myself. At fifty meters in the sounds of the outside world had faded and were replaced by the chimes of water drops falling from above. The beam of my light made every surface glisten, the translucent tips of forming stalactites sparkled a few feet above my head, like an oddly claustrophobic night’s sky. I turned my light off and it was perfectly dark as the chorus of droplets rained to the floor around me. Yeah, it was really, really, cool. I think I will go again tomorrow. My lava tube exploration was cut short because I had to return to our transect exactly an hour after my partner began setting it. As I walked out of the tube, towards the growing light of the entrance, I heard excited calls of “oh, look, someone is down there!” I was greeted by a gang of plastic poncho clad onlookers, staring quizzically down at me; and I wasn’t even wearing my orange vest!

The ferns here have the coolest fiddle heads. I now have a very large collection of out of focus fern pictures.