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.