Words On Birds by Steve Grinley
Binoculars Enhance Enjoyment of Outdoors
September 19, 2015
by Steve Grinley
This is the final installment of a column written by my daughter, Melissa Carthum. Enjoy:
If you’ve read the last two installments, you know at this point that I am not the birder that my dad is (few are, really), and in fact up until recently hadn’t been much of an ‘outdoors’ person (as my dad so kindly pointed out during my wedding ceremony). However, I had high hopes on my honeymoon of spotting some exotic birds due to the beautiful binoculars my dad gave us for a wedding present. Up until this point in the story, if you haven’t been reading, I’d been adventurous enough to see the hundreds of chickens and roosters that are wild on Kauai, as well as backyard birds which frequented our lanai, and the highlight, exotic black swans which were ‘pets’ of the Hyatt resort. But my dreams of seeing more exotic species did not elude me, as the best was yet to come.
The great frigatebirds were probably the most majestic I saw on Kauai. With their black bodies and forked tails, they’re easy to spot and it was especially helpful that they tended to hover overhead while we lay on the beach. Low effort, high reward. These birds ( I looked this up) weigh less than 3 pounds, and have a 7 foot wing span. They soar high, to the tune of 500 feet in the air. They also just seem to glide. They don’t seem to work. As I lay there looking up at them, they seemed like kites, just keeping their wings spread and riding the wind current, barely shifting places in the sky. Reading further, I found out this bird can stay aloft for up to a week. That’s a lot of flying. They rarely land because they can’t walk well, and can only take off from a cliff or tree (not a flat surface), and only land to roost or breed. I guess they must even sleep mid-air, which is amazing to me as I was once asked to sleep in a treehouse about 30 feet up and needed a tranquilizer prescription before even considering it.
The tall, white cattle egrets were probably my favorite, mostly because there were a lot of them and they were easy to see. Their stark white bodies with a brush of mustard gold at the tops of their heads and backs stood out boldly against the green surroundings. Here’s what our cab driver had to say about the egrets (excuse my Hawaiian pidgin translation): “They dirty. Them birds eat anything, get in the muck, eat rats! Those dirty dirty things. I tell my kids don’t touch them, they filthy.” Apparently the cattle egrets were brought over from Florida in 1959 in order to control insects on the cattle ranges. Now they’re most often found in dumps, sorting through and eating whatever garbage they find, as well as the occasional steal of nestlings from other birds. So much for my admiration.
On the North Shore we traveled to the Kilauea Point lighthouse, a tall white structure poking out of a mostly round, contained island. Many cliffs near the lighthouse are a seabird’s paradise, and this area is a common birder lookout. We made the drive out there, and indeed, saw many birds, including the red-footed booby. I am assuming that this was my husband’s favorite bird of the trip, as he kept repeating its name over and over again. I started to question my choice of a mate with every giggly repeat. “Grow up!” I told him. “You grow up, you red footed booby!” he’d retort. He had me there.
I was happy that I’d seen some variety of birds on the trip, but in comparison to the really exotic birds in the guidebook I’d purchased, I really felt that I was still only seeing the easy ones, the ones that everyone can see by looking out their car window or sitting on a beach. I wanted the thrill of discovery that all those birders talk about, the feeling that I ‘found’ something that was more of a challenge. This hope came to fruition when we went up to Waimea canyon, though in an unexpected way.
As we traveled up the steep, windy road to the canyon rim, I was reminded of our road trip last summer, when we traveled along the rim of many canyons in Arizona, stopping at every overlook to see a different perspective of the big hole below. It was amazing to me that such a landscape existed on Kauai, which elsewhere was so lush and wet. One lookout at Waimea was especially breathtaking. There we stood on the jagged cliff, leaning against the chainlink fence, peering at the cliffs and caves across the deep gash in the earth. Soaring below were white-tailed tropicbirds. Large white gliders, with long white skinny tails jutting out behind them like the tail of a kite, seemingly stuck as if with glue on at the end of their body. These birds didn’t ever seem to land anywhere, but circled the canyon like a holding pattern over O’Hare. They were beautiful, yes, but there was more to come.
Far in the distance I spotted something, something black and solid that looked somehow different from the rest of the hillside. There were about 15 people around this particular outlook, and as no one else had yet picked up on the form, I figured it was probably nothing. After all, what do I know about spotting? As I started to look away from it, I thought I saw it move. On a whim, I picked up my trusty binoculars and took a look, and my moment of glory arrived. I am proud to say I was the first of the crowd to see a mountain goat, a large black creature resting on the edge of a precipice. Okay, so it wasn’t actually a bird I saw, but still! It was an animal that until that moment I had no idea existed on Kauai. It’s barely mentioned in the guidebook as I scoured it later. I pointed it out to anyone who would listen. Soon I had a crowd around me, asking me where to look, peering through their cameras and binoculars, cheering when they saw it. I stood there with a sense of accomplishment and pride in my heritage. I thanked my dad inwardly for the binoculars and the gift of sight they had provided. I felt a sense of connection with his abilities to spot from afar. And yes, I was happy to be outdoors.
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