In the Shadows of the Ancestors
Article and Images by Jeannie Ruman
I was sitting high on a hilltop on the Island of Kaua`i while my horse nibbled at the green grass underfoot, adding to the symphony of nature encircling me with the sounds and fragrances of our Island.
The melody took to the sky as several Hawaiian geese flew by, honking with the joy of flight. They were silhouetted against a pink sky with splashes of purple that followed the sun on its descent into the ocean, celebrating the end of yet another day.
The Nene came so close to me that I could hear the air give way as it passed through their powerful wings. Seeing the rarest geese in the world glide through the sky so effortlessly it’s hard to believe they are not strong flyers. They prefer walking on lava rock in search of native plants to eat instead of being in the water.
Most of the geese roam the mountains of Koke`e in summer returning in the fall to the shore to start the cycle of creating new life. Kilauea Lighthouse Bird and Marine sanctuary is a favorite place for the Nene to make bowl-like nests in the hallow of volcanic rock or dig shallow tunnels in our compacted ground that is partially made of clay. The geese fill their nest with grass and down.
Native to the Hawaiian Island’s the Nene is our state bird, adding to the life and spirit of Hawaii. It stands in the shadows of its prehistoric ancestor the flightless species, the Nene-nui (Branta hylobadistes) that lived on Maui. Other undiscribed forms of the Nene that exist today were found on Kaua`i and O`ahu. Also a gigantic, flightless relative lived on the island of Hawai`i.
The Nene has a mellow sound, with a rhythm and melody that reaches into the world of their ancestors and the endearing hearts of many a visitor to Hawai`i.
Late summer brings elaborate mating dances and songs that have been passed down through the generations. They dance for weeks on peoples lawns, or circling around a pool of water that has collected on the road or high on top of a mound of dirt. The Nene seem to drift back to the rituals of their ancestors ignoring the photographers and other admirers gathering around them.
The mating dance and songs are only interrupted by nightfall, to be resumed with the first sign of dawn. The breeding season of our geese is in the fall, with chicks being born in early and mid December. This year we had an early arrival around Thanksgiving popping his head out of the nest to greet the world only to find a funny looking life form with two legs and a thing that seemed to be attached to one eye that went click, click , click. The gosling stepped out of the nest with both parents to get a closer look at the photographers. The young geese are banded before they can fly to keep track of this endangered species. All the Nene you see where born in the wild.
Although many of them fly to the Sanctuary knowing their young will be protected agents mainly pet dogs that roam free. Hawaiian geese are very graceful on the ground preferring to walk more than fly. Their feet are only half as webbed as other geese with longer toes for climbing on jagged lava rock. Their necks are very different from other geese, having an intricate design and texture, adding to their uniqueness.
Most Hawaiian geese are not afraid of humans. They rest on the lush grass of groomed lawns. You can see the young geese using the road as a runway, practicing difficult flying techniques. Flapping their wings, necks outstretched, running at full speed only to land beak first, tail and feet pointing to the sky. They then stand up with a wobbly gesture, shake their feathers and give flying another try!
As I watch the Nene frolic I know they are fighting for survival in an ever changing Hawaii. The Nene were nearly extinct by 1950. Around thirty of then remained compared to twenty-five thousand in 1778. The Nene are making a comeback epically on Kauai. All is not perfect, they face challenges in an environment where they once flourished.
Loss of habitats to development, establishment of non-native plants and animal predators that were introduced to Hawaii, have still kept the Nene on the endangered species list. One of the meaning of the word Nene means to cherish.
We the people of Kauai are grateful to the Nene for letting us into their life walking among us, showing us the perfection of nature. A better understanding of the delicate balance of our wild things in Nature and how one supports and is dependant on the other is necessary to preserve the natural places that nourish our souls and give quality and meaning to life.
Nature Photographers have a wonderful opportunity of presenting a story through our photography that stirs the emotions and open the hearts of people to the delicate beauty, and splendor of nature. The flight of the Nene is only one of many stories occurring in Hawaii. You can see the changes from one year to the next. This year I see a growing amount of residence giving of their time and money uniting voices to save our natural places and wild things.
With my Sony Cyber-shot DSC-S75 digital camera, I venture into the tropical forest ready to capture that magical moment when the beauty in nature meets the lens of my camera immortalizing the moment in time, creating a window into the heart of nature.