Guest Feature: An XXS Year…by Brad Marks

Brian here, I promised you something special if you behaved and I am delighted to bring you our first “Guest Feature”. Some of you may recognize Brad Marks from the many comments to my posts over the years. He has been a long-time friend of mine that started when we both had Information Technology careers at a local Fortune 50 corporation. We actually retired on the exact same day. I have always wanted to bring my readers new adventures while giving my fellow birder friends a chance to share their experiences with a broader community. A toe-tip in the blogging waters so to speak and who knows, maybe a catalyst to embark on their own blog journey – or minimally more future guest spots here. I know you will enjoy Brad’s post and will now hand over the reins and head back into the nightmare lab. Be sure and let him know how much you appreciated his effort in the comments!

……Take it away Brad.

While many of avid birders may be trying for a Big Year (700+ bird species spotted), or Medium Year (350-ish?), I’ve tried to focus (no pun intended) on going for an Extra Extra Small Year (only 45 species YTD, +6 for the Life List).  I know Brian’s loyal readers are used to a certain visual and textual representation standard so I hope this posting does not disappoint.

We (Jan and I) like to take photographic vacations, or at least vacations in very photographic places.  And while we do like to catch the local wildlife and scenery, we sometimes make focused efforts for specific subject matter.  For example, on our recent Hawaiian vacation (to celebrate a milestone anniversary) we hiked 45+ minutes, round trip, in the dark (with only mobile phone lights) to see an active lava lake.  Who wouldn’t?

We also took a day trip from the Kona Coast (desert west side) on the Big Island of Hawai’i to the Kipuka Puaulu (pronounced “kee-‘poo-kah” and “poo-‘ah-oo-loo”) Trail and nature preserve on the slopes of Mauna Loa (rainy southeast-ish side) just outside the boundary of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.  Our goal was to photograph some of the Big Island’s feathered friends.  The circular trail is a little over a mile long and is a very easy hike if you have the time.  However, by the time we drove the 93 miles (2+ hours including 15 miles of switchbacks) to the preserve, the birds had all gone off for Kona coffee breaks.  All except for this one and a couple of friends.

Hit the jump to read more about Jan and Brad’s recent adventure!

The Kalij Pheasant (kahl-eege) is a transplant from southern Asia around the early 1960’s.  They were originally brought to the islands to be game birds.  With no natural predators, they quickly expanded beyond their original borders. (when has introducing a new species ever gone as planned?)  The birds developed new social structures on Hawaii not seen in their native range on the slopes of the Himalayas.  In Asia the birds tend to pair off:  one female and one male.  In Hawaii, they tend to be a sort of collective with a single female and up to six attending males.  Although requiring little care, rearing chicks is a community event.  Like their Asian relatives, these birds prefer living at modest altitudes.  (Thanks to the Audubon site for the info)

These pheasants were mainly photographed between 3,000 and 4,000 feet of elevation (or between 1,000 and 1,300 meters) in moderate to heavily forested areas.  The birds are most active early to mid-morning, and then again early to late evening, though we saw them pretty much whenever the sun was in the sky.  We usually spotted them on the edges of the forest or on garden or hiking paths.  The Kalij Pheasants in this preserve showed no fear of humans. On the contrary, these were very curious, often coming within a couple of feet of us (less than a meter).  While we never saw them airborne, they do sleep in trees at night.

As we arrived at the kipuka, I had to choose which lens to carry for the hike.  Since this was a moderately forested area, and I was also looking for floral targets, I chose my medium (18-200mm) zoom lens, not the Bazooka (200-500mm) as a friend calls it.  Jan stuck with her iPhone 13 Pro.  When we had hiked to the furthest possible point from the rental car, Jan and I heard a light skittering in the leaves.  Right about then Jan pointed into the trees and saw this hen emerge from the forest.  (she’s my bird whisperer because she could almost always spot them before I did)

Then we heard some not-so-subtle skittering (imagine a gang of squirrels in a pile of autumn leaves) coming from the same direction. Knowing wild pigs are in the area we had a microsecond of concern, but only until this male popped out of the forest.

A second male arrived from the other side of the path (his approach was masked by the racket the first male made), but was probably one of the groups “awkward teenage” males as he never really approached the female at all.

The female is very well adapted for the brown forest undergrowth, and is even able to hide motionless amongst the greenery.

The male is usually dark blue/black with a colorful tail. 

Both have large tails and red highlights around their eyes.  And while the female’s tail matched her subdued brown coloring, the male’s matched his coloring with a central area of black and white stripes with black ends on the tail feathers.  The male’s dark feathers took on an iridescent purple in direct sunlight at the correct angle.  Both sexes have dirt-colored legs, but the males have a nasty looking spike on the back of each leg.  One of the males had a band on his leg, but I could never get the proper angle to photograph any markings.

This male decided to give a Fabio-esque flip of his crest, but the female did not seem to be impressed.

The female gave me the head-on view several times. While I didn’t see any chicks nearby, I got the impression I should call her Roz from Monster’s Inc. “I’m watching. Always watching”.

On our last day on the Big Island, I started to capture some floral photos from the wonderful tropical rain forest garden where we were staying.  The garden was in very close quarters so I ventured out onto the “road” to let my eyes focus a bit further for a minute or two.  That’s when I happened to catch some natural pheasant behavior a bit down the road from where we were staying.  This male had been strutting with another male further down the road.  They would walk back and forth across the road in the same direction as the other, strutting to try to impress the females that must have been hiding in the foliage.  When they reached the edge of the road, they would turn around and strut to the other side.  Strut.  Turn.  Repeat.  The strutting went on for a several minutes before one male left the field of play.

Once the lesser male gave up, the remaining male must have noticed me standing in the road.  I had been inching my way closer to them because they were still a fair distance away, trying not to scare them.  He then continued his strutting towards me, walking from one side of the road to the other as he approached.  But as he came nearer, he gave up the side-to-side strut and walked straight towards me, crest fanned out, as if to say (best read this part with a fakey French accent as if you were leaning over a castle parapet) “Now go away or I shall taunt you a second time”. 

It was at this precise moment a neighbor’s car (out of the field of view) approached, startling this bird and saving me from his wrath.  He ran into the greenery and was not seen again.

This parting photo is from a prior trip on the island of O’ahu.  We were standing at the Nu’uanu Pali (“Noo-‘oo-ah-noo  Pah-lee”) Lookout battling the 25-30 MPH winds that are natural in the area.  Jan was hanging onto me as I tried to hold onto my hat and take this photo.  (This cliff is famous because in 1795 King Kamehameha I won the final battle that united the islands of Hawai’i under his rule.  Warriors from the defeated tribes were forced over the sheer cliffs.)

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