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A Dusty Day Off

Lauren is ready to plant mamane saplings.

Lauren is ready to plant mamane saplings.

My day off began before the sun had even given thought to rising. I suppose this is more normal to me, a young ornithologist, than to most others. I packed my bag, laced up my boots, and slipped out the door just as the first streaks of light graced the horizon; this day was to be dedicated to planting native trees on the high slopes of Hawaii’s Mauna Kea.

Historically, the yellow-flowered mamane tree used to be so abundant that an aerial view of Mauna Kea looked like a big yellow lei encircling the highest elevation of the peak. Unfortunately, this habitat has degraded to sparse grasslands in recent years. Mamane seeds are extremely toxic to most animals if ingested. Ironically enough, the seeds make up most of the critically endangered palila’s natural diet. Yellow headed and charismatic with a finch-like bill, the palila is one of the honeycreepers involved in the Keauhou Bird Conservation Center’s captive-breeding program. I have the privilege of seeing and working with these birds every day, and it was an honor to physically make a difference in the restoration of their natural habitat. In 2002, the Mauna Kea Forest Restoration Project began the task of reestablishing the mamane forests that once dominated the arid terrain of the mountainside, starting with the west and north slopes.

This particular morning, I met with the rest of the volunteers and headed up to the north slope site, Ka’ohe Restoration Area. The outreach coordinator, Jackson Bauer, gave us a detailed history of the mountain and forests, showing us native plants as we hiked around the area. We searched for what seemed in vain for wild palila. Suddenly, I heard it: churr-eep! My heart beating madly in my chest, I raced down the hill and around a cluster of mature mamane just as Jackson spotted it hopping from branch to branch. It watched us warily as it inspected each dangling flower and seedpod within reach. I was beyond thrilled to see one of our birds thriving in the wild, and it further instilled a sense of responsibility as to why I was there that day.

A'ali'i (pictured) and mamane saplings are carefully planted on Mauna Kea's slope.

A’ali’i (pictured) and mamane saplings are carefully planted on Mauna Kea’s slope.

After everyone settled down, we got down to business with the planting. We unloaded the eight-month old mamane and a’ali’i saplings, dibbles, and watering backpacks from the trucks and carried them to the plot. After a quick planting lesson, the group split easily into groups with distinct roles and set to work. Saplings were laid out in rows, and everyone worked in a leapfrog-like assembly line to dig holes, nestle the plants in the ground, and water each one carefully and efficiently. This was especially important to give them the best start in life on their own without the luxuries they had in the nursery.

With such a large group, we finished planting what we had brought much quicker than I expected. I wiped the sweat off my dirty face and admired the healthy 550 trees we had just planted. With a little time, they will become the native forest that once covered these mountainsides. With a little hope, they will become a sanctuary for the palila and other native animals dependent on this unique ecosystem.

For more information on restoration efforts, visit: facebook.com/MKFRP

Lauren Marks is an intern at the San Diego Zoo’s Keauhou Bird Conservation Center in Hawaii.