Monthly Archives: December 2017

Isles host 20 species of native spider crab

Published December 30, 2017 in the
“Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2017 Susan Scott

 

Hawaii is home to at least 20 species of small spider crabs. Pictured is one such Hawaii spider crab. Courtesy Morris Moribe

Year-end highlights or summaries aren’t my favorite reading material because the articles mostly contain facts about things I already know. Therefore, for this last Ocean Watch of the year, I’ll share some emails sent to me in 2017 that I loved, and answered, but didn’t have room to publish.

In March, reader Greg wrote, “My coworker found an odd crab … and we were wondering if this is an illegal alien that came to Hawaii during the Navy war games. … It’s a small guy … approximately one inch wide.”

Greg put the crab on ice in his freezer in “solidarity confinement.”

No need to worry about an invasion, though. Greg’s photos showed a spider crab native to Hawaii’s waters.

Hawaii hosts at least 20 species of spider crabs, all oddly triangular shaped. The one Greg’s friend found is common near Hawaii’s shorelines where brown seaweeds wash ashore.

But bring a magnifying glass to examine them. The crabs are only a half-inch to 1 inch wide, as well as being remarkably camouflaged.

Also called collector or decorator crabs, spider crabs have hooked hairs on their bodies that snag bits of seaweed, sponges, corals or other tiny animals drifting past. So besides being small, spider crabs can look like anything but a crab.

Claire, a loyal reader in the Seattle area, brought new facts about another marine animal to my attention last spring in a New York Times link (goo.gl/27XbPN) about fang blennies. (Claire is my 94-year-old mother-in-law who keeps me on my toes via her iPhone.)

Fang, or sabertooth, blennies are little Davids to the ocean’s Goliaths. When a predator fish takes a fang blenny in its mouth, the 2- to 4-inch-long blenny uses its two lower front fangs to bite the captor’s mouth. In response to the pain, the predator spits out the rascal unharmed.

Researchers recently learned that some fang blennies go a step further, injecting an opioid-containing venom during a bite. The venom doesn’t get the predator high, but rather drops its blood pressure by 40 percent.

We humans would feel faint and dizzy with such a drastic BP decrease. Although no one knows how it makes the fish feel, it can’t be good. With its head aquiver, the predator spews out the blenny.

Hawaii hosts several fang blennies but none that pack poison.

Ah, once again, I am out of space and have barely scratched the surface of my 2017 emails.

Readers, please know that I appreciate your personal stories, thoughtful questions, links to news items and words of encouragement. When I’m traveling or sailing I can’t always reply, but I read and enjoy all your messages.

Thank you for swimming with me into 2018. Another year, another 52 fish.

Isolated Midway still has creature comforts

Published December 23, 2017 in the
“Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2017 Susan Scott

A pair of Laysan albatrosses sing and dance. The birds bond for a lifetime. ©2017 Susan Scott

 

When I mentioned that Craig and I were going to work at Midway counting albatrosses over the holidays, the questions people asked made me realize that few people know anything about the place.

Reasonably so. Midway may be in the Hawaiian Island chain, but it’s 1,200 miles from Oahu. And even though the atoll holds the Battle of Midway National Memorial, is part of the Papa­hanaumokuakea Marine National Monument and has long been Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge, the atoll is not included in the state of Hawaii or even the U.S. You need a passport to go there.

Midway, however, is owned by the U.S., its official designation being a “U.S. minor outlying island.” But don’t dust off your passport. Due to funding cuts to the managing agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the atoll is closed to the public.

When the Navy occupied the place, they called it Midway Island, but Midway is a typical atoll. It consists of three islands totaling 2.4 square miles bathed by a lagoon encircled by a coral reef.

Most people who go there are volunteers for Fish and Wildlife, but getting us there is a monumental task. Given the distance and the poorly named Pacific Ocean, going by boat is not an option. The largest island there hosts an airport, managed and staffed by a few Federal Aviation Administration workers. But no commercial planes currently fly to Midway except in emergencies, which is one of the reasons the government keeps the airport facility open and functional.

We volunteers pay our own charter airfare, up to about $2,500 per seat now, as well as our own meals. Housing is in renovated (and charming) World War II-era buildings that provide electricity, Wi-Fi and private bathrooms.

Not being part of the U.S. means that the contracted manager of the atoll’s facilities, Chugach Alaska Corp., can hire foreign nationals. As a result, about 50 Thai workers maintain the facilities that make Midway life so comfy. A chef named Pong manages the buffet-style meals, half Thai and half American. We albatross counters walk 8 to 10 miles per day, but I still gain weight on Pong’s feasts.

Since 1988, Craig and I have been jumping at any chance to work in this glorious wildlife refuge containing millions of albatrosses, Bonin petrels, white terns, green turtles, monk seals and other animals. But not this year. Due to an airplane glitch, 12 of us volunteer counters aren’t going.

The good news is that the six counters who went on an earlier flight report that the million or so albatrosses there are fine and don’t care if we count them or not. (Biologists care, but that’s another story.) Also, Wisdom, Midway’s 67-year-old Laysan albatross, has laid another egg and is looking as fit and beautiful as ever.

Instead of going to Midway, Craig and I will visit the Kaena Point albies and spend the holidays with our ohana here on Oahu. With alternatives like that, it’s hard to be disappointed.

Merry Christmas, dear readers. You make writing this column a continued joy.

Laysan albatross joins birds visiting isles for the holidays

Published December 16, 2017 in the
“Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2017 Susan Scott

This time of year is perfect for reading about a fictional Laysan albatross’s tale in “A Perfect Day for an Albatross” or watching the documentary “Midway: The Edge of Tomorrow,” which covers the significance of the atoll during World War II with the wildlife that lives there now. ©2017 Susan Scott

Here on Oahu, the holidays are for the birds — shorebirds and seabirds, that is.

In November, we plover lovers added to our list of thanks the first-ever-seen white (called leucistic) kolea, spotted foraging at Heeia Pier.

Late fall is also when Hawaii’s wedge-tailed shearwater chicks leave their burrows and soar to sea. Some youngsters, disoriented by street and shoreside lights, crash-land. Sea Life Park and other caring individuals embody the giving season by helping downed wedgies with rest, nourishment and redirection.

In addition, Honolulu residents and visitors get to enjoy the city’s own version of a white Christmas in the current flurry of white tern egg-laying and chick-rearing.

Topping off our island’s feathery Christmas cheer are Hawaii’s magnificent Laysan albatrosses, returned to nest again at Kaena Point Natural Area Reserve.

Before putting on your hiking slippers to visit the albatrosses (parents are now sitting on eggs, and young birds are singing and dancing for mates), I highly recommend first hitting the couch to read a book and watch a movie.

The book is “A Perfect Day for an Albatross,” written and illustrated by Caren Loebel-Fried, an award-winning author and artist from Volcano, and published by The Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Loebel-Fried’s work of art is a children’s book in the way Pixar films are for children. Kids love the pictures and story, but the art is so stunning, and Malie the albatross’s tale so well told, that it’s a treat for adults too. A bonus in the book for teachers and home- schoolers is an educational guide for grades 1-3.

The partnership between Loebel-Fried and Cornell is a fine example of the lab’s mission of conservation work through combining scientific research, art and citizen science.

Similarly, the recent documentary “Midway: The Edge of Tomorrow” artfully combines the military significance of the atoll during World War II with the wildlife that now rules there.

You can watch the movie free on Amazon Prime or rent it for $5 for 48 hours. We rented it at a friend’s house, and she emailed that she watched it two more times before it expired. It’s that good.

Speaking of Midway, I’ll be writing next month’s columns from there because I’m going again as a U.S. Fish and Wildlife volunteer to help count albatrosses. The work is strenuous and the cost high (volunteers pay their own airfare and food), but it’s so worth it. See goo.gl/VX4Ph6 for information about volunteering.

Here in the islands, the spirits of Christmas forage, fledge, fish and fly. There’s no place like Hawaii for the holidays.

White terns enjoy growth with the help of humans

Published December 9, 2017 in the
“Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2017 Susan Scott

White terns have taken to urban life, gracing trees between Hickam Air Force Base and Niu Valley. ©2017 Susan Scott

If visions of fairy terns dance in your head this month, they’re not holiday hallucinations. For the second year in a row, Honolulu’s white terns (the official name for what we once called fairy terns or angel terns) are having a banner year.

Fall isn’t usually a busy nesting season for seabirds, but then, Honolulu’s white terns aren’t your usual seabirds. These parents build no nest whatsoever, laying their egg and raising their hatchling on a bare branch.

After the first pair of white terns decided to raise a chick at Koko Head in 1961, others followed until today our island’s south side hosts about 2,300 and counting.

White terns are native throughout the world’s tropic and subtropics, including our Northwestern chain, but Oahu holds the honor of being the only main Hawaiian Island to host a breeding colony of white terns. So far, the birds prefer urban life, gracing trees between Hickam Air Force Base and Niu Valley.

In 2016 and 2017 white terns have had two bursts of egg laying, one in March and another in October. This is a change from the past when, after spring breeding, the birds took time off from chick raising until the next spring.

This is a couple, probably mated for life. ©2017 Susan Scott

No one knows whether this year-round breeding is the new norm here, but it’s encouraging that the charming beauties are so busy. The small fish and squid that white terns eat are apparently plentiful off the city, our towering trees are safe from most predators and people from all walks of life are interested in helping the birds.

The heart and soul of white tern support is Hui Manu-o-Ku, a grass-roots association of tern fans. Among other things, the hui works with researchers, public and private wildlife agencies, and businesses to highlight the tern’s whereabouts.

No one wants to harm these adorable bird families, but in addition, because white terns are protected by federal and state laws, disturbing them can incur a fine. So when eggs and chicks are teetering on bare branches, tree trimmers, landscapers and holiday light stringers want to know.

To call attention to nesting terns, volunteers from Hui Manu-o-Ku and its partners are tying light blue plastic ribbons bearing the organization’s phone number and website around the trunks of trees hosting white tern families.

Volunteers have flagged 85 trees since October 2016 and are enlisting citizen scientists to monitor the terns’ progress.

This is crucial because when the chick fledges, the flag must be removed to keep the system current. People working with trees have been cooperative, helpful and grateful for the heads-up.

How lucky we are to live in a city where real angels decorate our holiday trees. Volunteer to help keep eggs and chicks safe at whiteterns.org or call 379-7555.

It’s the time for ‘wedgies’ to be leaving their burrows

Published December 2, 2017 in the
“Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2017 Susan Scott

Grounds workers found a wedgie fledgling stuck in bushes last week, and they delivered it to columnist Susan Scott, who helped the bird launch to sea from Kailua Beach Park. ©2017 Craig Thomas

Years ago, when I fell in love with marine biology, birds didn’t cross my mind. But as I traveled throughout Hawaii and visited other oceanic islands, I discovered that seabirds are among the most amazing of marine animals. They manage to live entirely off the ocean while not actually getting in it or, usually, even on it.

Nor do seabirds live on land. They’re like ideal Airbnb guests, burrowing into our sandy soil (and in the case of white terns, perching in our towering trees) to lay eggs and raise chicks. Then they’re back at sea, going about their airy way.

That’s happening right now with wedge-tailed shearwaters on Oahu. Moms, dads and fledgling chicks are leaving their underground hideaways to ride the wind above the waves.

Wedge-tailed shearwaters, nicknamed wedgies by people who know them, are native to tropical and subtropical waters worldwide. The gray birds with cream-colored undersides are about 2 feet long with a wingspan of just over 3 feet.

Wedgie wings are well known among us sailors because we see the birds far offshore riding breezy air currents just inches above ridiculously boisterous waves. In shearing the water, these birds certainly earn their name.

Adult wedgies arrive on land in March to find, or reunite with, partners, singing mournful songs that sound like a human baby crying or a person groaning in pain. After mating, the couple dig a burrow or move into a vacant one, and the female lays a single white egg.

Parents take turns sitting on the egg for about seven weeks and then sit another week to keep the new hatchling warm. From then on, both male and female go to work each day to bring home the groceries, fish and squid. Adults leave the burrow at dawn, fish all day and arrive back at dusk to feed the waiting chick.

This time of year, wedgie parents are finished feeding, and their youngsters are now emerging from their cavelike homes on Oahu and its nearby islands. Some fledglings make it to the ocean on their first flights, but others get confused by lights and run into wires and poles. These feathered kids wind up on our doorsteps, sidewalks and roads.

But downed wedgies can often be saved. If you find a stunned fledgling, put it in a covered, ventilated shoe box (it grew up in a hole, so the bird is OK with this) and take it to Sea Life Park. For more rescue information, contact official wedgie helpers at Hawaii Wildlife Center or Oahu Seabird Group .

We took the downed wedgie we found in our yard to a nearby wedge-tailed shearwater nesting area. I took its picture in the box. ©2017 Craig Thomas

I thank the seabirds of the world for giving my love of marine biology wings. When it comes to skimming over the ocean’s surface, seabirds are welcome companions.

 

Susan Scott helping a stranded wedge tailed shearwater take flight. The bird is feeling the wind and seeing the ocean as it balanced on her arm. ©2017 Craig Thomas

Posing for a picture. ©2016 Craig Thomas