Nature Conservancy docent, Maui.
By Jan TenBruggencate
A crimson forest bird with a curved orange bill fed off a complex flowering spike of sky-blue blossoms.
“The best things on our hikes are when we come across something unusual. A couple of years ago, we saw Lobelia grayana (`ōpelu) blooming with `i`iwi pollinating and feeding off them,” said Mike Neal, who leads hikes through The Nature Conservancy’s Waikamoi Preserve on Maui.
That is one of the benefits of leading groups through the native forest.
“Now and then it’s an encounter with a kiwikiu (parrotbill). It’s pretty amazing when you see one of those, or a `ākohekohe (crested honeycreeper). It’s neat to see someone seeing something they’ve never seen before, and get excited,” he said. Both endangered honeycreeper birds are only found in the East Maui Watershed.
The Nature Conservancy has a clutch of volunteer docents who lead folks into the Waikamoi Preserve on the slopes of Haleakalā. The docents say they get as much out of their guided hikes as their hikers do.
“I have a passion for the mountain and what’s going on up there. When we go up, I just usually write off the whole day because I love being up there,” said Neal, 58, an accomplished photographer and woodworker who turned to the mountains after a shoulder injury interfered with his surf photography career.
A hike with Mike will specialize in birdlife, and will be very different than the more botanically oriented hikes of a guide like Kim Skog, a Maui-born planner in her 20s whose link to the forest goes back to her childhood.
“I’ve been interested in the forest my entire life. I can remember in the 6th grade going on a field trip to Waikamoi, where I’m now a docent,” said Skog, who works with the West Maui Mountains Watershed Partnership.
Neal and Skog do their volunteer docent work under the guidance of the Conservancy’s Pat Bily, invasive plant specialist with the Maui program. Docents take tours along two Waikamoi trails in an area the Conservancy has been managing for more than 25 years. One of the key management goals has been invasive animal removal.
“When I started this job in 1990, we had 60-80 percent pig disturbance on trails, and it’s zero now. Those folks get to see that recovery. If you don’t have aggressive weeds in the area, the natives come back really strong,” said Bily, who has himself been leading tours into Waikamoi for over 22 years.
One of the trails is a moderate to strenuous 5-6-hour tour, although the entire distance is less than three miles and several hundred meters are on a boardwalk. It starts in planted conifer and eucalyptus forest and moves into dense native forest. Some of the native trees are venerable giants—`ōhi`a trees 60 to 80 feet tall, as much as 30 inches thick and 700 years old.
“It’s pretty much 100 percent native vegetation, with more than 50 species of ferns and an assortment of different canopy and understory shrubs,” Bily said.
The second hike, the Bird Loop, is a simpler, shorter trail that descends through switchbacks into Waikamoi Gulch. It’s an easier pace and can take 2 to 4 hours.
Mike Neal brings his special talents to either trail, Bily said.
“He’s very perceptive and sensitive to his hikers, whoever his audience might be and whatever their interests are. He’ll recognize bird calls and say, ‘Hey, let’s wait right here. We have a crested honeycreeper (`ākohekohe) coming in,’” Bily said. Neal will sometimes give hikers cards with some of his bird photographs (see Mike Neal’s work at http://nealstudios.net/)
“I’m more of an impressionist than a detail person. I really focus on the birds and photography. Along the boardwalk, 90 to 95 percent of what you see was here before people arrived. All the native birds are there, mainly because their food sources are available,” Neal said.
Skog has occasionally joined Neal on hikes, and takes note of their different approaches.
“Mike’s interest is photography and birds. I’m more interested in the plants themselves, how native plants grow versus how introduced plants grow. I like looking at the dynamics, the ecosystem,” she said.
Skog was part of Maui’s Ka Ipu Kukui fellowship, which trains young people identified as Maui’s future leaders, when the fellows took a guided hike through Waikamoi. She was immediately hooked and took docent training in 2010 under Bily. She said the hikes, which she leads on roughly a monthly basis, are inspiring rain or shine.
“I took out a group of high school kids from Oʻahu—this was their prize for a competition. The day was very, very wet, but the kids were all in such good spirits that it was okay. They were like so many others. Every group is grateful to see it, which is pretty much why I do it.
“I think everybody should experience this,” Skog said.
Jan TenBruggencate is an award-winning science journalist who lives on Kaua'i and comments on environmental topics via his Raising Islands blog. As the science and environment writer for The Honolulu Advertiser, he wrote the state's first and longest-running column on the Hawaiian environment.