Puaiohi-Photo by Lucas Behnke

In a Rain of Song

(from the notebook of KFBRP Field Crew Leader Justin Hite)

The thick throaty song of a Small Kauai Thrush stopped me in my tracks.  Each phrase was a faithful rendition of his five-syllabled Hawaiian name: Puaiohi.  He was close, his voice like a clarinet under honey, and perched directly above his mate’s nest.  I smiled in her direction, wondering if she loves his singing as much as I do.  Hard to tell what an incubating bird is thinking about…all you see is that cute little face peeking out of the extravagance of the nest, in this case a small throne cupped on a cascade of fibers pouring out of a crevice in a giant fern-draped wall of rock.  But with a singing male, it’s so easy to get caught up in the richness and beauty and imagination of it.  Effortlessly we project onto singing birds, and his song seemed to be a carefree salute to his misty domain, of joyousness toward his worldly needs: berries ripening in the forest, the texture of bark, the crisp beauty of his rocky stream, even to the pouring rain that muffled his dauntless voice.

A few days later, soaked and cheerful, and having just set a dozen rat traps along a transect through the forest near camp, I made my way down into the narrow gorge that led to the same Puaiohi nest.  The invasive rats, many the size of squirrels, are formidable bird predators, and three of the bird species common at our camp, including the Puaiohi, have global populations below 1,000 birds.  I could hear him from a distance—it was the same song, suggesting all the same easily-projected wonders onto my naïve mind.  I rounded the last bend and looked up at the nest. A ruin of moss and blood-specked feathers, a single disembodied wing resting neatly beside the top of the nest.  A rat had found her.  And she had either been caught unaware or maybe stayed and tried to defend her helpless eggs.  But she lost.  The singing male lost.  I lost too, maybe we all did.

When anger comes, it bubbles up quickly and finds release, but mine fizzled even as it came.   Instead I just felt exhausted.  These birds are so rare.   This didn’t need to happen.  I stood there for a long time.

And the male kept singing.  It was the same song it had always been.  And I don’t have any idea what it means.