Volcanoes National Park and the elusive nēnē

Yesterday was occupied by a visit to Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island, with lots of hiking and lots of searching for the elusive nēnē (Branta sandvicensis), a sister species of the Canada goose and a species endemic to Hawaii. It’s also the official state bird of Hawai’i.

Contrary to popular belief, the nēnē can indeed fly, but isn’t a denizen of water (its feet are only partly webbed). It apparently speciated after a Canada goose ancestor made it to Hawaii about half a million years ago.

Like my daylong search for the kea in New Zealand, however, the search was successful.

First, though, some pictures from the park, including the main crater, Kīlauea, which ceased its destructive eruptions last year after erupting continuously since 1983. Nobody knows when it will erupt again, but it’s just a matter of time.

The caldera, much enlarged during the last two decades of eruption. You can in fact see the original crater and the newer one:

Sulfur crystals:

Rain-drenched fiddleheads:

Lava from the most recent eruptions flowing down to the sea and creating new land:

When you’ve seen about 15 of these signs, and no nēnē, you get really frustrated.

A ranger down at the sea told me that she’d seen two nēnēs the day before at a parking lot about ten miles north, and so we went there. And, turning the corner in our car, there it was, a beautiful nene foraging in the grass!

When we took these pictures and videos, we didn’t know that you’re supposed to stay 60 feet away from the bird, so be aware to keep that distance. At least we did know not to feed it or touch it.

Note that its feet are only partly webbed. This is the result of natural selection acting on the lineage that started with the Canada-goose ancestor. If you don’t swim much but do walk on land a lot, webs are a hindrance.

This one wasn’t banded, and that was curious to me, as there are only 220 in the park and I’d have thought they would all sport bands:

The Canada goose (Branta canadensis), the closest relative of the nēnē, and the presumed ancestor who made it to Hawaii and evolved. Note that its feet are fully webbed.

Me and the bird, which I named “Duke”:

And a video:


  1. Posted July 2, 2019 at 11:22 am | Permalink

    When I was on Haleakala on Maui I searched far and wide for nēnē. I finally found a couple of them begging for food in a parking lot. Kind of spoils the sighting.

  2. Randall Schenck
    Posted July 2, 2019 at 11:43 am | Permalink

    Some good hunting. When I toured the area there back around 1985 it was still going pretty hot and you were blocked on some roads. Madame Pele apparently does not like it if you take a piece of lava as a souvenir. Some people return their pieces but we never did. Bad luck.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted July 2, 2019 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

      When I was there in 2009 they had not allowed you to go very far in anymore so I took a helicopter tour over all of Big Island instead (there was a sale too to fill up the helicopter). Back then “Jack’s House” hadn’t been engulfed by the volcano yet & he still lived there.

      • Randall Schenck
        Posted July 2, 2019 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

        You are braver than I, going for a helicopter
        tour. And I once flew airplanes, but have this thing about wings.

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted July 2, 2019 at 5:10 pm | Permalink

          Because it was hard to judge distances and sizes up there I got motion sick and dry heaved when we landed.

        • Posted July 2, 2019 at 5:34 pm | Permalink

          Without wings, airplanes are much worse.

  3. BJ
    Posted July 2, 2019 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

    Sulfur crystals are so cool! I’ve always been fascinated by caves. Did it stink like hell, or does the sulfur have no smell because it’s crystallized?

  4. Joe Dickinson
    Posted July 2, 2019 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

    Hiking down into the crater at Haleakala National Park on Maui, we encountered a group of nenes near a cabin used by backpackers. Our daughter offered them some crackers spread with peanut butter that we had brought along for snacks. They accepted them enthusiastically but soon had beaks “glued” shut by the peanut butter. Our thought: “OMG we’ve endangered an endangered species.” Fortunately, the effect was short lived.

  5. Posted July 2, 2019 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

    Terrific! Maybe its leg band had fallen off. But I don’t know how probable that is.

  6. Posted July 2, 2019 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

    “Beware of steam vents” – a sign that should have appeared in the McGill tunnels when I was a student. 🙂

  7. Posted July 2, 2019 at 3:42 pm | Permalink

    Lovely photos. Is that woman trying to touch the nene?

  8. Hunt
    Posted July 2, 2019 at 6:09 pm | Permalink

    You’ll see the occasional Nene pair in various odd spots around the island. There was a pair down at the bottom of the Paradise Park residential development not long ago. They may still be there. Unfortunately you also hear about them getting hit by cars now and then. Not frequently, thank D-g.

    On another topic, people are always oohing and aahing Kilauea, but the real spectacle on the island is Mauna Loa, and they just upgraded its volcanic activity to a higher level. Almost nobody ever sees the ML caldera in person since you either have to fly there or hike to it. (You can get an aerial view in Google maps or Google earth.) To hike it you either have to get to the Volcanoes Park trail-head side (a stunningly beautiful drive, but then a 26 mile hike ending at 13k feet–not for the faint of heart), or drive to the Mauna Loa climate observatory on the other side, and do the intense six mile hike, all at over 11 thousand feet. Caveat: I’ve never done either.

    BTW, the Mauna Loa observatory is very rarely visited by tourists. The road is long and rough. (Yes, I’ve at least driven up to it.) It’s interesting in is own right, but I’m not sure there are tours. It played a key role in the CO2 measurements and discovery of global warming.

    Sorry for rambling. I’d take over your itinerary if you let me.

  9. Mark R.
    Posted July 2, 2019 at 9:03 pm | Permalink

    Glad you found what you were searching for; a very beautiful bird indeed. The third new-life lava flow photo had a cool pareidolia; goat-like head at top, chubby belly and arms and thighs.

  10. Raskos
    Posted July 2, 2019 at 9:09 pm | Permalink

    I visited the Kortright Waterfowl Sanctuary outside of Guelph back in the 70s, and one of the first things we saw was a small flock of nenes running over to greet us. No fear at all. A marvellous sight – back then there weren’t that many of them, as I recall, and this flock was part of a captive breeding programme.

  11. Kevin Brinck
    Posted July 2, 2019 at 11:55 pm | Permalink

    As a long-time lurker it was a thrill to see Professor-emeritus Coyne post pictures from my figurative back-yard. I walked that same path on the same day after work.

    Also, as a Volcano native I can tell everyone that the best place to see nene (plural and singular are the same for Hawaiian words) are on golf courses, especially the one adjacent to the national park.

  12. Filippo
    Posted July 4, 2019 at 11:08 am | Permalink

    PCC(E), thanks so much for these great photos.

    If human primates would behave themselves, there would not have to be a 60 ft. approach limit.

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