Story by Michael Shapiro
Photos by Jack Wolford
It’s July of 2008, and Jack Jeffrey is leading a school group through Hakalau Forest National Wildlife Refuge. It’s something he’s done hundreds of times in his role as senior wildlife biologist for the refuge, a thirty-three thousand-acre tract of forest on the eastern slope of Mauna Kea. He has no idea, though, that today something remarkable is about to happen. The kids don’t, either; for many what they’ve already seen is remarkable enough: critically endangered forest birds that the refuge was established to protect. Jack leads them down through a misty koa forest and stops at a six-foot-tall plant, a Dr. Seuss-ish thing reminiscent of a papaya tree—an ‘oha wai, extremely endangered native lobelia. Less than a hundred are known to exist in the wild, and eight of them grow in Hakalau. Refuge staff propagated and planted about four hundred keiki; the plant in front of which Jack stands is among the survivors.
“We’ve planted this Clermontia lindseyana,” he tells the kids, using its proper Latin name, “but it has to be bird-pollinated.” He explains that in the original native forest, lobelias like this were common, and the birds actively fed on them; some, like the i‘iwi, had evolved specialized, curved beaks to fit lock-and-key into the lobelia’s curved blossom. But in the centuries following the arrival of humans, native forest areas went into decline from habitat loss, introduced species, predation and disease. As the birds disappeared, so did the plants that depended on them for fertilization; many went extinct. At Hakalau, where there are still concentrations of native birds, the lobelias are being replanted. But the birds, it seems, have a short memory. They no longer recognize the flowers as a potential food source; even the i‘iwi doesn’t seem to remember the flower for which its bill is designed. Until it does, the lobelias won’t really be reintegrated with the forest; they’ll depend on humans for their survival. “When the Clermontia are in bloom, I’ll sit for hours waiting to see if any birds will come. In all the years they’ve been flowering, I’ve never seen a bird pollinating them. But it’s going to happen,” Jack tells the kids with characteristic cheerful certitude. “Some bird’s going to come down, take a sip of that nectar and think he’d died and gone to heaven. It’s just a matter of time.”
As he speaks, back to the plant, he sees the kids’ eyes get as big as saucers. The teacher is pointing, “Jack! Jack! I‘iwi!” He turns, and there it is: a scarlet-red i‘iwi darting among the tubular blossoms, dipping its curving beak deeply into the curved flowers. It flits to a second plant, then a third and disappears. “Wow!” Jack exclaims. “You’re witnessing history! This is the first time anybody’s seen this; anyone else who might have seen it is dead.”
A bird feeding on a flower might seem a small, natural thing. But this small, natural thing symbolizes years of successful management and hard labor at Hakalau Forest National Wildlife Refuge; it took hundreds of people twenty years to reunite that bird with that flower. For Jack, whose research has been instrumental in making that reunion possible, it’s the closing of both an ecological and a personal circle. Now retiring after more than two decades at the refuge, such a moment is a genuine sign of promise for the forest he’s devoted his career to preserving.