There were birds here once, dozens of species of honeycreeper, each its own shade of gold, green, or red, as if painted from the same palette as a Gustav Klimt painting. They descended from a single species of finch who miraculously survived the 2,000 mile flight over the gaping blue Pacific. In geological time, it virtually exploded on impact, the single species evolving into more than 40. But they were besieged by plagues of invasives the moment humans set foot onshore. By the time I was born, there was little left of them, mostly glass-eyed museum skins posed in mock flight.
The survivors retreated up the mist-veiled slopes of the Ko’olau mountains. Most of their territory is invisible, swallowed by clouds, so when I’m hiking a mountain trail and walls of white mist start to close in on me, I know I’m close. Wind howls down into the valleys, raising the hairs on the back of my neck. The forest looks and feels primeval, and decidedly hostile. In olden days, mountains were kapu, off limits, because they were the realm of gods.
A chirp cuts through the mist. I blink the mist out of my eyes and raise my binoculars, catching an ‘Elepaio in my sights—or maybe it saw me first. These mahogany flycatchers, found within just 18 square miles of forest, are famously curious with a habit of following hikers. Something squeaks in the canopy and I turn to see an ‘Apapane, a blood-red honeycreeper sipping nectar from ‘Ohi’a blossoms. Ancient shades of green, gold, and red erupt from the misty canopy, and the forest drips with birdsong.
‘O’ahu is paradise, but its perfection seems a magnet for disaster. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d come up to pay my respects prematurely, like visiting someone in their final days. Would my memories of these birds be among the last any human makes of them? I felt compelled to return soon, just to make sure the honeycreepers were still here. And to ponder a time when they wouldn’t be.