Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Jan. 20, 2012 - Mt. Ka'ala

Today was my second official volunteer trip with the Army environmental team and a unique spot on the island that I have always wanted to check out.  Part of the Waianae mountain range, Mt. Ka'ala is the tallest mountain on O'ahu.  The summit, just over 4000 ft above sea level isn't a peak but rather a plateau that maintains a high altitude bog.  The unique habitat up top serves as refuge to a host of native species, many of which we were lucky enough to see on the trip.  It was amazing to be in a forest that was that native; a vast majority of the flora and fauna were native species and the mist and moisture of the forest added to an atmosphere that seemed pristine and untouched by the changes that had affected the rest of O'ahu.

Our project for the day was to fight back the invasive moss that's spreading in the bog and threatening to compete with the native plants or even change the acidity and composition of the soil which would threaten the entirety of the ecosystem.  Armed with sprayers full of clove oil (apparently an effective moss herbicide that doesn't hurt other plants) dyed blue, we worked along the boardwalk that winds through the bog.  When we were done, the fluffy blue moss patches made the forest of stunted trees look like the land of the smurfs.

After I emptied two tanks of blue spray, we were finished with the work and got to explore the forest and admire the native species, many of which are super rare anywhere else on O'ahu but uncommon to common on Ka'ala.  Here's the highlights:

 Two types of bog snails, referred to by the Ka'ala veterans on the trip as snot-in-a-hat and cinnamon roll snails.  Both pictures on the native plant, kanawao.
 Here's kanawao with its cluster of bright red berries.  The bottom plant is ohia lehua, one of the most common and well known native plants.  What was interesting about the ohia on Ka'ala was that the ones at the summit bog were stunted when compared with those at lower elevations along the side of the mountain.  There was much discussion among the botanists in the group about identification being complicated by the rampant hybridization between the handful of species in the ohia's genus, Metrosideros.  What's more, the species pictured, Metrosideros polymorpha, is one of the most common species of ohia and as it's name suggests, it can look quite different depending on where it is found.  I found it confusing to link latin species names with the Hawaiian names because the Hawaiian names refer to traits such as flower color (lehua=red) but several species of ohia have red flowers.

Probably the coolest find on the Ka'ala was the Happy Face Spider, a endangered native arthropod.  These charismatic spiders have been used in conservation campaigns and are well known but few people actually find them and I had never seen one in my life before today.  I didn't realize they were so small.  They also show a unique patterns on their bodies and legs, kind of like spider snowflakes.  It took us a while to find one that even had red and a smile on it's face (actually abdomen).  They seemed to like chillin' under the leaves of kanawao and that turned out to be the secret for finding them.

We also explored the perimeter of the military air traffic control facility located at the site.  Got some sweet views of the island and admired the huge golfball radar sensor thing.