It's early in the morning in Kihei - calm, very calm, before the wind comes up. We are alone at the peaceful oasis at the Kealia National Wildlife Refuge, just us, the shallow glassy ponds, and the endangered native wetland birds, the ae'o, the Hawaiian stilt, and the 'alae ke'oke'o, the Hawaiian coot.
You can drive up to the kiosk at the water's edge, but our group has walked down the road, viewing the native plants - among them, pahuehue, akulekule, ululoa - that form the refuge's habitat. Our charming guide is Sonny Gamponia, a retired speech pathologist and an avid Kealia volunteer, where he helps protect habitat (which tends to translate into weed-whacking).
I've been on Maui for 20 years but have never seen a Hawaiian stilt until this moment. It's an elegant thing with long pink legs, a long bill, and stunning feathers, black with a white underbelly.
Two wade nearby pecking for food. Two fly low over the olive-green water. Two coots, black with white faces, go chuckling by. An 'auku'u, a black-crowned night heron, native but abundant, emerges stealthily from the pickleweed, intent on something in the sedge. In the distance the koloa, the Hawaiian duck, which on Maui and Oahu is a hybrid with the mallard.
Across the pond the a'eo jabber at each other, appearing to walk on the water. "They're doing a bunch of funny things now because nesting season is coming up," Sonny says. "They pair up, get more aggressive."
The coots are beginning to nest in the makaloa, carefully constructing 9-inch round nests that float in the sedge "like a deep-dish pizza with two eggs."
The fresh water in the ponds, a former shrimp and catfish farm from the '80s, is pumped from 100 feet deep. (Word to the wise: the pump that feeds the biggest pond is broken, hence no water near North Kihei Road. "You have all kinds of people walking the boardwalk and they'll never see birds," Sonny says. "They don't know to come here.")
The water levels are carefully managed. Too much and the plants invade. Too little and the stilts won't nest, which they do when the berms separating the ponds become at least 3 or 4 yards wide.
Why, I wonder, as we stand in the middle of one. "The birds will put a nest right here," Sonny says, pointing to the ground.
What does a Hawaiian stilt's nest look like? Sonny scrapes aside a little dirt with his shoe.
That's it? No twigs, no artful collection of native materials and feathers? "That's why they're so vulnerable."
The Hawaiian stilt's nests are made in 6-foot intervals all across the berms, not far from the water where the parents must go to feed and wet their feathers to cool the eggs broiling in the afternoon sun.
The 690-acre Kealia is one of the few wetland refuges in the state that allows the public in during nesting season. Come May through July, when the stilts nest, a rope will go up, keeping the public at the kiosk and away from the levees, but the place remains open, unlike other refuges in the state.
"Just to be able to see them nest here is a privilege," Sonny says.
That makes this spring a perfect time to visit Kealia, which recently opened a new $4.9 million visitor center, a shovel-ready project built with federal stimulus funds.
The refuge lies just outside Kihei, a mile or so past the animal shelter when coming from Kahului. A ridiculously small and narrow sign indicating "Kealia NWR" alerts you to the entrance. Coming from South Maui there is left-turn access across the highway, but again, be vigilant for that sign. It's open Monday to Friday, 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., no reservations necessary.
Now is also a good time to go because in mid-May Kealia's fascinating accidental visitors will be migrating back to the Arctic tundra, birds that got off course last fall, spotted the ponds from the air, and decided to winter here in a safe place that for them is in the middle of nowhere. Under the international treaty, the Migratory Bird Act, it is illegal to hunt them.
These rare visitors generate excitement among birders eager to identify the newcomers. This year, among others, the bristle-thighed curlew, the pectoral sandpiper, the long-billed dowitcher, and the brant, a duck-goose related to the Hawaiian nene, made Maui their winter resort.
The white-faced ibis made a stir, as did the red-necked phalarope, a cute thing that feeds on the water by paddling in circles, generating a whirlpool to bring up bugs. "This is one of those birds that people hear about and then get on a plane the next day to see."
Black terns showed up on a howling wind. Then there was the peregrine falcon. Sonny was out on the Christmas bird count, tallying myahs and ducks, "and this thing showed up. It was awesome." Could it be that this lofty creature at the top of its food chain had found its way to Maui?
The answer came when someone called the refuge. "Is there some kind of hawk here? Something killed five ducks in my front yard."
"Yeah, that's it."
* Laurel Murphy is a former staff writer for The Maui News whose "Keiki o ka 'Aina" column appears each Tuesday. She can be reached at email@example.com.