It was a quiet morning. The air hung thickly around us, hot, as we wandered the Kanaha Pond Wildlife Sanctuary. The 243-acre refuge is just minutes from downtown Kahului and we could see 'Iao in the distance, but in the mesmerizing calm, it felt far away.
Before us lay one of nature's miracles.
In only three weeks, the November rains had birthed a new pond, and the endangered Hawaiian stilts, the ae'o (pronounced eye-oh), were making fine use of it. "It's been dry for over a year," said our guide, the avid birder Sonny Gamponia. "That's all it took to bring it back. The shore birds discovered it."
White-bellied with black backs and long pink legs, the stilts stepped about elegantly in the clean, shallow water, sometimes skimming the surface, uttering their ungraceful warning calls - ack ack ack ack ack.
Ruddy Turnstones (akekeke) picked at food in the water nearby. They are regular travelers on the Pacific flyway from the Alaskan tundra, "world-class fliers" who veered from their normal route and decided to spend winter with us. Mottled black and brown with a chestnut breast, they blend in with the mud.
At an adjacent pond, the endangered Hawaiian coot ('alae ke'ok'eo), black with a white head shield, splashed clumsily into the water, then sailed serenely away, leaving a chevron of ripples in her wake.
They're nesting now, the coots, unusual. It normally happens in the spring, but the rains brought the spiked makaloa sedge back to life, from which the birds fashion floating nests.
There was the web of life, playing out before us. "It's amazing how productive this pond is for just being around a month," Gamponia said.
People don't realize how rare and valuable this "little secret" of a pond is, and how much history is associated with it. Kanaha is one of only three large sea-level lakes in Hawaii, the others being Waikea Pond in Hilo and Halulu Lake on Ni'ihau.
Rainwater flows down from the Wailuku basalt basis of the West Maui Mountains and the Honumanu basalt of Haleakala, running in small rivulets in the lava, eventually creating springs.
Thanks to Kanaha and its sister refuge, Kealia, on Mokulele Highway, Maui is home to the highest number of endangered Hawaiian stilts and coots in the state. The wetland itself, besides being a habitat for endangered birds and native plants, provides a tsunami buffer, filters sediment and neutralizes chemicals.
Kanaha was once twin fishponds, built in the 1760s by the Oahu/Molokai chief Kapi'ioho, with laborers who passed stones from hand to hand along a line extending from Makawela, the sea fishery in Wailuku. The ponds were named Kanaha for his son, Kanahaokalani, and Mau'oni, the incognito name of his daughter.
The "big lagoon" used to be a place to picnic and swim, but dredging of Kahului Harbor in the 1920s cut off the drainage channel to the ocean. By the '40s and '50s, the pond was a place to be avoided. Even the stilts left. But they migrated back, and that's when the sanctuary was established in 1959, "Home of the Ae'o."
Last year, Kanaha Pond was a noxious green after years of drought. Avian botulism broke out, killing 95 birds. Survivors were trapped and removed to Kealia. Amazingly, when conditions improved at Kanaha, the birds returned. The stilts are good fliers, but the coots? "I don't know how they got back," Sonny said. "They can swim all day, but fly 100 yards and they get tired. I think they hitched a ride."
The main gate to the sanctuary is on the beach road, where volunteer Mike Perry has created a native coastal strand at water's edge. Here, the "lovers" pohue'hue and kauna'oa lie intertwined, blue beach morning glory with thin strands of orange lichen, covered that day with tiny, fragrant white flowers.
It's a treasure, Kanaha, a laboratory of natural history, right in our backyard.
For the life of me, I do not understand why the Maui Planning Commission and the Army Corps of Engineers, against the concerns of the Planning Department and others, approved permits for a six-story office building and 350 parking stalls to be constructed at the brink of Kanaha.
According to Gamponia, who has read the environmental assessment, over a third, or 0.94 acres of the proposed project's 2.49-acre site, is a wetland. Given the gem we have there, and unforeseeable problems inherent in disrupting such a fragile place, to me it makes no sense.
* 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.