Story by Shannon Wianecki
Everything Arleone Dibben-Young does is for the birds. With binoculars slung around her neck and longish, silver hair tucked under a baseball cap, she’s a one-woman public relations team for native Hawaiian avifauna. Since moving to Moloka‘i sixteen years ago, she has initiated numerous projects for the birds’ sake— starting in her own front yard. In place of a manicured lawn, she and her architect husband, Rich Young, constructed a miniature wetland to attract shorebirds to their beachfront home in Kawela. The pair landscaped with native plants and installed a pond that lures long-legged ae‘o (Hawaiian stilts) and portly ‘alae ke‘oke‘o (Hawaiian coots).
But Arleone didn’t merely build this sanctuary and wait for the birds to come—she formed a nonprofit, Nene o Moloka‘i, and obtained a permit to raise the endangered Hawaiian geese. In addition to the fly-bys, ten nene now call Kawela home. When neighborhood kids bicycle over to watch the geese preen and nibble on makaloa sedges, Arleone cultivates the youngsters’ interest by handing out bird-themed coloring books of her own creation. She has a knack for turning people into birders. Every fall she challenges Moloka‘i residents to watch for Pacific golden plovers, or kolea. The migratory birds return in late August from their summer breeding grounds in Alaska, and the first ten people to report kolea win prizes.
Research is an important part of another project Arleone oversees: Koheo wetland. In 2001 she marshaled volunteers to restore a vacant seaside lot to its former glory as critical habitat. Over the past decade, those volunteers have logged thousands of hours yanking out alien species and planting natives, monitoring water quality and salt content, and building predatorproof fences. Now students from the University of Hawai‘i, Moloka‘i High School and Moloka‘i Elementary School (which is just two blocks away) use the wetlands for hands-on science lessons.
In earlier times Koheo was known as Ka La‘i ke Kioea, after the kioea, or bristle-thighed curlew. This gold-flecked shorebird with a beak like a crescent moon has a special relationship with Moloka‘i. According to a Hawaiian proverb, “Moloka‘i, i ka kioea ho‘olale i ka wa‘a,” Moloka‘i is where the kioea urges the canoe. The rare bird gathers on the Friendly Isle in greater numbers than anywhere else in Hawai‘i and favors one particular spot in Kaunakakai: the ball field at Duke Maliu Regional Park. There, stocky curlews hang out by second base. They also roost in the monkeypod outside Moloka‘i Elementary’s first-grade classroom. Charmed by the bird’s three-note serenade, the students took Arleone’s suggestion to adopt the kioea as their school mascot. The town of Kaunakakai followed suit: More than a thousand people—an eighth of the island’s population — signed a petition Arleone circulated in 2011 to name the kioea the official bird of the town. That’s loyalty, considering the bird is only a part-time Moloka‘i resident. Like Pacific golden plovers, bristle-thighed curlews summer in Alaska.
Arleone relates all of this information and more during her entertaining birding tours. On a recent visit to Moloka‘i, two friends and I booked a tour. As we bounced down Moloka‘i’s rural roads, our enthusiastic guide passed out binoculars and informed us that our stops would include her home, Koheo wetland, a shrimp farm and the mud flats. We kept our eyes peeled for kioea but couldn’t find them anywhere: not in the ball field, not in the monkeypod tree. As Arleone chauffeured us coastward, I began to suspect I might have to travel to Alaska to see the wily shorebird. My contemplation was stopped short by the view. At low tide Moloka‘i’s mud flats are epic. Blinking against the glare, I scanned the horizon. Arleone let out a loud, warbling whistle. Silence. Then, from a distance, came an identical reply. If a kioea doesn’t present itself, Arleone will call one.