The Coquistadors take Volcano
Story by Janice Crowl
It’s a slimy lump about the size of a bonbon, but I don’t hesitate: I grab it with one bare hand and thrust it into a plastic bag. Yes, I feel a pang of remorse, but mostly sweet relief. No mercy. I … am a Coquístadore.
That frog had been driving me mad for a week. Earlier that night I’d spent hours slogging in the rain with Tim Tunison. Tim’s a retired Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park biologist who founded the Volcano Coquístadores, an all-volunteer community group whose simple but by no means easy mission is to keep the invasive coquí frog out of Volcano. Tim and I had tried (but failed) to find the coquí by following its ear-shattering nocturnal call. When Tim left I pressed on, shining a flashlight on every stalk of ginger in my backyard. My tenacity was rewarded with a night of blissful, quiet sleep. But for how long?
Besides jet engines and tsunami sirens, there’s probably nothing louder in Hawai‘i than the coquí frog. They were inadvertently introduced near Hilo, most likely via imported potted plants. In their native Puerto Rico, they’re beloved for their cute, whistling call, but in Puerto Rico, predators keep a lid on their numbers. Not so in Hawai‘i: Coquí populations have exploded here, and some nights their combined chorus gets (almost) as loud as a jet engine or tsunami siren. When they first arrived about twenty years ago, no one paid much attention. Now they’re the nightly soundtrack of almost the entire Windward coast, from Waipi‘o to South Point, even beyond to the Kona side. If you live in the midst of a coquí infestation, you can try to seal your windows, plug your ears and wrap pillows around your head, but no barrier can completely block out those insistent rounds of ko-KEE, ko-KEE, ko-KEE!
Despite statewide control efforts, coquí frogs have been advancing upslope toward Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park, so the Coquístadores have been taking coquí control literally into their own hands since 2001. Eleven volunteers (including yours truly) comprise this “grass-roots invasive species control experiment,” as Tim calls it. During coquí season Tim is out on patrol every night; most members deploy once a week. A call to the Coquí Hotline mobilizes the posse to forge through dense thickets of ‘uluhe fern and invasive ginger. We perch precariously on ladders to reach ten feet up ‘öhi‘a trees and hapu‘u tree ferns. We stand for hours in the darkness and rain trying to pinpoint frogs by their elusive call—a sound that mysteriously bounces around.
Our crusade to keep frogs out of Volcano might seem quixotic, but Tim believes the Coquístadores have a fighting chance. The frogs get to new locations by hitchhiking on vehicles, and they’re dropped off mostly in residential areas. They call consistently when they arrive, making them easy to track. But it’s an uphill battle: Last year the Coquístadores captured more than a hundred frogs in Volcano Village alone.
I spent my formative years in Hilo, when nights were hushed and idyllic. When the first coquí sang in my neighborhood, no one tried to flush it out of my neighbor’s banana patch. Within five years the coquís were producing a wall of sound so deafening that when I sold my house I was required by law to disclose that coquís were on the property. When I moved to Volcano, I was astounded to hear something I had not heard in years: the soft trilling of crickets. (Volcano is home to the evening music of native cricket species found nowhere else in the world.) So when that lone coquí snuck into my back yard, I didn’t care if I had to thrash through the jungle all night to prevent a repeat of the nightmare I’d left behind. I’m still fortunate to fall asleep to the gentle soundscape of an authentic Hawaiian rainforest. So far.