Native Intelligence: Hawai‘i Island

Avian Impressions

Story by Andy Wright. Photo by Megan Spelman.

Peering out from her home—a circa 1928 house that was once a retreat for nuns—on four acres of rainforest in Volcano village, Margaret Barnaby sees a nutmeg mannikin and a common waxbill, small birds indigenous to Africa. She hears a Japanese bush warbler calling, but the native ‘io (hawk) she usually hears screeching overhead is silent. As an artist, Barnaby has been taken with birds since childhood, partly because they aren’t hard to find. “They’re brightly colored, they fly,” she says. “It’s an animal you can see easily.”

Barnaby has translated her interest into art, and the birds she creates are even easier to spot. For the past ten years she’s been making massive woodblock prints of birds in a studio twenty feet from her house. Using a knife and gouges, she carves images of birds and their habitats into pieces of birch plywood, each one up to five feet tall and three feet across, creating up to six plates for each print. Each plate consists of a separate element of the picture and is successively colored by hand and pressed onto a piece of paper to create a single, highly detailed and multilayered image. If she works steadily, Barnaby says, the process takes six to eight weeks.

She’s committed several Hawaiian birds to wood and paint, including the endangered native crow, the ‘alalā, which she’s observed and sketched in captivity at the Keauhou Bird Conservation Center. Barnaby also travels the world—Borneo, Malaysia, Australia and Africa—in search of subjects. In one print a pair of secretary birds—raptors with dramatic head plumage that stomp their prey to death—pace across an African savannah under looming rain clouds. In a cheeky nod to her home base, she included a Jackson’s chameleon in that print; native to Africa, they’re invasive in Hawai‘i.

Barnaby’s affection extends to other wildlife as well: She’s cohabitated with a bee colony in her chimney for years without incident, that is until the Kīlauea eruption “greatly disturbed” them and she was stung several times. But her true love is birds; she’s thrilled to know that ‘alalā, previously extinct in the wild, have been reintroduced to Hawai‘i. “It’s very exciting,” she says, “that one day they might just fly over my house.”