Monday, May 25, 2015

Kīlauea Lava Lake

Two weeks ago my friend Graham and I took a trip out to Volcanoes National Park to see the Kīlauea lava lake. (This isn't the trip I posted about before, which didn't actually materialize.) We also stopped at a nearby bird sanctuary and took a neat drive up the side of Mauna Loa, though in pretty much reverse order to how I just listed things.

We spent forty-five minutes sitting in the line of cars waiting to get to the viewing overlook at the Jagger Museum so it was after sunset by the time we got there, the visibility not improved by a light drizzle. Due to that I'm afraid I wasn't able to get any pictures worth sharing, but thankfully Graham was a bit more prepared and managed to get some video with his DSLR. He'd also been two weeks earlier when the lava lake first rose into view and took footage then too, which I had the idea of compositing together to give a comparison of the activity levels at both times.

When we went the lake was a bit more active than it had been when he'd first gone, with one side constantly slowly boiling like a pot on the stove, periodically throwing a spray of incandescent rock into the air to fall as molten rain as giant bubbles of gas burst unceasingly from the depths of the earth. In the dark it's hard to get a sense of scale, but when you watch the video below keep in mind that that lava lake is eight acres in size. I've taken the footage from both trips and played them one after the other, sped up by 4x to keep the video shorter. (Apologies for the lack of sound; the original audio is just a babble of tourists and doesn't add anything so I muted it, and since this is pretty much my first video compositing experience I was more focused on getting it working than adding audio.)

Only a few days after this trip the lava lake level lowered to where it once again couldn't be seen from the overlook and so far as I know hasn't risen again, so it looks like I caught it just in time. Who knows, though, this is the apparently the first time it's been visible from the overlook in something like thirty years, so perhaps it indicates that the eruption activity center is moving back to the summit and away from the flank. Only time will tell.

Oh, I mentioned going on a scenic drive up the flank of Mauna Loa. The day was intermittently rainy and sunny, with rain clouds rolling in waves across the landscape, so while it was pretty it again wasn't very conducive to photography.

What was (surprisingly) conducive to photography were some of the birds we saw as we drove up. I was driving along on the one-lane road and noticed a solitary francolin standing on the left side of the road. It was standing on one leg in what looked like a fresh dirt-bath dirt patch, and continued to stand there as the car got closer…and closer…and closer, until I had pulled up directly beside it. It seemed completely unfazed as rolled down my window and sat staring at it in stupefaction, mere feet from where I sat.

(If I may digress; francolins are in the same family as chickens [though never domesticated], and I grew up around a lot of chickens. Other than chicks that were incubated and raised primarily around humans, I've never seen a chicken-like bird this unafraid of people, especially a wild one. I couldn't [and to a degree still can't] get over just how unruffled this bird was. I guess this must have been what it felt like landing on Mauritius and encountering the dodos for the first time.)

Anyway, after picking my jaw up off the floor, I was able to get some extreme close-ups of the francolin thanks to its complete coöperation, such as this one:

"What, never seen a francolin before?"

After what felt like a few minutes staring in wonder at this fearless bird as it stared dispassionately back, we left it where it was and continued up the road. Not much further we ran into a flock of five francolins in the process of slowly crossing the road, whom we interrupted just as they had a bird directly on each side of the road. Once again they weren't inclined to move even as we drove directly between them, mere feet away from a francolin on either side. Given the behavior of the francolins I've seen on Mauna Kea it was, frankly, a bit surreal. I don't know why these francolins so far up Mauna Loa are so fearless – perhaps the isolation and lack of experience with humans? – but it was a really amazing experience.

At the end of the road, about 6,000 feet up, one of the trails to the summit of Mauna Loa begins. It's a long hike, about three or four days, with cabins to stay at along the way. The end of the road also offered an amazing view down to Kīlauea caldera, which we were able to catch glimpses of in between the clouds rolling through. We also took a short hike to where some Mauna Loa silverswords had been planted as part of a reintroduction program. It was interesting to see the differences between them and their Mauna Kea brethren.

The Mauna Loa silverswords, as seen above, seem to have their leaves initially green only to turn silver later, while the Mauana Kea ones appear to be silver from the get-go. All the ones we saw were pretty small; that was one of the largest ones, and it's only about the size of a large cabbage. Of course, that may just be due to age differences between the two populations (both of them human-planted, coincidentally). The Mauna Loa silverswords, additionally, seemed to have only a single rosette, in contrast to the Mauna Kea ones that often have multiple rosettes in one plant. (I've heard this is the result of a genetic bottleneck; the single-rosette form is the standard, the multi-rosette is due to a mutation, but it just so happened that when they were collecting what few silverswords remained on Mauna Kea for breeding the few they got had this mutation so the ones that have been re-introduced do as well.)

Also between the drive and the volcano we stopped a bird sanctuary, which I don't have much to say about other than that it was a nice mile-long hike in the gathering dusk, trying to make out lots of little bird flitting about in the trees. And there were some neat kalij pheasants in the undergrowth that were pretty fearless around us too, though not quite to the extent the francolins were. All in all, a nice trip.

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