Inside HONOLULU: A Wild Goose Chase

Hatching a plan isn’t always easy.
Sitting pretty with the birds


Winging it can be pretty stressful, ​at least for a perfectionist like me. So, you can imagine my anxiety when planning for a trip to visit nēnē 200 miles—and several islands—away without any guarantees that we’d actually see any.


My assignment was to tell the story of families who have hosted the endangered geese for generations. I had talked with and emailed them for months, booked plane tickets to Hilo and researched the best times to visit. But a key part for me and photographer David Croxford was finding the birds. 


Peggy Farias, part of the Shipman family that has hosted nēnē for 101 years, tried to assure me that we would likely see them but couldn’t make any promises. They are, after all, wild.


Everything was riding on this trip. David, who was meeting me on the second day, had just six hours to capture some images of the birds. If we didn’t find any, I had no extra budget to return another time.


SEE ALSO: Bad News for O‘ahu’s Nēnē Population: We’re Down to Zero


Finally, after months of agonizing, I headed to the airport early on March 7. The forecast predicted rain the entire time we’d be there. Would the birds come, and would we be able to spot them?


After a few hours talking and digging through the Shipmans’ archives, Peggy and I headed to the family’s Hā‘ena estate. This was the moment. She and I drove down a long private road, her car’s brakes squeaking along the way.

  Nene bird


When we arrived, I was so mesmerized by the beauty of the grounds that for a few seconds I forgot about my quest. That is, until Peggy pointed to a grassy area in the distance where nēnē were congregating. Instant relief. But the stress didn’t end there. The real test would be when David arrived—and we could get photographic proof of their existence.


The next day, David and I headed back to Hā‘ena with Peggy, my palms sweating on the drive over. I had covered stories on city budgets and shootings as a newspaper reporter, but this made me really nervous. Something about the nēnē was so important. Maybe it was because the Shipmans and other families have poured so much hard work into saving them. The least I could do was tell their stories.


SEE ALSO: How Hawai‘i’s Endangered ‘Alalā is Slowly Making a Comeback


We parked. No nēnē. Panic.


As we walked farther, we finally spotted them—a pair swimming in the water. David whipped out his camera and started snapping photos like crazy. We didn’t know if we’d see anymore that day. But after an hour, we found another 10 in one area, four standing regally in a nearly perfect line facing the same angle. Peggy’s dad, Tom English, who proudly donned a nēnē-printed aloha shirt, joked that we should thank him for returning last night to “train” the birds to pose.


SEE ALSO: The Last Known Hawaiian Land Snail Has Died


David slowly inched his way toward them rapidly firing off shots. The birds seemed unfazed as they stood still, almost like they were posing. It was such perfect timing that David took off his cap and tipped it to the geese, saying, “hats off to you!”


For the next hour, the four of us sat on plastic lawn chairs eating musubi and Subway sandwiches. We chatted about everything from Tom’s famous makeup artist friend and our favorite movies to the history of Hā‘ena, while passing around a platter of warm apple strudels (accidentally left in the baking sun). By the end of the day, David had shot 350 photos and I had taken 41 pages of notes.


As we piled into Peggy’s car after hours in the sun (yes, David and I got sunburned), I didn’t want to leave. I glanced through the rear window as the car rolled away one last time. It was the ending to a great day spent with great people.


This is a behind-the-scenes story from the July feature, “Flock Together.” Read more about the community effort that helped bring Hawai‘i’s endangered nēnē back from the brink of extinction in the July 2019 issue of HONOLULU. It is available on newsstands now or for purchase at Subscribe to the print and digital editions now.


Read more stories by Jayna Omaye