I’m happy to share the news that my film, now entitled “Struggle for Existence,” premiered in Hawaii at the 2010 Hawaii International Festival this past week. The film website is located at http://www.struggleforexistencefilm.com.

This blog will appear on the new Struggle for Existence website. I am working on a new site for PalilaProject.com as an interactive educational website about the Palila and other Hawaiian birds to complement the film. Together with acclaimed bird photographer Jack Jeffrey, conservation professionals in the field from the film and local science educators, we hope to launch a multidimensional educational outreach campaign that uses the Palila conservation as a case study for teaching youth about the local environment and science concepts such as Island ecosystems, extinction and biological diversity. Through lesson plans, interactive learning exercises, innovative games, and educational toolkits for schools, this curriculum will positively shape the minds of young people, giving them leadership skills that they will carry into the real world.

Currently, I am in the process of fundraising to develop The Palila Project. Please contact me at info@worm-media.com if you are interested in getting involved or supporting us.


Again, its been about a month since I last posted and I apologize for not writing more frequently. I meant to post something in this blog weekly, however, my excuse has been the intense creative process of the actual work, and the harrowing prospect of making a film that I am truly proud of and that is authentic to my vision.

However, for my efforts, I have a trailer to whet appetites in the meanwhile, which can be viewed here. I submitted a grant in March which required a work sample, and I thought the best way to show my film chops was to simply create a film trailer! Because I have not edited a trailer before, it was challenging task to get it to this point (and is by far not perfect). I admit that it is fairly typical and does not include any of the more unique/creative parts, like the use of motion graphics, animation and still photography. Thanks to Hans for his contributions to the music!!

DISCLAIMER: I feel the trailer is a bit overtly heart-tugging and sentimental in a way that I don’t think the final film will be, but in my desire to “sell” the project, I overcompensated the tree-huggery aspects of the film. In actuality, this film is less about the struggle of the Palila, and more about the struggle for existence for all creatures, including man, in the wake of climate change, globalization, political and economic turmoil in the world. The small stories get buried in the avalanche of information and news, and I question how in our oversaturated, overhyped media lives if we can hear the tree falling in forest and actually listen, when normally we only hear the loudest chatter.

You might notice I used a quote of Charles Darwin in the beginning of the trailer, the full quote as follows:

“In the survival of favoured individuals and races, during the constantly-recurring struggle for existence, we see a powerful and ever-acting form of selection.”

Recently I’ve been reading “Origin of the Species” and while the common interpretation of Darwin’s words basely explain “Survival of the Fittest,” Natural Selection, and Evolution concepts, I found his take on humanity and man’s relationship with nature to be quite profound and less scientific than I expected. Darwin’s writings are quite readable and err on the side of philosophical and sociological generalizations rather than rote data and observation. In this sense, I hope to combine my own observations and “documentation” of research and field experiences to rise above the simple nature doc and explore some of these ideological frameworks in which we describe our relationship to animal, plant and earth. A mighty grand mountain to climb, I know, but I believe it is gently sloping like Mauna Kea and through my slow plodding uphill I’ll see beyond the cloudline soon!

It’s been over a month since my last post about the project. I admit I’ve been less than excited to write about my adventures since I returned to New York. To be quite honest, I blame the weather and the fact that it’s so darned depressing when I look outside my window. It’s been really cold this year, and we’ve had some “Nor’easters” as they call the wicked winter storms out here. I had a hard time adjusting to the snowy, freezing weather in New York; it took about a week for me to stop whining how much nicer it is in Hawaii. I didn’t get any sympathy from friends and classmates because they say I was able to “escape” to Hawaii (albeit my protests that I was there to work).

And work, well let’s just say I’ve kept working and progressing. I’ve been busy digitizing, transcribing and logging the footage shot in Hawaii. It’s become quite torturous, seeing the gorgeous sunny weather, green landscapes and clear blue skies on my computer monitor, while I’m bundled up with a coffee working in my loft apartment in Williamsburg (a hipster area of Brooklyn, in case you aren’t familiar with the nabe). My sunburn/tan is all but a slight beige by now, not that anyone can see it because i’m covered head to toe! At the same time, I’ve been writing grants and treatments to get more funding for the project so I can return in April or May to follow up with Rob and his crew, and hopefully see some Palila chicks at KBCC!

What else? I have been meeting with my various advisors, Marty and Frank. I have a meeting with my editorial advisor, Eric next week. I should have a rough cut ready by then, since he’s expecting to see one! I’ve been getting some sweet sounds from Hans, the composer I’m working with on the project. Overall, its been going well as it can, I’ve sketched out the animation/design elements of the film. I need to go through the facts and figures of what i’m presenting to make sure its correct… details, details. I am a believer in “The God is in the Details,” and I certainly have my work cut out for me. That’s all for now!

I’m now back on Oahu and staying with my parents in Mililani, where I grew up. It’s a bit weird being here, after spending nearly three weeks on the Big Island. The pace of life is slower, especially in Hilo, and I started to really get into the lifestyle, waking up early, going to bed by 10pm, shopping at Walmart and KTA. In New York, I normally stay up until 2am, and at the earliest go to bed around midnight, so arising before sunrise on a regular basis was hard at first, but with some Kona coffee in me, I managed to enjoy it after awhile!

Before I forget, I wanted to post the zoomed-in, grainy photo I took of the last two palila I spotted in a mamane tree near the camp at Pu’u Mali. I was informed by several people that the likelihood of seeing palila so close to camp was unusual, as they normally live in the forests well above that area. I apologize for the poor photo, as I had my 55mm lens on my DSLR, not expecting to take any bird photos. I was wandering around the upper area of the camp while waiting for the crew to finish their ATV-mower lesson. I was unprepared, and unsure at first because I did not have my binoculars on me, but I heard what I am certain was a palila call (which is quite distinctive) and I also took a photo of a nearby amakihi which was smaller and greenish-gray by comparison. It’s possible that its another bird species that live up here with a yellow head… I’d like to think the palila pair made a special visit to wish me well!

Anyway, I spent Thursday waking up after the sun came up, had a leisurely breakfast of bagels and coffee, and headed to downtown Honolulu to meet with Dave Leonard for lunch. I had more questions that came up during my shoot on the Big Island that I wanted answered before my time in Hawai’i was over, and he’s the man with the plan (er, information and maps). We had lunch at a great little Vietnamese restaurant and the owner was joshing me while I ordered, paid and picked up my food. I have to say, meeting Dave the first time in the field at Mauna Kea, and today downtown near the Hawai’i State capitol and government buildings was funny in contrast… totally different environments, one natural and rugged, the other massive manmade structures and manicured lawns! I did manage to spot some wildlife; a flock of java finches, a few mynahs, and a couple of house sparrows (all non-native). Dave said he spends most of his time in the office and about ten percent of his time out in the field, which I inferred he prefers over paperwork! He was quite accommodating and happy to answer my outlying questions, most of which involved the specifics of the projects he is responsible for and also the bigger picture for bird and forest conservation in Hawai’i. Like many people I met over the course of this project, he is very passionate and committed to preserving what’s left of Hawaii’s native birds and forests, as 71 of 113 endemic Hawaiian bird species have been lost since humans arrived to the Hawaiian archipelago. I didn’t get a photo this time, but here’s a great one I took of Paul and Dave near an old fence delineating the Mauna Kea Forest Reserve the day we went up to film palila.

I had an awesome time up at Pu’u Mali today, on the north slope of Mauna Kea. It took 3 1/2 hours to get there from Hilo, but we had amazing weather and I only wish I could have spent more time up there with the Mauna Kea Forest Restoration field crew. Getting back went a bit quicker, perhaps from going downhill. I left at 3:30pm and got into Hilo around 6pm to have dinner with my mom at Cafe 100!

My morning started when I met up with Cheyanne (‘Danger’) Rapoza and Ku’ulei Vickery at the Department of Forestry and Wildlife in Hilo and followed them through Waimea, and drove through emerald green hills of pasture and ranch land.

We hit some gnarly fog that was quite beautiful and surreal, but we kept driving through until we got to the main gates where we began rolling through a seriously grassy field that hadn’t seen a cow or mower in several months.

We finally arrived at the camp site, which had a cabin and a few A-frames, and settled in for lunch. Jackson Bauer, James Reidman and Matt Politano arrived in a truck a bit later, because they were towing the ATV and mower which required a slower pace to ensure the safe arrival of their brand new equipment. I had met the crew during the palila count two weeks ago and finally had a chance to chat with them.

After lunch, I waited for the crew to set up and I got to see two more palila (woo hoo!) after hearing a clear loud palila chirp above the amakihi chatter. What luck! Unfortunately I did not have my telephoto lens or binoculars on me, but I have a bad photo that confirms my sightings of the pair.

The crew geared up to measure hectare plots and mow some road grass (the stuff that grows between the tire marks). Over the next four days, the crew will camp out up here, and herbicide invasive weeds, mow grass and prepare the plots of land to plant seedlings in the spring. The goal is to reforest and improve palila habitat, and return the pastureland back into a native Hawaiian subalpine forest.

So to backtrack a little, Pu’u Mali in addition to another area called Kaohe Game Management Area make up what is about 6,500 acres of mitigation land for palila because of the realignment of Saddle Road. So what exactly does a new road have to do with getting some land set aside for palila? Saddle Road was built in 1942 by the military to provide access between the two major cities on the Big Island, Hilo on the east, and Kona on the west through the pass between Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea. The short story is the federal government has spent over $42 million to fix the windy, dangerous road, and the new plans intersect (thus obfuscate) legally mandated palila critical habitat. The federal government set aside funds and land to mitigate the loss of habitat, but I learned that palila don’t actually live in those areas being used for the road.

I really was hoping to see the hack towers where the captive bred flock of palila from KBCC have been released in Pu’u Mali, but alas I ran out of time! I guess i’ll have to save that for my next visit to Hawai’i…

It’s Aloha Friday here in Hawaii, and like the song, it goes “It’s Aloha Friday, no work ’til Monday, do do do do.” Today I spent most of my time interviewing people to get the information part of the doc down pat!

I met up again with Paul Banko, a wildlife biologist from the US Geological Survey, to represent the “research” part of the palila story. Paul has been working on palila for more than 20 years and has been involved with extensive field research about palila genetics, behavior and feeding habits. While he may not say so, he appears to be THE palila expert in Hawai’i and has contributed to quite a few reports and studies about native Hawaiian birds. I met him for the first time in 2007 when I was researching Hawaiian honeycreepers and other native Hawaiian bird species such as the ‘alala. I can partly say that my decision to focus on palila as an example of how conservation works in Hawai’i has a lot to do with what I learned from Paul, and he has been a valuable resource getting me in touch with various people.

The Palila field team (led by Paul) recently ended their 25 year-long study of palila October 2009. According to Paul, palila is the most studied Hawaiian honeycreeper, and the Saddle Road realignment project in 1998 contributed to funding palila research. It has also allowed for new mitigation areas and monies to improve the palila habitat through the Mauna Kea Forest Restoration Project, which Rob is in charge of coordinating.

Earlier in the day I did interviews with Rich and Jeremy from Keauhou Bird Conservation Center to learn specifically about how they breed and raise endangered Hawaiian birds, the process of releasing them to the wild, and how they worked with the Palila field team to gather wild eggs and monitor the birds post-release. KBCC has been raising palila from 1996, and has been successful in their efforts to bolster the wild population on Mauna Kea. I worked with my photog Tim Bryan to shoot in from 7am to noon, and he was quite thrilled to see the birds at KBCC because he lives in Volcano and is an avid birder.

I don’t think I am going to be able to keep up everyday, but I’ll post for Tuesday and Wednesday just this post, since they were pretty much the same schedule because I spent all my time at KBCC in Volcano. Today I met with Jeremy, the facility manager, in the afternoon to learn more about the breeding and raising of chicks at KBCC. The broader umbrella program is the Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program, which Rich is in charge of. KBCC is one of two bird propagation centers run by the San Diego Zoo, the other is the Maui Bird Conservation Center.

It’s quite a delicate and time-consuming process to breed, hatch and raise birds because the chicks are hand-reared and require feeding every hour from 6am to 8pm the first several weeks they are hatched. It’s almost like having a newborn human baby, except they don’t cry at 2am! Breeding is especially challenging for very rare species like puaiohi and ‘alala, as they can’t afford to lose chicks because there are so few left. Palila is in better shape species-wise, but the wild populations are still declining. Ten palila were released in March ’09 and they won’t be released again until 2012 so they are able to build up the captive population and release a greater number of birds. While it would be cool to witness a palila release, I think it would be even cooler to see a little palila chick hatching, which occurs in the spring. I also got to witness a process called “bleeding,” which I learned how they draw blood and give fluids with a syringe to birds.

Tuesday, Dave was here shooting how the incubation process works with infertile eggs (during the breeding season we would not be allowed to film this procedure), as well as actual feeding, food prep, cleaning, and insect propagation–the everyday work the research associates and interns perform at KBCC. I did not get a good shot of the waxworms and mealworms they have to hand-pick for the birds, but that is definitely one of the grosser parts of the job!

I spent a bit more time getting to know the staff, hearing their stories of where they were from, how they got interested in this field of work, what they studied in school, and how they came to work at KBCC. Most studied biology, and several did not study birds or have a specific interest in them until they came to KBCC. I think what inspiring about the staff is how good-natured they were about the messy parts of their job, as well as their genuine passion for birds and animals.

Gosh, I am gonna make this short because I need to get some shut eye. It was literally go go go all day today! I was up again at KBCC this morning, except this time I got to meet the staff working there, and follow them around as they did their daily tasks. I learned a bit about everyone, where they were from, and what their jobs entailed. They care for and propagate a few species of endangered native Hawaiian birds, such as ‘alala, puaiohi, Maui Parrotbill (or “mapa” for short) ‘elepaio and palila. Jeremy, Rich and Rachel started out as aviculture interns at KBCC, and have worked with these birds for several years. Several are newer to Hawaii and KBCC, such as interns Emily and Alexa (their stay ranges from 3 to 6 months) and Pete, who has worked at other places on the mainland doing similar work with captive birds. Tomorrow, Dave will come up to film them cleaning aviaries, feeding the birds and preparing the food, as well as capturing the birds up close in their aviaries.

In the afternoon, I headed out to Pepeekeo to meet up with the infamous Jack Jeffrey, who is responsible for many of the fantastic photographs of Hawaii’s native birds and had worked as a wildlife biologist up at Hakalau National Wildlife Refuge for many years.

He recently retired in 2008, and was kind enough to invite me to his home to chat about his long and storied history with Hawaiian forests, forest birds and conservation. He is known in Hawai`i not only for his images, but also because he did a lot of educational outreach with schools and communities, and continues to commit his energy and time to do so. He was truly inspiring to talk to and very down to earth, as his reputation preceded him from talking to several people who know him professionally. I can’t say more than that he is a unique individual, with a special twinkle in his eye when he talks about Hawaii’s endangered plants and animals with passion and positivity.

It’s Saturday in Hilo, and the main roads are busy with traffic. I spent the day driving in a different direction on the one highway that runs around the Big Island towards Volcano to meet Rich Switzer, who manages the Hawaii Endangered Bird Project and works out of the Keauhou Bird Conservation Center. It’s now run by the San Diego Zoo and has been in operation since 1993. I was running late getting there, but I was surprised at how sunny it was in Volcano. I have never seen it so balmy before… its usually misty and gray, the way the birds and trees probably like it! Anyway, it was nice driving out there again and I couldn’t believe I was actually getting to go inside the KBCC.

A little story about trying to get access here… less than two years ago I contacted the head of the program, Alan Lieberman, to visit and was told that its only open to the public one day a year in December and that unless I was part of a school program that I could not see the birds that lived at the facility. At the time, I was somewhat enamored with the ‘alala, the Hawaiian crow, and was really wanting to do some projects where I could draw and photograph them. I even contacted the well-known bird photographer in Hawaii, Jack Jeffrey, about my interest in ‘alala. I think I am better informed now, and I’ve done my homework (and legwork) to show people that I am serious about making a film about native Hawaiian birds. Anyway, in November I had to go through the same Mr. Lieberman (now working in San Diego) to “jump through hoops” to get access and permission to film at KBCC. After much persistence, research and a better game plan, I am finally getting to shoot there and see the workings of the facility!

Rich was super nice about me being so late, and he gave me a tour of the facility. Now i’m enamored with palila, and there were so many cute ones I was really bowled over that they were so close and chattering more loudly than the other avian residents. I guess my personal palila count is up to 12 or so now… totally mindbending because they were kind of abstract in my head, and its odd seeing this rare bird I’ve been thinking about so much hopping around on a branch 2 feet in front of me. Seeing that i’ll be back on Monday to meet the staff and do some audio recordings, perhaps I’ll be less floored that I get to see captive ones that aren’t going to fly away after 4 seconds. It’s really quite fascinating and I hope to meet and get to know some nice people.

After walking around and learning about KBCC, I went out for lunch with Rich to continue our conversation about birds and propagation. I had a BLT sandwich and it was ‘ono (Hawaiian for delicious)! I had a later appointment with Leayne Patch, who incidentally knew Rich from when he was an intern at KBCC. Leayne used to work at KBCC and went back to school to get her Masters’ degree at the University of Hawai’i at Hilo, and did her thesis on palila.

I drove up to her house in Volcano which was only about 5 minutes from where I ate lunch, and she invited me inside to chat about her experiences with birds at KBCC and her research with palila. Leayne told me about genetic diversity in palila and cooperative breeding, which is what her thesis was about. She was lovely to talk to, and it was touching how she spoke about raising palila from egg, hatching, to releasing the first group into the wild. I am slowly getting to know this very small cache of people who are intimately familiar with this little yellow bird, and they all seem to know each other. I guess they understand my obsession, too!

Today I spent the day with Rob Stephens, who is in charge of habitat restoration efforts for palila on Mauna Kea in an area called Pu’u Mali. Pu’u Mali used to be pastureland for cattle, and his team is working on replanting native Hawaiian trees like the mamane, koa and a’ali’i. Rob met up with me at his workplace, the Division of Forestry and Wildlife in Hilo, and he drove us up through Saddle Road to Waimea to the Kamuela State Tree Nursery. It was a gorgeous sunny day out, with a few puffy white clouds in the sky. It took us about an hour and a half to get there but it was a nice leisurely drive. The facility was quite clean and neat, and they grow various plants for state projects requiring restoration and outplanting.

I really enjoyed talking to him about his work, and he showed me the young seedlings that will be put into the ground in March and April of this year. I hope that I will be able to return to Hawaii in the spring to see Pu’u Mali and film Rob and his team replanting these little trees and transform the grassy slopes into future palila habitat.

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