My failure to spot Nēnē when they flew right over my head taught me an important lesson about being overly focused.

One of my personal mottos is “Keep Looking.” Having a naturally pessimistic world view, I often give up too soon. Fortunately, repeated life lessons remind me to “Keep Looking.” One of my most memorable lessons was trying to see an endangered goose in Hawai’i.

It was my first trip to the islands and I was determined to see the native Hawaiian goose (Branta sandvicensis) or nēnē. This small waterfowl doesn’t migrate, nor does it actually need a watery habitat. It feeds on the fruit, seeds, and leaves of land plants. Nearly extinct in the 1950s, captive-bred geese have been released into appropriate habitat to bring the birds back, but the current population cannot sustain itself. Predation by introduced mammals like the mongoose and feral cats keeps these geese endangered.

Hawaiian Goose or Nēnē eating. Photo by Kit Dunsmore
Hawaiian goose or nēnē (Photo by Kit Dunsmore)

Endangered naturally means rare and often means shy, so I expected to have to look hard to see one of these geese. Fortunately, one place nēnēs are often seen, Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, was on our itinerary.

As we drove through the park, I sat forward in my seat, obsessively scanning the landscape around us. If there was a nēnē out there, it was not going to get past me. But there weren’t any. Not on the shoulders of the park road, not on the black lava flows we passed, not out on the trails we hiked.

Hawaiian Goose or Nēnē on a black lava flow with vegetation. Photo by Kit Dunsmore.
Nēnē on an old lava flow. (Photo by Kit Dunsmore)

Our last day at the park, we stopped to watch a hula demonstration. I stood in the crowd of tourists and listened to the explanations of the history and meaning of the dances. Meanwhile, my husband Kurt moved around taking pictures of the performance.

When the event was over, Kurt asked, “Did you see the nēnēs?”

I gaped at him. “What nēnēs ?”

A pair of nēnēs had flown right over the stage during the dancing. Kurt had seen them because he was standing back, looking at the larger scene. I’d been concentrating on the dancers and hadn’t seen the geese.

I was disappointed at the time but thinking about it now, I’m not surprised. Tightly focusing my attention is one of my strengths. If something happens that isn’t what I’m looking at or for, it doesn’t matter how important it is, I can easily miss it, just like I missed the geese.

Of course, this tendency to miss unexpected events when we’re focused on something is pretty common. It’s been well demonstrated by psychologists with a selective attention test video that has you count the number of times a basketball is being passed by one of two teams of players. A man in a gorilla suit walks through, but more than half the people who try this task completely miss the gorilla. You can experience this for yourself, even if you know about the gorilla, by watching the video below.

When I first decided to make “Keep Looking” a personal motto, it was about not giving up too soon. But this moment in Hawai’i added a new layer of meaning to the saying. What once suggested that I use persistence to search for whatever I was after now also reminds me to relax and widen my gaze, to see many things at once instead of just looking for one thing.

I finally saw my first nēnē when I visited Hawai’i again last November. They were in the very same national park where I’d looked so hard before, standing right in the parking lot. Instead of being shy like I’d feared, they hung around long enough for me to admire them and take pictures.

Nēnēs in the parking lot at Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park. (Photo by Kit Dunsmore)

Why did I succeed this time when I’d failed before? Because I was looking for any new bird species I might see for my life list. My earlier trip to Hawai’i had taught me to broaden my search. Looking for birds instead of nēnēs made it easier for me to see the geese.

Do you need encouragement to keep looking? Do you look too closely or are you good at seeing the big picture? Have you ever missed something important because you gave up too soon or were focused on the wrong thing?

Additional References:
Wight, Kahikāhealani. Illustrated Hawaiian Dictionary. Illustrated by Robin Yoko Racoma, Bess Press, Inc., 2005, Honolulu. (I found Nēnē spelled three different ways, so I used the version in this dictionary.)
Hawaii’s Birds. Hawaii Audubon Society, 6th edition, 2005, Honolulu.

4 thoughts on “What a Rare Hawaiian Goose Taught Me About Looking”

  1. Just yesterday I missed a night heron because I was distracted by the storm clouds covering the sun. Will I look for the bird next time? Or enjoy the light show? I don’t know.

    1. At least you weren’t looking at something ugly or uninteresting… which was also true of the hula dancers. I wouldn’t have wanted to miss them either! It seems like we should be able to see everything, but I don’t know if that’s actually true. Surely we are always missing something? It’s the side effect of choosing to pay attention to something…

    1. I’m not sure we can avoid this challenge. We want to see so we are looking as hard as we can. And once we are focused, the stuff outside of our view stays hidden. The best we can do is remind ourselves to step back now and then. My father is a nature photographer, and his version of this is “look back.” He turns and looks behind him every so often and discovers things he wouldn’t have seen otherwise.

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