If you’ve ever caught sight of a pueo, the Hawaiian short-eared owl, perched and looking at you with its wide, intense stare, or seen one flying in the air with its elongated wings, swooping over a large, grassy field, you know immediately that you’ve just witnessed something special.
“I can’t think of any other animal that has that kind of impact on you when you see them,” says photographer Jack Wolford, who took these remarkable images.
Pueo are endemic to the Hawaiian Islands, and were once prevalent throughout. But now, they’re an endangered species on Oahu and mainly seen in upcountry Maui or along Saddle Road on Hawaii Island. “They’re intelligent birds,” he says. And, though pueo are active in the daytime, they’re very difficult to capture in photos.
A photographer’s success is determined by luck, says Wolford, and a camera ready and raring to go at any given second. “The birds cover huge distances in a couple blinks of an eye,” he says. “It’s really opportunistic.”
Wolford’s personal connection to these majestic birds goes beyond the lens. “It’s our family’s aumakua,” he says. Aumakua in Hawaiian culture are family gods that take the shape of animals, such as sharks, lizards and, in this case, owls. Moolelo (traditional Hawaiian stories) tell how these aumakua act as guardians of the families connected to them. And olelo noeau (Hawaiian proverbs) are often shared, such as Ano lani; ano honua (A heavenly nature; an earthly nature). This proverb was "said of some aumakua who make themselves visible to loved ones by assuming an earthly form ... yet retain the nature of a god," according to historian Mary Kawena Pukui in her book Olelo Noeau: Hawaiian Proverbs and Poetical Sayings.
Wolford says he remembers how his Hawaiian grandmother’s house was full of statues and illustrations of pueo. She would tell stories about their family’s long affinity for the birds. Wolford also recalls many instances during which the birds have appeared around him. When Wolford’s grandmother passed away, the family spread her ashes around a tree at her home in Kula, Maui. In the afternoon, a pueo landed on the same tree. “It was one of those chicken-skin moments,” says Wolford. “When that happened, I was just like, oh my god, it’s a validation of this belief.”
The pueo on this page were taken after many hours obsessively driving along Saddle Road. Wolford says he pulled his car over after seeing one fly nearby and land on a fence post. He turned off the car’s engine, retrieved his big lens, and took a few photos from the driver’s seat through the passenger window. “It was curious as to what I was doing,” says Wolford. The pueo stared, twisted its head from side to side, and then flew away into the sky.
For many of us, seeing a pueo is a rare occurrence. But, for Wolford, he knows he will see them again many more times, fixating their eyes on him just as he is focusing his camera on them.