Nihoa (also known as Bird Island or Moku Manu) is a small island in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands located northwest of the island of Niihau and 280 miles (450 km) northwest of Honolulu. Nihoa is composed of of dry land, surrounded by of coral reef.
Captain William Douglas, the second Western explorer to find Nihoa, describes it as "[bearing] the form of a saddle, high at each end, and low in the middle. To the south, it is covered with verdure; but on the north, west, and east sides it is a barren rock, perpendicularly steep..." (Rauzon 8). Its jagged nature gives the island its name, Nihoa, which means "tooth" in the Hawaiian language. Nihoa is the tallest of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, with two peaks, 895 feet (273 m) Miller's Peak in the west, and 852 feet (260 m) Tanager Peak in the east. Visitors to Nihoa (as with almost all of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands) require a USFWS-issued special-use permit to land on the island so as to reduce the risk of introducing alien species to Nihoa's already fragile ecosystem.
Nihoa is 7.2 million years old, and was once a large island before erosion wore it down to its current size. Six valleys slant down from north to south, meeting at the south side of the island: West Valley, West Palm Valley, Miller Valley, Middle Valley, East Palm Valley, and East Valley. Several interesting features occur on Nihoa. Dog's Head Peak is named for its likeness. Pinnacle Peak is a volcanic dike created when less resilient rock was eroded away and harder rock was open to the elements. The only flat area on the island is called Albatross Plateau, just below Miller's Peak. The Devil's Slide is a particularly impressive geological feature, a narrow cleft descending irrespective of the surrounding elevation. Extending northward from Albatross Plateau, it ends at the vertical cliffs with a drop straight down to the ocean below. In this chasm, rare ferns grow, along with several endemic species, including a giant cricket.
Nihoa is a sanctuary for endemic species. Some include:
Because of Nihoa's small size, most of its endemic organisms are endangered, as one single disaster such as an island-wide fire or an introduction of invasive species could wipe out the whole population. One such invasive species is the gray bird grasshopper, Schistocerca nitens; from the period between 1999 and 2003, grasshoppers devastated much of the vegetation on the island and posed a real threat to the continued health of plants on Nihoa (Liittschwager, 94). The following year, the numbers decreased and the vegetation became lush again. The grasshoppers probably came to Nihoa by way of wind from Kauai.
Nihoa was well known to the early Hawaiians. Archaeological expeditions found extensive prehistoric agricultural terraces and house sites. There is some doubt as to how many people lived on Nihoa, because while the large terraces built suggest that a large number lived there, there is scant fresh water to be found. It is thought that Nihoa may have been used for religious purposes only. Because of the island's importance, the island was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1988, and subsequently became part of Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in June of 2006.
The first Westerner to discover Nihoa was Captain James Colnett of the Prince of Wales, on March 21, 1788. As he was later captured by the Spanish and went mad in prison, the discovery was once widely accredited to Captain William Douglas of the Iphigenia, who sighted Nihoa almost a year later.
By the end of the 18th century, Nihoa had been forgotten by most Hawaiians. In 1822, Queen Kaahumanu and her husband King Kaumualii traveled with Captain William Sumner to find Nihoa, as her generation had only known the island through songs and myths. Later, King Kamehameha IV sailed there to officially annex the island as part of the Kingdom. Finally, in 1885, Princess Liliuokalani made a pilgrimage to Nihoa with her escorts, but their luncheon was cut short when one of the party set off a brush fire by accident. The group tried to flee the island, but the rising tides made it difficult and several boats were flooded, destroying some of the photographs taken.