Ever since I returned to the mainland after working on the Big Island of Hawai’i in 1999 – my first seasonal field job out of college – I have been ready to go back to our 50th State. And Kaua’i has been tops on my agenda.
Meanwhile, with a life-listing goal of all of the island endemic landbirds in the Western Hemisphere, and the increasing rarity of what remains of the native birds of Hawai’i, the time was now. And Jeannette was making here first visit here. Lifers awaited.
The native landbirds of Hawai’i are almost all in imminent danger. The loss of native vegetation, development, drought, introduced mammals (especially cats, rats, and mongooses), and introduced avian diseases transported by introduced mosquitoes…there’s a litany of threats, and it is therefore no surprise that almost all of the endemic birds are declining, and some of them are declining rapidly.
This blog is a trip report, but no story about birding in Hawai’i is complete without an overview of the conservation issues that are affecting these birds. For many species – especially those, like the gorgeous I’iwi, who are not showing signs of developing resistance to Avian Malaria – we are running out of time to save and yes, enjoy, these amazing birds. The amazing adaptation and speciation of Hawaiian Honeycreepers puts even the famous “Darwin’s finches” of the Galapagos to shame.
Unfortunately, the American Bird Conservancy sums it up this way:
“Since human colonization, 71 bird species have become extinct on Hawai’i; 48 prior to the arrival of Europeans, and 23 since Captain James Cook’s “discovery” of the islands in 1778. Of the 42 remaining endemic taxa, 33 (31 species and 2 sub-species) are federally listed under the Endangered Species Act. Ten of those species have not been observed in 40 years and their status is unknown, though they are likely extinct. Today, Hawai’i supports 157 regularly occurring bird species, only 91 of which (57%) are native. Hawai’i is the global epicenter for imminent extinctions.”
To learn more about many of the species that I will mention here, and what you can do to help save them, please visit ABC’s Hawai’i Program, and make sure to take a look at the special Hawaiian Birds edition of Bird Conservation magazine (link at the end): http://www.abcbirds.org/abcprograms/oceansandislands/hawaii/index.html
But for now, we’ll get back to the task at hand: recounting our fantastic trip, from the birds to the beaches to the food (as always, local food is a big part of our travel experience). And there is the chance that you’ll soon see us offering a Hawai’i birding tour with WINGS in the coming years, so stay tuned!
We arrived in Honolulu after a long and exhausting plane journey that was only tempered by a visit with a friend in Seattle for a few hours. We arrived late on the 7th of August, and on our first morning in Waikiki on the island of Oahu, we awoke to the sounds of our first bird of the trip: Rock Pigeon.
Native landbirds are non-existent in the lowlands of Hawai’i, and not surprisingly urban areas are not an exception. In fact, there aren’t even many native plants at low elevations anymore. In places like Waikiki, almost everything you see is introduced, from grass to trees to birds. One of the exceptions, however, was Jeannette’s first lifer of the trip (on her first visit to the islands) – the simply stunning White Terns over Kapiolani Park and the Honolulu Zoo. In fact, the first ones we spotted were while we were eating breakfast on the veranda of Lulu’s. After breakfast, we walked through Kapiolani Park, where Jeannette was introduced to quite a few life birds, and introduced to the worldwide avian smorgasbord that has been brought here: House Finches from the US mainland, dapper Red-crested Cardinals from South America, Java Sparrows from Indonesia, Japanese White-eyes (by some estimates the most abundant landbird in the islands), and so on.
Zebra Dove and Red-crested Cardinal.
Common Mynas and Kapiolani Park, Waikiki.
Diamond Head from Kapiolani Park and Java Sparrows.
A Great Frigatebird soaring over Diamond Head – another obligatory stop for first timers – was my first lifer of the trip, and dinner at Town, featuring locally-sourced fine food was our “splurge” meal of the trip (the cocktails in particular were worth the visit). It was a splendid way to spend our first day in Hawai’i.
The view from Diamond Head.
On Day 2, it was time to get to work. We met up with our friend Lance Tanino, who we got to know when he was working as the hawkcounter at New Hampshire’s Pack Monadnock hawkwatch, but now lives back in his native state leading tours and doing bird surveys through his business Manu Conservation (http://www.facebook.com/pages/Manu-Conservation/352241041463887) . We headed for the interior of the island, where Oahu’s remaining native forests, and therefore its remaining native birds, can be found.
A hike uphill at the Keaiwa State Recreation Area quickly got us into native forest, and in a fairly short amount of time, we located one of our two real targets: Oahu ’Amakihi. After seeing one darting about in silhouette, we ended up running into multiple small family units. Although there are no mountains that are above the mosquito line in Oahu, ’amakihis are doing reasonably well here; a very good sign that some birds are resistant, or at least able to tolerate the introduced diseases. We also spotted one Mariana Swiftlet, a relatively rare and hard to find introduced bird that, based on its native SouthPacificIslands range, is a bird we may not see elsewhere.
Oahu Amakihi and Red-crowned Parrot.
Oahu ’Elepaio eluded us here, so we moved on. After we had essentially resigned ourselves to failure at the Kuliouou Valley Trail and began to trudge back to the car, Lance heard a single phrase and soon we tracked down the other Oahu endemic. Celebratory lunch of Loco Moco (a lifer for Jeannette, too!) and Saimin for myself soon followed.
We then birded along the southern and western shore of the island, yielding lifer Red-tailed Tropicbirds (including a nest mere yards away) and Wedge-tailed Shearwaters for the both of us, and two more for Jeannette: Hawaiian Coot and Black Noddy.
“Hawaiian” Black-necked Stilt and Hawaiian Coot.
Adult “Hawaiian Black-crowned Night-Heron and Ruddy Turnstone.
August 10th was our tourist day, so fueled by a bento box from Zippy’s (rice, eggs, Portuguese Sausage, and the local “favorite” Spam!) we spent the morning at Pearl Harbor and the USS Arizona Memorial. A foggy, dreary day actually seemed appropriate at this somber, but exceedingly well-done memorial to one of the most significant events in modern US history.
Afterwards, we found a perfectly-Hawaiian hole-in-the-wall “plate lunch” joint where I savored Hawaiian-style short ribs and Lau Lau Pork (pork cooked in taro leaves), and then made our way to the airport – with a brief visit to downtown Honolulu and Ala Moana Park which hosted a few more recently-returned migrants shorebirds: 5 ’Akekeke (Ruddy Turnstones) and 4 Kolea (Pacific Golden-Plovers).
Soon after we exited the Lihue airport in Kaua’i, I ticked Red Junglefowl for my state list. Although by sunrise of the following morning we would have our fill of this introduced – and I would say not-always-beloved – bird (brought here by the original Polynesian colonists), it was actually a very good sign. The ubiquity of the chickens is evidence of the lack of Mongooses on the island. Somehow they never made it here. Legend has it that a cage of them that were going to be introduced was swept off of a pier and into the sea, and that has allowed Kaua’i to retain a substantial population of breeding seabirds and waterbirds that Mongooses have obliterated on so many other islands.
The 11th was our relaxation day on the island, and casually birding our way along the coast, we picked up a migrant Sanderling, enjoyed plenty of “Hawaiian” Black-necked Stilts, and other native waterbirds such as the endemic subspecies of Black-crowned Night-Heron and Common Gallinule. We also visited Polihale State Park, the westernmost park in the US, and home of extensive –and not crowded! – beaches, with White-tailed Tropicbirds (another lifer for Jeannette) wheeling overhead.
Great Frigatebirds oversaw our afternoon swim at Salt Pond County Park before we enjoyed food and brews at the Kaua’i Brewing Company, the “world’s westernmost brewery!”
Our second full day on Kaua’i was a big one, and what would turn out to be an exhausting and somewhat painful one. We met David Kuhn (www.soundshawaiian.com – be sure to check out some of his recordings!) near sunrise for a trek into the famous Alaka’i Swamp in pursuit of Kauai’s endemics. Perhaps his question the day before of “do you have shoes for the water?” should have suggested we might be dealing with a little more than puddles and mud. But, since this is the wettest place in the islands – and by some estimates at least, one of the wettest places on Earth – we figured we would have to deal with some standing water. But in fact, we were pretty much always standing in the water, as David took us off-trail and up rocky mountain streams in pursuit of Puaiohi and the endemic honeycreepers.
’Apapanes were abundant, and in fairly short order we enjoyed Kaua’i ’Amakihi, Kaua’i ’Elepaio, and glimpsed some I’iwis. With patience, the very-Yellow-Warbler-like ’Anianiau showed itself well, and then a surprise that clearly got even our guide rather fired up – a single ’Akikiki creeping along the trunk of a big ol’ ’Ohia. This is the rarest of the Kaua’i endemics, and one that our guide did not even have particularly high hopes for.
Webasked in the glow of the ’Akikiki for a spell, but then it was back into the creek, where Jeannette and (especially) I, proceeded to stumble, slip, and bumble our way up and down tributaries in search of the elusive – and in August, rather secretive, Kaua’i thrush. Despite plenty of effort, some bumps, bruises, and quite a few scrapes, Puaiohi was not to be found today. While we also missed ’Akeke’e, that was a bird we could hope for on our own, but dipping on the Puaiohi hurt a little – or perhaps it was just the throbbing pain from the shin I banged open on a rock during one of my three spills. Perhaps I really do need to lead a WINGS tour here so I have a chance to come back and try again!
Admittedly, Jeannette and I struggled to motivate to head back uphill, but David implored we take advantage of the crystal clear skies to savor the view from the overlook at Koke’e State Park. And I am sure glad we did!
I am not sure if the ribs at the little BBQ joint in Waimea were anything special or not, but they sure tasted like the best ribs I’ve ever had after our tiring day. I thought this was supposed to be a vacation? But as usual, we get back from our birding-intensive trips in serious need of a vacation!
Lance flew out to join us for our last two days on Kaua’i, for some more birding and food-ing. Residing in the arid south shore, it was a nice change to see the island’s lush, windward north side. And Kilauea National Wildlife Refuge not only lived up to preconceived expectations, but greatly exceeded it.
Nenes on the lawn, Great Frigatebirds overhead, many hundreds of Red-footed Boobies nesting on the cliffs…Red-tailed and White-tailed Tropicbirds, including many red-tails engaging in their unique backwards-wheeling display flights. But at this time of year, the real highlight here are the nesting Wedge-tailed Shearwaters. Some are nesting a mere inches from the walkways. Occasionally we would see an adult darting to or from the sea, but most of the birds were tucked away in their burrows – some of which were decidedly more sheltered and secure than others (and some were merely a scrape under a bush!). Seeing adorable, fuzzy tubenose chicks at arm’s length is not a regular occurrence for us.
Wedge-tailed Shearwater chick and adults at burrows.
More adult Wedge-tailed Shearwaters.
Displaying Red-tailed Tropicbirds.
I certainly could have spent all day here, but there were other places to go. The flooded taro fields of Hanalei NWR produced bona-fide (not likely to have introduced Mallard genes) Koloa Maoli – the Hawaiian Duck. Lots of Nenes, and even more Hawaiian Coots, “Hawaiian” Common Gallinules, “Hawaiian” Black-necked Stilts, and plenty of Pacific Golden-Plovers were present as well.
Taro fields and “Hawaiian” Common Gallinule.
Hawaiian Ducks and “Hawaiian” Black-crowned Night Heron, adult.
In the small-world department, lunch was at the Kilauea Bakery and Pizza shop, where our cook from our tours aboard the Schooner French here in Maine spends her winters, and then we worked our way up the north coast road, casually birding and seawatching.
There were a lot of seabirds – mostly Wedge-tailed Shearwaters – off of Lyndgate State Park, but the masses were just too far to sort through. So we elected for an early dinner, and Jeannette used her trusty Urbanspoon App to dig up Caffe Coco.
This may have been the meal of the trip. I had coconut and macadamia nut-crusted tofu with coconut sauce, while Jeannette had local Ono fish with a similar preparation. Lance had a pile of food. I believe he called them “onolicious grinds” in the Hawaiian vernacular. I agree, but Jeannette and I stuck with “wicked good.”
Unfortunately, slow service had us a bit worried. We had a sunset date with Hawaiian Petrels! Perhaps I should have been more specific with our sense of urgency, but as we arrived at WailuaRiverState Park, our concern subsided. We were not too late. In fact, an absolute boatload of birds was offshore. Although arriving a little earlier may have allowed us to comb through the masses of commuting Wedge-tailed Shearwaters a little more thoroughly – light was just getting too low – we did begin to pick out a few Hawaiian Petrels, our primary quarry for the evening.
Hawaiian Petrels actually breed high in the mountains of Kaua’i, and under the cover of darkness, commute to and from the sea (presumably to avoid being kleptoparasitzed by frigatebirds). Yes “kleptoparasitize:” one species stealing food from another. Good trivia word; impress your friends. David had suggested we stand here at dusk to catch a glimpse of some of the early birds overhead.
While I was expecting high specks in withering light, the first bird came inland only a few tree-heights-high and with plenty of light to see all of the field marks of this striking, Endangered seabird. The first bird came by at 7:06, and over the next hour – until there was no light at all – we tallied 26 birds, some high, some low, but all overhead, and all overland – an incredible way to see a Pterodroma petrel! This experience was without a doubt one of, if not THE, avian highlight of the trip.
We celebrated with my favorite dessert in the world: mango sticky rice at a Thai restaurant in Lihue. The mangos are a little bit better here than at our favorite Thai place in Portland, no offense of course.
Fruit salad for breakfast, foraged at a local farmers market, to fuel the birding day.
I had two more life birds to find on the 14th, our last full day on the islands. I don’t think Lance was planning on us making him hike back into the Alakai, but we “needed” an ’Akeke’e! There was little to no chance of us even trying for Puaihoi, however…next time. Working the Phiea Trail to the Alakai Trail in the Na’Pali Kona Forest Preserve, the “2nd wettest place on Earth” proved itself, as a light to moderate shower fell all morning (it was dry and clear on our day here with David, well, at least when we were not falling in the water). Birding more slowly, with a much shorter distance to cover (and no 1.5 miles up and down streams where you had to spend the time watching every step and not looking for birds), we saw a lot of birds: countless ’Apapane, 15 Kaua’i ’Elepaio, 9 Kaua’i ’Amakihi, 3 ’Anianiau, and at least 6 I’iwi. A lifer for Jeannette, and one of the most beautiful birds in the world, we were really hoping for better looks at I’iwi, and one pair with a juvenile were particularly obliging. Well, not as obliging as the curious and ridiculously-cute (scientifically speaking of course) juvenile ’Elepaios that occasionally checked us out.
Savoring that family unit led us into a small mixed-native-species foraging flock that including another ’Anianinau and progressively better view of the ’Amakihi. But once again, as with the Oahu ’Elepaio, we had all but given up hope of finding our quarry when – would you believe it? – I spotted a pudgy honeycreeper with a stouter bill and a black mask. ’Akeke’e! We did it. We were elated. And hungry.
Kalua Pork (BBQ pulled pork) could not have tasted better as we dined at the convenient restaurant at Koke’e State Park, where we enjoyed the antics of lots of junglefowl.
Heading down the mountain, we stopped in at the Kawaiele Sand Mine Bird Sanctuary, a wetland restoration project to benefit the native waterbirds. Jeannette and I spotted 11 Ruddy Turnstones and 1 Wandering Tattler here on our first visit three days ago, but the beginning of shorebird passage was more evident today with 16 turnstones, 14 golden-plovers, and 2 tattlers.
Learning our rushed lesson from the night before, we took advantage of the ubiquitous Hawaiian “plate lunch” (so-called regardless of meal) to get some take out for our final seawatching stint of the trip at Poipu.
Lots of Wedge-tailed Shearwaters were offshore, much closer than during our previous efforts. We picked up a few more Hawaiian Petrels as well. A pod of Bottlenosed Dolphins was a surprise. As the afternoon wore on, and our time wore short, the birds were slowly coming closer, and with a helping of last-minute urgent effort, Lance and I teased out at least 2 Newell’s Shearwaters – my 14th and final Life Bird of the journey.
Here’s another instance where I could have spent all day, but it was time to catch the short inter-island flight back to Oahu.
We finished where our trip began, on the veranda at Lulu’s overlooking WaikikiBeach and watching White Terns over the zoo. I consumed one last meal of truly fresh tropical fruit, and following one last quick swim, we made our way to the airport for the long trip home.
Red-crested Cardinals in the open-air terminal of the HonoluluAirport were the last species we saw until we landed in Boston after a red-eye out of Seattle. In between, thoughts of lifers seen, species missed, and the future of birds in Hawai’i was on our mind. Often described as “paradise,” the islands are anything but for most of the native birds. As cool as Red-crested Cardinals are, I’ll take an ’Apapane any day. But it’s unlikely they will ever be in the HonoluluAirport. Without these introduced birds, much of Hawai’i – and certainly the parts where most people live and visit – would be devoid of avian life.
The question is, as mosquitoes move up the mountainsides because of Global Warming and as the state continues to drag its feet or even avoid Federal mandates to protect Endangered Species, one has to wonder will the remaining native forest one day go silent from native birds? Could the ultimate example of speciation and island biogeography become nothing more than a large outdoor aviary for exotic creatures from lands afar? One big open-air flight cage and nothing more? And will the throngs of tourists from around the world packing the beaches like Passenger Pigeons once packed the air of the Eastern United States even notice? Or even care? Do you?
Birding in Hawai’i brings about a whole range of superlatives. There are not adjectives available to describe the beauty of an I’iwi. But birding beyond the list brings out another range of words: sobering, scary, tragic. Please, I urge you, if you have not done so already, please check out the link to the ABC way back at the beginning.
Trip bird list (#= lifer for me, * =lifer for Jeannette):
1) Rock Pigeon
2) House Finch
3) House Sparrow
4) Black-crowned Night-Heron
5) Common Myna
6) Zebra Dove
7) Spotted Dove
8) White Tern*
9) Red-vented Bulbul*
10) Yellow-fronted Canary*
11) Java Sparrow
12) Cattle Egret
13) Common Waxbill*
14) Japanese White-eye*
15) Red-crested Cardinal*
16) Rose-ringed Parakeet
17) Great Frigatebird*#
18) Chestnut Munia
19) Red-whiskered Bulbul
20) Red-crowned Parrot
21) Red-billed Leothrix*
22) White-rumped Shama
23) Oahu ’Amakihi*#
24) Mariana Swiftlet*#
25) Nutmeg Manakin
26) Pacific Golden-Plover
27) Northern Cardinal
28) Oahu ’Elepaio*#
29) Red-tailed Tropicbird*#
30) Wandering Tattler
31) Brown Noddy
32) Brown Booby
33) Wedge-tailed Shearwater*#
34) Masked Booby
35) Hawaiian Coot*
36) Common Gallinule
37) Black-necked Stilt
38) Mallard/Hawaiian Duck
39) Black Noddy*
40) Ruddy Turnstone
41) Red Junglefowl
42) Saffron Finch
44) Northern Mockingbird
45) White-tailed Tropicbird*
46) Short-eared Owl
47) Hwamei (Melodious Laughing-Thrush)*
48) Kauai ’Amakihi*#
51) Kauai ’Elepaio*#
54) Erckel’s Francolin*
56) Red-footed Booby
57) Koloa Maoli (Hawaiian Duck)*#
58) Hawaiian Petrel*#
59) Gray Francolin*
60) Black Francolin*
62) Newell’s Shearwater#