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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Hawaii: Rainbow of Birds

2020 Narrative

In Brief:

Following the success of the last year’s first Hawai’i: Rainbow of Birds Tour, we made some changes, added a day, and smoothed out some edges.  The result was another very successful trip with an impressive birdlist and this time, at a slightly more relaxed pace. Furthermore, this year Lono (the Hawaiian god of wind and rain) appeared to be on our side throughout the trip!  A final tally of 96 species (including two not-yet-countable and one origin-uncertain species) included every surviving endemic on Oahu and the BigIsland, and several in Kauai despite the ongoing collapse of forest bird populations there and the myriad of challenges the island provides. Additionally, we saw vagrants from both sides of the Pacific (Gray-tailed Tattler and Belted Kingfisher for example).

We enjoyed delicious food representing the fusion of cultures almost as varied as the fusion of birds introduced from around the world. Those introductions are part of the Hawaiian avifauna now, for better or for worse, and in the Anthropocene, have become just as much part of the island’s ecology as the natives. Endemic waterbirds and breeding seabirds (from wheeling Red-tailed Tropicbirds along ocean cliffs and White-tailed Tropicbirds soaring over awe-inspiring canyons to fuzzy baby Laysan Albatrosses nesting in front yards!), impressive scenery and geology, and world-famous beaches added to a thoroughly enjoyable, well-rounded winter birding escape. But we did not sugar-coat the plight of the native birds here, as conservation issues were covered just as thoroughly as what is now countable on the expanded ABA-Area list!

In Detail:

We began on Oahu, where the two surviving endemics: Oahu Amakihi and Oahu Elepaio came quite easily on our first morning. That afforded us time to work the shoreline for waterbirds and seabirds, including a colony of over 3,000 Sooty Terns and a bout of seawatching that netted Masked and Brown Boobies among the multitudes of Red-footed Boobies.

Our second day on Oahu was highlighted by seeing the bristles on the thighs of Bristle-thighed Curlews and more quality time with the angelic White Terns breeding in downtown Waikiki, including in the parking lot of our hotel. Fascinating vagrants that help tell the Hawaiian avifauna story included a Bufflehead in a prawn pond, a Caspian Tern that has been returning to the same area for about 20 years now (with our only Black Noddies of the trip), and our discovery of two Glaucous-winged Gulls.

We were fully prepared for the challenges that Kauai would offer, especially the rainfall. Due to the difficulty and duration of the hike, several people wisely skipped our hike into the AlakaiSwamp – the last marginally-accessible place for the last of Kauai’s imperiled songbirds. One of the wettest places on Earth, it rains 360 out of 365 days of the year, so we were expecting, well, the deluge of last year’s tour. Instead, we had sun. While a few light showers barely registered as an inconvenience, we escaped the swamp unscathed, dry, and ready for musubi.  Unfortunately, most people did not see – but everyone at least heard – the Anianiau, but we really didn’t even expect a chance at this species. Even more unexpected here these days were the great looks at I’iwi – and we found them building a nest!  Plenty of Kauai Elepaio and numerous Apapane were joined by several Kauai Amakihi.  It was the busiest Lance, our co-leader, had experienced the stretch of trail in “years,” so we did not take our good fortune for granted.  We did stop several times, however, to hear absolutely nothing - a sobering testament to the difficulties most of the native forest birds are facing on the Garden Isle. 

With the group back together for another day in the forest, we “cleaned up” the elepaio and amakihi, and had a prolonged photo session with Apapanes. We had about as good looks as one has ever had at Japanese Bush-warblers, stopped for a breathtaking view of Waimea Canyon with its waterfall and White-tailed Tropicbirds, and spent some time in the lowlands for waterbirds, including our first Koloa (Hawaiian Duck), Nene, and a very rare vagrant from the “other” side: A Gray-tailed Tattler.

By spending an entire third day on Kauai, we were able to dedicate more time to the islands eastern shore, especially the unbeatable Kilauea Point NWR with its thousands of breeding Red-footed Boobies and Great Frigatebirds harassing Red-tailed Tropicbirds. Baby Laysan Albatrosses in front yards of Princeville, Hawaiian Ducks and other native waterbirds in Hanalei NWR were all savored. We also hiked for the very difficult and frustrating Greater Necklaced Laughingthrush, a group four of which we eventually tracked down actively moving through the treetops like a raucous group of jays.

The Big Island of Hawai’i was our third and final destination, and wow, the birding did not disappoint. Yellow-billed Cardinals greeted us at the airport, the first of many Big Island-only established species. On our first day on the island, we tracked down a variety of vagrants as well: Cackling Goose, Laughing Gull, Long-billed Dowitcher, White-faced Ibis, and the rarest of the lot – a Spotted Sandpiper. Regular migrants that somehow choose to go to and from Hawai’i each winter included Northern Shovelers, Ring-necked Ducks, and Lesser Scaup. Hawaiian Coots and Green Sea Turtles were among the residents seen in between. 

A long day the next day took us to Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, and the island’s wet side. While the trade winds were whipping and for the first time we saw significant rainfall, it mostly fell while we were at lunch or in the car. The rain and fog cleared as we viewed the awesome and active Kiluaea caldera from the comforts of the Volcano House, and by the time we descended into Hilo, the sun came out.  There, we spent some time with vagrants (Pied-billed Grebe and Greater White-fronted Goose among them), Nenes, molting Pacific Golden-Plovers, and much more before an early dinner leading up to the nighttime drive across the island’s interior.

We added Garry Dean of Hawaii Forest and Trails to the team on Day 9 to venture up Mauna Kea to Hakalau Forest NWR. Now this is more like it! The best mile of birding left in the Hawaiian Islands lived up to its reputation. In stark contrast to the eerie silence of Kauai forests, the restored and rehabilitated Hakalau makes you think what Hawaii used to be like. Stunning I’iwis were just everywhere, along with ample Hawaii Amakihis and Hawaii Elepaios. Within minutes, Garry had us on a rare and critically endangered Akiapola’au, a juvenile that has been tagging along with its parents (also well seen) for 14 months now. Hawaii Creeper was extraordinarily well seen for the second year in a row, and Akepas were unusually cooperative. For some reason it was the relatively numerous Oma’o that made us work today, but that effort paid off.  

We were back on Mauna Kea with Garry on the 9th day, but this time in the dry forest, seeking and seeing Palila. After expecting rain every day of the trip, and rarely being out in any precipitation at all, we joked about being prepared for rain when we arrived in the dry forest. And guess what – it rained!  But only while we were eating breakfast, and not in earnest until we had thoroughly enjoyed seeing at least five Palilas, plus a second subspecies of Hawai’i Elepaio, and an impressive number of Hawai’i Amakihi. And in the afternoon, we cleaned up our missing, and all very local, introduced species including Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse.  

And to celebrate: one last scrumptious dinner with a sunset view and a round of mai-tais.

-          Derek Lovitch, 2020

Created: 21 March 2020