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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Hawaii: Rainbow of Birds

2022 Narrative

IN BRIEF: After a several year absence from our schedule, we again returned to the Hawaiian Islands in spring.  The extant endemic avian diversity of the islands is much reduced from pre-human times, but what remains, from the colourful Nene and subdued Hawaiian Duck to the unique and dazzlingly bright Iiwi and day-glow orange Hawaiian Akepa, and an array of breeding seabirds, is truly special. In addition to the endemics, Hawaii boasts a somewhat bewildering array of introduced birds, which hail from all over 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 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! We enjoyed excellent weather while on land and smooth seas on the pelagic throughout the tour, doubtless aiding us in our record species count (97 species). Some of the highlights must include a full sweep of all 11 accessible honeycreepers including the critically endangered Akiapola’au and Palila on the Big Island, excellent views of several pairs of Laysan Albatross with fuzzy chicks on Kauai, stunning close-range Bristle-thighed Curlews on Oahu and a surprise White-necked Petrel on the pelagic.


Oahu is the third largest of the major Hawaiian Islands, and by far the most developed. The bustling metropolitan city of Honolulu supports a little over one million people, out of about 1.4 million across the entire state. Much of the lowlands have been extensively cleared for various agricultural schemes during the roughly 1500 years of human habitation, and very little native forest remains. As a result, the island supports only two species of endemic landbirds, the sprightly Oahu Amakihi and the colourful Oahu ‘Elepaio. Avian diversity is bolstered with a wide array of introduced species that seem to thrive in the anthropogenically altered lowlands. Our base on the island sits immediately adjacent to the busy Kapiolani Park, from the deck of the restaurant hotel we could watch ethereally pale White Terns milling over the spreading canopy of the park trees. A heady mix of introduced birds from all over the world fill the ample lawns; with dazzling South American Red-crested Cardinals joining little flocks of Common Waxbill and Yellow-fronted Canaries from Africa and Common Myna, Spotted and Zebra Doves, Red-whiskered and Red-vented Bulbuls and musical White-rumped Shamas from Asia. A more metropolitan crowd of birds would be hard to imagine; or as Mandy put it “Oahu is the united nations of the birding world, where all the continents come together”. On our first morning we concentrated on the two endemic landbirds, first finding Oahu Amakihi foraging in some exotic Schefflera along a forested ridge just above Honolulu. Our first bird was a juvenile dressed in its dull grayish plumage, but with a bit of patience we had repeated views of a couple of bright yellow males just a few feet off the road edge. The males were periodically singing and quite active, often fluttering across the road overhead and then clambering around in flowering shrubs. The road edge was excellent for some introduced species as well, with many Warbling White-eyes, both Red-vented and Red-whiskered Bulbuls and a very bold White-rumped Shama all showing well.

The plight of Hawaii’s endemic forest birds is dire. Of the original known 57 species of endemic passerines 34 are extinct and a further 10 are down to very small populations. Only a few of the remaining 14 or so species (such as the Oahu Amakihi) seem to be adapting to the altered forests, introduced bird and mammals and the pressures imposed on them by novel avian diseases. On the way back down the twisty mountain road we stopped at a patch of tall grasses to admire a small flock of Common Waxbills that were daintily grabbing seeds from the grass panicles. Not too much farther down the road we found a stocked bird feeder that was being attended by a ravenous horde of Java Sparrows. The birds were so intent on eating that even pulling up our vans to within a few feet of the feeder didn’t seem to bother them, and from this very short distance we could readily take in their bold and tasteful gray, black, and white plumage.  Leaving the mountains behind we stopped in at Kapiolani Park; a large urban park set in the heart of Waikiki. The open lawns and huge spreading trees here support an amazing array of birds. Our chief goal here was to obtain close views of perched White Terns and foraging Pacific Golden-Plovers. The Terns showed extremely well, by perching up just above our parked vans, or flying around over the spreading canopies in tandem. This species has only recently begun to breed around Honolulu, but the local population seems to be doing quite well, with up to 2000 birds now present and breeding around the cities many parks and roadways. It has been postulated that by breeding near busy roads and in urban situations the birds are somewhat protected by from predation from rats and mongeese. The park also held a few more introduced birds of interest, such as dazzlingly bright Saffron Finches, a few Rose-ringed Parakeets investigating potential nest cavities, and our first Yellow-fronted Canaries and Cattle Egrets.

Leaving the park behind we traveled a bit to the east, picking up our lunches at a small café and then rounding the southeast corner of the island. Here we found rugged volcanic headlands, sparkling blue bays and cliffs. We picked our lunch spot along the edge of the main coastal road which allowed us to spend some time with over a dozen Red-tailed Tropicbirds as they soared just overhead or past us at eye-level, occasionally doing tandem courtship flights out over the bay. This is the largest and most pelagic species of tropicbird, and this particular stretch of Oahu coast is the only spot on the inhabited Hawaiian Islands where they are known to breed. A local non-profit conservation outfit is actively conducting predator controls around their nesting sites, and through their efforts the colony produced nearly 70 fledged young in 2021! While watching the Red-taileds we picked out a single Red-billed Tropicbird as well. This smaller and trimmer species stood out from the Red-taileds by virtue of its long white tail plumes, crimson bill and lightly barred back. Although this species is a vagrant to Hawaii one or two individuals have been irregularly appearing around the Red-tailed Tropicbird colony over the past few years. While scanning out over the ocean we also picked up a steady stream of passing Sooty Terns, a few distant Red-footed (and one Brown) Boobies, a female Great Frigatebird and several Humpback Whales; not a bad set of lunch companions!

In the latter part of the afternoon we turned our attentions to the other endemic forest bird on the island; the Oahu ‘Elapaio. These small monarch flycatchers are charismatic little sprites, as they bounce around at all levels of the forest with their cocked-up tails, flashy chestnut-orange heads and stippled throats. Mandy has been working extensively with this species and her local knowledge of individual territories was invaluable. Within only a half hour of searching we were thrilled to find a family group of three ‘Elapaio foraging at length overhead in a grove of introduced Kukui trees. At first the adults played hide and seek with us, remaining up in the canopy and showing only briefly before seemingly vanishing into the ether. We waited around for a while, occupying ourselves with repeated views of Red-billed Leiothrix and White-rumped Shamas around the edge of the clearing. The adults seemed to come back overhead several times, each time providing slightly better views but never really sitting out in the open for us to really enjoy. Our luck changed though, as after a few overhead passes we realized that the adults were carrying food and repeatedly visiting the same Guava tree near the middle of the clearing. With some careful scanning we found their nest, a beautifully woven small cup nest in the crook of some high branches. Once we clued in to its location we enjoyed much better views of the parents as they came in every ten minutes or so. At one point we watched last years’ chick (this species has a lengthy fledging period) as it foraged on the ground just a few feet away from us. The fact that the young bird was still on the territory suggests that the parents were still nest building, as once incubation commences the adults usually chase out their previous children. Before we left, we contacted a local conservation group and informed them of the nest location, with the hopes that some rat traps could be installed around the base of the tree. Not a lot of recent census work has been done on this federally endangered species, but the best estimates seem to put the global population at around only 1200 individuals. Flush with our success with both endemics, we elected to head back to the hotel a tad early, which allowed us to avoid the infamous Honolulu rush hour traffic.

Our second day was largely spent exploring around the eastern half of the island, where we took the remarkably scenic (if slow) coast road around the northern tip of the island. Our first stop was at a small lagoon on the far eastern side of Honolulu. Here we walked out a short distance to the beach, where we found our first Ruddy Turnstones and Wandering Tattlers along the margins of the sheltered lagoon. A bit further to the east we stopped at an extremely scenic pullout that gave us sweeping views of Manana Island and Waimanalo Beach. After a short lesson on local geology, we started to scan the bay a bit with scopes and were thrilled to note thousands of Sooty Terns wheeling around over the island.  A few Red-footed Boobies passed by at close range, with their long white tails and blueish bills showing well. As we watched them we noted a couple of Masked Boobies as well, a much scarcer breeder in Hawaii that is notably bulkier than Red-footed. The first individual snuck by before we all managed to get onto it well, but happily a second bird came through as well, close enough that its dark tail and lores and yellow bill were all readily visible with binoculars. On one of the islands out in the bay we also picked out two loafing Hawaiian Monk Seals on the beach.  This endangered pinniped is perhaps the rarest seal species in the world, with an estimated population of only 1400 individuals, and fewer than 200 around the inhabited islands of Hawaii. Apparently, a local conservation program has recently bestowed individual tags and names (both English and Hawaiian) for all of the roughly 50 seals that have been found around Oahu. For a scenery stop it turned out to be amazingly productive! We then drove a bit to the north, stopping at a small protected freshwater wetland where we quickly located dozens of Hawaiian Coots, a few Common Gallinules and several handsome Black-necked (Hawaiian) Stilts. Stilt taxonomy is far from settled globally, and this form with its black nape and head is certainly distinctive and well isolated from other subspecies making it a likely candidate for a future split. The ponds were full of introduced Black-chinned Tilapia and several Red-eared Sliders; ample evidence that the scourge of introduced species is not limited to just the terrestrial habitats of the islands. A few admittedly attractive Chestnut Munias and several Java Sparrows were bouncing around in the marsh as well.

Our next stop was a brief visit to the salt ponds south of the Marine Base, where we found an excellent vantage point on the edge of the highway from which to scan the complex of shallow lakes at the base of the peninsula. It didn’t take long before we picked out a distant Caspian Tern sitting on a sand bar. This is a vagrant species in the islands, although this particular tern has been frequenting these salt ponds for several years. Just a few feet away from the tern we located a staked-out Brant that showed up at this sight just before Christmas in 2021. On this same magical sandbar we also found a single Black-bellied Plover (very rare in Hawaii) that was notably deeper chested and paler than a nearby Golden-Plover. Our run of luck here was still not done, as shortly after finding the plover we noted a dark tern flying low over the ponds. It proved to be a (Hawaiian) Black Noddy, another excellent candidate for splitting. These graceful terns are resident around the islands, breeding irregularly throughout the year as conditions dictate. Unlike the other subspecies of Black Noddy they often breed on coastal cliffs. Furthermore, they have orangey feet, an ashy gray cast to their entire crown and nape, and pale rump and tail. In other words, they really don’t much resemble Black Noddies around other parts of the tropics.

Further to the north we enjoyed amazingly close and lengthy views of a flock of over ten Bristle-thighed Curlews near the James Campbell National Wildlife Refuge. This is a rare species globally, breeding only in remote sections of the Yukon-Kuskoquim Delta and Seward Peninsula in Alaska, and wintering over an amazingly large area in the South Pacific. It’s estimated that only a few hundred birds winter in the Hawaiian Islands; the rest continuing to even more far flung tropical beaches to the south. Most birders in the United States see their first Bristle-thighed after slogging up a damp and spongy tundra hill 70 miles north of Nome, Alaska to see one or two pairs (a stunningly beautiful place to be sure). Our birds on Oahu involved a short walk across a golf course and dozens of birds close enough to actually see their namesake bristle-like feathers at the base of their legs. From our vantage on the coast near the refuge fence we spent a bit of time seawatching and were rewarded with views of several Brown and Red-footed Boobies, our first Sanderling, several tail slapping (and one leaping) Humpback Whales and a stunning adult Laysan Albatross that made a couple of passes a bit out in the bay. As by now the afternoon was waning and we still had to drive through the assembled masses gathered for a World Surfing League competition we decided to end our birding day with this iconic Hawaiian tubenose – after all, can anything really supplant the sight of an adult Albatross soaring over tropical seas? We enjoyed a nice dinner at a local Pu-Pu (tapas) restaurant just down the road from our hotel, and wrapped up our two days on the island as we had a morning flight to Kauai booked for the next day.


Kauai is the oldest and farthest west of the main Hawaiian Islands. Slightly smaller that Oahu, the islands peaks are higher, with a significantly larger land mass above 3000 ft. With only 75,000 inhabitants the island feels much less developed, though the traffic along the busier SE corner can still be an issue for daily commuters. In addition to being quieter and much less metropolitan than Oahu the island feels more tropical, with many rivers draining into the ocean, and a more lush and green vegetation. We arrived in the late morning, with time to get a little bit organized at our beachside hotel before heading north to have lunch at a small café near Kilauea where the fresh baked mango bread was declared to be excellent. After lunch we headed a bit to the west for a visit to a large upscale golf course along the coast. We drove past the golf greens, bound for some of the cul de sacs in the development closer to the coast. As we turned down one of the residential streets we were bemused by the “Albatross Crossing” signs along the road, but within a few houses our bemusement had turned to astonishment. Several hulking Laysan Albatrosses were just lounging around in the front yards of the houses, waddling across the road, or soaring over the roofs. It was simply a surreal scene, as by our assembled previous experience with these princes of the seas we thought that one had to go somewhere cold, remote, and windy to witness birds at such a close range. We spent an hour or so with these birds, even finding a couple of fuzzy gray chicks with frosted tipped feathers tucked around the neighborhood. Several people lamented their telephoto lenses, which at such a close range seemed to be almost a liability! Some of the locals came out to chat with us, obviously proud of their exotic yard birds and eager to share their knowledge. Leaving a particularly photogenic family group of Albatross behind we turned our attention to the golf course greens, which were liberally sprinkled with foraging Hawaiian Geese (Nene). Here our target birds quickly appeared, with a long staying Snow Goose and a pair of Aleutian Cackling Geese out on the greens, quietly foraging with the very confiding Hawaiian Geese. I suppose one can’t blame the Snow Goose for deciding to settle down on this permanently lush golf course, surrounded by flowers, small ponds, and a bevy of local Hawaiian friends. We took a few photos of the goose, and lots of photos of the Nene’s before driving around a bit and finding our first introduced Western Meadowlarks and a few little flocks of Chestnut Munia.

A bit further to the west along the north shore we visited the Hanalei NWR, a somewhat unique refuge in that the goal is seemingly to restore the wetland area to the aquatic Taro farming regimes of the native Hawaiians, rather than to a more natural state. On our previous visit a mudslide had blocked the highway a mile shy of the refuge, but happily on this occasion the road was clear and we were able to drive down into the edge of the refuge. Along a single-track dirt road we quickly found several handsome Hawaiian Geese (or Nene’s as they are locally known) and quite a few Hawaiian Ducks. Unlike on the more developed island of Oahu where various flavours of domestic or feral Mallards are interbreeding with the remaining local populations of Hawaiian Ducks, the birds on Kauai remain genetically free of extraneous Mallard genes.  Although published population numbers for the species estimate roughly 2000 birds, they count the hybrid Oahu birds in the total. A better estimate would limit the population to Kauai, which would put the global count at only about 800 birds, scattered around the islands many small wetlands. Both species of waterfowl undoubtedly benefit from the lack of mongeese on Kauai, as these rapacious little mustelids can quickly decimate ground nesting birds. After having our fill of the array of foraging Hawaiian Stilts, Hawaiian Coots, Common Gallinules and Pacific Golden-Plovers that were also foraging in the small ponds of Taro root below the road we tried a higher elevation overlook that allowed us to scan some of the other impoundments. From this vantage point we picked out larger numbers of the same mix of species, as well as a locally rare drake Mallard that seemed from our distant perch to actually be a wintering bird rather than some kind of local frankenduck. Our last stop for the day was the overlook above the Kilauea Point Lighthouse. Here we spent a very enjoyable hour studying hundreds of Red-footed Boobies perched on the vegetated cliffs or soaring around over the ocean. A few Laysan Albatrosses were about too, languidly gliding past the cliffs or wheeling lazily out on the bay. While scanning a bit further offshore we picked out a nice surprise in the form of an adult Black-footed Albatross that was flying slowly to the west. These relatively smaller and slighter built albatrosses are a near endemic to the Hawaiian Islands, with about 98% of the global population breeding in the state. The vast majority of these birds occur far to the west of the inhabited Hawaiian Islands, but a small breeding population exists a bit to the west of Kauai on the small island of Lehua.  At one point the bird crossed paths with two Laysans, providing, if only for a moment, a wonderful double albatross viewing, and a great scene with which to cap off a quite productive afternoon of birding.

For our full day on the island we departed early and ate a picnic breakfast at a sports park near the bottom of Waimea Canyon. The comparatively lush greens on the ball fields were attracting an impressive number of Pacific Golden-Plovers, Common Myna and both Red-crested and Northern Cardinals. Here too was a distant Erckel’s Francolin that was perched up in the morning sun on a large boulder near the back fields. Just as we were leaving an elegant White-tailed Tropicbird sailed over our parked vans, doubtless heading for a breeding cliff somewhere deep in Waimea Canyon. After breakfast we traveled uphill through the quite scenic canyon, stopping to admire the sweeping views at the overlook, where the volcanic redrock canyon is offset by bright green tropical foliage, a few tumbling waterfalls and more White-tailed Tropicbirds wheeling below the vantage point.

For the rest of the day we concentrated on native forest birds, and they certainly did not disappoint. Near the high point of the road in Kokoke’e State Park we found several flowering Ohia trees, with their small sprays of red, orange or yellow flowers. These trees were attracting good numbers of luminescent Apapane (surely one of the most-showy native Hawaiian birds) and a few diminutive Anianiau. Here too were some extremely cooperative Kauai Elepaio, one of which came to within just a foot or two of the group and seemed as curious about our presence as we were of it. All three of these endemics were often singing through the unseasonably warm and sunny morning, and several folks remarked how wonderful it was to be surrounded by the sounds of native birds. The fourth possible endemic bird was far more reticent. A brief showing of a Kauai Amakihi that shot over the road a couple of times for some of the group led us on a merry chase for a while, but it was not until the mid-afternoon after lunch that we finally connected with good views of this seemingly increasingly rare species. Not all the local birds along the ridgeline were native, and over the course of the morning we located a briefly responsive Japanese Bush-Warbler that hopped into view a few times before vanishing back into the shrubbery and happily cackling back at us in a more than vaguely self-satisfied and sardonic manner. We headed downhill after admiring a literal horde of chickens, some of which closely resembled wild-type birds and are apparently now sanctioned by the ABA as countable, despite their obvious frequent fraternization with some less than perfectly wild-type birds.

Once down in the lowlands we spent the balance of the afternoon visiting a couple of small wetland sites around the Southwest corner of the island. Our first stop was to the Kawaiele State Waterbird Sanctuary, a series of small shallow ponds that were accidentally created in the early 1990’s when local sand mining activities dug deep enough for the basins to fill with groundwater. It’s a locally important breeding and roosting site for Hawaiian Stilts, Hawaiian Ducks, Nene, and Common Gallinules, and sometimes attracts lost waifs as well. We scanned the close ponds upon our arrival, finding a nice selection of butterflies and odonates, as well as a small flock of African Silverbill and our first Northern Mockingbird. By walking out into the complex, we found one particular pond that was filled with the suite of expected local waterbirds and three drake Eurasian Wigeons. Neither wigeon is expected in Hawaii, although generally both occur annually, and in roughly equal numbers. Our walk back was punctuated with some fish biology lessons, as hundreds of introduced Tilapia had constructed their breeding pits in the shallow pools along the trail, as well as a brief encounter with a half-grown chicken that burst out of the waterside vegetation and managed a quite respectable impression of a rail. Our second stop was to some coastal salt evaporation ponds, where we found lots of Ruddy Turnstones and a few Wandering Tattler and Pacific Golden-Plovers, as well as two more (bringing our total to an amazing 5 for the trip) Monk Seals that were loafing on the sandy beaches quite close to a bevy of humans who were seemingly trying to do their best imitations of a snoozing seal by lounging on blankets just above the surf line.

Due to some COVID related flight restrictions and some amazingly last-minute flight alterations on the behalf of Hawaiian airlines our flight to Kona was in the late afternoon/early evening. This allowed us to have a full morning searching for one of the hardest of the ABA countable exotics in the Hawaiian Islands; the Greater Necklaced Laughingthrush. This retiring but quite attractive species was introduced over 100 years ago in Kauai, persisting in the tangled lowland forests of the island in small numbers. Normally a visiting birder is lucky to glimpse one of these large but shy birds as it disappears into the forest, and for us this time around we managed virtually just that. Three birds were briefly perched above the trail, calling softly to one another and then vanishing into the woods with astonishing speed. We spent some time trying to entice them back to the trail, sadly to no avail. Although most of the group missed this brief encounter the trail was still quite birdy, with well over a dozen White-rumped Shamas plying their vocal skills from the understory, busy little flocks of Warbling White-eyes in the canopy and our first Scaly-breasted Munias foraging in the grasses along the trail edge. We returned to the hotel in the late morning and checked out of the hotel before heading for a quick lunch in the town of Kapaa. This allowed us to tangle with traffic on the way south to Lihue and still have some time to explore a small road that leads up one of the forested coastal hills close to town. Our hoped for Chinese Hwamei remained reclusive, but a half-dozen brilliantly glowing White-tailed Tropicbirds soaring over the canopy with their streamers stretched out behind them was a definite highlight. Our afternoon flight was a bit complicated as Hawaiian airlines altered the itinerary at the last minute, but we were able to squeeze in a nice hour or so along the shore near the airport. Here we found a lounging Green Sea Turtle sheltering in the lee of a large breakwall, admired a wealth of colourful fish and invertebrates in the tidepools and found a few Red-footed and Brown Boobies passing by the shore. Our flight (eventually) went smoothly and we arrived at our comparatively opulent coastal Kona hotel in time for a slightly late dinner.


The Big Island of Hawaii is over six times larger than Oahu, and is the youngest of the islands, with ongoing volcanic activity spouting off every few years. For our three full days around the island we spent our time on the leeward (dry) side of the island. Here the lowlands are crisscrossed with fresh lava fields, with grassy savannahs dominating as one heads uphill. It’s a stark landscape, with some vistas dominated by reddish-black chunks of jagged rock (named A’a in Hawaiian, possibly due to the sound a traveler would make trying to cross the rough terrain). Around the resorts and small towns that ring the shoreline lush and tropical looking plantings, watered lawns and all the trappings of a modern commercial society really set them apart from the more barren surroundings. Our first morning was reserved for a trip high up on the leeward slopes of Mauna Kea. Before we climbed up to the higher elevations though we had a picnic breakfast at a small park near Waikaloa. In addition to breakfast, we enjoyed excellent views of several Eurasian Skylark, a single Grey Francolin and lots of African Silverbill and Saffron Finches around the rather dusty looking baseball fields. As we began the ascent we stopped a few times for some roadside birding, adding exotic species such as Wild Turkey, Ring-necked Pheasant and Erkel’s Francolin as well as our first view of a hunting Short-eared Owl that was plying the road edge for several minutes.

Eventually though we reached our destination; the aptly named Palila Discovery Trail. Here, tucked in a narrow elevational band (roughly 6700-9000ft) a dry forest containing Sandalwood and Mamane trees persists. Once much more widespread on the island, this forest type is now restricted to less than 25 square miles, with much of the remaining forest heavily impacted by the grazing of introduced goats and sheep and the rooting of feral pigs.  In an effort to stave off the complete loss of this precious forest the state and federal governments have begun restoration efforts in a part of the forest, including establishing a trail with signage about the plight of the local ecosystem. These efforts have been plagued from the start, with a general lack of funding and support, and some conflicts with local hunting lobbies which often decry efforts at controlling the introduced ungulates. Three successful lawsuits in federal court required the land managers to completely remove grazing animals, but sadly even the fenceline around the designated trail remains incomplete. The signature bird species in this habitat is the Palila, a large gray and yellow honeycreeper with a conical finchlike bill that specializes on eating green Mamane seeds (90% of their diet). The most recent thorough population count took place in 2018, and resulted in a population estimate of 1200 birds with a 68% decline over the previous 16 years. Since then, a persistent and deepening drought has held sway over the area, with the forest looking increasingly stressed and dried out with each passing year. It is generally believed that the true current population is a mere fraction of that 1200 number, and with continuing low (or zero) recruitment the situation seems dire. In contrast to our visit in August when most of the trees were in really poor shape we found a significant number to be in good flower, with much healthier looking vegetation. Though we could still find no new seed pods the forest did in general look green, and within just a few minutes we enjoyed multiple views of several Hawaii Amakihi as they foraged in the blossoms, occasionally even going into short burst of song. As we walked a bit down the trail we bumped into another birding group who were standing around and looking intently into a larger Mamane tree just a bit off the trail. Before we even asked what they were waiting for we heard the unmistakeable two-parted call notes from a Palila coming from deep within the tree. It took a few anxious minutes to locate it, but eventually we enjoyed remarkably close views of a single male bird that was sedately eating the Mamane flowers. It’s a large and unique (now that its close relatives are sadly gone) Honeycreeper, resembling a heavy bodied cardinal more than a fast-moving nectivore. In life Palila are much more attractive than fields guides tend to illustrate, with a pale silvery grey, with a bright yellow head, dark lores and yellow edging on the wings and tail. We were able to follow it for about ten minutes before it shot off downslope, providing one of the absolute highlights of the trip. It is my sincere hope that the island gets some consistent rain and cloud cover, giving the birds the conditions that they need to start breeding again before the population shrinks to far. A plaque on the Palila discovery trail contained the bittersweet quote “Numerous in its special haunts, tame, and in foggy weather constantly uttering its callnote, the Palila of the more local birds is one of the easiest to observe” – R.C.L. Perkins, ca. 1892, and I hope that those words, and the birds’ song long continue to resonate on the mountain slopes of Mauna Kea. After some celebratory snacks we started downslope, with a pause to admire a distantly soaring Hawaiian Hawk that was drifting along one of the cinder cone ridges below the summit.

In the afternoon we dropped back into the lowlands to concentrate on a couple of ABA designated countable exotic gamebirds. We revisited the now largely deserted and remarkably windy public park in Waikaloa where we managed to polish off a picnic lunch despite the gale. After lunch we had a bit of a wander around and were thrilled to spot two Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse coursing overhead. While scanning for more birds we flushed two more off of the upper ball fields, this time at a close enough range that we could see their pin-like tails, pale carpal bars and dark bellies as they took off and were swept downwind. We then stopped in at a golf course high up on the slopes of Hualalai where we failed to connect with any Indian Peafowl (which are apparently now countable by ABA listing standards). We did enjoy a close flyover from a pale Hawaiian Hawk here – a good trade-off for the lack of peacocks by most participants standards! Our final stop for the day was at the Kealakehe Wastewater Treatment Plant, a complex of ponds that services the wastewater from nearby Kona. It’s generally a quite bird rich place, and we quickly tallied good numbers of the expected waterbirds, as well as single long-staying Cackling Goose and White-faced Ibis, a statewide rarity in the form of a Gadwall, and our first Northern Pintail and Lesser Scaup of the trip. Here too we found some handsome Yellow-billed Cardinals and quite a few more Indian Silverbill, Common Waxbill and Yellow-throated Canaries. With the temperatures hovering in the mid-eighties and very little shade we opted not to stay too long, heading back to our coastal hotel with some time off before dinner.

Our second full day on the island found us birding in what many consider the finest mile of Hawaiian birding remaining on Earth. As we climbed up the mountain slopes along the new Saddle Highway we stopped at a convenient park where we were able to use the restrooms and also find several small coveys of California Quail. A bit further up the road, where dark lava flows from the nearby slopes of Mauna Loa actually crossed over the highway a few decades ago, our game bird luck continued with a single Chukar that was standing up on a lava pinnacle in the early morning sun. Our main goal for the day though was to reach the native forest in the Hakalau National Wildlife Refuge, where large stands of primary upland forest, draped with hanging lichens and bathed in near perpetual clouds remain on the upper windward slopes of Mauna Kea. Access to this area is granted by restricted permit, with fewer than 1000 visitors allowed in annually (and the actual number of visitors likely far below that number). The area was once a privately-owned ranch, with cleared fields interspersed with shallow gullies that were left to stands of native Koa and Ohia. The federal government has purchased the old ranchsite and some adjacent properties, with an area of roughly 60 square miles now protected and reforestation projects underway. The 8 mile-long dirt road that winds around the upper slopes of the volcano to reach the refuge is bumpy and slow, passing through overgrazed savannah and dense stands of introduced gorse. It’s not a birdless habitat though, and during the drive in we stopped to admire a pair of Kalij Pheasants that popped up along the roadside; yet another species brought in for hunters (although a particularly attractive one).

Once at the refuge we stopped at the border to spray down our shoes and walking sticks with alcohol in order to remove any possible traces of an introduced fungus that can lead to the death of local Ohia trees. Task accomplished we drove down to the Fish and Wildlife clearing (complete with some lackadaisical pairs of Nene) and old farm shed and atmospheric outhouse the only signs of development. As we readied ourselves for the walk we could hear an actual chorus of native birdsong emanating from the surrounding trees; a stark contrast to the other forested regions that we had traveled through in the islands, where non-native birds decidedly dominate. We spent a magical morning here, enveloped in a world that has virtually vanished from the islands. The birdlist wasn’t huge, but the entries were all special. Dazzlingly red I’iwi vied with deep crimson Apapanes and yellow Hawaii Amakihis at the flowering Ohia trees. Inquisitive Hawaii Elepaios bounced around in the mid-canopy, and Hawaiian Creepers did their best nuthatch imitations on the trunks and branches of the larger trees. One pair of creepers was actively building a small nest in the crook of a trailside tree; a welcoming sight for such a range-restricted species. Berry producing shrubs in the understory were many vocal Omao (a native species of thrush), several of which perched uncharacteristically out in the open and lingered for some photo ops. We reached a fallen tree by the late morning, and then simply stayed put; soaking in the ambience and high bird activity all around us.  

While we lingered, Mandy could hear the short notes of Akepa emanating from the crowns of some of the nearby Ohia trees. As is often the case with this small endemic honeycreeper the birds remained generally high, but with some patience all of the participants were able to study a pair of birds just above our lunch spot. A bit uphill many also enjoyed eye-level views of another male; a bright dayglow orange ball of feathers that is intense enough for most tanagers to envy. The crowning moment of the morning though had to be given to our incomparably excellent and lengthy views of a male Akiapola’au that flew in from the woods and then lingered along some small trailside trees for several monites. This is a scarce bird, and one that normally holds very large territories, so seeing one on such a short transect of forest is largely a matter of great luck. The bird was close enough that we were able to readily see its unique bill; a short and chisel shaped lower mandible paired with a very elongated, thin and highly curved upper mandible. It uses the lower mandible to probe in bark crevices or pry into epiphytes, and then when prey is detected the upper mandible comes into play to dig the insect or larvae out. Elated with our excellent views of the full remaining suite of high elevation endemics we wandered back to the cars and started the bumpy drive back out; with a few more Pheasants and some Erckel’s Francolins scuttling into the flowering gorse thickets at our approach.

We spent some time slowly descending along the old saddle road, stopping frequently wherever we found species of interest. An amazing feat of bird spotting from a moving van by one of the participants revealed a Short-eared Owl sitting low along a roadside thicket. It remained tucked in and allowed us to approach close enough for some excellent photos as it affixed us with its baleful yellow eyes. Gamebirds were plentiful, with lots of Wild Turkey, Ring-necked Pheasant and Erckel’s Francolins in the fields. We stopped several times to look for Black Francolin and although we heard one bird singing away in the arid grasslands we had to content ourselves with three flocks of Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse which flew overhead in quick succession like teardrop shaped feathered arrows. We still had a bit of afternoon left, so we decided to make a quick return visit to the golf course where this time a male Indian Peafowl deigned to strut his stuff for us near the edge of the parking lot. It’s hard to deny that counting peacocks as established in the United States feels a little weird, but it’s even harder to deny that the male is perhaps one of the most exquisitely colourful and fanciful birds in the world.

Our last full birding day of the tour is reserved for a completely different environment. Instead of focusing on coastal waterbirds or endemic or introduced landbirds we turned our attentions to the ocean surrounding the islands by taking a seven-hour pelagic trip out from the nearby small boat harbour. Kona sits on the dry and leeward side of the island, meaning that the waters out from the shore tend to be much calmer than those of the islands eastern side. We boarded the ship; a comfortable 40-foot craft with seating in the stern and bow, and a covered central cabin, and after a briefing from the captain and first mate were soon slowly motoring out of the harbour, with the sun rising at our backs over the peaks of the Big Island.

The sparkling water was fairly calm, although a significant windstorm from the south caused us to bear further north than our typical route so as to stay in the islands wind shadow. As is the case in most tropical waters, we found bird diversity to be rather low (in contrast to bird densities in colder, more polar waters), but over the course of the day we tallied several noteworthy species. By far the most common species for the day was Wedge-tailed Shearwater. We found several flocks of these gray/brown and white shearwaters loafing on the water or flying past the bow. Many allowed us close approach, thus giving the participants a good idea of the most common “benchmark” species of tubenose. Perhaps this practice paid off as in the early afternoon a bird came in that immediately struck us as different. It proved to be a White-necked Petrel, our only Pterodroma for the day, and a write-in species for the tour! Some participants also picked up a quick flyby of a smaller all-dark shearwater that crossed the bow and then shot straight away out into the deeper water. The shape and flight style (paired with the all-dark underwings) cinched the identification as a Christmas Shearwater; yet another write-in for the tour. Throwing in a couple of very close views of sitting Brown Boobies, a Laughing Gull, several foraging (Hawaiian) Black Noddies, a large pod of Pantropical Spotted Dolphins that at one point completely encircled our boat, a group of actively hunting Yellow-finned Tuna and several flying fish it made for quite a successful trip!

After returning to the hotel for a bit of a rest we had some time in the late afternoon to casually bird along the coast a bit south of our hotel. Here we enjoyed final views of the suite of lowland introduced birds that now call these islands home. Seeding grasses held lots of Common Waxbill and Java Sparrow, Northern and Yellow-billed Cardinals. The open lawns played host to uncountable numbers of Spotted and Zebra Doves, Common Myna and the odd Gray Francolin or Saffron Finch.  We made our final stop at a site named “the end of the world”, a coastal heritage site where nearly 300 native Hawaiians that were fighting for their traditional belief system died at the hands of the son of King Kamehameha the first who wished to reform their common traditions. The battle was brief, and those holding to the old traditions lost decisively. Shortly thereafter the first waves of missionaries arrived, ushering in the final end to much of the traditional belief structure for the native Hawaiians. After walking out a bit into the lava field that served as the battle site we walked back up the paved road, finding a couple of handsome Lavender Waxbills (a species that is not yet sanctioned on the ABA list due to its relatively small population) along the way. This was to be the final addition to our list, an impressive 97 species of birds (a new trip record), and we capped the tour off with dinner at one of Kona’s most famous restaurants and glasses of delicious mai-tais clinking on the table.

                                                                                                                                                                  -          Gavin Bieber, 2022

Created: 13 April 2022