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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Hawaii: Rainbow of Birds

2021 Narrative

IN BRIEF: For 2021 we moved our Hawaii tour from its customary mid-winter slot in February to the fall, hoping that by late August the islands would be open again to tourists.  Happily, for us that was exactly the case, and with some adherence to the still rather strict covid restrictions in place (mainly involving minor restrictions on restaurant and hotel capacity and operation) the tour went without a hitch.  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! 

OAHU

Our trip began with a casual dinner along the sandy shoreline of Waikiki Beach, surrounded by a stunningly cloud-filled and fiery Pacific sunset and the spreading tree canopies around Kapiolani Park.  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 several birds were juveniles dressed in their dull grayish plumage, but with a bit of patience we had excellent views of a couple of bright yellow males just a few feet off the road edge.  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.

In the latter part of the morning we turned our attentions to the other endemic 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.  We were able to watch the parents and their attending juvenile bird for twenty minutes or so before they moved further up the valley, an experience that I hope all will treasure for years.  Not a lot of recent census work has been done on this endangered species, but the best estimates seem to put the global population at around 1200 individuals.

Flush with our relatively easy time with the two endemics, we spent the remainder of the day exploring the Southeast corner of the island.  Rugged volcanic headlands, sparkling blue bays, and views out to nearby Maui and Molokai were all dutifully admired.  Our lunch spot along the main coastal road brought us amazingly point-blank views of Red-tailed Tropicbirds as they soared just overhead or past us at eye-level, occasionally even stopping to hover in our faces, as if they were curious about our bowls of spicy tuna poke.  We picked up a few more species of introduced birds as we made our way around the southeast, with the likely highlights being a few small flocks of Chestnut Munia foraging along the roadsides and several White-rumped Shama lurking in the brushy coastal forests.  These very attractive Asian flycatchers have wonderfully melodious calls, a satiny black-blue head and back, long tail, and rich orangey underparts. 

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.  We first stopped along a busy street in Honolulu, where about a dozen White Terns were landing in or milling around the large trees in the road’s median strip.  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.  We then made a return visit to the salt ponds south of the Marine Base, where we were able to closely examine a pair of Hawaiian (Black-necked) 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.  Another excellent candidate for splitting is the very well differentiated Hawaiian Black Noddy.  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.  We were thrilled to spot at least three birds foraging over the ponds, fluttering above small schools of baitfish and repeatedly flying right past us along the shore.

Further to the north we enjoyed amazingly close and lengthy views of a flock of nearly forty 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.  Shallow shrimp ponds near the refuge held an array of waders, with Ruddy Turnstone, Wandering Tattler, Pacific Golden-Plover and Sanderling all showing well.  As we rounded the northern tip of the island the clouds rolled in and we finished the trip back to our base in Waikiki in light rain.  Dinner at a local Pu-Pu (tapas) restaurant just down the road was very well received, and wrapped up our two days on the island as we had a morning flight to Kauai booked for the next day.

KAUAI

Kauai is the oldest and farthest west of the main Hawaiian Islands.  Slightly smaller than 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 organized at our cozy hotel before having lunch in downtown Lihue.  After lunch we headed around the eastern side of the island, getting as far as the Hanalei NWR overlook before discovering that the last several miles of the main highway were closed due to a mudslide that occurred earlier in the year.  The overlook proved excellent however, providing distant but still more than acceptable views of 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 island’s 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, Coots and Gallinules and Pacific Golden-Plovers that were also foraging in the small ponds of Taro root below the road, we headed a bit back to the east, where we stopped in at an upscale golf resort.  Here our target bird quickly appeared, with a long staying Snow Goose on the greens, quietly foraging with some 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.

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 Brown Boobies were about too, as were several dozen Great Frigatebirds, a few distant Wedge-tailed Shearwaters (and a fuzzy chick that was sitting just outside of its natal burrow almost under our feet), and a pair of soaring White-tailed Tropicbirds.  Just as we were preparing to leave, a startlingly loud and reeling screech announced the presence of a Kermadec Petrel that was harassing the Boobies and circling around overhead.  The bird made a few passes and then shot out over the ridge, only to come back a second time a few minutes later.  Although there have been a few recent sightings of this bulky southern hemisphere petrel from the north shore of Kauai and even some evidence of possible breeding in the Hawaiian Islands our sighting was quite unexpected, and a real treat. For our full day on the island, we departed early and picked up breakfast at a small grocery store.  This enabled us to eat a picnic at a sports park near the bottom of Waimea Canyon.  The comparatively lush greens on the ball fields were attracting an impressive number of Red Avadavats; a handsome Indian finch that usually sticks to tall and dense grasses.  Here too were our first Northern Cardinals and Saffron Finches (three exotic species, each from a different continent), stately Pacific Golden-Plovers, and a couple of Erckel’s Francolins (so as not to leave out Africa) that were parading around in the dried grasses just past the back fence.  After breakfast we traveled uphill through the quite scenic Waimea 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 distant White-tailed Tropicbirds wheeling below the vantage point.  A pair of Chinese Hwamei (otherwise known as Melodius Laughingthrush) and several White-rumped Shama were bouncing around the margins of the parking lot here as well.

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.  A brief showing of a young Kauai Amakihi for two of the group led us on a merry chase for a while, and it was not until the mid-afternoon that we finally connected with good views of this seemingly increasingly rare species.  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. 

Due to some COVID related flight restrictions, our flight out of Kauai to the big island was not until the early evening.  We made the most of the day by 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.  According to Mandy they are often easier to see in the fall, and her prophecy proved true for us when we located a small family group foraging in the canopy of some large trees.  Normally a visiting birder is lucky to glimpse one of these large but shy birds as it disappears into the forest, but we lucked out with repeated views of two adults foraging and carrying food to their attendant young.  The species eats a lot of fruit and insects in its native range, so we were a bit surprised to see one adult carrying a six-inch long Anole lizard!

After our exceptional views of the laughingthrushes we spent the rest of the day birding along the island’s south coast.  Here we enjoyed close views of Hawaiian Duck, a good showing of Wedge-tailed Shwearwater, Red-footed and Brown Boobies and White-tailed Tropicbirds passing by along a public beach, a loafing Green Sea Turtle that was attracting a bit too much attention from the assembled beachgoers, and a day flying Short-eared Owl that was being chased out of the area by some indignant Cattle Egrets.  Our flight went smoothly, and we arrived at our comparatively opulent coastal Kona hotel in time for dinner.

THE BIG ISLAND

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 four 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.  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.  The last few years have been especially poor, and Mandy was shocked to have completely missed Palila over the previous seven visits.  Our luck was unfortunately no better, and despite several hours of searching we did not turn up any sign of Palila.  Even though the forest was quite dry, with many dead trees and no appreciable fresh fruit, there were birds.  We enjoyed multiple views of several dozen Hawaii Amakihi as they foraged in the few trees with blossoms, occasionally even going into short burst of song.  Most of the other birds around the trail were exotics, with little flocks of Yellow-fronted Canaries, House Finches and Warbling White-eyes, some skulky but gorgeous Red-billed Leiothrix, and the odd cackling from Erkel’s Francolins out in the adjacent grassier areas.  Not all the other birds were introductions though, as we were thrilled to see a Short-eared Owl patrolling over the lower slopes and a distantly circling Hawaiian Hawk over the crater rim of Mauna Kea.

In the afternoon we dropped back into the lowlands to concentrate on a couple of ABA designated countable exotic gamebirds.  Near the largely deserted and remarkably windy public park in Waikaloa we enjoyed excellent and lengthy views of a family group of Grey Francolin and a male Black Francolin (truly a stunning bird) along the roadside.  Our views of Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse were more fleeting, with a flock of three birds seen in flight as we were driving on the highway, and a single female seen briefly in some roadside grasses.

Our second full day on the island found us birding in what many consider the finest mile of Hawaiian birding remaining on Earth.  We ventured into the restricted access forests of 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 ranch site 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 perched Hawaiian Hawk that was sitting atop a roadside boulder as it devoured a recently caught bird.  Several pairs of Kalij Pheasants popped up along the roadside as well; 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.  Soon though we were in another world, with a small 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 Iiwi vied with deep crimson Apapanes and yellow 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.  Berry producing shrubs in the understory were attracting Red-billed Leiothrix and many vocal Omao (a native thrush).  Near the end of the walk, we managed to get most participants onto a male Akepa, a quite scarce and bright dayglow orange ball of feathers high in the canopy.  The crowning moment of the morning though had to be given to our incomparably excellent and lengthy views of three separate male Akiapola’au that seemed to be in the midst of an intense territorial squabble.  This is a scarce bird, and one that normally holds very large territories, so seeing multiple males (in song) virtually together was an amazing experience.  Once back at the cars we enjoyed a picnic lunch in the old barn, and then started the journey back down to the hotter and drier Kona coastline.  Enroute, we stopped to photograph a few more Kalij Pheasants along the road and were happy to spot a few California Quail running about on the lawns of a roadside rest stop.  Back at the grounds of our hotel we took a couple of hours off, with time for snorkeling or lounging, gearing up for the next day’s pelagic trip.

Our pelagic day began with a dead battery and a quick change up for our breakfast plans, but with some quick thinking and a taxi we were at the dock in plenty of time.  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.  Just outside the harbour mouth we stopped to admire a group of loafing Spinner Dolphins that were getting settled in to snooze the day away.  The sparkling water was quite calm, even out around our turn-around point; roughly 35 miles off the coast near the permanent tsunami buoy that serves to warn the adjacent coast of any incoming high waves.  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 there was seldom a moment during our 7-hour trip that one or two birds were not in view.  By far the most common species for the day was Wedge-tailed Shearwater.  We found decent numbers of dark-morph birds amongst the more common pale morphs, and especially while we were around the tsunami buoy found this species to be virtually abundant.

On the way out we found a couple of dozen Bulwer’s Petrels, generally seen singly as they cruised by with their overly long and thin wings.  By carefully searching through the large flock of Wedge-taileds that were bobbing about in the water around the buoy we also picked up a single small black-and-white Newell’s Shearwater (a Hawaii endemic) that was buried in the flock.  Our views were brief, and unfortunately, we couldn’t refind it despite several attempts at slowly drifting through the masses of sitting birds.  Our only Pterodroma for the day was nearshore as we came back towards the harbour.  A large bird came in and passed around the boat twice before zipping back out to deeper waters.  It took a bit of piecing together fieldmarks to come to an ID, but in the end the upperwing pattern, and dark underwing spots sealed it as a pale Juan Fernandez Petrel.  Throwing in a couple of very close views of sitting Red-footed and Masked Boobies, some foraging Sooty Terns, a large pod of Rough-toothed Dolphins, some flying fish and several incredibly intense rainbows it made for quite a successful trip!

For our final day on the Big Island we opted to concentrate first on another attempt at Palila up on the slopes of Mauna Kea.  This time we ventured farther upslope, hoping that the slight difference in elevation might make for more fruit on the Mamame trees.  Alas, we found this part of the forest dry as well, although there was a definite increase in the percentage of trees that were flowering.  We walked along one of the many dirt roads that snake around the slopes, stopping to admire dozens of Hawaii Amakihi, several of which were preforming short song flights.  As we walked, we discussed some of the critical environmental and conservation concerns that continue to plague the islands.  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.  We searched for a few hours, again hearing and seeing no sign, and hoping that this species will not slip away from its last stronghold.  We’ll all await the results of the January census with great interest.

Leaving the mountain behind, we spent the afternoon on the coast, first catching up with ABA sanctioned Indian Peafowl along the margins of an upscale golf course.  At the Kaloko-Honok?hau National Historical Park we had a bit of an amphibious beach walk over to some coastal ponds where we located a loafing Laughing Gull and a Northern Shoveler, among the more expected wintering waders.  Here too were numbers of Common Waxbill, a very cooperative pair of Kalij Pheasants, some foraging Green Sea Turtles, and perhaps our best views of Yellow-billed Cardinals.  Our final stop of the day was to the nearby sewage ponds where we picked out a long-staying Cackling Goose and a couple of Least Terns, capping our tour list at a respectable 82 species; with the full complement of extant endemics on Oahu, all but the Palila on the Big Island and all accessible endemics on Kauai.  A lovely beach-side dinner allowed us to say farewell to these magical islands, with the light of a nearly full moon shimmering on the breaking waves, and glasses of delicious mai-tais clinking on the table.

                                                                                                                                                                  -  Gavin Bieber, 2021

Created: 01 October 2021