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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Hawaii: Rainbow of Birds

2019 Narrative

In Brief

The first run of the reincarnation of the Hawai’i: Rainbow of Birds Tour featured an impressive birdlist, lots of successes, and a few changes for Year 2. But despite the significant number of logistical challenges, lots of rain on Kauai making finding some endemic honeycreepers impossible, and a few first-tour hiccups, we ended with an incredible 97 species (including some non-countable and origin uncertain introductions). We saw every surviving endemic on Oahu and the Big Island, saw vagrants from both sides of the Pacific (Eurasian Wigeon and Greater White-fronted Goose among others) and we swept the world’s tropicbirds thanks to a vagrant Red-billed and some incredible luck. 

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-billed 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:

With Hawaii-born and resident Lance Tanino as my knowledgeable co-leader, we covered 3 islands. Not only did we clean up on most of them, we actually ran out of birds to look for on the last day – so we went seawatching and somehow added Black-footed Albatross to the already-impressive trip list.

We began on Oahu, where the two surviving endemics: Oahu Amakihi and Oahu Elepaio came much easier than expected. We soon scored the other big targets on the island: Bristle-thighed Curlews and then a stroke of luck: the Red-billed Tropicbird, which appeared outside of his usual timeframe on our second, last-ditch shot at it. We arrived at the overlook, spotted him, and enjoyed him for about 10 minutes before he flew out to sea as a wall of rain arrived. What timing!  Other island highlights included a wayward Peregrine Falcon marauding a colony of 2000+ Sooty Terns, quality time with our first Hawaiian lifers right outside our hotel, and last but certainly not least: the angelic White Terns breeding in downtown Waikiki, including in the parking lot of our hotel.

We knew Kauai would offer a challenge, and it did not let us off easy. But, we also did not let it stop us!  A full day of steady rain as we fought our way into one of the wettest places on Earth impacted our birding immensely, and resulted in our first “miss” of the trip: Akeke’e. We left soaked, and with only Kauai Elepaio and plenty of Apapanes to show for it.  And while we dodged rain the next day, not everyone saw Kauai Amakihi, and we dipped again on Anianiau. The quiet woods were a sobering testament to the difficulties most of the native forest birds are facing on the Garden Isle.  But that really was the longest, best, and most surprising look at Japanese Bush-Warbler that one could ever even imagine. Our third day on the island, however, featured tremendous success in the lowlands, highlighted by the Laysan Albatrosses of Princeville, thousands of breeding Red-footed Boobies at Kilauea NWR, and the pureblood Hawaiian Ducks of Hanalei NWR.  And the food, service, and atmosphere (not to mention the brews) were so good at Kauai Beer Company that the entire group insisted on going back for a second meal!

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 vagrant Eurasian Wigeon, Brant, and Greater White-fronted Goose while adding our first of the rare-but-regular migrants from North America: 3 spiffy Ring-necked Ducks. More importantly, we had our first Black Noddies, Hawaiian Hawk, and Hawaii Elepaio and Hawaii Amakihi, all before taking a distant look at the recently-erupted Kilauea.

We added Garry Dean of Hawaii Forest and Trails to the team on Day 8 to venture up Mauna Kea to Hakalau Forest NWR. Now this is more like it! 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 elepaios. Within minutes, Garry had us on a rare and critically endangered Akiapola’au, a juvenile that was soon fed by its mother – one more addition to a population of less than 1000 individuals. Hawaii Creeper put on the show of a decade, with at least 8 recorded and well seen.  Every visit to Hakalau is different, and one bird is always a challenge, and this day it was Akepa. But eventually, we had several pairs and one glowing male at eye level for all to enjoy.

We were back on Mauna Kea with Garry on the 9th day, but this time in the dry forest, seeking and seeing Palila. In fact, they put on quite the show for us, interrupted only by more amakihi and the Mauna Kea subspecies of Hawaii Elepaio.  And in the afternoon, we cleaned up our missing, and all very local, introduced species: Red Avadavat, Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse, and Indian Peafowl.

Thanks to our successes of the past three days, a more relaxed agenda on our last day still allowed us to really build the checklist, adding vagrant Black-bellied Plover, Bonaparte’s Gull, Least Tern, and Cackling Goose to our list, along with migrant Lesser Scaup, White-faced Ibis, Laughing Gull, and Northern Shoveler. We even scored the very local and skulking Lavender Waxbill (not yet countable) before finish up the birding day with some seawatching that featured hundreds of Black Noddies, dozens of Brown Boobies, more Pacific Humpbacked Whales, Spinner Dolphins, and two Black-footed Albatrosses for our 97th and final bird species of the trip.

-          Derek Lovitch, WINGS Tour Leader

Created: 02 April 2019