This trip report covers a trip I took to the Hawaiian Islands in late December and early January of 1997-1998. My family [parents (Jack and Linda), brother (John), sister (Chris)] and I spent the first two weeks on Kaua'i, staying in Princeville, and eleven days on the Big Island, staying in Kona. This was my sixth extended trip to the Hawaiian Islands, but my first as a birder. Mom wanted to spend Christmas in Hawai'i and offered to take the "kids" (ages 33, 31 and 21) along. She didn't have to twist our arms!
We left San Francisco early on December 18th, arriving at the Honolulu Airport just after noon, Hawai'i time. I had about twenty minutes to kill, so I hung out next to the gate for a few minutes, promptly picking up four lifers (all introduced birds, of course). In the small garden area with benches outside the Aloha Airlines gate were RED-VENTED BULBULS, ZEBRA DOVES, a JAPANESE WHITE-EYE (also known by its Japanese name, "MEJIRO"), and COMMON MYNAS, as well as SPOTTED DOVES and HOUSE SPARROWS.
We then caught the forty minute flight to Kaua'i. After landing, we taxied down the runway, along which I saw dozens of KOLEA (PACIFIC GOLDEN-PLOVERS), along with many COMMON MYNAS. Both of these species proved to be incredibly abundant in the Islands. We then collected our rental cars and drove to Princeville, which is on the north shore of Kaua'i. On the way out of the Airport I saw a flock of beautiful CHESTNUT MANNIKINS (introduced) along the road, and on the way north I saw hundreds of CATTLE EGRETS. The egrets apparently were introduced to Kaua'i in the 1950s to help control pests, and are now seen in almost every available nook and cranny of the island. I remember this ever-present egret from my previous trips to Kaua'i as a non-birder. We also saw a male RING-NECKED PHEASANT along the road, and numerous RED JUNGLEFOWL, some of which may have had some "wild" blood in them, but most of which were probably feral.
As we drove into Princeville along the golf course, I saw another flock of CHESTNUT MANNIKINS, a few HAWAIIAN COOTS (currently a separate species from the AMERICAN COOT), and a drop-dead gorgeous RED-CRESTED CARDINAL. At one point I glanced up and started yelling frantically at Chris and John, "Look! Look!", while stabbing at the sky with my finger. There was a GREAT FRIGATEBIRD soaring right over our car!! Nice start to the trip.
After we arrived at Princeville and checked into our ocean-view condos, I wandered the grounds a little, finding many KOLEA, MYNAS and WHITE-EYES, as well as a lot more of the fabulous RED-CRESTED CARDINALS and a NORTHERN CARDINAL. I scanned the ocean with my binoculars and turned up another GREAT FRIGATEBIRD and a LAYSAN ALBATROSS soaring in the distance, the FRIGATEBIRD hanging high, and the ALBATROSS skimming the waves with ease. I noticed a large white blob in the grass on the next pali (hill/cliff), but ignored it as a piece of trash. As I continued to scan, some other guests walked under my balcony and asked what I was looking at. I said that I had seen a LAYSAN ALBATROSS, and they said "Oh, have you seen the nests?" "Where?" "Oh, just over there" they said, pointing across the pali. "They are nesting in someone's yard." I scanned the grassy knoll across the small canyon, and sure enough, that big white blob was an albatross on a nest! Some birder I turned out to be!
Mom and I drove over there for a closer look, and after several wrong turns down dead-ends, we found the area where the albatrosses were. There were actually many nests, spread out among the houses and grassy lots in this residential subdivision. Some were tucked under hedges, others were out in the middle of open lots. Later my sister pointed out one on a large patch of grass near the golf course, the denizens of which we dubbed "Bob" and "Josie". We had to pass Bob and Josie every time we drove to the condos, and always stopped to say "hello." The gardeners had continued to mow the grassy areas around all of these the nests, leaving a small (five-foot or so) swatch of longer grass around the actual nest. The birds did not appear to be at all bothered by human activity, and allowed close approach.
Some of the birds were tending nests, two were affectionately allopreening and courting at the nest, and four apparent "singles" were involved in a strange and wonderful dance on a vacant lot. They were bowing and bobbing their heads at one another, then raising their bills to the sky and calling, then performing a little "strutting" routine, in which they would step out across the grass in a very exaggerated walk. It was a joy to watch. We stayed until it was almost dark, wandering the neighborhood and discovering more and more nests.
As the sun set, we wandered out to the point. Out of the bushes below us came a loud, musical warbling that I had not heard before. A few minutes later I saw the aptly named MELODIOUS LAUGHING-THRUSH (also known by its Chinese name, "HWAMEI") that was responsible. It is a lovely orange-brown bird with a comically distinctive white eye-ring with a long tail behind the eye.
A feast of pupus, featuring excellent Old Bay spiced shrimp steamed in beer (just how I learned to cook them in Maryland and still by far the best method) at the Hanalei Gourmet topped off a great first day.
I arose before dawn and watched the sun rise over the ocean, the occasional LAYSAN ALBATROSS cruising by, and listened to the WESTERN MEADOWLARKS joining the dawn chorus of the HWAMEI, RED-CRESTED CARDINALS, COMMON MYNAS, and ZEBRA DOVES. I spent some time studying the KOLEA, hoping to get a better sense of the individual variation in this species to help me next time I am trying to identify an AMERICAN GOLDEN-PLOVER. That morning we drove the north shore towards the Napali Coast, stopping briefly at the overlook for the Hanalei Wildlife Refuge. The overlook provides a wide vista of the Hanalei Valley below. The Hanalei river flows through a broad flat, incredibly lush valley, set off by spectacular rugged green pali behind. The valley is filled with lush taro fields, where local farmers grow the root from which the islanders make one of their favorite dishes, poi, a grayish-purple glutinous paste that is rather an acquired taste. Taro fields are flooded, and there are great numbers of birds in this beautiful valley. From the overlook we were able to see the Hawaiian race of the BLACK-NECKED STILT, HAWAIIAN COOTS, COMMON MOORHENS, and dozens of BLACK-CROWNED NIGHT-HERONS, which were very active and visible. We also saw some ducks in the distance, but they were too far away to identify, even in the scope, so I still hoped to come back to find KOLOA (HAWAIIAN DUCK).
We continued on to the end of the road at the north end of the island. The Napali Coast is too rugged for roadbuilding, so there is no way to circumnavigate the island. At the north end is beautiful Ke'e Beach, which is bordered on the west by a rugged coastline of black rock. I went down to the beach and set up my scope and soon saw several BLACK NODDIES foraging near shore up the coast. I also saw another GREAT FRIGATEBIRD, and saw a mystery booby fly by, too far offshore to identify. Apparently BROWN BOOBIES can be seen in this area, but I couldn't get a good enough look at this individual to name it to species. We stopped for lunch at Ha'ena, where WHITE-TAILED TROPICBIRDS cavorted above the cliffs, GREAT FRIGATEBIRDS cruised by high over the ocean, and ZEBRA DOVES and COMMON MYNAS begged at our feet.
We spent the afternoon walking the entire shoreline of Hanalei Bay, where I saw two more GREAT FRIGATEBIRDS, a WANDERING TATTLER (also known as "'ULILI", which is just what it sounds like!), and a lot of great scenery. That night Mom and I wandered over to check on the albatrosses and were once again treated to dancing, strutting, and allopreening displays. One of the birds on a nest raised itself up several times to preen, showing off two enormous dirty-brown speckled eggs. I was able to stand about eight feet from some of the birds and study them feather by feather. What an incredible opportunity. They are beautiful creatures.
On Saturday morning I did a quick run back to the Hanalei Wildlife Refuge by myself, where I was able to find several KOLOA (HAWAIIAN DUCKS). As I was driving out of the refuge area, I saw a flock of small birds fly off the road and land in a taro patch. I found four of them in the binoculars perching precariously on taro stalks. They were NUTMEG MANNIKINS (introduced), adorable little birds.
We spent the afternoon at Poipu Beach, snorkeling and sunbathing, where we saw an unbelievable number of tropical reef fish, including wrasses, parrotfish, needlefish, several types of spectacular butterflyfish and surgeonfish, triggerfish, boxfish, goatfish, damselfish, and my personal favorite, the glamorous moorish idol. I have spent a lot of time snorkeling in Hawai'i before, but it seemed to me that the diversity and density of fish at Poipu was better than I had seen in a long time. Perhaps the south shore is finally recovering from the devastating effects of Hurricane Iniki, and before that, Hurricane Iwa.
While sunning at Poipu I glanced up from my book once to see a GREAT FRIGATEBIRD soaring over. Cool. On the way to Poipu we stopped along Oma'o Road near Koloa, where I found two WHITE-RUMPED SHAMAS and a JAPANESE BUSH-WARBLER, both introduced. The BUSH-WARBLER was a real skulker -- I saw it moving around a lot in the bushes but had only a brief look at its face.
On Sunday, the 21st, I spent the day near Princeville taking care of Christmas shopping and other important matters. I also walked over to take another look at the LAYSAN ALBATROSS nests. I couldn't believe my great fortune to have these beautiful birds nesting within walking distance of our condos.
Monday, December 22nd was the big day. I had arranged a trip with David Kuhn of Terran Tours around the Kokee area. Rather than venture deep into the Alakai Swamp for the most elusive species, I wanted to spend a day out in the field with a birder experienced with Kaua'i's few remaining endemic honeycreepers. On the two hour drive down to Waimea Canyon in the morning, my mother and I listened to tapes of these honeycreepers, and I tried to prepare to distinguish their calls and songs. As we drove up the canyon I saw an ERCKEL'S FRANCOLIN on the side of the road, and we saw more later. We met David near Kokee Lodge, then transferred into his four-wheel drive vehicle for the drive to the Pihea Trail. I had let David know that I was interested in vocalizations, so along the way David played tapes and pointed out what I should be listening for along the trail. Apparently the KAUA'I 'AMAKIHI had recently begun singing, and the 'APAPANE and I'IWI would be singing as well. The call notes were more difficult to distinguish, as each of the seven target species [the above three, plus 'AKEKE'E, 'AKIKIKI (also known as KAUAI CREEPER) and the Kaua'i race of the 'ELEPAIO], have some form of upslurred two-parted call.
David was very good at evaluating weather conditions and we managed to spend a day on the Pihea Trail along Kawaikoi Stream without getting too wet. Along the trail we saw numerous 'APAPANE, which seemed to be doing very well. Their somewhat disjointed song was constantly hovering in the air among the canopy of 'ohi'a trees, upon whose blossoms (lehua) they foraged. I dearly loved these 'APAPANE -- they were an absolute joy. Their bodies are a bright crimson red, their wings contrasting black, their undertail coverts white, and their black bill medium-long and decurved. We also saw the relatively common KAUA'I 'AMAKIHI (currently a separate species from the Hawai'i and O'ahu versions) fairly quickly and often, and I got to know its distinctive harsh call. Three times we heard an 'AMAKIHI sing, a slow sweet trill somewhat reminiscent of that of the ORANGE-CROWNED WARBLER. The 'AMAKIHI is a medium yellow honeycreeper with a short tail, black in the lores, and a medium-length dark, decurved bill. Within a very short time I saw a bird that I didn't recognize, which David identified as a female 'ANIANIAU, a dull yellow honeycreeper with a long decurved bill, no black in the lores, and a soft sweet call note. Shortly thereafter David heard an 'AKEKE'E. Over the next 45 minutes or so we heard several of these birds, the Kaua'i version of the HAWAI'I 'AKEPA, but we had a terrible time seeing one. They feed on leaf buds at the tops of the 'ohi'a trees, and are very difficult to see. I got pretty good at identifying them by their dull yellow color and forked tails in flight, though, as they repeatedly flew away from us! Eventually, I had great looks at these little birds, which have thick, swollen, finch-like bills, and which David pointed out are probably relatively close to the honeycreepers' common ancestor.
Further up the trail we started to hear strange, off-key notes and whistles, one of which sounded to me almost exactly like the whistle used by hotel doormen in San Francisco to call taxis. This was the song of the I'IWI, a spectacular bird of crimson body, black wings, pink legs, and a pink, long, extraordinarily decurved bill. We ended up seeing quite a few of these incredible creatures and laughed out loud several times listening to their bizarre vocalizations.
All along the way we saw many 'ELEPAIO of the Kaua'i race, which may be split from the other 'ELEPAIOs. This bird is priceless, a little bundle of flitty energy with a cocked tail and bright eyes, and a charming habit of dropping in a loose swirling fashion like a falling leaf. These birds were quite common, and I never tired of watching them. We saw both immatures, with the buffy crowns, and adults with gray crowns. Fortunately, this species at least seemed to be doing quite well in the forest.
Unfortunately, so are the MEJIRO, which were abundant in every habitat and at every level of the forest. There was just no escaping these introduced birds.
One species that we had not yet seen by lunch was the 'AKIKIKI, or KAUAI CREEPER. David had heard a few, but we had been unable to find them. We decided to try for them again after lunch and went back up the trail to look again. Eventually, David spotted one in an 'ohi'a tree, and I was able to get great looks at it. It is a very cute little bird, gray above and pale below, with an extremely short tail and a habit of crawling along tree trunks like a nuthatch. It flew a few times but we were able to track it for awhile and enjoy its distinctive behavior. I never would have picked out the call of, or probably have seen, this bird without David's help.
That topped off a great trip, and it was time to go. As I drove down Waimea Canyon I was rambling on about what a great trip it was when I glanced out my window and noticed a very large bird flying right at eye level along the rim of the canyon. I yelled "PUEO!", screeched to a halt on the shoulder, threw open the car door, and, with the car running and door open, ran to the canyon rim in time to see a SHORT-EARED OWL (also known as "HAWAIIAN OWL", or "PUEO") soaring along the rim of the canyon. The big mysterious bird was set off beautifully by the reds and greens of this incredible gorge.
Later, we stopped at the Salt Ponds to see if we could get lucky and see a BRISTLE-THIGHED CURLEW, but no luck. We did see huge flocks of MANNIKINS (mostly CHESTNUT) and HOUSE SPARROWS, as well as countless KOLEA, and at the Salt Ponds we saw RUDDY TURNSTONES (also known as "'AKEKEKE"). We stopped briefly at the Hanapepe Valley overlook to look for ROSE-RINGED PARAKEETS, but the traffic noise made the stop unpleasant, and we left quickly.
In the morning, while sipping coconut flavored coffee and watching the ocean, I saw a line of three adult RED-FOOTED BOOBIES fly by, and my brother picked out some HUMPBACKED WHALES spouting. These whales gather in the warm Hawaiian waters in the winter to breed, and we often saw them breaching, showing their tails, spouting, and flipper-slapping, easily visible from shore. I also saw several LAYSAN ALBATROSSES again, one of which flew right by my balcony.
After Christmas shopping in Hanalei I drove out to the Wainiha Powerhouse Road to look for GREATER NECKLACED LAUGHING-THRUSH, but was quickly devoured by gnats and gave it up. I did see a lovely male WHITE-RUMPED SHAMA, though. Later that day I made my first trip to the Kilauea Lighthouse, where I immediately saw about 300 RED-FOOTED BOOBIES perched in trees along the cliff. I only noticed two immatures; the rest appeared to be adults. This is a large nesting colony of the blue-billed birds with the bright red feet. I watched them for awhile, then walked out to the Lighthouse. From the Point I was able to watch GREAT FRIGATEBIRDS (all females) hanging over my head, not flapping for minutes at a time, and LAYSAN ALBATROSSES cruising the ocean. I also saw the ALBATROSS nesting colony and put a nice group of courting individuals in my scope for others to watch. Right next to the Women's Room was a nice trio of NENE, the native Hawaiian goose. Apparently the population at Kilauea is from an escaped group of geese from a captive breeding program. All were banded and quite tame.
On Christmas Eve I got up early and arrived at the Hanalei Wildlife Refuge before dawn. I watched a large pond towards the end of the road as the sky grew light, and the birds began to take shape. There were many KOLOA here, as well as HAWAIIAN COOTS, BLACK-NECKED STILTS (of the Hawaiian race), BLACK-CROWNED NIGHT-HERONS, and KOLEA. As soon as it was light enough to see I hauled my scope up the new trail to a heiau, site of a Hawaiian temple, which overlooked the valley. On the way up I heard a loud song in a voice reminiscent of a MEADOWLARK, loud, sweet and clear, which turned out to be a JAPANESE BUSH-WARBLER. Once again, this species was very difficult to see. I also heard several HWAMEI, whose song I had come to know well because it was the first thing I heard every morning, and watched a pair of gorgeous WHITE-RUMPED SHAMAS forage on the ground and in low piles of brush near the trail. The male was spectacular. His head and back were so black that they shone almost blue in the light, his underparts were a rich rufous, and his long tail (twice as long as his body) was bright white underneath. His white rump feathers flashed every time he flew or landed with his back to me. Nice. I also heard other SHAMAS singing in the forest, and saw a single NUTMEG MANNIKIN on the way out.
After an hour and a half I drove back to Princeville. As I drove by "Josie", who was sitting tight on "her" nest in the rain (pretty tough to sex these albatrosses), I noticed a flock of birds on the side of the road. Someone had placed a hanging feeder with seed in it in their yard, and the yard was hopping with dozens of JAVA SPARROWS, RED-CRESTED CARDINALS, HOUSE SPARROWS, and ZEBRA DOVES. Quite a scene.
Christmas Day was perfect. After presents and breakfast, we drove out to Kilauea to say "hi" to the BOOBIES, then hiked to Secret Beach, which is just up the coast from the lighthouse. Along the path I saw SHAMAS, HWAMEI, and a WESTERN MEADOWLARK. We walked the entire length of this gorgeous beach, where I studied several WANDERING TATTLERS ('ULILI), many fly-by LAYSAN ALBATROSSES, two GREAT FRIGATEBIRDS, and several WHITE-TAILED TROPICBIRDS.
On the day after Christmas, we paddled up the Wailua River in kayaks, disembarking upstream to hike up an absurdly slick and muddy trail to Secret Falls. On the way I saw more SHAMAS, lots of RED JUNGLEFOWL of dubious origin, and a probable PUEO flying away. Mostly, though, I just wore myself out paddling and hiking. Good day.
Saturday I checked Keahua Arboretum briefly for GREATER NECKLACED LAUGHING-THRUSH, but it was very quiet there and I didn't stay long. On the way down the hill I saw my first ROCK DOVES on the island, which was a real thrill. ;) Mom and I went back to Kilauea yet again, where she tried to snap pictures of FRIGATEBIRDS, BOOBIES, and ALBATROSSES as they flew by, and I just watched them. I loved standing out there surrounded by huge, graceful seabirds. At one point I looked up to find three GREAT FRIGATEBIRDS over my head, raised my binoculars to look at them, and saw that one was a male! It looked even more ominous and vaguely evil than the females, with its all-coal black body and bright red throat. Apparently males are not very common at Kilauea, so I was happy to see it.
That afternoon we went to see Dick Miller, a local bird artist, at his home/studio. I loved his pictures of the Hawaiian endemics, and spent a long time there chatting about birds and conservation matters. I had to have prints of some of my favorites, the 'APAPANE, I'IWI, and 'AMAKIHI. It was sad to see some pictures of lovely endemics that are extinct, though. Seeing a lovely, lifelike print of the long-gone MAMO was pretty darn depressing.
The next day was the North Kaua'i Christmas Bird Count. I was to meet the group at Kilauea Lighthouse at 1 p.m. We were allowed access to the LAYSAN ALBATROSS nesting colony, and it was an amazing experience to walk through the densely populated area with 79 albatross nests. I noticed several nests that had eggs sitting next to them. Apparently when the eggs roll out of the nests the albatrosses don't notice, and they continue to incubate the nest. Beautiful birds, but none too bright, I'm afraid. After that, the Fish&Wildlife Service representative was to take us up to Crater Hill behind the BOOBY nesting colony, but on the way up the truck's drive-shaft broke. We climbed out and walked up the hill, where we were attacked by an aggressive NENE defending its nesting territory. We did get to the overlook, though, where we saw many WHITE-TAILED TROPICBIRDS, GREAT FRIGATEBIRDS (including another male), and many RED-FOOTED BOOBIES. We didn't have much time, though, so we were off to the taro fields of Hanalei. There it began to rain extremely hard, and the rest of the group gave up. I was excited about the possibility of wandering the usually off-limits taro fields, though, so I offered to stay behind and check the various ponds. I only made it out to the main pond, through the rain and mud, before it got dark, but there I was able to pick up a CANVASBACK, RING-NECKED DUCKS, LESSER SCAUP, and 22 NORTHERN PINTAILS, along with many KOLOA.
On Monday I had arranged for all of us to go on the "official" hike up Crater Hill at Kilauea, on which we saw more NENE and the various seabirds. I also saw a BARN OWL there in the morning. Before the Kilauea hike I went back out to the Hanalei refuge and saw more JAPANESE BUSH-WARBLERS, WHITE-RUMPED SHAMAS, and HWAMEI near the heiau. In the afternoon we drove to Poipu via the Menehune Fish Pond along the Huleia Stream. I stopped at the Fish Pond overlook to scan for GREATER NECKLACED LAUGHING-THRUSH, which is a nomadic and highly elusive species, and incredibly found a flock of six of them within a few minutes. They were flying along the canopy far below the overlook. I watched them for a few minutes, and then they disappeared from view around a bend in the river. I was very lucky to see them. There was also a single male MALLARD in the river.
When we arrived at Poipu I did a little seawatching at Makahuena Point. Winter is the wrong time of year to see shearwaters and RED-TAILED TROPICBIRDS, but I had hopes of seeing my lifer BROWN BOOBY, which I did! It was a nice adult, and I was able to track it in the scope for several minutes before losing it. Mom and I spent half an hour watching several Green Sea Turtles foraging in a small pool below us, before we had to leave to meet the others, who had spent the afternoon golfing.
On December 30th the whole family went back to the Alakai Swamp area to hike. We hiked the Alakai Swamp Trail and the Pihea Trail. This was not a pure birding hike, but I did manage to see and hear numerous 'APAPANE, several KAUA'I 'AMAKIHI (including two singing) and 'ELEPAIO, a couple of I'IWI, and five 'AKEKE'E. I love wandering that area. The forest is alive with the wonderful vocalizations of the 'APAPANE, and the trees sparkle with flashes of crimson and yellow honeycreepers working the scarlet lehua blossoms of the 'ohi'a tree. Magical.
Our last day on Kaua'i was New Year's Eve. My family went south to Poipu for some sun, but I wanted to see the Napali Coast again and to get better looks at BLACK NODDIES. Just past Princeville I stopped and scoped the Hanalei Valley from the overlook. There was a gull flying around the largest pond. It was quite distant, but looked like a RING-BILLED GULL, which is one of the more typical gulls found wintering in Hawai'i.
I then drove on to the end of the road and parked at Ke'e Beach near the trailhead for the Kalalau trail, which runs out along the Napali Coast to three hidden valleys. I wanted to hike out the trail looking for seabirds. I started out in the rain, slipping and sliding quite a bit on the trail of slick red clay mud. I stopped at most of the ocean overlooks to look for seabirds. Almost every time I was rewarded with eye level views of WHITE-TAILED TROPICBIRDS and several times saw small groups of RED-FOOTED BOOBIES flying by. I also saw several pods of HUMPBACK WHALES, some breaching and fin-flopping. Landbirds included many MEJIRO and a few HWAMEI, usually seen rather than heard.
At one great overlook near the first valley, I stopped for a long time, watching the TROPICBIRDS, BOOBIES, and whales, while several parties of hikers skidded by me as they lost their footing on the slippery trail. I hiked to the next pali, but was losing the best ocean views as I descended, so I opted to go back to my favorite lookout. There I was rewarded with a look at two BLACK NODDIES flying in off of the ocean, making a beeline for the black cliffs below me. They flew right under a black lava overhang about 500 feet below me. Soon, several other pairs of NODDIES burst out from beneath the overhang, circled over the waves, then disappeared into the black rock. I stood there for about 1/2 hour watching the NODDIES come and go from their nesting colony, which I had finally found! At times, up to 25 NODDIES flew out from the rocks at once, usually returning quite quickly to their roosts. I was able to show them to a few hikers, but as I generally found to be true in Hawai'i, few people had much interest in wildlife, with the exception of whales. Everybody loves whales, but birds seem to fail to capture the imagination of most.
Eventually I had to return to the parking lot, falling once on the descent and barely avoiding disaster to my binoculars in the process. In the parking lot were numerous RED JUNGLEFOWL, ZEBRA DOVES, and a female WHITE-RUMPED SHAMA. I then went home and dressed for our New Year's Eve "luau" at Tahiti Nui, a locally run place in Hanalei operated by "Aunt" Louise Marsden. We had first visited Tahiti Nui back in 1982 or so, so it was fun to return. Apparently, others think that it is a great place too, because in walked Dianne Feinstein and her family, bedecked in flowers. They had been there before too. A fun evening.
The next morning was New Year's Day, and we were off to the Big Island for a new adventure.
We arrived at the Kona airport in the early afternoon. After an unpleasant encounter with the rude people at the Alamo Rental Car counter (unusual for the Islands -- most people are very friendly and filled with aloha), we went out to the parking area to pick up the rental cars. There I quickly picked up several introduced lifers: gorgeous bright yellow SAFFRON FINCHES with orange foreheads, YELLOW-FRONTED CANARIES (with head patterns reminiscent of the Michigan Wolverines football helmet, as my brother pointed out), and a YELLOW-BILLED CARDINAL. As on Kaua'i, KOLOA (PACIFIC GOLDEN-PLOVERS) were abundant.
We stayed at the Kona Reef, where the grounds were hopping with JAVA SPARROWS, more SAFFRON FINCHES and YELLOW-BILLED CARDINALS, and ZEBRA DOVES. Every morning the JAVA SPARROWS put on quite a performance on the palm frond just in front of my balcony, lining up shoulder to shoulder, then pushing each other down the frond until one or more had to jump up and "leapfrog" another to find a new space. Occasionally one would land on the balcony and sit there "pipping" softly, looking as though it was suffering from hiccups. There were several juveniles as well, begging from their parents. These cute little birds had a great talent for looking exasperated. Their "lovebird" antics as they paired up in twos and cuddled and preened were quite a hit with the non-birders in the crowd. From the balcony we often saw Humpback Whales and, on two occasions, Spinner Dolphins.
On our first full day we went to see the City of Refuge, an ancient site that served as a sort of "safety zone" where fugitives from justice or battle could seek refuge. There we were able to watch several Green Sea Turtles as they foraged in shallow water right at our feet. I had hoped to see Hawksbill Sea Turtles as well, but they are less common and apparently are generally found on the east side of the island, where they breed. Nearby I checked the pond behind Nopoopoo Beach, as recommended by Pratt in Enjoying Birds in Hawai'i, but found only an 'ULILI (WANDERING TATTLER) and my first mongoose of the trip. Unfortunately, I was to see many more mongooses during my stay on the Big Island. Kaua'i is free of mongooses, maybe why one can still find seabirds nesting there. A cute little animal, and one which raises fond childhood memories of the story of Riki Tiki Tavi, but a predator that has caused a lot of damage to native species on the islands.
On January 3rd we headed for Volcanoes National Park, where we hiked out across the recent lava flow from Kilauea to get to the spot where lave continues to flow into the sea. We parked at the end of Chain of Craters Road, which now stops abruptly where lava flowed across the roadbed a few years ago. From there we could sea a huge cloud of steam arising from the sea where lava continues to flow into the ocean. We set off across the ropy pahoehoe lava towards the steam, which we were told was four miles from the parking area across the lava flow. We packed a lot of water and slathered on tons of sunscreen. After two rough hours we arrived at the steam cloud, only to find that we could not see any molten lava from our vantage point. We walked underneath the cloud and found ourselves sprayed by water droplets that caused a slight pricking sensation, probably due to the sulfuric acid formed in the cloud, or maybe by strands of Pele's hair being ejected from the volcano. The rocks around us were covered by a thick carpet of this "hair", fine golden strands of glass spun by the volcano. Pele is the deity responsible for all of this marvelous activity, and she leaves a lot of her hair around to remind you who is in charge. On occasion we could see large rocks being thrown up from the area just beyond the cliffs, and at one point a large chunk of the shelf fell into the ocean creating a huge roiling black cloud, so we didn't walk too close! We also stood over some steam vents to warm up, but the sulfurous smell and the burning sensation in my throat was hard to take after awhile. Soon we set off back to the car, another four miles in the heat over rough lava. I would NOT recommend this hike to anyone who is not in good condition and packing a LOT of water, especially in the heat of the day. I carried 1.5 liters, and it was not enough, although I ended up giving the last of it to some poor kid whose thoughtless caretaker had hiked all way out there with no water. Unbelievable. The kid looked like he was going to keel over any minute, so I gave him the rest of mine and hit up my sister on the way back for a little extra. Fortunately we had a lot more in the car. Again, do not attempt this hike unprepared, especially with children. It was rough.
The hike to the lava took most of the day, so I didn't pick up a lot of birds. The only birds that I saw out on the lava flow were the incredibly adaptable KOLEA and the ever-present MEJIRO (JAPANESE WHITE-EYE). I also saw several lovely 'APAPANE (which had quickly become my favorite birds, with their charming chatter) near the Visitor Center and heard 'OMA'O (an endemic thrush) in the same area. I also saw several NENE (HAWAIIAN GOOSE) around the crater rim road.
The next day I checked Aimakapa Pond near Kona for waterfowl, again at the suggestion of Pratt in Enjoying Birds in Hawai'i. This book turned out to be an excellent resource -- I highly recommend it. The trail to Aimakapa Pond leads to what was a nude beach, but "Nudity Prohibited" signs were posted all over, and a ranger was giving out tickets to those not in compliance. Along the trail to the pond, which winds through a grove of kiawe trees, I saw YELLOW-BILLED CARDINALS, NORTHERN CARDINALS, SAFFRON FINCHES, and YELLOW-FRONTED CANARIES. At the pond I saw many HAWAIIAN COOTS, BLACK-NECKED STILTS, NORTHERN PINTAILS, LESSER SCAUP, NORTHERN SHOVELERS, AMERICAN WIGEONS, what looked like a female EURASIAN WIGEON but which was tucked into a far corner and hard to see well, several 'ULILI (TATTLERS) (including one perched high in a tree), CATTLE EGRETS, KOLEA, RUDDY TURNSTONES, and a single SANDERLING (my one and only SANDERLING of the trip).
I went back to the condo to watch the end of the Denver Broncos' playoff game, then drove up to the Puu Lani subdivision, mentioned in Pratt as a good place to find exotic finches and francolins. Pratt mentioned that the subdivision might soon be closed off to the public, so I wasn't sure whether I could get in, and when I drove up there was a gate. However, the gate happened to be open, so I went in. I drove around for awhile, seeing many ERCKEL'S FRANCOLINS and EURASIAN SKYLARKS on the sides of the road. I also saw a single male BLACK FRANCOLIN. I parked near the stables and wandered around the tennis courts, where I picked up a flock of WARBLING SILVERBILLS and a pair of RED AVADAVATS visiting a water drip. I was incredibly impressed with the skylarks, which, not surprisingly, were "skylarking" at incredible heights overhead in full song. Great birds.
As I started to leave I had a moment of panic as I realized that the gate was now closed. Was I locked in? No, as it turns out the gate simply opens when you drive up to it. Later I asked around and was told that Puu Lani is actually still open to the public. Just drive up to the gate and wait for it to open. I ran out of daylight and never did see LAVENDER WAXBILLS or CORDONBLEUS, which are a possibility up there. On the way back I saw GRAY FRANCOLINS right at the entrance to Puu Waa Waa Ranch and a flock of NUTMEG MANNIKINS along the road.
The next day we all wanted to go back to Volcanoes National Park. Along the road on the way down there we saw an 'IO (HAWAIIAN HAWK), which is found only on the Big Island. This graceful small hawk was an adult dark-morph with a yellow cere and was sitting nearby on a telephone pole, allowing close approach. When it finally flew off it showed lovely pale underwings. It was a beautiful bird, and, as it turns out, was the only 'IO that I had a good look at on the trip.
At Volcanoes we checked out the Thurston Lava Tube, where I heard but did not see 'OMA'O and heard and saw many chatty 'APAPANE. We then hiked the Kilauea Iki Trail, which took us around the rim of Kilauea Iki, a small caldera, then drops you right into the center of it. The trail continues right across the center of this cooling lavabed, so that we were hiking across the crust. Steam vents surrounded the "trail", which consisted of a series of cairns of lava rock, and the entire experience was incredibly eerie. Highly recommended hike. Along the way I saw and heard a lot of 'APAPANE, a few I'IWI, and a few 'HAWAI'I 'AMAKIHI.
Finally, as the weather turned wet and drippy we went to a kipuka (an area of forest surrounded by a lava flow) known as "Bird Park", where we saw several male (wow!) and female KALIJ PHEASANTS (introduced) and a HWAMEI (MELODIOUS LAUGHING-THRUSH - introduced), which were a lot easier to hear and see on Kaua'i. I also had a chance to listen to and study a singing, incredibly drab 'ELEPAIO, apparently of the "desert" race. It took me awhile to convince myself that it was indeed an 'ELEPAIO, because although the shape, posture and behavior were that of an 'ELEPAIO, none of the illustrations in the Hawai'i Audubon book showed a bird nearly as drab and devoid of field marks as this one. But after listening to the tape of the 'ELEPAIO's distinctive (Bell's vireo-like) song , I was sure. The 'ELEPAIOS of O'ahu, Hawai'i, and Kaua'i are very different in plumage and may be split, but the Hawai'i race also has three distinct "sub-races" at this time, and they are also remarkably different. I later saw the Mauna Kea variety of 'ELEPAIO at Puu Laau, and they were lovely dark and boldly-marked birds -- nothing like the Bird Park individual.
On January 6th, I talked my mother into braving Saddle Road and a stretch of unpaved road up to a hunter's cabin at Puu Laau. This is a location mentioned in Pratt as good for PALILA, a finch-billed honeycreeper. Saddle Road is a paved but narrow and uneven stretch of road that crosses the Big Island between Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa. It rises very quickly. Along the ascent are rolling grasslands filled with EURASIAN SKYLARKS (in glorious song!) and KOLEA. Near the western foot of the road we saw a BLACK FRANCOLIN, and along the way saw many ERCKEL'S FRANCOLINS. About eight miles up Saddle Road is an unpaved but recently improved road that is passable for ordinary vehicles. Right after the turnoff, which I believe is approximately 6000 feet in elevation, I saw a NORTHERN MOCKINGBIRD, which surprised me a little. I am not used to seeing mockers at high elevations, and on Kaua'i only saw them in the lowlands of the south shore, but apparently on Hawai'i they occur at elevations up to 9,000 feet. After about a mile of this road I started seeing and hearing a lot of HAWAI'I 'AMAKIHI and 'ELEPAIO. We parked at the hunter's cabin, and I immediately wandered off to search for PALILA while Mom enjoyed the views and took pictures. The forest at this mid-elevation on the western slope of Mauna Kea is an interesting zone dominated by the mamane tree. This tree is essential to the PALILA, which feeds on its seed pods. The habitat is not unlike oak chaparral, with scrubby trees widely spaced and tall grasses in between. The footing is quite treacherous in this area, as the grasses obscure the uneven lava rocks underneath.
I was surrounded by the sounds of the HAWAI'I 'AMAKIHI in this forest -- they were delightfully abundant here, and I was able to study them in great detail. After about twenty-five minutes of studying the 'AMAKIHI I found myself in a nice little grove of mamane behind the hunter's cabin. I heard something a little different and looked up. Soon I saw a bulkier bird showing a flash of gray, and knew I had it. Soon the beautiful PALILA came out into the open and displayed its lovely plumage in the sunlight. Its head was a bright lemon yellow, the body a soft gray, and the wings showed a yellow patch. The bill was stout and finch-like, and I watched it use this powerful tool to rip the end of a branch off the tree. The bird carried the tip to another spot, held it between its feet, and proceeded to wrench it to shreds with powerful tugs of its head. I got a real kick watching it in action. I lost the bird after a few minutes, but then refound it for a few more. Finally it flew away, and I was not able to find another. What luck to have seen it so well! I also had a chance to study another interesting race of 'ELEPAIO, this one with an almost entirely white head.
We wandered around the area for awhile just enjoying the spectacular views of snow-capped Mauna Kea, Mauna Loa, and the lovely Waimea Valley below, as well as the ambience of this unique forest. At one point a small brilliantly-colored bird popped up in a tree right in front of me. I stared at it blankly for a second, and it disappeared. Finally it dawned on me that it had been a RED-BILLED LEIOTHRIX. I hadn't been looking for one and was a little slow to figure it out. I never saw that species again on the trip. Those guys are real skulkers. I also flushed an ERCKEL'S FRANCOLIN out of the grass at one point. This FRANCOLIN is a big bird, and it makes a lot of noise when it takes off, so it gave me quite a start!
On the way down we saw a tree full of WILD TURKEYS, which was pretty funny. Near Kona we stopped at Aimakapa Pond again, where I saw an entirely different set of birds than I had the trip before. This time I saw a PIED-BILLED GREBE, a species that has established a nesting colony on this pond, at least ten BLACK-CROWNED NIGHT-HERONS coming in to roost, and a male and a female GREEN-WINGED TEAL. I met a local who was interested in seeing and discussing the birds, and he told me to check out the Koloko Road area for PUEO (HAWAIIAN OWL, a race of the SHORT-EARED OWL) at dusk, as well as many other birds. He also told me about the ongoing battle over nudity at the little beach in front of the pond, which is a lovely area. Apparently the officials are trying to stop nude sunbathing there, but there is a lot of opposition.
The next day we decided to tour the whole island by car, just to see it all. We headed back up Saddle Road, where we again saw a BLACK FRANCOLIN at the western base. After gaining some elevation we saw a gorgeous PUEO (HAWAIIAN OWL) cruising the meadows. We stopped and watched it until it disappeared, then were treated to another at the turnoff to Puu Laau. We got to watch that one drop like a stone into the grass and come up carrying a small rodent. Sighting of a PUEO is supposed to bring good luck, so after we saw a third one further up towards Puu Laau we figured that we were in for something great! We also saw numerous WILD TURKEYS on the way up.
I took about twenty minutes to look for PALILA again, but didn't find one. There were still dozens of 'AMAKIHI around, though, as well as a lot of CALIFORNIA QUAIL. Mostly we just enjoyed the views, then continued on across Saddle Road. We stopped to look at the Puu O'o Trail, which I was dying to try, but I couldn't rally the troops to go out there, especially since the afternoon fog was starting to roll in. Pratt's book, as well as some hiking books, includes a lot of dire warnings about this trail, which travels over lava beds to a series of kipukas. I really wanted to see the reported abundance of birdlife in these kipukas, though, regardless of the difficulty of the trail. I dashed over to the dense 'ohi'a forest in the first kipuka and immediately heard several I'IWI and 'APAPANE, and was able to show my sister an I'IWI in seconds. That did it, I was sold, and I managed to extract a promise from Mom that she would come back with me the next day to do the hike! The others wanted to try to cash in their PUEO-luck on the golf course. ;)
As we walked back to the car Dad found a dead 'APAPANE at the side of the road. It was interesting to study at close range, and I was quite surprised to see how long the primary projection was on this bird. The primaries extended well beyond the tertials, giving the bird a very long-winged appearance. In the air they are quite graceful flyers, unlike the ungainly I'IWI, and I would have liked the chance to study an I'IWI in the hand for comparison. On the other hand, I was happy not to see any I'IWI roadkills! Later in the trip I asked our guide-for-a-day, Rob Pacheco, whether there were any regular (and open) banding operations on the Big Island, hoping that I could visit one, but apparently there are not.
In Hilo we had a great lunch at Don's Grill, then checked the Waikea Pond for waterfowl. I scanned the pond, seeing a lot of bizarre domestic-type ducks, when I noticed my mother and sister laughing hysterically a short distance away. I asked them what was so funny, and my sister said "I found a Volcano-headed Duck!" We all had lava on the brain after our trips to Volcanoes, and apparently it affected Chris's sense of taxonomy! I went over to see what she was talking about, and sure enough, there was the ugliest, wartiest MUSCOVY DUCK I had ever seen. It had a blackish-green body with a contrasting, lumpy, lava-red head -- a perfect "VOLCANO-HEADED DUCK". Maybe I should count it as a native -- it looked as though Pele herself created it.
I soon noticed a SNOWY EGRET foraging around the pond, which seemed like a pretty good bird for the Island. I asked Rob Pacheco about it later, and he said that it is a wild bird that took up residence years ago. I also saw a GREATER WHITE-FRONTED GOOSE, which also has been around awhile, and a few CANADA GEESE. The only wild ducks I saw were two female RING-NECKED DUCKS. It was getting late, so we drove back to Kona via the north coast, which was a beautiful drive past lush deep canyons and waterfalls. Sunset was incredible.
The next day I held Mom to her promise, and once again we set off up Saddle Road. We packed a lot of water and sunscreen, and took off through the first stretch of forest, immediately logging a lot of 'APAPANE, 'AMAKIHI, and astounding numbers of I'IWI. The strange, off-key calls of the I'IWI rang throughout this pristine native forest, which, as described so well in one of our books, was like a "time capsule of old Hawai'i." We hiked across two grassy meadows and over a few stretches of 'aa lava flows to reach a series of pristine kipukas, forest that has been surrounded by lava flow and thereby protected from alien species. We had to hike down into these forests, where we felt dwarfed by huge 'ohi'a trees and tree ferns, then climb back out the other side onto barren black lava. The lava was rugged, and the trail was sometimes hard to find. I would leave Mom at one cairn while I explored for the next, calling for her to follow me once I had found it. It was a surreal and wondrous experience that I wish I had discovered earlier. I might have gone back every day.
In addition to the birds mentioned above, I was finally able to see a few of the 'OMA'O that I had been hearing call all day. These loud thrushes can be difficult to spot, but easy to hear. I also lucked into seeing one HAWAI'I CREEPER quite well, as it crawled along a tree trunk like a nuthatch, probing the bark with its relatively short, straight bill. Much farther along, I had the extraordinary experience of having a bright yellow male 'AKIAPOLA'AU, a bizarre honeycreeper, land on a branch near me, clearly on its way somewhere, and give me a full profile look. I just stared at it in shock, then watched as it flew away after a second or two. I never could refind it. This bird has a bizarre bill, with a short stout lower mandible and a long, severely decurved upper mandible. I was later to find out from Rob Pacheco that this species can rotate the upper mandible out of the way so that it can use the lower for pounding at bark, thereby earning it the moniker "Hawaiian Woodpecker." I did not get to see this behavior and saw the bird so briefly that I was pretty unsatisfied with it. It was cool to see the profile of the bill, though, and the 'AKI, as it is known for short, was a target bird on tomorrow's tour with Rob, so I hoped to see another.
Plowing through the first kipuka we startled a small group of KALIJ PHEASANTS, and later on a lava flow saw a small group of MOUFFLON SHEEP (bighorn-types), including a gorgeous ram with huge horns. In one kipuka. After walking through the incredibly lush kipuka that is approximately three miles out, we realized that we had already been out there for 3 1/2 hours! I had been stopping constantly to listen and look and just soak in the marvelous atmosphere, and had completely lost track of time. We had meant to hike out four miles to the powerline road, then loop back on the road for easier footing, but the fog was rolling in from Hilo and we thought it best to turn back at that point. Leave yourself a lot of time for this trip! I could have spent days up there blissfully happy.
Friday I had arranged for all of us to go on a tour with Rob Pacheco's Hi-Trail Tours, which has access to a lovely kipuka across the road from the Puu O'o Trail. Rob picked us up early in the morning. Ron Saldino, a very nice birder and photographer from San Diego was already in the van, so I had a chance to meet someone whose name I knew from the Internet. We later picked up Bill and Pam Johnston of Malibu, and a non-birding couple from Iowa. The Johnstons and Ron had been out to McCandless Ranch the day before, where they had good looks at the critically endangered 'ALALA (HAWAIIAN CROW).
We drove up Saddle Road, seeing a male and female BLACK FRANCOLIN near the bottom. We saw many ERCKEL'S FRANCOLINS and WILD TURKEYS on the way up the mountain, and Rob pointed out that the TURKEYS were of the "Kentucky" variety, with very black plumage. Along the way Rob kept up a running commentary on the natural history of the island, including a great deal of information about the formation of the islands and volcanism in general. This made the trip very interesting, even for non-birders. We stopped at Mauna Kea State Park for a good continental breakfast, where we saw CALIFORNIA QUAIL and an 'AMAKIHI, then drove on to the very rough road and locked gate leading to our destination kipuka,
In the morning, we hiked around muddy pig trails inside this lovely unspoiled rainforest, seeing many I'IWI, as well as 'OMA'O, 'APAPANE, and 'ELEPAIO. My brother saw three KALIJ PHEASANTS, but the rest of us just heard them move away through the underbrush. Rob thought that he might have heard a HAWAI'I CREEPER and an 'AKIAPOLA'AU, but we did not see them, and apparently immature I'IWI can sound much like these other birds. On the way up I had asked Rob about the immature plumage of the I'IWI, since I had seen immatures the day before and was curious how long that plumage is retained, and whether they could have been second-year birds. He told me that the plumage I saw is only retained 30 days! Well, that answered my question; the plumage is actually juvenal and the I'IWI had already been producing young (this was January 9th). Throughout the tour we saw several more I'IWI in this plumage.
We went back to the trailer for lunch, then set out again to look for the elusive 'AKI. After a great deal of effort, Rob was able to track down a calling 'AKI, but none of us could see it. Finally, my brother mentioned that he was seeing something, and he found the male 'AKI. Unfortunately, most of us did not see it well before it flew away, calling. Soon the immature showed itself, though, and over the course of the next hour I was able to get pretty good looks at a female and an immature. I watched as one bird cranked its absurdly long upper mandible out of the way and hammered on bark with the short lower mandible, which is what I wanted to see, so I was happy. What a funny little bird!
Eventually it was time to head back down the mountain. The weather was strange that day, hazy with lots of "vog", the volcanic version of smog that often plagues the Big Island, so it seemed to get dark earlier than usual. A great day, though.
The next day we relaxed around Kona, visiting the beach at Aimakapa Pond and hanging around, Dad and Chris swimming with the sea turtles, me scoping the ducks. Finally, we had to fly home into the arms of El Nino ...
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