The Hawaiian Islands have some of the most beautiful and some of the most rare birds in the world.
Two years ago my wife and I enjoyed a vacation on Kauai during which I became enchanted by the birds there. This year, when we decided to return to Hawaii, my wife, Starr, though a non-birder, suggested we select another island so that I could see different species.
We opted for the Big Island of Hawaii. In preparation, I consulted trip reports from Urs Geiser's excellent site (http://www.camacdonald.com/birding/tripeports/). I also paged through various birding magazines, and bought Doug Pratt's The Birds of Hawaii and the Tropical Pacific to supplement the two mini field guides I had used in Kauai, A Pocket Guide to Hawaii's Birds (also by Pratt) and Hawaii's Birds published by the Hawaiian Audubon Society.
Because of difficult access to some areas and because I wanted to spend the majority of my time with my non-birding wife, I opted to schedule a few days of highly-concentrated birding with local guides.
I phoned Hawaii Forest and Trail and reserved a spot for their dry forest and rainforest trip. Kim, who signed me up, commented that she was sure I'd enjoy this trip since it was to be led by Hawaii Forest and Trail owner, Rob Pacheco. Oh, and by the way, she added, Doug Pratt would be along.
Birding Hawaii with Doug Pratt is like tossing the ball around with Joe Montana. Ice skating with Wayne Gretzky. Being shown around the Vatican by the Pope. Getting a tour of the Louvre by Picasso.
You've heard the expression, "He wrote the book on it"? Well Pratt really did. Several of them, in fact. And he illustrated them as well.
To paraphrase the late Jim Murray, Doug Pratt is to Hawaiian birding what the Yankees are to baseball, Hogan was to golf, and Notre Dame is to college football. They represent the highest state of the art.
Yeah, I'll sign up for that tour.
Starr and I arrived in Hawaii Sunday, April 2, and checked in to the Kona Coast Resorts II just south of Kailua-Kona on Alii Drive. Exotic species were abundant on the grounds including ZEBRA DOVE, SAFFRON FINCH, JAVA SPARROW, YELLOW-FRONTED CANARY, NORTHERN CARDINAL, SPOTTED DOVE, JAPANESE WHITE-EYE AND COMMON MYNAH. It was right at the resort where I saw my first lifer of the trip: YELLOW-BILLED CARDINAL. There were so many gorgeous birds around that Starr bought a bag of birdseed and in short order had most of them on our patio.
My big day arrived on Tuesday. I met Rob Pacheko, at Hawaii Forest and Trail just south of the Kona airport at 6:30 am. He offered me a cup of fresh Kona coffee and introduced me to Doug Pratt and to two couples (Owen and Arlene, John and Nancy) whom Doug was leading on a two-week birding tour of the islands. Plus there was Pam, who was writing an article for a travel publication on the curious phenomenon of people who get up ridiculously early in the morning to go out looking for birds in the strangest places. Off we went.
After about 30 minutes of driving inland and up on Route 190, we stopped at The Big Island Country Club where we were immediately greeted by the electric buzz of BLACK FRANCOLIN. Sure enough, we saw two of them calling to each other. We had flocks of WHITE-THROATED MUNIA (aka Warbling Silverbills). A bit further up 190, we turned onto Saddle Road and began car birding in earnest. We had CHUKAR, ERCKEL'S FRANCOLIN, TURKEY, COMMON (Ring-Necked) PHEASANT, CALIFORNIA QUAIL and SKY LARK.
As we drove, my companions shared delightful tales: Doug about Hawaii, the Hawaiian language and Hawaiian birds. John, Nancy, Owen and Arlene about the wonderful experiences they've had birding around the world. Rob provided fascinating and educational details about the island, the topography, the different forms of lava and the birds. And OK, since we were all birders, there were more than a few bad puns.
With the Island's two largest volcanoes in view, Mona Kea on our left and Mona Loa on our right, we continued up Saddle Road. The car rental companies try to discourage you from driving there because the road is narrow, the shoulders rocky and the curves challenging. Forget all that. The real danger is that there's a military base along the road where they are teaching 18-year olds to shoot live ammunition. Duck!
Rob scoped out the heavy clouds in the distance and determined that the rain forest would be, well, wet. So he chose to start us off with the dry sub-alpine forest area of Puu Laau, the habitat for the endangered Palila. He navigated his vehicle (4WD and very comfortable despite the road condition) on a trail up into the designated area and we got out to listen. A few AMAKIHIs came in for a look and Doug heard an ELEPAIO. We tracked it down. It was the lightest of the three races of Elepaio on the Big Island. In fact, Doug named this race (bryani) and has been asked to write up a paper delineating the three races (it is anticipated that Hawaii Elepaio, the Oahu Elepaio and Kauai Elepaio will soon be split into three separate species). We enjoyed a female PALILA, and Doug and Rob said we should keep looking for the male. There he was!
After admiring the endangered endemic, we set off for the rain forest.
Rob drove us across some pretty heavy lava and around kipukas, "islands" of rain forest surrounded by lava. When we arrived, we were greeted by a small but vocal flock of IIWI. It was, well, wet. As we ventured a few steps into the rainforest, we saw OMAO (Hawaiian Thrush), HAWAIIAN CREEPER, APAPANI and the darker form of ELEPAIO (ridgwayi). We saw all these species almost as soon as we began. It was wonderful, even though we had to observe them through somewhat wet optics. Owen and Arlene shared a wonderful tip: those little plastic showercaps make great binocular protectors in the rain.
We heard RED-BILLED LEIOTHRIX but never saw one. We spent about 30 minutes chasing the sound of AKIAPALA'AU and finally found two of these amazing honeycreepers (a juvenile and an adult) with the long, decurved upper mandible and short, stubby lower one. Wow!
Birding often involves dealing with the canopy, but Rob put a new twist on this. His "canopy" was not for birds but for birders: a special awning he has installed on all his vehicles which pulls out from the van with tent stakes to provide much-appreciated shelter from the elements. Thus, despite the rain, we enjoyed a dry and comfortable lunch.
On the way back to town we continued car birding and had the treat of seeing a small flock of CHESTNUT-BELLIED SANDGROUSE, which landed near us and allowed us good binocular and scope views.
We stopped again at the Big Island Country Club where we saw BLACK, GRAY, and ERCKEL'S FRANCOLIN, RED AVADAVAT, SCALY-BREASTED MUNIA and a small flock of Hawaii's state bird, the endangered NENE (Hawaiian Goose).
As Tuesday came to a close, I learned that on Thursday I was booked on the same trip to McCandless Ranch as Doug and his group. They generously invited me to join them on Wednesday as well, but since it was our wedding anniversary and since I wanted to remain married, I declined. But I was struck by how open they were to include an outsider and how generous Doug was with his knowledge. As we drove, he pointed out spots I might want to revisit for particular birds, and even drew a map, which helped me later find a targeted LAVENDAR WAXBILL at the end of Alii Hwy.
At 4:45 am Thursday, I drove up the dark driveway to McCandless Ranch (about 45 minutes south of Kona) in the hope of seeing one of the rarest birds in the world, the Alala (aka Hawaiian Crow). There are only three birds of this species left in the wild, and all three live in the mountains of McCandless Ranch. The Ranch offers a special ecotour on their private property. While a captive breeding program has been underway for the Alala for years, it does not appear to be successful. It will likely not be long before the Alala is extinct. Even now, the bird is not seen on every ecotour at McCandless.
Doug and his group were joined for the day by Sheila, a professor from Oahu who is the voice on the tape of Hawaiian bird songs (the human voice that is). Our host, Keith Unger, told us the sad tale of the Alala as we drove up into the forest. Along the way we saw KALIJ PHEASANT. When we disembarked, Keith immediately exclaimed that he heard Alala. Sure enough, we heard strange cacklings and whinings and barks unlike any crow I'd ever heard. Then there was an answer!
We ran down the path as quietly as possible, toward the source of the sounds. Then, through the trees, we spotted it: ALALA. (Alala la la, la la la la - 'tis the season to be jolly, alala la la, la la la la!) A large brownish/black raven-like crow. Then a second one. Then the third one. We had the only three living Alalas in the wild at once. Over the next 30 minutes the birds flew from tree to tree and offered us great views along with an unforgettable serenade. It was an awe-inspiring moment, both exciting to see such a rare species, and sad as we pondered the likelihood that this forest will soon be without the wild and free sounds of Alala. I'll never look at a crow in quite the same way again.
While there we also heard a chorus of RED-BILLED LEIOTHRIX and saw IIWI, AMAKIHI, APAPANE and HAWAIIN CREEPER. Glenn, who studies the crows for the Department of Fish and Game, heard Akepa but we never saw it. We saw the Island's third race of ELEPAIO and a group of turkeys including a spectacular displaying male. We stopped in a lovely meadow for lunch where we had an IO (aka Hawaiian Hawk) perched nearby.
Friday was a quiet day for Starr and me. Absolutely no birding on the agenda. Except - what's a romantic trip to Hawaii without a visit to the local sewage treatment plant? Am I right? I couldn't help but recall that Doug had told us that a Whiskered Tern (rare for Hawaii) had been reported at the sewage pond, so Starr dropped me off at the gate for a quick stop. I hiked in and was treated to great looks at WHISKERED TERN, RING-BILLED GULL (uncommon in Hawaii), BLACK-NECKED STILT (Hawaiian race), HAWAIIN COOT, RUDDY TURNSTONE, SANDERLING, BLACK-CROWNED NIGHT-HERON and WANDERING TATTLER.
The following Monday, Starr and I went snorkeling with turtles on the Sea-Quest at the Place of Refuge and the Captain Cook monument. We enjoyed the spectacular array of tropical fishes and had close-up looks at WHITE-TAILED TROPICBIRDS as we explored sea caves and lava tubes on the way back.
On Tuesday morning it was back to Hawaii Forest and Trail for the excursion to Hakalau National Wildlife Refuge, a patch of rainforest on the eastern slopes of Mona Kea. Picking up guests we spotted GRAY FRANCOLIN running around the golf courses along with PACIFIC GOLDEN PLOVER and COMMON MYNAH at both the Mauna Kea and Mauna Lani Resorts north of the airport. We saw some of the same great stuff we had seen along Saddle Road the previous week, as well as PUEO (aka Short-Eared Owl). On the lava trail into the refuge, we saw CHUKAR, RING-NECKED PHEASANT, TURKEY and ERCKEL'S FRANCOLIN. Once inside the refuge we had plenty of IIWI, APAPANE, AMAKIHI, OMAO, and ELEPAIO. We loved watching a little family of HAWAII CREEPERS (an adult and two juveniles). Our guide, Lisa, heard Akepa (my target bird for the journey) a couple of times, but they remained elusive. We stopped our hike for lunch at a little shelter and resumed the search. Finally a few of us saw a female AKEPA, but it darted away before everyone could get on it. We kept hiking until we saw a brilliant male AKEPA. And on the way out we had several others of these beauties. A great trip.
That ended the birding portion of our vacation. And on Thursday Starr and I went horseback riding at Rain Forest Stables next to Makalei Country Club (just outside of Kailua-Kona on 190). I recalled that Indian Peafowls are often reported at that country club and, since we had arrived at the stables early, we swung through Makalei. I was rewarded by a beautiful male INDIAN PEAFOWL. Think I'm pushing my luck? How about this: on our one-hour horseback ride, the guide's dog flushed a JAPANESE QUAIL which landed in a bush adjacent to the trail. This is supposedly one of those birds that's awfully difficult to ever spot, and here was one posing for us for 5 minutes. On the way down the trail an IO flew over.
Our two-week trip was coming to an end, and on Saturday, when Starr wanted one more shot at the art fair, I dropped her off and headed back to the Big Island Country Club. More great views at all the birds I'd seen there before, plus a pair of BLACK-RUMPED WAXBILLS along the shoulder 1/2 mile south of the country club. Sunday morning we headed back to California via Honolulu. I opted to stay at the Honolulu airport with Starr on the layover between flights rather than try to take a cab to the State Capitol to look for Fairy Terns. Perhaps the only time in my birding life that good judgement has won out?
By the way, since a hungry birder is a crabby birder, the three best restaurants we found for dinner were: Roy's at Waikoloa, Palm Café right in Kailua-Kona and La Bourgone, just south of the city. They were casual, and while all three were pricey, they had terrific food.
White-tailed Tropicbird Phaethon lepturus Hawaiian Goose Branta sandvicensis Cattle Egret Bubulcus ibis Black-crowned Night-Heron Nycticorax nycticorax F Hawaiian Hawk Buteo solitarius Chukar Alectoris chukar F Gray Francolin Francolinus pondicerianus F Black Francolin Francolinus francolinus Erckell's Francolin Francolinus erckelii F Japanese Quail Coturnix japonica F Kalij Pheasant Lophura leucomelanos Common Pheasant Phasianus colchicus F Indian Peafowl Pavo cristatus Wild Turkey Meleagris gallopavo California Quail Callipepla californica Hawaiian Coot Fulica alai Wandering Tattler Tringa incana Ruddy Turnstone Arenaria interpres Sanderling Calidris alba Black-necked Stilt Himantopus mexicanus Pacific Golden-Plover Pluvialis fulva Ring-billed Gull Larus delawarensis Whiskered Tern Chlidonias hybridus F Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse Pterocles exustus Rock Dove Columba livia Spotted Dove Streptopelia chinensis Zebra Dove Geopelia striata Short-eared Owl Asio flammeus Elepaio Chasiempis sandwichensis F Hawaiian Crow Corvus hawaiiensis F Omao Myadestes obscurus Northern Mockingbird Mimus polyglottos Common Myna Acridotheres tristis Japanese White-eye Zosterops japonicus F Red-billed Leiothrix Leiothrix lutea Sky Lark Alauda arvensis House Sparrow Passer domesticus F Lavender Waxbill Estrilda caerulescens F Black-rumped Waxbill Estrilda troglodytes Red Avadavat Amandava amandava F White-throated Munia Lonchura malabarica Scaly-breasted Munia Lonchura punctulata Java Sparrow Padda oryzivora Yellow-fronted Canary Serinus mozambicus House Finch Carpodacus mexicanus F Palila Loxioides bailleui F Hawaii Amakihi Hemignathus virens F Akiapolaau Hemignathus munroi F Hawaii Creeper Oreomystis mana F Akepa Loxops coccineus Iiwi Vestiaria coccinea Apapane Himatione sanguinea F Yellow-billed Cardinal Paroaria capitata Saffron Finch Sicalis flaveola Northern Cardinal Cardinalis cardinalisF = life bird
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