Trip Report: Hawaii (Hawaii and Oahu), December 13-23, 1995

Urs Geiser and Mary Hobein, Woodridge, IL;

General Remarks

I had the opportunity to give an invited talk at a scientific conference in Honolulu and added some vacation time with my wife Mary. This was Mary's first trip to Hawaii and my second. During my first visit there (also to the big island and Oahu for a similar combination work-vacation trip) six years ago, I was a much less experienced birder, and I went essentially unprepared.

I still use the field guide booklet Hawaii's Birds, published bythe Hawaii Audubon Society (4th edition, 1989; a newer edition is now available in many stores in Hawaii) that I purchased during that visit. This time, I brought along Enjoying Birds in Hawaii. A Birdfinding Guide to the Fiftieth State by H. Douglas Pratt (Mutual Publishing, Honolulu, 1993; available from ABA Sales. I highly recommend this book. It contains accurate descriptions of numerous birding locations and is usuallyright on the dot with what to expect. I also like the many useful and interesting tidbits unrelated to birds that areadded here and there. In this report, I have indicated locations described in Pratt's book with H-1... (Hawaii) or O-1... (Oahu), referring to the nubers in the book.

I didn't buy a more extensive field guide, using the above-mentioned booklet with its small photographs instead. While not ideal, I didn't really run into any identification problems, with few exceptions: Captive seabirds at Sea Life Park, Hawaiian vs. continental race of American Coot (potential split candidate), and Mallard vs. Hawaiian Duck. I lugged a scope around, although that turned out to be somewhat of a luxury and didn't add significantly to the birding experience (but to the luggage weight!). Furthermore, I studied several trip reports published on BIRDCHAT, by Dave Eshbaugh, Gail Mackiernan (, David Powell (, and Les Chibana (aucgate! that turned out to be very useful. Unfortunately, in the haste of our departure, I left the printouts at home, though. It also would have helped to memorize the songs of the forest birds, in order to separate them from the ever-present Japanese White-eye and, at higher elevation, Apapane. I probably could have picked out Omao at the Thurston Lava Tube had I had a better song model in my ear to concentrate on.

Obviously, we didn't spend every minute on the islands birding. Apart from the work aspect of the trip, Mary isn't exactly a birder, although she enjoys looking at well-visible, still birds, especially if they are colorful or otherwise interesting to look at. Then there is so much else to see and experience: scenery, cultural and historic attractions, the beach, underwater activities, romantic moments etc. that we wanted to enjoy as well. This was especially true since this was our first trip in a long time without our teenage (step)daughter who is at a difficult age. All in all, our birding was relaxed, and we didn't go too much out of our way to find rare endemics (the grand prize of any Hawaiian birding). In the end, we only checked five endemic species (Hawaiian Hawk, Elepaio, Apapane, Common Amakihi, and Iiwi) and three endemic subspecies (of Black Noddy, Black-necked Stilt, and American Coot). Of the migrants, the Bristle-thighed Curlew at South Point was the most pleasant surprise.

With birding and other activities, we both enjoyed the trip tremendously and are ready to go back as soon as possible. The next time, we might check out Maui and Kauai.

Daily Accounts

December 13, 1995: Travel

Flight from Chicago to Hilo, just barely made connection in Honolulu. Arrival after dark. Picked up rental car (Chrysler Neon; no mention was made about restricted roads, such as Saddle Road or South Point Road).

December 14, 1995: Hilo and Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

While waiting for our luggage which didn't make the connection in Honolulu the evening before, we walked through the parks near our hotel on Banyan Drive. On the lawns were several PACIFIC GOLDEN-PLOVER, flocks of NUTMEG MANNIKIN, and many COMMON MYNA, ZEBRA and SPOTTED DOVEs, and HOUSE SPARROWs. A few WANDERING TATTLER hopped around the lava rock along the shore. In the trees were lots of JAPANESE WHITE-EYE, and NORTHERN CARDINAL and HOUSE FINCH could also be found. Myna, the doves, and House Sparrow are abundant residential birds that will not be mentioned further. The Zebra Dove is especially tame and is frequently found inside open-wall buildings, such as restaurants. Pacific Golden-Plover is also extremely common on green lawns everywhere.

After the arrival of our luggage, we drove up the highway to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park (H-2). We decided to first climb the Mauna Loa strip road (narrow and winding, but paved). A very quick stop at Bird Park (Kipuka Puaulu) only revealed White-eyes. At Kipuka Ki, we should have parked on a turn-out before the sign, as there were no parking opportunities at the Kipuka itself, thus we drove on. A little ways further up the mountain, a pair of pheasants crossed the road before us, but they disappeared quickly in the underbrush, before we could identify them. Based on the location, they likely were Kalij Pheasant. Luckily, we encountered another group (one cock and several hens) almost near the top of the road. They were very noisy in some shrubbery next to the road. Eventually we caught glimpses of the birds as they ran from one bush to the next, and we could identify them as KALIJ PHEASANT. We spent a lovely lunch hour near the lookout at the end of the road (at almost 7000 feet, with a great view over the Kilauea area). APAPANE were very conspicuous. An ELEPAIO hopped around the trees right behind the shelter. Finally, a few IIWI visited a flowering Ohia tree.

In the afternoon, we visited the main portion of the National Park. At Halemaumau, a deep pit in the middle of the main caldera, one or two WHITE-TAILED TROPICBIRDs popped up once in a while from below the rim and soared on the strong trade winds until they disappeared again from sight. At Keanakako'i, pedestrian traffic and parking were banned because of nesting Nene (Hawaiian Goose), but we didn't spot any from the car. This species and Gray Francolin were the only ones I saw during my 1989 visit, but not on this trip. At the stops along the eastern edge of the caldera (Thurston lava tube and Kilauea Iki), Apapane and Japanese White-eye were again abundant, but they were hard to see in the dense foliage. Other birds (such as Omao which is supposed to be easy at the lava tube) could easily be overlooked.

In the late afternoon, we drove down the Chain-of-Craters Road to observe the lava flow in the darkness. During our visit, the flow was about 1 1/2 miles away from the end of the trail and not in the direct line of sight. However, the steam plume (and at night the orange reflecting glow) was very evident, and in the darkness, small glowing spots in the black lava could be discerned elsewhere through binoculars. Before reaching the end of the road, however, we stopped at the Holei Sea Arch, where many BLACK NODDIES skimmed the waves. The drive back to Hilo was in complete darkness. The night sky seen from the middle of the lava flows without any nearby artificial light was truly spectacular!

December 15, 1995: Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Southeast Coast, South Point, Manuka State Park, Kailua

We wanted to visit the National Park one more time and in the morning (before the tour busses) in order to look for some "easy" endemics that we missed the previous day. We drove directly to the lava tube, where we were greeted by a noisy chorus of Apapane, Japanese White-eye, and some other, unidentified singers. In the tree tops, I could finally make out a COMMON AMAKIHI and associate a song (trill) with it. Another song seemed to fit that of the Omao (Hawaiian Thrush), but I was never able to see the bird (other than a flash disappearing in the jungle) and confirm the identification.

After a few more sight-seeing stops in the park, we continued along the Belt Highway southward through the Kau district. Near the village of Pahala, I spotted a HAWAIIAN HAWK soaring above the road and quickly pulled onto the shoulder. Unfortunately, it went right over the car before I could grab the binoculars to get a good look. At the turn-off to the Punalu'u loop, we stopped to photograph an immense wall of flowering Bougainvillea, when a flock of finches flew over. A few perched briefly on some exposed branches and could be identified as YELLOW-FRONTED CANARY. Pratt lists this species as occurring mainly on the Kona coast, but spreading and not totally unexpected elsewhere on the island. Punalu'u didn't yield any interesting birds, but the black sand beach and the lava cliffs with enormous breakers were spectacular. Furthermore, a large Green Turtle was beached to lay her eggs, and more turtles swam around the bay. We had lunch at the nearby Whittington Beach County Park, which is also quite picturesque. Other than a Wandering Tattler, there were no noteworthy birds. From an overlook above the park, in 1989 I had observed Spinner Dolphins, but this time, we couldn't find any.

The clouds became denser, the wind picked up, and an occasional sprinkle moved through as we drove along the long, narrow road to South Point (H-3). In the pastures, we kept looking in vain for Short-eared Owls, only finding occasional SKYLARKs. ROCK DOVES were also somewhat more common in this area than other parts of the island. The point itself is a windswept grassy area bordered by steep cliffs of a peculiar wild beauty totally different from other parts of the Hawaiian islands. At the latitude of Mexico City, it looked more like Cornwall or the Hebrides, although it wasn't quite as cold. The short grass supported many feeding shorebirds: Pacific Golden-Plover, RUDDY TURNSTONE, Wandering Tattler (on the rocks), and an extremely cooperative BRISTLE-THIGHED CURLEW. The Curlew is considered uncommon to rare in winter, but somewhat more common during migration. I consider it the most unexpected bird of the entire trip.

A short drive along the main highway brought us to Manuka State Park (H-4). A flowering tree next to the parking lot contained a flock of Common Amakihi, which were much more conspicuous here than in the National Park. Also near the parking lot were several feral chicken of Red Junglefowl coloration, but probably not countable as wild birds. I walked the nature trail through the woods while Mary took a nap. Amakihi could be seen in several places, and I had a nice view at a pair of Elepaio preening. At times, I heard rustling in the underbrush, but it took some searching to find a pair of Kalij Pheasant. Near the maintenance shed, I first wanted to dismiss some loud bird song as Myna chatter, but then decided to take a closer look anyway. Luckily, because the song came instead from two RED-BILLED LEIOTHRIX, very handsome gray-backed birds with yellow to orange breasts and a namesake bill.

After a sunset stop at Kealakekua Bay, we checked into a hotel in Kailua (Kona).

December 16, 1995: Kona, Kohala, Hamakua Coasts

While checking out a few sights along the Kona coast, we encountered several new species: In Kailua and again at Keauhou Bay, we saw feeding flocks of YELLOW-BILLED CARDINAL, JAVA SPARROW and SAFFRON FINCH. At the latter location, there was also a Northern Cardinal, and White-eyes were in every tree. In other wildlife, we saw several mongoose, a serious threat to the native avifauna.

Otherwise, we spent more time sight-seeing, first along the Kohala coast to the end of the road at scenic Pololu Valley lookout, then crossing the Kohala mountains, looking at the sheer cliffs of the Waipi'o Valley near Honoka'a, and driving along the lush Hamakua coast with its many waterfalls (Akaka and Nanue Falls are easily accessible), back to Hilo. A more serious birder probably would have chosen to explore Aimakapa Pond (H-6), the Kaloko Mauka Subdivision (H-7), Puu Anahulu (H-8), and the Waimea Plains (H-9), or driven to Hilo along the Saddle Road.

December 17, 1995: Hilo and Honolulu

This was our last day on the big island. We spent a couple hours looking for waterfowl at the Hilo Ponds (H-1). The AMERICAN COOT (Hawaiian subspecies) at Loko Waka Pond were easily seen from the road-side. Further searching revealed small numbers of AMERICAN WIDGEON, LESSER SCAUP, and a BLACK-CROWNED NIGHT-HERON. The Waiakea Pond in the center of Hilo contained large number of Mallard of largely dubious origin, feral Muscovy Ducks, and various semi-domesticated geese. We almost overlooked the one female PINTAIL and the female SHOVELER. The latter was easier to see from the big Banyan tree along Kilauea Avenue than from the park side.

With a few hours left, we drove up into the Hilo hills, with photo stops at Rainbow and Pe'epe'e Falls, and at Kaumana Caves (along Saddle Road). At the last place, I tracked a loud song to a perched MELODIOUS LAUGHING-THRUSH, with a second one responding somewhere nearby. We drove up Saddle Road (steep and winding, but wide and paved for as far as we went, 35 mph speed limit ignored by almost everybody) to the Tree Plantation "Road" at 4160 ft. Along the way we stopped to look at a soaring dark-phase Hawaiian Hawk, a much better look than two days earlier. A short walk along Plantation Road only revealed Apapane and White-eyes. We came to learn what Pratt means by "hostile terrain" (H-13) separating the Kipukas (islands in the lava flow with much taller, denser trees compared to the secondary growth on top of the lava flow): knife-sharp lava with muddy three-foot deep holes in between, and everything covered with tough shrubbery. Definitely not for the casual birder!

After this excursion, we returned our rental car and flew to Honolulu (hotel in Waikiki for business reasons). A stroll along the beach to Kapiolani Park (O-3) revealed thousands of pure-white pigeons (not to be confused with White or Fairy Terns!), as well as the abundant Zebra and Spotted Doves, Mynas, and House Sparrows. Of slightly more interest were RED-VENTED BULBUL, Japanese White-eye, House Finch, and finally a flock of Yellow-fronted Canary. It was not until sunset (very romantic) that the WHITE TERNs (a.k.a. COMMON FAIRY-TERN) returned to roost in the Ironwoods. Also in the twilight, two GREAT FRIGATEBIRDs sailed through.

December 18, 1995: Diamond Head, Downtown Honolulu

In the morning, we took the city bus to the base of Diamond Head and climbed to the top. Right by the bus stop, there were flocks of Java Sparrows, while numerous Red-vented Bulbul, House Finches, and RED-CRESTED CARDINALS took advantage of scraps around the parking lot inside the crater. From the top, we looked down on some soaring White Terns, and I could spot a distant Frigatebird. Again near the bus stop, we found a few COMMON WAXBILL and a NORTHERN MOCKINGBIRD with a deformed bill.

In downtown Honolulu, we only saw the common birds, with Pacific Golden-Plover photographed in front of 'Iolani Palace. The trip was somewhat wasted, because the Palace was closed on Mondays, and we arrived at the Foster Botanic Garden just at closing time (4 pm).

December 19, 1995: Koko Head, Windward Oahu

This day, we rented a car to explore the island outside Honolulu. Our first destination was the steep and winding Roundtop/Tantalus Drive (O-1) overlooking the city. The view down over Honolulu and up the valleys into the mountains was spectacular and the vegetation very lush. The best birding was on top of Roundtop, at Puu Ualakaa State Park. Besides the usual Mynas, Spotted and Zebra Doves, Japanese White-eyes, and Pacific Golden-Plovers, we found Red-vented and RED-WHISKERED BULBUL, Common Waxbill, Northern Cardinal, and WHITE-RUMPED SHAMA. I tried to chase a singer that I suspect was one of the Laughing-Thrushes, but I never found it. Given more time, we should have found some endemics as well.

The next stop was at the Paiko Lagoon (O-4), looking from both the end of Kuliouou Road and from the beach park. This wasn't very productive except for an immature Black-crowned Night-heron and a few common shorebirds: Golden-plover (of course), Wandering Tattler, and a small flock of Ruddy Turnstones.

The Koko Head Regional Park area (O-5) is spectacularly scenic, first with picturesque Hanauma Bay (lots of Red-crested Cardinals in the parking lot -- the latter just about filled at 10 am) and then the rocky coast with several lookouts and the Halona Blowhole (water gushing up through a hole in the rock when the waves come in just right). At this point we were mainly looking for whales. The search finally paid off when we saw through the scope a far-off pod dive. Not a great view, but the only look at cetaceans in the wild during the entire trip. While looking for whales, we saw distant white, long-winged birds skimming the water, often in small groups. I assume these were RED-FOOTED BOOBIES.

Our next stop was at the Manana Island lookout (O-6) where we first encountered the windward shore. Manana and the closer Kaohikaipu Islands are important seabird nesting sites, but mainly at other times of the year (March to August for Sooty Terns). This time, we had much better looks at Red-footed Boobies flying across the bay below us. A Great Frigatebird, visible by scoping the nearby Sea Life Park, sat in the rigging of a sailboat at the popular tourist attraction. We learned a few days later why Frigatebirds like that place. In this area, the Boobies are of questionable countability because of the semi-tame colony located inside the park. On Kaohikaipu Island, a large number of Laysan Albatross decoys are supposed to attract the real thing for breeding. A flock of Common Waxbill was feeding in the grass near the lookout.

Near Waimanalo, I spotted while driving the first CATTLE EGRET of the day. We saw a lot more, in the form of a rookery, at He'eia State Park (not described by Pratt), along Route 836 northwest of Kane'ohe. The handsome park contained also a flock of feral chicken (with dark gray legs like wild birds), White-rumped Shama, Red-vented Bulbul, Red-crested Cardinal, House Finch, and Java Sparrow, as well as the usual residential birds. The park also contains a small gift shop where proceeds go to conservation. The postcard selection there was much better than anywhere in Waikiki.

Kualoa Regional Park (O-9) was our next stop. Most conspicuous on the extensive lawn were the hundreds of Cattle Egret and Golden-Plovers. We drove to the end of the parking lot and climbed on top of the wall that separates the park from the fishpond behind it. In the pond, a Black-crowned Night-heron flew away, and about four BLACK-NECKED (Hawaiian) STILT were visible. White-rumped Shama and Red-vented Bulbul flew around the shrubs, while Red-crested and Northern Cardinals, as well as a large flock of Common Waxbill were more in the open areas of the park. A Wandering Tattler worked the shoreline. A group of native Hawaiians got very excited when I let them look through my scope at some feral goats in the cliffs above the park. They were ready to go hunting for them (I can't blame them, as the goats, along with pigs, sheep, and other mammals, are a real problem for the native vegetation and fauna).

Our northern-most stop of the day was at the Amorient Aquafarms (O-11) northwest of Laie. Upon scanning from the highway, most obvious were large numbers of Black-necked Stilt. Cattle Egret, Pacific Golden-plover, and Ruddy Turnstone were also present in the ponds and mudflats. More problematic were the ducks: Some were clearly Mallard, but others showed signs of at least partial Hawaiian Duck parentage (reintroduced on Oahu). At least one pair had a very green speculum, indicative of the endemic species (by some authorities apparently considered a race of Mallard). However, at this time, I'm not counting Hawaiian Duck on my lists. In the grass between the ponds there were flocks of Nutmeg Mannikins.

It wasn't quite clear to me if there was public access to the James Campbell National Wildlife Refuge which surrounds the aquafarms. Pratt mentions "plans in the works" for a public viewing place, and through the scope I could make out a pavilion with displays (e.g., Stilt). However, there was no obvious sign along the highway, and because of the federal shutdown in place at the time the reserve would have likely been closed anyway.

Finally, we returned to Laie (O-10) to watch the sunset at the point. A Great Frigatebird and many Red-footed Boobies (this time probably truly wild) flew along the shore in the distance. Other birds, probably some sort of shearwater or petrel could also be seen, but they were too far to be identified. Flocks of Ruddy Turnstones interspersed with some Golden-Plovers flew to the nearby rocky islands (one of them with a nice sea arch, depicted in Pratt's book) to find a roost for the night. Finally, when it was almost too dark to see, a Rock Dove flew in from the ocean, presumably from one of these rocky islands.

December 21, 1995: Trying to Snorkel at Hanauma Bay

I spent all day on the 20th and the morning of the 21st at a scientific conference, while Mary went sight-seeing. For the afternoon, we rented snorkeling gear, and with a minimal amount of valuables, we took the bus to Hanauma Bay to explore the underwater world. Our surprise and subsequent disappointment was big when we discovered that we had to pay $5 each to get to the bay (one unverified rumor had it that one had to give an additional $30 or a credit card deposit for any snorkeling or diving, against potential reef damage), and we only had enough with us for the bus fare back. Thus, we waited a long time for the next bus back while watching (from the parking lot) the fish swim around other divers in the bay and Red-crested Cardinals looking for crumbs near the bus stop. Eventually, the bus brought us back to Waikiki, where we snorkeled in front of Kapiolani Park until the evening. It was nice, and we saw a lot of colorful fish, but Hanauma Bay would have had clearer water and probably even more variety.

December 22, 1995: Last Day

Since we had our snorkeling gear until 2pm, we decided to make use of it one more time. Because of hotel checkout logistics and time constraints, Hanauma Bay was out of the question, though, so we went back to the same place in Waikiki as the day before. The usual common birds, including Java Sparrows, were in Kapiolani Park.

In the afternoon, we intended to visit the Lyon Arboretum (O-2), but while inquiring about the bus route, we were told that the arboretum had closed down since the publication of Pratt's book and was not currently open to the public. Instead, we took the bus to Sea Life Park (see December 19) and spent the afternoon there. The attractions at the park are mainly trained dolphins and sea lions, also exhibits and breeding programs for Monk Seal and sea turtle (Green and Hawkbill). There is also a seabird exhibit with injured or semi-tame Laysan Albatross, Red-footed and Brown Booby, Sooty Tern, and various tubenoses that I couldn't identify as they were sitting on the ground. They were either Bonin Petrel or Townsend's (Newell's) Shearwater, based on my little identification booklet and essentially non-existent pelagic experience (both clearly inadequate in this situation). Red-footed Boobies could also been seen out over the ocean from the park. Two Great Frigatebirds kept circling over the park. At one of the dolphin shows, they swooped down to steal the fish that the trainers tried to toss to the dolphins. This is probably easier feeding for the Frigatebirds than trying to find a seabird out on the ocean to steal food from. Among the landbirds, there were good numbers of Red-vented Bulbul.

Later that evening, we flew back into the winter of Chicago, arriving in the morning of the 23rd.

Species List

Codes: N: Indigenous species, E: Endemic species, e: endemic subspecies,
       M: Regular migrant, I: Introduced species

Code Common Name                      Scientific Name           Island#
---- -----------                      ---------------           -------
 N   White-tailed Tropicbird*         Phaethon lepturus           H
 N   Great Frigatebird*               Fregata minor                 O
 N   Red-footed Booby*                Sula Sula                     O
 I   Cattle Egret                     Bubulcus ibis                 O
 N   Black-crowned Night-Heron+       Nycticorax nycticorax       H O
 I   Mallard                          Anas platyrhynchos          H O
 M   Northern Pintail+                Anas acuta                  H
 M   American Widgeon+                Anas americana              H
 M   Northern Shoveler+               Anas clypeata               H
 M   Lesser Scaup+                    Aynthya affinis             H
 E   Hawaiian Hawk (Io)*              Buteo Solitarius            H
 I   Kalij Pheasant*                  Lophura leucomelana         H
 e   American Coot                    Fulica americana            H
 M   Pacific Golden-Plover            Pluvialis fulva             H O
 e   Black-necked Stilt*              Himantopus mexicanus          O
 M   Bristle-thighed Curlew*          Numenius tahitiensis        H
 M   Ruddy Turnstone+                 Arenaria interpres          H O
 M   Wandering Tattler                Heteroscelus incanus        H O
 e   Black Noddy*                     Anous minutus               H
 N   White Tern (Common Fairy-Tern)*  Gygis alba                    O
 I   Rock Dove                        Columba livia               H O
 I   Zebra Dove                       Geopelia striata            H O
 I   Spotted Dove                     Streptopelia chinensis      H O
 I   (Eurasian) Skylark+              Alauda arvensis             H
 I   Red-vented Bulbul                Pycnonotus cafer              O
 I   Red-whiskered Bulbul             Pycnonotus jocosus            O
 I   Common Myna                      Acridotheres tristis        H O
 E   Elepaio*                         Chasiempis sandwichensis    H
 I   Japanese White-Eye               Zosterops japonicus         H O
 I   White-rumped Shama               Copsychus malabaricus         O
 I   Northern Mockingbird             Mimus polyglottus             O
 I   Melodious Laughing-Thrush*       Garrulax canorus            H
 I   Red-billed Leiothrix*            Leiothrix lutea             H
 E   Apapane                          Himatione sanguinea         H
 E   Common Amakihi*                  Hemignathus virens          H
 E   Iiwi*                            Vestiaria coccinea          H
 I   Northern Cardinal                Cardinalis cardinalis       H O
 I   Red-crested Cardinal             Paroaria coronata             O
 I   Yellow-billed Cardinal           Paroaria capitata           H
 I   Nutmeg Mannikin*                 Lonchura malacca            H O
 I   Common Waxbill*                  Estrilda astrild              O
 I   Java Sparrow                     Padda oryzivora             H O
 I   Yellow-fronted Canary*           Serinus mozambicus          H O
 I   Saffron Finch*                   Sicalis flaveola            H
 I   House Finch                      Carpodacus mexicanus        H O
 I   House Sparrow                    Passer domesticus           H O

# H: Hawaii, O: Oahu
* Life bird
+ New for Hawaii list

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This page served by Urs Geiser;; January 2, 1996