When many people hear the name Hawaii, their minds go right to white sand beaches: surfers riding the crests of beautiful blue waves, tropical drinks under palm trees, and enjoying luaus complete with lei-wearing hula dancers. However, these volcanic rocks poking out of the middle of Pacific Ocean are much more than the thin layer of beach and rock that rings most of the islands. The natural ecosystems on these relatively young (in geological terms) landmasses are evolutionary masterpieces, and we were fortunate to be able to explore a really representative cross section of the natural wonders that the islands have to offer.
As is the case with most visitors to Hawaii, we started off on Oahu, since the air hub for the island is the Honolulu airport. From our base in Waikiki, we explored a good portion of the island during our full day there, starting off at Kapiolani Park right across the street, and immediately picking up a bunch of established introduced species under a canopy of calling and courting White Terns. There were quite a few Common Waxbills around, along with abundant Red-vented Bulbuls, a pair of very affectionate Japanese White-eyes, our first Yellow-fronted Canaries of the trip, Rose-ringed Parakeets, and a really good number (around 70!) of striking Java Sparrows. After a delicious breakfast we made our way to the Aiea Loop Trail, where our quarry was the two remaining Oahu endemic passerines: Oahu Amakihi, and Oahu Elepaio. The former is part of the large family of Hawaiian Honeycreepers that are thought to have descended from some wayward Rosefinches from Asia, while the latter is part of the old world Monarch Flycatcher family. We had great luck with both, even finding an Elepaio nest being tended by both adults! From here, we navigated around the north side of the island, passing some of the famous surfing beaches of Oahu, complete with their impressive rolling surf. We made our way to the Kahuku area, where the shrimp ponds produced our first views of Hawaiian Coot and the endemic subspecies of Common Gallinule and Black-necked Stilt. After enjoying those waterbirds, we headed to the Kahuku golf course, which is one of the best places to see Bristle-thighed Curlew in Hawaii. It didn't disappoint, as we saw almost 20 scattered around the area, and a few more in flight in the distance. One of these was sporting a field-readable flag, and it turned out to be a bird banded in the same area on Halloween in 2013. An ocean-viewing overlook here also produced a Brown Noddy, a Wandering Tattler, our first Red-footed and Brown boobies, and a fantastic experience with a Laysan Albatross that made a couple of great flybys, one of which was right over the beach in front of our faces. The drive back to Waikiki produced some good views of Chestnut Munia, and then concluded with another great meal upon our arrival.
The next day we headed over to the Honolulu airport after breakfast for our flight to Kaua'i. We arrived around noon, met our legendary on-island guide David Kuhn, and headed to Kilauea. Immediately upon our arrival to Kilauea Point we were surrounded by seabirds coasting on the updrafts created by the trade winds interacting with the cliffs. Red-tailed Tropicbird was the first bird many people saw there, and that species put on a fantastic show, with up to three participating in courtship flights together. Red-footed Booby was the dominant species here, with close to 1500 counted, most of which were on arboreal nests on the cliffside to the east. We got to watch these graceful flyers trying their hand at harvesting vegetation from the cliffs, which requires them to become terrestrial and shed their "graceful" tag. Great Frigatebirds were patrolling the skies looking for easy meals, and Laysan Albatrosses were bussing by below eye level at point-blank range. We also saw a couple of White-tailed Tropicbirds here, our first Nenes (Hawaiian Geese) of the trip, and had an unexpected Black-footed Albatross putting on a show off the point. We left Kilauea Point and then headed for one last stop in Princeville, where we saw some Laysan Albatrosses, including some of their poodle-like youngsters, lounging on people’s front lawns. There were also dozens of Nene, formerly on the brink of extinction, on the nearby golf course. Who said you can’t have great birding on a travel day?!
The next couple of days saw us exploring Kaua'i, including visits to Hanalei NWR (Hawaiian Ducks, Eurasian Wigeons, Chinese Hwamei), and the Salt Ponds on the western side of the island (Hawaiian Monk Seal!). We also took a boat ride off the western side of the island, which brought us up close and personal with several of the Forster’s form of Brown Booby, plenty of Red-footed Boobies, Black Noddies, and Wedge-tailed Shearwaters, cool flying fish, and gave us a couple of Humpback Whale encounters. The cherry on top of the boat ride was our sighting of two Hawaii-endemic Newell’s Shearwaters, one of which gave phenomenal looks as it did loop-de-loops right in front of the boat. Our visit to the Alakai Swamp, up in the mountains off the Nā Pali coast, was a great exploration of a mostly old-growth native Kaua'ian forest, though it was disconcerting how few native birds were there. David was, as ever, a fount of information about the local flora, and we did connect well with Anianiau, Hawaii Amakihi, Apapane, and even I'iwi for some. On the way out we got a great flyby of a Pueo, the Hawaiian Short-eared Owl. We then got to see some amazing scenic views of the Nā Pali coast and the vast interior Kaua’I forest from the overlooks in Koke’e State Park, and some of us finished up our final evening on Kaua'i with a dusk vigil at the Wailua River Mouth, seeing a few Wedge-tailed Shearwaters and a bunch of northbound flocks of Red-footed Boobies.
Day five saw us traveling to Hawaii, the eponymously named Big Island. We spent midday in Hilo, having lunch and then heading over to Waiakea Pond where we had our first tastes of Yellow-billed Cardinal and Saffron Finch, an easy-to-see Mongoose, a few Nene, and a couple of species of lingering boreal migrant waterfowl: Ring-necked Duck and Canada Goose. We then drove towards our lodging in the town of Volcano, keeping a vigilant eye out for Hawaiian Hawk (the I'o) along the way. This paid off, as we found one about halfway there, and were able to get everyone out to enjoy the first of what would end up being several views of this Big Island endemic. After checking into Kilauea Lodge (and seeing a couple of additional I'o flying over the grounds), we made our way into Volcanoes National Park. We visited the Jagger Museum overlooking the always smoking Kilauea Caldera, which even had White-tailed Tropicbirds (which nest on the walls of the crater) circling around down inside the smoke! From there we made our way down to Chain-of-Craters Road (with some getting their first excellent views of Kalij Pheasant along the way). This is a winding road that starts up high on the flank of Kilauea and terminates at the cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean. The area is pockmarked with many fairly recent lava flows, and you can see the very first plant colonizers starting to take hold here, a great window into how these islands of molten rock started their march to the beautiful natural wonderlands that they became. At the end of the road we got excellent views of many of the local melanogenys subspecies of Black Noddy, seeing their characteristic white tails and orange feet really well. After experiencing the sunset and Noddies on Chain-of-Craters, we made our way back to Kilauea Lodge for another excellent dinner of various foods imported from all over the world.
There wasn’t even a hint of morning light yet when we were awakened by the pre-dawn chorus of Apapanes tinkling through the forest around the lodge. They serenaded us through our morning walk and were still singing and flying in flocks around the blooming Ohia trees when we departed the lodge after breakfast to make another run into the National Park. After visiting the fascinating Thurston lava tube (where we saw our first Omaos, the endemic Hawaiian thrush), we made our way over to Kipuka pua'ulu, also known as Bird Park. Here, in a very short time we were able to get good looks at Red-billed Leiothrix and Japanese Bush-Warbler, a couple of introduced species that are much easier to hear than to see. We also got a peek at the Rapid Ohia Death in the flesh (or in the bark), which is a fungal pathogen that has ravaged the native Ohia trees around Mauna Loa and Kilauea on the Big Island, killing hundreds of thousands of these really important endemic trees across at least 50,000 acres. The disease is currently mostly restricted to a portion of the Big Island, thankfully, and there are efforts underway to contain it. After this contrast between the good and the grim, we then headed to the Kona coast via the new, well-paved Saddle Road that cuts through the middle of the island between the high volcanoes of Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa. We saw a couple of additional Hawaiian Hawks along the way, and we had a very productive stop where we picked up our only Red Avadavats of the tour, as well as some African Silverbills. As we neared the village of Waikoloa, we started to keep an eye out for the Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse that sometimes frequent the area, and lo and behold, as we approached the first intersection in town we saw one flying parallel to us just off the road. We drove alongside it for a bit, watched it land, and then maneuvered to try and see some on the ground. We ended up seeing several flying around, and a couple that gave excellent views on the ground. There were also Gray Francolin, Wild Turkey, African Silverbills, Saffron Finches, and a Java Sparrow here. We finished our whirlwind of a day at Waikoloa Village, which would be our home base for the remainder of the tour.
For the final two days we were under the able guidance of Hawaii Forest & Trails, and we started off day seven with a nice picnic breakfast before heading to what is undoubtedly one of the most magical locations on the Hawaiian Islands: Hakalau National Wildlife Refuge. Created as the first NWR specifically aimed at forest-dwelling species, Hakalau is a wonderland filled with all the remaining species of Hawaiian endemic passerines. We were surrounded by I'iwi calls as soon as we arrived, and we didn’t stop hearing them until we left. Apapanes were flying all over the canopy, Omaos were common and cooperative, and Hawaii Amakihis were abundant throughout. Hakalau also gave us the Big Island's most range-restricted endemics: Hawaii Creeper, Hawaii Akepa, and Akiapolaau. One Akepa pair was visiting a nest cavity, and we got to watch them, the Creepers, and the "Aki" all using their unique bills to fill the different foraging niches that they evolved into. It was a truly fantastic day, made even better by a couple of Hawaiian Hawks (including one on a nest!), and some great views of a few more Pueos engaged in their late-afternoon foraging over the grasslands on the way out. Our final birding day consisted of a trip to the dry forest on the leeward side of Mauna Kea (Hakalau is on the windward, and therefore wet, side), where we visited Pu'u La'au to target the most finch-like of all the extant Hawaiian Honeycreepers, the Palila. There are fewer than two thousand of these left on the planet, and they are all in this corridor of dry forest on the dry slope of Mauna Kea. We had great success with the species, and we ended up seeing at least five individuals, several of them very well. After our victory here, we headed to Kipuka 21 for lunch and a last experience with a couple of the wet forest birds we encountered the day before. We had some looks at I'iwi, and a really friendly Omao here, before we blasted back towards the western side of the island once more. Our final birding stop of the tour was the Kealakehe Wastewater Treatment Plant, which hosts several breeding pairs of Hawaiian Stilts, many Hawaiian Coots, and often a bunch of other migrant and wintering waterbirds. The other dominant species here was Pacific Golden-Plovers, of which there were dozens, many of them in full breeding regalia. Shorebirds included a dozen Wandering Tattlers, many Ruddy Turnstones, our first Sanderlings, and a mega bonus in the form of a vagrant Marsh Sandpiper that wintered at this site. This old world shorebird species was balanced out by three each of White-faced Ibis and Least Tern, both rarities from the east. A Bufflehead and Cackling Goose rounded out the new birds for the tour at this site, and we all headed back for a final dinner after a fantastic final day in the field.
This year's tour was a great success, made all the more so by this cohesive, fun, and friendly group, and Dan and I wish to thank all of you for your wonderful companionship in this adventure. Huge thanks also to Caroline Lewis, who managed this tour to perfection, allowing everything to run as smoothly as could be, to David Kuhn for his expertise on everything Kaua'i, and to Gary, Taj, and Mark of Hawaii Forest & Trails for their excellent guidance around some of Mauna Kea's most sensitive and rewarding spots. We had an amazing time on this tour, and we genuinely hope to see you all on a future avian voyage.
KEYS FOR THIS LIST
One of the following keys may be shown in brackets for individual species as appropriate: * = heard only, I = introduced, E = endemic, N = nesting, a = austral migrant, b = boreal migrant
Totals for the tour: 93 bird taxa and 9 mammal taxa