ROSS’S GULL!! Icebergs! A great day out!

A hasty blog update, since I’m swamped and preparing for an early morning flight to the west coast (of Newfoundland).

IMG_7132Following the excitement of the past few days, I decided to shirk work and spend today looking for more Icelandic rarities. The northern tip of the Avalon, especially along the east-facing coast of Conception Bay, seemed like a prime location for some of these birds to have arrived — and one that is familiar to me since my wife’s family has an old family home in Grate’s Cove at the very tip. In a nutshell, I faced some cold, windy and sometimes snowy weather in the hunt — but came up empty. Not a whiff of a European/Icelandic vagrant … my first Northern Harrier of the year and a somewhat unusual Blue-winged Teal were my highlights. And the icebergs!! It is shaping up to be a great iceberg season, and I saw 15+ during my drive up the coast. Gotta love living here!

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A female Blue-winged Teal ... a good bird in Newfoundland!

A female Blue-winged Teal … a good bird in Newfoundland!

I had only just turned around to head home when I got wind of a possible Ross’s Gull in torbay (just north of St. John’s and nearly two hours from where I was). I picked up my pace a little, ignoring a couple other birding stops … and then got the confirmation. I raced back the winding coastal roads and highway, making it to Torbay in must be record time. There was a group of mostly happy birders huddled together at the beach, and others tucked into their cars to shelter from the freezing winds. But no gull … then I got word it was being seen distantly — and eventually I got on it. It was a bit far, but offered excellent scope views as it pattered across the water, lifted up and circled around, and showed off its pink belly, dainty wings and pointed tail. I got lots more great scope views over the next 90 minutes, although it never flew much closer. What a killer bird!!!

There's a Ross's Gull in there ... somewhere. Way out there ... somewhere.

There’s a Ross’s Gull in there … somewhere. Way out there … somewhere.

Good photos were taken by others before I arrived (when it was being seen closer), including these by Alvan Buckley:

http://ebird.org/ebird/canada/view/checklist?subID=S18140702

 

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The invasion is coming! European Golden Plovers + Black-tailed Godwits

Alvan Buckley & I were among a handful of hopeful birders headed south from St. John’s Saturday morning, following Friday evening’s revelation that two BLACK-TAILED GODWITS had been seen in Renews (found & photographed by local Tony Dunne). As mentioned in my last post, the winds have been lining up for a potential invasion of European/Icelandic vagrants, caught up in the airflows during their trans-Atlantic migration … and we were excited by the possibility of finding even more rarities.

Photo: Jared Clarke (April 26, 2014)

Photo: Jared Clarke (April 26, 2014)

It didn’t take long to find the Black-tailed Godwits feeding in a freshwater pool alongside the road in Renews – both (apparently males) in bright breeding plumage. Immediately upon arriving, we got word from Bruce Mactavish that he and two others had discovered a European Golden Plover on a field just 100m down the road (a field, by the way, that is already known in local birding circles for having hosted a Northern Lapwing a few years ago). Being the gluttons we are, we headed over and soaked up views of this great bird (also in nice breeding plumage) with the imprint of those amazing godwits still fresh on the back of our eyeballs! European Golden Plover are nearly annual in Newfoundland, although a “big” invasion hasn’t really happened in recent years (and, surprisingly, there were no reports at all last spring). Things were (and are!) building up to an event of sorts.

Photo: Jared Clarke (April 26, 2014)

Photo: Jared Clarke (April 26, 2014)

Throughout the day, a cool dozen European Golden Plover were reported from four locations across the island (1 in Renews, 3 at Cape Race, 6 in St. John’s and 2 in Gros Morne National Park). The breadth of these reports, spanning almost the entire northeast facing portion of the island, suggests there are many more out there — and some of the best places along that coast remain unchecked. The winds are still developing, looking like arrivals of these (and hopefully other!!!) Icelandic migrants could continue over the next few days. LOOK OUT!!

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BLACK-TAILED GODWITS!! Has a Euro fallout begun?!?!

Email chatter between Newfoundland birders the past few days has been about one thing — the winds. They have been lining up nicely across the North Atlantic for several days now – just the way we want to see them in late April. This is THE time for European vagrants to show up on our shores, and a low pressure system churning over the ocean between us and Iceland is a recipe for birds migrating there to get flung in our direction.

One of two Black-tailed Godwits photographed in Renews today. - Photo: Tony Dunne (April 25, 2014)

One of two Black-tailed Godwits photographed in Renews today.
– Photo: Tony Dunne (April 25, 2014)

I was expecting to hear a report of European Golden Plovers (almost annual in Newfoundland) any day now, but was shocked when I opened my email this evening and saw photos of TWO breeding plumaged BLACK-TAILED GODWITS from Renews today (found and photographed by Tony Dunne). This species occurs in Newfoundland every few years, but considering there are two (just the second record of multiple birds) combined with the persistent easterly winds of the past few days … well my excitement level is spiraling! There are likely more birds out there – and more to come since the winds are forecast not only to continue but to improve over the next 72 hours!!

Plenty of European rarities have been recorded here in late April, including Common Redshank, Eurasian Oystercatcher, Garganey and Redwing … and plenty more could be on the menu based on species that are migrating to Iceland right now. We haven’t seen a real “fallout” of European birds since a similar system in late April 1995 brought dozens of European Golden Plover, five Pink-footed Geese, and four Common Redshanks (North America’s first record, with the only subsequent record occurring here four years later). Numerous Northern Wheatear and as many as three “Eurasian” Whimbrel were also recorded during that time. What was missed?!?! Could we be in for another fallout?!?!

STAY TUNED!!!

This map shows the winds as they currently are (Friday evening, April 25) ... looking awesome!!

This map shows the winds as they currently are (Friday evening, April 25) … looking awesome!!

Another map showing the winds forecast for Sunday afternoon -- things only get better!!

Another map showing the winds forecast for Sunday afternoon — things only get better!!

The potential arrival of European Golden Plovers are a much anticipated thing for Newfoundland birders, who keep an eye on the trans-Atlantic weather and and scour fields and barrens along the northeast coast. - Photo: Jared Clarke

The potential arrival of European Golden Plovers are a much anticipated thing for Newfoundland birders, who keep an eye on the trans-Atlantic weather and and scour fields and barrens along the northeast coast.
– Photo: Jared Clarke (May 16, 2010)

These two Black-tailed Godwits, which showed up on the Bonavista peninsula in May 2011, mark the only other record of multiple birds in Newfoundland.  - Photo: Jared Clarke (May 25, 2011)

These two Black-tailed Godwits, which showed up on the Bonavista peninsula in May 2011, mark the only other record of multiple birds in Newfoundland.
– Photo: Jared Clarke (May 25, 2011)

 

Off the Rock: Hawaii (Part 2: Big Island, cont’d)

You can read Part 1 of our recent Hawaiian birding adventure here.

BIG ISLAND (March 12-17)

After two busy days of birding and setting up shop, Jody Allair and I greeted our Eagle Eye tour group on the evening of Wednesday, March 12. Our crew for the next eleven days consisted of a dozen wonderful people from Ontario, British Columbia, Washington, Michigan, and Japan.

A view of Hakalau Forest, with a large Ohia Lehua looming in the foreground.

A view of Hakalau Forest, with a large ohia lehua looming in the foreground.

March 13

Our exploration of Hawaii kicked off the next morning with a visit to one of Big Island’s most special and protected places – Hakalau Forest National Wildlife Refuge on the eastern (windward) slopes of Mauna Kea. The ancient Hawaiian name Hakalau means “many perches”, reflecting its importance both as bird habitat and in their traditional culture. Since the refuge area is managed and protected by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, we visited with Hawaii Forest & Trail – a great local company with exclusive rights to bring tours into this and wonderful place. Our guide for the day was Gary Dean, who is not only intimately familiar with the birds of Hakalau, but also Canadian transplant!

Our first bird stop along the Saddle Road gave us great looks as several Chukar – another introduced game bird that has become well established in the area. A short while later, we were thrilled with excellent views of Pueo (Short-eared Owl) which is native and thought to have colonized the islands after the arrival of the Polynesians. After flying around for a minute or two, this beautiful owl perched right alongside the road to give us incredible views! The rest of the drive offered roadside views of other great birds such as Pacific Golden Plover, Erckel’s Francolin, and Ring-necked & Kalij Pheasants.

The Pueo is a native subspecies of Short-eared Owl. This one posed for looks on the eastern slopes of Mauna Kea.

The Pueo is a native subspecies of Short-eared Owl and has a special place in traditional Polynesian culture and stories. This one posed for looks on the eastern slopes of Mauna Kea.

The Omao is one of only two native thrushes left in Hawaii. It is usually difficult to see, giving itself away only by its beautiful song. (This one was photographed on the Puu Oo trail.)

The Omao is one of only two native thrushes left in Hawaii. It is usually difficult to see, giving itself away only by its beautiful song. (This banded individual was photographed on the Puu Oo trail.)

I was immediately struck by the lushness of Hakalau Forest as we pulled into the parking area … the hillsides were vibrant with stands of ohia, koa and other large trees. While this forest is home to one of the most intact native forests in Hawaii, it didn’t take long to spot introduced and alien plants lurking in the understory – due mainly to the area’s history as a large pastureland. Fortunately, the predominate bird species in this area were also native, with impressive numbers of Iiwi, Apapane and Hawaii Amakihi calling and foraging throughout our hike. We were extremely fortunate with great views of several Omao – one of just two native thrushes left in Hawaii. Introduced songbirds were relatively scarce in this forest, with just a handful of Japanese White-Eye, Red-billed Leiothrix and House Finch being seen during our several hour walk.

Hakalau Forest is also home to some of the rarest plants in the world, and we were fortunate to see several of them, such as the very endangered lobelias Shipman’s Cyanea (Cyanea shipmanii) and Hillside Clermontia (Clermontia lindseyana). We also encountered several of Hawaii’s intriguing “mintless” mint plants, which evolved to suit their formerly safe island ecosystem.

'Ohi wai (Clermontia pyrularia) is one of several very rare and endangered lobelia species in Hawaii. Their unique flower shapes have evolved along with the long-billed honeycreepers, many of whose own recent extinction have spelled doom for the plants which relied on them for pollination. Nature can be at once amazing and sadly vulnerable.

Haha/Shipman’s Cyanea (Cyanea shipmanii) is one of several very rare and endangered lobelia species in Hawaii. Their unique flower shapes have evolved along with the long-billed honeycreepers, many of whose own recent extinction have spelled doom for the plants which relied on them for pollination. Nature can be at once amazing and sadly vulnerable.

Several species of mint in Hawaii have evolved without the characteristic mint flavour/aroma since it offered no survivial advantage in the absence of native herbivores. This has since proven to be a deadly adaptation, with introduced animals like feral pigs having decimated many populations.

Giant mint (Phyllostogia brevidens) is a very rare endemic plant that is extinct in the wild, occurring now only where replanted. Several species of mint in Hawaii have evolved without the characteristic mint flavour/aroma since it offered no survivial advantage in the absence of native herbivores. This has since proven to be a deadly adaptation, with introduced animals like feral pigs having decimated many populations.

Despite the poor photos, we had quite good looks at this otherwise skulky Hawaiian Creeper. One of the dullest honeycreepers, it is designed to be secretive.

Despite the poor photos, we had quite good looks at this otherwise skulky Hawaiian Creeper. One of the dullest honeycreepers, it is designed to be secretive.

Our key bird targets for this day included two rare honeycreepers that are restricted to these native old-growth forests. We scored our first early on – a very skulky Hawaiian Creeper foraging quietly along the hidden inner branches of a koa tree. Incredibly, we ended up seeing or hearing a total of five including two attending a nest – possibly one of the rarest observations of the entire tour!! We soon nailed our second target species, although it was a little less cooperative … an Akepa was seen feeding high up in the canopy of an ohia tree, often hiding amongst the leaves and against the bright sunlight. Another was seen by just a few members of the group, and a third was heard singing. Two I’o (Hawaiian Hawk) circled over our picnic spot, while several Hawaii Elepaio (“volcano” race) were found frolicking from branch to branch in their typical style. All in all, it was awesome birding and a fantastic day in one of Hawaii’s most pristine forests!

A beautiful, birdy hike through Hakalau Forest made for an awesome first day of our Hawaiian adventure.

A beautiful, birdy hike through Hakalau Forest made for an awesome first day of our Hawaiian adventure.

March 14

With one fantastic day and several amazing birds already under our belt, we headed back to Mauna Kea the following morning (March 14) – this time to the drier western slopes and the home of another very rare honeycreeper. The mamane-naio forest of Puu La’au is one of the best places to see Palila – a critically endangered species that feeds almost entirely on the green seed pods of mamane trees. We were very fortunate to have one of the birds, the last remaining “grosbeak honeycreeper” of Hawaii, fly across the road in front of our vans on the drive up. It landed right alongside the road, allowing almost the entire group some very good looks before it disappeared a few minutes later. We continued up to an elevation of ~7500′ where Jody and I had seen a pair just two days prior, hoping for even more. Unable to see or hear any after a 20 minute stroll, we were headed back to the vehicles when one of our participants picked up on one flying in … and suddenly there were four!! Although they were never close enough for great photos, they did obligingly sit still long enough for everyone to get wonderful scope views. Seeing five of these incredibly threatened birds was awesome – and a highlight that would be hard to beat.

The Palila is one of the most endangered birds in Hawaii, with its entire population living in an area on the western slopes of Mauna Kea that can be seen in one panoramic view from the Saddle Road. All the other "grosbeak honeycreepers" have already become extinct.

The Palila is one of the most endangered birds in Hawaii, with its entire population living in an area on the western slopes of Mauna Kea that can be seen in one panoramic view from the Saddle Road. All the other “grosbeak honeycreepers” of Hawaii have already become extinct.

The forests on the western slopes of Mauna Kea are relatively dry and predominated by native mamane, naio and the now endangered sandalwood trees.

The forests on the western slopes of Mauna Kea are relatively dry and predominated by native mamane, naio and endangered sandalwood trees.

These mamane-naio forests host one of the densest populations of Amakihi in Hawaii, and their nasal calls were a constant reminder of that. The pale, frosty “Mauna Kea” race of Hawaii Elepaio also lives here. We were lucky enough not only to see a pair of this classy little bird but also found a nest they were building high up in a naio tree. Several Wild Turkeys were seen and heard during the morning, and two California Quail frolicked on the roadside during our drive down. Skylarks were plentiful in the area, entertaining us with their fluty song and peppy display flights.

Apapane are perhaps the most common and widespread honeycreeper in Hawaii. These energetic, brilliant red birds occur on all the main islands.

Apapane are perhaps the most common and widespread honeycreeper in Hawaii. These energetic, brilliant red birds occur on all the main islands.

After lunch at nearby Mauna Kea State Park, part of our group hiked the Puu Oo trail in hopes of seeing another very rare honeycreeper, Akiapola’au. While they were unable to track down this hard-to-find bird, they did enjoy great looks at Iiwi, Apapane, Hawaii Amakihi, Hawaii Elepaio, and even two obliging Omao. A Red-billed Leothrix, common but often hard to see, also showed up for the party. Other members of the group who did not feel like hiking the rough trail terrain explored the roadsides near Kipuka 21 – another very birdy location that is unfortunately closed to the public. We enjoyed several flocks of Yellow-fronted Canary, dozens of Apapane and a probable Metallic Skink that slinked away before being confirmed.  A rainy drive back along the Saddle Road produced a Pueo (Short-eared Owl), several Erckel’s Francolin, and an increasingly rare Japanese Quail that graced our lead vehicle (Jody, not me!!) by flying across the road.

Saffron Finches, introduced from South America, add some extra colour to the Kona scenery.

Saffron Finches, introduced from South America, add some extra colour to the Kona scenery.

March 15

Our last morning in the Kona region was a little more relaxed, starting (for me at least) with a little poking around near the hotel. I especially enjoyed the Golddust Day Geckos and Green Anoles hanging out on trees and plants along the path, but also the stunning little Saffron Finches feeding in the grass. Zebra and Spotted Doves were just about everywhere, while Common Myna, Japanese White-Eyes and the occasional Java Sparrow or Yellow-billed Cardinal brightened up the scenery.

Each morning, smart-looking Golddust Day Geckos could be found sunning themselves on large leaves near our hotel.

Each morning, smart-looking Golddust Day Geckos could be found sunning themselves on large leaves near our hotel.

While Green Anoles actually occur in several colours, I liked these "typically" green ones best.

While Green Anoles actually occur in several colours, I liked these “typically” green ones best.

We checked a small water drip at a local mall where songbirds often stop to drink & bathe, finding little activity outside House Sparrows and several Common Waxbills.

Gray Francolin were found skulking in the underbrush along the trail at Honokohau Bay.

Gray Francolin were found skulking in the underbrush along the trail at Honokohau Bay.

From there we headed to Honokohau Bay, where the short trail to the beach produced great looks at two Gray Francolin, several Pacific Golden Plover and a Mongoose. Butterflies included Cabbage White, Large Orange Suplhur, Monarch, and Gulf Fritillary. Along the shoreline we enjoyed a handful of Wandering Tattlers, Ruddy Turnstones, and a single Sanderling. Several Green Sea Turtles were lounging in the tidal pools or on the exposed lava rock along the beach.

Wandering Tattlers are among the most common shorebirds in Hawaii - but still quite exciting for an east coaster like me!

Wandering Tattlers are among the most common shorebirds in Hawaii – but still quite exciting for an east coaster like me!

At Aimikapa Pond were several endemic Hawaiian Coots (Alae Ke’oke’o), Black-crowned Night Heron, and introduced Cattle Egret, along with migrant waterfowl including Northern Shoveler, Ring-necked Duck, and Green-winged Teal. Two Hawaiian Stilts were seen foraging on the far edge of the pond and large Milkfish (introduced from the Philippines) lurked in the water in front of us, their dorsal fins breaking the surface like small sharks.

Hawaiian Coots, like this one at Aimikapa Pond, are now considered an endemic species - split from its American counterpart. Most have a fully white frontal shield, although a minority exhibit a red shield.

Hawaiian Coots, like this one at Aimikapa Pond, are now considered an endemic species – split from its American counterpart. Most have a fully white frontal shield, although a minority exhibit a red shield.

It was time to make our first big move of the tour, driving south along the coast to our next location near Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Along the way, we stopped for lunch at Manuka State Park, where our third race (“Kona”) of Hawaii Elepaio came out to greet us not far from the picnic area. Japanese White-Eye, Apapane, and Hawaii Amakihi fluttered around the treetops as we ate, along with a nice example of “yellow” House Finch. Our next stop at Whittington State Park was also quite birdy, with numerous Saffron Finch and a big flock of Nutmeg Mannikin hanging out near the parking area. The highlight, however, was a distant group of Hawaiian (Black) Noddy feeding over the rough ocean waters. We arrived at our beautiful lodgings in Volcano in time to settle in and head out for a much deserved meal.

The tree fern forests of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park had a "jurassic" vibe.

The tree fern forests of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park had a very “Jurassic Park” vibe.

March 16

We started our day at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park with a visit to the famous Thurston Lava Tube – along, snaking cave that once (several hundred years ago) had red hot lava flowing through it. The lush tree fern forest surrounding the cave was alive with birds, especially Apapane which were feeding on red ohia blossoms. We were also fortunate to have an Omao fly in and land alongside the trail just metres away, stopping just long enough for us to revel in its beautiful song. Since we had arrived early and beat the usual “tourist” traffic, we were able to enjoy a quiet stroll through these very prehistoric feeling forests before heading off to our next destination.

Our excellent Eagle Eye Tours group at the entrance to the Thurston Lava Tube.

Our excellent Eagle Eye Tours group at the entrance to the Thurston Lava Tube.

HVNP_LavaFlow_3823Heading south along the Chain of Craters Road, we drove through a series of dry, grassy forests interspersed on otherwise black, barren lava fields. It was amazing to see the vast lava flows and to imagine the eruptions that must have produced them – beautiful, frightening, creative and destructive all at the same time. Quick stops along the road allowed us to explore the fields and see both types of lava up close – the rough, jagged “a’a” and the smoother, pillow-like “pahoehoe“. However, we soon discovered that the extremely high winds of the morning had forced a road closure, preventing us from reaching our ultimate destination at the Holei Sea Arch. The winds didn’t stop us from enjoying the view, though, as we walked down to a nearby viewpoint, braced ourselves against the railing, and gazed in awe over the stunning volcanic coastline.

The stark but beautiful coastline on the Chain of Craters Road shows how various lava flows, over many years, met the ocean.

The stark but beautiful coastline on the Chain of Craters Road shows how various lava flows, over many years, met the ocean.

Kalij Pheasant (male)

Kalij Pheasant (male)

We continued back along the road and visited the Jaggar Museum, which overlooks the Kilauea Caldera. We took in great views as the caldera steamed away, and even managed to spot our first White-tailed Tropicbird cruising around the edge of the crater (where, incredibly, a few even nest!). We also visited the nearby Visitors Centre, where Kalij Pheasants strutted around in full view.

Kilauea Caldera - an active crater where lava continuously bubbles a few hundred feet below the rim.

Kilauea Caldera – an active crater where lava continuously bubbles a few hundred feet below the rim.

Erckel's Francolin, introduced from Africa, are common throughout the Big Island, Kauai and parts of Oahu.

Erckel’s Francolin, introduced from Africa, are common throughout the Big Island, Kauai and parts of Oahu.

Our lunch, at a lush green picnic spot on the Mauna Loa Road, proved to be another highlight of the day. We were entertained by three very friendly Erckel’s Francolin that have clearly become accustomed to people (and their food!), as well as numerous Hawaii Amakihi and Apapane hanging out in the nearby trees. Two new butterflies were also spotted – a Long-tailed Blue (aka Pea Blue) and a female Fiery Skipper. However, the best butterfly of the entire trip were discovered during our afternoon hike on the Bird Park (Kipuka Puaulu) trail, where we encountered several Kamehameha Butterflies – one of two endemic butterflies, and definitely the most flashy. I hung back to try for better photos, only to spot the other endemic butterfly – Blackburn’s Little Blue! The trail was also quite birdy, getting most of the group their first good looks at a secretive Red-billed Leiothrix.

Kamehameha_HVNP_3948

Kamehameha Butterfly

Kamehameha Butterfly is one of two endemic butterflies in Hawaii, and by far the most flashy looking. Unfortunately these individuals did not cooperate for upperwing photos.

Kamehameha Butterfly is one of two endemic butterflies in Hawaii, and by far the most flashy looking. Unfortunately these individuals did not cooperate for upperwing photos.

Hawaii has two endemic butterflies, the smallest and most understated of which is Blackburn's Little Blue. Note the irridescent green underwings - a distinguishing mark from several other species of blue that have been introduced.

Blackburn’s Little Blue is the other, more understated of Hawaii’s two endemic butterflies. Note the irridescent green underwings – a distinguishing mark from several other species of blue that have been introduced.

After a lovely evening meal in Volcano, we headed back to Kilauea Caldera to see the glow of lava emanating from the crater. It was pretty amazing sight, made even better by an owl soaring around the rim.

KilaueauCrater_Night_4007smMarch 17

We did a little morning birding around the beautiful property and neighbourhood of our accommodations in Volcano, seeing lots of Apapane, House Finches, and a few Northern Cardinals. We also heard our first Hwamei (Melodious Laughing Thrush) of the trip, though in typical fashion it failed to materialize from its forested haunts.

The rest of our day was taken up with travel, as we caught our flights to Kauai – the second island in our Hawaiian adventure. We did manage to sneak in a little birding during a stopover in Honolulu, hanging out in the airport’s Japanese garden where we saw our first Red-vented and Red-whiskered Bulbuls (including a brand new fledgling of the latter).

Off the Rock: Hawaii (Part 1: Big Island)

Follow these links to read subsequent installments of our recent Eagle Eye Tours adventure in Hawaii:

As mentioned in an earlier blog post, I was recently asked to co-lead an Eagle Eye Tours birding trip to Hawaii. After much anticipation, reading and training my tongue to perform the acrobatics necessary to pronounce Hawaiian bird names – the time (March 10-25) has come and gone. It was an absolutely amazing experience, with lots of great birds, incredible scenery and a wonderful group of people. I was privileged to co-lead the trip with Jody Allair, who not only shares my sense of wonderment with all things natural but is an awesome birder with lots of experience birding the beautiful islands of Hawaii.

In a nutshell, the tour took our group to three islands – Big Island (Hawaii), Kauai and Oahu over 12 days. At the end of the tour, Jody and I headed over to Maui for a little extra birding before heading home. Every island was a totally different experience in terms of scenery, birding & birds — and each one equally incredible. Over the next couple weeks, I will try to summarize our trip over several blog posts. Here’s the first installment:

BIG ISLAND (Pre-tour: March 10-12)

After a long day of traveling nearly halfway around the globe, Jody and I arrived in Kona late on the evening of Monday, March 10. With the tour not slated to started for another two days, this gave us time to sort out some details, do a little scouting and (most importantly) squeeze in some extra birding. We started in first thing Tuesday morning by picking up the van and heading “mauka” (inland towards the volcanoes) and up in elevation. We had an amazing day and scored some  very hot birds (including some of the world’s rarest).

A view of Hawaii's highest peak, Mauna Kea, poking up above the clouds - taken from our airplane.

A view of Hawaii’s highest peak, Mauna Kea, poking up above the clouds – taken from our airplane.

The edge a kipuka visited by the Puu Oo trail, where the old growth forest meets the barren lava flow.

The edge of a kipuka visited by the Puu Oo trail, where the old growth forest meets the barren lava flow.

Our first stop was the Puu Oo trail, which at ~5700′ elevation winds across lava fields on the SE slopes of Mauna Kea (one of the largest but dormant volcanoes of Hawaii). Importantly, the trail visits several kipukas (islands of old growth forest spared between the otherwise barren lava flows) which are home to a number of endemic bird species. Our big target was Akiapola’au which has been a nemesis for Jody, eluding him on his previous visits. Often described as having one of the most amazing bills in the world, this spunky honeycreeper uses its stout lower mandible like a woodpecker to drill holes and flake bark, and then its long, curved upper mandible to probe out insects and larvae from within. It is also a very threatened species, occurring only on Big Island and (like many endemic forest birds of the Hawaiian Islands) in select sections of high elevation forest.

A view of Mauna Kea, taken from the Puu Oo trail. This is a fabulour hike through some very interesting landscapes, not to mention some very hot birding!

A view of Mauna Kea, taken from the Puu Oo trail. This is a fabulous hike through some very interesting landscapes, not to mention some very hot birding!

With dogged focus, we ignored the Apapane and Iiwi calling around us and headed straight for the first large stand of Koa about a mile in. Hopeful (but not over-confident!), we slowly worked our way through the trees, scanning and listening for the family group that had been spotted here several times in recent weeks. About fifteen minutes later, I heard Jody calling out to me with obvious excitement in his voice. Not only had he finally found an Akiapola’au, but it was a beautiful adult male. Amazingly, the bird honoured us by hanging out for almost an hour, going about its business using that incredible bill, and sometimes feeding just metres above or in front of us! It was a fantastic experience and a perfect way to start our two weeks in Hawaii!!

This male Akiapola'au, one of Big Island's rarest and most special birds, graced us for almost an hour. Check out that crazy bill!!

This male Akiapola’au, one of Big Island’s rarest and most special birds, graced us for almost an hour. Check out that crazy bill!!

The Elepaio, an energetic little monarch flycatcher, occurs on three of the Hawaiian Islands, where each has been split into separate species. Here on Big Island, the Hawaii Elepaio even has three distinct races - this once being considered the "volcano" race.

The Elepaio, an energetic little monarch flycatcher, occurs on three of the Hawaiian Islands, where each has been split into separate species. Here on Big Island, the Hawaii Elepaio has three distinct races – this once being of the “volcano” race.

We continued our hike further along the Puu Oo trail, visiting two other kipuka and trekking over rugged, barren patches of ‘a’a lava (the rougher of the two forms of lava fields). The hike produced great looks at several other endemic species like Hawaii Elepaio, Hawaii Amakihi, and even the more secretive Omao which is one of only two species of Hawaiian thrush that have so far escaped extinction. It is very sad to think that these birds were once far more widespread on the island and are now struggling for existence in these small patches of sanctuary; almost waiting for climate change and the rising “avian malaria line” to push them even closer to the brink. We also saw two I’o (Hawaiian Hawks) soaring high over the vast lava flows, and encountered our first of two endemic butterflies – the unassuming Blackburn’s Little Blue. And of course there were several introduced bird species, including the ever-present Japanese White-Eye and the lovely Red-billed Leiothrix.

Two Hawaiian Hawks (an endemic species) soared high above us on the Puu Oo trail ... not exactly stunning photo opportunities, but great birds!

Two Hawaiian Hawks (an endemic species) soared high above us on the Puu Oo trail … not exactly stunning photo opportunities, but great birds!

Hawaii has two endemic butterflies, the smallest and most understated of which is Blackburn's Little Blue. Note the irridescent green underwings - a distinguishing mark from several other species of blue that have been introduced.

Hawaii has two endemic butterflies, the smallest and most understated of which is Blackburn’s Little Blue. Note the irridescent green underwings – a distinguishing mark from several other species of blue that have been introduced.

It seems strange to see California Quail in Hawaii, yet they are well established an now one of the more abundant game birds of the island's forests.

It seems strange to see California Quail in Hawaii, yet they are well established and now one of the more abundant game birds of the island’s forests.

Later in the afternoon we headed to the mamane-naio forests, which grow high up on the drier slopes of Mauna Kea. Here, our main target would be Palila – another very rare/ critically endangered species and the last remaining “grosbeak honeycreeper” in all of Hawaii. From one point in the road we could see the entire range of this species on one section of the volcano slope. It is scary that one fire or small eruption could wipe that species off the face of the earth. Driving slowly up the road, we saw several California Quail (one of a several game birds that were long ago introduced to the Hawaiian Islands), several yellow House Finches that required second looks, and a frosty white “Mauna Kea” race of Hawaii Elepaio.

Palila feed primarily on the flowers and seed pods of Mamane trees, tying them to this unique ecological niche on the western slopes of Mauna Kea.

Palila feed primarily on the flowers and seed pods of Mamane (above) and Naio trees, tying them to this unique ecological niche on the western slopes of Mauna Kea.

We stopped near a location where several Palila had been reported in recent weeks, walking quietly along the road listening for their whistled calls. Plenty of Hawaii Amakihi were calling and zipping around, but no sign of our targets. We both commented that the mamane trees in the area didn’t appear to have many blossoms, so we trotted a bit further uphill where we could see more of the yellow pea-like flowers. Sure enough, Jody’s keen ear picked up some whistles which we followed off the road and further uphill. Soon we spotted two Palila feeding in the distant treetops. Moments later they lifted off and flew … straight towards us! They landed nearby and continued to feast on the mamane seed pods for which their big, finch-like bills have specially evolved Despite the foggy conditions and lack of photographic opportunities (see some distant ones in my next post), they gave us great looks for about two minutes before heading back over the hill and out of sight. Awesome birds!!

Hawaii Amakihi are one of the more numerous honeycreepers on Big Island. Like their cousins, they are very enigmatic and rarely pose for photos.

Hawaii Amakihi are one of the more numerous honeycreepers on Big Island. Like their cousins, they are very enigmatic and rarely pose for photos.

We headed back down the mountain to the beautiful seaside town of Kona, celebrating our fantastic day with seafood and a couple beer. Still one more day before the tour starts, and with our two big targets down we decided to spend it doing some light birding around Kona and sorting out some details for the coming week.

I woke the next morning to the sound of House Finches, Japanese White-Eyes, and Zebra Doves singing outside our hotel window. From the balcony I enjoyed my first looks at Java Sparrow, as well as a dastardly Mongoose lurking in the garden shadows. This predatory animal was introduced from Asia in the late 19th century and has since wreaked havoc on many native species – preying on small birds, killing chicks of larger species, and stealing eggs from nests. It is one of just many introduced species (animal and plant) that have ravaged the natural ecology of he Hawaiian islands.

Java Sparrows are common in the Kona area, with this one hanging out around the gardens and lawns of our hotel.

Java Sparrows are common in the Kona area, with this one hanging out around the gardens and lawns of our hotel.

After breakfast, Jody and I headed to a local mall – not to shop, but to bird the surrounding fields and a water drip that attract a variety of songbirds. Although we didn’t find any of the Estrilda finches we had expected, we did find two Yellow-billed Cardinals, a Nutmeg Mannakin, and a few Yellow-fronted Canaries among the more common birds. Several Monarch, Large Orange Sulphur and Cabbage White Butterflies flitted around in the fields.

Green Sea Turtles are widespread in tropical and subtropical seas of the world. Many of the Pacific population visit the shoals and beaches of Hawaii, often hauling out to enjoy the sun. Not unlike many of the tourists who also visit here!

Green Sea Turtles are widespread in tropical and subtropical seas of the world. Many of the Pacific population visit the shoals and beaches of Hawaii, often hauling out to enjoy the sun. Not unlike many of the tourists who also visit here!

Our next stop was to bird the beaches of Honokohau Bay and the small freshwater Aimikapa Pond. Here we encountered our first Wandering Tattlers, Ruddy Turnstones and Sanderling of the trip, along with a number of Pacific Golden Plovers (which are common throughout Hawaii in many different habitats!). There were also at least six Green Sea Turtles milling about in the shallow waters or lounging on the beach – very fun to see, even if they don’t do much! One large one enjoying the sun allowed some good photo opportunities, and with my telephoto lens I was able to give it lots of space when doing so (an important thing to do, though many people approach far too close). In the pond we saw several Black-crowned Night Heron (native) and dozens of Cattle Egret (introduced), the endemic Hawaiian Coot (Alae Ke’oke’o) along with a group of migrant waterfowl that included Northern Shoveler, Lesser ScaupRing-necked Duck, and Green-winged Teal.

GreenSeaTurtle_3292For the afternoon, we changed pace (and medium!) by heading to a south Kona beach for some snorkeling in a shallow coral reef. It was my first introduction to snorkeling, and a totally awesome experience! Dozens of tropical fish swam unperturbed around us, including several Reef Triggerfish (Humuhumunukunukuapua’a; Hawaii’s official state fish and the longest word in the language!), Moorish Idol, Yellow TangCornetfish, Parrotfish, and several species of Butterflyfish. Even a couple Green Sea Turtles got in on the action, one swimming right alongside for me a minute or so.

And thus ended our first 48 hours in Hawaii – and my first blog post about it. But lots of adventures left … so stay tuned for the next installment in a few days!

Koa trees, like these on the Puu Oo trail, are an important native tree on the Hawaiian islands. They are not only part of important ecological niches for threatened species like Akiapoloa'au and Hawaii Creeper, but it is also used in a lot of local woodcraft due to its beautiful grain.

Koa trees, like these on the Puu Oo trail, are an important native tree on the Hawaiian islands. They are not only part of important ecological niches for threatened species like Akiapoloa’au and Hawaii Creeper, but it is also used in a lot of local woodcraft due to its beautiful grain.

At many of Kona's beaches, like this on in Honokohau harbour, the traces of black volcanic sand can be seen mixed in with lighter sand.

At many of Kona’s beaches, like this on in Honokohau harbour, the traces of black volcanic sand can be seen mixed in with lighter sand.

Common Myna is another common, introduced species of the Hawaiian Islands. They can be seen just about anywhere, but I like this photo of one walking around on the lava as it meets the sea at Honokohau harbour, Kona.

Common Myna is another common, introduced species of the Hawaiian Islands. They can be seen just about anywhere, but I like this photo of one walking around on the lava as it meets the sea at Honokohau harbour, Kona.

Black-crowned Night Herons (Auku'u) are native to Hawaii, having colonized the islands before people.

Black-crowned Night Herons (Auku’u) are native to Hawaii, having colonized the islands before people.

COMMON SHELDUCK !!

News rolled in late this evening that a drake COMMON SHELDUCK had been photographed in Renews earlier today! This duck, which ranges across much of Europe and Asia, is a mega-rarity in North America, and no doubt any Newfoundland birder who can slip away from whatever responsibilities they might have tomorrow will be out looking for it.

This drake COMMON SHELDUCK was discovered this afternoon, feeding along the tidal flats in Renews. It was very wary and flew off when the photogrpher stepped out of his car - hopefully it will be refound!! - Photo: Tony Dunne (April 2, 2014)

This drake COMMON SHELDUCK was discovered this afternoon, feeding along the tidal flats in Renews. It was very wary and flew off when the photogrpher stepped out of his car – hopefully it will be refound!!
– Photo: Yvonne/Tony Dunne (April 2, 2014)

In fact, Common Shelduck has never “officially” been recorded in North America! Although there have been a number of good candidates in the past decade or so, a shadow of uncertainty has always fell over these reports since this classy-looking duck is regularly kept in captivity and the provenance of all individuals spotted in the “wild” is always questioned. However, there is little doubt that this particular bird is wild and will likely mark the first “accepted” record for the ABA region. All the factors line up:

– There are no known sources for an escaped Common Shelduck anywhere even close to nearby.
– In fact, there is a large & growing breeding population of Common Shelduck in Iceland – and that may indeed be closer than any captive birds!
– The timing is perfect, since Common Shelducks should be migrating to Iceland right now. They typically begin arriving there in late March, with the first one this year having been reported on March 12.
– The weather has been right, with strong E/NE winds prevailing the past few days — just what we need for Icelandic migrants to be directed our way. And Renews, on the far east coast of Newfoundland, is the perfect location for one to stop in.

 

 

 

There is one previous record for the province – an individual that was found and photographed in St. John’s on November 17, 2009. Unfortunately it flew off a few minutes later and was never relocated. (NOTE – As discussed above, this record has never been officially considered or recognized by the ABA, although many birders such as myself feel quite strongly that it was most likely a wild bird that strayed during fall migration from breeding grounds in Iceland.)

Photo: Tony Dunne (April 2, 2014)

Photo: Yvonne/Tony Dunne (April 2, 2014)