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.

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2 thoughts on “Off the Rock: Hawaii (Part 1: Big Island)

  1. Jared:

    Glad to see you got to see some native Hawaiian species. Hemignathus does have interesting bill morphology.

    The history of the avifauna of islands is also often a sad story because of the bird extinctions. You might be interested in the paper below. It wasn’t just European arrival that caused extinction. The discovery of subfossils in the Hawaiian archipelago showed that 32 species of birds became extinct between the time of Polynesian arrival and the time of European arrival. In fact, Polynesian colonization of the Pacific may be responsible for the extinction of 25% of the world’s bird species. Mind you, that number is high in part because every island had its own endemics that were closely related to endemics on other islands.

    Olson, S.L. & James, H.F. (1982) Fossil birds from the Hawaiian Islands: evidence for wholesale extinction by man before Western contact. Science, 217, 633–635.

    Cheers,
    Tony

    • Thanks, Tony. Yes – the natural history of Hawaii is especially interesting, amazing and in many ways sad. However we also saw some success stories which I look forward to telling you about in future posts. There is hope for some of these birds yet!

      Thanks to the experience of Jody and several local birders, lots of planning, a little hard work and a touch of luck we ended up seeing all but two of the native/endemic species on the four islands we visited …

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