Island Hopping: Trinidad & Tobago (Part 2)

** This is the second installment about the recent Eagle Eye Tours trip I co-led in Trinidad & Tobago (December 2015). Click HERE to read the first post **

As mentioned in my previous post, much of our time on the island of Trinidad was spent on and around the beautiful (and very birdy!) Asa Wright Nature Centre. We thoroughly enjoyed the large property, incredible veranda, and wonderful trails that were available to us while staying there.

Long-billed Starthroat was one of the more uncommon hummingbirds on the island, although several could be found frequenting the feeders at Asa Wright Nature Centre.

Long-billed Starthroat was one of the more uncommon hummingbirds on the island, although several could be found frequenting the feeders at Asa Wright Nature Centre.

Crested Oropendola was one of the most abundant and conspicuous birds around the estate, and their raucous calls and behaviour became the backdrop for lots of amazing birding!

Crested Oropendola was one of the most abundant and conspicuous birds around the estate, and their raucous calls and behaviour became the backdrop for lots of amazing birding!

Despite being abundant throughout the property, and lots of other places we visited, it was impossible to overlook the beautiful Purple Honeycreeper. Centre staff said they were in larger than normal numbers this year.

Despite being abundant throughout the property, and lots of other places we visited, it was impossible to overlook the beautiful Purple Honeycreeper. Centre staff said they were in larger than normal numbers this year.

Not all the birds we enjoyed were as gaudy, easy to find or possible to photograph. Gray-throated Leaftosser is very dull, skulky and secretive - and not always seen on our tours. Not only were we able to get the entire group on one such bird, but several of us had multiple encounters and Jody & I even found a nest!

Not all the birds we enjoyed were as gaudy, easy to find or possible to photograph. Gray-throated Leaftosser is very dull, skulky and secretive – and not always seen on tours. Not only were we able to get the entire group on one such bird, but several of us had multiple encounters and Jody & I even found a nest!

And neither was the brilliance restricted to the birds. We enjoyed many beautiful butterflies, not the least of which was this amazing Blue Transparent (Ithomeia pellucida).

And neither was the brilliance restricted to the birds. We enjoyed many beautiful butterflies, not the least of which was this amazing Blue Transparent (Ithomeia pellucida).

Less endearing to some, this endemic Trinidad Chevron Tarantula (Psalmopoeus cambridgei) was making itself at home in the centre's main house. We saw it every day, although I never quite got used to the idea that it could be anywhere.

Less endearing to some, this endemic Trinidad Chevron Tarantula (Psalmopoeus cambridgei) was making itself at home in the centre’s main house. We saw it every day, although I never quite got used to the idea that it could be anywhere.

Another view of the Long-billed Starthroat. The hummingbird feeders and their many patrons never got boring!

Another view of the Long-billed Starthroat. The hummingbird feeders and their many patrons never got boring!

Though less colourful overall, I always enjoyed seeing a Spectacled Thrush and its permanently "surprised" look!

Though less colourful overall, I always enjoyed seeing a Spectacled Thrush and its permanently “surprised” look!

Going out after dark also produced some very interesting creatures, including the Trinidad Mountain Crab (Pseudotelphusa garmani). For a boy that grew up beside the ocean, there was just something strange about seeing crabs away from water and well up in the mountains!

Going out after dark also produced some very interesting creatures, including the Trinidad Mountain Crab (Pseudotelphusa garmani). For a boy that grew up beside the ocean, there was just something strange about seeing crabs away from water and well up in the mountains!

Another nocturnal creature I enjoyed seeing was the Tailless Whip Scorpion. Thee are harmless, of course, and not even a real scorpion - but a tad creepy just the same!

Another nocturnal creature I enjoyed seeing was the Tailless Whip Scorpion. These are harmless, of course, and not even a real scorpion – but a tad creepy just the same!

Asa Wright Nature Centre was also an excellent base from which to do day-trips, taking us to a range of habitats and amazing birding areas throughout northern and central Trinidad. We explored montane rainforests, grasslands, wetlands and even coastal swamps and fishing harbours – finding lots of great birds and other wildlife everywhere! And the scenery.

Birding in the rainforests and higher elevations of the Northern Range was definitely a highlight. We got to see some amazing vistas and lots of great birds along the winding mountain roads.

Birding in the rainforests and higher elevations of the Northern Range was definitely a highlight. We got to see some amazing vistas and lots of great birds along the winding mountain roads.

We regularly saw Common Black Hawks soaring overhead or down in the valley, but seeing them perched gave them an even more majestic look. Surveying his kingdom!

We regularly saw Common Black Hawks soaring overhead or down in the valley, but seeing them perched gave them an even more majestic look. Surveying his kingdom!

An unfortunate case of "Stellar bird, crappy photo"! This male Guianan Trogon obliged us by sitting right out in the open - amazing looks, but hard light for photography. Ah well ...

An unfortunate case of “Stellar bird, crappy photo”! This male Guianan Trogon obliged us by sitting right out in the open – amazing looks, but hard light for photography. Ah well …

Palm Tanagers were abundant and easily overlooked ... but this bright male was quite entertaining after taking a bath.

Palm Tanagers were abundant and easily overlooked … but this bright male was quite entertaining after taking a bath.

The lush rainforests of the Northern Range were full of life, though it was often hard to spot. Birding here was a tangled mess of fun and frustration - but mostly fun. We scored a lot of great birds!

The lush rainforests of the Northern Range were full of life, though it was often hard to spot. Birding here was a tangled mess of fun and frustration – but mostly fun. We scored a lot of great birds!

One of my favourite trees that we encounterd (though luckily never fell against!) is the Sandbox Tree. It is covered in thick, very sharp spikes, contains poisonous sap, and produces a fruit that actually "explodes" when ripe to disperse its seed! Trees can be cool.

One of my favourite trees that we encountered (though luckily never fell against!) is the Sandbox Tree. It is covered in thick, very sharp spikes, contains poisonous sap, and produces a fruit that actually “explodes” when ripe to disperse its seed! Trees can be cool.

We found this well-camouflaged Streaked Flycatcher while birding along the Blanchisseuse road. Amazingly, everyone got great looks!

We found this well-camouflaged Streaked Flycatcher while birding along the Blanchisseuse road. Amazingly, everyone got great looks!

Another striking butterfly, the White Lycid (Arawacus aetolus) has very differeny patterning above (white) and below (beautifully and colourfully striped).

Another striking butterfly, the White Lycid (Arawacus aetolus) has very different patterning above (white) and below (beautifully and colourfully striped).

While all of our excursions were exciting, there is always something special about night birding. We visited an agricultural centre one evening to look for nocturnal species and were not disappointed. The first birds we found were a pair of Tropical Screech Owls - one of which sat obligingly for a few minutes before heading off to hunt. We also spotted a Barn Owl nearby.

While all of our excursions were exciting, there is always something special about night birding. We visited an agricultural centre one evening to look for nocturnal species and were not disappointed. The first birds we found were a pair of Tropical Screech Owls – one of which sat obligingly for a few minutes before heading off to hunt. We also spotted a Barn Owl nearby.

We also found a number of Common Pauraque (above), White-tailed Nightjars and one Common Potoo hunting and sitting on various perches.

We also found a number of Common Pauraque (above), White-tailed Nightjars and one Common Potoo hunting and sitting on various perches.

A daytime visit to the same area produced a good variety of grassland and wetland species, including the very classy-looking Southern Lapwing.

A daytime visit to the same area produced a good variety of grassland and wetland species, including the very classy-looking Southern Lapwing.

We found a pair of Pied Water-Tyrants in the wet, muddy fields of the agricultural centre. The male looked quite dapper, I thought!

We found a pair of Pied Water-Tyrants in the wet, muddy fields of the agricultural centre. The male looked quite dapper, I thought!

Cattle Egrets were abundant in the wet open fields of Nariva Swamp. What do you think that one egret is looking at?

Cattle Egrets were abundant in the wet open fields of Nariva Swamp. What do you think that one egret is looking at?

We also encountered a few Spectacled Caimen, including this fella chilling out near the road in Nariva. The name comes from a bony ridge between the eyes, which can give a spectacled appearance.

We also encountered a few Spectacled Caiman, including this fella chilling out near the road in Nariva. The name comes from a bony ridge between the eyes, which can give a spectacled appearance.

While Pinnated Bittern was one of our prime targets in the Nariva Swamp, finding one can be a real challenge. We were fortunate to spy this one sticking its head up out of the tall grass.

While Pinnated Bittern was one of our prime targets in the Nariva Swamp, finding one can be a real challenge. We were fortunate to spy this one sticking its head up out of the tall grass.

Equally exciting, though much less expected, was this Rufous Crab-Hawk sitting in the open. What a beautiful bird, and very uncommon to see!

Equally exciting, though much less expected, was this Rufous Crab-Hawk sitting in the open. What a beautiful bird, and very uncommon to see!

Another beautiful raptor of the lowlands, and much more common, is the Yellow-headed Caracara. We spotted this one having lunch on an ocean breakwater.

Another beautiful raptor of the lowlands, and much more common, is the Yellow-headed Caracara. We spotted this one having lunch on an ocean breakwater.

We were lucky to have great looks at several Great Antshrikes during our time on Trinidad, including a pair that could often be found near the parking area at Asa Wright.

We were lucky to have great looks at several Great Antshrikes during our time on Trinidad, including a pair that could often be found near the parking area at Asa Wright.

Woodpeckers run the gamut from drab & boring to bold & colourful. This Golden-Olive Woodpecker is definitely among the latter - what a looker!

Woodpeckers run the gamut from drab & boring to bold & colourful. This Golden-Olive Woodpecker is definitely among the latter – what a looker!

A visit to the west coast of Trinidad gave us an opportunity not only to find some great birds, but also check out some cultural and scenic sites. The "Temple in the Sea" at Waterloo is a beautiful spot, and a real monument to both human spirit and the country's rich Hindu culture.

A visit to the west coast of Trinidad gave us an opportunity not only to find some great birds, but also check out some cultural and scenic sites. The “Temple in the Sea” at Waterloo is a beautiful spot, and a real monument to both human spirit and the country’s rich Hindu culture.

The coastal scenery was also dotted with birds - many of which we wouldn't see elsewhere. Here, a Brown Pelican sits on a local fishing boat moored in the bay.

The coastal scenery was also dotted with birds – many of which we wouldn’t see elsewhere. Here, a Brown Pelican sits on a local fishing boat moored in the bay.

We also enjoyed watching a flock of Black Skimmers working cooperatively to find and catch food. Notice the outskirts of Port-of-Spain (Trinidad's capital city) in the background.

We also enjoyed watching a flock of Black Skimmers working cooperatively to find and catch food. Notice the outskirts of Port-of-Spain (Trinidad’s capital city) in the background.

We also took time to visit the nearby Dattareya temple, which is home to an 85ft Hanuman murti (statue) - the largest outside of India.

We also took time to visit the nearby Dattareya temple, which is home to this 85ft Hanuman murti (statue) – the largest outside of India.

A late afternoon boat tour into Caroni Swamp proved to be both fun and birdy. Among highlights were our only Green-throated Mango, Straight-billed Woodcreeper, and Masked Cardinals. We also spotted this large Tree Boa (Corallus ruschenbergerii) taking a nap in the mangroves.

A late afternoon boat tour into Caroni Swamp proved to be both fun and birdy. Among highlights were our only Green-throated Mango, Straight-billed Woodcreeper, and Masked Cardinals. We also spotted this large Tree Boa (Corallus ruschenbergerii) taking a nap in the mangroves.

The climax of this boat trip, and a major highlight of the entire tour, was seeing hundreds of Scarlet Ibis (and many other herons/egrets) flying into roost on a single island before dusk. What an amazing, colourful spectacle!

The climax of this boat trip, and a major highlight of the entire tour, was seeing hundreds of Scarlet Ibis (and many other herons/egrets) flying into roost on a single island before dusk. What an amazing, colourful spectacle!

 

What a great way to end the Trinidad portion of our tour! Stay tuned for the next installment and our visit to Tobago!

What a great way to end the Trinidad portion of our tour! Stay tuned for the next installment and our visit to Tobago!

 

 Click here to read Part 3 of our adventure in Trinidad & Tobago!

Island Hopping: Trinidad & Tobago (Part 1)

A few weeks ago (December 2015), I was honoured to co-lead yet another trip with Eagle Eye Tours … this time, their annual adventure in Trinidad & Tobago! If you’re not familiar with this company, please check them out – they are a great Canadian company that offers amazing trips to many of the world’s best birding locations and I always enjoying working with them. They are also committed to being environmentally responsible and giving back to birds & conservation programs wherever they travel!

Trinidad & Tobago provides a great introduction to the birds of South America … it has a selection of almost every bird family found in mainland countries, but in a smaller and easier to navigate setting. In fact, we birded many habitats across much of the country while staying at just two locations … and we saw a LOT of awesome birds and other wildlife!

This funky-looking Tufted Coquette was just one of many awesome birds that we enjoyed during the 2015 Eagle Eye Tours trip to Trinidad & Tobago.

This funky-looking Tufted Coquette was just one of many awesome birds that we enjoyed during the 2015 Eagle Eye Tours trip to Trinidad & Tobago.

On the larger island of Trinidad, we stayed at the famous Asa Wright Nature Centre, where incredible birding was literally right at our doorstep! This centre and lodge was a pioneer in the world of ecotourism, and remains one of the best places for birding in the tropics. Whether relaxing on the veranda, walking the trails or taking a day-trip to nearby parts of the country, we encountered awesome birds,wildlife and scenery at every turn. Not to mention great people, delicious food and an endless supply of wonderful, locally grown coffee!

The view from the veranda at Asa Wright Nature Centre looks down over a lush valley in Trinidad's Northern Range. Lots of great birds and other wildlife in there!!

The view from the veranda at Asa Wright Nature Centre looks down over a lush valley in Trinidad’s Northern Range. Lots of great birds and other wildlife in there!!

A portion of the proceeds from this tour went to support the great work of both Bird Studies Canada (represented here by my friend & co-leader Jody Allair, centre) and the Asa Wright Nature Centre. Our group REALLY enjoyed their stay!

A portion of the proceeds from this tour went to support the great work of both Bird Studies Canada (represented here by my friend & co-leader Jody Allair, centre) and the Asa Wright Nature Centre. Our group REALLY enjoyed their stay!

Using the Asa Wright Nature Centre as our base, we explored a variety of habitats throughout northern and central Trinidad – mountain rainforests, grasslands, wetlands and even coastal swamps and fishing harbours. And during our “down time” we enjoyed the incredible birding available on the centre’s large estate – much of which remains wild and natural rainforest. The large veranda at the main house is alive with birds – dozens of hummingbirds, tanagers, orioles,  honeycreepers, oropendolas and many more beautiful species taking advantage of a rich offering of food!

Some of our best birding was done right from the veranda! Dozens of humming bird feeders and a buffet of fresh fruit brought an amazing variety of birds right to us.

Some of our best birding was done right from the veranda! Dozens of humming bird feeders and a buffet of fresh fruit brought an amazing variety of birds right to us. Here, some Bananaquits enjoy a juicy chunk of melon.

Plenty of other birds were spotted in the canopy surrounding the nature centre, including this beautiful Channel-billed Toucan.

Plenty of other birds were spotted in the canopy surrounding the nature centre, including this beautiful Channel-billed Toucan.

The estate offers lots of great birding right on site - property around the lodge, amazing trails, and even the road.

The estate offers lots of great birding right on site – property around the lodge, amazing trails, and even the road.

And it's not just birds. Trinidad has an incredible diversity of butterflies, including the large and beautiful Blue Morpho (known locally as the "Emperor").

And it’s not just birds. Trinidad has an incredible diversity of butterflies, including the large and beautiful Blue Morpho (known locally as the “Emperor”).

One of the most awe-inspiring birds found in the Northern Range is the Bearded Bellbird. Even more amazing than its wattled "beard" is its incredible call - something that has to be heard ot be believed. (Apologies for the poor photo - they are well concealed in the forest canopy and we were fortunate to have such great looks at this one!)

One of the most awe-inspiring birds found in the Northern Range is the Bearded Bellbird. Even more amazing than its wattled “beard” is its incredible call – something that has to be heard to be believed. (Apologies for the poor photo – they are well concealed in the forest canopy and we were fortunate to have such great looks at this one!)

Of course, hummingbirds are huge part of any visit to the tropics, and there is no shortage here! White-chested Emeralds were among the most confiding at Asa Wright's very busy feeders.

Of course, hummingbirds are huge part of any visit to the tropics, and there is no shortage here! White-chested Emeralds were among the most confiding at Asa Wright’s very busy feeders.

Less common at feeders but fun to watch were the hermits, like this Green Hermit. Despite being larger than the other hummers, they were often bullied away from the food and fed with interesting strategies.

Less common at feeders but fun to watch were the hermits, like this Green Hermit. Despite being larger than the other hummers, they were often bullied away from the food and fed with interesting strategies.

Many wild mammals in Trinidad are secretive and rarely seen, but the Red-rumped Agouti has adapted well to human settlement and enjoyed the fresh fruit being offered to birds at the nature centre.

Many wild mammals in Trinidad are secretive and rarely seen, but the Red-rumped Agouti has adapted well to human settlement and enjoyed the fresh fruit being offered to birds at the nature centre.

While some birds are well camouflaged for life in the forest, others are brilliant. Violaceous Euphonia is certainly among the most colourful!

While some birds are well camouflaged for life in the forest, others are very colourful. Violaceous Euphonia is certainly among the most brilliant!

Some birds advertise themselves in much more elaborate ways than colour. Male White-bearded Mannikins perform very entertaining courtship dances at leks, and we got to enjoy the show on a couple occasions. This little fella has his beard puffed out (some might joke that I've been known to use a similar strategy!).

Some birds advertise themselves in much more entertaining ways than colour. Male White-bearded Mannikins perform elaborate courtship dances at leks, and we got to enjoy the show on a couple occasions. This little fella has his beard puffed out (some might joke that I’ve been known to use a similar strategy!).

Here, another White-bearded Mannikin poses during part of the performance, showing a little less of the beard.

Here, another White-bearded Mannikin poses during part of the performance, showing a little less of the beard.

Frogs were often heard but rarely seen on our hikes, but we were fortunate to find a chorus of Trinidad Stream (Yellow-throated) Frogs. These tiny but very noisy critters are endemic to Trinidad, making it an extra special treat to see!

Frogs were often heard but rarely seen on our hikes, but we were fortunate to find a chorus of Trinidad Stream (Yellow-throated) Frogs. These tiny but very noisy critters are endemic to Trinidad, making it an extra special treat to see!

Even more fortunate was this sighting of another endemic species - Urich's Litter Frog. These tiny frogs are nocturnal, and we found one sitting on a leaf during a night stroll.

Even more fortunate was this sighting of another endemic species – Urich’s Litter Frog. These tiny frogs are nocturnal, and we found one sitting on a leaf during a night stroll.

Tufted Coquettes are stunning, but somewhat scarce in Trinidad. One or maybe two pairs can be found at Asa Wright, and photographing them was one of my "goals" during our visit. It proved a little tougher than anticipated since they never visit feeders, are extremely fast and active, and can be a bit elusive. It took a few days to figure out the feeding patterns of this male, but it eventually paid off with some decent photo opportunities. I love this bird!

Tufted Coquettes are stunning, but somewhat scarce in Trinidad. One or maybe two pairs can be found at Asa Wright, and photographing them was one of my “goals” during our visit. It proved a little tougher than anticipated since they never visit feeders, are extremely fast and active, and can be a bit elusive. It took a few days to figure out the feeding patterns of this male, but it eventually paid off with some decent photo opportunities. I love this bird!

A friend of mine described the male Tufted Coquette as the "David Bowie of hummingbirds", and here you can see why.

A friend of mine described the male Tufted Coquette as the “David Bowie of hummingbirds”, and here you can see why. Check out that crazy costume!

There are lots of other beautiful creatures to be found, including this Variegated Gecko which occurs only in Trinidad and northern Venezuela.

There are lots of other beautiful creatures to be found, including this Variegated Gecko which occurs only in Trinidad and northern Venezuela.

One of the most special experiences we had was a trek to see the Oilbirds at Asa Wright. These almost mythical birds are the only nocturnal flying fruit-eating birds in the world, using a combination of echolocation (just like bats!) and specially adapted eyesight to navigate in the dark. They live in caves, and produce the most guttural, haunting sounds you can imagine. Visiting the cave is a surreal experience, to say the least!

One of the most special experiences we had was a trek to see the Oilbirds at Asa Wright. These almost mythical birds are the only nocturnal flying fruit-eating birds in the world, using a combination of echolocation (just like bats!) and specially adapted eyesight to navigate in the dark. They live in caves, and produce the most guttural, haunting sounds you can imagine. Visiting the cave is a surreal experience, to say the least! We were also fortunate enough to spot four flying over the the valley in search of food one evening.

Another colourful visitor to the Asa Wright property is the Yellow Oriole ... what a great looking bird.

Another colourful visitor to the Asa Wright property is the Yellow Oriole … what a great looking bird.

Equally colourful, though of a very different hue, is the Blue-gray Tanager. These beautiful birds were regular visitors to the veranda feeders, yet I somehow came away with out a single unobscured photo!

Equally colourful, though of a very different hue, is the Blue-gray Tanager. These beautiful birds were regular visitors to the veranda feeders, yet I somehow came away with out a single unobscured photo (but I do like this one!).

One of the more understated birds that frequent the fruit trays are White-lined Tanagers. They were, nevertheless, very entertaining!

One of the more understated birds that frequent the fruit trays are White-lined Tanagers. They were, nevertheless, very entertaining!

In addition to great bring, we also took opportunities to learn about the local culture and economy. Trinidad is well known for its cocoa, and here our group is learning first-hand how it is traditionally harvested and processed.

In addition to great birding, we also took opportunities to learn about the local culture and economy. Trinidad is well known for its cocoa, and here our group is learning first-hand how it is traditionally harvested and processed.

In addition to cocoa, you can often find coffee growing throughout the landscape. Nothing goes better with a day of birding at Asa Wright than a great cup of coffee that was grown, harvested and roasted right on site!

In addition to cocoa, you can often find coffee growing throughout the landscape. Nothing goes better with a day of birding at Asa Wright than a great cup of coffee that was grown, harvested and roasted right on site!

Among my favourite hummingbirds were the White-necked Jacobins ... very classy!

Among my favourite hummingbirds were the White-necked Jacobins … very classy!

We had no trouble spotting a few Golden Tegu Lizards. At nearly a metre long, the largest of these critters could appear a little menacing and I usually gave one the right-of-way if I met it on a path!

We had no trouble spotting a few Golden Tegu Lizards. At nearly a metre long, the largest of these critters could appear a little menacing and I usually gave one the right-of-way if I met it on a path!

Smaller, but still a little menacing, was the Trinidad Chevron Tarantula. We spotted several of these, including this large female during a night stroll. Another (apparently a male) was making itself at home in the main house of the Asa Wright lodge. I hardly ever sat down without checking for it first!

Smaller, but still a little menacing, was the Trinidad Chevron Tarantula. We spotted several of these, including this large female during a night stroll. Another (apparently a male) was making itself at home in the main house of the Asa Wright lodge. I hardly ever sat down without checking for it first!

As you can tell by now, night time can be just as exciting as daytime when looking for life in the tropics. We saw or heard five species of owl in Trinidad, including this cooperative Ferruginous Pygmy Owl.

As you can tell by now, night time can be just as exciting as daytime when looking for life in the tropics. We saw or heard five species of owl in Trinidad, including this cooperative Ferruginous Pygmy Owl.

Stay tuned for more photo highlights in Part 2 of our adventure in Trinidad & Tobago!

 Click here to read Part 2 of our adventure in Trinidad & Tobago!

Rearview Mirror II: Looking Back on a Busy Summer

Here is a second installment of photo highlights from Summer 2015! It was a busy few months leading adventures for Eagle Eye Tours, Wildland Tours, and lots of Bird-The-Rock clients!

Black-backed Woodpeckers are regular but somewhat uncommon in Newfoundland ... we were fortunate to bump into several during our hikes through older growth forest.

Black-backed Woodpeckers are regular but somewhat uncommon in Newfoundland … we were fortunate to bump into several during our hikes through older growth forest.

The sheer number of seabirds, including Common Murre, can overwhelm visitors to Witless Bay Ecological Reserve. Here a small flurry zip past our boat.

The sheer number of seabirds, including Common Murre, can overwhelm visitors to Witless Bay Ecological Reserve. Here a small flurry zip past our boat.

A Humpback Whale cruises past some beautiful sea stacks in Trinity Bay.

A Humpback Whale cruises past some beautiful sea stacks in Trinity Bay.

Check out the white upperside on those big fins ... one of the feautres that separates Atlantic Humpback Whales from their cousins in the Pacific.

Check out the white upperside on those big fins … one of the features that separates Atlantic Humpback Whales from their cousins in the Pacific.

A Razorbill stands stoic on Gull Island (part of the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve). This is one of the best places to see this very classy-looking bird.

A Razorbill stands stoic on Gull Island (part of the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve). This is one of the best places to see this very classy-looking bird.

Visiting the historic town of Trinity is a highlight for many tours, and it lso makes a great backdrop for a boat tour!

Visiting the historic town of Trinity is a highlight for many tours, and it also makes a great backdrop for a boat tour!

Blue Flag Irises flank a cannon that still stands guard at the entrance to Trinity's storied harbour.

Blue Flag Irises flank a cannon that still stands guard at the entrance to Trinity’s storied harbour.

The Newfoundland race of Red Crossbill (percna) is considered enedmic to the island, and is currently considered a "species at risk" in the province.

The Newfoundland race of Red Crossbill (percna) is considered endemic to the island, and is currently considered a “species at risk” in the province.

Pine Siskins are among my favourite birds -- understated but beautiful and fun to watch.

Pine Siskins are among my favourite birds — understated but beautiful and fun to watch.

Some very classy butterflies also made the highlight list, including the small but brilliant Northern Blue.

Some very classy butterflies also made the highlight list, including the small but brilliant Northern Blue.

Atlantic Puffins, our provincial bird, can be found at several colonies along the coast.

Atlantic Puffins, our provincial bird, can be found at several colonies along the coast.

An Otter stakes claim to his little piece of shoreline.

An Otter stakes claim to his little piece of shoreline.

Arctic Terns sit on the beach at Holyrood Pond, showing off their catch.

Arctic Terns sit on the beach at Holyrood Pond, showing off their catch.

A female Mourning Warbler was spotted carrying food. This is a very scarce breeder on the Avalon Peninsula, but becomes more common further west on the island.

A female Mourning Warbler was spotted carrying food. This is a very scarce breeder on the Avalon Peninsula, but becomes more common further west on the island.

This rare yellow form of Pitcher Plant (our provincial flower) was found near Fort Point, Trinity Bay.

This rare yellow form of Pitcher Plant (our provincial flower) was found near Fort Point, Trinity Bay.

Sometimes we got up close and personal with a curious whale!

Sometimes we got up close and personal with a curious whale!

A tranquil moment along the Salmonier River.

A tranquil moment along the Salmonier River.

Caribou were a bit elusive this summer, but we did run into a few on the barrens of the southern Avalon.

Caribou were a bit elusive this summer, but we did run into a few on the barrens of the southern Avalon.

While Tufted Ducks are common during winter, summer sightings are few and far between. We were fortunate to see this immature male hanging out at a city pond.

While Tufted Ducks are common during winter, summer sightings are few and far between. We were fortunate to see this immature male hanging out at a city pond.

This Common (Eurasian Green-winged) Teal (left) was another summer surprise. It was hanging out with a regular Green-winged Teal in a small pond in St. Mary's Bay.

This Common (Eurasian Green-winged) Teal (left) was another summer surprise. It was hanging out with a regular Green-winged Teal in a small pond in St. Mary’s Bay.

The archaeological dig at the Colony of Avalon (Ferryland) showcases one of North America's earliest European settlements.

The archaeological dig at the Colony of Avalon (Ferryland) showcases one of North America’s earliest European settlements.

Magnolia Warblers make for colourful additions to any day of birding on the island.

Magnolia Warblers make for colourful additions to any day of birding on the island.

A male Yellow-rumped Warbler checks out his territory.

A male Yellow-rumped Warbler checks out his territory.

It was an awesome summer with some many highlights … many of which could never be captured with a camera!

Catching Up (with a White-winged Tern!!)

It has been an extremely busy summer … which I guess is a good thing when you’re in the ecotourism business 😉 Between Bird⋅The⋅Rock clients and commercial tours with my friends at Wildland and Eagle Eye Tours, I’ve had many opportunities to share the wonderful birds & nature of Newfoundland with visitors from all over the world, as well as lead a fun birding tour in beautiful New Brunswick! With that in mind, I now have a lot of catching up to do – so expect a full summer’s worth of great stories and photo highlights here on the blog over the next few weeks!!

However, the first “catching up” I had to do this week was with a very rare tern that showed up in Newfoundland while I was away. While leading a birding tour in New Brunswick, I received a series of texts about a WHITE-WINGED TERN that had been discovered in Conception Bay South – just 20 minutes from my home! As painful as it was, I soon learned that it seemed to be settled and had some routine habits – a good sign that it might hang around for a few days. Five days later, after concluding the tour, I was headed home and focused on seeing this beautiful bird for myself … until foggy weather in St. John’s forced the cancellation of my flight! Following an unplanned night in Montreal and a reroute through Toronto (my sixth province that month), I finally arrived home on the evening of Tuesday, August 25.

This breeding plumaged White-winged Tern was a very unexpected find when discovered by local birder Paul Linegar on August 19. It is normally found in southeastn Europe and Asia (wintering in in Africa and Australia), and is a very rare wanderer to North America.

This breeding plumaged White-winged Tern was a very unexpected find when discovered by local birder Paul Linegar on August 19. It is normally found in southeastern Europe and Asia (wintering in Africa and Australia), and is a very rare wanderer to North America.

The next morning, I headed straight to Chamberlain’s Pond where the tern was known to feed regularly throughout the day. I scanned the pond and, seeing nothing, stepped out of the car – when THE tern immediately flew in off the ocean and directly in front of me!! It continued to course around the far side of the pond, flying acrobatics and hawking insects off the water’s surface, for about 10 minutes before flying over my head again and out over the ocean, headed towards the nearby marina where it had been originally discovered. I relocated it there a short while later, but it was too far to enjoy or photograph. After some poking around, I found a public access to the long breakwater/sandbar opposite the marina and made the 15 minute stroll along its length to where I had last seen it. It was nowhere to be found, so I waited patiently – until it suddenly appeared out of nowhere and flew by just metres away! Fortunately I was able to raise my camera and snap off a few photos as it glided past – not perfect, but still precious! What a stunning and graceful bird!

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This beautiful bird represents the first record of White-winged Tern for the province – one that local birders may have dreamed about but never “really” expected to see here.

The black underwing coverts seen in this photo are an important feature, distinguishing this mega rarity from the very similar Black Tern (which while still somewhat rare in Newfoundland is by far the more expected species).

The black underwing coverts seen in this photo are an important feature, distinguishing this mega rarity from the very similar Black Tern (which while still somewhat rare in Newfoundland is by far the more expected species).

Notably, two other exciting birds have been reported recently. A moulting adult YELLOW-LEGGED GULL has been spotted in east St. John’s several times over the past two weeks – a virtually annual visitor here but still a huge rarity for North America in general. Far less expected, a highly probably BLACK-BROWED ALBATROSS was reported by a fisherman near Cape St. Mary’s on August 29 – a huge rarity that we are hoping will be spotted again!

Stay tuned to the blog for a series of reports on our adventures this past summer!

Lots of amazing birding, whales, scenery and fun this summer ... check back soon for some photo highlights!

Lots of amazing birding, whales, scenery and fun this summer … check back soon for some photo highlights!

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Another teaser from my most recent adventure - an Eagle Eye Tours trip to New Brunswick and the beautiful Bay of Fundy!

Another teaser from my most recent adventure – an Eagle Eye Tours trip to New Brunswick and the beautiful Bay of Fundy!

Off the Rock: Hawaii (Part 5: Maui)

It’s been a long and mostly uneventful winter in Newfoundland. With the latest snowstorms billowing around me and the final stages of some tedious contract work spread out before me, I’ve been day-dreaming about an exotic getaway. Several of my friends are currently birding in far-flung, tropical places … including Hawaii, where I was fortunate enough to co-lead a birding adventure for Eagle Eye Tours exactly one year ago this week (March 2014).

I wrote a four-part blog series about that tour last spring, but ran out of steam before telling you about the post-tour excursion that co-leader Jody Allair and I made to Maui at the end of the trip. Now seems like the perfect time to remember …

Maui (March 23-24, 2014)

After bidding farewell to our wonderful tour group, Jody Allair and I caught a morning flight from Honolulu to Maui for our own little excursion. Maui is home to three endemic songbirds that cannot be found on the other islands (sadly, there were others that are now extinct). However, two of those can only be found in the Wakamoi Nature Preserve which is closed to commercial tour groups. Fortunately, Jody had been able to arrange a private hike with a local Nature Conservancy volunteer (thanks Chuck!), and we were stoked at the opportunity to go birding there!

We arrived at the Kahului airport, picked up our car and headed straight for nearby Kanaha Pond. Here we enjoyed a variety of wetland birds, including more than a dozen Hawaiian (Black-necked) Stilts, five Hawaiian Coots, Ruddy Turnstones, Sanderling, Black-crowned Night Herons and a pair of Northern Shovelers. Three Grey Francolins were skulking near the entrance. (Unfortunately, we also discovered that my spotting scope had not fared so well on the latest flight and was no longer working — luckily it hadn’t happened earlier in the tour!)

Hawaiian (Black-necked) Stilt

Hawaiian (Black-necked) Stilt

However, our sights were fixed on the heights of Haleakala as it loomed above us — and that’s just where we headed. After checking in at the fantastic lodgings Jody had booked, we made our way straight for Hosmer Grove in Haleakala National Park, where we dodged some rain showers and strolled the trails. A fine mix of native and introduced species rose up to greet us – Iiwi and Apapane are abundant here, while a few Hawaii Amakihi were hanging out near the parking lot. Japanese White-eyes were singing in the rain, and Pacific Golden Plovers had to be herded off the road. A nice surprise was a Hwamei (Melodious Laughing Thrush) that happened to be sitting in the open in a lush valley below us … great looks at this very secretive bird! But the highlight was definitely a Maui Alauahio that dropped in for a brief visit – the first Maui endemic of our visit!

I'iwi is one of the most intriguing and recognizable native songbirds in Hawaii. It's long, curved bill is highly evolved to extract nectar from several species of lobelia - many of which are also endangered.

I’iwi is one of the most intriguing and recognizable native songbirds in Hawaii. Its long, curved bill is highly evolved to extract nectar from several species of lobelia – many of which are also endangered.

We began the long, winding ascent to the summit of Haleakala, just in time to join the busloads of “tourists” for a beautiful dusk above the clouds. But typical tourists we are not, and we soon slipped away to a less busy spot just below the actual summit, where we stood in wait as the sun began to set. It wasn’t long before it happened … Jody called out and pointed behind me. I turned in time to see a Hawaiian Petrel floating gracefully towards us. Seconds later, it banked and turned just 30 feet away (close enough to hear its wings flapping in the near silence) and then disappeared over the crater’s edge. I was kicking myself for not having the big lens on the camera, having been distracted by the amazing sunset happening “below”. But it was surreal and unforgettable moment, seeing an epic pelagic seabird almost 10,000 feet above the ocean, coming in to roost above the clouds inside an ancient volcano!! It was one of the things I had been most looking forward to the entire trip.

Me, overlooking the beautiful crater near the summit of Haleakala.

Me, overlooking the beautiful crater near the summit of Haleakala.

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Haleakala Silversword is a threatened species that grows only on the high elevation, cinder slopes of this volcano. This resilient plant is strong enough to resist the wind and freezing temperature of this altitude, dehydration and the sun.

Haleakala Silversword is a threatened species that grows only on the high elevation, cinder slopes of this volcano. This resilient plant is strong enough to resist the wind and freezing temperature of this altitude, dehydration and the sun.

Darkness settled in over the next thirty minutes, but we heard and caught glimpses of about a dozen more Hawaiian Petrels as they arrived for the night … eerie yet intriguing calls as they searched out their own burrows within the protection of the crater. We also had great looks at a Hawaiian Hoary Bat, the only endemic mammal on the islands!

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We rose early the next morning, returning to Hosmer Grove where we met our guide Chuck Probst at the entrance to Waikamoi Nature Preserve. This beautiful section of rain forest and alpine shrubland has been set aside as a sanctuary for hundreds of native species – birds, plants & insects; many of them endangered. The excitement was palpable, despite the clear threat of rain. The potential of seeing two more endemic songbirds, including one of the rarest and most special birds in the world, was the whole reason we had come to Maui.

The lush rain forests of Waikamoi Nautre Preserve are home to many native and endangered species ... including some very rare birds!

The lush rain forests of Waikamoi Nature Preserve are home to many native and endangered species … including some very rare birds!

Hawaii is also home to many interesting plants. This lobelia (cyanea) species is unique in that it evolved to have thors when it is young (like this plant), but not when it older and the flowers were out of reach of the flocks of roaming, flightless ducks that once roamed Maui! Sadly, those ducks are long extinct and these wonderful plants are endangered.

Hawaii is also home to many interesting plants. This lobelia (cyanea) species is unique in that it evolved to have thorns when it is young (like this plant), but not when it older and the flowers were out of reach of the flocks of roaming, flightless ducks that once roamed Maui! Sadly, those ducks are long extinct and these wonderful plants are endangered.

A close-up of the flower of this interesting lobelia ... a classic curved shape that co-evolved with the specialized bill of the I'iwi (see above).     A clos-up of the flower of this interesting lobelia ... a classic curved shape that co-evolved with the specialized bill of the I'iwi (see above).

A close-up of the flower of this interesting lobelia … a classic curved shape that co-evolved with the specialized bill of the I’iwi (see above).

Our party of three doubled as a couple (birders and Nature Conservancy supporters) and one of the very talented field researchers working in the preserve joined us for the hike. We were nearly turned back by a combination of rain and overflowing brooks that had to be “forged”, but our determined group pushed on. And it was worth it! The lush, mostly native forests of Waikamoi were unlike others we had experienced in Hawaii, and we could “feel” the specialness of this place. It was quite birdy despite periods of rain … Iiwi, Apapane and a few Hawaii Amakihi flitted around in the canopy. As many as seven Maui Alauahio popped in throughout the morning. But the real highlights came as we approached the end of the infamous “boardwalk”, when a brilliant male MAUI PARROTBILL popped into view! This incredible honeycreeper, with a thick parrot-like bill, is critically endangered … indeed, it is possible that less than 500 adults remain in about 35 km² of habitat on the northeastern slopes of Haleakala. It is so rare that even for those lucky enough to visit this restricted area, it is missed far more often than it is seen. We continued combing the area over the next hour or so and were rewarded with THREE Maui Parrotbills (two singing males and a female). In fact, the researcher that was with us also found two more off trail, and she was ecstatic. It was an exceptional event!!

Maui Alauahip is small, active and very bright little honeycreeper. We were fortunate to see several during our short visit to Maui, including this one at the very bottom of the Waikamoi boardwalk.

Alauahio (Maui Creeper) is a small, active and very bright little honeycreeper. We were fortunate to see several during our short visit to Maui, including this one at the very bottom of the Waikamoi boardwalk.

In a strange twist, we found it harder to see Akohekohe (Crested Honeycreeper), which is generally the easier of the two. We did have good looks at one (imm) and fleeting glimpses of 2-3 others. Jody and I almost floated out of the valley and back to the trailhead. (However, due the persistent rain and the need to keep my camera tucked safely in the bag, I was unable to photograph any of these wonderful birds – a minor and insignificant complaint!)

Waikamoi Nature Preserve protects one of the most special and critically endangered habitats in the world.

Waikamoi Nature Preserve protects one of the most special and critically endangered habitats in the world.

Another unexpected, and very cool, find in the depths of Waikamoi Nature Preserve was this Carnivorous Caterpillar. This family of caterpillar, endemic to the Hawaiian islands, are unique in that they are predatorial. Their technique is straightforward ... lying in wait, when another insect wanders by it springs forward, snatches its prey and devours it. This one was on Jody's backpack, apparently looking for a BIG lunch!

Another unexpected, and very cool, find in the depths of Waikamoi Nature Preserve was this Carnivorous Caterpillar. This family of caterpillar, endemic to the Hawaiian islands, are unique in that they are predatorial. Their technique is straightforward … lying in wait, when another insect wanders by it springs forward, snatches its prey and devours it. This one was on Jody’s backpack, apparently looking for a BIG lunch!

With just a few hours ot spare before our long trip home, we snuck in a visit to Kealia Pond – and we had just 20 minutes to very quickly check the wetlands before the compound closed for the day. In addition to the expected species (e.g. Black-necked Stilts, Pacific Golden Plovers, Sanderling, Ruddy Turnstones, Black-crowned Night Herons, Hawaiian Coots, Northern Shoveler), we also saw our one and only Semipalmated Plover (a continuing bird which was quite unusual for Hawaii) and only our second gull of the entire trip – a Bonaparte’s Gull. Five Nutmeg Mannikin, two Grey Francolin and a Red-crested Cardinal were hanging out along the road heading in to the pond.

Our final birding stop in Hawaii was at a non-descript location where a local had suggested we might find some Orange-cheeked Waxbills … one of the few remaining introduced songbirds left to see on this trip! It took us a while to find the spot, but when we did the birds were right on cue – just as promised. Our final “tick” of the trip.

And then the looooong trip home …

It was an absolutely amazing trip to one of the most incredible and special places on earth … from a purely natural history point of view of course 😉 Looking forward to the next one!

2014: Looking Back on a Great Year!

It’s hard to believe that another year has zipped by … and what a year it was! The past twelve months were full of great blessings, highlights and adventures; bringing back some wonderful memories as I sit down now to reflect on them. Amazing birds, extreme weather, fun-filled tours, new friends and even a tropical adventure … 2014 had it all!!

** Be sure to follow the links to earlier blog posts for more details and LOTS more photos!! **

The first bird news for the year was actually a carry-over from 2013 — the invasion of Snowy Owls. Although the large numbers of November and December seemed to have dissipated, reports continued throughout the winter. A few individuals decided to stay, with reports from places like Trepassey, St. Shott’s, Cape Race and Bonavista’s north shore right through the summer. I saw at least one bird in June, July and August! An echo of the 2013 invasion has been taking place this fall/winter, with excellent numbers reported in November and December 2014.

Snowy Owls continued throughout the winter of 2014, following a major invasion the previous fall. This one was photographed in St. John's in early January.

Snowy Owls continued throughout the winter of 2014, following a major invasion the previous fall. This one was photographed in St. John’s in early January.

In January, I was fortunate to host four eager birders on a WINGS Birding tour. We enjoyed prime Newfoundland winter birds like Dovekie, Purple Sandpiper, Tufted Duck, Eurasian Wigeon and thousands of excellent gulls, as well as the very rare COMMON SNIPE that had just been discovered in Ferryland. Several other clients were able to enjoy this bird throughout the winter.

Four enthusiastic birders from across the United States visited St. John's last week as part of the WINGS winter tour. Here they can be seen at Cape Spear, smiling after scoring great looks at two prime targets - Purple Sandpipers and Dovekie!!

Four enthusiastic birders from across the United States visited St. John’s last winter as part of the WINGS winter tour. Here they can be seen at Cape Spear, smiling after scoring great looks at two prime targets – Purple Sandpipers and Dovekie!!

- Photo: Jared Clarke (January 25, 2014)

Equally exciting was the reappearance of our adult YELLOW-LEGGED GULL in February … it had been elusive all winter and not seen at all since December. For several weeks it appeared, almost like clockwork, at Quidi Vidi lake to bathe, drink and loaf on the ice with many other gulls. A number of visiting birders were able to capitalize on this, including several of my clients who had come primarily to “tick” this North American mega.

The Yellow-legged Gull is, in my opinion, one of the classiest looking gulls out there (and I do love gulls!). The combination of bright yellow bill and legs, brilliant red gony spot, and that magic shade of grey add up to one beautiful bird. - Photo: Jared Clarke (February 22. 2014)

The Yellow-legged Gull is, in my opinion, one of the classiest looking gulls out there (and I do love gulls!). The combination of bright yellow bill and legs, brilliant red gony spot, and that magic shade of grey add up to one beautiful bird.

Overall, Newfoundland (and most of North America!) found itself in a deep freeze for much of the winter. With the exception of a week-long thaw in mid-January, it was one of the coldest and snowiest winters in a long time. The extensive ice and limited open water resulted in a big movement of waterfowl, as well as some great photo opportunities with local ducks.

Photo opportunities with Common Mergansers are few and far between ,since they usually stick to larger patches of open water and are very wary. A small group making regular visits to Quidi Vidi have been becoming more tolerant of people and allowing some great looks. - Photo: Jared Clarke (February 22. 2014)

Photo opportunities with Common Mergansers are few and far between, since they usually stick to larger patches of open water and are very wary. A small group making regular visits to Quidi Vidi last winter became more tolerant of people and allowed some great looks.

Ring-necked Ducks breed in Newfoundland, but are rarely easy to photograph. This drake has been hanging out in the relatively small patches of open water at Quidi Vidi since early February. - Photo: Jared Clarke (February 22. 2014)

Ring-necked Ducks breed in Newfoundland, but are rarely easy to photograph. This drake was hanging out in the relatively small patches of open water at Quidi Vidi in early February.

The frigid temperatures and deep snow also resulted in a handful of small owl reports in residential areas. I even caught sight of a Northern Saw-whet Owl as it flew up from a nearby yard and landed on the wires directly in front of my house – unfortunately it only stayed for a moment. Much more cooperative was a Boreal Owl that showed up in a neighbourhood following a big storm in early February … definitely one of my photo highlights of 2014!

Boreal Owls are definitely one of my favourite birds. They are known for visiting residential neighbourhoods in mid-winter, when deep snow has impacted their traditional hunting areas in "the bush".

Boreal Owls are definitely one of my favourite birds. They are known for visiting residential neighbourhoods in mid-winter, when deep snow has impacted their traditional hunting areas in “the bush”.

March brought with it one of the highlights of my entire year – an escape to Hawaii!! I joined my good friend Jody Allair as co-leader for an Eagle Eye birding tour, where we visited three islands with a great group of birders, saw some of the coolest and rarest birds on earth, swam with sea turtles, and hiked on volcanoes. It was genuinely awesome adventure in one of the most amazing and unique ecosystems in the world. (Be sure to read my earlier blog posts – they are jam-packed with photos!).

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 Hawaii’s rarest and most special birds, graced us for almost an hour. Check out that crazy bill!! It may have been my favourite birding experience of the entire year!

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Green Sea Turtles are quite common along the Hawaiian coasts, but seeing them was still very special.

Redtailed Tropicbirds also nest on the cliffs at Kilauea Point, and were often seen floating by or engaging in their acrobatic courtships displays.

Red-tailed Tropicbirds were one of many (many!) highlights during the tour!

April can be an exciting time in Newfoundland, especially if we get the right winds … and this year we got them in spades. Prolonged northeasterly, trans-Atlatnic winds in late April and early May brought with them an invasion of European/Icelandic birds … including two COMMON REDSHANKS (only the third North American record), a dozen Black-tailed Godwits, several hundred European Golden Plovers, scores of Northern Wheatear, and a Eurasian Whimbrel.

However, the real star of the Euro Inasion was a Common Redshank at Renews from May 3-13. Since it represented just the third record (and sixth individual) for both Newfoundland and North America, many birder came from near and far to see it. A second individual presnt at the same location on May 4 was chased off by the first and never seen again!

This Common Redshank at Renews from May 3-13 was (in my opinion) Newfoundland’s best bird of 2014. Since it represented just the third record (and sixth individual) for both Newfoundland and North America, many birders came from near and far to see it.

More than 300 European Golden Plovers were reported across Newfoundland in early May - a huge (though not quite record!) invasion of this nearly annual rarity.

More than 300 European Golden Plovers were reported across Newfoundland in early May – a huge (though not quite record!) invasion of this nearly annual rarity.

Photo: Jared Clarke (April 26, 2014)

The “invasion” was first detected by the arrival of two Black-tailed Godwits at Renews in late April. Over the next 2-3 weeks, a record total of twelve were recorded around the island. Incredibly, I was able to see six of them at four locations!

To make things even more exciting, an adult ROSS’S GULL showed up for two days – considered by many to have been the most exciting bird of the entire year!

Summer was busy with tours and visiting birders … all of whom couldn’t have picked a better year to visit! We had great weather, an incredible showing of icebergs, and lots of interesting nature and wildlife experiences! I had the pleasure of leading four tours with my good friends at Wildland Tours, as well as several private clients throughout the summer – all of whom enjoyed great birds, whales, scenery, wildflowers and, of course, icebergs! And no one enjoyed it more than I did!

The icebergs in Bonavista & Trinity Bays were incredible - in number, size and sheer beauty. Some dramatic skies added to the scene at times.

The icebergs along ghe northeast coast this year were incredible – in number, size and sheer beauty. Some dramatic skies added to the scene at times.

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We enjoyed “lots” of great seabirds during the various tours – including the awe-inspiring frenzy of murres and puffins at Witless Bay Ecological Reserve.

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A couple tours lucked into the amazing scene of caplin “rolling” as they spawned on our beaches. In the North Atlantic, these small fish are a big cog in the wheel of life.

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Cape Pine also produced our first Short-tailed Swallowtails of the trip ... they were plentiful at most headlands during the week.

Short-tailed Swallowtails are always a highlight on my tours … this beautiful little butterfly is limited to very small range, mostly on the island of Newfoundland.

Although most were busy gorging on the schools of caplin, a few enetertained us with some beautiful breaches. This one in front of the historic town of Trinity!

Whales put on a great show throughout the summer – like this one breaching in front of the historic town of Trinity!

Subalpine flowers, like these Diapensia lapponica, grow on the sub-arctic tundra of Cape St. Mary's.

Subalpine flowers, like these Diapensia lapponica, grow on the sub-arctic tundra of Newfoundland and are one of many interesting wildflowers seen throughout the summer.

A Little Gull showed up in late July, hanging around for many local birders to catch up with it.

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Little Gulls are quite rare in Newfoundland, and it is especially unusual for one to cooperate and hang around for several days like this one did!

August was very wet in Newfoundland, but I managed to make the most of it – including a great Wildland Tour and lots of family adventures. A major windstorm at the end of August drove thousands of Leach’s Storm Petrels (and other birds) to the bottom of Conception Bay, making for quite a show!

Thousands of Lach's Storm Petrels fluttered over Conception Bay, driven there by the strong wrap-around winds from Tropical Storm Cristobal (August 29).

Thousands of Lach’s Storm Petrels fluttered over Conception Bay, driven there by the strong wrap-around winds from Tropical Storm Cristobal (August 29).

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Our family loves ot spend time together and travel in Newfoundland during the summer. One of our favourite destinations in beautiful Grate’s Cove, where my mother-in-law grew up and she still has an old family home that we love!

One of the most exciting events of the entire year for me had nothing to do with birds – but instead a mammal. In early September, I managed to catch up with a WALRUS that was discovered hanging out on a rocky outcrop at Bay Bulls! I have always wanted to see one of these magnificent animals, and this one did not disappoint! My story of this encounter turned out the be the most popular post on my blog, my photos were shared across the internet and picked up by various media, and the sighting was published in a local journal.

Walrus_Sept22014_7948 Walrus_Sept22014_7866An intriguing Common Gull also showed up in September – one that gave the distinct impressions of the kamchatka race originating from eastern Asia. Bruce Mactavish and I had a great experience after relocating it on a field in Goulds, and its difficult to come to any conclusion except that it was indeed a “Kamchatka Gull“. Unfortunately, it has not been seen since.

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This Common Gull which showed up in and around St. John’s in early fall was unlike any other seen here before. Could it really have been a “Kamchatka Gull” from eastern Asia?? Crazier things have happened.

A very rare Canvasback appeared in St. John’s in October … only the second record for the province and the first in more than 40 years! I managed to see it a couple times before it disappeared a couple weeks later.

This immature Canvasback provides just the second record for Newfoundland, with the last one having been more than 40 years ago!

This immature Canvasback provided just the second record for Newfoundland, with the last one having been seen in the early 1970’s!

Later that month, all eyes were on Hurricane Gonzalo as it churned north over the Atlantic ocean towards us. With dreams of tropical seabirds dancing in our heads, three of us met this huge storm at Cape Race just minutes after the eye had passed a few miles east of us. The rare birds didn’t materialize, but the incredible wave action over the next few hours was more than worth the trip!

IMG_9677 IMG_9607 IMG_9531November turned out to be an important month for Bird⋅The⋅Rock … I launched a new website and Facebook page, heralding a big step into the field of eco- and birding tourism. We also hosted an online contest, with Newfoundland birder Diane Burton winning a beautiful canvas print featuring one of my favourite bird photos! A big THANK YOU to everyone who has supported & encouraged me in this new venture!!

CBNT_CSMNovember is also an interesting time for birds in Newfoundland, and this year was no different. The “star” of the month may have been a Meadowlark that showed up in St. John’s – not necessarily because of its rarity (although it was), but because of its ambiguity. Initial photos seemed to indicate that it “could” be a Western Meadowlark, although lengthy discussions and research proved inconclusive. These species are very cryptic at the best of times, and it seems the lines between them are still quite blurry. Other good birds during the month included a Western Kingbird, Northern Mockingbird and several cool warblers (for which November is best known!).

Terrible Photo(s) #1 - A Meadowlark (Eastern? Western?) that was discovered in St. John's on November 7. It was seen over the next few days, but the cryptic nature of this bird and its plumage means we may never know which species it was!

A Meadowlark (Eastern? Western?) that was discovered in St. John’s on November 7. It was seen over the next few days, but the cryptic nature of this bird and its plumage means we may never know which species it was!

This Pine Warbler, photographed in St. Shott's a few years ago, was making good use of the late fall flies. Pine Warblers are another hardy warbler that get reported more often in November than any other month in Newfoundland.

Pine Warblers are a hardy warbler that get reported more often in November than any other month in Newfoundland.

December was relatively mild across the province, which led to some comfortable (and interesting!) birding during the first few weeks of Christmas Bird Count (CBC) season. I was fortunate to take part in the Cape St. Mary’s and St. John’s CBCs … read the blog posts for more details!

It is surreal to see Bird Rock (left) completely devoid of birds this time of year, when it is bustling with thousands of gannets during spring and summer. Here, John & Ed enjoy a mid-morning seawatch while I hiked over the eastern ridge.

Cape St. Mary’s looks very different in winter (like during this Christmas Bird Count) compared to summer when it is bustling with life.

This drake Long-tailed Duck (locally called "hounds") was feeding at the end of a breakwater in St. Bride's. Between dives, I managed to sneak up quite close by edging along on the piled boulders.

This drake Long-tailed Duck (locally called “hounds”) was feeding at the end of a breakwater in St. Bride’s during the Christmas Bird Count. Between dives, I managed to sneak up quite close by edging along on the piled boulders.

And so ended another year … we said a fond farewell to 2014 and toasted the arrival of 2015 while visiting my family in Lewisporte (central Newfoundland). So, from me and my family to you & yours

Happy New Year!

May the next twelve months bring you lots of joy, peace and outdoor enjoyment – wherever they find you!

 

 

 

 

Off the Rock: Hawaii (Part 4: Oahu)

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

OAHU (March 21-23)

We arrived in Honolulu mid-afternoon, fresh off an intense few days of birding in Kauai. We were faced with our first real taste of “urban life” since arriving in Hawaii ten days earlier, as we made our way through the city traffic to our hotel. It was worth the drive, since we found ourselves at a beautiful beachfront hotel in scenic Waikiki.

Kapiolani Park offers some wonderful birding, right in the middle of beautiful Waikiki, Honolulu.

Kapiolani Park offers some wonderful birding, right in the middle of beautiful Waikiki, Honolulu.

This White Tern chick, nearly ready to fledge, was found nestled on a branch in Kapiolani Park - one of only a few places where these stunning birds nest in Hawaii.

This White Tern chick, nearly ready to fledge, was found nestled on a branch in Kapiolani Park – one of only a few places where these stunning birds nest in Hawaii.

We wasted no time getting down to birding, heading out for a late afternoon stroll in Kapiolani Park. Our main target was White Tern, which nest very locally in just a few parks around the city. We were fortunate to see nearly a dozen adults flying around overhead, purposely heading back and forth between the nearby ocean and their nest sites hidden throughout the area. A surprising number of white (feral) Rock Pigeons complicated our search for tern chicks, but Jody’s keen eye managed to find one nestled on a high branch along the park’s boundary. The chick was surprisingly large and probably ready to fledge at anytime.  We also enjoyed great looks at about 18 beautiful Rose-ringed Parakeets, which have also taken up residence in the park and nest in some of the taller trees.

Rose-ringed Parakeets, which were introduced to the Hawaiian Islands as escaped cagebirds, are well established in some parts of Honolulu.

Rose-ringed Parakeets, which were introduced to the Hawaiian Islands as escaped cagebirds, are well established in some parts of Honolulu.

A large flock of Common Waxbill was feeding in the grass while kids played soccer just metres away, and Yellow-fronted Canaries were doing the same at the other end of the park. A handful of Red-vented Bulbuls, Red-crested Cardinals and Java Sparrows added some extra flavour to our walk, along with more familiar species like House Sparrow, House Finch and the ever-present Common Myna. Several Cattle Egrets coursed around on the park grass, while Pacific Golden Plovers scoured the beach during our walk back to the hotel. We ended the evening with a wonderful Japanese dinner.

A large flock of Common Waxbill were foraging in the centre of Kapiolani Park, offering by far the best views we had of this species in Hawaii.

A large flock of Common Waxbill were foraging in the centre of Kapiolani Park, offering by far the best views we had of this species in Hawaii.

Red-vented Bulbul is another introduced species that is now well established on Oahu, and is often considered an agricultural pest.

Red-vented Bulbul is another introduced species that is now well established on Oahu, and is often considered an agricultural pest.

Diamond Head, on the western edge of Waikiki, is seen here from Kapiolani Park.

Diamond Head, on the western edge of Waikiki, is seen here from Kapiolani Park.

March 22

Fueled by an equally excellent Hawaiian breakfast, we began the next morning with a hike on the Kuli’ou’ou Valley Trail in Honolulu.This popular trail meanders through a steep river valley and into increasingly native forests (something that is especially scarce on Oahu), where several native birds also live. A key target here was the Oahu Elepaio, which is endangered and much more difficult to find than its cousins on Big Island and Kauai. We were fortunate to hear two individuals during our hike, although Jody was the only person able to catch a glimpse of one. We also heard two Oahu Amakihi, but again both were elusive and managed to avoid our gaze. We did enjoy great looks at Red-billed Leiothrix, which are usually quite secretive, as well as several White-rumped Shama, Japanese White-eye and Common Waxbill. It was a great start to our day!

Bristle-thighed Curlew are difficult to see anywhere in North America, but winter at several locations in Hawaii. Great bird!!

Bristle-thighed Curlew are difficult to see anywhere in North America, but winter at several locations in Hawaii. Great bird!!

From Honolulu, we headed north towards James Campbell National Wildlife Refuge, stopping for some great fish tacos along the way. In and around the refuge, we were able to spot an awesome eleven Bristle-thighed Curlew – a sweet looking shorebird and one of the birds I was most looking forward to on this trip. Interestingly, one of the curlews was colour banded and wearing a satellite transmitter. Other shorebirds at this location included numerous Pacific Golden Plover, a fly-by Sanderling and a Ruddy Turnstone looking very out of place standing on a fence post! Plenty of Cattle Egret, two Black-crowned Night Heron and a couple Ring-necked Pheasants were also hanging out in the area. Non-bird highlights included several Fiery Skippers and a Brown Anole.

Fiery Skipper

Fiery Skipper

Brown Anole

Brown Anole on the boundary fence at James Campbell National Wildlife Refuge.

I have never before in my life gone ten straight days without seeing a gull, so was pleasantly surprised when we discovered a Laughing Gull at the nearby Kahuku Aqua Ponds. Any gull is a good bird in Hawaii! We also found several Hawaiian Coot, Common Gallinule and Hawaiian (Black-necked) Stilt, along with nearly a dozen Black-crowned Night Herons.

The scenic NE coast of Oahu, as seen from La'ie Point.

The scenic NE coast of Oahu, as seen from La’ie Point.

Our last birding stop of the day (and the tour!) was at La’ie Point, where we were treated to about a dozen Brown Noddies flying by at close range, along with a handful of Red-footed Boobies coasting by offshore. However the real highlight was an adult Masked Booby that we first picked up flying north past the point, then watched for more than ten minutes as it circled and plunge-dived in the distance. Everyone was able to see this excellent bird, and it was a much-wanted “lifer” for both Jody & me!! Another memorable sighting were two Green Sea Turtles that I spotted just off the coast – their behaviour had me stumped for a few minutes until I realized they were mating, with the male clinging on to the female’s back!

A natural sea arch lies just offshore at La'ie Point -- and just beyond that we were thrilled by a Masked Booby circling and plunge diving!

A natural sea arch lies just offshore at La’ie Point — and just beyond that we were thrilled by a Masked Booby circling and plunge diving!

Jody and I ended the last full day of the tour with a cold beer, watching a stunning sunset and several White Terns flying past our hotel balcony.

Waikiki Sunset

Waikiki Sunset

March 23

The tour officially ended with another great Hawaiian breakfast and a long round of heartfelt good-byes. We had been blessed with twelve days of not only excellent weather and awesome birding, but also an amazing group of people to enjoy it all with.

But for Jody and I, the adventure was not quite over … as we headed over to Maui for two more days of birding. (Check out the next installation for a summary of that post-tour excursion.)

Off the Rock: Hawaii (Part 3: Kauai)

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

KAUAI (March 17-21)

After an awesome five days on Big Island, our Eagle Eye Tours group arrived at Lihue airport late afternoon of Monday, March 17. We headed straight to our accommodations in nearby Wailua – a beautiful hotel property set right behind the beach and overlooking the ocean. Sensing everyone was wiped after our last few busy days, we settled in for a relaxing meal and some light exploration of our immediate surroundings.

A driftwood beach and thick, green grass in Wailua, just behind our hotel.

A driftwood beach and thick, green grass in Wailua, just behind our hotel.

The tiny but brilliantly coloured Chestnut Munia was one of my favourite introduced species in Hawaii.

The tiny but brilliantly coloured Chestnut Munia was one of my favourite introduced species in Hawaii.

Birding around the hotel produced some great looks at nice birds. Small flocks of Chestnut Munia were often foraging on the manicured grass, Pacific Golden Plovers paraded around the property and nearby beach, and very classy-looking Red-crested Cardinals popped up from time to time. Other birds like Zebra Dove, House Finches and Common Myna were just about everywhere. After picking up some groceries and doing some other “group leader chores”, Jody and I sat back to toast St. Patrick’s Day with a couple cold Guinness.

March 18

Our first full day on Kauai was spent at one of its most special places – the Alaka’i Wilderness Preserve. “Alaka’i Swamp”, as it is often called, is a montane wet forest, home to alpine bogs, thick (mostly) native forests, and several species of critically endangered birds. It is also quite wet, being very close to Wai’ale’ale which receives one of the highest annual rainfalls in the world. We were extremely fortunate to begin our hike in light rain & fog and make our return in beautiful, sunny weather!

A view of Wai'ale'ale - a mountain peak that is one of the wettest places on earth - from the Alaka'i Swamp trail.

A view of Wai’ale’ale – a mountain peak that is one of the wettest places on earth – from the Alaka’i Swamp trail.

We were also extremely fortunate to have prolific Hawaiian birder and author Jim Denny as our guide of the day. The hike in was a little foggy, giving an eerie impression of the surrounding forest and ridges, but was also quite birdy. Apapane called from the treetops, Kauai Amakihi popped in to check us out, and a family group of three Iiwi flicked from limb to limb. Kauai Elepaio were especially cooperative, with several coming in quite close and one even stopping in to watch me eat my lunch. While introduced species were definitely on the scarce side, we did see a number of Japanese White-Eye and heard three Japanese Bush Warblers & two Hwamei (Melodious Laughing Thrush).

Although putting on a great show, this rare Akeke'e was very difficult to photograph high in the ohia canopy.

Although putting on a great show, this rare Akeke’e was very difficult to photograph high in the ohia canopy.

However, our two main targets for the day were Anianiau and Akeke’e, both small honeycreepers that can be found only on Kauai (and the latter only in Alaka’i Swamp!). Our group managed to find three Anianiau (by far the most abundant of the two species), although all observations were fairly fleeting. The first was heard only, although a yellow blur crossing the path in front of me was likely it. The others were seen foraging about mid-canopy, which is typical for these small yellow-warbler like birds. Akeke’e, on the other hand, has been declining rapidly and becoming more and more difficult to find in the mostly remote forests of Kauai. It is often not seen during tours, and has been a nemesis for Jody on his previous visits. Once we had hiked into an area where they were known to occur (though still tough to find), we were focused on listening for its subtle call and checking every bird that flitted in the treetops. It wasn’t until we were hiking back out of the area and had nearly given up hope that I heard Jody calling out “I got it! I got it!” I had hung behind to take some scenery photos, so dropped my backpack and went crashing along the muddy. root-ridden trail with my camera in one hand and telephoto lens in the other. I eventually spotted the little bird with its distinctive forked tail feeding high above me at the very top of an ohia tree. It continued to forage in the canopy, its actions and feeding style reminding me very much of a crossbill – which is not too surprising. since it too has a bill that is slightly crossed at the tips, designed for opening tasty seeds.

This Akeke'e continued to forage at the very treetops for several minutes while we soaked in the views. In fact, its actions and feeding style reminded me very much of a crossbill - which wasn't surprising. since it too has a bill that is slightly crossed at the tips, designed for opening tasty seeds.

This Akeke’e continued to forage at the very treetops for several minutes while we soaked in the views. In fact, its actions and feeding style reminded me very much of a crossbill – which wasn’t surprising. since it too has a bill that is slightly crossed at the tips, designed for opening tasty seeds.

Two other critically endangered birds, the reclusive Akikiki and the exceedingly rare Puaiohi (one of only two native thrushes left in Hawaii) were also on our wishlist, although we knew seeing either would be an incredible stroke of luck. Both species can only be found in the deep forests of the Alaka’i Swamp, but almost always in areas that are  too far and/or difficult for tour groups. Neither made an appearance for us, but maybe (hopefully) there be a “next time”  😉

Introduced mammals, such as this Black Rat, have spelled doom for many of Hawaii's native birds.

Introduced mammals, such as this Black Rat, have spelled doom for many of Hawaii’s native birds.

Back at the head of the trail, we saw a Short-eared Owl flying high over the valley below us, as well as two White-tailed Tropicbirds soaring in the distance. Also hanging out in the area was a Black Rat – one of several introduced animals that have wreaked havoc on native birds species and are a big part of the reason that the birds of Alaka’i Swamp (along with the rest of Hawaii) are either struggling to survive or already extinct. Knowing this makes seeing such rare birds a very bittersweet experience …

The scenery along the early sections of the Alaka'i Swamp trail is stunning ...

The scenery along the early sections of the Alaka’i Swamp trail is stunning …

... and the rare and beautiful birds that can be found in the thick, wet forests only add to the mystique of this amazing place.

… and the rare and beautiful birds that can be found in the thick, wet forests only add to the mystique of this amazing place.

We also observed lots of interesting plants during our hike in Alakai Swamp ... such as these native Lobelias whose flowers  evolved along with the unique bill shapes of the honeycreepers which pollinated them. Recent declines and extinctions of the birds have been echoed in declining populations of these interdependent plants.

We also observed lots of interesting plants during our hike in Alakai Swamp … such as these native Lobelias whose flowers evolved along with the unique bill shapes of the honeycreepers which pollinated them. Recent declines and extinctions of the birds have been echoed in declining populations of these interdependent plants.

Another native plant, Ohelo is a member of the vaccinium family and related to plants like the blueberry and partridgeberry we know so well here in Newfoundland.

Another native plant, Ohelo is a member of the vaccinium family and related to plants like the blueberry and partridgeberry we know so well here in Newfoundland.

But we also saw lots of introduced and invasive species, such as this Kahili Ginger, which have threatened the survival of many native species.

But we also saw lots of introduced and invasive species, such as this Kahili Ginger, which have threatened the survival of many native species.

The amazing vistas of Waimea Canyon alone are worth the trek to Kaui's western flank.

The amazing vistas of Waimea Canyon alone are worth the trek to Kaui’s western flank.

On the drive back, we took advantage of the beautiful weather to stop and enjoy the overlook at Waimea Canyon. Sometimes called the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific”, the stunning panorama of jagged cliffs, deep gorges and distant waterfalls is breathtaking – definitely one of the most scenic place in all of Hawaii. We were fortunate to be there with the evening light bringing out the deep red colours that give the canyon its name. My photos just don’t do it justice.

WaimeaCanyon_4358 WaimeaCanyon_4413March 19

A view from Kilauea Point. Hundreds of Red-footed Boobies use this particular slope to hang out and raise their young.

A view from Kilauea Point. Hundreds of Red-footed Boobies use this particular slope to hang out and raise their young.

With the forecast calling for light-moderate NE winds, we decided to spend our second full day on Kauai visiting some prime birding spots along the north coast. Our first port-of-call was Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge, with its fabulous scenery and statuesque lighthouse providing a stunning backdrop for a morning of birding. The steep cliffs and grassy slopes of Kilauea Point are home to some of the largest populations of nesting seabirds in Hawaii. This was one of the most anticipated outings for a number of people on the tour (myself included!), and it didn’t disappoint. The jaw-dropping birding started before our vans came to a stop in the parking lot, when a Laysan Albatross glided in and sailed right over our windshields. These iconic seabirds, with nearly 6ft wingspans, breed on the grassy slopes in and around the refuge. In fact, using a scope, we were even able to pick out a chick loafing on the wooded hillside west of the point. We also noted numerous Wedge-tailed Shearwater burrows right alongside the walking trails, and even found one snoozing away under thick brush just outside the fence at the main viewing area. It was amusing to hear the eerie “moaning” they are so well known for. A few others were seen later flying way offshore, distant even with scopes. A small group of Humpback Whales frolicked a few hundred metres off the point – although, being from Newfoundland where they are common, I couldn’t bring myself to bother looking at them with so many awesome seabirds zipping by!

Laysan Albatross are one of the most recogniable seabirds in their world, with their sleek bodies and long wings.

Laysan Albatross are one of the most recogniable seabirds in their world, with their big stout bodies and long sleek wings.

Three Nene (Hawaiian Geese) were seen near the parking lot, while four others were feeding on the grassy “lawn” near the point, quite accustomed to the many onlookers. Despite the fact that I had been looking forward to seeing these classy little geese for quite some time, it was difficult to pay them much heed when Red-footed Boobies and Great Frigatebirds were constantly flying by at close range, often right overhead. A large colony of Red-footed Boobies occupies the hillside just east of the point – Jody’s rough estimate of visible birds amounted to at least 800, and we knew many more were obscured by the trees they nest in and/or flying offshore at any one time. We had several sightings of Brown Booby, which do not breed in the refuge so only pop in as infrequent visitors.

Red=footed Boobies are the most abundant bird at Kilauea Point ... hundreds can be seen sitting on snags on the nearby slopes, while others are constantly flying past at close range.

Red=footed Boobies are the most abundant bird at Kilauea Point … hundreds can be seen sitting on snags on the nearby slopes, while others are constantly flying past at close range.

Brown Boobies are less common at the refuge, but a few individuals can be seen most days. Most of our observations were a little distant, but this one started coming in for closer views during our return visit right around closing time (4:00pm).

Brown Boobies are less common at the refuge, but a few individuals can be seen most days. Most of our observations were a little distant, but this one started coming in for closer views during our return visit right around closing time (4:00pm).

Great Frigatebirds, like this female, often flew in over the point seeming to check us out. Several times we saw them harass the other birds in attempt to steal food - as is their nature.

Great Frigatebirds, like this female, often flew in over the point seeming to check us out. Several times we saw them harass the other birds in attempt to steal food – as is their nature.

Perhaps my favourite birds of the morning were the Red-tailed Tropicbirds cruising by the point, often very close. They were real show-offs, parading around with their sleek white plumage and brilliant red tail streamers. Several times we saw a pair doing their courtship ritual, cartwheeling around each other in mid-air – sometimes just metres away from us. Stunning birds! A handful of White-tailed Topicbirds were also seen, though usually not as close and somewhat less entertaining (although just as beautiful!).

Redtailed Tropicbirds also nest on the cliffs at Kilauea Point, and were often seen floating by or engaging in their acrobatic courtships displays.

Red-tailed Tropicbirds also nest on the cliffs at Kilauea Point, and were often seen floating by or engaging in their acrobatic courtships displays.

White-tailed Tropicbirds, on the other hand, tend to nest in the canyons further inland. However, a handful of individuals were seen during the day.

White-tailed Tropicbirds, on the other hand, tend to nest in the canyons further inland. However, a handful of individuals were seen during the day.

Anini Beach, with Kilauea Point looming in the background.

Anini Beach, with Kilauea Point looming in the background.

White-rumped Shama

White-rumped Shama

We ate lunch at scenic Anini Beach, where we enjoyed the relaxing atmosphere and beautiful sunny weather. One of our participants discovered a White-rumped Shama across the road, which proved to be unusually cooperative and hung around for the entire group to get great looks. Several Red-crested Cardinals were also loitering around the picnic spot.

Our next stop was the Hanalei National Wildlife Refuge, which was set up to protect critical habitat for Hawaii’s endangered water birds. While much of the refuge, consisting of wetlands, riparian pastures and large taro ponds is inaccessible to the public, a portion of it can be viewed from a public road and a large area can be scoped from an overlook on the main highway. The taro ponds, visible from the roadside, were quite active. Pacific Golden Plovers foraged on the grass, Black-crowned Night Herons and Cattle Egrets were standing on the banks and wading in the shallow water. A total of nine Nene (Hawaiian Geese) were also grazing there – most of them very close to the road and allowing for great looks.

Nene, the official state bird of Hawaii, is an endemic species that evolved from Canada Goose (which likely arrived on the islands more than 500,000 years ago and still shows up in migration from time to time).

Nene, the official state bird of Hawaii, is an endemic species that evolved from Canada Goose (which likely arrived on the islands more than 500,000 years ago and still shows up in migration from time to time).

Nene_TaroPonds_4632We also enjoyed our first looks at bona fide Koloa (Hawaiian Duck), which now can only be seen reliably on Kauai. Populations on other islands have been reintroduced and/or primarily consist of individuals that have hybridized with Mallards (We also noted several apparent hybrids on Kauai, despite efforts to control this issue here). Koloa are undoubtedly one of the rarest and most endangered ducks in the world, and could realistically become extinct as a pure species in the near future. A number of Common (Hawaiian) Gallinule and Hawaiian Coots were weaving in and out through the taro patches, enjoying the food and shelter. While the coots are considered a separate (endemic) species, the gallinules are currently considered a subspecies. However, the gallinule population is struggling and is no longer found in many of its former locations (including the islands of Big Island, Maui, Molokai and Lanai). Four Hawaiian (Black-necked) Stilts, another endemic subspecies, were also spotted wading gingerly through the shallow water.

The drab Koloa, an endemic and very endangered duck, looks similar to a female Mallard. The two species are close relatives and hybridizes regularly, posing a threat to the Koloa's survival as a pure species.

The drab Koloa, an endemic and very endangered duck, looks similar to a female Mallard. The two species are close relatives and hybridizes regularly, posing a threat to the Koloa’s survival as a pure species.

TaroPonds_4576

Taro, a staple in both contemporary & traditional Hawaiian diets, is grown on pondields in the Hanalei River valley. These taro ponds are fed by streams and rivers originating on the very wet mountaintops that surround this lush valley.

TaroPonds_4644

The taro ponds, as seen from an overlook, make up part of the Hanalei National Willife Refuge which in turn provides habitat for Hawaii’s wetland species (several of which are endangered).

CaneToad_Wailua_5041That evening, after returning to Wailua and enjoying a delicious meal of Thai food, I spent a few minutes watching and listening to some Cane Toads around our hotel.

March 20

With one more full day on Kauai, we headed back to the western side of the island. Our first stop was an overlook near Hanapepe, giving a great view into a lush canyon. It took a few minutes to locate our target bird – Rose-ringed Parakeet – but sure enough we saw several flying through the deep valley. Eventually we found a few more that obliged us by sitting majestically on open branches along the cliffs — great for scope views of these beautiful lime-green birds.

The gorgeous view from the Hanapepe lookout was just as eye-popping as they beautiful Rose-ringed Parakeets we had stopped there to see.

The gorgeous view from the Hanapepe lookout was just as eye-popping as they beautiful Rose-ringed Parakeets we had stopped there to see.

Hawaiian (Black-necked) Stilt is an endemic subspecies and exhibits more black in the head and neck than its mainland cousin.

Hawaiian (Black-necked) Stilt is an endemic subspecies and exhibits more black in the head and neck than its mainland cousin.

We continued on to a small series of salt ponds near Hanapepe, where several Hawaiian (Black-necked) Stilts and a duo of Wandering Tattler were foraging in the shallow waters and being very vocal. Several Western Meadowlarks were hear singing, and at least two were spotted on the grassy fields of nearby Port Allen airfield. A Black Francolin also put in an appearance on the far side of the airfield, perched nicely on a dead snag for all to enjoy. A quick seawatch from the coast behind the runways was most exciting as I was able to find a Hawaiian Petrel (one of my most wanted birds for the entire trip!!) flying very low along the horizon. Fortunately Jody and one participant were able to get on it before it turned and disappeared behind the waves. We also spotted one Brown Booby and a couple dozen Red-footed Boobies cruising by.

Zebra Dove

Zebra Dove

Our next stop was Koke’e State Park, where we had started our trek into Alaka’i Swamp two days earlier. This time we were met with periods of heavy rain and shifting fog, dampening our birding efforts and obscuring some of the scenic views we had hoped to enjoy. We placated ourselves with a delicious lunch in the comfort of a picnic shelter and the entertainment of several Red Junglefowl, Pacific Golden Plover and Zebra Doves roaming around the grass. Apapane and Japanese White-eyes flitted around in the nearby trees.

RedJunglefowl_Kokee_4352

Red Junglefowl were likely the first bird species introduced to the Hawaiian Islands, having been brought over by the original Polynesian settlers. While many of these birds, which are so abundant on Kauai, may be domesticated, wild birds can still be found in more remote places like Koke’e State Park.

Leaving the rain-soaked mountains, we stopped to bird at several (sunny!) coastal location on the way back to our hotel. One stop, at the Kawai’ele Sand Mine Bird Sanctuary, was very “birdy” with numerous Black-crowned Night Herons, Cattle Egrets, Ruddy Turnstones and Hawaiian (Black-necked) Stilts, as well as a flock of Nutmeg Mannakin. Another stop brought us distant views of a Wedge-tailed Shearwaters feeding over the open ocean, along with both Brown and Red-footed Boobies drifting past.

March 21

Japanese Bush Warbler, introduced in 1929, is very secretive and often hard to find in the thick understory. We were fortunate to see this one singing its distinctive song.

Japanese Bush Warbler, introduced in 1929, is very secretive and often hard to find in the thick understory. We were fortunate to see this one singing its distinctive song.

Since our last day in Kauai was also a travel day, we made the most of our morning birding. A short drive from our hotel was the Wailua River Valley – consisting of lush neighbourhoods, scenic overlooks and a wonderful walking trail. Our first stop was the Kuilau Trail, which meanders along the valley through tall, green forests and is a great place to see and hear many of the island’s introduced songbirds. We were not disappointed, hearing several secretive Japanese Bush Warblers and then having one pop out and sing in the open for us. We were also able to coax a Hwamei (Melodious Laughing Thrush) from its haunt and it, too, posed momentarily so that the entire group was able to enjoy it before sinking back into hiding. Several White-rumped Shama, Japanese White-eyes, Red-crested Cardinals and a lone Northern Cardinal also joined in, making for a very fun walk.

Opeaka'a Falls, Wailua

Opeaka’a Falls, Wailua

Our last stop of the morning was at the beautiful Opeaka’a Falls, where we enjoyed the serenity for just a few minutes before heading back and preparing for our early afternoon flight to Oahu.

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.