Hawaii – The Most Bittersweet Adventure

Hawaii is an incredibly special place … steeped in beauty and a wealth of nature, but with a very sad tale to tell. Any visit to see its remaining (and extremely threatened) native birds is a bittersweet one – but this visit was especially so.

It was December 4 2016, and I had been in Hawaii less than 24 hours on a fast-paced, impromptu birding blitz with ABA Big Year birders John Weigel and Laura Keene (more on this below). We were waiting for a flight from Honolulu to Kahului when I was overwhelmed by an urge to check in with my family. My dear, wonderful grandmother had been in hospital for the past few weeks and I felt her tugging on my spirit. Despite the late hour at home in Newfoundland, a text to my sister got a quick response that the family had been called in and she wasn’t doing well. Within an hour I received the very sad news that she had passed away – thankfully surrounded by loved ones. I’m proud to say that I was very close to “Nan”, and that I was blessed to be able to spend lots of time with her in recent years. Being halfway across the world at this very moment was difficult, but my family urged me to carry on with my plans in Hawaii – it was certainly what Nan would have wanted. She was so proud of all her children and grandchildren, and encouraged us to explore the world in all the ways that she never could. The contrasting emotions of the week that followed are something I will never forget – the irony of seeing and celebrating beautiful birds that are so endangered they could go extinct in my lifetime; and the “highs” of daytimes doing and sharing what I love versus the “lows” of evenings spent grieving with my family from afar and trying to write fitting tributes to a beautiful woman that I’d never see again. Bittersweet, to say the very least.

Nan Seymour (pictured here with Susan and our two girls, Emma & Leslie) loved her family and was very proud of her grandchildren. She was a beautiful person who lived a generous life. She also worked hard for most of it, without many of the freedoms and blessing that we enjoy. She always relished in the fact that her grandchildren were able to go off on adventures and explore the world, and she would have loved to hear about my most recent Hawaiian trip. But I also felt her presence more than once and am sure she was there with me in ways I'll never understand.

Nan Seymour (pictured here with Susan and our two girls, Emma & Leslie) loved her family and was very proud of us. She was a beautiful person who lived a generous life. She also worked hard for most of it, without many of the opportunities that we enjoy. She always relished in the fact that her grandchildren were able to go off on adventures and explore the world, and she would have loved to hear about my most recent Hawaiian trip. But I also felt her presence more than once and am sure she was there with me in ways I’ll never understand.

But this was also a week to remember for the adventure we had. As you may know by now, John Weigel was on a birding rampage in 2016 – having already blown away the previous ABA Big Year record and leading a pack of three other birders out to leave their mark on the landscape of North American birding. But the landscape itself was changing too, and the legacy of the marks they were making now stood in the balance. The American Birding Association (ABA) had recently voted to add Hawaii to its official area, and starting in 2017 the playing field for Big Year birders would be significantly different. Dozens of new species would be up for grabs – and as incredible as the new 2016 records were looking, the “head start” that Hawaii would give future competitors would render them relatively easy to surpass.

The last time I had seen John was in Newfoundland in October – right before the ABA decision to add Hawaii was formally announced. After chatting about my previous experience in Hawaii (check out those much more detailed blog posts here), John began scheming to go there himself and “pad” his ABA record with some of those amazing Hawaiian birds. Although it might not be part of his “official” record, he also wanted to put forward an “unofficial” total that would be tough to beat! We sat on the idea for several weeks, exchanging ideas over email while he was off chasing rarities across the continent (literally – he was in Alaska, Massachusetts, Florida, California and places in between during our sporadic communications!). It was the end of November when John pulled the trigger – telling me to make my plans, gather my gear, and prepare for a Hawaiian voyage!

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!

The Hawaiian Islands are a beautiful, magical and struggling place. The array of landscapes, habitats and awesome scenery make it a wonderful place for birding – but it also has a darker, sadder side. Many of the unique bird species that evolved in these far-flung islands have already gone extinct due to pressures of habitat loss, the introduction of alien predators (especially rats and mongoose), invasive plant species that compete with integral native plants, and the arrival of mosquito-borne avian malaria. Most of the remaining native birds are in serious decline, and many are facing a very uncertain future and possible (probable) extinction. Local conservation groups are working hard to save these birds, and I encourage you to follow the links at the bottom of this blog post to learn more. Please consider supporting them and their critically important work. (Photo: Mauna Kea, viewed from a kipuka on the Puu’oo Trail during my visit in 2014).

I arrived in Honolulu on December 3 to meet up with John and fellow Big Year birder Laura Keene (who by this time had also broken the previous record with > 750 species!). Our goals were very lofty but our strategy solid – three islands (Oahu, Maui and Hawaii) in six days, with a shot at every endemic and the many exotic species that each had to offer. Unless they had a reason to race back to the mainland, John & Laura could stay a few days after I left to clean up on misses and/or take a shot at remaining targets in Kauai. As it turned out, there were NO misses!! We cleaned up, seeing a total of 74 species during those six days. Of these, we encountered ALL 17 endemic landbirds present on these islands, as well as nearly 30 other species that would not be found in the remainder of the ABA (note that the official list of species that will be “countable” has not been published by the ABA yet). With a little work and lots of planning, we found virtually every exotic/introduced species, including some of the more difficult ones such as Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse (Hawaii), Lavender Waxbill (Hawaii) and Mariana Swiftlet (Oahu). It was a fun, fast-paced and extremely successful adventure! Just don’t tell my family I got a taste for Big Year birding 😉

This critically endangered Palila offered one of the most memorable experiences of the trip, as it honored us with a very close encounter. One of my favourite birds in the world, this beautiful creature is the only remaining species of

This critically endangered Palila offered one of the most memorable experiences of the trip, as it honored us with a very close encounter. One of my favourite birds in the world, this beautiful creature is the only remaining species of “grosbeak honeycreepers” and feeds almost exclusively on the seed pods of Mamane trees. Restricted to a relatively small forest on the western slopes of Mauna Kea, a single fire or natural disaster could spell an end for this very vulnerable bird.

I was blessed to share that week with two such wonderful people and excellent birders. I was also honored to contribute to both of their awe-inspiring and record-breaking years. It truly was a week, and an adventure, that I will always cherish. Despite the sadness that came with the loss of a beautiful person from my life, I know she would have been proud – and she would have loved to hear the stories and see the photos. Despite being halfway around the world, I often felt as close to her as I ever could at home. Memories of her were made all the more special as they mingled with beautiful and bittersweet experiences. I love & miss you Nan, and always will.

* John and Laura continued on to Kauai after I left on December 9. Although it was too late in the year to see a handful of seabirds, they did extremely well with the other “ABA” targets. John ended the year with an incredible 780 (+3 provisional) species in the traditional ABA area, and an even more impressive 838 species in the expanded ABA area (including Hawaii)!! Laura set an equally amazing record, having photographed 741 species in the current ABA region (not sure what her total for the expanded region was, but not much escaped her camera in Hawaii)!!

Our first stop was Kapiolani Park in Honolulu (Oahu). It was a quiet Sunday morning and a leisurely way to start what would be a very busy week of birding!

Our first stop was Kapiolani Park in Honolulu (Oahu). It was a quiet Sunday morning and a leisurely way to start what would be a very busy week of birding!

One of our main targets here was White Tern, which nest in the park and forage along the nearby coast. We encountered nearly a dozen throughout the morning. Such beautiful birds!

One of our main targets here was White Tern, which nest in the park and forage along the nearby coast. We encountered nearly a dozen throughout the morning. Such beautiful birds!

Like most of Hawaii, the park is also home to many exotic species, such as this Red-crested Cardinal. Birds from around the world have been introduced in Hawaii - usually to make up for the lack of songbirds at lower elevations where native birds have gone extinct.

Like most of Hawaii, the park is also home to many exotic species, such as this Red-crested Cardinal. Birds from around the world have been introduced in Hawaii – usually to make up for the lack of songbirds at lower elevations where native birds have gone extinct.

Our other key targets on Oahu lived at higher elevations. An late morning hike through more native forests produced both Oahu Elepaio and Oahu Amakihi, as well as plenty of other birds.

Our other key targets on Oahu lived at higher elevations. A late morning hike through more native forests produced both Oahu Elepaio and Oahu Amakihi, as well as plenty of other birds.

Even here, introduced species were relatively common. Red-billed Leiothrix (above), White-rumped Shama, and Japanese Bush Warbler were among the highlights.

Even here, introduced species were relatively common. Red-billed Leiothrix (above), White-rumped Shama, and Japanese Bush Warbler were among the highlights.

Another highlight here was spotting several Mariana Swiftlets - a new bird for me! Oahu has proven to be a refuge of sorts for these aeiral artists, which are now threatened in their home country of Guam.

Another highlight here was spotting several Mariana Swiftlets – a new bird for me! Oahu has proven to be a refuge of sorts for these aerial artists, which are now threatened in their home country of Guam.

Our next stop was the island of Maui, where we visited the lush rainforests of Haleakala.

Our next stop was the island of Maui, where we visited the lush rainforests of Haleakala.

I had managed to arrange a visit to the closed Waikamoi Nature Preserve with Chuck Probst (who volunteers with the Nature Conservancy). This reserve is home to two of Hawaii's most endangered birds, the Maui Parrotbill and Akohekohe. Fortunately we encountered both during our hike, and although we didn't get to see the Parrotbill we heard one singing just metres away. This reserve is a magical place and one of the best protected areas in the state.

I had managed to arrange a visit to the closed Waikamoi Nature Preserve with Chuck Probst (who volunteers with the Nature Conservancy). This reserve is home to two of Hawaii’s most endangered birds, the Maui Parrotbill and Akohekohe. Fortunately we encountered both during our hike, and although we didn’t get to see the Parrotbill we heard one singing just metres away. This reserve is a magical place and one of the best protected areas in the state.

We also found a number of Alauiho (Maui Creeper) during our hike. This one was playing

We also found a number of Alauihio (Maui Creeper) during our hike. This one was playing “hide-and-seek” with us for several minutes.

Several other native birds such as I'iwi, Apapane and Hawaii Amakihi (pictured above with nesting material) were relatively common in the preserve - an important stronghold for these struggling birds which depend on the preservation of native trees.

Several other native birds such as I’iwi, Apapane and Hawaii Amakihi (pictured above with nesting material) were relatively common in the preserve – an important stronghold for these struggling birds which depend on the preservation of native trees.

Following our hike through the rainforest, we birded more open country of Haleakala National Park. Among other birds, we found numerous Eurasian Skylark which seemed quite at home displaying over the fields.

Following our hike through the rainforest, we birded more open country of Haleakala National Park. Among other birds, we found numerous Eurasian Skylark which seemed quite at home displaying over the fields.

Before leaving Maui, we also spent a day searching out exotic species such as Orange-cheeked Waxbill and Chestnut Munia. Maui also hosts several excellent wetlands, which are home to both migrant waterfowl and shorebirds as well as resident birds such as the Hawaiian (Black-necked) Stilts.

Before leaving Maui, we also spent a day searching out exotic species such as Orange-cheeked Waxbill and Chestnut Munia. Maui also hosts several excellent wetlands, which are home to both migrant waterfowl and shorebirds as well as resident birds such as these Hawaiian (Black-necked) Stilts.

As the sun set on our very successful visit to Maui, we headed south the

As the sun set on our very successful visit to Maui, we headed south to “Big Island” (Hawaii) for three days and brand new list of birds.

Driving up a forest access road on the western slopes of Mauna Kea, we encountered a noisy little group of Hawaii Elepaio. These spunky little flycatchers are always fun to watch, and these ones gave us plenty of entertainment.

Driving up a forest access road on the western slopes of Mauna Kea, we encountered a noisy little group of Hawaii Elepaio. These spunky little flycatchers are always fun to watch, and these ones gave us plenty of entertainment.

As mentioned above, the critically endangered Palila is especially vulnerble due to its reliance on a dry forest habitat. Here you can see damage from a fire that wiped out a large swath of Mamane forest ... another like this could put the Palila's very existence in extreme peril.

As mentioned above, the critically endangered Palila is especially vulnerable due to its reliance on a dry forest habitat. Here you can see damage from a fire that wiped out a large swath of Mamane forest … another like this could put the Palila’s very existence in extreme peril.

A key part of our plan was a visit to Hakalau Forest Reserve on Mauna Kea's eastern slopes. Joining Hawaii Forest & Trail guide (and fellow Canadian!) Gary Dean, we had high hopes of seeing the full array of endemic songbirds that this beautiful forest has to offer. And we did!!

A key part of our plan was a visit to Hakalau Forest Reserve on Mauna Kea’s eastern slopes. Joining Hawaii Forest & Trail guide (and fellow Canadian!) Gary Dean, we had high hopes of seeing the full array of endemic songbirds that this beautiful forest has to offer. And we did!!

Unfortunately, Hawaii's native forests now face a another threat - a fungal disease called Rapid Oia Death that is killing one of the islands state's most important native trees. Precautions are being taken to help prevent its spread both on Big Island (such as the spraying of John's boots seen here) and to other islands (which is why we visited Maui and Oahu before Big Island, and John and Laura wore new boots and thoroughly cleaned clothes when visiting Kauai).

Unfortunately, Hawaii’s native forests now face a another threat – a fungal disease called Rapid Ohia Death that is killing one of the island state’s most important native trees. Precautions are being taken to help prevent its spread both on Big Island (such as the spraying of John’s boots seen here) and to other islands (which is why we visited Maui and Oahu before Big Island, and John and Laura wore new boots and thoroughly cleaned clothes when visiting Kauai).

Despite its bright orange flare, this Akepa proved to be one of the more challenging birds to find. We also enjoyed finding plenty of I'iwi, Apapane, several Hawaii Creeper, and our big target of the day - Akiapola'au (which got us nervous by waiting until the end of the hike to show up!).

Despite its bright orange flare, this Akepa proved to be one of the more challenging birds to find. We also enjoyed finding plenty of I’iwi, Apapane, several Hawaii Creeper, Omao, and our big target of the day – Akiapola’au (which got us nervous by waiting until the end of the hike to show up!).

Hakalau forest is also a great place to spot I'o (Hawaiian Hawk), and we were fortunate to see at least three.

Hakalau forest is also a great place to spot I’o (Hawaiian Hawk), and we were fortunate to see at least three.

Hawaii's state bird is the Nene (Hawaiian Goose), which seems to be doing well with a growing population. We saw them at numerous locations both on Maui and Big Island.

Hawaii’s state bird is the Nene (Hawaiian Goose), which seems to be doing well with a growing population. We saw them at numerous locations both on Maui and Big Island.

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Learn more about the important conservation work ongoing in Hawaii by checking out these hard-working organizations. Please consider supporting their important efforts to save some of the world’s rarest and most vulnerable birds.

The Nature Conservancy (Hawaii)

Kauai Forest Bird Recovery Project

Kauai Endangered Seabird Recovery Project

Maui Forest Bird Recovery Project

Maui Nui Seabird Recovery Project

American Bird Conservancy (Hawaii)

Hawaii Audubon

Pacific Rim Conservation

US Fish & Wildlife Service

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2016: A Year in Review

I’m happy to say that 2016 was a fun, productive and busy year both for BirdTheRock Bird & Nature Tours and for my own birding adventures. I was fortunate to share my province’s amazing birds and nature with more than 70 visiting birders (!), added five new species to my own Newfoundland “life list”, and found myself on an impromptu excursion to Hawaii at the end of the year. Below are a few of the many highlights from 2016:

I always look forward to hosting the annual WINGS winter birding tour, and last year was no exception. A group of four visiting birders from the southern USA enjoyed some great “cold weather” birding and lots of excellent winter birds. An abundance of Dovekie, finches and of course a great selection of northern gulls were all part of a fantastic week! Check out this blog post to see more highlights.

WINGS tour participants scan for seabirds at wintery St. Vincent's beach on January 15.

WINGS tour participants scan for seabirds at wintery St. Vincent’s beach on January 15.

The first big rarity of 2016 was an unexpected one … an immature Sabine’s Gull discovered at St. Vincent’s on January 31. This species is virtually never recorded in the northern hemisphere during winter, let alone Newfoundland. I had never seen a Sabine’s Gull, so after a few painful days I finally made the trip to see it on February 4 – enjoying it immensely despite some wicked weather! You can read more about my encounter with a “Sabine’s in the Snow” here.

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This Sabine’s Gull was not only unexpected but “off the charts” for January in Newfoundland. It should have been somewhere far, far away from the snow squall I was watching it in!

The winter excitement continued when a Fieldfare was discovered in Lumsden (northeast coast) on February 6. This mega-rare European thrush was a bird I had been waiting to see here (I saw TONS when I lived in Finland in 2005), so I once again braved some nasty and very cold weather to track it down. We worked hard for this one, and the end result was a not only a new “tick” but a lot of time invested for a lone obscure photo of its rear-end. Read more about this eventful chase here.

The business end of a mega-rare Fieldfare that has been hanging out in Lumsden on the northeast coast. While we did get some slightly better looks this morning, this was the only photo I managed to get! "Arse-on", as we might say in Newfoundland.

The business end of a mega-rare (and very elusive!) Fieldfare in Lumsden on the northeast coast. While we did get some slightly better looks, this was the only photo I managed to get! “Arse-on”, as we might say in Newfoundland.

After an unexplained (but not unprecedented) absence, this Yellow-legged Gull showed up in mid-February and was a fixture for local gull-watchers for a few days. It is likely still around.

Mid-February saw me catching up with an old, familiar friend – a Yellow-legged Gull which had been elusive the past few winters.

This female Bullock's Oriole (2nd provincial record) was visiting a private feeder sporadically during late winter 2016. I finally caught up with it on March 23 - a great bird!

This female Bullock’s Oriole (2nd provincial record) was visiting a private feeder sporadically during late winter 2016. I finally caught up with it on March 23 – a great bird!

Spring birding is always a “mixed bag” here in Newfoundland – you never know what you’ll see. I enjoyed one very interesting day of birding with Irish birders Niall Keough and Andrew Power in early May – finding great local birds such as Black-backed Woodpecker and Willow Ptarmigan, as well as rarities such as Purple Martin, Franklin’s Gull and a very unexpected Gyrfalcon! You can check out more the day’s highlights here.

This male Willow Ptarmigan was very cooperative, even if the weather wasn't. The female was spotted sitting on a rock just a few yards further up the road.

This male Willow Ptarmigan was very cooperative, even if the weather wasn’t. The female was spotted sitting on a rock just a few yards further up the road.

This young Beluga Whale was easy to find at Admiral's Beach, where it had been hanging out for several weeks. It turned out to be a huge highlight for my Irish friends, and an excellent end to an awesome day out in the wind & fog!

This young Beluga Whale was easy to find at Admiral’s Beach, where it had been hanging out for several weeks. It turned out to be a huge highlight for my Irish friends, and an excellent end to an awesome day out in the wind & fog!

This Cave Swallow, discovered at Quidi Vidi Lake (St. John's) by Alvan Buckley on May 29, was not only the province's second record but also one of just a few spring records for eastern North America.

This Cave Swallow, discovered at Quidi Vidi Lake (St. John’s) by Alvan Buckley on May 29, was not only the province’s second record but also one of just a few spring records for eastern North America.

In early June, BirdTheRock hosted its first tour to the Codroy Valley. Nestled away in the southwest corner of Newfoundland, this lush valley is easily one of the island’s most beautiful places – and it is also home to the province’s greatest diversity of landbirds. A number of species wander there regularly that are otherwise very uncommon or rare in the rest of Newfoundland, and a few have pushed the limits of their breeding range to include this small region of our island. There are many species that you can expect to find here but nowhere else in Newfoundland! Read more about our very fun tour here (and contact us if you’re interested in the 2017 trip which will be advertised soon).

The Piping Plover has experienced drastic population declines in recent decades, due mostly to habitat disturbance. Unfortunately, human activity on sandy beaches (and especially the use of ATVs on local beaches) has created a lot of problems for these little birds.

The Codroy Valley is one of the last footholds of the endangered Piping Plover in Newfoundland & Labrador. We enjoyed seeing several during the tour – a good sign for this vulnerable species.

The view from our accommodations included not only the internationally recognized Great Codroy estuary, but also rolling fields, lush forests and the majestic Long Range Mountains (a northern extension of the Appalachians!). It was a treat to start and end each day with this beautiful vista.

The view from our accommodations included not only the internationally recognized Great Codroy estuary, but also rolling fields, lush forests and the majestic Long Range Mountains (a northern extension of the Appalachians!). It was a treat to start and end each day with this beautiful vista.

The rest of summer was blocked full of tours and adventures with friends and visitors from all over the world. One of the biggest highlights was the “Grand Newfoundland” tour I designed and hosted for Eagle-Eye Tours. This epic, 11-day tour started in St. John’s and hit many great birding and natural history sites across the province, before ending in Gros Morne National Park. This was hands down one of the best tours and most amazing, fun-loving groups I have ever led – I can’t say enough about the great time and experiences we all had! Read more about this fantastic tour here (and check out the Eagle-Eye Tours website if you’d like to find out more about the upcoming 2017 trip).

While I've always been blessed with excellent groups, this one was especially great - energetic, easy-going and always up for some fun!

While I’ve always been blessed with excellent groups, this one was especially great – energetic, easy-going and always up for some fun!

One obvious highlight was our boat tour to the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve, where we experienced (not just "saw"!) North America's largest colony of Atlantic Puffins. It never disappoints.

One obvious highlight was our boat tour to the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve, where we experienced (not just “saw”!) North America’s largest colony of Atlantic Puffins. It never disappoints.

The beautiful sunset even provided nice light for a quick game of twilight mini-golf. Here's Jody honing his his other set of skills.

I was happy to be joined by my friend and co-leader Jody Allair – someone who has no trouble finding a way to have fun on every day of every tour!

After the tour, Jody and I joined Darroch Whitaker for a climb to one of Gros Morne National Park's lesser visited summits. Here we found several Rock Ptarmigan - a new species for both of us, and one of just a few breeding species I had left to see in Newfoundland.

After the tour, Jody and I joined Darroch Whitaker for a climb to one of Gros Morne National Park’s lesser visited summits. Here we found several Rock Ptarmigan – a new species for both of us, and one of just a few breeding species I had left to see in Newfoundland.

Two rare terns shows up on the southeast Avalon in late July. Although I missed one (Royal Tern), I did catch up with a Sandwich Tern – my fourth new species of the year! On the way back, Alvan Buckley and I discovered another great and unexpected rarity – a Eurasian Whimbrel! Although not my first, the mid-summer date made it especially notable. You can see more photos of these unusual visitors here.

This SANDWICH TERN was just the sixth record for Newfoundland, and a first for me! There is an ongoing discussion about its origins - is it American or European? (My very instant photo doesn't add much to that conversation - but it sure was great to see!). July 28, 2016, St. Vincent's NL.

This Sandwich Tern was just the sixth record for Newfoundland, and a first for me!

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The European race of Whimbrel (centre) is most easily distinguished from it North American cousin (left and right) by its large white rump.

One iconic Newfoundland species that I had several wonderful encounters with this year was Leach’s Storm-petrel. Despite being very abundant breeders and at sea, it is actually quite unusual to encounter them from land. This year I was fortunate to help several clients see this elusive bird, enjoy hundreds myself during a northeast gale, and even rescue one stranded at Cape Race lighthouse. If you’d like to learn more about these enigmatic little seabirds, check out this blog post I recently wrote about them.

We rescued this Leach's Storm-Petrel after finding it stranded at the base of Cape Race lighthouse on September 25. Although stranded birds may "appear" injured as they sit motionless or sometime flop around on the ground, in most cases they are healthy and simply cannot take off from land. We released this one over the water at nearby Cripple Cove.

We rescued this Leach’s Storm-Petrel after finding it stranded at the base of Cape Race lighthouse on September 25.

Few birds are as legendary in Newfoundland as far-flung western warblers, and Hermit Warbler is one of those gems that I’ve been wishing (though hardly expecting) to see here. But even more surprising than the fact that one was found on November 11, exactly 27 years after the one and only previous record, was that I had virtually conjured it just 12 hours earlier! It was my fifth and final new species for 2016. Read more about this incredible rarity and my wild prediction here.

This HERMIT WARBLER will no doubt be the highlight of November - and maybe of the year. Bruce Mactavish discovered it in Mobile on November 11 Newfoundland's one and only other record (Nov 11 1989)!

This Hermit Warbler was no doubt the highlight of November – and maybe of the year. Bruce Mactavish discovered it in Mobile on November 11.

I wrapped up my birding year with a fun and very impromptu adventure in Hawaii. I had the very great pleasure of helping ABA Big Year birders Laura Keene and John Weigel “clean up” on the amazing birds of Hawaii last month. Although the recent addition of Hawaii to the ABA region didn’t take effect until 2017, these intrepid birders decided to include it in their own big year adventures. We had an amazing time, saw virtually all the species one could expect in December, AND set a strong precedent that future Big Year birders will have a tough time topping! I’ll post a short write-up about that adventure, and its deeper meaning for me, in the very near future – so stay tuned!

Palila is just one of several endemic (and critically endangered!) species we encountered while visiting the Hawaiian islands. This particular bird is among my worldwide favourites, and the time we spent with this one is an experience I'll forever cherish.

Palila is just one of several endemic (and critically endangered!) species we encountered while visiting the Hawaiian islands. This particular bird is among my worldwide favourites, and the time we spent with this one is an experience I’ll forever cherish.

Best wishes for a healthy, happy and adventure-filled 2017!!

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.

HaleakalaCanyon_5557 HaleakalaClouds_5600 HaleakalaSummit_5525

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!

HaleakalaSunset_5595 HaleakaSunset_5608March 24

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!

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.