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 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!
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 “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!
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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 these Hawaiian (Black-necked) Stilts.
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.
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!!
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, 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.
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.
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)
Pacific Rim Conservation
US Fish & Wildlife Service