Fall Hawaii Oct 11—19, 2006
Posted by Brad Schram
Our October 2006 Fall Hawaii tour will hold a unique place in our memories due to the unusual series of circumstances we encountered during our trip. A 6.7 Richter Scale earthquake provides a punctuation mark to any experience, along the lines of the question: “Where were you when the Hawaii quake hit?” The inevitable delayed flight, the regrettable airline-lost luggage, the flood(s), and the culminating hotel fire alarm on the last night will remain notable in our memories. Happily, many fine memories of interesting endemic birds from Hawaii’s amazing laboratory of evolution will hold equally memorable place with natural disasters and man-made inconveniences!
Oahu’s north shore stands in sharp contrast to the developed bustle of the south, with its Honolulu traffic and Waikiki artificiality. Our first day of birding focused on the north shore, which produced excellent looks at Hawaiian Island endemic water bird species and subspecies in ponds along the rural highway. Hawaiian Stilt, a subspecies of Black-necked Stilt, and the endangered Hawaiian subspecies of Common Moorhen were joined by the endemic Hawaiian Duck (Koloa) and Hawaiian Coot for lingering views. The most memorable bird of the day, however, was clearly Bristle-thighed Curlew! Six of these trans-Pacific migrants from remote Alaskan breeding grounds fed leisurely in short grass as we enjoyed fine scope looks at their behavior and subtle but unique field marks.
An uneventful flight to Kauai held no hint of the dramatic events to follow. Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge was beautiful. The Wedge-tailed Shearwaters, Great Frigatebirds, tropicbirds, and Red-footed Boobies delighted all; the borderline tame Nene?the endangered Hawaiian goose?instantly became a continuing group favorite wherever we found it.
Following a morning’s birding highlighted by Kauai Amakihi and confiding Elepaio in the rain of Kokee, Kauai’s lovely native forest state park, we fled the rain, the fog of Waimea Canyon?and the throng of the Queen Emma Festival?for lowland birding. Heavy rains intensified. Storm drains overflowed during lunch in Waimea, but a post-lunch drive to the Sand Ponds to the northwest delivered us from the heaviest storm clouds. A male Black Francolin greeted us at the ponds, where good scope views of Wandering Tattlers and Ruddy Turnstones revived soggy spirits.
There is no preparation for an earthquake. One minute one is going about the routine of getting ready to go to breakfast, then one feels the earth move, intensify its movement, then reside. All at breakfast agreed the jolt was pretty substantial, but it wasn’t until after breakfast that we became aware that the epicenter was hundreds of miles distant?off the northwest shore of Hawaii, the Big Island, our destination later that morning! Lack of hard information at the Lihue, Kauai, airport proved frustrating, but amazingly we actually left for Kona only a couple of hours past our scheduled time. Finding that the entire group’s luggage, save for a couple of articles, had been lost required a wait at the lost-baggage claim counter, followed by the inevitable filling out of forms. Ironically, we found that presentation of our forms was unnecessary 24 hours later when we returned to retrieve the found luggage. If we said we saw our bag in the pile, that was good enough!
Driving north from Kona we dodged large boulders of lava from the road cut above, and noticed the occasional collapsed retaining wall. Otherwise, there was little overt evidence of the serious earthquake. We arrived safely at our hotel in Waimea, although the delays resulting from the day’s events had taken away any chance of serious birding that afternoon. A memorable dinner at Merriman’s, a fine Waimea restaurant, capped an eventful day.
The following day’s birding in the dry Mamane forest at about 5,000 feet altitude gave us our first close encounter with the I’o, the endangered Hawaiian Hawk. Although the Palila eluded us, the Common Amakihis, and introduced Red-billed Leiothrix and Yellow-fronted Canaries put on a show. We learned subsequently, from a US Wildlife Service biologist, that another group birding the same area four days earlier also missed the endemic Palila, which had apparently vacated the area for better feeding grounds. Following a late lunch we returned to Kona for our baggage, with a few stops for birding along the way. To our delight a feeder in a residential district above the airport had attracted 10 to 15 Saffron Finches. Dinner in Waimea took place during a torrential downpour, flooding the town’s low areas. Schools in Waimea were closed the following day.
We awoke to a 4.9 aftershock at 5:28 AM, followed by vehicle packing and breakfast. A two-hour drive to Hakalau National Wildlife Refuge on the Saddle Road across Mauna Kea’s slope presented fantastic volcanic views in the clean highland air. Erckel’s Francolin was one of the commonest roadside birds, while Sky Larks were quite common. Once inside the refuge itself, the beauty of Hawaii’s native forest overshadowed all other events. Twisted Ohi’a trees, ancient, gnarled, and festooned with red blooms, provided a platform for native honeycreepers in surprising numbers! The brilliant I’iwi, possibly Hawaii’s most colorful bird, was quite common in the blooming trees, its calls always apparent. Common Amakihi and Apapane were likewise commonly seen and heard. The endangered Akepa, the males resplendent in tangerine-orange, came to our squeak from a Koa tree. A Barn Owl flushed nearby; a Hawaiian Hawk dashed through below treetop level. The Hawaiian thrush, the Omao, called constantly; one responding bird perched long enough for all to get repeat scope views of this subtly beautiful endemic thrush. All agreed that this gorgeous section of forest was the birding highlight of the trip to that point. Our subsequent drive to Volcano House, in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, was surprisingly uneventful?if one ignored the dense fog encountered on Mauna Loa’s mid-altitude slope.
Awaking to constant calls from the abundant Apapane in the Ohi’a forest surrounding Volcano House, we breakfasted before an extravagant view of the steaming crater on whose rim Volcano House perches. The morning’s forest birding and lava tube-walking produced new birds and wonders. In mid-afternoon we drove the Chain of Craters Road to the park’s shore. Black Noddies flew by our cliff-top viewing point at close range; a Great Frigatebird drifted overhead. A late afternoon walk across the ropey Pahoehoe lava to a vantage point was challenging; the walk back with flashlights could well be described as “adventurous”! The purpose of the walk however, a night view of orange-red lava flowing into the sea across a small bay from us, made the exertion worth it. The sight of flowing, glowing, lava?its color reflecting on the overhanging steam?will not be forgotten. Truly the elemental Hawaiian experience! We returned in time for our final dinner, perched again on the caldera rim.
Our last night could not pass uneventfully, however. Following the final dinner and checklist session we retreated to our rooms for a much deserved rest before our morning flights. After all that had transpired on this tour, the (false) fire alarm rousting us from our rooms met with bemusement rather than outrage. After all, flexibility defined us.