Kauai & Hawaii Mar 21—29, 2007
Posted by Brad Schram
Starting early our first morning, on Kauai, we drove toward Koke’e State Park above Waimea Canyon for our first attempt at Hawaii’s endemic honeycreepers. Multiple looks at the Hawaiian subspecies of Short-eared Owl?the Pueo?on our way up the volcanic mountain excited our group. A stop at a vantage point overlooking Waimea Canyon produced a tour-book, heart-stopping view of “the Grand Canyon of the Pacific”; it also gave us our first looks at many White-tailed Tropicbirds soaring gracefully below. One tropicbird was of the golden-hued plumage peculiar to occasional individuals of this species. Red Junglefowl ran about everywhere?the ancestral fowl to all varieties of our domestic chicken, introduced to the islands centuries earlier by pioneering Polynesian colonists. We then continued on to our forest destinations.
Hawaiian endemic honeycreepers were our quest, and we were not disappointed. Apapane, a lovely brick-red honeycreeper associating closely with flowering native Ohia trees, proved fairly common and easy to see. The Kauai Amakihi was less cooperative, but was seen well by many. Introduced Japanese Bush-Warblers and Melodious Laughingthrushes tantalized us with their amazing songs, eventually yielding scope views. The lovely and confiding monarch flycatcher, the endemic Elepaio, appeared at numerous places, sometimes relatively close at hand. The Anianiau, a small honeycreeper looking much like our North American Yellow Warbler, proved very difficult and only a few of our party saw the female perched by the trail. Overall, however, this was a good start to our quest for Hawaii’s native birds.
Following lunch we drove to Kawaiele Sand Mine Bird Sanctuary?often referred to as “the sand pits”?on the dry west side of Kauai to look for shorebirds and ducks. We quickly found endemic Koloa, or Hawaiian Duck, along with migrant Pintails. We also found a vagrant immature Snow Goose, known to be wintering there. Hawaiian Stilts yipped.
Turning to examine shrubs behind us, Brad is alleged to have yelled “Heavens to Murgatroyd!” at the sight of an immense White-tailed Eagle flying low just behind the group. He denies the accusation, but a White-tailed Eagle it was and who could begrudge an excited utterance at such a moment! The Siberian vagrant had been a phantom presence on Kauai for as long as three months, with Hawaiian birders from all islands congregating to look for it?mostly without result. We watched for 10 to15 minutes as the bird swept low over sugar cane fields before riding updrafts up the volcanic hillside until a scope was necessary to keep track of it. Last seen high in the distance with a comparatively diminutive Pueo soaring above it, the White-tailed Eagle left us rather dumbstruck. Hawaii’s first historic record?White-tailed Eagle bones have been found in sub-fossil deposits?has been seen feeding on Laysan Albatrosses at widely separate locations on Kauai.
Shortly after seeing the eagle, our heads still coming to grips with our magnificent luck, an immature Laughing Gull flew over the nearby sand pits. The question can now be asked: three wild, naturally-occurring birds were seen at the same place on the same day?Snow Goose, White-tailed Eagle, and Laughing Gull; where did this happen? Somehow, one suspects that “Kauai” will not be among the first guesses.
Our next day at Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge did not prove anticlimactic. Kilauea Point is the largest Red-footed Booby colony in the Hawaiian Islands. It is also one of the most beautiful promontories in the Pacific. Nesting Laysan Albatrosses, Wedge-tailed Shearwaters, and Red-tailed Tropicbirds, along with the boobies, proved a wonderful spectacle; conversation with a USF&W biologist about yesterday’s eagle further impressed on us our excellent good fortune with that bird. A subsequent visit to a lush development in Princeville produced nesting Laysans in flowerbeds and on front lawns! All agreed that our close-up view of these birds and their fluffy chicks remained a trip highlight.
A soaring Io, or Hawaiian Hawk, spotted by Melody over Kona on the Big Island the following day, gave us our first look at an endemic bird on Hawaii. Yellow-billed Cardinal and Kalij Pheasant on a small coffee plantation gave us a taste of exotic possibilities here.
The following morning in Mamane-Naio forest (an endemic dry-country forest) on Mauna Kea’s dry northwestern slope produced wonderful close-up looks at the abundant endemic, Common Amakihi. Our quest for Palila, an endangered finch-like Hawaiian honeycreeper limited in range to this Big Island stunted forest, proved frustrating for the first hour or so. A singing male, found by Brennan, reversed our fortunes dramatically! Feeding contentedly in a Mamane, eating flowers and stripping seeds from its green pods, the Palila gave the group multiple lingering scope views.
Volcano House Hotel, perched on the edge of Kilauea’s caldera in Volcanoes National Park, is set amidst an Ohia forest alive with Apapane and the more secretive Omao (Hawaiian Thrush). It proved a picturesque and comfortable base of operation for our trip’s last days.
An access permit to Hakalau National Wildlife Refuge allowed our birding visit to this glorious old-growth Ohia and Koa forest on Mauna Kea’s wetter southeast side at about the 6,000 foot level. Good weather before the fog arrived gave us a fine morning of birding. The superb Iiwi, a large florescent honeycreeper, provided the voice of the forest?and they were everywhere! Omao gave us fine scope looks, but the tangerine-colored Akepa was possibly the day’s star. We saw more than a half-dozen of these rare birds multiple times?and enjoyed each one. The endangered Hawaiian Creeper proved more difficult, but did finally give most of the group a look as it flaked bark from a branch and devoured a grub. Our retreat in the face of fog took us through highland grassland containing many introduced game birds, most of which gave us close-up looks.
We were fortunate that good weather followed us throughout the trip. The occasional sprinkle did not deter our birding or slow our progress through some of the most beautiful scenery the islands offer. We found fourteen species endemic to the islands, eight of them honeycreepers?a good “hit-rate”?and also enjoyed the vagrant White-tailed Eagle along with some migrant ducks and geese rare in the islands. Add Laysan Albatrosses tending young, Wedge-tailed Shearwaters in their burrows, and fly-by Christmas Shearwaters at scope range our last night?with active orange seams of molten lava on the hill above?and it’s clear that our Kauai-Big Island tour excelled in producing variety and wonderful birding memories.