Fall Hawaii Oct 10—18, 2007

Posted by Bob Sundstrom

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Bob Sundstrom

Bob Sundstrom has led VENT tours since 1989 to many destinations throughout North America, as well as Hawaii, Mexico, Belize, Trinidad & Tobago, Japan, Turkey, Iceland,...

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Mid October is an ideal time for an autumn respite in the tropical Pacific. Our Fall Hawaii tour makes the most of the natural history of three of the main islands—Hawaii, Kauai, and Oahu—over the course of nine days. One-of-a-kind endemic forest birds, spectacular seabirds, unique tropical forests, and the most accessible volcanic realm in the world all add to its appeal, which is complemented by wonderful, balmy weather, superb food, and nice lodging.

Our tour began on Oahu, with a sunset dinner in Waikiki overlooking the Pacific and those famous beaches. The next morning we saw dainty, elegant White (Fairy) Terns even before breakfast. As we sat down for breakfast, again overlooking the ocean, Wedge-tailed Shearwaters and Brown Boobies skimmed the horizon, beyond the snorkelers over the reef. The day's birding took us up a shady valley trail, then to a forested hillside overlooking Honolulu, and then all the way north to the land of big surf and a wintering spot for Bristle-thighed Curlews. We scoped at close range four of five of these rare shorebirds, as they stood atop fence posts, calling into the breeze. Yes, we even saw the eponymous bristles! And nearby: a Sharp-tailed Sandpiper.

By mid-morning of the second day, we stood on the island of Kauai, overlooking the blue Pacific and thousands of seabirds. Spooky Great Frigatebirds hung overhead, ready to chase after the thousands of Red-footed Boobies that streamed by or perched on the nearby sea cliff. Fledgling Wedge-tailed Shearwaters peeked out from burrows. A White-tailed Tropicbird flapped by, trailing long, lustrous tail plumes. Then a glistening Red-tailed Tropicbird flew in to circle at close range, the epitome of beauty in a seabird. A pair of Hawaii's native geese, the Nene, escorted downy goslings across the refuge.

A second day on Kauai found us in tropical forest at 4,000 feet. Forest birds found only on these islands, like Apapanes, Elepaios, and Kauai Amakihis, emerged from the native vegetation. En route to the forest we drove along the rim of Waimea Canyon, a chasm half-a-mile deep and colored in tones of copper and emerald. Here were more tropicbirds, which nest on ledges in the canyon. From one view we counted nearly 20 tropicbirds, gliding along the cliffs.

On to the island of Hawaii, or the Big Island. Well-named, the Big Island encompasses more area and habitats than Oahu and Kauai combined, and boasts five volcanic peaks—two of them very much alive. Arriving in Kona the morning of Day #5, we opted for a lunch spot amidst the Kona coffee farms and with a view of Kealakekua Bay 1,500 feet below. Before we had even emerged from the van, someone spotted our first Hawaiian Hawk of the trip. Endemic to the Big Island, it is the only native hawk in the islands. As one hawk soared nearby, it was joined by three more—an entire family group of the birds known in Hawaiian as I'o. Lunch with a view tasted all the better after seeing our first Big Island endemic, and we were joined on the veranda by several gold dust day geckos, small multi-hued lizards that clung to the railings.

Day #6 brought us our best forest birding of the tour. In Hakalau Forest National Wildlife Refuge, a closed area we have special permission to enter, we saw scores of Iiwis—unique, scarlet Hawaiian honeycreepers—probing the red blossoms of native ohia trees with their long, red, sickle-shaped bills. Tangerine-colored Akepas were admired as they foraged through the leaves, as were Hawaii Creepers that "nuthatched" their way along trunks and branches. The top of the most-wanted list at Hakalau, however, was a look at an Akiapolaau, or Aki' for short. The Aki', found only on Hawaii and numbering in the few hundreds, has among the most extravagant bill designs of any bird. The upper half of the bill is long and very slender, and curves downward. The lower mandible is short, straight, and thicker. Aki's excavate like a woodpecker with the short lower bill and then tease out prey with the wiry upper bill. Well, after a bit of walking and careful searching we were fortunate to come upon a rare Aki', as it foraged on the thick canes of the native raspberry, pecking and probing. This special bird allowed us to approach closely to study its unique behavior. We experienced a moment of exultation, in a magnificent native forest, on the side of one of the world's most massive, extinct volcanoes.

With two days now left on the Big Island, we tracked down the endemic specialty bird of the dry tropical forest, the bright yellow Palila. We came face-to-face with the Pueo, Hawaii's version of Short-eared Owl, on a roadside fence post. There were handsome Black Francolins, a study in black and chestnut, spangled with gold, and Red Avadavats, the color of ripe strawberries, and not much bigger. There was a full day to explore Hawaii Volcanoes National Park: craters and lava tubes, lava flows from recent decades, a forest studded with massive tree ferns, and Black Noddies perched in black lava sea caves. And then, too soon it seemed, we were all headed back to the mainland.