Fall Hawaii Oct 17—25, 2008

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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Our three-island Fall Hawaii tour began on the island of Oahu. From our hotel in Waikiki, it was but a short stroll to terrific views of angelic White Terns, perched and flying close overhead. During breakfast on the hotel lanai overlooking Waikiki beach, a Brown Booby flew over surfers and swimmers near the shoreline. Driving after breakfast to a nearby wooded valley, we found the Oahu form of the Elepaio, Hawaii's endemic Old World flycatcher. In the same valley we watched a Melodious Laughing-Thrush pour out its loud, rollicking song, while nearby an adult Red-billed Leiothrix fed a begging fledgling. Soon we were driving across pineapple fields toward the North Shore, home of the big surfing waves and, for birders, a good spot to find one of the world's scarcest shorebirds—the Bristle-thighed Curlew. As we walked within sight of the ocean-side dunes, a first Bristle-thighed Curlew flew right across our path, showing off its signature tawny upper tail as nicely as a painting in a field guide. Nearby we scoped a total of six of the scarce curlews as they foraged near the dunes.

By mid-morning we were standing on a scenic overlook on the island of Kauai, watching some of the world's loveliest seabirds. First a dapper White-tailed Tropicbird flapped steadily by, its astonishingly long tail trailing behind. Soon after, we caught sight of a glistening white Red-tailed Tropicbird, with red bill and fine, wire-like red tail streamers. More of a winter nester than fall visitor to this spot, we were astonished to find two pairs of Red-tailed Tropicbirds already in full courtship aerial display. As one tropicbird hovered, it began to backpedal, dropping at the same time, making a reverse circle around its potential mate, while rasping out its distinctive call. Huge white Red-footed Boobies perched or flew by the cliff. Great Frigatebirds, which hung overhead like enormous bats, then dove to chase after tropicbirds. Wedge-tailed Shearwaters peered out from burrows in the ground, downy nestlings within a few weeks of fledging, as pairs of Nenes (endangered Hawaiian Geese, the state bird) strolled unassumingly on the grass.

A second day on Kauai took us along majestic Waimea Canyon, rightly known as "Hawaii's Grand Canyon," and to 4,000-foot overlooks onto the emerald Kalalau Valley, with the blue Pacific below. We moved from scenic views to serious birding, walking well back into the native tropical forest, where we found such Kauai endemic forest birds as Anianiau and Kauai Amakihi, as well as Apapanes and Elepaios. Kauai's native forest birds presently face a serious decline, likely due to disease, so it was a welcome sight to find these birds in the forest. Returning to sea level, we watched a Wandering Tattler stalk among scores of Pacific Golden-Plovers, while a very-rare-for-Hawaii Common Tern sat nearby.

Soon we were off to "The Big Island" of Hawaii, the final of the tour's three islands. Starting south on the Kona (west) side of Hawaii, we spotted our first Hawaiian Hawk in short order.  This hawk, known as I'o in Hawaiian, is the only native hawk in all the Islands. An endangered species, we had excellent luck during our stay on the Big Island, seeing Hawaiian Hawks on all four days, including one perched along a back country road. We also had terrific views of the Islands' endemic owl, the Pueo, a unique form of Short-eared Owl. One Pueo perched on a low bush just off the road, staring us down with its huge lemon-yellow eyes, before loping off into the air against a backdrop of clouds and volcanic peaks.

The premier birding day on the Big Island took us into remote Hakalau Forest, where we had superb views of scores of native forest birds. Scarlet Iiwis with red, scimitar-like bills were ever-present, foraging in red ohia blossoms and offering their squeaky songs and calls. Tangerine-colored Akepas and nuthatch-like Hawaiian Creepers, both endangered Big Island endemics, gave us great views, as did the endemic Omao, a gray thrush related to the New World solitaires. Capping the day's incredible birding was a family group of Akiapolaau, whose long name is often shortened to just "the Aki." A tough bird to find and an island endemic that numbers only in the low hundreds, the yellow Aki' possesses what some call a "Swiss Army knife" bill. Its short, straight lower beak is topped by a long, slender, curved, flexible upper beak: the short half hammers like a woodpecker’s bill, and the upper searches for insects under the bark like a fine probe.

We made the most of a day-and-a-half in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, where we stayed in the Volcano House lodge on the rim of Kilauea Volcano. The first evening we watched—from a respectful distance—as nearby Halemaumau Crater sent a massive steam plume into the sky against a sensational red sunset. As the sky darkened, the base of the steam plume glowed an eerie pink, while we scoped Jupiter and its moons overhead. The following day we toured the national park, taking in Black Noddies along the black lava sea cliffs, and red Apapanes and elegant Kalij Pheasants in the forest. We walked through a massive lava tube, and hiked out to ancient Hawaiian petroglyphs, some perhaps 1,000 years old. A final meal in an elegant restaurant in nearby Volcano Village made for an apt finale to a tour that offered good companionship, wonderful tropical natural history, much memorable scenery, lots of fine dining, and real volcanic fire.