Fall Hawaii Oct 09—17, 2009

Posted by Bob Sundstrom


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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Glistening tropicbirds, rare and endemic forest birds, one-of-a-kind hawks, and Bristle-thighed Curlews reached by a short and level stroll: our Fall Hawaii tour takes in all of this. In nine days we make the most of the natural history of three of the main Hawaiian Islands—Hawaii, Kauai, and Oahu. Mid-October presents an ideal time for an autumn visit to the northern tropical Pacific. In addition to wonderful birds, many seen nowhere else in the world, Hawaii offers unique tropical forests and the most accessible volcanic realm in the world. Add to that wonderful, balmy weather, superb food, and nice lodging.

Our tour began on Oahu, with a sunset dinner in Waikiki overlooking the Pacific and Waikiki's famous beaches. The next morning we saw sprite-like White Terns as well as a handful of other new species before breakfast—a breakfast overlooking the beach, the ocean, and snorkelers over the reef. We covered a good bit of Oahu during the day's birding to come: there were gorgeous Red-billed Leiothrix up a shady valley trail, endemic Oahu Amakihi and lovely White-rumped Shamas on a forested hillside overlooking Honolulu, and Bristle-thighed Curlews at a traditional wintering spot not far from the famous giant surfing waves of Oahu's North Shore.

The next morning we took a short flight to the next island to the northwest, the emerald-green island of Kauai. By late morning we stood overlooking the blue Pacific and thousands of seabirds. Pterodactyl-like 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, still fluffy with down feathers, peeked out from nest burrows. A pair of White-tailed Tropicbirds—the epitome of elegance in seabirds—winged by close overhead. The tropicbirds flew in tandem, one above the other, raising their wings and lowering their tails in a distinctive aerial dance of breeding display. Several pairs of Hawaii's native geese, the Nene, called softly as they padded across grassy expanses of the refuge.

A second day on Kauai drew an utter contrast to the first, as we drove remote unpaved roads into the native forest at 4,000 feet. Forest birds found only in these islands, like Apapanes, Elepaios, and Kauai Amakihis, emerged from the native vegetation. We had excellent studies of a chartreuse male Anianiau and a pair of Akekee, both Kauai endemics. The Akekee we hadn't seen in several years and feared dwindled to a very few, so it came as a remarkable surprise. To reach the entrance to the forest we drove along the rim of Waimea Canyon, a split in the earth nearly half-a-mile deep. Looking down the sheer copper-colored cliffs, we could see numbers of tropicbirds flapping leisurely across the cliff faces, scanning the cliffs for nesting ledges.

Soon the tour reached its final island destination, the island of Hawaii, a.k.a. the aptly named Big Island. The Big Island comprises more area and habitats than Oahu and Kauai combined, and its terrain is defined by five volcanic peaks—three of them still volcanically alive. Arriving in Kona the morning of Day #5, we stopped for lunch at a café tucked in among the Kona coffee farms and with a view of Kealakekua Bay 1,500 feet below. Just after lunch we turned up a side street and soon spotted our first Hawaiian Hawk of the trip, which slowly circled over the hillside neighborhood. Endemic to the Big Island, it is the only native hawk in all the Hawaiian Islands.

The following morning we set off for what would be the most exciting and productive forest birding of the tour, in Hakalau Forest National Wildlife Refuge on the eastern, rainforest face of Mauna Kea. The refuge is closed to the public, but we have gained special permission to enter. On reaching the refuge, we quickly saw scores of Iiwis—unique, scarlet Hawaiian honeycreepers probing the red blossoms of native ohia trees with their long, red, sickle-shaped bills. Before long someone called the group's attention to a vivid orange bird, which turned out to be a bright male Akepa—an endangered bird endemic to the Big Island. We watched another island endemic, the Hawaii Creeper, as it "nuthatched" its way along trunks and branches, and was joined by several other creepers—a family group of creepers still foraging together in early fall. The gruff whistles of the endemic thrush, the Omao, helped us to good views of this gray cousin of New World solitaires.

The holy grail of the Hakalau endangered endemics is the Akiapolaau, or Aki' for short, and it was the one bird that by noon that day still eluded us. A tough bird to find and an island endemic that numbers only in the low hundreds, the yellow Aki' possesses what some have described as a "Swiss Army knife" bill. Its short, straight lower beak is paired with a long, slender, curved, flexible upper beak: the short half hammers like a woodpecker's bill, the upper searches for insects under the bark like a fine probe. Today we were in luck. After another hour of walking down an old jeep road through the forest, a juvenile Akiapolaau began making a distinct begging call, helping us home in on its location in the dense, massive forest. After much staring up into tall native koa trees and in an area that was busy with lots of small native birds, we at last caught up with the young Aki'. The juvenile fluttered its wings repeatedly in a distinctive "come feed me" manner, and we soon had our binoculars on the young bird and two parents as they foraged up and down nearby tree branches. It was a well-earned encounter with one of the islands'—in fact one of the world's—rarest and most distinctively outfitted birds.

The day after our Hakalau adventure, we explored the dry western face of Mauna Kea, in search of the remaining Big Island endemic specialty, the bright yellow Palila of dry tropical forest. A couple of hours of searching led us to a Palila as it called softly from inside a dense shrub; we were able to scope it nicely as it opened a pod of mamane seeds, its favorite food. The same day we came face to face with the Pueo, Hawaii's version of Short-eared Owl, as one perched on a roadside fence post.

On our last full day we explored the natural wonders of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park: craters and lava tubes, square miles of shiny black lava flows from recent decades, a forest studded with massive tree ferns, Black Noddies perched in black lava sea caves, endemic Elepaios at arm's-length, and a Hawaiian Hawk that perched overhead for as long as we cared to admire it. 

The final evening of our tour found us at an elegant restaurant in Volcano Village, just outside the national park. The farewell dinner gave us a chance to recount tour highlights, and bring to a close a tour that offered some really terrific birding and vivid memories of unique, rare, and much sought after birds. It was a tour that included great companionship, wonderful tropical natural history, memorable scenery, lots of fine dining and, too soon it seemed, we were all headed back to the mainland.