Kauai and Hawaii Feb 27—Mar 06, 2010

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 Kauai & Hawaii tour begins on emerald-green Kauai, the oldest geologically and most lush of the main Hawaiian Islands, and continues on to Hawaii (a.k.a. The Big Island), the youngest, largest, and most ecologically varied of the islands. Over the eight days of the tour, we visit the best birding spots on both islands, from teeming seabird cliffs to remote tracts of tropical forest. The Hawaiian Islands lie more isolated from the continents than any other archipelago in the world. Like another famous remote island group, the Galapagos, Hawaii offers a living study of evolution in isolation. Hawaii boasts the greatest proportion of unique plant and animal species on earth. Its combination of unique, endemic birds and stunning seabirds, its magical tropical scenery, its mild climate, and its excellent dining and lodging make a trip to Kauai and Hawaii a great late winter getaway. During the tour, more relaxed days alternate with longer days of more serious birding in remote sites. Our hotel on Kauai sits alongside the ocean, as does one of our two hotels on the Big Island.

The first day of our 2010 tour covered the north shore of Kauai, and offered incredible views of Pacific seabirds. At Kilauea Point, a silvery-white Red-tailed Tropicbird flew right over the group, its wire-thin red tail streamers showing nicely. Another tropicbird species, the White-tailed Tropicbird, flew by repeatedly, showing off its extraordinarily long white tail and black dorsal markings. Pairs of Laysan Albatross were nesting nearby, and repeatedly flew by our viewpoint at eye level. Enormous gray Laysan Albatross chicks sat nearby, in the shade of ironwood trees. Glistening white Red-footed Boobies were present by the hundreds, often flying close enough to see the pink and blue of their bills. On the same day we visited Hanalei National Wildlife Refuge, a wetland of cultivated taro fields, where we had close encounters with Hawaii's state bird, the Nene, as well as such endangered native species as Hawaiian Duck and Hawaiian Coot.

A second full day on Kauai took us to the northwest portion of the island and along stupendous Waimea Canyon, often described as Hawaii's Grand Canyon. With its 3,000-foot-deep cleft bordered by rusty red basalt walls and emerald patches of foliage, the misty canyon stood out in epic proportion. Wild Red Junglefowl brightened the dense forest edge, the descendants of birds first brought to the islands by Polynesians over a thousand years ago. White-tailed Tropicbirds flapped back and forth across the canyon, coming together as courting pairs that will nest on ledges in the deep canyon. A hike into the native forest of koa and ohia trees brought us face to face with a host of endemic forest plants in a jungle-like setting of mosses, ferns, and dense greenery. And, although Kauai's native birds are in decline, we located a number of them for close and dramatic views: chartreuse male Anianiaus darting about at eye level, a pair of curve-billed Kauai Amakihis eyeing us closely, and several wren-like Elepaios, the islands' endemic monarch flycatcher.

We flew on to the Big Island with four days to traverse its diverse habitats. These include both wet and dry realms of tropical forest, as well as kipukas, islands of forest left isolated by encircling lava flows. The first day on the Big Island found us south of Kona, on the west side of the island in the heart of Kona coffee country. This is also a likely area to spot soaring Hawaiian Hawks, the only native hawk species in the islands, and we weren't disappointed. Three soaring hawks were soon spotted, before and after lunch on a veranda overlooking Kealakekua Bay over 1,500 feet below. That same afternoon we walked the ocean beach north of Kona, finding green turtles basking on the sand. Nearby were Wandering Tattler, Lavender Waxbill, and a couple of vagrant Laughing Gulls—all gulls are rare here in the middle of the ocean. Later that day the tour route led uphill to the northwest portion of Hawaii, home of the vast Parker Ranch, and along the way we added fine views of Erckel's and Gray francolins, Saffron Finches, and Yellow-billed Cardinals.

Over the following two days on the Big Island we sought out endemic forest birds in both wet and dry tropical forests, on the windward and lee slopes of 13,000+ft. Mauna Kea. By hiking in to a remote refuge on the island's windward side, we were able to see three species of native forest birds unique to the Big Island, and come face to face with brilliant Iiwis, doubtless the islands' most charismatic native bird. With scarlet plumage and scarlet bill to match, the Iiwi uses its long, curved bill to drink deeply from the native flowers. Iiwis flitted along the trailside at eye level, checking the native raspberry flowers for nectar, all the while entertaining us with a wide assortment of strange, reedy vocalizations. In the dry forest on the lee side of Mauna Kea, we had terrific views of a pair of Palilas, a Hawaiian endemic honeycreeper closely tied to the native, yellow-blossoming mamane trees. This area has been experiencing a prolonged drought, and we were fortunate to locate this endangered species.

Our final hotel stay of the tour stood along Hilo Bay. During afternoon breaks we had a chance to reflect on the islands' wonders, while sitting on our hotel rooms' lanais overlooking the palm-rimmed bay. During a full day at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park we explored the terrain of Kilauea, a still active volcano and home to this unique national park. We walked through an ancient lava tube, peered into enormous craters, and watched Black Noddies fluttering above the massive surf along black lava sea cliffs. On our final day we strolled the forest trails of Kipuka Puaulu, where native Elepaios perched right along the trail as Apapanes and Omaos sang overhead—an apt, leisurely finale to a memorable tour, a fine combination of natural wonders, breathtaking scenery, and exceptional dining. Not to mention plenty of fresh, tropical breezes.