Fall Hawaii Oct 19—27, 2010

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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We walked into the lush tropical forest on the east slope of Mauna Kea, one of Hawaii's majestic volcanic peaks. The trail led downhill and under a tall canopy of native koa and ohia, a forest setting that places this site among the finest of all birding areas in the Hawaiian Islands. Our group was now entering Hakalau Forest National Wildlife Refuge, at around 6,000 ft. elevation. It was Day 6 of our three-island Fall Hawaii tour, and a perfect day for birding—about 70 F with a few clouds in the blue sky. We each packed in our sandwiches, as we had a leisurely stretch of hours to enjoy this marvelous tract of habitat.
The sounds of birds filled the air, especially the reedy notes of the Iiwi, a bird high on everyone's list of hoped for sightings. With everyone alert to any bird movement, it wasn't long before we had our first good looks at Iiwis, working through the ohia trees to take nectar from the ohia's carmine-red, bottle brush-like flowers. The Iiwi looks like it truly belongs on an ohia blossom: its body is mostly scarlet, as are its legs and its long, decurved bill. Only its black wings and yellow eye break the color scheme. We would see many Iiwis in the next few hours—in the trees, in the native raspberry thickets, chasing off smaller nectar-feeding birds, or flying from tree to tree. Yellow plumaged Hawaii Amakihis seemed even more prevalent than Iiwis.

For birders, Hakalau refuge holds the potential of three endangered bird species, all endemic to the island of Hawaii (a.k.a. the Big Island), plus a number of other native birds. As we walked the main trail farther into the forest, we entered a small clearing on a slope, surrounded on all sides by native trees and shrubs. The bird sounds here revealed a mixed assemblage of birds, foraging in adjacent trees. Someone's eye caught a glint of orange, and the word went out that a male Akepa was on hand—one of the endangered endemics. Soon all eyes were on the tangerine-hued Akepa, marveling at its intensely colored plumage as it worked methodically through the foliage of an ohia tree, opening leaf buds with its bill in search of prey. We stuck to our spot in the clearing, and in a few more minutes a second endangered endemic came into view. This time it was a Hawaii Creeper, working like a nuthatch along a trunk and branches, disappearing behind the trunk and then creeping back into view as all eyes followed its progress. Just as the Hawaii Creeper moved on, two Hawaii Elepaios flitted into the nearby trees. The Hawaii Elepaio is one of three elepaio species in the islands, the island chain's only native members of the monarch flycatchers of the Old World. We had been fortunate to have seen the Oahu and Kauai elepaios in recent days, and this completed the trio. With their cocked tails, earth tone plumage, and often confiding behavior, the elepaios seem to have the personality of both a wren and a chickadee.

Two out of three Hakalau endangered endemics seen, and it was only late morning. The third hoped for endangered endemic was the Akiapolaau, or Aki', for short. The yellow Aki' possesses what some have described as a "Swiss Army knife" bill. Its short, straight lower bill half is paired with a long, slender, curved, flexible upper bill half. With its lower bill half, an Aki' hammers like a woodpecker, then uses the flexible upper bill to probe for insects under the bark—a bill adaptation essentially unique in the world. However, finding the Aki' might well present a serious challenge. There were known to be only three pairs in the area of the refuge within walking distance, a bird whose entire population now numbers in the hundreds. Would our good fortune hold?
We went deeper into the refuge, down a bit lower on the flank of Mauna Kea. The bird activity was superb: more stunning Akepas—including one singing in flight, and lots of Iiwis and amakihis. Just as it was time to find a spot to sit down and picnic, amazingly, a juvenile Aki' started chipping, giving the repetitive beacon call the young bird makes to draw in the adults to feed it. All thoughts of lunch thrown quickly aside, we carefully worked toward the sound—one of those ventriloquial sounds that seems to come from more than one spot. Listening intently, within a few minutes we spotted the young Aki', fairly low in a koa tree, pecking on a branch. About half the group saw it, just before it flew back into the forest and out of view, but still calling. We stayed with the sound as the young bird moved about within the dense forest and, as luck would have it, perhaps half an hour later, the Aki' gradually worked itself back close to the trail. Now everyone could find it in their binoculars—just as one of its parents flew in and fed it! An amazing, truly memorable experience with one of Hawaii's scarcest native birds.

Our 2010 Fall Hawaii tour—of nine days and three islands—began on the island of Oahu, in Waikiki, with a sunset dinner on the hotel lanai overlooking the Pacific. The next morning was devoted to searching out the island's endemic forest birds—Oahu Elepaio and Oahu Amakihi—as well as such fancy non-natives as elegant White-rumped Shamas and jewel-like Red-billed Leiothrix. Afternoon found us driving past the immense surfing waves of Oahu's North Shore, toward the island's northwest corner and one of the best spots on earth to see one of the world's scarcest shorebirds—the Bristle-thighed Curlew. An easy stroll to the ocean-side dunes and there, eyeing us curiously from a short distance, were three Bristle-thighed Curlews—less than 100 feet away, where scope views revealed the fine detail of every feather.  A nice way to finish a day's birding, before another dinner on the lanai, looking out over the Pacific.

By lunchtime of Day 3 we were standing on a scenic overlook on the island of Kauai, watching spectacular seabirds. Two pairs of White-tailed Tropicbirds flapped steadily back and forth along the high sea cliffs, trailing astonishingly long tails. Lanky, white Red-footed Boobies flew close by the cliff, while immense Great Frigatebirds drifted overhead. Wedge-tailed Shearwaters peered out from burrows in the ground, downy nestlings within a few weeks of fledging, and pairs of Nenes (endangered Hawaiian Geese, the state bird) strolled unassumingly on the grass. Our second day on Kauai led up majestic Waimea Canyon, rightly known as "Hawaii's Grand Canyon," and to 4,000-foot overlooks onto emerald Kalalau Valley. 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 Apapane and Kauai Elepaio.

Soon we were off to "The Big Island" of Hawaii, the final of the tour's three islands, highlighted by the Hakalau refuge birding adventures described above. We also explored the Big Island's Kona Coast for endemic Hawaiian Hawks, green turtles swimming at the shoreline, and excellent samples of Kona coffee and macadamia nuts. A full day in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park added some nice birds, such as Black Noddy, and allowed time to explore the otherworldly volcanic landscapes of the park. We peered into immense craters and up at massive cinder cones, walked a bit of the shiny black pahoehoe lava of past lava flows, and watched native Apapanes—another of Hawaii's red native birds—flitting through the forest above massive tree ferns.

Mid-October once again proved an ideal time for an autumn respite in the tropical Pacific. Our Fall Hawaii tour made the most of the natural history of Hawaii, Kauai, and Oahu, together with welcome warm weather, superb food, and great places to stay.