Kauai & Hawaii Feb 27—Mar 06, 2011

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 began on emerald-green Kauai, geologically the oldest of the main Hawaiian Islands, and continued on to Hawaii (a.k.a. The Big Island), the youngest and largest island and home to the greatest ecological diversity. During eight days of touring we visited the best birding spots on both islands, from teeming seabird cliffs to remote tracts of tropical forest.

The Hawaiian Islands are the most isolated from the continents of any island group and, like the Galapagos, represent a living study of evolution in isolation. Hawaii claims the highest proportion of unique plant and animal species on earth. The combination of distinctive endemic forest birds and stunning seabirds, plus magical scenery, mild tropical climate, and excellent dining and lodging make a trip to Kauai and Hawaii a great late winter getaway.

The north shore of Kauai and its two national wildlife refuges were the main destination on our first day. At Kilauea Point refuge, glistening white Red-tailed Tropicbirds flew near, again and again, close enough to see their wire-thin red tail streamers. White-tailed Tropicbirds winged by gracefully, showing an extraordinarily long white tail. Pairs of Laysan Albatrosses nest on the refuge, and were a continual sight gliding by the sea cliff viewpoint or landing on the grassy slope nearby. A huge, downy gray albatross chick sat in the shade of the refuge's ironwood trees. More than 1,700 Red-footed Boobies reside on a refuge hillside, and were a constant sight, flying back and forth, some carrying twigs for nest building. The same day we visited Hanalei National Wildlife Refuge, a wetland of cultivated taro fields, where we saw scores of Hawaii's state bird, the Nene, as well as such endangered native species as Hawaiian Duck and Hawaiian Coot. On another back road, we came upon a couple of Melodious Laughingthrushes (a.k.a.Hwamei), getting close views of what is often a very shy and hard to see bird.

Our second full day on Kauai was devoted to exploring the northwest portion of the island, including stops along eye-popping Waimea Canyon. Its 3,000-foot-deep chasm bordered by red basalt walls and emerald patches of foliage, the immense canyon hosts many pairs of White-tailed Tropicbirds, often seen flying along the face of the canyon's sheer walls. We stopped along the road up the canyon to watch a dazzling male Black Francolin as it crowed from atop a bare shrub just off the road. In the higher elevation forest in the northern part of Kauai, wild Red Junglefowl appeared at the edge of the road, descendents of birds first brought to the islands by Polynesians over a thousand years ago. We hiked into the native forest of koa and ohia trees, along trails lush with mosses and tree ferns, and encountered four different species of forest birds unique to Kauai: curve-billed Kauai Amakihis, family groups of Kauai Elepaio (an Old World flycatcher), chartreuse male Anianiaus, and even an Akekee—a species that has been quite scarce in recent years.

The next morning, following a flight to Kona on the Big Island, we birded the west side of the island. Just a few miles south of the airport, as the elevation began to climb, the first Hawaiian Hawk (a Big Island endemic) soared conveniently over the road for several minutes. After lunch at a café overlooking Kealakekua Bay some 1,500 feet below, we stopped at a coffee roaster to taste varieties of Kona coffee, and then paid a visit to a macadamia nut farm, all the while on the lookout for new birds (such as the beautiful Lavender Waxbills seen along the roadside). The same afternoon we walked the ocean beach north of Kona, and stood side by side with green turtles as they nibbled the seaweed in the shallows. Wandering Tattlers and Yellow-billed Cardinals turned up here too.

Over the next two days on the Big Island, we went in search of endemic birds in both wet and dry tropical forests on the slopes of lofty Mauna Kea. A hike into a remote sanctuary on the island's windward side was rewarded with the best birding of the tour. Scarlet Iiwis, with scarlet plumage and bill to match, were nearly always in view. Many Iiwis were gathering nectar from the pink blossoms of akala (a native raspberry), which put them right at eye level. Akepas sang and foraged overhead in the trees, their orange feathering in vivid contrast to the dark leaves. Here too were Hawaii Elepaio, Hawaii Creeper, and Omao (a thrush)—all island endemics. In the dry forest on the lee side of Mauna Kea, we were fortunate to see several Palila, another island endemic which makes its home among the native, yellow-blossoming mamane trees. This area has been experiencing a prolonged drought, and we were grateful to locate this endangered species.

The final hotel of the tour overlooks Hilo Bay. During afternoon breaks we had a chance to reflect on the islands' wonders, while sitting on our 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 which is home to this unique national park. We strolled through an ancient lava tube, watched volcanic steam emerge from a massive crater, and walked the forest trail of Kipuka Puaulu, where we finally caught up with the elusive Red-billed Leiothrix. The next morning, an excellent tour had come to an end, with many memories of these islands' natural wonders.