Fall Hawaii Oct 18—26, 2011
Posted by Bob Sundstrom
In nine days our Fall Hawaii tour makes the most of the natural history of three of the main Hawaiian islands—Hawaii, Kauai, and Oahu. Glistening tropicbirds, rare and endemic forest birds, one-of-a-kind hawks soaring over hillsides of Kona coffee, and great views of Bristle-thighed Curlews; our Fall Hawaii tour takes all this in and much more. Mid-October is an ideal time to visit 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 had close views of lovely White Terns and a number of other new species even before breakfast—a breakfast overlooking the ocean and snorkelers over the reef. Before lunch we had hiked into a valley to see the endangered Oahu Elepaio, stood a few yards from a fledgling Red-tailed Tropicbird in a seaside lava cave, and tracked down another island endemic, Oahu Amakihi. Afternoon found us driving past the famous surfing waves of the North Shore en route to a wintering site for Bristle-thighed Curlews, one of the world's most-wanted shorebirds. Unlike the rigorous hike required to see these curlews in Alaska, our first curlew came after a leisurely stroll of a few hundred yards. We had scope views at first, then closer and closer views. One curlew stood atop a boulder, stiff bristle-like feathers at the base of the legs showing nicely. Others flew by calling and, as we were walking back to where we had parked, several Bristle-thighed Curlews were foraging in the grass just 50 feet from us, as the cameras clicked.
By mid-morning the next day after a short flight from Honolulu, we stood overlooking the blue Pacific and thousands of seabirds on the lush green island of Kauai. Pterodactyl-like Great Frigatebirds hung overhead, some chasing Red-footed Boobies that flew by our faces or perched on the nearby sea cliff. Fledgling Wedge-tailed Shearwaters peeked out from nest burrows, as several pairs of Hawaii's native geese, the Nene, waddled across a grassy portion of the refuge. Elegant White-tailed Tropicbirds trailing long white tail streamers winged close by, as well as a much-admired Red-tailed Tropicbird.
A second day on Kauai took us along remote unpaved roads into the native forest at 4,000 feet. Native forest birds, most of them endemic to Kauai, were our goal, and we had fine views of Kauai Elepaio, Kauai Amakihi, and chartreuse male Anianiaus. 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.
On Day 5 of the tour, we reached our final island destination, Hawaii (The 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 drove south into Kona coffee country in search of the endemic Hawaiian Hawk, or Io. We stopped for lunch at a café perched on a hillside like a tree house, with a view of Kealakekua Bay 1,500 feet below. Soon after we ordered, the first Hawaiian Hawks were spotted, soaring in the distance along a ridge. As the day progressed, each ensuing view of another hawk was closer and closer, including scope views of one perched atop a bare tree at the roadside. The same day found us entranced by green turtles at just a few yards distance, in the shallows of a lava outcropping, as Wandering Tattlers and Pacific Golden-Plovers foraged in the background.
The following morning we set off for what would be the most exciting forest birding of the tour, in Hakalau Forest National Wildlife Refuge on the eastern, rain forest face of Mauna Kea. The refuge is closed to the public, but our tour group has gained special permission to enter. On reaching the refuge, we quickly saw numbers of Iiwis—unique, scarlet Hawaiian honeycreepers—probing the red blossoms of native ohia trees with their long, red, sickle-shaped bills. Before long a vividly orange bird was spotted. It was a 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. The gruff whistles of an endemic thrush, the Omao, led us to good views of this gray cousin of New World solitaires.
The holy grail of the Hakalau refuge's endangered endemics is the Akiapolaau, or just Aki' for short. We had walked just a bit farther along the forest trails when a juvenile Aki' began calling, making a distinct begging call that helped us home in on its location in the branches of a koa tree. The young bird 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 came in to feed the young bird and then forage among nearby branches. We had encountered one of the islands'—in fact one of the world's—rarest and most distinctively outfitted birds; 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, and the upper searches for insects under the bark like a fine probe.
With only two days left on the Big Island, we spent one of them exploring the dry western face of Mauna Kea, in search of the remaining Big Island endemic specialty, the bright yellow Palila of dry tropical forest. An hour or so of searching led us to a Palila as it called softly from inside a dense shrub, where we were able to scope it nicely as it opened a pod of mamane seeds, its favorite food. 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 flying along black lava sea cliffs, and a Hawaii Elepaio at arm's-length.
Our Fall Hawaii tour was memorable for its wonderful natural history and tropical scenery, balmy weather, wonderful food, and great companionship. Too soon it seemed, we were all headed back to the mainland.