Spring Hawaii Feb 26—Mar 05, 2012

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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The Spring Hawaii tour makes the most of the natural history of three of the main Hawaiian Islands—Hawaii, Kauai, and Oahu—in just nine days. Courting tropicbirds and nesting albatrosses, rare one-of-a-kind forest birds in beautiful tropical forests, the islands' only hawk soaring above hillsides of Kona coffee, and close views of one of the world's scarcest shorebirds, the Bristle-thighed Curlews—our Spring Hawaii tour offers all this and much more, and all while seabirds are nesting near at hand and native forest birds are singing. Hawaii also offers the most accessible volcanic realm in the world, balmy weather, superb food, and nice lodging.

Our tour began with a sunset dinner in Waikiki, overlooking the Pacific on the island of Oahu. The next morning we had seen a lovely White Tern sitting atop a single egg on a bare branch, plus quite a few other birds, even before breakfast. Soon we were hiking into a forested area on Oahu, where we found two island endemics, Oahu Amakihi and the endangered Oahu Elepaio. Afternoon found us driving past the famous surfing beaches of the North Shore on our way to a close encounter with Bristle-thighed Curlews, one of the world's most-wanted shorebirds. One of the rare curlews, showing stiff white "bristle" feathers at the base of its legs, posed for long, close views and photos. Unlike the demanding hike required to see these curlews in Alaska, our first curlew came after a leisurely stroll of a few hundred yards. At one point a flock of 14 Bristle-thighed Curlews flew up from the nearby dunes.

The next day took us to the adjacent island of Kauai. Geologically older and more lush than Oahu, Kauai's north point of Kilauea brought us literally face to face with glamorous seabirds: Laysan Albatrosses glided by so close it seemed you could touch their wingtips. A Red-footed Booby landed just yards from the group to gather sticks for its nearby nest, in a colony where 1,700 boobies whitened the hillside. Best of all, a pair of Red-tailed Tropicbirds flew in courtship display directly out from our overlook onto the ocean. One tropicbird would hover a few feet above the other, and then both would begin to circle one another in a tight, vertical ring—all the while flying backwards with their red, wire-thin tails pushed forward. In the shade of nearby ironwood trees, an enormous downy albatross chick awaited its parents' return. Handsome Nenes, the goose that is also Hawaii's state bird, strolled the refuge grass. White-tailed Tropicbirds flapped close overhead.

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 warbler-like Anianiaus. To reach the entrance to the forest, we drove along the rim of Waimea Canyon, stopping to look down the sheer copper-colored cliffs that line a split in the earth nearly half-a-mile deep.

By Day 5 of the tour we had reached our final island destination, the Big Island of Hawaii. The Big Island is defined by five volcanic peaks—three of them still alive volcanically—and supports more varied habitats than Oahu and Kauai combined. The islands' only hawk lives on Hawaii, and we saw our first from a café during lunch—a café perched on a hillside with a view of Kealakekua Bay 1,500 feet below. The following morning we set off for what is always the most exciting forest birding of the tour, in Hakalau Forest National Wildlife Refuge on the rainforest face of Mauna Kea. Soon after reaching the refuge, we began to see Iiwis—unique, scarlet Hawaiian honeycreepers—probing the red blossoms of native ohia trees with their long, red, sickle-shaped bills. A short distance down the trail, an endangered endemic Hawaii Creeper worked the loose bark of a tree trunk, clinging like a nuthatch. A few minutes later, a bright orange male Akepa—another endangered bird endemic to the Big Island—flew in and perched atop a shrubby tree no more than 10 feet tall. As the day progressed, we enjoyed Hakalau at leisure, seeing hundreds of native birds in what is among the finest remaining native forest in Hawaii.

Now with only two full days left on the Big Island, there were still a few birds to find. The morning of Day 7 found us exploring the dry western face of Mauna Kea, where we quickly came upon a few bright yellow Palila, another island endemic that looks something like a Pine Grosbeak. That left just the holy grail of Hawaii's endangered endemics still to be seen—the Akiapolaau, or just Aki' for short. The Aki' is one of the islands' (in fact, one of the world's) rarest and most distinctively outfitted birds: the yellow Aki' possesses what has been termed 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 half probes for insects under the bark. We went in search of the Aki' along another trail into native forest and, within 20 minutes of walking, heard a male Aki' singing. What luck! The Aki' kept singing, leading us right to where it perched in the upper branches of a tree, showing off its distinctive bill and moving from tree to tree as we followed it in our binoculars. We had seen the holy grail.

On the final full day of the tour, 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.

The Spring 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 headed back to the mainland.