Fall Hawaii Oct 12—20, 2012

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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The morning was clear, nearly cloudless as we drove out of Waimea in northwest Hawaii (the Big Island). The summit of massive Mauna Kea was in clear view, its astronomical observatories reflecting the early rays of the sun. In the distance the slopes of other volcanoes, Mauna Loa and Hualalai, were crisply outlined. We headed east on the road that crosses the saddle between lofty Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa, both over 13,000 feet, past the grassy slopes of extinct Mauna Kea and along the black lava fields on the hem of Mauna Loa, a volcano still very much alive.

Our destination this day was Hakalau Forest National Wildlife Refuge on the windward east slope of Mauna Kea, and an area of tropical rain forest home to some of Hawaii's most sought after birds. We drove slowly along miles of unpaved ranch roads toward the refuge. A Pueo, Hawaii's Short-eared Owl, glided across the open ranchlands, and Pacific Golden-Plovers flew up from the road. Before long we passed through a series of gates marking entry to the refuge, took a few minutes to pack lunches for the day ahead, and then began walking into the forested refuge. The first few hundred yards were marked by large trees, native ohias and koas, separated by expanses of grass. Farther along the trail, we would enter a marvelous mature native forest, much of it with closed canopy. But that was still some distance ahead.

A Hawaiian Hawk soared over, the only native hawk species in the islands. A good omen? We hadn’t gone more than two hundred yards when we stopped to get our binoculars on a Hawaii Amakihi, a small yellow-green bird found only on the islands of Hawaii and Maui, as it flitted among the branches and red ohia flowers. Now a downward trill announced a Hawaii Creeper close at hand, one of three endangered endemics we hoped to find in the refuge. Often a hard bird to see well, this male Hawaii Creeper flew to a bare branch in a small tree very near the trail, allowing a superb view—possibly the best view I've had of this bird in leading forty-odd Hawaii tours.

Minutes later and only another hundred yards down the trail, a clamor went up as we spotted our first Iiwi, a scarlet bird with black wings and a long, down-curved red bill. The Iiwi (pronounced ee ee' vee) is perhaps Hawaii's most visually striking native songbird, and we would see dozens of them today in this tract of forest. We still hadn't quite reached the denser forest when an Akepa sang, and we soon found the petite male as it foraged in an ohia tree, a real crowd pleaser colored tangerine-orange. Two of the three endangered endemics had now been found.

Then another song rang out. I turned to Barry Zimmer, my co-leader, and confided something to the effect of, "This is amazing! That's got to be an Akiapolaau singing—and it's really close!" The Akiapolaau—everyone calls it Aki' for short—is the holy grail bird of the refuge, the scarcest of the endangered endemics and a bird with a beak unique in the bird world. The rotund yellow Aki's bill has a short, stout lower mandible that it uses like a chisel, just the way a woodpecker uses its bill. But the upper half of the bill is much longer, very slender, down-curved, and flexible—it gets used as a probe to tease out food items found after chiseling the bark with the other part of the bill.

We had often spent hours during previous tours in search of an Aki' at Hakalau, persisting and hoping to see one before we had to turn back. Today would be a splendid exception to the pattern. The Aki' kept singing, and soon it was sighted, working its way from branch to branch. We were seeing an Aki! Then, to our delight, the Aki' flew to a small tree near the trail and, almost at eye level, worked the trunk with its remarkable bill as we all watched in rapt astonishment.

It was barely 10:00 a.m. We had seen all the endangered endemics of the refuge, and seen them well. Not long after, we tracked down the other new native bird possibilities at Hakalau: Omao, a Hawaiian endemic thrush, and Hawaii Elepaio, a monarch flycatcher unique to the island. We spent the next couple of hours enjoying the splendid forest at leisure, watching Iiwis chase from tree to tree, an Omao hovering to snatch olapa berries, and an Akepa in song flight, while marveling at our good fortune.

Good fortune was a strong theme on our 2012 Fall Hawaii tour. From the very first day, birds seemed to be going out of their way to show themselves nicely. That first day, on Oahu, as we walked out to an area to look for Bristle-thighed Curlews, the first one we saw flew right toward the group, gave its signature whistled call, and then landed nearby for close views of every detail, right down to the bristles. All as if to say, "Here I am. Check me out." This was an ideal finish to a day of great views of angelic White Terns and scarce, endangered Oahu Elepaios. Even a Uniform Swiftlet was glimpsed, an introduced bird with a tiny and rarely seen population on Oahu.

The good luck held. On the island of Kauai, during a morning drive along the rim of scenic Waimea Canyon, we saw two Pueo in an area I hadn't seen them in years, and had nifty roadside views of a stunning male Black Francolin—a bird that looks like a gold-plated black partridge. Our picnic spot at 4,000 feet in the Kauai native forest turned out to be the focal point for a wonderful mixed flock of Anianiaus, Kauai Amakihis, and Kauai Elepaios—all island endemics. And then later on the Big Island, the day after our sparkling visit to Hakalau, Barry spotted another endangered endemic—the Palila—less than a minute after we'd hopped out of the vans at our first stop. The same day, on a sunset scenic drive, we had incredible views of Hawaiian hoary bats, flying around in full daylight. Amazing.

Good fortune followed us right through the last day of the tour. That morning we were still on the hunt for good views for everyone of Red-billed Leiothrix and Hwamei, two non-native but quite wonderful birds, both birds we had heard often but which are painfully difficult to get out in the open. A short walk down another trail, and we saw both well.

As in past tours, October once again proved an ideal time for an autumn respite in the tropical Pacific. The Fall Hawaii tour made the most of the natural history of three of the Hawaiian Islands—Hawaii, Kauai, and Oahu—while enjoying warm weather, superb food, nice lodging, and a great group of travelers.