Spring Hawaii Feb 24—Mar 04, 2013
Posted by Bob Sundstrom
A strong, steady breeze ruffled the waves as we stood on the high bluffs of Kilauea Point on the island of Kauai, looking out over the blue Pacific. A steady stream of Red-footed Boobies winged by to feed offshore, huge white seabirds with turquoise bills. Great Frigatebirds hung above like enormous bats, sometimes roughly intercepting boobies in flight to pirate their prey. White-tailed Tropicbirds flapped steadily back and forth, trailing long, slender tail plumes. Laysan Albatrosses glided by below, adult birds from among the dozens of pairs that nest on the refuge located at the Kilauea Point. We trained spotting scopes on a nestling albatross, a great mound of gray fluff under the shade of nearby ironwood trees.
Our vigil atop Kilauea Point wasn’t yet complete though. We hadn’t yet had a close view of Red-tailed Tropicbirds. Several had flown by farther out, but none close yet. Where would be the best spot on the bluff to await them? Just as I pondered a move to another viewpoint, a Red-tailed Tropicbird rose right in front of us from the unseen face of the sea-cliff below. The tropicbird faced into the breeze and seemed to hang in one place as if on a string: immaculate, glistening white with a deep red bill and trailing two long, red tail feathers as slender as wires. As the Red-tailed Tropicbird hung before us, now the subject of multiple long camera lenses, a second tropicbird—perhaps a mate—rose to float just below the first. Were we about to witness their courtship flight, at what felt like arm’s-length? Flapping steadily in a backwards arc, the two tropicbirds circled one another, so that the one above rotated below the other, again and again. We marveled at this natural spectacle. At one point, two pairs were flying courtship circles in close proximity. Brilliant!
This tropicbird spectacular took place on the morning of Day #3 of the 2013 Spring Hawaii tour. We had arrived earlier that morning from Oahu, fresh from a full day of birding on that nearby island. Oahu had rewarded us with wonderful views of Bristle-thighed Curlews, dainty White Terns, and endemic Oahu Amakihis (a small forest songbird) among other birds. The Spring Hawaii tour makes the most of the natural history of three main Hawaiian islands—Hawaii, Kauai, and Oahu—in just nine days. Superb seabirds, rare one-of-a-kind forest birds in beautiful tropical forests, lovely seacoasts and interior mountain ridges, massive volcanoes capped with snow: Spring Hawaii offers all this and much more, at a season when glorious seabirds are nesting close at hand and many forest birds are singing. Hawaii also offers the most accessible volcanic realm in the world, balmy weather, and superb food. Lodging is nice too, and three of the four hotels we stay at back right up to the ocean shoreline.
After a second exciting day of birding on Kauai, we flew on to the Big Island with four days to traverse its diverse habitats. These include both wet and dry realms of tropical forest, as well as kipukas, islands of forest left isolated by encircling lava flows. The first day on the Big Island found us south of Kona, on the west side of the island in the heart of Kona coffee country. This is also a likely area to spot soaring Hawaiian Hawks, the only native hawk species anywhere in Hawaii, and we weren’t disappointed. Soaring hawks—the Hawaiian name for them is I’o—were soon spotted: several before and one during lunch on a veranda overlooking Kealakekua Bay 1,500 feet below.
Over the following two days on the Big Island we sought out endemic forest birds in both wet and dry tropical forests, on the windward and lee slopes of 13,000+ft. Mauna Kea. By walking trails in a remote refuge on the island’s windward side, we were able to find some of Hawaii’s most sought after native forest birds. We came face to face with brilliant Iiwis, doubtless the islands’ most charismatic native bird. With scarlet plumage and scarlet bill to match, the Iiwi uses its long, curved bill to drink deeply from the native flowers. Iiwis flitted along the trailside at eye level, checking the native raspberry flowers for nectar, all the while entertaining us with a wide assortment of strange, reedy vocalizations. The group was dazzled too by tangerine-orange Akepas, unique to the Big Island, as were the Hawaii Creeper, Omao, and Hawaii Elepaio we found along the same trail.
There were still a couple more Big Island specialty birds needed to complete our quest for native forest birds. A visit to a dry forest habitat on the Big Island yielded fine views of one of them, the Palila, a Hawaiian endemic finch closely tied to native, yellow-blossoming mamane trees. That left a bird whose unique features place it perhaps at the pinnacle, the most sought after among all of Hawaii’s forest birds—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; the upper probes for insects under the bark. Persistence, along with a bit of luck, paid off. A bright yellow male Aki’ was at last sighted about a mile out another trail into native forest. The Aki’ showed off its distinctive bill as it moved from tree to tree, quickly testing the bark with its lower mandible. With forest birding done for the day, our next stop was Hilo, and hotel rooms—and some time to relax—overlooking tropical Hilo Bay.