Fall Hawaii Oct 06—14, 2013

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 Fall Hawaii tour makes the most of the natural history of three main Hawaiian islands: Hawaii, Kauai, and Oahu—a combination of superb seabirds, rare one-of-a-kind forest birds in beautiful tropical forests, lovely seacoasts and interior mountain ridges, and massive volcanoes. Hawaii also offers the most accessible volcanic realm in the world, balmy weather, and superb food. The lodging is nice too, and three of the four hotels where we stay back right up to the ocean shoreline.

The 2013 Fall Hawaii tour—over nine days and across three islands—began on the island of Oahu, in Waikiki, with dinner on the hotel lanai overlooking the Pacific. As we gathered for dinner, with the sun setting over the ocean, someone let us know that a Hawaiian Monk Seal lay on the sand just outside our dining area. What a way to start the trip! A rare seal found nowhere else but Hawaii had chosen to take a nap right where we were gathered.

The next morning began with a visit to an adjacent park, where glorious White Terns fluttered above the banyan trees. The rest of the morning was devoted to searching out the island’s endemic forest birds—Oahu Elepaio and Oahu Amakihi—as well as such fancy non-natives as elegant White-rumped Shamas and jewel-like Red-billed Leiothrix. Afternoon found us driving past the immense surfing waves of Oahu’s North Shore, toward the island’s northwest corner and one of the best spots on earth to see one of the world’s scarcest shorebirds, the Bristle-thighed Curlew. As we took the easy stroll to the ocean-side dunes to look for curlews, one flew almost overhead, whistling its distinctive call. Soon we were within comfortable spotting scope distance of several curlews, close enough to see the trademark bristles. As if to make for an even better view, one Bristle-thighed Curlew flew to the top of a fence post and stood there, preening and looking about, for perhaps ten minutes—a perfect scope subject. A nice way to round out the day’s birding, before another dinner on the lanai, looking out on the Pacific.

By mid-morning of Day 3 we were standing on a scenic overlook on the island of Kauai, watching spectacular seabirds. White-tailed Tropicbirds flapped steadily back and forth along high sea cliffs, trailing astonishingly long tails. Lanky, white Red-footed Boobies flew close by the cliff, while immense Great Frigatebirds drifted overhead. Pairs of Nenes (endangered Hawaiian Geese, the state bird) with large goslings strolled unassumingly on the grass. And much to our surprise, at least three pairs of Red-tailed Tropicbirds then appeared, flying into view against the sea and tall cliffs. By October, this species is far less predictable here than in spring. We were fortunate to see them and, even better, two of the pairs began performing aerial courtship maneuvers, nearly hovering while circling backwards, one above the other.

Our second day on Kauai led up majestic Waimea Canyon, rightly known as “Hawaii’s Grand Canyon,” and to 4,000-foot overlooks onto emerald Kalalau Valley. We moved from scenic views to serious birding, walking well back into the native tropical forest, where we found such Kauai endemic forest birds as Anianiau and Kauai Amakihi, as well as Apapane and Kauai Elepaio. That afternoon we encountered our first Pueo, Hawaii’s native owl.

Soon we were off to “The Big Island” of Hawaii, the final of the tour’s three islands. Arriving on Hawaii, we first explored the Big Island’s Kona Coast for endemic Hawaiian Hawks. After seeing a couple of distant soaring hawks, we stopped for lunch at a tiny café tucked into the Kona coffee groves on the west slope of Mauna Loa—and overlooking Kealakekua Bay, some 1,500 feet below. After a superb lunch, we went in search of better views of the islands’ lone species of hawk. As we walked along a narrow road through the tall coffee plants, one sharp-eyed member of the group picked out a Hawaiian Hawk tucked into the top of a nearby mango tree—not much more than 150 feet from us. The hawk, which appeared to be surveying the landscape for prey, took little notice of us as we watched it in the scopes and as the cameras clicked.

The great views of the hawk were a highlight, and we would go on to see several more Hawaiian Hawks. Still, the premier bird highlights of the Big Islands are its native forest birds. Because our tour happened to coincide with the federal shutdown, a national wildlife refuge we normally visit to search for forest birds was off limits. Undeterred, we explored along a trail deep into the native rain forest and came away with fine results: lots of scarlet-feathered Iiwis, with their long, curved beaks designed for probing flowers. Often in the same trees with Iiwis were brick-red Apapanes and yellow-green Hawaii Amakihis. With patience, we were rewarded with very close looks at Omao, the Big Island’s shy forest thrush. Saving the best for last, we had narrowed our search to the holy grail of Hawaii endemics: the Akiapolaau, or Aki’ for short. The yellow Aki’ possesses what Hawaii bird photographer Jack Jeffrey calls a “Swiss Army knife” bill. Its short, straight lower bill half is paired with a long, slender, curved, flexible upper bill half. With its lower bill half an Aki’ hammers like a woodpecker, then uses the flexible upper bill to probe for insects under the bark. It is a bill adaptation essentially unique in the world. On this day, our patience and persistence paid off again; we saw several of the amazing birds and the last, a bright yellow male, perched in one place for several minutes, allowing all present to enjoy it with a scope view.

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 and scenic splendor of Hawaii, Kauai, and Oahu, together with fine weather, superb food, and great places to stay.