Spring Hawaii Feb 16—24, 2014

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 main Hawaiian islands: Hawaii, Kauai, and Oahu, and their 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. Lodging is nice too, and three of the four hotels where we stay back right up to the ocean shoreline.

Bristle-thighed Curlew

Bristle-thighed Curlew— Photo: Dion Hobcroft


Our 2014 Spring 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. 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, with the special help of Eric VanderWerf, 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 near 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 by, 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 stood atop a fence post looking about, for perhaps ten minutes—a perfect scope subject.

Shortly after, Eric took us to an area of shrimp aquaculture ponds to try and relocate a vagrant Terek Sandpiper. Careful searching revealed the rare visitor—the first record ever for anywhere in Hawaii. What a superb way to round out the day’s birding, before another dinner overlooking Waikiki and the Pacific.


Nene— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

By mid-morning of Day 3 we were standing on a scenic overlook on the island of Kauai, with high hopes of watching spectacular seabirds. The birds appeared almost as soon as we got out of the vans: Laysan Albatrosses glided by at close range, some landing at their nest sites under nearby trees. White-tailed Tropicbirds flapped steadily back and forth between immense sea cliffs, trailing astonishingly long tails. Two elegant Red-tailed Tropicbirds flew repeatedly by our viewpoint onto the ocean, sometimes right overhead! As the morning breeze picked up, Red-footed Boobies flew by the cliff, while immense Great Frigatebirds drifted overhead—including one male with its red throat sack fully inflated. Pairs of Nenes (endangered Hawaiian Geese, the state bird) strolled unassumingly on the grass.

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.

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. The first views of hawks were of distant soaring birds, but as the afternoon progressed we were treated to ever closer views of the only native hawk in the Hawaiian Islands. Lunch found us 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. Great views of the hawk were a highlight, and we saw several even better flying over the native forest of Mauna Kea’s east slope. And we soon saw Hawaii’s one native owl as well, the Pueo.


Pueo— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

Still, the premier bird highlights of the Big Island are its native forest birds. The following two days took us to two very different forest types on Hawaii’s tallest volcanic peak, Mauna Kea. Exploring the mamane/naio forest on the dry western face of Mauna Kea, we quickly came upon several bright yellow Palila, an island endemic that looks something like a Pine Grosbeak, and a species found only in this forest. Later the same day we hiked Puu Oo Trail into relict stands of koa/ohia forest—the forest of the damp side of the Mauna Kea. Here we saw our first scarlet Iiwis plus a fine sample of the Big Island’s endemic forest birds: the gray thrush named Omao, Hawaii Elepaio, and the most unique of all Hawaiian birds—the Akiapolaau, or just Aki’ for short. The Aki’ possesses a bill adaptation unique among birds: a short, straight lower bill half, like a chisel, 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’s a bill that Hawaii bird photographer Jack Jeffrey likens to a “Swiss Army knife.”


I’iwi— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

The following day we explored Hakalau Forest National Wildlife Refuge, deep in the windward, rain forest side of Mauna Kea. Soon after reaching the refuge, we began to see I’iwis—unique, scarlet Hawaiian honeycreepers probing the red blossoms of native ohia trees with their long, red, sickle-shaped bills. Not long after, call notes led us to several Akepa, a Big Island endemic. Soon after we watched a female Akepa investigate a possible nest cavity, Dion spotted a bright orange male Akepa, which showed nicely among the dark green ohia leaves. A short distance down the trail, an endangered endemic Hawaii Creeper worked the loose bark of a tree trunk, clinging like a nuthatch. 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. The same evening we visited Hawaii Volcanoes National Park after dark, where active Halemaumau Crater glowed a hellish red from the lava lake now bubbling in the heart of the crater.

A final full day at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park gave us a chance to explore the volcanic landscape in the light of day, to look across vast fields of recent lava, to walk through an extinct lava tube, and to gain a closer, more personal sense of how the islands were created.

The Spring Hawaii tour made the most of the natural history and scenic splendor of Hawaii, Kauai, and Oahu, while enjoying its mild climate and superb food.