Fall Hawaii Oct 08—16, 2014
Posted by Bob Sundstrom
The morning was mostly clear as we drove out of Waimea in northwest Hawaii (the Big Island). The summit of massive Mauna Kea was in view, its astronomical observatories reflecting the early rays of the sun above the cloud layer. 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. Well before we reached the unpaved ranch road that leads toward the refuge, we stopped for a series of bird sightings: A Pueo, Hawaii’s Short-eared Owl, glided across the open ranchlands, and massive Erckel’s Francolins greeted the morning while standing atop fence posts. A gorgeous male Black Francolin crouched at the roadside, resplendent in black, gold, and rust. Now driving the ranch road, Pacific Golden-Plovers flew up from the road. Before long we passed through a series of gates marking entry to the refuge, tucked our lunches into our packs, and 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 pair of Hawaiian Hawks soared up into view, the only native hawk species in the islands. 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. Then a couple of Hawaii Elepaios (Monarch flycatchers endemic to Hawaii) popped out of young, bright green koa trees, barking out their calls. A few minutes later we had our first clear views of Iiwis, scarlet native forest birds with black wings and long, sickle-shaped red bills. 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.
Now a sharp whistle, like that of a policeman directing traffic, announced an Omao (or Hawaiian Thrush) close at hand, one of several endemics we hoped to find in the refuge. Often a hard bird to see well, the Omao flew to a bare branch in a tall ohia tree, allowing a very good view. Then another endemic called—a Hawaii Creeper, gray-green with a black mask. It foraged overhead on the rough bark of an ohia, crawling over branches like a nuthatch, as the group worked to get a good view against the silver glare of the sky.
Another couple of hundred feet down the trail, the calls and a brief song of an Akepa reached our ears. Still another island endemic! Before long a female was spotted, goldfinch-like but greener with a yellowish breast. The female Akepa foraged deeper into the leaves of an ohia and out of sight—they seek their prey in the leaf buds of ohia, which they pry apart with slightly crossed bill tips. But soon a young male Akepa was spotted, mostly orange as it worked its way toward the bright orange of a full adult. And it perched on a bare branch for a moment or two, allowing careful inspection.
So in the first half-hour or so of our walk down the refuge trail, we had seen all but one of the specialty birds to be found there. Still left was the Akiapolaau—everyone calls it Aki’ for short—the holy grail bird of the refuge, the scarcest of the refuge’s 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.
Finding an Aki’ can be tough. Only a few pairs were within walking distance, assuming we walked a lot, and they could have been anywhere. For the moment, we stocked up on good views of Iiwis, watched the pair of hawks soar even closer, checked out pairs of Elepaios, and kept an eye on the approaching gray clouds. First a light drizzle drifted in, then spitting showers, then enough to send us back a hundred yards to a shelter. It was time for lunch anyway.
Then the showers lightened and we walked down the same trail again. Birds were very active in the freshly damp conditions of their rainforest milieu. Then, at the ideal moment, an Aki’ began singing. Eric heard it instantly, and we all came to attention. It sang again and again, and came closer. The showers started again too, but we did our best to ignore them. Within a few minutes we had wonderful, close views of a bright yellow male Aki’ as it sang in the rain. In silhouette, it opened its bill as it sang, and that amazing upper bill was clear as could be, set above the short lower bill. Amazing good fortune!
And good fortune held across the 2014 Fall Hawaii tour. From the very first day, birds seemed to be going out of their way to show themselves nicely. On the first morning of the tour, on Oahu, we walked under a big fig tree at sunrise, and looking down at us was a lovely White Tern sitting on a branch. Later that day, as we walked out to an area to look for Bristle-thighed Curlews, we were soon scoping one as it probed a grassy patch for prey. Other curlews flew by, and soon we had seen about 20 of these much sought after shorebirds. As we walked back to our vans, one curlew posed close by on the grass, its signature “bristles” clearly visible at the base of the legs.
The good luck held. On the island of Kauai, at 4,000 feet in the native forest, we had superb views of native forest birds: Anianiaus, Kauai Amakihis, and Kauai Elepaios—all island endemics. Later on the Big Island, the day after our sparkling visit to Hakalau, we found another endangered endemic— the Palila—within a few minutes after hopping out of the vans at our first stop. At the same spot, a handsome Pueo drifted close overhead. Good fortune followed us right through the last day of the tour. That morning we were still on the hunt for good views of a Hwamei, a non-native but quite wonderful bird, a bird often heard but painfully difficult to get out in the open. A short walk down another trail, and we found one that posed for minutes: a striking bird, when finally seen—rich, ochre-brown with a bold silver teardrop patch encircling its eye.
There were many other high points, such as a sunset sea watch on Kauai as Hawaiian Petrels arced above the horizon, and a walk down a Kauai forest trail that was alive with endemic Giant Hawaiian Darners, dragonflies with 6-inch wing spans (one of the largest in the world) that sped back and forth around the group.
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, and nice lodging, and all with a great group of travelers.