Spring Hawaii Feb 25—Mar 05, 2015

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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Our 2015 Spring Hawaii tour was crowded with highlights, but the morning we birded Hakalau Forest National Wildlife Refuge took top honors. Located at about 6,000 ft. elevation on the rain forest face of Mauna Kea on the island of Hawaii, Hakalau offers the best forest birding anywhere in the Hawaiian Islands. Here, among the native Ohia and Koa trees and shrub understory of native raspberry and many other plants, we were on a quest to find seven native Hawaiian birds that would be new to our sightings so far.

Soon after reaching the refuge—we hadn’t walked in more than 100 yards—we saw our first Iiwis:  unique, flashy Hawaiian honeycreepers feathered like Scarlet Tanagers in crimson with black wings, with the fancy addition of long, red, sickle-shaped bills and crimson legs. The native raspberry, Akala, was in bloom, and we watched our first Iiwi head for those blossoms right at eye level. Plenty more Iiwi sightings were ahead of us, but now a Hawaii Creeper—one of the endangered Big Island endemics—trilled nearby. Soon spotted, we watched the Hawaii Creeper scramble up and down trunks and branches like a nuthatch.

As we waited for the creeper to reappear from behind some leaves, group member Leon said, remarkably calmly, that he had just seen a bright yellow bird working the trunk of the same tree harboring the creeper. Truly bright yellow likely meant one thing in this forest: the rarest of the Big Island endemics and the holy grail of Hawaiian native forest birds—an Akiapola’au, or Aki’ for short. We had talked about this as a group just before setting off on the hike: home in on anything really bright yellow. My first thought was: well, maybe it’s just an especially colorful male Hawaii Amakihi, a fairly common bird in these woods. We rarely see an Aki’ quickly, and often have to visit another spot on a second hike to improve the long odds.

We didn’t have long to consider the topic as, a moment later, a bold yellow male Aki’ crept into view, literally at eye level, hammering on a slender trunk with its one-of-a-kind bill. Leon had spotted the holy grail not more than 20 minutes into the hike—a tour record. The Aki’ is one of the islands’—in fact one of the world’s—rarest and most distinctively outfitted birds, with what some have termed a “Swiss Army knife” bill. Its short, straight lower beak, a sort of chisel, is paired with a long, slender, curved, flexible upper beak. The short half hammers like a woodpecker’s bill to loosen bark and lichens; then the upper probes for insects under the bark. We can take the woodpecker analogy a step further, as an Aki’ will create sap wells in trunks just like our sapsuckers do.

The Aki stayed in view for a few minutes, showing off its remarkable bill, as we watched with something resembling reverent awe. Now we sauntered down the trail, truly psyched, with four more special birds to find. Very soon we were looking at a pair of Hawaii Elepaios, one of the Hawaiian Islands’ group of three endemic monarch flycatchers. Hawaii Amakihis showed well now too. Then a singing Omao, an endemic Big Island solitaire, was tracked down to its perch high in the Ohias. That left the Akepa, a tiny Hawaiian honeycreeper that pries open Ohia leaf buds with its slightly crossed bill tips. Before long, a female, gray with yellowish breast, stood obligingly atop a bare branch for all to see. But it was really the male everyone was hoping for and, very soon, Rafael Galvez, my sharp-eyed co-leader, had spotted a tangerine-orange male Akepa. The bright orange bird move from one foraging spot to another, allowing wonderful views.

We had seen all seven Hakalau targets and it wasn’t even quite lunchtime. A new plan for the afternoon took shape quickly. We would eat our picnic lunches and then backtrack to the other side of Mauna Kea in hope of finding the one final Big Island endemic, which happens to inhabit the dry Mamane forest on the lee side of the huge mountain. By midafternoon, at about 7,300 ft., we stood on the lee side of Mauna Kea under a layer of ominous, heavy gray clouds, admiring a Palila in the spotting scopes as it foraged in a Mamane tree. Just as the Palila flew out the back of that tree, the skies opened up and we double-timed it back to the vans. Mother Nature had one last surprise for the day up her sleeve. Not a new bird this time but a driving hail storm, a rare event to experience in the midst of the tropical Pacific.

VENT’s Spring Hawaii tour makes the most of the natural history of three of the main Hawaiian islands—Hawaii, Kauai, and Oahu—in just nine days: courting tropicbirds and nesting albatrosses, rare one-of-a-kind forest birds in beautiful tropical forests, the islands’ only hawk soaring above hillsides of Kona coffee, and close views of one of the world’s scarcest shorebirds, the Bristle-thighed Curlew. Our Spring Hawaii tour offers all this and much more, at a season seabirds are nesting near at hand and native forest birds are singing. Hawaii also offers the most accessible volcanic realm in the world, balmy weather, superb food, and nice lodging.

The tour begins with a sunset dinner in Waikiki, overlooking the Pacific on the island of Oahu. Just before dinner we watched a lovely White Tern sitting atop a single egg on a bare branch. A very full day on Oahu included good views of two island endemics, Oahu Amakihi and the endangered Oahu Elepaio. Afternoon found us driving past the famous surfing beaches of the North Shore on our way to a close encounter with Bristle-thighed Curlews, one of the world’s most-wanted shorebirds. In an almost too-good-to-be-true moment, we watched several of the rare curlews stand atop headstones in a small Japanese cemetery, close enough to see the fine, long, bristle-like feathers at the base of the legs.

On the adjacent island of Kauai we watched courting Red-tailed Tropicbirds, Laysan Albatrosses, Red-footed Boobies, and Nenes (Hawaiian Geese), some at point-blank range. A second day on Kauai took us along remote unpaved roads into the native forest at 4,000 ft. for fine views of endemic Kauai Elepaio, Kauai Amakihi, and the warbler-like Anianiau. To reach the entrance to the forest, we drove along the rim of Waimea Canyon, stopping to look down the sheer copper-colored cliffs that line a split in the earth more than half-a-mile deep.

By Day 5 of the tour we had reached our final island destination, the Big Island of Hawaii. The visit to Hakalau described above may have been the top birding highlight, but exploring the natural wonders of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park was terrific in its own way: craters and lava tubes, square miles of shiny black lava flows from recent decades, a forest studded with massive tree ferns, Black Noddies flying along black lava sea cliff, and a long-awaited good view of a bird we had heard again and again, but always slipped out of view: the very skulky and very beautiful Red-billed Leiothrix.

Our Spring Hawaii tour was truly memorable for its wonderful natural history and tropical scenery, balmy weather, superb food, and great companionship.