Fall Hawaii Oct 14—22, 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 Fall Hawaii tour had more than its share of highlights, but the day we birded Hakalau Forest National Wildlife Refuge topped the list. 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 a select group of 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 Hawaii Akepa. A lovely orange male was foraging low in a small koa tree, just a few feet off the ground; an endangered species too, and found only on this island. Soon another male akepa was singing overhead, in flight, and then two bright orange males chased each other in the sky just ahead of us. A very promising start to the Hakalau visit!

It wasn’t long before we began to encounter Hawaii Amakihis too, rotund yellow-green native birds that foraged like warblers between visits to red bottle-brush-like ohia blossoms. Then it was a family of Hawaii Elepaios, the island’s monarch flycatcher, flitting among the low branches as we enjoyed every move. Next a singing Omao, an endemic Big Island solitaire, was tracked down to its perch in the ohias, where it sang its sharp-edged phrases and quivered its wings. A series of raspy notes put us on 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. Iiwis seemed to be in every ohia tree, taking advantage of the flowers’ nectar between chases of other would-be nectar feeders, like Apapanes.

As we enjoyed repeated views of Iiwis, patience brought us a faint trilled song. Walking to a new overlook on the forest edge, we were soon watching a couple of small gray-green birds climbing along branches like nuthatches. They were Hawaii Creepers, another endangered one-island endemic, and they offered repeated views, some right at eye level.

That left one endangered endemic still out there to find. No surprise that it was the scarcest—the highly specialized Akiapolaau—the bird with what has been called 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. An amazing bird, but there were likely only a few pairs in several square miles, so we would need a bit of luck.

Walking farther into the refuge, among the massive koas and ohias, we heard evidence of a mixed flock: calls of akepa and creeper and amakihi all in close proximity. Then, a first bit of luck—a juvenile Aki’ began chipping, a repeated beacon call that told us there was one somewhere near. The sound was maddeningly hard to locate in the many layers of forest, and a deep gulch prevented our moving deeper into the forest. But we knew we had the right mixed flock. Moving to a new vantage point, we got even luckier: a bright yellow male Akiapolaau flew in! Binoculars and cameras followed it closely, taking in the unique bill. Stopping at one perch, the Aki’ sang loudly several times. A remarkable encounter with one of the world’s more remarkable birds.

The Fall Hawaii tour makes the most of the natural history of three of the main Hawaiian islands—Hawaii, Kauai, and Oahu—in just nine days: fancy tropicbirds and nesting shearwaters, 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 Curlews. Our Fall Hawaii tour offers all this and much more, at a season when 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 began with a sunset dinner in Waikiki, overlooking the Pacific on the island of Oahu. The next morning we watched lovely White Terns just outside our hotel door, a rare Hawaiian Monk Seal basking on the beach, and then put in a full day on Oahu that included good views of two island endemics, Oahu Amakihi and the endangered Oahu Elepaio, and wonderful studies of Bristle-thighed Curlews. On the adjacent island of Kauai we enjoyed Red-tailed and White-tailed tropicbirds, 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 feet for fine views of endemic Kauai Elepaio, Kauai Amakihi, and the warbler-like Anianiau. 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 cliffs, and long-awaited views of a bird we had heard belt out its amazing song at multiple sites from dense cover: the skulky Hwamei.

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