Fall Hawaii Oct 12—20, 2016

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: 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 wonderful dining. Lodging is nice too, and three of the four hotels we stay at back right up to the ocean shoreline.

Our 2016 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, just as the sun set on the horizon.

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. Midday found us driving past the immense surfing waves of Oahu’s North Shore, then dining on fresh shrimp at a roadside stand 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 almost overhead, whistling out its distinctive call. Soon we were within comfortable spotting scope distance of a few curlews, at least five together in a grassy patch. As if to make for an even better view, one Bristle-thighed Curlew stood atop a fence post, preening and looking about, for perhaps ten minutes—a perfect scope subject, close enough to see the trademark bristles. 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 strolled unassumingly on the grass. And at least one lovely Red-tailed Tropicbird flew close by, showing its wire-like red tail feathers. 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. Within an hour of landing, we enjoyed fine scope views of endemic Hawaiian Hawks in South Kona. After a superb lunch with a 1,500-foot overlook onto Kealakekua Bay, we explored along narrow roads through the Kona coffee groves, where we saw two beautiful, tiny waxbill finches—Red Avadavat and Lavender Waxbill.

But the Big Island’s premier birds are its native forest birds, and for these we had special access to remote Hakalau Forest National Wildlife Refuge. 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 Hawaii Creeper, one of several endangered Big Island endemics we hoped to find. It crept like a nuthatch along a koa branch. A family of Hawaii Elepaios flitted from koa tree to koa tree, their tails cocked up, and Hawaii Amakihis trilled and foraged in the trees nearby.

Now Diane called our attention to another bird clinging to the side of a small trunk, just a couple of feet off the ground. Diane had spotted the holy grail of Hawaii endemic birds: an Akiapolaau, or Aki’ for convenience, one of the islands’—in fact one of the world’s—rarest and most distinctively outfitted birds. The Aki is equipped with what some have termed a “Swiss Army knife” bill: a 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. On some trips we spend many hours searching for an Aki’, and here it was, a female, just twenty feet from us and only a few minutes into the day’s birding. Later in the day we would have the remarkable good fortune of seeing a bright yellow male too, as it called just overhead.

A bit farther down the trail, we came upon a male Hawaii Akepa, another island endemic, this one a bright tangerine orange—a definite crowd pleaser as it foraged in an ohia close by. And now we began to get some fine views of the flashiest birds on the premises: Iiwis. Feathered like Scarlet Tanagers in crimson with black wings, with the fancy addition of long, red, sickle-shaped bills and red legs, Iiwis uttered their brassy calls throughout our stay at the refuge. A bit later we came upon the endemic Hawaiian thrush, Omao, completing the array of specialty birds in the refuge.

During the rest of our stay on the Big Island, we had fine views of the dry forest endemic bird, Palila; watched the distinctive Hawaiian form of Black Noddy fly along the black lava, coastal cliffs; saw a very-rare-for-Hawaii Belted Kingfisher; and, to cap it all off, lucked out on the timing to see red lava fountaining inside Halemaumau Crater!

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.