[Tweeters] (Off-topic and long) Hawaii Birding - Big Island (mostly) and Oahu

johntubbs at comcast.net johntubbs at comcast.net
Thu Aug 22 12:37:33 PDT 2013

Hi folks,


Trisha and I just got back from a trip of almost two weeks to Hawaii for a big family reunion with her side of the family (she was born and raised there).  Five days were on the Big Island and the rest on Oahu.  We fortunately decided to plan in advance for two days of birding with a guided group on the Big Island, and managed to squeeze in about a day (in various pieces) birding on our own on Oahu.


Though I had been to the islands a number of times after we were married, I wasn't doing serious birding back then, so hadn't counted many of the species there on my personal life list.  This trip added 36 species to my life list, and we were fortunate to see every endemic species we were looking for on the Big Island, including several rare and highly endangered species. 


First off, for those planning on birding the Big Island, we can highly recommend Hawaii Forest and Trails, and particularly Garry Dean, one of their several birding-specific guides (they do mostly non-birding tours which might be of interest to folks as well).  The recommendation to us for the company  came from Mason Flint - thanks, Mason, for the excellent tip! 


The list of species we saw, excluding some of the run-of-the-mill birds we see in the Pacific Northwest,  follows:


Hawaii Endemics

Nene Goose

I'o [Hawaiian hawk]

Pueo [Hawaiian Owl]



Hawaiian Amakihi


Hawaii Creeper





Koloa [Hawaiian Duck]

Hawaiian Coot

Hawaiian Gallinule [not a separate species, just a race]


Red-tailed Tropicbird

Great Frigatebird

Red-vented and Red-whiskered Bulbuls

Zebra, Spotted and Mourning Doves

Japanese White-Eye

Saffron Finch

Red-billed Leothrix

Sky Lark

African Silverbill

White Tern (referred to as the Fairy Tern in Hawaii)

Common Waxbill

Rose-ringed Parakeet

White-rumped Shama

Cattle Egret

Red-crested and Yellow-billed Cardinals

Northern Cardinal (much to the excitement of two Aussies and a Kiwi who were on one of the trips with us)

Gray, Black and Erckel's Francolins

Wild Turkey

Black-necked Stilt

Black-crowned Night Heron

Wandering Tattler

Pacific Golden-Plover

Java Sparrow

Chestnut Munia

Nutmeg Mannikin

Common Myna (Hawaii's 'trash bird' that seems to be everywhere, like the European Starling on the mainland)


Of course the most interesting finds were the endemics.  Most people probably know the sad story of how many of Hawaii's native bird species  have gone extinct, or are in danger of extinction, due to a variety of reasons.  Introduction of the mongoose; habitat destruction by people, feral pigs, feral sheep and feral goats; and mosquito-born avian malaria and avian pox have all contributed.  The rarest of the birds we saw are very  tenuous - for example, the Palila (estimated current population around 1,000 individuals) exists in about a seven square mile area of dry forest on the Big Island.  One forest fire in that area could effectively cause the species to go extinct.  Wild-bred Palila were trapped and relocated to another apparently equivalent section of the forest but immediately returned to their home area.  Captive-bred Palila were then released along with wild-bred Palila in the other area under the theory that having more birds there might convince the wild birds to stay and colonize the area - nope, the wild birds proceeded to lead the captive-bred birds back to the home area.  There is a glimmer of hope that the other area might be colonized, as one banded bird has been observed flying back and forth between the two forests.


One of the two birding tours offered by Hawaii Forest and Trails goes into the Hakalau Forest Preserve, a (mostly) native forest originally purchased by the Nature Conservancy to protect it when it became available and the federal government was unable to move quickly enough to purchase it, then eventually transferred to federal status.  The public is not allowed into this preserve - the tour company runs tours there under license.  The last ten miles of road into the preserve area are not recommended for those prone to motion sickness - it was washboarded and full of tank-trap size potholes.  The birds (and the magnificent weather we were lucky to experience) however, were well worth it.  As with most small forest birds, finding them is made MUCH easier when someone is skilled at birding by ear.  Even if we had had access to Hakalau, our lack of experience with the songs and calls would have reduced the list of birds we really identified to zero.  Our guide Garry worked extremely hard - and successfully - to eventually find all the species visually and get everyone on the group a decent look at the birds.  Photography was difficult, though we got a lot of decent pix, because of the density of the forest and the warbler-like hyperactivity of many of the species.  Several species are quite skulky as well.  (The Oma'o - Hawaiian Thrush - for example, is relatively common compared to most of the other species, but was hard to get decent looks at.) 


The best time to bird the endemic species is winter, so our success at getting all the target birds was particularly fortunate.  November through March is considered the best time to bird the forest endemics, but of course the weather is much more iffy then as well.  (The lowest elevation forest birding we did was at 6400 feet, and we went as high as about 8,000.  Lower elevation birding is in more open country that is current or former ranchland, from which most native trees have been gone for many decades.) 


We were unable to fit in a pelagic trip, but managed to find some marine species anyway.  We really enjoyed the White Terns a particularly beautiful, elegant and graceful species that is mostly on Oahu from February to September, when we found a pair for good looks and photos at the contemporary art museum on the slopes of Mount Tantalus, and saw several of them flying over Honolulu beaches as well.  The windward side of Oahu (the east shore) has some marine species all year long, and several visits to Makapuu and a climb up Makapuu Ridge to the lighthouse produced Red-tailed Tropicbird and a single (and very impressive) soaring Great Frigatebird.  Several dark-colored species were flying around Rabbit and Goat Islands, off Makapuu, but lacking scopes we were unable to identify them.  The most notable aspect of Hawaii's marine birds is the lack of seagulls - there basically are none, except for a rare vagrant or two that occasionally arrives, probably by hitching a ride on a ship.  The most amusing water-oriented species is the Pacific Golden-Plover, which starts arriving in mid to late August and by the winter months is pretty much on every lawn or field on Oahu, rather robin-like in their acceptance of people and commonality.  I remembered how hard I worked to get my first Pacific Golden-Plover while on Oahu they are pretty much everywhere with people ignoring them and vice versa at the right time of year. 

We were not on Kauai on this trip, and there are a handful of rare Hawaiian endemics that exist only on Kauai, so we missed out on those.  Unfortunately Hawaii Forest and Trails only operates on the Big Island, although Garry indicated to us that they can refer people to other guides on various other islands. 

Perhaps the most interesting behavior we were fortunate to observe was of a female Akiapola'au.  Our guide hiked us in to a couple-acre size kipuka (island of forest surrounded by lava) in which he has been observing one pair of Akiapola'au for several years.  It took a good hour of searching and carefully listening for Garry to identify an area where one was and when we finally found it, it worked in one area near enough for very good binocular looks for a good fifteen minutes or so.  This species has a weird, double-tasking bill.  The lower mandible is straight and somewhat long, but dwarfed in length by the upper mandible, which is probably double the length of the lower mandible and strongly decurved to a very sharp point.  When searching for insects, the bird opens its mouth wide, moving the upper mandible out of the way and proceeding to hammer on trees with its lower mandible, essentially using the lower bill as a woodpecker would do.  Then, the upper bill with its useful length and shape, is used to extract insects from their hiding places or holes that the lower bill has just excavated.  I got a couple good pix of this showing the bird using the lower bill to probe tree trunks. 

I'll have pictures of a number of the species we saw up on my photo website soon, I hope .  I'll post a link when that is ready.

John Tubbs

Snoqualmie, WA

johntubbs at comcast.net







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