Article and photos by Jackie Brooks
The primary purpose of our spring break trip to Hawaii was not birding. It was a family vacation to introduce the grandsons to one of our favorite places. Their interests were Pearl Harbor and volcanoes, so, in a whirlwind, we hit three islands in nine days. Two + days on Oahu, two + days on Hawaii, and four days on Maui, where the boys were introduced to my favorite sport, snorkeling. In addition, there was pool time, exploring and hiking, good food, and a great time making family memories. This did mean, however, that most of the time, I did not have my “birding lens,” but did have my “grands” and tourist lens on my camera.
Any birding was purely incidental, although one grandson (11) has been interested in birds since he was a baby. His choice of a souvenir from Bishop Museum was an Audubon birding book which he read almost all of before we returned to the hotel. This was a good thing as he was able to identify a Red vented Bulbul that night at dinner.
Despite -and somewhat due to—Hawaii being a tropical paradise for people, it is not a haven for birds. There is no other place in the world that has more bird species under threat of extinction. Thirty-three (33) of its 44 endemic species are listed as endangered, the other 11 are probably extinct as they have not been seen for decades.
Many factors contribute to this dilemma. Loss of habitat, predation by invasive species, and mosquito-borne illnesses are the predominant ones.
Not all birds are found on all the islands, as I found out when I misidentified a Red-crested Cardinal as a Yellow-billed Cardinal on eBird. The two look very similar, especially when seen while driving past a traffic median, but the Yellow-billed is not found on Oahu.
However, the Red Junglefowl and Common Myna are found in abundance on all of the main islands. Every time we saw a Red Junglefowl, we chanted, courtesy of our youngest incidental birder, “Chicken!!!, it is a fowl, fowl creature.”
One of the more interesting birds that we saw on Oahu was the White or Fairy Tern (manu o ku)—Bird of Peace. This fish-eating seabird needs trees as much as it does the ocean waters. Fairy terns lay their one egg on the bare branch of a tree without any sign of a nest. The chick stays in that spot, holding tenaciously to the limb with long, sharp claws on its feet. Oddly enough on the main Hawaiian Islands, Fairy Terns are only found in urban Honolulu, although they are found on some of the islands in NW Hawaii.
Our trip to Pearl Harbor not only provided the us with history and a sense of awe and appreciation for what occurred here, but on the grounds, we were able to spot Rock Pigeons, Zebra Doves, Spotted Doves, Saffron Finch, Java Sparrows, Pacific Golden Plover, and the ever-present Junglefowl and Common Myna birds. That’s 8 incidental species without any effort.
Birds seen on Oahu: (12 species)White Tern, Red-crested Cardinal, Red Junglefowl, Common myna, Common Waxbill, Saffron Finch, Java Sparrow, Zebra and Spotted Doves, Rock Pigeons, Pacific Golden Plover, Red-vented Bulbul. Watch this video of the Common Waxbill.
Our primary interest on the Big Island, Hawaii, was Volcano National Park. Our rooms in Volcano House overlooked the Caldera where we could see the steam rising from the vents. Several excursions and hikes out to see other areas of the park yielded some birds, but not as many as the other islands. The rain that we had off and on while we were there wasn’t conducive to seeing birds either.
From the bank of windows in the restaurant, we did see a White-tailed Tropicbird fly past and over the caldera. Not bothered by the sulfur fumes, they nest in the ledges, and are known by locals as “Crater birds”.
We saw quite a few Apapane around the grounds of Volcano House, but, again, rain prevented any photos. This colorful honeycreeper is red, black and white, with a shorter, less curved beak than the iconic honeycreeper, I’iwi, with the long, curved beak.
On our way to see petroglyphs we literally drove past one of our most unusual encounters, a first for all of us—a feral pig.
Separate hikes by younger family members brought back photos of an unusual bird. With the help of Merlin Bird ID and the internet, we identified it as Kalij Pheasant. As we were packing the car to leave, a pair of them came to see us off. These birds were introduced to Hawaii from SE Asia in 1962 as game birds. Now they are relatively common in the higher elevations.
A lunch stop near the airport netted a Yellow-billed Cardinal sighting in addition to a Junglefowl in a tree
Birds seen on Hawaii: (9 species)Yellow-billed Cardinal, White-tailed Tropicbird, Apapane, Red Junglefowl, Common Myna, Kalij Pheasant, Zebra and Spotted Doves, Rock Pigeons
Maui time was devoted to snorkeling from shore, deep water snorkeling at Molokini and Turtle Town, Outrigger canoe trip where we saw more Green Sea Turtles which thrilled this SITP Geema (Grandmother). There was also pool and beach time, trips into Lahaina, so very little birding. Yet we still managed to see Pacific Golden Plover, Hawaiian Hawks, Wandering Tattler, Zebra Doves, Spotted Doves, Rock Pigeons, Common Myna…..and you guessed it , Red Junglefowl. Eight incidental species just by observing what was around us as we went about our days.
Once those who had to return to work or school left us, we were able to devote a little more time to specific birding, but being true dilletantes, we lack the incentive to get up really early, especially while traveling. So, by the time, we would get started, the eBird hotspots would no longer be hot. We also got sidetracked by historical parks and monuments, giving us a chance to learn about Hawaiian history and culture.
As we headed toward the airport for a week on Kauai, we stopped at nearby Kanaha Pond Wildlife Sanctuary. As we got out of the car, we could hear squawking, and see a Hawaiian Stilt running back and forth across the path. Just as we opened the gate, we were greeted by three Hawaiian Geese or Nene (nay-nay), the state bird of Hawaii and a wonderful conservation success.
In 1778, with the arrival of Capt. Cook, there were approximately 25000 Nene. By the mid-1900s, due to hunting and predation (they were particularly hard hit with the introduction of the mongoose), there were less than 30 Nene in the wild. Breeding programs in England and Hawaii have helped bring the present population to almost 4000, most of those on Kauai.
DNA has shown that they are close relatives of the giant Canada Goose. Their feet have evolved to handle the rocky lava terrain where they live.
A walkway leads to a shelter/blind so it was ideal for a quick stop before heading to the airport. Originally part of ancient Hawaiian royal fishponds from 1500, this part of the sanctuary attracts mainly Hawaiian stilt (A’eo), Hawaiian Coot (‘alae), and Hawaiian Duck (koloa).
During our visit, the main attractions were the stilts, although we did see one duck at a distance. The stilts were loud and active because they had babies. We were fortunate enough to see several adorable chicks.
Birds seen on Maui:(9 species) Red Junglefowl, Hawaiian Hawks, Common Myna, Wandering Tattler, Pacific Golden Plover, Hawaiian Goose, Hawaiian Stilt, Black-crowned Night-Heron, Cattle Egret
On Kauai, we did a little more organized birding. Well, we still didn’t get early starts, but we did check ebird hot spots and found some wildlife refuges. Of course, we continued to get sidetracked by historical sites as well as the usual vacation distractions. Sitting on a balcony, overlooking beautiful, clear , multi-hues of blue water does tend to sidetrack us.
On one of our hikes to a primitive site, we did flush a flock of birds. Imagine our excitement when we saw flashes of red. Here, at last, had to be one of the elusive endemic birds. As we looked with binoculars and camera, which finally had a birding lens attached, what to our wondering eyes did appear, but a tree full of House Finches. Of interest, house finches in Hawaii can be red, yellow or orange.
Salt Pond Park is adjacent to the only natural salt ponds on Kauai. These ponds are only for the use of native Hawaiians, but the park itself has many amenities for public use. Here the birding was slim. We did see house sparrows, house finch, and the obligatory, Junglefowl. In addition, we were able to see several Hawaiian Ducks which are relatives of the Mallard.
One of our more exciting stops was at Kawaiele Waterbird Sanctuary. Since the first bird we saw was a Northern Mockingbird, I didn’t have high hopes, but we soon saw a Hawaiian Coot and it’s chick, a Black-crowned Night-Heron, a pair of African Silverbills, a flock of Pomarine Jaegers and our first Laysan Albatross. We also saw and heard many Hawaiian Stilts.
I was walking ahead of Walter, as usual—unless there are spider webs to be knocked down. All of a sudden, I heard a screech, turned around and a stilt flew right at me, veering away at the last minute. Thinking I might be too close to a nest or chick, I carefully walked forward, only to be attacked by another stilt.
Now we have a scene from Hitchcock’s THE BIRDS. Two stilts coming at me from different directions, coming within a foot of my head with those long-pointed beaks. At first, I tried to get a video, but flinched every time. Then I was trying to figure out where to go so I would stop upsetting them. Finally, I just turned around and quickly retreated. By this time, Walter had almost caught up with me, and the 1st stilt attack him, so we both quickly left the area.
Enough cardio excitement for one day!
The highlight of our birding adventures was a visit to Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge. We had visited the lighthouse 30+ years ago, long before we became interested in birding, but, even so, at that time, the highlight was seeing a Blue-footed Booby and Green Sea Turtles in the water below.
Now you need a timed entrance ticket to go onto the lighthouse grounds, although you can see lots of birds from the turn around area outside of the refuge.
Instead of Blue-footed Boobies, the area is now a vast breeding area for Laysan Albatross, Wedge-tailed Shearwaters, Red-footed Boobies, and Red and White-tailed Tropicbirds. The surrounding waters are also a refuge area for whales, monk seals, and sea turtles.
While Great Frigatebirds do not nest here, they frequent the area, and we were fortunate enough to see one. Their Hawaiian name I’wa means thief. This is due to its habit of chasing other seabirds until they give up their food, which the frigatebird then steals in mid-air.
Red-footed Boobies (Ā ) put those bright red feet to good use. Unlike most birds, they don’t incubate their single egg in a brood pouch, but with those vein-filled red feet. They are able to plunge dive up to 15 feet in order to capture fish and squid.
The Red-tailed Tropicbirds (Koe’e’ula) provided entertainment with their courtship rituals of flying backwards in circles and vocalizing as they swooped over the nesting area. Their tail feathers were used by ancient Hawaiian royalty.
We missed the courtship dances of the Laysan Albatross (Moli), but it was still a thrill to see these magnificent flyers. They can fly millions of miles in a lifetime, and glide for hours without a single flap of its 6 foot wingspan. We were able to see some on their nests, and others flying below us along the cliffs.
One of the more usual birds that nests in the Refuge is the Wedge-tailed Shearwater (Ua’u kani). Here is a seabird, like puffins, who nests in burrows. The grounds around the Lighthouse were peppered with burrows in which were nesting shearwaters. Some were literally inches from the sidewalk. Of particular interest was the moaning and groaning sounds that they make. Hear these sounds here.
Birds seen on Kauai: (15 species) African Silverbill, Red-footed Booby, Red-tailed Tropicbird, Laysan Albatross, Wedge-tailed Shearwater, White-tailed Warbler, House Sparrow, House Finch, Hawaiian Goose, Northern Mockingbird, Hawaiian Duck, Hawaiian Stilt, Black-crowned Night-Heron, Pomarine Jaeger, Northern Cardinal
You don’t have to devote extra time or go to a particular place when you are traveling in order to add to your bird list. Just keep your eyes open and be aware of your surroundings, you will quickly find that incidental birding can be as fulfilling as specific birding.
Some Information for this article came from AMERICAN BIRD CONSERVANCY. A POCKET GUIDE TO HAWAII’S BIRDS AND THEIR HABITATS, NATIONAL PARK SERVICE, US FISH & WILDLIFE SERVICE