There are few things that can more quickly elicit jealousy -- on the part of birders and non-birders alike -- than to tell them that you're headed for Hawaii for a week. After all, we've all seen the pictures: the lines of swaying palm trees arrayed along golden beaches, the jagged purple peaks clothed with verdant veils of vegetation, the smooth curves of the shield volcanoes on the Big Island, the ultramarine surf crested with perfect, curling breakers... And we birders know of other attractions too -- thrushes and flycatchers and "Hawaiian honeycreepers" (now known to belong to the family Fringillidae) found only on the islands.
Our tour started on the small, crowded island of Oahu, where most of the mainland flights land, and the vast bulk of the state's population lives. We gathered for our first pre-breakfast walk in the park right across the street from our hotel, where a host of introduced foreigners awaited: dozens of heavy-billed Java Sparrows and bounding swarms of Common Waxbills nibbled grass seeds on the park's ballfields, Red-vented Bulbuls and Red-crested Cardinals sang from treetops, and Saffron Finches rested on baseball backstops, while screaming Rose-ringed Parakeets flew past overhead. It wasn't all exotics though; we had wonderful views of delicate White Terns as they prospected for nest sites on various tree branches, while American Golden-Plovers scampered across the cut lawn. Post breakfast, we headed to the hills for our first endemics; some patient searching gave us great views of Oahu Amakihi, but we couldn't track down any of the Oahu Elepaios we heard singing from dense brushy patches. After lunch and a drive around the north end of the island, we spent the afternoon visiting some wetlands, and finished the day with a gang of Bristle-thighed Curlews -- some sprinkled across a golf course, others foraging on a nearby national wildlife refuge -- and not a Grizzly Bear in sight!
Next, we moved on to Kauai, the wildest and least populated of the islands we visited. We started with a drive to the island's northeast corner, where a visit to the Kilauea Point Light netted us hundreds of perched Red-footed Boobies, plenty of flying Wedge-tailed Shearwaters, some lurking Great Frigatebirds, a handful of distant Hawaiian Geese, a single Red-tailed Tropicbird on a nest and a very unexpected Kermadec Petrel that chased around (screaming) after passing seabirds. Then it was off to a subdivision in Princeville for a fun rendezvous with some courting adult Laysan Albatrosses, and a fluffy poodle of a chick -- right in people's front yards! A day-long visit to the lush highland forest of Alakai Swamp and Koke'e State Park brought us eye to eye with a confiding Kauai Elepaio, our first Iiwis, an adult and juvenile Anianiau, and (after considerable effort and some acrobatic posing to get into the right position to view it through the branches) a serenading Chinese Hwamei. A morning to Hanalei NWR brought us Hawaiian Coot, some Hawaiian Ducks and Hawaiian Geese resting right beside the road, the endemic subspecies of Black-necked Stilt, and a very cooperative Japanese Bush-Warbler singing from bare branches at the top of a tree. Then we were off to sea, for a 5-hour pelagic that brought us nearly within arm's reach of three species of booby (including an uncommon Masked), two species of albatross (including a thrilling encounter with a Black-footed), three species of shearwaters (mostly Wedge-tailed, with a sprinkling of Sooty and Newell's), four species of terns (with nice comparisons between Brown and Black noddies, dozens of Sootys and a couple of brief Gray-backed), lots of White-tailed Tropicbirds, a few Great Frigatebirds, a solitary Red Phalarope, and an exciting flyby Tristram's Storm-Petrel. The boiling masses of birds we chased back and forth across the waves were fun to watch as they hovered and circled and dove after fish!
We spent the remainder of the tour on the Big Island, Hawaii itself, starting with a night in the damp, lush highlands right outside Volcanoes National Park. Though our primary focus here was the stark, dramatic volcanic landscape (and the massive Kilauea crater, which was particularly impressive on our after-dinner visit), there were, of course, birds to see as well. Dozens of brightly colored Apapanes sang from treetops, a pair of courting Omaos chased each other back and forth through the dripping forest near the massive lava tube (the female doing lots of wing quivering), Kalij Pheasants strolled the roadsides, Hawaiian Geese strolled across the hardened lava fields (showing well the relatively small amount of webbing they have on their feet), and Black Noddies cruised back and forth along the layered cliffs where they bordered the sea. From our base in Waikiki, on the dry, hot side of the island, we ventured into the cool, damp, foggy highlands of Hakalau NWR, along a bumpy, rutted dirt road that yielded excellent views of introduced Chukars and Erckel's Francolins. The cloud forest here is among the richest in the islands, still with much of its avifauna intact, and we had wonderful encounters with endemics here. Apapanes and Iiwis flirted among the red Ohia blooms, a couple of Hawaiian Creepers demonstrated nicely how they got their name as they crawled over a huge Koa trunk, several pairs of Akepas danced through dripping foliage (the males little flashes of burnt orange among the greenery), Hawaiian Elepaios flitted through the branches, a couple of Akiapolaaus gave us eye level views of their uniquely shaped bills, and a very damp Hawaiian Hawk sat glumly on a branch. Combined, they made that steep, soggy walk in the rain more than worthwhile! The following morning, after a drive that netted us great views of perched and hunting Short-eared Owls (another endemic subspecies), we enjoyed a fine, sunny morning with dozens of Hawaiian Amakihis, a big-billed Palila, which serenaded us from a treetop, and a picnic breakfast with several dry-side Hawaiian Elepaios. Then it was off to the stony Pu'u O'o track for one final attempt at finding more Akiapolaaus for those who'd missed them at Hakalau. We came up visually empty (though we heard several), but up-close-and-personal encounters with nesting Hawaiian Elepaios, and a flyby Hawaiian Hawk helped to ease the sting.
Thanks so much for joining Dan and me for the adventure. Your enthusiasm and camaraderie really added to the trip! Thanks too to the various photographers who contributed the pictures for the following report (and many more in addition). And thanks, of course, to Dave for his wonderful knowledge of the birds (and plants and insects and history) of Kauai, and to Caroline at FG headquarters for helping with all the tour logistics. We hope to see you on another tour soon!
KEYS FOR THIS LIST
One of the following keys may be shown in brackets for individual species as appropriate: * = heard only, I = introduced, E = endemic, N = nesting, a = austral migrant, b = boreal migrant
Totals for the tour: 86 bird taxa and 5 mammal taxa