Spring Hawaii Feb 22—Mar 03, 2017

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 Spring Hawaii Tour makes the most of the natural history of three of the main Hawaiian islands—Hawaii, Kauai, and Oahu—over the course of ten days. Courting tropicbirds and nesting albatrosses, rare one-of-a-kind forest birds in beautiful tropical forests, the islands’ only hawk soaring above hillsides of Kona coffee, and scope views of one of the world’s scarcest shorebirds, the Bristle-thighed Curlews—the Spring 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, not to mention balmy weather, superb food, and nice lodging.

Our 2017 Spring Hawaii tour enjoyed a lot of highlights, but the morning we birded Hakalau Forest National Wildlife Refuge had to rate near the top. Located at 6,000 ft. elevation on the rainforest face of lofty 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, we were on a quest to find seven native Hawaiian birds—most of them endemic to this one island. 

Soon after reaching the refuge—we hadn’t walked in more than 100 yards—we saw our first Hawaii Elepaio and Hawaii Creeper, both specialties of the Big Island. The Elepaio flitted from branch to branch while the creeper performed like a nuthatch along trunks and branches. Another island endemic, Hawaii Amakihi, visited the bottlebrush-like flowers of ohia trees.

At this point we had heard the brassy voices of Iiwis again and again, but mostly seen them fly from one spot to another and out of view. Patience paid off in better and better views, especially when the charismatic birds visited flowers of the native raspberry, right at eye level. Iiwis are 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.

The calls of another Big Island endemic alerted us to an Akepa, another of the so-called Hawaiian Honeycreepers. A young male Akepa with an orange breast was spotted in a small koa tree. Later we would enjoy views of an adult male, feathered fully in hues of tangerine-orange. Now an Omao, an endemic thrush, began voicing its strange, rapid-fire notes. Soon the plump gray thrush was in view too, emerging from an olapa tree full of small berries—a favorite             food.

That left us with finding the rarest of the Big Island endemics and the holy grail of Hawaiian native forest birds—an Akiapola’au, or Aki’ for short. We took a picnic lunch break at a small shelter, having packed up lunches earlier for the day’s hike, then walked the trail deeper into the forest. After an hour, with a heavy mist in the air, we backtracked. Perhaps the Aki’ would elude us today?

More than halfway back to our starting point, a major stroke of luck—a male Aki’ flew in above our heads. One of the world’s most distinctively outfitted birds, the Aki’s bill is unique in the world: 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. And while we watched with something resembling reverent awe, the Aki’ flew from branch to branch, hammering with that chisel.

During a full day of birding in Oahu, we first watched elegant White Terns fluttering among banyan trees, and scoped a couple perched on branches. Later that morning we walked a forest trail and had the good fortune to find Oahu’s two endemic forest birds—Oahu Elepaio and Oahu Amakihi. By midday, after driving past immense surfing waves on Oahu’s North Shore, we dined on fresh shrimp at a roadside stand near the island’s northwest corner and not far from one of the best spots on earth to see one of the world’s scarcest shorebirds—Bristle-thighed Curlew.

The curlews made it especially easy for us today: just as we got out of the vans for an expected long walk, eight curlews were foraging on a grassy expanse just in front of us. Scope views showed the distinctive warm-toned plumage and bristle-like feathers at the base of the legs of this curlew species. Two of the curlews were banded, and one of those had a wire-like tracking antenna extending over its tail. Somebody then noticed a large bird arcing beyond the curlews—a Laysan Albatross glided back and forth again and again, part of a new local breeding population.

The seabird highlight spot of the tour was Kilauea Point on the island of Kauai. Multiple pairs of glistening white Red-tailed Tropicbirds flew in courtship display directly out from our overlook onto the ocean. First one tropicbird would hover a few feet above the other, then both would begin to circle one another in a tight, vertical ring—all the while flying backwards with their red, wire-thin tails pushed forward. Also flying by our view, sometimes almost at arm’s-length, were Laysan Albatrosses, Red-footed Boobies, and Great Frigatebirds. In the shade of nearby ironwood trees sat a couple of huge gray, downy albatross chicks. Handsome Nenes, the goose that is also Hawaii’s state bird, strolled the refuge grass, and White-tailed Tropicbirds flapped by overhead.

Our second day on Kauai had its own highlights, as it led up majestic Waimea Canyon, rightly known as “Hawaii’s Grand Canyon,” and to 4,000 foot overlooks into the canyon and across emerald Kalalau Valley. We combined dramatic scenic views with serious birding, searching for such Kauai endemic forest birds as Kauai Elepaio, Anianiau, and Kauai Amakihi, as well as our first Apapanes of the trip—a bird we would get to know better on the Big Island.

Our good fortune with birds seemed to extend to Hawaii’s volcanoes too, as we arrived near Halemaumau Crater (in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park) on a day when red lava was fountaining up within the crater. Even though we were at least half-a-mile away, the thrill of watching lava spurting from the earth—more exciting yet as seen through spotting scopes too—created a fitting finale to the tour.