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U.S.A. -- Hawaii --
Big Island (Hawai'i)
2 - 16 April 2000
by Tom Harrison
The Hawaiian Islands have some of the most beautiful and some of the
most rare birds in the world.
Two years ago my wife and I enjoyed a vacation on Kauai during which I
became enchanted by the birds there. This year, when we decided
to return to Hawaii, my wife, Starr, though a non-birder, suggested we
select another island so that I could see different species.
We opted for the Big Island of Hawaii. In preparation, I
consulted trip reports from Urs Geiser's excellent site
(http://www.crosswinds.net/~birdtrips/TripReports.html). I also
paged through various birding magazines, and bought Doug Pratt's The
Birds of Hawaii and the Tropical Pacific to supplement the two mini
field guides I had used in Kauai, A Pocket Guide to Hawaii's Birds
(also by Pratt) and Hawaii's Birds published by the Hawaiian Audubon
Because of difficult access to some areas and because I wanted to spend
the majority of my time with my non-birding wife, I opted to schedule a
few days of highly-concentrated birding with local guides.
I phoned Hawaii Forest and Trail and reserved a spot for their dry
forest and rainforest trip. Kim, who signed me up, commented that
she was sure I'd enjoy this trip since it was to be led by Hawaii
Forest and Trail owner, Rob Pacheco. Oh, and by the way, she
added, Doug Pratt would be along.
Birding Hawaii with Doug Pratt is like tossing the ball around with Joe
Montana. Ice skating with Wayne Gretzky. Being shown around
the Vatican by the Pope. Getting a tour of the Louvre by Picasso.
You've heard the expression, "He wrote the book on it"? Well
Pratt really did. Several of them, in fact. And he
illustrated them as well.
To paraphrase the late Jim Murray, Doug Pratt is to Hawaiian birding
what the Yankees are to baseball, Hogan was to golf, and Notre Dame is
to college football. They represent the highest state of the art.
Yeah, I'll sign up for that tour.
Starr and I arrived in Hawaii Sunday, April 2 and checked in to the
Kona Coast Resorts II just south of Kailua-Kona on Alii Drive.
Exotic species were abundant on the grounds including ZEBRA DOVE,
SAFFRON FINCH, JAVA SPARROW, YELLOW-FRONTED CANARY, NORTHERN CARDINAL,
SPOTTED DOVE, JAPANESE WHITE-EYE AND COMMON MYNAH. It was right
at the resort where I saw my first lifer of the trip: YELLOW-BILLED
CARDINAL. There were so many gorgeous birds around that Starr
bought a bag of birdseed and in short order had most of them on our
My big day arrived on Tuesday. I met Rob Pacheko, at Hawaii
Forest and Trail just south of the Kona airport at 6:30 am. He
offered me a cup of fresh Kona coffee and introduced me to Doug Pratt
and to two couples (Owen and Arlene, John and Nancy) whom Doug was
leading on a two-week birding tour of the islands. Plus there was
Pam, who was writing an article for a travel publication on the curious
phenomenon of people who get up ridiculously early in the morning to go
out looking for birds in the strangest places. Off we went.
After about 30 minutes of driving inland and up on Route 190, we
stopped at The Big Island Country Club where we were immediately
greeted by the electric buzz of BLACK FRANCOLIN. Sure enough, we
saw two of them calling to each other. We had flocks of
WHITE-THROATED MUNIA (aka Warbling Silverbills). A bit further up
190, we turned onto Saddle Road and began car birding in earnest.
We had CHUKAR, ERCKEL'S FRANCOLIN, TURKEY, COMMON (Ring-Necked)
PHEASANT, CALIFORNIA QUAIL and SKY LARK.
As we drove, my companions shared delightful tales: Doug about Hawaii,
the Hawaiian language and Hawaiian birds. John, Nancy, Owen and
Arlene about the wonderful experiences they've had birding around the
world. Rob provided fascinating and educational details about the
island, the topography, the different forms of lava and the
birds. And OK, since we were all birders, there were more than a
few bad puns.
With the Island's two largest volcanoes in view, Mona Kea on our left
and Mona Loa on our right, we continued up Saddle Road. The car
rental companies try to discourage you from driving there because the
road is narrow, the shoulders rocky and the curves challenging.
Forget all that. The real danger is that there's a military base
along the road where they are teaching 18-year olds to shoot live
Rob scoped out the heavy clouds in the distance and determined that the
rain forest would be, well, wet. So he chose to start us off with
the dry sub-alpine forest area of Puu Laau, the habitat for the
endangered Palila. He navigated his vehicle (4WD and very
comfortable despite the road condition) on a trail up into the
designated area and we got out to listen. A few AMAKIHIs came in
for a look and Doug heard an ELEPAIO. We tracked it down.
It was the lightest of the three races of Elepaio on the Big
Island. In fact, Doug named this race (bryani) and has been asked
to write up a paper delineating the three races (it is anticipated that
Hawaii Elepaio, the Oahu Elepaio and Kauai Elepaio will soon be split
into three separate species). We enjoyed a female PALILA and Doug
and Rob said we should keep looking for the male. There he was!
After admiring the endangered endemic, we set off for the rain forest.
Rob drove us across some pretty heavy lava and around kipukas,
"islands" of rain forest surrounded by lava. When we arrived, we
were greeted by a small but vocal flock of IIWI. It was, well,
wet. As we ventured a few steps into the rainforest, we saw OMAO
(Hawaiian Thrush), HAWAIIAN CREEPER, APAPANI and the darker form of
ELEPAIO (ridgwayi). We saw all these species almost as soon as we
began. It was wonderful, even though we had to observe them
through somewhat wet optics. Owen and Arlene shared a wonderful
tip: those little plastic showercaps make great binocular protectors in
We heard RED-BILLED LEIOTHRIX but never saw one. We spent about
30 minutes chasing the sound of AKIAPALA'AU and finally found two of
these amazing honeycreepers (a juvenile and an adult) with the long,
decurved upper mandible and short, stubby lower one. Wow!
Birding often involves dealing with the canopy, but Rob put a new twist
on this. His "canopy" was not for birds but for birders: a
special awning he has installed on all his vehicles which pulls out
from the van with tent stakes to provide much-appreciated shelter from
the elements. Thus, despite the rain, we enjoyed a dry and
On the way back to town we continued car birding and had the treat of
seeing a small flock of CHESTNUT-BELLIED SANDGROUSE, which landed near
us and allowed us good binocular and scope views.
We stopped again at the Big Island Country Club where we saw BLACK,
GRAY, and ERCKEL'S FRANCOLIN, RED AVADAVAT, SCALY-BREASTED MUNIA and a
small flock of Hawaii's state bird, the endangered NENE (Hawaiian
As Tuesday came to a close, I learned that on Thursday I was booked on
the same trip to McCandless Ranch as Doug and his group. They
generously invited me to join them on Wednesday as well, but since it
was our wedding anniversary and since I wanted to remain married, I
declined. But I was struck by how open they were to include an
outsider and how generous Doug was with his knowledge. As we
drove, he pointed out spots I might want to revisit for particular
birds, and even drew a map, which helped me later find a targeted
LAVENDAR WAXBILL at the end of Alii Hwy.
At 4:45 am Thursday, I drove up the dark driveway to McCandless Ranch
(about 45 minutes south of Kona) in the hope of seeing one of the
rarest birds in the world, the Alala (aka Hawaiian Crow). There
are only three birds of this species left in the wild and all three
live in the mountains of McCandless Ranch. The Ranch offers a
special ecotour on their private property. While a captive
breeding program has been underway for the Alala for years, it does not
appear to be successful. It will likely not be long before the
Alala is extinct. Even now, the bird is not seen on every ecotour
Doug and his group were joined for the day by Sheila, a professor from
Oahu who is the voice on the tape of Hawaiian bird songs (the human
voice that is). Our host, Keith Unger, told us the sad tale of
the Alala as we drove up into the forest. Along the way we saw
KALIJ PHEASANT. When we disembarked, Keith immediately exclaimed
that he heard Alala. Sure enough, we heard strange cacklings and
whinings and barks unlike any crow I'd ever heard. Then there was
We ran down the path as quietly as possible, toward the source of the
sounds. Then, through the trees, we spotted it: ALALA.
(Alala la la, la la la la â | tis the season to be jolly, alala
la la, la la la laâ |) A large brownish/black raven-like
crow. Then a second one. Then the third one. We had
the only three living Alalas in the wild at once. Over the next
30 minutes the birds flew from tree to tree and offered us great views
along with an unforgettable serenade. It was an awe-inspiring
moment, both exciting to see such a rare species, and sad as we
pondered the likelihood that this forest will soon be without the wild
and free sounds of Alala. I'll never look at a crow in quite the
same way again.
While there we also heard a chorus of RED-BILLED LEIOTHRIX and saw
IIWI, AMAKIHI, APAPANE and HAWAIIN CREEPER. Glenn, who studies
the crows for the Department of Fish and Game, heard Akepa but we never
saw it. We saw the Island's third race of ELEPAIO and a group of
turkeys including a spectacular displaying male. We stopped in a
lovely meadow for lunch where we had an IO (aka Hawaiian Hawk) perched
Friday was a quiet day for Starr and me. Absolutely no birding on
the agenda. Exceptâ |what's a romantic trip to Hawaii
without a visit to the local sewage treatment plant? Am I
right? I couldn't help but recall that Doug had told us that a
Whiskered Tern (rare for Hawaii) had been reported at the sewage pond,
so Starr dropped me off at the gate for a quick stop. I hiked in
and was treated to great looks at WHISKERED TERN, RING-BILLED GULL
(uncommon in Hawaii), BLACK-NECKED STILT (Hawaiian race), HAWAIIN COOT,
RUDDY TURNSTONE, SANDERLING, BLACK-CROWNED NIGHT-HERON and WANDERING
The following Monday, Starr and I went snorkeling with turtles on the
Sea-Quest at the Place of Refuge and the Captain Cook monument.
We enjoyed the spectacular array of tropical fishes and had close-up
looks at WHITE-TAILED TROPICBIRDS as we explored sea caves and lava
tubes on the way back.
On Tuesday morning it was back to Hawaii Forest and Trail for the
excursion to Hakalau National Wildlife Refuge, a patch of rainforest on
the eastern slopes of Mona Kea. Picking up guests we spotted GRAY
FRANCOLIN running around the golf courses along with PACIFIC GOLDEN
PLOVER and COMMON MYNAH at both the Mauna Kea and Mauna Lani Resorts
north of the airport. We saw some of the same great stuff we had
seen along Saddle Road the previous week, as well as PUEO (aka
Short-Eared Owl). On the lava trail into the refuge, we saw
CHUKAR, RING-NECKED PHEASANT, TURKEY and ERCKEL'S FRANCOLIN. Once
inside the refuge we had plenty of IIWI, APAPANE, AMAKIHI, OMAO, and
ELEPAIO. We loved watching a little family of HAWAII CREEPERS (an
adult and two juveniles). Our guide, Lisa, heard Akepa (my target
bird for the journey) a couple of times, but they remained
elusive. We stopped our hike for lunch at a little shelter and
resumed the search. Finally a few of us saw a female AKEPA, but
it darted away before everyone could get on it. We kept hiking
until we saw a brilliant male AKEPA. And on the way out we had
several others of these beauties. A great trip.
That ended the birding portion of our vacation. And on Thursday
Starr and I went horseback riding at Rain Forest Stables next to
Makalei Country Club (just outside of Kailua-Kona on 190). I
recalled that Indian Peafowls are often reported at that country club
and, since we had arrived at the stables early, we swung through
Makalei. I was rewarded by a beautiful male INDIAN PEAFOWL.
Think I'm pushing my luck? How about this: on our one-hour
horseback ride, the guide's dog flushed a JAPANESE QUAIL which landed
in a bush adjacent to the trail. This is supposedly one of those
birds that's awfully difficult to ever spot, and here was one posing
for us for 5 minutes. On the way down the trail an IO flew over.
Our two-week trip was coming to an end and on Saturday, when Starr
wanted one more shot at the art fair, I dropped her off and headed back
to the Big Island Country Club. More great views at all the birds
I'd seen there before, plus a pair of BLACK-RUMPED WAXBILLS along the
shoulder Â½ mile south of the country club.
Sunday morning we headed back to California via Honolulu. I opted
to stay at the Honolulu airport with Starr on the layover between
flights rather than try to take a cab to the State Capitol to look for
Fairy Terns. Perhaps the only time in my birding life that good
judgement has won outâ |
By the way, since a hungry birder is a crabby birder, the three best
restaurants we found for dinner were: Roy's at Waikoloa, Palm
CafÃ© right in Kailua-Kona and La Bourgone, just south of
the city. They were casual, and while all three were pricey, they
had terrific food.
Aloha and good birding!
SPECIES SEEN APRIL 2-16, 2000 ON THE BIG ISLAND
La Canada, California USA