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U.S.A.  --  Hawaii – Kaua’i

September 1997

by Linda Jones

Birding in Paradise: Kaua’i in September

Like other islands far from the mainland, the Hawaiian have a relatively small number of native species, that evolved in isolation.  Most of the endemic mountain birds are members of the honeycreeper family, probably having evolved from one or a very few species that somehow found their way there on their own long before the original Polynesians first populated the islands.  When new species were brought in by humans, native plants and animal species often had a hard time competing.  Many honeycreepers are now known only by the fossil record.

For birders, it can be fun to see so many exotic birds: Common Mynahs are virtually everywhere.  Other common introduced species are the Spotted Dove, Zebra Dove, Japanese White-eye, Northern Cardinal, and Red-crested Cardinal (sometimes called Brazilian Cardinal).  But one has to wonder what used to live in the lowlands before all those foreigners came.

Several interesting sea birds nest on Kauai, affording a painless pelagic experience for birders with weak stomachs.  Kilouea Point, site of lighthouse, is a great place to see both the White-tailed and Red-tailed Tropicbirds, Great Frigatebirds, and others.  A Red-footed Booby colony is just across a narrow stretch of water, and Wedge-tailed Shearwaters nest in burrows all over the Point.  In September, we were treated to the sight of Shearwater nestlings peering out of the burrows.  You can visit the lighthouse area on your own, but be sure to also reserve a spot on their guided tour of the booby colony.  The hike location is off limits except on this tour.  You will see many other birds as well as boobies, and some gloriously scenic views of the Point from a higher vantage.  Seven Nenes (endemic Hawaiian goose and state bird) were aggressively guarding their territory when we were there, forcing us off the usual route a bit.

Many of the endemic mountain birds had eluded us on previous visits to Kauai because they are not common, and because they live in places that are hard to reach.  This time, the services of an expert birding guide with a four-wheel drive were engaged.  We met David Kuhn (phone 808-335-3313) near the entrance to the Kokee State Park and set out on a day of adventure.  We hiked several trails, none very difficult, tried vainly to keep dry (the higher you go, the more rain you get), ate the lunch David provided in the car, and had the time of our lives.

The Puuka Ohelo Trail in the Alakai Swamp took us through a koa tree forest.

We saw the beautiful red 'I'iwe with its dramatically long orange decurved beak, the Apapane, and the Elepaio, which are among the easiest honeycreepers to see.  The star of this first trail, however, was the Kauai Amakihi; we saw both mature sexes and an immature.  This species has recently been split from the Common Amakihi, which had what were once called subspecies on different is lands until the split.  The sexes were similar in appearance, yellow and olive-brown, but the male had a longer beak.  How many other species have structural or proportional size differences between the sexes?  Usually when a difference occurs, it is limited to plumage or overall size.  (What do you think?  Am I wrong?)

At the Phea Trailhead area in the Kokee State Park, we saw the Anianiau, smallest of the honeycreepers, all yellow with no mask.  They were very active, flitting about in the ohi'a trees.  We were also treated to a display by an immature Elepaio.  It spread its tail and hopped very close, about five feet away, as if checking us out.  It is a small red, brown, black, and white bird with a delightful white powder puff at the base of the tail.  David explained that only the young ones were so fearless.  Later on the Awaawapuhi Trail through ohi'a forest, we saw the 'Akeke'e (formerly called Kauai Akepa), both sexes olive and yellowish with bright yellow crown and rump, a black eye mask, and forked tail.

We said our farewells to David and started down the twisting mountain road.

We stopped at the Puu O Kila Lookout, however, to take in the spectacular Waimea Canyon.  There, we also saw an Erckle's Francolin, a good-sized introduced game bird that seems to prefer the highlands.  Once back at sea level, we acted on a tip from David.  We stopped at the Hanapepe airport (small planes) and searched the fenced runway from the road with our binocs.  After a few false starts, the cry of "There it is!" announced the location of a Bristle-thighed Curlew.  Earlier we had seen numerous Pacific Golden -Plovers on lawns at golf courses and gardens.  Both of these species breed in Alaska, winter on Pacific islands, and are not normally seen in the lower forty-eight.  Although September was hardly wintery in Hawaii or California, it apparently was in Alaska.  The scientific name of the Curlew contains the word element, "Tahiti," suggesting that the migrant was just resting up for the next leg of its journey.

What can you see in September that you can't see much earlier?  The Pacific Golden-Plover and the Bristle-thighed Curlew, as well as the Wedge-tailed Shearwater nestlings in their burrows.  What you will miss is the Laysan Albatross, which has a colony at Kilouea Point.  The adults leave in early summer and the fledglings follow along in about a month when they get good and hungry.  There are always interesting birds of some kind, though, so if you get a chance to visit Kauai in any month, don't forget to pack your binocs along with your snorkling gear.

Linda Jones
Northridge, Calif

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