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U.S.A. -- Hawaii --
Big Island (Hawai'i)
18 - 24 December 1999
by Ron Hoff
My wife and I went to the big island of Hawaii for the week of December
18-24 to try to find all the big island endemics we could. We
used Doug Pratt's "Enjoying Birds in
Hawaii" book for a location guide and it was superb. Most
days were fairly easy walking and the locations easy to find.
Although the island is only about 82 miles wide by 95 miles long, we
drove a total of 900+ miles in our time there.
We actually arrived a day early and decided to try the kipukas (tree
islands in the lava flows) along the Hilo end of saddle road.
After some searching, we finally found the Puu Oo trail head around
mile marker 22. There is a small sign there, but it is easy to
miss, so drive slow here. Iiwi, Apapane, and Common Amakihi were
easy to find and relatively common. About the third kipuka in
(probably 1 mile), we got off the path some and went just inside the
trees. We eventually turned up Red-billed Leiothrix, Elepaio
(volcano and Mauna Kea races), Japanese White-eye, Omao, House Finches,
and finally a pair of Akiapolaau. Hawaiian Creeper and Akepa were
supposed to be in these kipukas, but we did not find them.
We decided to go for the Palila at Puu Laau, because we had rented a
4WD vehicle and wanted to turn it in at the end of the day. It
was probably the only time we really needed 4WD, except for going to
the top of Mauna Kea, where 4WD is required. Follow the
directions in Pratt's book; they're accurate. We had
Yellow-fronted Canary, N. Mockingbird, Skylark, N.
Cardinal, and Pacific Golden Plover on the way up to the hunter's
cabin. We parked in front of the cabin and walked around the
hillside behind the cabin. We thought we saw a palila right in
front of the cabin, but could not relocate it.
After about an hour of searching, we returned to our vehicle and
decided to drive on above the cabin for a ways (there was no sign
saying not to drive above the cabin). We only got a few hundred
yards beyond the cabin before we spotted a Palila. We got a great
look. We also got a glimpse of a covey of quail, but couldn't
tell what they were. We then went on to Waimea for lunch and
checked out the Waimea pond, hoping to find a Hawaiian Duck
(Koloa). No luck with that, but we did find a N.
We decided to take a short trip to Puu Kohola Historic site to try for
Grey Francolin and Warbling Silverbill. A walk around the grounds
and down to the trees below turned up Yellow-billed Cardinals, Saffron
Finches, and Zebra Doves. As we were leaving, we decided to try
to look for a minute behind the visitor center and it was there we came
across several Gray Francolin, Spotted Doves, and a lone male Black
Francolin. Back in Hilo, we found Black-crowned Night-Herons and
Nutmeg Mannikins (now called Scaly-breasted Munias) at Waiakea pond.
We decided to try walking in on powerline road to some kipukas in hopes
of finding the Hawaiian Creeper and Akepa, that we missed on day
1. We probably walked in about 3 miles and checked several
kipukas, but no luck in finding those 2 species. We had
everything else that we had on day one, including another pair of
Akiapolaau. The one species we did add was a couple of flyover
Hawaiian Hawks (Io). After walking back out the 3 miles we were
pretty pooped and our feet were getting sore.
There are 2 types of lava. One called A'a and one called
Pahoehoe. A'a is rough and crumbley, where pahoehoe is smoother
and easier to walk on. Powerline road is almost all A'a. We
met some geologists on the way out and asked if there was anywhere to
see real lava flowing. They said there was some flowing into the
ocean at the end of chain-of-craters road. When we got there, we
had to walk about a mile over primarily pahoehoe lava to get to the
"real, live" stuff. We were really tired by this time, but it was
something I had always wanted to see. It was more than worth the
walk. Along the coast road in this area we saw many Black
Noddies. What a beauty!
We left Hilo early and went to Volcano National Park. Pratt's
book gives details where to go to look for birds, but by now we were
targeting species. We drove up Mauna Loa road and the new species
here was the introduced Kalij Pheasant. We eventually saw about
15 of them. Later at Halemaumau (a crater) we saw 4 White-tailed
Tropicbirds. We left the park to drive to Captain Cook.
Along the way we found a sign saying "black sand beach" and decided to
take a look. At the beach we eventually saw a Wandering Tattler
and some Green sea turtles actually on the beach sunning. We got
to the Captain Cook area and while driving up the hillside looking for
our B&B, we came across a light morph Hawaiian Hawk perched over
our heads on a dead tree. Great look.
We had signed up for the Hawaiian Crow (Alala) tour given by the
McCandless ranch people. The Alala only resides on their property
and there are only 3 left in the wild (a mated pair and a lone male)
and 27 in captivity. Our tour started at 5 AM with a great
breakfast at the ranch. Keith Unger was the guide for the day and
took 6 of us up onto their property in a 4WD Chevy Suburban. The
"road" was pretty rough, but the vehicle made it fine. On the
way, Keith gave us a complete history of the ranch and the Alala.
It was very informative and interesting. We started looking for
the Alala at an aviary that has been used in the past to release some
of the captive bred birds. Keith said the wild Alala's sometimes
hung around the aviary. We were also joined by a U.S. Fish
and Wildlife person, Glenn Klinglery, one of a couple of people
assigned to monitor the Alala in the wild.
We waited for about 45 minutes and had only heard the Alala call a time
or two, when Glenn offered to try a different area to see if they moved
away from our position. He heard them and called Keith on a cell
phone. We drove over to the other area and eventually found the
mated pair. Keith said they only find the birds about every other
trip, so we were thrilled to see them. As luck would have it we
eventually saw the pair several more times.
At one point the pair came closer to us (about 50 feet!) as if to check
us out. Glenn said they were pretty curious. We watched as
they pried bark off trees looking for grubs and even ate some wild
coffee beans. We also got to hear 6-7 different vocalizations of
the 50+ know so far. I couldn't help thinking how awesome this
was to see one of the rarest birds in the world so well, but on the
other hand I was deeply saddened because I felt like I was actually
witnessing extinction happen (I know extinction is "happening" on a
daily basis, but this was more pronounced than usual). Glenn said
they estimate the age of the pair to be in their teens and past their
reproductive prime. To make matters worse, they found out that
the Hawaiian Hawk was eating some of the released birds. Now you
have one endangered species eating another one! What a
dilemma. All in all, given the looks we got, hearing the birds
call, and talking to the people who are most intimately involved with
the bird's life, this has to go down as one of the best bird
experiences I've ever had. I'll never look at any crow the same
again (or any other bird for that matter). They're all so
After the Alala's left we did some hiking and eventually came across
one Hawaiian Creeper and one Akepa. That made it a clean sweep of
the endemic birds. Other birds seen on this tour were: Amakihi,
Apapane, Elepaio, Iiwi, 4 Hawaiian Hawks, and several Kalij
Pheasants. It was one of those days that you just chalk it up to
somehow you must have done something right in your life and this was
payback. Way cool!
We went to Aimakapa Pond to look for the Hawaiian Duck. We saw
Warbling Silverbills on the way in to the pond. The pond was
supposed to have breeding Pied-billed Grebes, but we did not see
any. We did see Hawaiian Coots, Black-necked Stilts, Cattle
Egrets, Pacific Golden Plover, and a female N. Shoveler. On
the way back out, while we were walking along a stretch of beach to get
back to the car, a green sea turtle came up on the beach right in front
of us. Incredible. Later, while eating lunch in downtown
Kona, we spotted a couple of Java Sparrows. We left the Kona area
and drove to the Waimea area. We stopped along the way at several
areas Pratt suggested, but didn't add much more. We did come
across a Great Frigatebird sailing along the coast highway, a few
Ring-necked Pheasants, and 7 Wild Turkeys at the West Hawaii concrete
plant at dusk.
Our trip list was about 48 species. We stayed at B&B's all
the way. The Wild Ginger in Hilo was cheap at $45/night.
Good bed, shower, and cable TV, but the carpet was a bit tacky.
We rented our 4WD vehicle from Harper's ($100/day), as the other normal
ones (Avis, Hertz, Alamo, etc.) would not allow you to take it on
saddle road. Don't ask me why. It was a good road, and you
really only needed 4WD going to the top of Mauna Kea anyway.
Maybe they've had some people crash their vehicles into the A'a lava
fields there? The regular economy car we got was also from
Harper's and it was only about $35/day.
I found the B&B's on the Hawaii tourist and convention bureau web
page. Most of B&B's had their own web page and e-mail
addresses. We never once felt threatened by crime. The food
prices were really pretty reasonable unless you went to an upscale
hotel or restaurant. If anybody has any questions, feel free to
e-mail me and I'll try to respond quickly. If I have made any
mistakes in this report, they are mine alone.