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U.S.A.  --  Hawaii -- Big Island (Hawai'i)

1 - 11 January 1998

by Jennifer Matkin

This report is a continuation, covering my visit to the Big Island of Hawai'i in January of 1998.  Part I of this report covered my trip to Kaua'i in December of 1997.

We arrived at the Kona airport in the early afternoon.  After an unpleasant encounter with the rude people at the Alamo Rental Car counter (unusual for the Islands - most people are very friendly and filled with aloha), we went out to the parking area to pick up the rental cars.  There I quickly picked up several introduced lifers: gorgeous bright yellow SAFFRON FINCHES with orange foreheads, YELLOW-FRONTED CANARIES (with head patterns reminiscent of the Michigan Wolverines football helmet, as my brother pointed out), and a YELLOW- BILLED CARDINAL.  As on Kaua'i, KOLOA (PACIFIC GOLDEN-PLOVERS) were abundant. 

We stayed at the Kona Reef, where the grounds were hopping with JAVA SPARROWS, more SAFFRON FINCHES and YELLOW-BILLED CARDINALS, and ZEBRA DOVES.  Every morning the JAVA SPARROWS put on quite a performance on the palm frond just in front of my balcony, lining up shoulder to shoulder, then pushing each other down the frond until one or more had to jump up and "leapfrog" another to find a new space.  Occasionally one would land on the balcony and sit there "pipping" softly, looking as though it was suffering from hiccups.  There were several juveniles as well, begging from their parents.  These cute little birds had a great talent for looking exasperated.  Their "lovebird" antics as they paired up in twos and cuddled and preened were quite a hit with the non- birders in the crowd.  From the balcony we often saw humpback whales and, on two occasions, spinner dolphins.

On our first full day we went to see the City of Refuge, an ancient site that served as a sort of "safety zone" where fugitives from justice or battle could seek refuge.  There we were able to watch several green sea turtles as they foraged in shallow water right at our feet.  I had hoped to see hawksbill sea turtles as well, but they are less common and apparently are generally found on the east side of the island, where they breed.  Nearby I checked the pond behind Nopoopoo Beach, as recommended by Pratt in "Enjoying Birds in Hawai'i," but found only an 'ULILI (WANDERING TATTLER) and my first mongoose of the trip.  Unfortunately, I was to see many more mongooses during my stay on the Big Island.  Kaua'i is free of mongooses, may be why one can still find seabirds nesting there.  A cute little animal, and one which raises fond childhood memories of the story of Riki Tiki Tavi, but a predator that has caused a lot of damage to native species on the islands.

On January 3rd we headed for Volcanoes National Park, where we hiked out across the recent lava flow from Kilauea to get to the spot where lave continues to flow into the sea.  We parked at the end of Chain of Craters Road, which now stops abruptly where lava flowed across the roadbed a few years ago.  From there we could sea a huge cloud of steam arising from the sea where lava continues to flow into the ocean.  We set off across the ropy pahoehoe lava towards the steam, which we were told was four miles from the parking area across the lava flow.  We packed a lot of water and slathered on tons of sunscreen.  After two rough hours we arrived at the steam cloud, only to find that we could not see any molten lava from our vantage point. 

We walked underneath the cloud and found ourselves sprayed by water droplets that caused a slight pricking sensation, probably due to the sulfuric acid formed in the cloud, or maybe by strands of Pele's hair being ejected from the volcano.  The rocks around us were covered by a thick carpet of this "hair", fine golden strands of glass spun by the volcano.  Pele is the deity responsible for all of this marvelous activity, and she leaves a lot of her hair around to remind you who is in charge.  On occasion we could see large rocks being thrown up from the area just beyond the cliffs, and at one point a large chunk of the shelf fell into the ocean creating a huge roiling black cloud, so we didn't walk too close!  We also stood over some steam vents to warm up, but the sulfurous smell and the burning sensation in my throat was hard to take after awhile. 

Soon we set off back to the car, another four miles in the heat over rough lava.  I would NOT recommend this hike to anyone who is not in good condition and packing a LOT of water, especially in the heat of the day.  I carried 1.5 liters and it was not enough, although I ended up giving the last of it to some poor kid whose thoughtless caretaker had hiked all way out there with no water.  Unbelievable.  The kid looked like he was going to keel over any minute, so I gave him the rest of mine and hit up my sister on the way back for a little extra.  Fortunately we had a lot more in the car.  Again, do not attempt this hike unprepared, especially with children.  It was rough.

The hike to the lava took most of the day, so I didn't pick up a lot of birds.  The only birds that I saw out on the lava flow were the incredibly adaptable KOLEA and the ever-present MEJIRO (JAPANESE WHITE-EYE).  I also saw several lovely 'APAPANE (which had quickly become my favorite birds, with their charming chatter) near the Visitor Center and heard 'OMA'O (an endemic thrush) in the same area.  I also saw several NENE (HAWAIIAN GOOSE) around the crater rim road.

The next day I checked Aimakapa Pond near Kona for waterfowl, again at the suggestion of Pratt in "Enjoying Birds in Hawai'i." This book turned out to be an excellent resource - I highly recommend it.  The trail to Aimakapa Pond leads to what was a nude beach, but "Nudity Prohibited" Signs were posted all over and a ranger was giving out tickets to those not in compliance.  Along the trail to the pond, which winds through a grove of kiawe trees, I saw YELLOW-BILLED CARDINALS, NORTHERN CARDINALS, SAFFRON FINCHES, and YELLOW- FRONTED CANARIES.  At the pond I saw many HAWAIIAN COOTS, BLACK-NECKED STILTS, NORTHERN PINTAILS, LESSER SCAUP, NORTHERN SHOVELERS, AMERICAN WIGEONS, what looked like a female EURASIAN WIGEON but which was tucked into a far corner and hard to see well, several 'ULILI (TATTLERS) (including one perched high in a tree), CATTLE EGRETS, KOLEA, RUDDY TURNSTONES, and a single SANDERLING (my one and only SANDERLING of the trip).

I went back to the condo to watch the end of the Denver Bronco's playoff game, then drove up to the Puu Lani subdivision, mentioned in Pratt as a good place to find exotic finches and francolins.  Pratt mentioned that the subdivision might soon be closed off to the public, so I wasn't sure whether I could get in, and when I drove up there was a gate.  However, the gate happened to be open, so I went in.  I drove around for awhile, seeing many ERCKEL'S FRANCOLINS and EURASIAN SKYLARKS on the sides of the road.  I also saw a single male BLACK FRANCOLIN.  I parked near the stables and wandered around the tennis courts, where I picked up a flock of WARBLING SILVERBILLS and a pair of RED AVADAVATS visiting a water drip.  I was incredibly impressed with the skylarks, which, not surprisingly, were "skylarking" at incredible heights overhead in full song.  Great birds.

As I started to leave I had a moment of panic as I realized that the gate was now closed.  Was I locked in?  No, as it turns out the gate simply opens when you drive up to it.  Later I asked around and was told that Puu Lani is actually still open to the public.  Just drive up to the gate and wait for it to open.  I ran out of daylight, and never did see LAVENDER WAXBILLS or CORDONBLEUS, which are a possibility up there.  On the way back I saw GRAY FRANCOLINS right at the entrance to Puu Waa Waa Ranch and a flock of NUTMEG MANNIKINS along the road.

The next day we all wanted to go back to Volcanoes National Park.  Along the road on the way down there we saw an 'IO (HAWAIIAN HAWK), which is found only on the Big Island.  This graceful small hawk was an adult dark-morph with a yellow cere, and was sitting nearby on a telephone pole, allowing close approach.  When it finally flew off it showed lovely pale underwings.  It was a beautiful bird, and, as it turns out, was the only 'IO that I had a good look at on the trip.

At Volcanoes we checked out the Thurston Lava Tube, where I heard but did not see 'OMA'O and heard and saw many chatty 'APAPANE.  We then hiked the Kilauea Iki Trail, which took us around the rim of Kilauea Iki, a small caldera, then drops you right into the center of it.  The trail continues right across the center of this cooling lavabed, so that we were hiking across the crust.  Steam vents surrounded the "trail", which consisted of a series of cairns of lava rock, and the entire experience was incredibly eerie.  Highly recommended hike.  Along the way I saw and heard a lot of 'APAPANE, a few I'IWI, and a few 'HAWAI'I 'AMAKIHI.

Finally, as the weather turned wet and drippy we went to a kipuka (an area of forest surrounded by a lava flow) known as "Bird Park", where we saw several male (wow!) and female KALIJ PHEASANTS (introduced) and a HWAMEI (MELODIOUS LAUGHING-THRUSH - introduced), which were a lot easier to hear and see on Kaua'i.  I also had a chance to listen to and study a singing, incredibly drab 'ELEPAIO, apparently of the "desert" race.  It took me awhile to convince myself that it was indeed an 'ELEPAIO, because although the shape, posture and behavior were that of an 'ELEPAIO, none of the illustrations in the Hawai'i Audubon book showed a bird nearly as drab and devoid of field marks as this one.  But after listening to the tape of the 'ELEPAIO's distinctive (Bell's vireo-like) song , I was sure.  The 'ELEPAIOS of O'ahu, Hawai'i, and Kaua'i are very different in plumage, and may be split, but the Hawai'i race also has three distinct "sub-races" at this time, and they are also remarkably different.  I later saw the Mauna Kea variety of 'ELEPAIO at Puu Laau and they were lovely dark and boldly-marked birds - nothing like the Bird Park individual.

On January 6th, I talked my mother into braving Saddle Road and a stretch of unpaved road up to a hunter's cabin at Puu Laau.  This is a location mentioned in Pratt as good for PALILA, a finch-billed honeycreeper.  Saddle Road is a paved but narrow and uneven stretch of road that crosses the Big Island between Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa.  It rises very quickly.  Along the ascent are rolling grasslands filled with EURASIAN SKYLARKS (in glorious song!) and KOLEA.  Near the western foot of the road we saw a BLACK FRANCOLIN, and along the way saw many ERCKEL'S FRANCOLINS.  About eight miles up Saddle Road is an unpaved but recently improved road that is passable for ordinary vehicles. 

Right after the turnoff, which I believe is approximately 6000 feet in elevation, I saw a NORTHERN MOCKINGBIRD, which surprised me a little.  I am not used to seeing mockers at high elevations, and on Kaua'i only saw them in the lowlands of the south shore, but apparently on Hawai'i they occur at elevations up to 9,000 feet.  After about a mile of this road I started seeing and hearing a lot of HAWAI'I 'AMAKIHI and 'ELEPAIO.  We parked at the hunters cabin and I immediately wandered off to search for PALILA while Mom enjoyed the views and took pictures.  The forest at this mid-elevation on the western slope of Mauna Kea is an interesting zone dominated by the mamane tree.  This tree is essential to the PALILA, which feeds on its seed pods.  The habitat is not unlike oak chaparral, with scrubby trees widely spaced and tall grasses in between.  The footing is quite treacherous in this area, as the grasses obscure the uneven lava rocks underneath.

I was surrounded by the sounds of the HAWAI'I 'AMAKIHI in this forest - they were delightfully abundant here and I was able to study them in great detail.  After about twenty-five minutes of studying the 'AMAKIHI I found myself in a nice little grove of mamane behind the hunter's cabin.  I heard something a little different and looked up.  Soon I saw a bulkier bird showing a flash of gray, and knew I had it.  Soon the beautiful PALILA came out into the open and displayed it lovely plumage in the sunlight.  It's head was a bright lemon yellow, the body a soft gray, and the wings showed a yellow patch.  The bill was stout and finch-like, and I watched it use this powerful tool to rip the end of a branch off the tree.  The bird carried the tip to another spot, held it between its feet, and proceeded to wrench it to shreds with powerful tugs of its head.  I got a real kick watching it in action.  I lost the bird after a few minutes, but then refound it for a few more.  Finally it flew away, and I was not able to find another.  What luck to have seen it so well!  I also had a chance to study another interesting race of 'ELEPAIO, this one with an almost entirely white head.

We wandered around the area for awhile just enjoying the spectacular views of snow-capped Mauna Kea, Mauna Loa, and the lovely Waimea Valley below, as well as the ambience of this unique forest.  At one point a small brilliantly- colored bird popped up in a tree right in front of me.  I stared at it blankly for a second, and it disappeared.  Finally it dawned on me that it had been a RED-BILLED LEIOTHRIX.  I hadn't been looking for one and was a little slow to figure it out.  I never saw that species again on the trip.  Those guys are real skulkers.  I also flushed an ERCKEL'S FRANCOLIN out of the grass at one point.  This FRANCOLIN is a big bird and it makes a lot of noise when it takes off, so it gave me quite a start!

On the way down we saw a tree full of WILD TURKEYS, which was pretty funny.  Near Kona we stopped at Aimakapa Pond again, where I saw an entirely different set of birds than I had the trip before.  This time I saw a PIED-BILLED GREBE, a species that has established a nesting colony on this pond, at least ten BLACK-CROWNED NIGHT-HERONS coming in to roost, and a male and a female GREEN- WINGED TEAL.  I met a local who was interested in seeing and discussing the birds, and he told me to check out the Koloko Road area for PUEO (HAWAIIAN OWL, a race of the SHORT-EARED OWL) at dusk, as well as many other birds.  He also told me about the ongoing battle over nudity at the little beach in front of the pond, which is a lovely area.  Apparently the officials are trying to stop nude sunbathing there, but there is a lot of opposition.

The next day we decided to tour the whole island by car, just to see it all.  We headed back up Saddle Road, where we again saw a BLACK FRANCOLIN at the western base.  After gaining some elevation we saw a gorgeous PUEO (HAWAIIAN OWL) cruising the meadows.  We stopped and watched it until it disappeared, then were treated to another at the turnoff to Puu Laau.  We got to watch that one drop like a stone into the grass and come up carrying a small rodent.  Sighting of a PUEO is supposed to bring good luck, so after we saw a third one further up towards Puu Laau we figured that we were in for something great!  We also saw numerous WILD TURKEYS on the way up.

I took about twenty minutes to look for PALILA again, but didn't find one.  There were still dozens of 'AMAKIHI around, though, as well as a lot of CALIFORNIA QUAIL.  Mostly we just enjoyed the views, then continued on across Saddle Road.  We stopped to look at the Puu O'o Trail, which I was dying to try, but I couldn't rally the troops to go out there, especially since the afternoon fog was starting to roll in.  Pratt's book, as well as some hiking books, includes a lot of dire warnings about this trail, which travels over lava beds to a series of kipukas.  I really wanted to see the reported abundance of birdlife in these kipukas, though, regardless of the difficulty of the trail.  I dashed over to the dense 'ohi'a forest in the first kipuka and immediately heard several I'IWI and 'APAPANE, and was able to show my sister an I'IWI in seconds.  That did it, I was sold, and I managed to extract a promise from Mom that she would come back with me the next day to do the hike!  The others wanted to try to cash in their PUEO-luck on the golf course.  ;)

As we walked back to the car Dad found a dead 'APAPANE at the side of the road.  It was interesting to study at close range, and I was quite surprised to see how long the primary projection was on this bird.  The primaries extended well beyond the tertials, giving the bird a very long-winged appearance.  In the air they are quite graceful flyers, unlike the ungainly I'IWI, and I would have liked the chance to study an I'IWI in the hand for comparison.  On the other hand, I was happy not to see any I'IWI roadkills!  Later in the trip I asked our guide-for-a-day, Rob Pacheco, whether there were any regular (and open) banding operations on the Big Island, hoping that I could visit one, but apparently there are not.

Jennifer Matkin

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