Birding the Americas Trip Report and Planning Repository
Return to the Main Index

Return to the North America Index
Return to the U.S.A. Index
Return to the Hawaii Index

U.S.A.  --  Hawaii – Kaua’i & Oahu

November 2001

by Pat McKay

This is an account of a short vacation which my husband Alasdair and I had in Hawaii in November 2001.  It was not primarily a birding vacation, but I took as many opportunities as possible to look at, and for, the different species of birds in Hawaii.

We were based primarily at Waikiki on Oahu, but made a three-day excursion to Kauai in the middle of our holiday.  We arrived at Honolulu just before midnight on November 9th after a long flight from Toronto, and were too tired to do anything except collapse into our beds.  Still being jet-lagged and operating on Nova Scotia time, we awoke early the next morning and went out for a walk along Waikiki beach towards Diamond Head.  This easy stroll gave us excellent views of most of the common birds around the Honolulu area, many of which are extremely colourful and tropical looking, and most of which were introduced by man.

Our accommodation was very close to Honolulu zoo and Kapiolani Park, which was a pleasant open space with lots of grass and trees and flowering bushes, and including several large banyan trees - wonderful specimens which had put down a lot of aerial roots, which had grown and thickened into subsidiary trunks so that the tree covered a large area of ground.  The banyan trees were covered with red fruits looking a bit like cherries, which were attracting a lot of attention from the birds.  There was a lot of bird song in the air, and lots of birds flying about from grass to trees.

The first thing I noticed was the lack of European Starlings.  Their place was taken by the Common Mynahs, a chunky dark brown bird about the size of a robin, with yellow about the eye, and yellow bills and feet.  They had a conspicuous white wing patch as they flew away.  They were very noisy and gregarious, and very common, often seen searching for insects in the grass.

There were European House Sparrows, but mixed in with them, and almost as common, were flocks of House Finches.  Besides the usual feral pigeon or Rock Dove there were two other species of the dove family; the Spotted Dove and the much smaller Zebra Dove, both of which were very common and easily seen in gardens and courtyards of the hotels, as well as in Kapiolani Park.

The cardinal family was also well represented with two extremely common species, the Northern Cardinal (the same bird that we are seeing in increasing numbers in Nova Scotia) and the slightly smaller but very striking Red Crested Cardinal, which was introduced from South America.  The adult of this species is grey above and white below, with a distinctive red head and breast and a crest.

Another common introduced species was the Java Sparrow, which were most easily seen in flocks foraging on the grass in the park.  About the same size as a house sparrow, the Java Sparrows have a grey body, a black tail and cap on the head, and a large white patch on the cheek.  The bill and legs are pinkish red.  Also commonly seen searching for worms in the grass was the Pacific Golden Plover.  The banyan trees proved very attractive to Japanese White-eyes, small warbler sized olive green birds with a very conspicuous white eye ring, Yellow Fronted Canaries, and Red Vented Bulbuls.  As we walked through the park closer to the crater of the extinct volcano which makes up Diamond Head, we saw Fairy Terns putting on graceful flying displays overhead.

All of these birds were easy to see, and many of them were new species for us, but I really wanted to see some of the birds which can only be seen in Hawaii.  We took a three-day trip to the island of Kauai to try to spot some of these endemic species.  Our vacation package included a hotel room and a rental car - public transportation on Kauai is more or less non-existent, so a rented vehicle is more or less essential if you want to go anywhere and see anything other than the beach at your resort.  As we drove, we saw lots of Cattle Egrets, which were extremely common in the fields, and also a Hawaiian Coot and a Hawaiian Gallinule swimming in a quiet stretch of river.  We arrived just in time to have a snorkel in the sea in front of our hotel as the sun was setting.  There were plenty of fish to see, which made the snorkelling interesting, but the coral came right to the shoreline so it was not so pleasant for anyone just wanting to swim.  We bought an excellent chicken dinner from a small stall nearby, and ate it sitting on our balcony.  A Pacific Golden Plover was searching the grass just below us, while Japanese White Eyes and Northern Cardinals were in the trees round about us.

The next day we drove straight to Kauai's spectacular northern shore - the Na Pali Coast.  This part of the island is famous for the eleven mile hiking route called the Kalalau Trail.  This is a narrow coastal pathway that winds its way round the sides of precipitous mountains and drops down into hidden valleys, then climbs up and around the next cliff face.  The views are spectacular, but the path is rough and very muddy, which makes it dangerous on the steep slopes encountered.  It is an extremely challenging walk, and not one to be undertaken lightly as it cannot be completed in a single day, so adventurous people wanting to walk its full length must be prepared to camp.

We decided to tackle only the first two miles of the Kalalau Trail, starting from Kee Beach at the end of the road in Haena, and walking to Hamakapiana Beach.  The notice board at the start indicated would take us two hours to do this section, which we did not believe when we started out, but turned out to be a fairly accurate estimate of the time needed.  Initially the path was clear, and easy to walk, but it soon became more and more muddy, and slipping was a constant concern on the steep route.  The views were fabulous however, so we persevered until we reached Hamakapiana Beach, which had gorgeous white sands and a cave.  We were directed by another hiker to turn off the main trail and walk inland up a valley to see Hamakapiana Falls, a spectacular waterfall a further hour's walk inland from the beach.  The path continued to climb slowly as we proceeded up the valley, and it was as muddy as the main route.  The mountains in this part of Kauai have a very high rainfall, and it is the run-off of this rainwater higher up which causes all the mud.  It did not rain at all while we were there, but the path seemed to get muddier and muddier the further we went, until eventually we were so muddy it no longer mattered.

It was this section of the walk that was the most interesting from a botanical and an ornithological point of view.  The forest was very lush and tropical looking, and the guava trees had ripe fruit which was just falling to the ground, so we ate several delicious guavas.  Alasdair found a huge avocado pear, which we ate for our lunch, and also a large lemon shaped member of the citrus family, bigger and with a much rougher skin than a lemon.  We ate it too, but it was very sour.  There were several magnificent stands of tall bamboo as well.  There was a lot of bird song, but finding the birds in all the tropical vegetation proved difficult and we were a bit concerned that we would run out of time to reach the falls if we stopped too much to look for birds, so I am sure we missed several species.  I did manage to see and identify the White Rumped Sharma, a bird with a most attractive song.  It is about the size of a blue jay, glossy black with a long tail, white rump, and a chestnut breast.  We also saw a Melodious Laughing Thrush, a bird a bit like a robin, but rusty brown in colour with a white eyering and yellow bill and legs.

The waterfall was amazing when we eventually reached it.  The water fell hundreds of feet straight down towering vertical cliffs.  High on the cliff sides, and gliding through the air in front of the waterfall were tiny white birds, which, on inspection through binoculars proved to be White Tailed Tropic Birds.  These spectacular birds have two of their tail feathers elongated into magnificent trailing streamers, which stretch out behind them as they fly.  We ate lunch watching the tropicbirds, and then set off on the long muddy tramp back.  We had a short pause at Hanakapiana beach, where we got a nice close look at a Wandering Tattler, a medium-sized shorebird that is a common winter visitor to the Hawaiian Islands.

When we finally reached the starting point again at Kee beach, we were so hot and tired and muddy that I did not bother to change into a swimsuit, but just jumped in fully dressed and tried to remove the worst of the sticky red mud in the sea.  We did some snorkelling, and found that it was a really good site for fish, which were plentiful, large and colourful.  On coming out of the water, we met a female Peafowl, which seemed very much at home, as well as large numbers of Red Jungle Fowl.  These look very like a domestic hen, but I was assured that wild populations do exist on Kauai, and indeed you could see them more or less everywhere.  All the ones we came across however were extremely tame, and were obviously used to handouts from tourists.

After our energetic walk, we drove back to Kilauea Point, which is a nature reserve, and where we hoped to see Laysan Albatrosses, and Red-Footed Boobies, amongst others.  Unfortunately, our hike had taken too long, and we arrived just after the reserve had closed for the day.  There were lots of sea birds flying around the cliffs however, and we did manage to identify the Red-Footed Boobies, and also Great Frigatebirds, but no albatrosses.

Since we had still not succeeded in seeing any endemic birds, the next day we decided to drive to Koke'e State Park, and the Alaka'i Swamp, where there were several trails leading to areas which were supposed to be good for native bird species.  This is a popular part of the island, and there were a lot of people at the start of the trail, which was also supposed to be good for seeing Nene or Hawaiian Geese.  The views were spectacular along the north coast of Kauai as we started off, but the fog started to drift in and blotted out the distant views of the mountains.  We were standing at one viewpoint admiring the magnificent view out to sea, when I was surprised by a Nene, which flew past us and out into the fog over the ocean.  Large numbers of tourists set out on the trail, but as on the day before, the path was muddy and steep, and it kept on getting muddier and muddier for the first mile, so that most folk turned back, especially since there were no distant vistas to admire thanks to the fog.  This was fortunate, since it meant that by the time we reached the best bits for birding, there were very few people around, and most of them were birders too.

After climbing an excruciatingly muddy hill, the path descended steeply into a valley, and a magnificent boardwalk materialized to keep you out of the mud.  There were forest birds singing all around, and with patience we began to see and identify some of them.  The commonest species was the Apapane, a small crimson bird with black wings and tail and a slightly curved bill.  We also saw Anianiau (also know as Lesser Amakihi), a small yellow bird with a curved bill.  Both of these birds are nectar and insect eaters.  Then we found a Kauai Elepaio, a charming little bird with a cocked-up tail a bit like a gnatcatcher or a long-tailed wren.  These were all very interesting birds, and all 'lifers' for me, but the one species which I had really set my heart on finding, was the I'iwi.  These are described as vermilion red birds slightly bigger than the Apapane, but with salmon pink legs, and a long downwards curved salmon pink bill.  It has a loud harsh call, "like a rusty hinge" (which is where I would guess its name comes from).

We walked along the boardwalk towards the Alaka'i Swamp area, and several times heard sounds exactly like rusty hinges, but in spite of much searching, we did not manage to see anything.  We ate our lunches sitting on the boardwalk, surrounded by several of the other bird species, but still no I'iwi.  Eventually, and with great reluctance, I decided that we could not afford to spend any more time in search of this avian ventriloquist, so we made our way back along the boardwalk.  I had almost given up all hope, when, rounding a corner I saw a splash of something red feeding on a low bush with purple trumpet shaped flowers.  For a second I thought that it was just another Apapane (just??  an Apapane?  - but we had seen lots of these birds by now), and then the sun caught its feathers in an incredible almost incandescent glow, and in that heart-stopping moment I realized that there we had a real live I'iwi, pink feet and bill and all.

Of course, once we had seen it, the I'iwi was very cooperative, and we were able to watch it for several minutes from close quarters.  A second bird was also spotted in the same area, but it did not come out into the open for a clear view.  Elated by our success, we climbed back up out of the valley, and prepared to face the muddy walk back to the car park.  We had just started back along the trail when we met two people, who were being followed closely by a pair of ridiculously tame Erckel's Francolins, a pheasant sized brown game bird, which has white streaks on its breast.  I had half a brown bread sandwich left over from my lunch, which I fed to the Francolins, and they came and took it from my hands - clearly they were used to tourists. 

Then finally, just as we were struggling through the last of the quagmires back to the car park, yet another I'iwi!  We had just time to make it to Poipu beach in the south of the island to see the sun set.  Poipu beach is a very popular place to watch the sun set, so there was a small crowd of folk, some in the water and some just standing around, come to see the ball of fire sink into the ocean.  I noticed a small area right in the middle of the beach which was fenced off from the crowds, and there appeared to be a large rock in the middle of the fenced off area which was attracting a lot of attention from passers-by.  It wasn't until the "rock" suddenly lifted its head and sneezed loudly that I realized that it was in fact a monk seal, an endangered species.  According to the notice posted on the fencing, only 16 monk seals had been seen around Kauai that season, so we were very lucky.

Our final half-day on Kauai produced only two new species, a Ring-Necked Pheasant, and a Hawaiian or Black-Necked Stilt.  The stilt was feeding in a small pond close to Poipu beach, which we revisited in hopes of seeing a monk seal again (we didn't), and to check out the snorkelling, which was excellent.

Back on Oahu, we spent a lot of time in the sea snorkelling off Waikiki beach, but the best site of all is Hanauma Bay, reached by bus in 20 minutes from Waikiki.  The fish here are large, colourful, and extremely plentiful, and we also saw several turtles at close range, swimming and feeding in the water.  There are birds too, but mostly species we had already seen, the exception being a small flock of common waxbills, tiny grey brown birds with a red bill and eye patch.

Our final birding expedition was to try once more to see Laysan Albatrosses, which are known to breed on the most westerly point of Oahu, at Kaena Point.  Kaena Point is not an easy place to get to, as the road stops short of it on each side of the point.  We approached it from the West side, by driving as far as the road would permit at Yokohama beach, and then walking the easy to follow track out to the point.  It was a brisk 40 minute walk, but could easily take longer as the views were interesting and we would have liked to have lingered in several places en route, but the day was ending and I did want to see my first albatrosses.  We were delighted to find at least 14 Laysan Albatrosses on the ground when we got out to the point.  It was the very start of the nesting season, and as far as we could determine, although the birds were paired off, no nesting had actually started.  We did observe some of their courtship rituals - beak clapping and mutual preening - which were very interesting.  A bonus was finding the nesting burrows of the Wedge-Tailed Shearwater in the same area as the albatrosses, and some of the burrows had birds inside.

On our way back to our car we saw two more species; a Northern Mockingbird was quite a surprise to see, but apparently they are found on all the main Hawaiian Islands.  The other species was the Warbling Silverbill, a small brownish finch-like bird with a black rump and a bluish grey bill.  Once again we watched another spectacular sunset with the sun sinking into the sea.

This brought our holiday to a fitting and thoroughly enjoyable end.  The final total was a modest 39 species, but we took great satisfaction from knowing that we found all the birds and identified them by ourselves.

Pat McKay

Birding Top 500 Counter