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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.

Day 1

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.

Day 2

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.  Pintail. 

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.

Day 3

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!

Day 4

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.

Day 5

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 precious. 

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!

Day 6

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.

Some final things

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.

Ron Hoff
Clinton, Tn. 

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