Hawaii bird-watching: A land of unusual, and often endangered, species

March 23, 2012

Bundled against the chill of a dewy morning, we settled on the lower slopes of Mauna Loa volcano, a landscape interrupted on Hawaii’s Big Island. Around us was a forest that had grown up over a centuries-old flow, but for half a mile in either direction were cindery stretches of bare lava from more recent events. In the greens and grays of the woods, little molten explosions brightened the ohi’a trees, whose brilliant red blossoms feed several species of endemic Hawaiian honeycreepers, small nectar-feeding forest birds.

Even before we’d spotted a single bird, we knew that we were in the right place, thanks to the ear of Jack Jeffrey, a former biologist with the State of Hawaii who now guides birding and photography tours. Just a few minutes from the parking lot of the Puu O’o Trail, he began identifying call after call. There were twittery trills, raspy kazoo blasts and what could have been R2-D2 chirps and beeps straight off the “Star Wars” soundtrack.

Hawaii: How to get there, where to stay, where to eat, what to do


(Gene Thorp/The Washington Post)

Jeffrey explained that recent research has traced the ancestry of nearly 60 species of nectar-loving Hawaiian honeycreepers back to a flock of finches from Asia that arrived nearly 6 million years ago (even before all the islands had formed). Of those 60 species, only 18 remain today. The honeycreepers, along with many other native animals and plants, have suffered pressures from development and from introduced predators and diseases. With so many unique species facing extinction, Hawaii is often described as the endangered species capital of the world.

Photographer Kim Hubbard and I spent eight days in Hawaii in December, mixing birding on Oahu and the Big Island with other sightseeing. We found that bird-watching served as a lens on the islands, allowing us to meet locals who were passionate and expert enough to share their insights and help us step off (or in one case very much onto) the beaten path.

Sitting on the edge of what was once a moving wall of lava, we looked straight out over the treetops. A buzzing sound that might have been a miniature helicopter announced the arrival of an apapane. This bird would fit in your palm; it’s as red as the ohi’a flowers. Its legs and slightly curved beak are black, its lower abdomen white. Unlike a hummingbird, with which it shares a zippy pace, it actually lands to feed on the flowers. Jeffrey described watching these birds as a series of three-second sightings. The pattern, he said with a metronome beat, is: “There it is, there it is, there it goes.”

Even though we were sitting in the open and chatting, the birds came closer and closer as they got used to us. Soon we spotted an ‘i’iwi with orange-red plumage. Its beak, a pale orange, curved to dip perfectly into the spray of stamens that form the blossom. The ‘i’iwi paused, then extended its neck to sing with full-bodied earnestness — operatic vigor in a tiny package.

An even smaller velvety yellow-green bird appeared in an adjacent tree. Like some sort of yoga master, the amakihi seemed to effortlessly bend itself backward as it looked around. It also seemed unaffected by gravity, dashing 180 degrees around a twig to get to a blossom. When the flowers are out, the various honeycreepers spend their days working a nectar circuit, sipping from one and then moving to the next, returning when the flowers have refilled.

As we ate our sandwiches and watched the midday clouds settle in, Jeffrey explained how the islands’ isolation allowed for unique evolutionary relationships.

In the millions of years between the time when the Hawaiian Islands burbled up from the seafloor and the Polynesians landed (around 1,400 years ago), the pattern was that a new species of plant or animal arrived every 50,000 to 60,000 years, drifting in via air or on ocean currents. There’s something spectacular about the tenacity and durability of life that changed those lumps of cooled lava into a set of unique ecosystems, but a key element was time, which allowed for often quirky adaptations.

Birds, not insects, are the key pollinators for many plants. Bats were the only mammals on the islands, so the nettles lost their spikes, not needing a defense against herbivorous grazers. Similarly, the islands’ 54 varieties of mint lost their strong mint flavor, which, ironically, given its appeal to humans, is a defense against being eaten.

Nowadays 10 to 20 nonnative species are introduced to the islands every year through the everyday flow of people and goods from the rest of the world. This has left the Hawaiian ecosystems rather battered.

After several peaceful hours of talking and watching, we saw one amakihi landing on a blossom six feet away. But as a misty shower turned into a proper downpour, we retreated to the cars, where Jeffrey sent us on our way with a bag of tangerines he’d picked that morning from his orchard.

Kawai Nui Marsh

Where seeing Hawaii’s native forest birds takes a bit of effort, John Harrison of the Hawaii Audubon Society introduced us to a different, wonderfully lazy but effective approach: parking-lot birding. “You think of bird-watching as something where you have to put on funny clothes and go places at all hours only to wait and wait and wait to maybe see something,” he said, laughing. “You can do that, or you can come to the shopping center.”

As we stood within sniffing distance of a sub shop in the nearby strip mall, Harrison pointed out nearly a dozen species of birds, three endangered, in what had been a boggy cattle pasture and is now being restored as a functioning wetland. The parking lot that offers this view onto the Kawai Nui Marsh is actually meant for patrons of the Creekside Lounge, a biker bar in Kailua on Oahu.

Endangered Hawaiian coots, pear-shaped black birds with a white face, seemed to be holding time trials as a pair raced through the still water of an old irrigation canal. They paddled past a discarded Croc sandal, which made for a rather urban tableau, but Hawaii is a place that offers natural wonders in unexpected spots.

Along the banks we saw periodic squawking scrums of coots, ducks (hybrids of mallards and the native koloas) and perhaps the species most prone to apparent hysteria, the moorhens, who amplify the drama of every little event in this avian neighborhood. Moorhens look like athletic chickens that swim incredibly well. They’re gray-black with a waxy red frontal shield, which Hawaiian mythology attributes to the bird carrying fire to people from the gods.

Seemingly reluctant to be left out of any gathering, several moorhens with outsize yellow chicken feet made their way along the bank below us. “They must not know that they’re endangered,” Harrison said. “They’re much too friendly.”

A black-crowned night heron perched absolutely still on a dead tree. It ignored the clamor of the other birds in favor of a school of minnows puckering the water’s surface. Beyond, in the mudflat, a pair of black-and-white birds dashed and bobbed about, seeming much too tiny to operate their preposterously long pink legs. They were Hawaiian stilts, also endangered.

Two men emerged from a midday stop at the bar. As one strapped on a spiked helmet, the other pointed at a bird swooping in sharply for a landing and asked whether it was a heron or an egret.

Although Harrison appreciated the absurdity of these rare birds being so accessible, he also obviously felt real pain over the environmental challenges the islands face. He described the pathos of recordings of the last known o’o a’a calling for a mate. “It called for two or three years, then no more,” he said.

It’s possible to do a great deal of urban birding on the islands, and it inspires a degree of camaraderie. In the parking lot ofLyon Arboretum in Hono­lulu, one man, noticing my binoculars, stopped and told us that he’d written a bird haiku:

“The rasping of the rake

Alerts the shama thrush.

Breakfast is served.”

Simply by keeping our eyes open, we saw a suite of unfamiliar feathered creatures. We tallied at least a half-dozen new species just between the airport and the hotel. Even in the rental car lot, there were two unfamiliar types of doves taking the role of their cousins, the pigeons. The zebra dove is tiny and almost appears to be wearing a zebra-striped T-shirt. The spotted dove is more typically sized and understated with the feathered equivalent of a polka-dotted ascot at the throat.

Kaena Point

The western shore of Oahu forms a jagged tip where it’s possible to watch the entire transit of the sun across the sky. Kaena Point is a wave-battered, sandy spit of land, accessible only on foot. On a warm and windy morning, we walked along roped-off trails through lumpy dunes. Beyond the ropes were nesting Laysan albatrosses.

Many were preening and socializing. Gaggles of not yet sexually mature birds loitered like the good teens they were, standing about clacking their bills and periodically offering a shrill whinnying call. A few adults sat on eggs. One parent incubates the eggs while the other leaves to feed for a few days, at times taking a 5,000-mile trip for squid in Alaskan waters. Their wings are dark, but the chest and head are pure white, except for a ring around the eye that looks like black eye shadow.

With the dramatic makeup and a long regal bill, the birds seem to be aiming for elegance; unfortunately, Laysan albatrosses have an absurd, though endearing, walk. As one foot comes up, the head scrunches down, as if a spring has been misconnected. For a moment, with both feet on the ground, it looks normal and upright, then the next foot lifts and the head sucks down. They endure the silly walk with good humor, giving no sign of minding the grins it inspires. “You can’t help but be happy around them,” said Michelle Jones of the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources.

We watched as one albatross’s walk turned to a waddling run as it put forth a tremendous effort to get off the ground. Having reached maximum dash speed, the bird extended its wings and skimmed along, perhaps four inches off the ground. After gliding for 20 yards, it dropped its feet back down for the extra oomph of a few desperate pedally steps. Then a gust shot it aloft, and goofy turned graceful. With its six-foot wingspan, it soared and sliced across the wind.

The seabirds at Kaena Point are faring better these days thanks to a new predator fence that keeps out nonnative, egg-eating mongooses, rats and mice that have decimated so many local bird species. At other times of year, the spot is full of burrowing wedge-tailed shearwaters. These noisy, social birds seem prone to existential concerns that inspire hours of baleful moaning.

We made our way to the land’s final jagged tip, where dunes give way to black rock. A monk seal had hauled itself out of the water to bask in the sun. Most live on the remote atolls, and only about 1,200 remain in the world, so it was remarkable to see one. But then another came wiggling out of the water. Then a third. Their name may come from their generally solitary behavior, but they settled in companionably as our birding trip took yet another turn.

After the aerial displays of the albatross and the sightings of extremely endangered seals, the rainbow that popped onto the horizon seemed almost over the top. But that’s Hawaii for you — a place whose wonders live up to the hype.

Hawaii: How to get there, where to stay, where to eat, what to do

O’Callahan is a Washington-based freelance writer who leads wilderness expeditions around the world.

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