Good morning birders, twitchers, ornithophiles, and pie-fighters who took a wrong turn.
My wife and I spent a week on Hawaii Island (commonly known as the Big Island) in June. We saw a wide array of birds, both introduced and native. For the latter, we went on a fantastic guided bird tour — thanks to the suggestion of a Kossack! — and managed to see many of the endangered endemic birds. The bird pics range from serviceable to awful, so I supplemented them with some landscape shots, like this late sunset in the west-coast town of Kailua-Kona.
A few months ago I asked Haole in Hawaii for advice on Hawaii birding. He suggested that I contact conservation biologist and renowned bird photographer Jack Jeffrey for a tour of theHakalau Forest National Wildlife Refuge, a limited-access preserve with a high concentration of Hawaii’s rarest birds.
This was great advice! My wife and I spent a full day hiking with Jack — a delightful guide — through the high-elevation forest on the eastern slope of Mauna Kea (accessible only by permit), watching and learning from an expert bird photographer while trying to get some of our own shots. The weather held up nicely, though the usual fog eventually rolled in.
Though “honeycreeper” describes particular bird species in other parts of the world, in Hawaii the term refers to any of the more than 50 species that evolved from a single finch species (possibly a common rosefinch irruption) millions of years ago. Their evolutionary radiation into a vast array of niches is one of the more remarkable avian illustrations of that phenomenon, made possible by the 50th state’s status as the most isolated island chain in the world.
As is too often the case, the encroachment of human civilization devastated the endemic bird population. Hunting and the introduction of predatory mammals wiped out the flightless birds, while the loss of habitat and especially the accidental introduction of avian-malaria-carrying mosquitos relegated many of the native species to a small band of forest between the mosquito-friendly elevations and the tree-less lavascapes of the mountain tops. The Hakalau Forest is at the sweet spot of about 6500 feet above sea level.
The most sought-after honeycreeper on the island is the endangered ‘akiapola’au, a small passerine that singularly fills the woodpecker niche. Even avid birders sometimes fail to see them, but we were lucky to spot two.
As you probably noticed, its most interesting feature is its dual-purpose bill — the lower bill pecks wood, and the curved upper bill scoops insect larvae.
The most popular and recognizable Hawaiian honeycreeper — on the cover of every book about Hawaiian birds — is the relatively abundant i’iwi:
Here’s a butt shot that also reveals the full contours of its nectar-foraging beak:
The other endangered endemics we saw were the ‘akepa:
Hawaii’s only native hawk, the ‘io:
And the little guy known simply as a creeper:
More common native birds included the ‘oma’o (thrush):
The ‘elepaio (flycatcher):
The ‘apapane — another nectar feeder whose name apparently translates to “supposedly common but persistently elusive to camera-wielding Texans.”
And the ‘amakihi:
Ok, it’s time for a photo interlude. This is the Waipio Valley on the Hamakua Coast of the Big Island (northeast side), seen from a road-accessible overlook. Click on it here, then again on the Flickr page, for the full-resolution version and you can see the gorgeous black-sand beach.
And this is my most-cherished capture — my first successful shot of the Milky Way after years of trial and error:
It was taken behind the Mauna Kea visitor center the night of a new moon. Though the Big Island is frequently covered in clouds, it has an inversion layer that keeps the moisture below about 7000 feet, giving the nearly 14,000-ft Mauna Kea summit a crisp, clear environment that makes it one of the two best astronomy sites in the world. The visitor center sits at a more comfortable 9100 feet. The sunsets are nice too:
Hawaii also features an abundance of introduced bird species. When the colorful honeycreepers were chased out of the coastal elevations, the settlers brought new color to replace them. Notably, they brought three different types of cardinals — perhaps the only place in the world with three birds sharing my username (?). It was odd to be in an exotic rain forest so far from home and hear the unmistakable “chip chip” of the northern cardinal:
There were also two South American species. The red-crested cardinal:
And the yellow-billed cardinal:
South American Saffron finches were abundant:
As were zebra doves:
And spotted doves:
Finally, we saw a few kalij pheasants (Asian):
Aloha, and thanks for reading!
[All of my photos are copyrighted. As for the narrative, I’m just a political scientist who likes to photograph pretty things. So feel free to correct any errors.]