2016 Big Year Wrap-up

War is over!
Yoko Ono 1971

I’m finding it hard to find the ‘off’ switch. But I’m pretty sure it's within reach now.  It’s the 3rd of January, 2017, and the war is over. 

For myself – and for Robyn, who’s had to keep things together in Australia in between her six trips to the US, it’s been a mighty big year – far bigger, and far more testing than I’d imagined possible during my na├»ve planning processes and recon trips throughout 2015. In fact, I have a lot of trouble accepting that it has only been one year - just 366 days, since I flew out of Sydney airport on the big red kangaroo. Surely there’s a ‘1’, or maybe even a ‘2’ in front of that ‘366’.

It wasn’t the sort of stretched out year arising from extended boring or unpleasant circumstances – as I’d imagine prison might be like. Rather, it’s seemingly drawn-out nature was a reflection of just how much activity I packed into the calendar year, whipped up by the stressful nature of a big year race – always at a frantic pace, usually with the threat of eminent failure hanging above like the sword of Damocles, ever-likely to drop. Ever seen an Indiana Jones film? The year was a roller-coaster ride full up ups and downs, chocked full of corresponding mood-swings and over-reactions, all crammed into a sleep-deprived blur. Next stop, Betty Ford clinic. 2016 started with an off-putting bang in Yuma Arizona, louder than the cheap fireworks show that kept me awake in my two-star digs on New Year’s eve. Streak-backed Oriole and Rufous-backed Robin. As the days and weeks unfolded, and tens of thousands of miles were traversed, it seemed more like the ‘big’ bang of quantum fame - destined to never really come to an end. 

Although the guts of my year on the road fitted between the cogs of the perpetual cycle of activity: airport, flight, rental car, motel, airport, flight, rental car motel, and so on, there were sufficient gaps in that background rhythm to allow some of the most exhilarating experiences imaginable. There was time enough to explore some of the most spectacular landscapes on the planet in search of an exciting and entirely ‘new’ bird fauna. The greatest proportion of these explorations were undertaken solo – with just enough (6) visits from Robyn, and friends (3) to ward off thoughts of suicide or worst (quitting and going home).

Big Year birding often feels like 'Big Year traveling'. I can't think of a major city 
that I didn't at least 'freeway' my way through. I can think of at least eight occasions 
that I drove/creeped through Los Angeles traffic through the year.

My total of 780 species + 3 provisional species represents a new ABA Big Year record, exceeding Neil Hayward’s 2013 ABA area record by more than 30. It includes 111 rarities, 15 beyond the previous record of 96 that Sandy Komito racked up in his legendary big year result in 1998, when it rained rarities upon the lucky springtime Attu birders. The 780 total also includes all 672 of the so-called ‘common’ ABA species (Codes 1 & 2), many of which proved far more challenging than their classification implies. Late note: in December 2017 the ABA decided to accept the Hawaiian sightings of the 2016 Big Year birders. My resulting 'New ABA' species count of 835 species therefore represents the target for future big year aspirants.

To the other three big year birders, I extend sincere congratulations. In terms of ‘going hard’, I take my hat off to them all. I know that I was driven to far greater efforts knowing that the other guys were as focused and dedicated as they were. To the ABA team who maintain the prominence and relevance of the Big Year ethos, thank you! The organisation is an active and effective one, and has a lot to be proud of.

One of the milestones of recent ABA achievements is the annexing of Hawaii to the 'ABA Area'. Three of the four 2016 Big Year birders made trips to Hawaii - Laura Keen and I waiting till ver late in the year to run our dash. Mostly together, we we encountered over 50 species - see my earlier post.

Hawaiian Hawk

 Kuwai Elepaio

Besides Hawaii, I devoted a fair bit of effort late in the year in Washington State and New England whittling down the number of ‘Canada only’ species on my list, eventually contracting it to just four: Redwing, Fieldfare, Yellow-legged Gull and Common Shelduck. The corresponding increase to my ‘USA Big Year' list brought it up to a heady 834. 

My end of year trip to Adak with Robyn had a lucky, and very happy ending – finding a trio of Whooper Swans during the last hour of sunlight on the last day of the year. We enjoyed surprisingly good weather despite a predicted severe weather collapse. Within Adak's breathtaking landscapes and fascinating social heritage, we encountered many other exciting birds – highest on the list being a fluttering kestrel, which we unfortunately were not lucky enough to photograph or otherwise determine species. 

Adak Island, looking down from 'Valley of the Lakes'.

Adak Rock Ptarmigan fashionably gearing up a bit early for the snow season.

As the clock ticked down for 2016, it looked like I'd sacrificed the opportunity for one last mega (Bananaquit in Florida, reported mid-morning, 31 December) in order to miss another (Whooper Swan) on ex-military ghost town Adak Island, Alaska, and what at that time was shaping up to be an unfortunate ending to a year with many ups and downs.

From rags to riches: possibly the biggest moment of my ABA birding odyssey:
a trio of Whooper Swans encountered on Lake Andrew, Adak Island
during the last hour of the last day of 2016.

With the colossal joy of finding the swans came the realization that my year-long challenge had ended; there would be nothing more to do. A great weight had lifted from my shoulders, and with it the accumulated tension and consternation of a long and often arduous year dominated by solo travel. No matter what happened at the other end of the playing field now, my Big Year effort was complete; I’d given the challenge everything I had, and left nothing in the tank. I knew that my final species list, whether good enough to win or not, was a complete and honest account of a spectacular year’s effort. And I knew that Robyn fully shared in my joy and relief. She waited understandingly for my eyes to become dry enough, and for my body to stop shaking enough, to talk about what we’d been through, and what finding the swans meant to us both. We were ready to go home.

The Whooper Swans represented my 111th coded bird species for the year (including three ‘provisional species’ still awaiting ABA acceptance) - a crazy 25 species ahead of Sandy Komito’s 1998 rarities count that was once reputed to be unsurpassable. My total species count within the ‘Classic’ ABA area included all 672 Codes 1 and 2 species, and tallied 783; with another 52 species encountered in Hawaii, my 'New ABA' count was 835. 

Hindsight vs insight
Revisiting the question I often asked myself during 2016 - of what I could possibly have been thinking about when I made the decision to throw my hat into the ABA Big Year ring, I can now accept that in spite of the at times intense pressure, which of course in the end I have to take responsibility for, I found plenty of time to explore many beautiful places in search of spectacular North American birds. 

To answer another frequently asked question: at year's end, my choice of a 'favorite' bird species encountered during the year was a split-decision between the elegant and redeeming Whooper Swans of Adak, and that wascally little Winter Wren that I fondly watched from the boardwalks of The Biggest Week of American Birding in Ohio. 

Cute as a button: the minuscule yet mischievous Winter Wren

During my travels I celebrated many of the wild and varied places that I’d read about in Roger Tory Peterson’s extraordinary Wild America during my preparations, and in all of the books and blogs subsequently produced by ABA Big Year birders. I was similarly invigorated through rediscovering the few still-wild places I’d wandered as a kid with an eye only for snakes. I found the Americans and the Canadians - from the earnest Yupik clansmen within a stone’s skip of Russia, to warm French Canadians in the frozen Quebec backwoods - right through to those vociferous yet generous to a fault Joisey birders, along with the joyful Hispanic people of the Texas Rio Grande Valley, all delightful beyond expectations. I made many wonderful friendships that I intend to keep - a measure, I believe, of a reconnection that I did indeed make with my so rudely-abandoned homeland. 

Babes in the woods: British birder, natural history film maker, funnyman and life-long friend Nigel Marven and I celebrate our shared lifer Connecticut Warbler at Sax-Zim Bog, Minnesota. We first birded and snaked together in 1986!


The following incomplete list of those who helped me substantially pretty much reads as a ‘who’s who’ of American birding. I intend to thank you all more thoroughly in the near future, and apologise to those who, in this emotionally charged moment, I am overlooking: John Puschock, Ken Blankenship, Neil Hayward, Aaron Lang, Chris Hitt, John Vanderpoel, Laura Keene, Christian Hagenlocher, the ‘California Four’ (Roger and Michael Woodruff, Johnny Bovee, and Matt Grube), Jared Clarke, John Richardson, Paul Lehman, Larry Manfredi, my dad and hero - JW Weigel and super-mum Mary Weigel, the dynamic duo of Brian Patteson and Kate Sutherland, Debi Shearwater, Alvaro Jaramillo, Dave Povey, Scott Schuette, Billy ChoateClarence Irrigoo, Chuck from Maui, David Kuhn, the Beatty family (Old Tom, Tommy, and Edith), Tony Battiste, Jay Lehman and Bill Sain. My support team back home was headed up by Tim Faulkner, Paul Andrew, Nigel Jackett, Jenny Spry and R Bruce Richardson, but included so many (maybe all?) of the Australian birding community – those folks will never know how much strength I drew from the notes and emails. A pivot point in my decision to risk divorce and ask Robyn for her blessings came in early 2015 when Rohan Clarke said "You SO should do an American Big Year!". Also my co-workers at the Reptile Park, with whom I cannot wait to feed Alligators and crocs with. Special thanks to Hayley for helping me so much with technical matters. Having my close friend Murray Scott accompanying me through the Texas spring migration days of early April, followed by an epic Colorado chicken run made for perhaps the best chapter of my year.

The people who make ABA the vibrant and effective organisation that it is – including Jeff and Liz Gordon, Greg Neise, Bill Sain, and Nate Swick are essential to the whole idea of a Big Year, and have always been there to provide advice and assistance where it is needed. All are obviously driven by genuine passion for birding and avian conservation – a successful blend that we Australians would do well to consider looking at. There were many other birders who gave me help in many ways; others with whom I shared hours, if not days, birding with, or hanging out with, whom I’ll eventually thank, both publicly and privately.

My cherished cohorts for so many birding missions. Without Christian's and Laura's help and friendship, 2016 would have ended quite differently for me. Here we are at Greg and Erin Neise's house in Chicago on 4th of January to celebrate the end of a mighty big year. Christian doesn't have a conjoined twin growing out of his neck. 'Hi Robyn!'

Cute statistics, Tassy devils, and carbon footprints
So far as providing the traditional set of year-in-review stats of Big Year efforts: numbers of cancelled flights, miles driven, wheels flattened, Big Macs consumed, and so on, I’ll eventually make proper calculations of the most relevant of these and recount them here, or at the very least, in the book. What I can say now is that yes, as speculated, the costs were way more than I’d expected or could actually afford (or will likely ever fully admit to myself – let alone you lot); and sure, I travelled way beyond ‘environmentally responsible’ distances by air, road and sea. Oh, and I can presently report that I actually only had one flat tire to change during the year, and on average ate at Maccas no more than two to three times weekly - even less so when on the lonely Alaskan outposts or out at sea. The quantity of Fireball Whiskey consumed during the 12-month period will likely remain a matter for speculation. 

Although my intention was to promote Devil Ark extensively throughout my American Big Year, the realities of a high-pressure race to encounter the most bird species possible in a too-contracted time frame were such that almost all of the fundraising work that did take place was accomplished through Devil Ark’s partner organisations – Australia-based Foundation for Australia’s Most Endangered Species (FAME), and US-based Global Wildlife Conservation (GWC). Between the efforts of these two organisations, coordinated by my co-managers back home, a reasonable sum of $138,000 was raised in association with my competitive bird race. This amount is equivalent to nearly half the annual operational budget of Devil Ark, and is greatly appreciated by the entire Devil Ark team, and about 200 lucky little devils.

Devil Ark is a ground-breaking conservation captive-breeding initiative for Tasmanian devils located in the high elevation Barrington Tops of New South Wales. Genetically select social groups of 6-8 devils inhabit each of the many 10-20 acre enclosures predominated by beautiful Tasmania-like forests, safe from the devastating Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD) that continues to burn through the wild population.

A lucky devil at Devil Ark, and vital component of overarching efforts to ensure 
the survival of the Tasmanian devil. The Birding for Devils platform assisted in 
generating awareness and funding for the project.

Extinction is not an option.

Considering the extensive carbon footprint created by my perpetual travels during 2016, I asked GWC to calculate and recommend an appropriate carbon offset measure. To this end I donated the funds required to purchase a 30-acre parcel of Ecuadorian rainforest as a handy annexure to the Buenaventura Reserve. The Reserve provides hope for the endangered El Oro Parakeet and a range of other tropical bird species, and provides an important wintering ground for warblers and other migratory species that I ‘ticked’ during the northern Spring and Summer months last year - thousands of miles to the north.  

My Big Year ‘carbon offset’ donation translated into a 30acre addition to the scenic Buenaventura Reserve in Ecuador. The remnant cloud forest reserve provides hope for a range of threatened species, and a winter oasis for many North American migratory bird species.   

Back at work where I belong. For a year anyway. Maybe. 
With Keeper Zac and Regina, Queen Cobra.

Book 'em Danno!

Yeah Danno - All 52 of 'em!
Detective Steve McGarritt, Hawaii Five-O

4-15 December - Aloha!

When the ABA membership voted in October 2016 to annex Hawaii into the ABA region, the goalposts shifted for North American birders. Well, for most ABA birders. The exciting opening of Hawaii to ABA birders came with a concurrent announcement that the 2016 crop of big year birders wouldn’t be able to add the Hawaiian species to their big year lists. For the purposes of ‘life lists’ however, birders, including big year birders, would forthwith be allowed to begin building a provisional tally of species seen or heard, pending the eventual launch of an official Hawaiian checklist - probably in early 2017. My personal feeling is that there is an argument that the 2016 ABA big year birders who visited Hawaii should similarly be allowed to include these species, on a provisional basis of course, on their year-lists – same as Pine Flycatcher and Cuban Vireo from earlier in the year, being species that require a thorough review before (hopefully) gaining a foothold on the official ABA checklist.

Irrespective of the prospective exclusion of Hawaii, some of ‘us’ 2016 big year birders decided to bird our way through the paradise islands in the later part of the year. Two of us - Laura Keene and I, arranged to island-hop together in early December. Christian opted out because of cost, and maybe because I sprang the idea on him with just a few days’ notice. Sorry mate!

'I'iwi - Hard to pronounce, but easy to look at - a quintessential and most spectacular Hawaiian bird

A disapproving pair of Nenes, or Hawaiian Geese - the State Bird

I had done a little bit of birding in Maui and Oahu eight or nine years earlier, and relished the chance to have a more thorough exploration of the island chain. Laura had more recently, and much more extensively, birded the islands, and had a much better grasp than I did of what lay ahead. I’d spoken to birding guide and good friend Jarred Clarke, who had guided groups in Hawaii, about putting together a smart and compact program for us, and to come along and make sure we didn’t stuff it up. This proved to be a spectacularly good idea. Jared’s plan proved to be masterful, and his leadership awesome. Together, the three of us birded our way through Oahu, Maui, and Big Island on a six-day blitzkrieg, leaving no targeted birds behind, and only missing a few rare exotics (Black-rumped Waxbill, Red-cheeked and Cordonbleu). In all, I spent 11 days in Hawaii, adding 52 species to my list of bird species encountered in 2016. 

On day one of the Clarke birding express. A reinvigorated me (Hawaii does that), 
with Jared and Laura

Jared’s designated near-week-long strategy left little time for stuffing about. We had but one day – Sunday, December 4, to get the job done on the most populous island of Oahu. We got an early start at popular Kapiolani Park, Waikiki Beach, where we had no trouble finding a swag of introduced species, as well as several fairy-like White Terns. We then drove up into the hills and hinterlands to Keaiwa Heiau State Park, where we could hike to elevations less favoured by the disease-carrying mosquitos that have been the bane of Hawaii’s lowlands native bird species. Hawaii lost a large proportion of its bird diversity in the early 20th century in large part because of the spread of mosquito-borne Avian Malaria. Because the mosquitos haven’t adapted to surviving at higher elevations, some of the upland bird species have been able to persist, despite a barrage of other threatening processes such as habitat loss and feral rat predation. In response to the cataclysmic loss of bird fauna in the lowlands, relevant government agencies and other groups and individuals strategically chose a wide range of non-native bird species to import and release throughout the islands during the 1920s and 1930s. These included some of the most spectacularly colourful and musical of the world’s bird species. Although the larger proportion of these attempted introductions didn’t pan out, plenty did, combining with a number of accidentally introduced species to comprise the bird fauna now familiar to most Hawaiian residents.

From the time we set off from the Keaiwa Heiau parking area, we encountered spectacular, albeit non-native birds: White-rumped Shamas initially imported from Malaysia, Red-billed Leiothrix from India, and Japanese Bush Warblers from, well, Japan.

Red-billed Leiothrix

Working our way up the trail I was struck by the predominance of Australian trees – particularly Norfolk Island Pines, various Eucalypts, She-oaks (Australian Pine) and Paperbark trees. This Aussie touch would prove to be a characteristic of other birding sites I’d hike through in the days to come. Nice to get a glimpse of Australia after almost a year away, but sad to see the displacement of so much native Hawaiian forest. Ditto with the non-native birds – we enjoyed the colourful new-chums to the islands, but were there to track down the last surviving Oahu bush birds: Oahu Elepaio and Oahu Amakihi.

Stands of Australian trees - Eucalyptus (left) and Paperbark (right) 
along the Lower Aiea Loop Trail, not far out of Honolulu.   

Further up the track, as the Aussie trees increasingly gave way to patches of native vegetation, we began enjoying good views of both of our target species. But the bird of the day proved to be a species that we hadn’t really given ourselves much of a chance for: the rarely seen Mariana Swiftlet. We were lucky enough to notice several of these aerial acrobats feeding high above an adjacent valley. This endangered species has disappeared from much of its range in the Pacific, but tenuously continues on the island of Guam. It was introduced to Oahu in the 1960s.

High-flying and elusive Mariana's Swiftlet

With the job done, we took an early evening flight to Maui, already feeling the rhythm and excitement of an unfolding birding success story.

As is the case on Oahu, most of the surviving native Hawaiian bush birds have very restricted distributions, with many confined to reserves that are off-limits to birders without an authorised guide. In Maui, that reserve is Waikamoi Nature Preserve, managed by the Nature Conservancy, and home to six native bird species. The Conservancy has taken a conservative view about access to the property by birders. Jared, Laura and I obtained permission through the support of long term Waikamoi supporter and conservation stalwart Dr Chuck Probst. The Preserve contains possibly the best stands of remaining native forest, and is well-known as the last stronghold for two of the world’s rarest bird species: Maui Parrotbill and Akohekohe. 

Maui birder and Hawaiian conservation guru, Dr Chuck Probst

Despite our early morning concerns about possible cancellation of our visit to Waikamoi due to steady rain, we ‘willed’ a break in the weather and made our way through the lower, predominantly non-native forests, easily crossing the temperamental creeks, and upwards to the precious native forests. Once we arrived at the famed boardwalk portion of the trail we had an absolutely magical time tracking down all of the native bird species. Our single encounter with a Maui Parrotbill was confined to an extended ‘heard only’ experience, and although the other three members of the party had a brief view of a vocal yet cagey Akohekohe, I managed to stuff up the opportunity, settling for ‘heard only’ observation. We also saw Alauihio (Maui Creeper), Hawaii Amakihi, Apapane, and the always spectacular 'I’iwi.

Maui Creeper

Following our sensational Waikamoi experience, we continued our two-day Maui experience seeking out Hawaiian Coots and a range of non-native birds. We then flew to mysterious ‘Big Island’, and its extraordinary open-plan airport made possible by the remarkably dry weather norms for this, the biggest and geologically youngest of the Hawaiian islands.

Jared has a bird crush. Although he’s partial to all sorts of birds, he has a very special place in his heart for one particular species, which happens to be an Hawaiian endemic. The Palila is confined to Big Island, Hawaii, where it clings to survival on the slopes of its Mauna Kea (volcano) stronghold. Its contracted range is best accessed along the aptly named Palila Forest Discovery Trail. This species is no ‘gimme’, and we felt very lucky to find a highly obliging Palila along the upper reaches of the trail in a stand of Mamane trees. ‘Our’ Palila seemed entirely unfazed by our intrusion, allowing us to hang around watching while it picked the internal contents of seeds it extracted from an immature Mamane seed pod. These seed embryos are a staple of the Palila diet, underscoring the interdependent nature of Hawaii’s birds and native forests. Although Palilas currently inhabit only about 10% of their original range of distribution, they are undoubtedly benefitting from considerable conservation focus.

Palila teasing out the edible bits of Mamame seed seeds from young seedpods

Some folks really love birds. Trying to prize Jared away 
from the feeding Palila was not an option.

Finding the Palila was a definite ‘high’ for all three of us, but after a reasonable period of adoration, my ADD-affected interest waned, and I left my wide-eyed Newfoundland friend in his moment of emotional completion, with a remote hope of fluking an Akiapola’au - with its whacky-long upper bill structure. We’d heard that Akiapola’aus had for the most part disappeared from the area, but that a single male was believed to still persist. I didn’t find this bird, but I did find an unusual Hawaii Amakihi with an atypically long bill – my photo of which took experts a bit of time to rule out Akiapola’au.

Unusually well-billed Hawaii Amakihi doing impression of much scarcer Akiapola'au

A more typical Hawaii Amakihi

Apart from the Palila, the place to see all of the Big Island native bush birds is Hakalau Forest National Wildlife Refuge. The property is accessible only through the guided services of Hawaii Forest & Trail Tours, and Gary Dean is the guy to lead any successful assault on the preserve’s bird species list. And successful we were! Our group of eight birders had mixed results over the course of the day, but the Team Clarke trio cleaned up all of the island’s native endemics (other than aforementioned well-watched Palila). We saw Hawaiian Hawk, Omao, Akiapola’au (whoo-hoo!), Akepa (another tough one), Hawaiian Creeper, Hawaii Amakihi, I’iwi, Apapane and Nene (Hawaiian Goose). It was a long but unforgettable day, that saw us continuing to skate our way through our wish list of Hawaiian bird species. As unlikely as it seemed at the onset, over our six-day Hawaiian odyssey we finished up seeing or hearing all 19 species of native birds persisting on the three islands we visited.

Me-oh-my-oh! A cheeky Omao (a native thrush endemic to Big Island) at Hakalau.

An Akepa, one of the tough birds to find at Hakalau. We managed a clean sweep of the reserve's native birds with the help of Gary Dean, guide for Hawaii Forest & Trail.

In addition to the natives, Big Island presents birders with a range of flashy introduced bird species – some of which are not easily found. The most elusive of the non-native bird species we found were Lavender Waxbill, Red Avadavat, and Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse. All three required multiple visits to favoured locations, use of historical and up to date intel via eBird, and as always, plenty of persistence and good old fashioned luck. 

Red Avatavat - one of the Big Island non-natives that required a lot of persistence to find.

Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse, another seldom-seen non-native bird that led us on a merry chase.

As if Hawaiian birds didn’t have enough trouble surviving into the future, a fungal disease – Rapid Ohia Death (ROD) is spreading through the critically important stands of Ohia trees in parts of Big Island. Quarantine measures have been implemented to resist the spread of the disease island-wide, and to the other islands. Therefore, birders should arrange their Hawaiian visits in a manner that saves Big Island for last. For Laura and I however, after the departure of Jarred from Big Island on December 9th, that simply wasn’t possible. Although we hadn’t visited any areas known to be affected by ROD - purposely steering clear of these, we took the preventative measure on our final day of machine washing all of our clothing and day packs. We sprayed our footwear to the point of soaking with rubbing alcohol, then sealed them in plastic bags before purchasing new hiking shoes and socks, prior to boarding our flight to Kauai.

Once in Kauai, we based ourselves at centrally located Lihue. From there we birded most of the better-known island hot-spots over the next few days, chiselling away at our wish-lists on this, the birdiest of the Hawaiian islands. We undertook two ‘sea-watch’ sessions during favourable (windy) periods at Kilauea Point to the north. Clearly, we were too late for some of the breeding seabird species, but at least managed to snag most of the year-round residents - including Great Frigatebird, which was new for both of our year-lists. There were good numbers of Red-footed and Brown Boobies, Laysan Albatrosses and White-tailed Tropicbirds and a single Red-tailed Tropicbird. I had only distant and barely sufficient views of a Wedge-tailed Shearwater. We saw plenty of Black Noddies and a single Black-tailed Albatross on our pelagic trip out of Port Allen in the southwest.

Red-footed Boobies were busy by the score at Kiloela Point, Kauai

One of the challenges that Laura and I knew we would be facing on Kauai was the extended closure of Mohihi Road due to the scheduled replacement of several bridges. The road closure had the effect, we were told, of cutting off access to the ever-shrinking range of two extremely rare island endemics – Akikiki (Kauai Creeper) and Puaiohi (Kauai Thrush). Most, if not all sightings of these in recent years have taken place with the guided assistance of highly regarded local expert David Kuhn, and only along a small section of the Mohihi-Wai’alae ridge trail adjacent to the Koke’e State Park. David’s tours involve a full day’s hike after a ten-mile drive along the presently closed roads. I’d been warned that a woman attempting to cross one of the creeks affected by the bridge removals had drowned a week before our visit to Kauai.

Resigned to conventional thinking, at least for the time being, that it wouldn’t be possible for us to see Akikiki or Puaiohi on this trip, we concentrated on the other four endemic species – all of which we certainly had a shot at: Akeke’e, Anianiau, Kauai Amakihi, and Kaua’I Elepaio. These could all be seen at adjacent, more accessible portions of the Koke’e State Park via the Pihea Trail. Although a guide isn’t required to access these areas, we contacted David Kuhn, who arranged to meet us at the trailhead early on the morning of 11 December. Once we saw the very steep and slippery state of the Pihea Trail, Laura reluctantly left her camera in the car, and I agreed to try using one of David’s ‘girlie’ walking sticks – both decisions later proving to have been good ones. The slick clay trail was eroded by a rainfall pattern that is regarded as the highest in the world, and made for difficult going. At times the trail followed a ridgeline, providing spectacular lookouts, and eventually finding its way to dense native habitat that promised, and indeed delivered, so much.

Intrepid American bird photographer Laura Keene caught camera-less, possibly for the 
first time ever, along on the slippery slopes of Koke'e State Park, Kauai.

A view from the Pihea Trail, Koke'e State Park.

                     Pihea Trail, Koke'e State Park, finally leveling out to the bird-friendly boardwalk areas.

Kauai Elepaio. Kapow!

Over the course of the day we saw all four of the hoped for specialty birds, as well as colourful Apapane and I’iwi – though the later was in noticeably lower densities than we’d found them elsewhere during our Hawaiian travels. At one stage David and I ‘creek walked’ up and down a series of narrow creeks to steep dead end gorges where David had seen Puaiohi only a year or two before. Sadly, we found no sign of the birds, nor any sign of bird-damage to clusters of fruit from a shrub I can’t remember the name of – which Dave explained is a principal food source for Puaiohi. The spread of mosquitos, and in effect, avian malaria, into the higher elevations of Hawaii’s remaining native forests is pushing most of the remaining native bird species towards extinction within a rapidly contracting timeframe. There is a captive breeding program for Puaiohi currently in action, which will hopefully translate into a return to the wild for a species that is the final fruit seed distributor in their habitat. Since they are down to about 200 wild birds presently however, there is likely to be some unfortunate ecological shifts in vegetation in the short to medium term in the absence of bird-induced seed dispersal. Frustrating.

To finish off the day we stopped at the Koke’e Museum to have a look at a well-known group of semi-tame Red Junglefowls that are regarded as possibly the most genetically pure in Hawaii. This species arrived on the islands with the earliest Polynesians as a food source, but in recent times has been interbreeding with domestic chickens throughout much of its range.   

Who's the pretty boy then? Red Junglefowl at Koke'e Museum grounds. 
Although it felt great to continue a decidedly ‘winning’ streak of Hawaiian birding, I couldn’t help but feel a little empty about the rapid pace of the ongoing extinction event faced by the remaining native species, and the fact that it looked like I’d never get a crack at Akikiki and Puaiohi.  When planning this Hawaiian ‘interruption’ to my Big Year of birding, I’d thought fairly clinically about it, expecting something like a ‘run-by’ view of as many species as possible in the shortest possible time. Already I had spent days more than intended. But in practice, virtually from day 1 in Oahu, I was completely taken by Hawaii and its birds. I guess I was probably hoping for reasons to stay on as long as possible. After a pelagic trip on the 12th across the Niihau Channel that didn’t add any new birds to either of our year lists, and a successful hunt for a couple of remaining ‘ferals’ on the 13th, Laura headed back to the mainland, and her incredible year of chasing and photographing insane number of bird species. For me however, having been denied the opportunity to see Akikiki and Puaiohi on ‘normal’ terms, I made the decision to attempt bypassing the whole road-closure issue by gearing up for an overnight hike into the area, wading or swimming across creeks, if that proved necessary. For the fourth time in the year I visited a local Kmart/Walmart to purchase a no-frills overnight camping kit comprised of an el cheapo backpack, tarp, air-mattress and sleeping bag. This typically amounts to about a purchase of about $70 all up. Since my time-proven travel system comprised of two-suitcases a carryon bag and laptop bag was unable to accommodate these (or any) additional items, on the completion of each of my campout missions I donate the gear to the first homeless person I encounter.

And so I made my move on 14 December, preparing for a last push for Hawaiian birds. The walk from the Koke’e museum, where I parked my rental, was long and wet, but in truth simple and easy. The ‘river crossings’ I’d been warned about were only knee-high wade-across inconveniences. After less than five hours of hiking I reached my intended overnight camp site, and not long after nightfall was rolled into my traditional tarp cocoon shelter, strategically angled to shed, rather than collect water from the impending rain. This plan proved to be only partially successful, with persistent on-again, off-again downpours through the night ultimately making for a wet and uncomfortable night. By morning the rains had reduced to sporadic showers, and I commenced my search for rare birds along the legendary Mohihi Wai’alae ridgeway trail.

It proved to be a spectacular walk, with sensational habitat supporting quite a lot of birdlife. Over the course of the day – along the three and a half miles of the track that I explored, I saw several Akeke’es, at least a half dozen each of Anianiaus, and Kauai Amakihis, as many as ten Kauai Elepaios, and over 20 Apapanes, but disappointingly, no 'I’wis. Most importantly, I saw and heard Akikikis at least twice during the day – a single bird seen well on one occasion, and a passing group of at least two birds - and maybe three – communicating with tiny single note whistles, on another. I ‘possibly’ saw a single Puaiohi flying low across the trail a fair distance in front of me, disappearing steeply down a narrow ravine. I tried working my way down in pursuit during the ongoing drizzle, but didn’t get far before my sense of survival had a rare victory over mettle. I struggled over the next couple of days to decide whether or not I’d seen the bird well enough to rule out Kauai Elepaio, and in the end decided that I hadn’t.

The spectacular Mohihi-Wai'alae Trail, Koke'e State Park, Kauai - 
accessing the last stronghold for endemic bush birds.

Although I managed to use my iPhone to capture the scenic nature of the area between periods of precipitation, I wasn’t able achieve much bird photography due to a varying amount of fogging between the outermost elements of my camera system that seemed to fluctuating in intensity between periods of rain and dry.



The walk out – from the endpoint of my easterly trek along the Mohihi-Wai’alae trail to Mohihi Road, and finally to my car at the museum, was probably no more than ten miles, but seemed quite a bit longer. Did I mention that this is the world’s wettest place? For birders planning future treks, I would highly recommend waiting for the reopening of the access road, and enlisting the guiding services of David Kuhn, who would undoubtedly increase the odds of success many-fold. Most of the bird activity, and the only part of the trail that I saw Akikiki (and may have seen Puaiohi), was above where the trail plateaus, particularly between the two-mile marker and not far beyond the three-mile marker.

Although I probably should have planned for more than one day along the Mohihi-Wai’alae trail, I left feeling that I’d done the best I could, and turned my attention to getting back to the North American continent and the main game. My persistent concern throughout my otherwise wonderful time in Hawaii was that a rarity I needed might show up on the mainland to force my early exit from paradise – something that didn’t happen. I have to admit that I wasn’t that consumed with worry – the magic of the birds and broader nature of Hawaii had captured me in its spell, and as I write this blog entry many weeks later, I look back on my 12 days of birding the Aloha State as a real highlight of my year on the road. I’m sincerely grateful to everyone who contributed to making possible such a once in a lifetime experience, especially Jarrod, Laura, Chuck, Gary and David.

Feeling on top of the world after chocking up 52 Hawaiian bird species that were new 
for my year list. One of the the best birding spots anywhere - well done ABA!