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!