text and photos by Ali Iyoob
In early December, my family and I visited Kauai, Hawaii. In addition to seeing forty-six species of birds, I also added species to my butterfly, reptile, fish, and mammal lists. It was my first time birding in a place where I had no previous experience with either the avifauna or methods of birding. This taught me the importance of field notes, sketches, and reading the field guide before an excursion.
After arrival at the Honolulu Airport to wait for a connecting flight, I didn’t waste any time sitting. In less than thirty minutes, the connecting flight would arrive and Honolulu airport was the only place to reliably see Fairy Tern. At the last minute, I saw the graceful bird glide over the runway. I also saw Common Myna and Zebra Dove, both very common Hawaii birds. The mynas reminded me of European Starlings, invasive, loud, plentiful, yet a fun bird to look at all the same.
It was dark and no birds were present by the time we arrived at the Kauai Airport. During the first night, however, I was awakened by a harsh, rasping sound coming from outside: my first Barn Owl. Because they are sporadic in my home state of North Carolina, this was the first time I had heard one. The next morning, I went exploring around the house we had rented. The short grass bordering the backyard walkway was a magnet for such ground feeders as Common Myna, Zebra Dove, Red-crested Cardinal, Spotted Dove, Java Sparrow, House Sparrow (yes, they made it here too), and Chestnut Munia. Pacific Golden-Plovers strutted around cautiously, picking insects as they went, while small Japanese White-eye darted into the bushes.
In order to find other, more habitat specialized species, I would have to go to them. My game plan included the beach, an estuary, a high elevation forest, a taro field, and a peninsula where pelagic birds could be seen from shore. At Poipu Beach, I viewed Wandering Tattler, Great Frigatebird, Ring-billed Gull, and a Ruddy Turnstone amidst the tourists. The Ring-billed Gulls feed in the lava rocks, snapping up fish trapped in puddles. I was surprised to learn that tattlers spend the summer in Alaska but winter in various pacific islands.
At Lydgate Park, an estuary, I saw Sanderling and a juvenile Black-crowned Night-Heron. In the parking lot, a small flock of Rose-ringed Parakeets picked small red fruit off a tree. In a few minutes, the tree was bare and they had moved to another tree, reminding me of the feeding behavior of Cedar Waxwings. Carefully stalking a strange squeaking call, I came upon female Ring-necked Pheasant taking a dust bath behind the brush. She immediately flew away as she saw me, her vocalizations similar to a domestic chicken.
The weather was perfect when I finally got to Kokee State Park on the third day. It had rained that night, so the temperature at 4000 feet was not quite as cold. A little chubby Elepaio, a member of the family Monarchidae, perched in a tree in the parking lot. The Elepaio are also important in Hawaiian culture. According to legend, the birds would peck on insect-infested trees, indicating to the natives which trees were unsuitable for canoes. Moa, the native Junglefowl, were very tame and we had to be careful not to run them over in the car. Honeycreepers of varying shades of yellow flew into the bushes and I spotted a fiery Apapane from far away. Taking a closer look at the yellow honeycreepers, I found some to have large bills, while others had small ones. Still others showed a greener tinge by comparison. Looking in my field guide, I found them to be Anianiau, Kauai Amakihi, and Akekee. They were worse than our mainland warblers when it came to focusing them in my binoculars, but their sheer numbers allowed me multiple chances at identification. Along a hiking trail, a gray honeycreeper hopped onto a low-falling branch ahead of me. After consulting my field guide, I found that the only gray honeycreeper was the Akikiki. This rare bird, only found in a small region of Kauai, is an endangered species. Although not much is known about them, researchers have estimated a 64 percent population decrease. This was the best bird on my trip and one I will never forget. These birds are on the brink of extinction and I feel privileged to have seen one. After the amazing encounter with the Akikiki, I reviewed my checklist. To my surprise, I had found all but one honeycreeper; the Iiwi. Although I kept my eyes peeled during the remainder of the hike, I couldn’t find the Iiwi. As we drove down the road back to lower elevations, we saw a flock of Erckel’s Francolins. While my mom stopped the car so I could get a better view, I glimpsed a flash of red. Raising my binoculars hopefully, I found myself looking at my first Iiwi. The Iiwi is a flaming red bird with black wings and a thick, curved beak specially adapted to feeding out of the ohi`a tree.
After an amazing trip to Kokee State Park, we went to a popular tourist destination, Waimea Canyon. While at a scenic outlook, I heard a strange call, a whistle followed by a few chip notes. Japanese Bush-Warblers, an introduced, but not established species, were known to feed there. After many fruitless searches, I finally got an identifiable glimpse through the brush: a Japanese Bush-Warbler.
To see Hawaii’s many pelagic birds, I had two options: go on an expensive pelagic trip or see them from land at Kilauea Point, on the north end of the island. Obviously, I chose the latter. At Kilauea Point, the most populous birds were Red-footed Boobies. Laysan Albatrosses were starting to nest and waddled clumsily on a neighboring point. A distant brown bird proved to be a Wedge-tailed Shearwater, rare in winter. Nene, the Hawaiian Goose, were extremely tame and followed visitors around, an easy lifer. This endemic goose is on the brink of extinction and conservation efforts have been very active in saving the geese. All of the individuals have tags and are carefully monitored. After Kilauea Point, we made a quick stop to see Common Moorhen, Hawaiian Coot, Black-necked Silt, and Hawaiian Duck in a flooded taro field.
My trip to Hawaii was truly amazing. Besides increasing my life list, I observed rare birds and others with remarkable life histories. My mom was great, always agreeing to chauffeur me to out-of-the-way places. Birding Hawaii was certainly an unforgettable experience.