Leica Stories – Around the Big Island in Four Days
by John Sterling
When I was eleven years old, I first became aware of the birds of Hawaii from the older Peterson Western Field Guide and then again when my grandparents gave me “Hawaiian Birdlife” by Andrew Berger for my sixteenth birthday. The islands seemed so distant at the time. A few years later I worked at the Redwood Sciences Lab in coastal Humboldt County, California with my first task to transcribe data from field maps for the U.S Forest Service’s Hawaiian bird survey project. The bird names were as exotic as the images of the islands in my imagination. As I was working through these college years, I had no money to spend on a birding trip to the islands. Soon trips to west Mexico and further south in Latin America took priority over other potential birding locations. The thought of spending so much money to see so few native birds amid the environmental destruction and plethora of introduced species made this decision easy. But oh, did I make a strategic mistake! If I had gone then, I would have had a chance to see seven species that are now extinct! Sadly, the populations of endemic forest birds in Kauai have been crashing for the past few years. I visited the Alakai Wilderness in 2011 and barely saw all surviving species but one (Akikiki). Now is the time to see them before it is too late! With this in mind, my wife, Amy Wilson, and I visited our birding friends and fabulous hosts, Bob and Bettina Arrigoni, on the Big Island in late January.
Our first hike was along the first mile stretch of the famous Pu’u Oo trail (named after the fabulous, but extinct Hawai’i Oo) through old lava flows and patches of ohia and koa forest. Ohia trees were blooming and attracted many native Omao (a solitaire), Hawai’i ‘Elepaio (a monarch flycatcher), and those famous Hawaiian honeycreepers; Apapane, I’iwi and Hawaiian Amakihi. A pair of I’o or Hawaiian Hawk circled overhead in courtship displays. Birds were abundant and a far cry from the nearly empty montane forests of Kauai. We searched the koa trees until we found the star bird of the day, the Akiapola’au with its amazing bill. The Aki, as it is known to most birders, has a specialized diet, foraging primarily on the larvae of a wood-boring beetle. It uses it short, straight lower mandible to peck open holes and its long, curved upper mandible to extract the larvae from these holes in the branches of the koa tree. It also uses its lower mandible to create sap wells in some ohia trees, similar behavior to our mainland sapsuckers.
Our next hike was above 7,000 ft. in elevation in the mamane-naio forests on the dry side of the volcano, Mauna Kea. Within five minutes, Bob had heard a Palila, one of the three remaining finch-like Hawaiian honeycreeper species. We soon saw three Palila with many Hawaii Amakihis foraging in a mamane tree. They reminded me of grosbeaks in size and shape, and we watched them feed on their favorite food, the seeds and flowers of the leguminous mamane. The other finch-like Hawaiian honeycreepers are confined to Nihoa and Laysan islands, both of which are nearly inaccessible to birders. So, this was a treat to see, but sadly, their populations have declined dramatically over the past 20 years and biologists are concerned that they may go extinct within a few decades if the current trend continues. To be able to view the entire range of this endangered species from the road provides graphic perspective to the plight of endangered island birds everywhere.
Our second day was spent in the Hakalau National Wildlife Refuge—the first refuge created for land bird conservation in the U.S. The refuge is closed to public access without a permitted guide. Our guide was the former refuge manager and wonderfully entertaining Jack Jeffrey, whose photographs illustrate many books and articles on Hawaiian birds. The forest has been protected with fences, and reforestation of newly purchased land provides optimism for the future of the endangered birds. The density of birds on the refuge amazed me, which is the last place in the Hawaiian islands where population levels of endemic birds appear “normal”. Our goal was to find the last two Hawaiian honeycreeper species that I had yet to see on the island, the Hawaii Creeper and the Akepa. Bob spotted the first Akepa, a young male with pale orange plumage, then a female. Soon afterward, Jack found a bright orange-red adult male. We watched the birds feed on the crowns of trees with their slightly crossed bills opening whirls of leaf buds. Apapane, I’iwi, Hawaii Amakihi were abundant and calling everywhere. We found a few Hawaii ‘Elepaio, and saw and heard Omao clustered around fruiting trees. Bob then spotted a Hawaii Creeper and soon Jack found the nest along with a pair of Akepa. We quickly took photographs and left the birds in peace. Down the trail, an Akiapola’au sang. We watched the male forage in a koa tree, delighted in our second observation of this rare bird in two days. On the return hike, Jack showed us some very rare species of plants, which added a lot to the experience. A visit to the refuge is a must and I wholeheartedly recommend Jack as a guide (www.jackjeffreyphoto.com).
After day visiting the Volcano National Park and enjoying seeing many of the common native and introduced birds as well as an active volcano, we spent our fourth day along the north coast visiting sewage ponds and fishponds. Many Hawaiian Coots and a few Hawaiian Black-necked Stilts were mixed in with Lesser and Greater scaup, Bufflehead, Northern Shoveler, Pacific Golden-Plovers, Ruddy Turnstones, Sanderling and Wandering Tattlers. But the highlight was the lone Bristle-thighed Curlew on a public section in a private development (all beaches in Hawaii are public and require public access). We had searched the eBird database to find out if any curlews were on the island, and fortunately, there was one sighting in January. So eBird came through for us and we visited the area where it had been reported. The curlew was acclimated to the many beach goers, surfers and picnickers. I almost missed seeing it because I didn’t look amid the throng of people! Fortunately Bob called me over excitedly and I was able to photograph my lifer. This was the icing on the cake to a wonderful tour of the Big Island.