At 2500 miles from the nearest landmass, Hawaii is the World’s most isolated archipelago. The volcanic islands located in the centre of the North Pacific Ocean are some of the most beautiful and diverse islands anywhere on Earth. Geologically the Islands are unique; the Hawaii Islands have the wettest spot on Earth (on Kauai); the World’s largest dormant volcano (on Maui); the World’s tallest Sea Cliffs (on Molokai) and the World’s most active volcano (on Hawaii). Habitats range from alpine mountains, lowland deserts and barren lava flows to tropical rainforests, wetlands and low lying sand islands.
The Hawaiian Island Chain stretches 1,523 miles across the Pacific Ocean from Hawaii in the southeast to Kure Atoll in the northwest. Although the Chain comprises many islands and reefs most visitors to Hawaii will visit one of the main Islands of Kauai, Oahu, Maui, Molokai, Lanai and Hawaii. Access to the other islands is strictly controlled as most are within the Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refuge, which provides habitat for millions of seabirds, several endemic land birds, as well as Hawaiian Monk Seals, Green Sea Turtles and many tropical fish.
Black-crowned Night Heron Nycticorax nycticorax © Richard Becker
The weather in the Islands is, as would be expected of a tropical location, generally warm and pleasant, although it can be much colder at high elevations, such as Haleakala Crater on Maui. The windward coasts of the Islands tend to get the greater share of rainfall, leaving the more sheltered leeward sides dryer and often, therefore, more barren areas.
Pacific Golden Plover Pluvialis fulva © Richard Becker
Unfortunately almost all land mammals (the exception being Hawaiian Hoary Bat) are introduced species. However, being a chain of islands far from the mainland marine mammals abound with several species of seal and many cetaceans… sea watching can be very exciting. There are no native amphibains or reptiles with the exception of a couple of snakes and five sea turtle species.
Being such an isolated group of islands relatively few species managed to make it to Hawaii, but of those that did 90% were found nowhere else on Earth. Birds were of course one group able to make the long journey and although the Islands may not boast a huge list of bird species (currently about 285 species); it is impressive for such a remote location and the variety is certainly enough to keep even the most avid birder interested.
Waimea Canyon Lookout, Kauai © Richard Becker
As would be expected of an isolated island chain, seabirds are one of the most conspicuous groups of birds present, and many of the 80 species recorded so far can be seen even in the Main Islands. Albatross, Frigatebirds, Boobies, Terns, Noddies, Tropicbirds, Shearwaters and Petrels, including the endemic Newell’s Shearwater and Hawaiian Dark-rumped Petrel can all be seen with relative ease from land. A pelagic from one of Hawaii’s harbours will provide better views of the breeding species, as well as increase the chance of spotting some of the scarcer and rarer migrant seabirds that do not breed in Hawaii, but pass through to and from their breeding/wintering grounds.
Nene Branta sandvicensis © Richard Becker
Endemic wetland species are represented by three species of Wildfowl – Hawaiian Duck or Koloa, Laysan Duck and Hawaiian Goose or Nene [the State bird of Hawaii]. The Hawaiian Duck is present on several islands, though is common only on Kauai. Laysan Duck is confined to the Island of Laysan in the NW Chain. Nene are recognised by most people as a conservation success story and birds can once again be seen on several of the Main Islands, although its long-term survival is still uncertain. More than 38 species of migrant Ducks and Geese have been recorded from Hawaii as well and although many wetlands have been destroyed or altered there remains (just) enough habitat to make migration worthwhile for several species. Species occur mainly from the continental United States, but Eurasian species also occur with some frequency.
Haleakala National Park, Maui © Richard Becker
Only one species of Shorebird breeds in Hawaii – the Hawaiian Black-necked Stilt, an endemic sub-species and can be found on all the Main Islands. Many species of both American and Eurasian shorebirds have been recorded in the Islands, some annually and some just once, but almost anything is possible, borne out by the impressive number seen – 46 species. The endemic Hawaiian Coot and Hawaiian race of the Common Moorhen are also easily seen on ponds and wetlands around the State.
Due to the remoteness of the Islands only a few passerine species were able to make the huge ocean crossing and it is estimated that as few as 15 original colonist species accounted for over 100 endemic bird species which evolved there. At least 35 of these had become extinct before Western contact and a further 23 or so have become extinct since that time – resulting in Hawaii often being called the extinction capital of the World, a rather dubious honour! Humans directly or indirectly, in almost all cases, are the main factor, which have contributed to the demise of so many of Hawaii`s unique species.
The most amazing evolution was that of the Hawaiian Honeycreepers (family Fringillidae, subfamily Drepanidinae); which exposed to a variety of food sources and habitat types evolved into more than 50 unique species and sub-species. At least three other families of passerine also evolved including Thrushes, Flycatchers and Warblers. The Australian Honeyeaters (family Meliphagidae) also reached Hawaii and radiated into many species.
Birders to Hawaii today still have an opportunity to see some of the World’s rarest and most beautiful species. As well as the numerous wetland species and seabirds there are over twenty five extant endemic forest species including a Buteo Hawk (Hawaiian Hawk); a Corvid (Hawaiian Crow); two Thrushes (Puaiohi and Omao); an Owl (Hawaiian Short-eared owl) and the amazingly varied honeycreepers such as I’iwi, ‘Apapane, ‘Akiapola’au, ‘Amakihi, Palila and ‘Akohekohe.
Iʻiwi Drepanis coccinea © Richard Becker
Birding in Hawaii is generally easy, with most areas accessible by road or path. Nearly all the endemic forest birds are confined to the higher elevation native forests, where mosquitoes carrying avian Malaria are fewer, but in some areas these birds can be seen at lower elevation and in non-native vegetation. Many of the lowland wetlands, ponds and reservoirs, coastal areas with high bird populations and important forest areas are contained within National Parks, Special Protection Areas or National Wildlife Refuges and help to protect Hawaii`s unique flora and fauna, whilst also giving visitors the chance to see native species.
A visit to the Hawaiian Islands to view endemic avian fauna is a very special experience and one which should be enjoyed and appreciated, whilst bearing in mind the terrible damage that man has caused and is only now beginning to redress.
Some top birding locations:
Hawaii – Hakalau Forest National Wildlife Refuge (Map)
Restricted Access. Access by arrangement or on organised tours only. For access details birders should contact The Refuge Manager, Hakalau Forest NWR, 32 Kinoole Street, Suite 101, Hilo, HI 96720 or telephone 1 808 933 6915
This is the first National Wildlife refuge to be established purely for the management of native forest birds and now includes about 16,500 acres of land. Hakalau Forest is one of the best birding spots in Hawaii and is home to many endemic species, many which occur in larger numbers here than any other location.
Hawaii Elepaio, Omao, I’iwi, Apapane, Hawaii Creeper, Hawaii Akepa, Akiapola’au, Hawaii Amakihi and I’o (Hawaiian Hawk) can all be found in this amazing area, and in many cases without too much difficulty. I’iwi and Akepa seem to occur here more commonly than at any other site and one can almost imagine what it would have been like in a native forest a few hundred years ago. The fantastic Akiapola`au is present in small numbers and can sometimes be seen foraging along branches and using its bill to hack and dig insects out from tiny crevices – it is certainly one of Hawaii`s most amazing birds. Red-billed Leiothrix can often be found feeding amongst the vegetation. On the way up to the refuge there are several ranch ponds which hold Koloa (some re-introduced) and occasionally migrant ducks. Erckel’s Francolin, Chukar, Kalij Pheasant, Turkey and California Quail can often be seen from the road on the way to the refuge.
Hawaii – Hawaii Volcanoes National Park (Map)
Open All Year. Entrance Fee, some Concessions. 24 hour hotline for information on the latestvolcanic activity: 1 808 985 6000
This unique location contains two active volcanoes, tropical beaches and a snow-capped mountain and must be regarded as one of the most fascinating places on Earth. Kilauea Caldera, the sunken center of Kilauea Volcano is still steaming and has been producing lava constantly since 1983, making it the most active volcano in the World. Even without the special birds the area is well worth exploring just for the amazing geological features that can be observed here – where else on Earth can you witness a live volcano with such ease?
Lava Flow, en route to the Volcano Observatory, Hawaii © Richard Becker
The area around Volcano House hotel is a good place to look for Omao, Apapane and Common Amakihi and nearby forested areas hold these species as well as I`iwi and Hawaii Elepaio and introduced Red-billed Leiothrix, Hwamei and Kalij Pheasant. Along Crater Rim Drive White-tailed Tropicbirds can often be seen flying around over the craters and lava flows and even inside the Sulphurous craters and Nene can often be seen along the road here. Chain of Craters Road goes from Kilauea Crater to the coast and is a spectacular drive and can be a good area to look for Hawaiian Hawks (I’o) and Nene, and Red-billed Francolins are present in small numbers, although not yet on the official Hawaii list. At the very end of the road Black Noddies are easy to see as are White-tailed Tropicbirds, especially near the sea arch where they nest.
Kauai – Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge (Map)
Open All Year. Open daily from 10am to 4pm. Closed on some Public Holidays, inc. Christmasand New Years day. $3 per person entrance fee, some concessions. Visitor Center: 1 808 828 0168
Kilauea Point is a must for all birders visiting Kauai. The Point and the offshore Mokuaeae Island are the Northernmost points in the Main Hawaiian Islands. Laysan Albatross nest on the refuge and can easily be seen soaring around the Point between November and July. Young Albatross can be seen waiting for their parents from around late January onwards. Occasionally a Black-footed Albatross will also check out the Point. Great Frigatebirds are usually present all year at Kilauea, but have not nested so far, despite post-breeding season roosts of over 450 birds. In the evenings especially, Frigatebirds chase Red-footed Boobies returning from fishing trips in the hope of stealing an easy meal. Red-footed Boobies are probably the most visible species on the refuge with up to 4000 birds nesting at Kilauea. Brown Boobies are less common at Kilauea but up to 30 or 40 birds can sometimes be seen roosting.
Wedge-tailed Shearwater is the predominant Shearwater species in Hawaii and large numbers nest at Kilauea Point and can be seen from early March when they return from sea to nest in burrows or under bushes. During the summer young downy birds in all stages of growth can be seen along the footpath and under vegetation just a few feet away. Newell’s Shearwater is an endemic species found only on Kauai. it nests in the high mountains, but a couple of pairs have been introduced to Kilauea Point in the hope of providing an extra population in a different habitat.
Endemic Hawaiian Petrels do not breed at Kilauea Point, they nest in the interior mountains, but birds pass over Kilauea in the evening just before dark and can be seen from the overlook, heading inland. Red-tailed and White-tailed Tropicbirds are both present and between mid-February and August Red-tailed Tropicbirds put on fascinating courtship displays, where one bird circles over the other – often just yards from visitors. Nene or Hawaiian Goose, the State bird of Hawaii has a flourishing flock at Kilauea Point, and numbers over 100 birds and adults with young can often be seen around the refuge between November and April.
Kauai – Kokee State Park & The Alakai Swamp (Map)
Open access all year. No entrance fee. Camping restrictions.
Kokee SP and the Alakai Swamp are the places to see Kauai’s endemic forest species – Kauai Elapaio, Kauai Amakihi, Anianiau, Puaiohi, Akikiki, Akekee, Apapane and I’iwi are all present, although a bit of luck is needed to see all eight. Red Junglefowl, the original chicken brought to Kauai by the Polynesians is present here and are mostly pure and countable. Nene are frequently seen on the meadow by the museum or further up the road but can sometimes be elusive. The Kalalau Valley Overlook has a breathtaking vista of the valley and ocean and is a good spot to look for White-tailed Tropicbirds wheeling around below. Introduced White-rumped Shama, Northern and Red-crested Cardinals, Hwamei, Japanese Whiteeye, House Finch, Common Myna and Spotted and Zebra Doves are all easily seen anywhere in the vicinity.
Hawaiian Petrels and Newell`s Shearwaters can be heard calling here at night during April to September, but are hard to see as the area is often shrouded in mist during the nights and there is little light unless a full moon is present. Band-rumped Storm Petrels probably nest in Waimea Canyon, although so far no nest has been discovered. Koloa or Hawaiian Duck are occasionally seen in the wetter parts of the Alakai Swamp and Peregrine Falcon and Golden Eagle have been recorded here in the past.
Maui – Haleakala National Park (Map)
Open All Year. Entrance Fee, some Concessions. Park Information 1 808 572 774
The undoubted centerpiece of Maui is Haleakala Crater. It is the World’s largest dormant volcano and is 7.5 miles long and 2.5 miles wide and last erupted 200 years ago. On the way up Skylarks, Chukar and Grey and Black Francolins are often easy to see along the road, as are Hawaiian Owls and Ring-necked Pheasants. In the wooded areas on the way up there are usually Red-billed Leiothrix, Northern Cardinal and Hwamei. In the scrub zone Common Amakihi, Apapane and Short-eared owls can be seen alongside the endemic Silversword, a relation of the Sunflower. At the very summit it is a good place to look for Chukar and at night during March to September Hawaiian Petrels, although they are often hard to see as they come and go in the dark. Nene can often be seen near the Park Headquarters, and there are usually a few Northern Mockingbirds hanging around too. Nearby at Hosmer Grove endemic forest birds can be seen – Maui Creeper, Hawaii Amakihi, I’iwi, Apapane and it is possible that a walk conducted by the Nature Conservancy into the adjacent Waikomoi Preserve might produce Akohekohe or Maui Parrotbill, both endemic to Maui.
Oahu – James Campbell National Wildlife Refuge (Map)
Restricted Access. No Entrance Fees. Guided Tours outside nesting season – August 1st – February 15th. Telephone: 1 808 637 6330 for information and tour reservations.
James Campbell NWR is one of Hawaii’s premier wetland sites. The main purpose of the refuge is to provide habitat for four endangered birds, the endemic Hawaiian Stilt, Hawaiian Coot, Hawaiian Moorhen and Hawaiian Duck. The native Black-crowned Night Heron and the introduced Cattle Egret are also present in large numbers. A single Fulvous Whistling Duck remains from a small 1980s population which probably colonised naturally. The refuge is a great magnet for migrant Wildfowl and Shorebirds and species such as Green-winged and Blue-winged Teal, Garganey, Lesser and Greater Scaup, American and Eurasian Wigeon, Pintail, Shoveler, Tufted Duck, Lesser and Greater Yellowlegs, Whimbrel, Killdeer, Semipalmated and Black-bellied Plovers, Black-tailed Godwit and Spotted Sandpiper have all been recorded, some annually. James Campbell is the only place in the Main Islands where Bristle-thighed Curlew occur regularly and introduced species found here include African Silverbills, Red Avadavats, Chestnut Mannikins and Waxbills.
Major Source: Fatbirder
Map Source: Googlemaps™
Photo Source: © Richard Becker