TRIP REPORT: HAWAI’I – 2020 March – Birding the Island Endemics



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Trip Report written by Chris Brown

Our Spring Hawai’i: Birding the Island Endemics tour (March 1-11, 2020) was a marvelous experience for guides and participants alike. After meeting for dinner and getting acquainted it was off to bed early to try to eliminate jet lag and be ready for an exciting and varied tour of three of Hawaii’s main islands (Oahu, Kauai and Hawai’i).

Up close with a Laysan Albatross – photo by Chris Brown

March 2

Oahu Amakihi

Our first day of birding was very successful. We met for breakfast in the park while familiarizing ourselves with the common city birds.

These included Zebra Dove, Red-crested Cardinal and Common Waxbill, Red-vented Bulbul, Pacific Golden-Plover, along with the native White Terns which lay their eggs directly on tree limbs without the benefit of any type of nest.

After breakfast we headed into the mountains north of Honolulu, netting both of the Oahu endemic species, the Oahu Amakihi and Oahu Elepaio, early in the day which left us a leisurely afternoon of seawatching, and visiting the local marsh birds. We had great views of Red-tailed Tropicbird and Sooty Tern as well as our first Hawaiian Coots, the local subspecies of Black-necked Stilt and Common Gallinule.

March 3

Red-crested Cardinal catching the sun

Having done so well our first day gave us the benefit of being ahead of the game, and we had the opportunity to really relax and enjoy the local species on our second day.

We drove a loop around most of the island of Oahu, stopping again for some seawatching and adding Brown Booby, Brown Noddy, and the Hawaiian endemic subspecies of Black Noddy.

At the northern point of the island we enjoyed locally-farmed shrimp for lunch and a short stroll provided us a great experience with the Bristle-thighed Curlews that fly more than 2,000 miles non-stop from Alaska to call Oahu their winter home.

Making our way back toward Waikiki we stopped to check out a young Slaty-backed Gull which had been found the day before.

Bristle-thighed Curlews, a long-distance migration champion – photo by Chris Brown

March 4

We rose early for our flight on to Kauai. After our short flight and dropping our things off at our lovely little hotel, we went out in an attempt to link up with one of Hawaii’s hardest-to-find introduced species: the Greater Necklaced Laughing-Thrush.

While we did have good looks at its smaller relative, the Melodious Laughing-Thrush, the big one eluded us, aside from a few distant calls and quick fly-bys.

A quick turn around the local golf course and we had our first looks at the Nene, or Hawaiian Goose. Once nearly extinct, these birds are now doing well due to reintroduction of offspring from private collections.

Nene, Hawaii’s state bird – photograph by Chris Brown

March 5

A rare Gray-tailed Tattler

We were up early to begin the drive around the periphery of the island and into Koke’e State Park (the last stronghold of Kauai’s remaining endemic bird species) stopping for local produce and home cooked snacks along the way. We had good luck relatively quickly, scoring Apapane, Kauai Elepaio, and Anianiau, the smallest remaining honeycreeper, while introduced Japanese Bush Warblers sang all around us. Kauai Amakihi made itself known through vocalizations but barely showed itself, not uncommon with these rare birds of the thick forest. 

On our way back to our hotel we stopped at a local beach park where we enjoyed a confiding Gray-tailed Tattler, an uncommon visitor to the islands.

March 6

Our first stop this morning was Hanalei National Wildlife Refuge where we saw good numbers of the endemic Hawaiian Duck. Then we a visited few pairs of courting Laysan Albatross.

Next we spent some time wandering the grounds of Kilauea Lighthouse National Wildlife Refuge, where the main attractions were the seabird nesting colonies. Hundreds of Red-footed boobies nest on the hillside near the lighthouse and their comings-and-goings are a joy to watch.

Also cruising by at close range were quite a few Laysan Albatross and Red-tailed and White-tailed Tropicbirds. After having our fill of the seabird diversity we headed to the airport and our flight to the Big Island, Hawai’i. 

March 7

Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse

We started with a mellow breakfast at a local coffee shop, enjoying lattes and lovebirds. Palate cleansers came in the forms of Eurasian Skylarks, African Silverbills, Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse, Saffron Finches and Wild Turkeys, birds representing at least five continents, all in the same place.

We then headed out of town and up in elevation, notching another endemic and getting better looks at some species we had already seen.


Hawai’i Elepaio – photograph by Chris Brown

Palila, the last of the finch-billed honeycreepers – photograph by Chris Brown

March 8

Akiapola’au, or ‘Aki’ for short

Today was a very exciting day, as we were able to visit Hakalau Forest National Wildlife Refuge, which is generally closed to the public. Our wonderful local guide, Mandy Talpas, maintains all the necessary permits to get us into this remote tract of native forest.

Spending most of the day in the refuge, our group had good looks at every possible endemic bird species including the iconic scarlet I’iwi, Hawai’i Creeper, Hawaiian Hawk, Akepa, Omao, and others! We all felt extremely fortunate to be able to visit this incredible parcel of land, the closest thing to the “native Hawai’i” left in existence.

Back at the main road we were met by a very relaxed Short-eared Owl.

March 9

Today was a day of low-key Big Island birding. Our first stop was an attempt for Lavender Waxbill near Kona, with the birds ready and waiting for us when we got out of the vehicles. After that we went on a couple short walks, first out to the water treatment plant to view the locally uncommon Laughing Gull and White-faced Ibises that had been hanging around. The second walk was out to the fish pond at Aimakapa in search of other locally rare species such as Spotted Sandpiper, Lesser Scaup and Herring Gull. We called it a day relatively early in order to be well rested for our Kona pelagic boat trip the next day!

March 10

Red-footed Booby

We arrived at the Kona Harbor early for a tailgate breakfast before our big boat trip. One can never predict how these boat trips will go, bird-wise, and the questionable weather the two days prior threatened to derail our plans completely.

However, we managed to get a number of miles offshore where, in addition to the numerous Wedge-tailed Shearwaters, we were also treated to a single Red Phalarope, a couple of Black-footed Albatrosses, Masked Boobies, Bulwer’s Petrel and Band-rumped Storm-Petrels.

After our long day on the water everyone was ready to get back to their room, shower, and meet for our final dinner together, for the next day we would head back to Honolulu and then to the mainland.

We all agreed that we considered ourselves very fortunate and thankful for the great birds, wonderful weather and fantastic group with whom to share these special memories.

Boarding our flight back to Honolulu

We saw 100 species, almost twenty of which are found nowhere but these islands. My sincere thanks to my co-leader, Mandy Talpas and to each member of this great group. Their positive attitudes, great senses of humor and adaptability made this a trip to remember. – Chris Brown

Our great group at Hakalau Forest

Check out our upcoming Hawai’i Endemics tours – more info HERE.

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