Birding in Hawaii is hard, no way around it. Each island is quite
different, as it sounds like you know. For background, I lived on Oahu for
six years (Honolulu side and Windward) and then on Maui for a year. We left
about 12 years ago. Overall:
* June-July is a good time for seabirds, an okay time for shorebirds (by
local standards - there aren't many apart from Pacific Golden Plover), and
a poor time for errant mainland migrants like Pintail Ducks and Northern
* For the most endemics and birds, think Hawaii (the Big Island) and Kauai.
Oahu has a few, Maui has several but most are impossible to see (or as
close to impossible as matters), and Molokai has none.
* Apologies for misspellings in native bird names - I rarely have to write
them down and I'm going off the top of my head. I'm also not using the
okina - that ' mark in Hawaiian you'll see some of the time. When you see
the same vowel jammed together in a Hawaiian word (Hawai'i or O'ahu for
example) there's often an okina there - even it it hasn't been spelled out.
The ' (okina) sound is like the ' in the word Do'h! from Homer Simpson, or
the - in "uh-oh." It's used in speech and writing pretty inconsistently.
Given that Hawaiian has amongst the smallest collection of phonemes of any
known language, we shouldn't begrudge them the okina...but I'm bad enough
at spelling in English I'm likely to get it wrong half the time in Hawaiian.
* Unless you get to high elevations, there are few (if any) endemic land
birds. For example, Molokai has great forest cover...and zero endemic
passerines. Why? Settlers brought in avian diseases (like Avian Pox and
Avian Malaria), disease vectors (most important being mosquitoes), and
animals that help spread mosquitoes (wild pig hunting is a big deal in
Hawaii and the bigs make puddles...so the mosquitoes get higher every
year.) Go up.
* You're in the deep, remote Pacific so it's good for sea birds (from land
- there aren't a lot of pelagic trip opportunities) and poor for shorebirds
and gulls. Frigatebirds, Brown and Red-footed Boobies, various Terns and
Noddies, and Shearwaters are all visible from shore. Oahu is actually
pretty darn good for seabirds. (Go to the lighthouse near Sea World.)
Note: Brown and Black Noddies *are* hard to tell apart in Hawaii. Even Doug
Pratt had to say they're harder to distinguish there than elsewhere in the
Pacific. He should know!
* During northern winter, you can get some rarities and stray birds that
give some idea of how colonization events may have happened in the past.
Mostly, it's a few errant shorebirds and ducks and possibly a couple of
* The native forest birds that survive are *great* - really special - and
the seabirds are also great.
* For the record, the "dreps" - or Hawaiian Honeycreepers - are a wonderful
and visually diverse (sub)family of birds. Some of the (now extinct)
members of this family were classed as Honeyeaters until a few years back.
As it turns out, Honeyeaters do radiate well east into the Pacific from
this region, but they never made it as far as the Hawaiian archipelago.
It's incredibly remote...it just doesn't feel that way no because of air
travel. The Hawaiian Honeycreepers have no close relatives anywhere and
are, I believe, currently thought to have come from a very ancient ancestor
in Eurasia. (Previously the theory was that they came from the New
World...but colonization events from there to Hawaii are vastly more
difficult and improbable than from the west, given distances, currents, and
the direction of storms.) There's a whole textbook on the natural history
of Hawaii and, believe it or not, it's a great read! I'll dig up the title
if you're interested as I don't have it on paper and read it more than 10
Anyway, a few island-by-island notes:
All of the flights from here land on Oahu so that's a given. (I recommend
Hawaiian over JetStar, by the way.) You switch to domestic flights at the
same airport but check the departure times as it can involve a wait. Also,
you'll need to clear customs on the way in and then go through security
again. The Honolulu airport is *very* slow, even by American standards.
Long story here...the airport just wasn't built for current loads and
security procedures. It's not a problem, but plan for it. Oh, and there are
virtually no services past the checkpoints, so bring snacks, etc. if that's
Anyway, the deal on Oahu is that there is a pretty solid collection of
interesting introduced birds (Java Sparrows! Scarce and threatened in their
homeland), various African seedeaters, gamebirds, Leothorix, Ring-necked
Parrots (and a few Cockatoos), White-rumped Shama and more. Up above town
you can see native birds, but not many. Apapane, Amakihi and Elapaio are
all possible. Elapaio look and act like a Fantail and in Hawaiian legend
lead the canoe makers to the tall straight trees. The I'iwi (top bird -
really - by any standard) used to be reported at the Christmas Bird Count
at one inaccessible military location, but now that population is almost
certainly lost. Anyway, here are some great spots:
* The area around Waikiki is good for Fairy Tern (Gygis alba, or something
like that - different to the one here, same common name), and a bunch of
nice introduced birds like the Canary.
* The UH campus in Manoa is good for a bunch of introduced birds including
my favorites, the Java Sparrows. Top birds. Gorgeous and very lively. They
nest in the little niches in the East-West Center (near the southern
entrance to campus right across from the Parking Structure.) Oh, you'll see
Manoa written with a bar over the "a". Anytime you see the bar it means
it's a long sound, so Maaaaanoa.
* Manoa means "big valley" or "wide valley" and it is that. If you keep
going up the road, you'll eventually reach the Lyon Arboretum. It's a
pretty top spot (but often raining.) They've got feral cockatoo populations
(not Australian species, by the way) a better mixed of introduced birds and
you're getting up to (or close to) where you can see a few native
honeycreepers. If it's dry enough, you can take the trail from just before
Lyon's to Manoa falls. Sometimes there are some nice birds along the way.
Once you reach the falls, take the trail going up form there. Most people
don't. It's a bit rocky for a short stretch and then just lovely all of the
way up to the ridge. It's in here or up around the ridge that you can find
natives (and more naturalized birds). When you hit the bamboo, head right
for a view, by the way. This trail network goes all over if you're up for a
hike. Hawaiian trails tend to be wet, steep and exposed - although often
not at all hard...but dress for mud. (Not deep mud, just wear shoes with a
bit of grip.)
Historical note: The reason there are so many introduced birds is that more
than a century ago there were *no* native birds at low elevations. People
missed birds so they brought in replacements. The story on plants is pretty
much the same, you have to make an effort to see a native plant...even
though Hawaii has a rate of plant endemism to rival New Caledonia or
Australia. (I'm not a plant person so if I said something stupid here, I'll
make no complaint about a correction!)
* Local birders generally consider the Aiea Loop Trail the best forest
birding walk on the island. It used to be the last place to see the Oahu
Creeper (the H3 destroyed its last viable habitat) and it remains the only
place I know of that a normal person has a crack at the Guam Swiftlet. It's
good for a range of native and introduced birds. Like anywhere in the
islands, look for blossom.
* Tip: The introduced Japanese White-eye looks very native but isn't. The
genus is very widespread in the Pacific, but isn't native to the islands.
Given how little, green, and bug-eating they are - it's surprisingly easy
to confuse things like the Amakihi and a White-eye if you don't get a
decent look. There is only one White-eye on the islands and it's worth
spending time getting used to its movements in various conditions and
lights. Or maybe it's just me...I often find little green birds hard...
* For seabirds, you've got a few good options. From Waikiki, drive
east/anti-clockwise towards Sea World. Park at the blowhole and look back
at the cliffs around there for Tropicbirds. Two species are regular on the
island and a third keeps showing up...well it did for a few years running
anyway. Keep going past the golf courses (!) and around the corner of the
island and you'll find a pull-out on the right. There's a tiny parking area
for the lighthouse. From here, you're looking down on a couple of tiny
offshore islands (Makapuu and Manana.) If you miss the turn, don't stress -
just drive on for about a minute, turn into the larger beach access parking
area and come back. This lookout can be good if you've got the time to wait
for seabirds passing by. It's the best, easily accessed spot for this on
the island, as far as I know. The corner of the island seems to funnel the
terns/noddies (they may be inland from you at points) and it's a *really*
good spot for Boobies. Red-footed are the most common, Brown are also
resident (they seem the most curious - they'll come fly over you when
you're snorkeling at times) and Masked Boobies also pass in small numbers,
but typically not super close to shore.
* Kaena Point, the other great seabird spot has gotten better since I left.
On the far north-west corner of the island there is a tiny Laysan Albatross
colony. They're lovely, like all Albatross. A few years back a
predator-proof was put in by a team from New Zealand that put in similar
fences - here's a decent article:
For Oahu, this is a dry, remote spot and it takes some time to get there.
There are introduced game birds in the area too, by the way, but those are
easier heard than seen. Oh, this spot is also okay for seabirds and friends
have spotted Hawaiian Monk Seal here (very uncommon on the main islands.)
Maui is a very pretty island to visit and has some of the stronger
remaining populations of native honeycreepers. Unfortunately for birders,
access to the right forests is very, very restricted. (I'm not complaining,
just saying it's tough.) The best shot you've got is to go upcountry to
Hosmer Grove and wait for a few hours. I'iwi used to be regular there (and
Maui Creeper and the more common honeycreepers), but I hear they're in
decline. Note that I'iwi are "trapline feeders" so they'll visit the same
flowers over the course of multiple circuits. Hence the "wait a couple of
hours." There are picnic tables and such at hand and it's not hot
I love Kauai. It's gorgeous and one of the most exciting places for birds,
no question. We end up going to the Big Island more because it's got the
best snorkeling on the islands and is just easier to deal with in some
ways. But for birds, Kauai is a solid choice. Check the map and you'll see
that there is no road around it. American's find such things confusing but
Aussies shouldn't ;-) The west side of islands is a bunch of dramatic
cliffs. Look on the map up north for Princeville and a bit to your right
you'll see the Kilauea Point NWR. Albatross, Boobies, Terns, Frigatebirds,
etc. It's the single best seabird spot on the main islands. Driving around
Kauai is slow, so figure it's a couple of hours from south to north. As
with any of the places mentioned here or that you find on-line or in a
book, check current hours and conditions...particularly on the Big Island
given the very active volcano they've got there.
The jewel on Kauai is the Alakai Wilderness Preserve. A cold, damp, jewel,
granted....Dress for rain and mud. The canyon drive is spectacular (watch
for Tropicbirds over land and they breed in cliffs here and in the craters
elsewhere) and well worth the drive by itself. You can park up top and get
onto the boardwalk and into the forest. I *wouldn't* make this my first try
for Hawaiian natives. It's better to get your feet wet elsewhere and get
used to the more typical birds first, if you can.
When I said "dress for rain and mud", it's not a joke. This is one of the
handful of places on earth that claim the highest yearly rainfall. It's a
funny spot geologically and its pretty darn wet. Like all of the Hawaiian
Islands (from Kure and Midway all of the way to Hawaii), Kauai is the
remnant of a shield volcano. There's a stationary hotspot in the earth's
crust that keeps shooting out hot magma (it's come up under and south of
Hawaii now). As the crust moves, the islands get left behind and eventually
erode. So, Kauai is pretty old and totally free of new material. The very
top of the island used to be a caldera (bowl) like you'll see on an active
volcano. Over time, the softer edges of the bowl eroded away leaving
nothing but a heavy basaltic plug behind. So, the Alakai Swamp is this area
of damp and vegetation that rests on the top of this very hard,
not-too-porous stone and it just sits there recycling as rain. And it gets
cool. Since you're a birder, this all probably sounds fantastic - and it is.
I love the Big Island and it's great for birding. Apart from the
honeycreepers, there's a native hawk (I'o - a Buteo, a common northern
hemisphere genus), the Pueo (Short-eared Owl, self-introduced post human
colonization because of land-use changes), and tons of great forest. Too
many good spots. Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is great (try to sound
impressed when they show you their tree ferns) and the birds are good.
Noddies breed under the cliffs at South Point. Roadside and state parks are
worth a visit if you drive south.
The greatest thing on the Big Island, to my mind, are the Kipuka (long i).
Here it's worth knowing what the word means since it's been absorbed into
English directly. "Puka" is a word in Hawaiian that's made it into the
local version of English and it means "hole". When there's a lava flow that
covers the landscape but misses a bit, that hole is called a kipuka. So,
it's an island of vegetation in a sea of fresh lava. Given the volume of
the flow, you can walk up to the edge and see the tops of "bushes" that are
actually very tall trees. Bonus: You're looking into the canopy! The
high-elevation kipukas on the Big Island are spectacular and they're
refugia for various plants and birds. The lava fields have served as
valuable barriers (if imperfect) to introduced species of all sorts. The
downside of the kipuka is that they're along the Saddle Road, which is the
short path from Kona to Hilo...and the rental car companies forbid you to
drive there. It's unclear why, but probably because there are no services
and little traffic. The road itself is beautiful. (Like H3 on Oahu, this
road largely exists to service military needs.)
I'm not sure exactly what to recommend. The Hawaii Audubon Society puts out
a little photo guide that's pretty good for what it is. There just aren't
that many birds there. Doug Pratt's "Birds of Hawaii and the Tropical
Pacific" is still great, but it's big, hard to use for just Hawaii and by
now hard to get. There are also island-specific guides that could be
helpful. A handful of people provide guiding services and you can only get
into some areas by prior arrangement (the Kaneohe Marine firing range &
Booby colony on Oahu, the Nature Conservancy properties on Maui, and
Hakalau on the Big Island, for example.) It depends if you like doing tours
and how much money you want to spend. For site information, I used Pratt's
"Enjoying Birds in Hawaii" and Rick Soehren's "The Birdwatcher's Guide to
Hawai'i." Double-check hours, etc. as noted - but the sites won't have
Hawaii is one of the more interesting (if sometimes frustrating) areas for
birding in the Pacific and certainly the conditions are excellent. If you
have a chance (and any interest) to see any local music, do it! I don't
mean luau in Waikiki but real slack-key guitar, ukulele or hula - check it
out! Go check out Led Kaapana on YouTube to see what I'm talking about.
Here's an instrumental to check:
Here he's being a bit of a show-off with Pipeline:
....and with the family showing how beautiful Hawaiian falsetto sounds:
Here's his schedule for the first half of the year - it's pretty normal for
him to do free gigs:
There are plenty of other great musicians too, I just really like Led and
he's often easy to see.
P.S. If you're interested in snorkeling, let me know what island you're
heading to and I can send tips. Have a great trip!
P.P.S. The Democrats have a lock on Hawaii so you really have nothing to
fear from Trump!
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