Oahu Part 7 – Forest Endemics

When thinking about Hawaii, beaches probably first come to mind. But the forests have a few special gems to offer as well. During our time I made a point to look for endemic forest birds. Because how often does that opportunity come around? I had a limited amount of time and I aimed to make the most of it.

Luckily, many hikes are only about a 20-30 min drive from Honolulu. So late one afternoon while Tomas napped after the marathon, I went to ‘Aiea Loop Trail.

Hawaii’s forests are no joke. The trees are tall and thick. And birds are experts at hiding under the top leaves. It was reminiscent of searching for warblers in the spring.

Prior to the trip I studied the Hawaiian Audubon Society’s Guide to Birding the Hawaiian Islands so I had some idea of where to look. Basically you have to get to higher elevation ridges.

Habitat loss in lower elevations and avian malaria carried by introduced mosquitoes are the major threats to these birds (there were no mosquitos on Hawaii before Europeans arrived!). As well as wild pigs that create wallows for mosquitoes. And mongoose, rats and cats that feed on eggs and adult birds. It’s a wonder there are any left.

Face of an endemic-killer

And they are not easy to find. I realized I wouldn’t have time to do the entire 4 mile loop before dark, and I had unwittingly parked about a mile from the official trailhead parking lot, but I covered as much ground as I could.

I found Red-whiskered Bulbul and Scaly-breasted Munia.

And this heavy billed, long-notched tail, still yet to be identified bird, Munia? Mannikin? Mania?

Eh?

It was challenging. I heard many birds, but couldn’t catch sight of them until finally just before sundown as I was leaving and the light was fading I captured a glimpse of my first endemic Hawaiian Honeycreeper, the ‘Apapane!

‘Apapane (left), Japanese White-Eye (right)

I watched this one sing and forage along the Koa tree leaves until the light was gone. Hawaiian honeycreepers have the coolest specialized beaks ever. Additional honeycreeper info here.

Figure 1: Hawaiian honeycreepers in peril. Extant species are in color; extinct and possibly extinct species are in grayscale. Five of the extant species shown (alauahio, Kauai amakihi, Oahu amakihi, anianiau, and iiwi) are IUCN-listed species that are unrecognized by the ESA. Numbers in parentheses specify how many species appear similar to the illustration. Note that akikiki is extant. Paintings and labels © H. Douglas Pratt, revised from Pratt (2005, Plate 7), used by permission.

Paintings and labels © H. Douglas Pratt

Walking back to the car, listening to the (mostly introduced) dusk bird chorus, for the first time I realized how different the native birdsong chorus would have been before people populated the islands and changed everything. Before I felt too sad about it I remembered the Albatross. My new happy place, and evidence of hope that we can fix this. Or at least make steps towards something better.

Another morning, after kona coffee and before the ukulele tour, I squeezed in another quick forest trip. This time we took a local’s advice to visit Waʻahila Ridge State Recreation Area.

Dreaming of endemics in Cook Pine trees

In the pines we found a few lovely non-natives like the White-rumped Shama.

Japanese White-eye.

And I literally slipped in the mud when I saw this Red-billed Leiothrix.

It doesn’t even look real, but this species was introduced from China in 1918.

After searching for a while I finally heard a trill I’d hoped for:

The Oahu ‘Amakihi! To me it sounds similar to a Yellow Warbler, minus the ascent. It is a “flat trill” or as someone mentioned, like the sound of a sewing machine (do people still get that reference?). I heard many ‘Amakihi singing before I finally spotted one way high up in the pines.

Cleverly disguised as a pine cone. I was lucky enough to see two more ‘Amakihi.

Not the greatest looks, but I was still pleased.

It was a side of Hawaii I’d never seen before.

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey

Oahu Part 6 – Kaʻena Point

We got a tip from a guide on the James Campbell NWR trip to get to Ka‘ena Point early and arrive from the south side. There is a 2.7 mile trail that follows an old road bed along the rocky coast to Ka‘ena Point Natural Area Reserve, a rare protected area of natural coastal sand dunes and home to nesting seabirds, especially Laysan Albatross. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I sure hoped to see an albatross.

We followed Kurt’s advice and got to the trailhead parking lot before sunrise. But not early enough to avoid a truck commercial shoot. Luckily, the crew let us park close to the trail. Tomas was too sore from marathoning to go on the hike so he stayed behind to rest and enjoy the view.

I hiked along, sort of not believing this place was real.

Until eventually I reached a long fence.

Oh, I thought, this must be as far as visitors can go. I also thought I spotted a bird flying in the distance so I walked closer.

Wait, what? “Slide Gate”? I can go in there? No way. Turns out the fence is intended for rodent control not to keep people out.

I walked in and could not believe my eyes.

Albatross, albatross, albatross! I’d died and gone to albatross heaven.

Oh look, a Grey Francolin!

No, don’t look at the francolins. Albatross, albatross, albatross!

Holy shit. They were everywhere. And they were 5 ft from my face. I almost walked right into this one along the trail.

So close! I can’t believe they let people in here. And the reason Kurt said to arrive early is because the birds are more active in the morning. Indeed they are. And since it was December, the birds were also doing their mating dance!

They squeak, nuzzle, and clack beaks together, shake their heads, look under their wings, waddle back and forth a bit, then raise their heads and call, “hoooooongk.” My videos didn’t turn out, but here’s a great one of the Dancing Layson Albatross.

Meanwhile, other albatrosses flew right over my head.

Their wingspan is incredible.

I was already near tears of joy when, what’s that breaching out in the ocean?

Of course, Humpback Whales. Surreal!

This was one of those moments I think that birders dream about. I was alone on this corner of the island, just me and the whales and the albatross. It doesn’t get much better than that.

I snapped out of it long enough to register a couple of other birds present.

A Red-crested Cardinal and a Northern Mockingbird – what are you doing here?

There were also Common Myna and Zebra Doves, but mostly I couldn’t take my eyes off the sultry albatross.

This species, the Laysan Albatross, is the same as the famous albatross named Wisdom – the oldest banded bird in the wild, at least 65, and she’s still laying eggs! She’s considered a symbol of hope for ocean birds.

And this is the site where in December of 2015 a group of teenagers killed a dozen albatross and destroyed many nests. It’s deplorable. And complicated because two of the boys were minors, and a third who was 18 at the time and has plead not guilty. The case is ongoing. I can only hope there are serious consequences. It’s news like this that makes me wonder if the general public should even have access to this vulnerable area.

It’s heartbreaking but I want to believe most people are good. And that things are getting better. For the most part at this site, they are.

Plagued by feather and egg collectors early on, the birds were then accosted by 4×4 vehicles, dogs, cats, rats, and mongoose until the breeding population was all but decimated. Once Ka‘ena Point was designated as a reserve and off-road vehicles were banned, restorations efforts were rewarded with a glimmer of hope when the first chick fledged in 1992. Since then the breeding population has increased 27% annually. Susan Scott wrote a lovely article about their comeback.

So that’s the good news.

At this point the birds settled down to sleep as the sun warmed up the skies. Ka‘ena means ‘the heat’ after all. I started the return hike back to the trailhead forgetting to check for nesting Wedge-tailed Shearwaters that are also there but less obvious than albatross.

As I hiked back, I finally saw people coming in from the opposite direction, the commercial crew must have finished filming. It was perfect timing. And perfect timing for more occasional Humpback Whale sightings as well as my first Brown Booby!

Another unbelievable day in paradise.

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey

Bluetail Crazy Train

In December 2016, a rare vagrant called a Red-flanked Bluetail showed up in Lewiston, Idaho. The Red-flanked Buetail breeds mainly in Siberia and winters in southeast Asia. This is the first sighting in Idaho and there have only been a handful of other U.S. sightings, mostly in western Alaska. Lewiston is a mere 5 hour 40 minute drive from Portland and the bird was still being seen into January. I was intrigued.

“That’s too far to drive for one bird” someone told me. I don’t know if it was the vacation hangover from Hawaii, the long winter, or because it’s a new year, but I was craving adventure and when another friend showed even more enthusiasm to chase the bird and a second friend opted to drive? – I’m in, let’s go!

Wait! Ice Storm Warning. The Pacific Northwest was under attack of a winter storm scheduled for late Saturday. But it was bright and sunny on Friday and we calculated we could get there late Friday, stay overnight, find the bird early Saturday morning, then make a quick getaway and return to Portland before impending doom.

Thus began the Bluetail Crazy Train adventure.

Bluetail or bust! Choo-choo!

5 hours after traveling it was dark and 5 degrees outside but we checked for Long-eared Owls anyways because you never know. But yes you do know, because it’s never that easy. No LEOWs this time.

Over dinner at the local poultry/ocean-themed restaurant in Clarkston, WA, we toasted to crazy adventures then settled in to our hotel room anxious for the next day.
Would the bird still be there? Would the risks payoff? Would it be worth it?

In the morning we suited up for the single-digit temperatures (21 layers between the three of us!) crossed the border into Idaho and anxiously drove the remaining five miles to Hells Gate State Park. Appropriately, Ice Cube rapped to us over the radio, “You can do it” and we tried to believe him.

We arrived just before sunrise and remained focused. Don’t pay attention to the parking lot Merlin we told ourselves.

Don’t look at me. (Photo courtesy of Kayla McCurry)

We crossed the park hoping the Merlin hadn’t eaten the rarity.

We found a group of birders already staked out at the site. The bird was here! Someone had seen it earlier. Giddy with joy we waited.

It’s up! Everyone cheered.

The Red-flanked Bluetail stayed mostly within the Russian olive branches flitting around flicking her tail, and feeding much like a flycatcher. Occasionally, she dipped down to the water for a drink before hiding again in the deep branches close to the stream.

So pretty! While we waited for her to resurface, we relaxed a bit and were entertained by a sassy Ruby-crowned Kinglet.

And a Song Sparrow.

Then the Red-flanked Bluetail resurfaced!

She quickly dipped down again and we waited for another look – just one more! Before finally pulling ourselves away.

We did it! Mission accomplished.

All smiles

We said goodbye to the bluetail and left to look for the icing, a nearby reported Barn Owl. While checking the conifers, a friendly birder pulled up and told us which tree they’d seen the owl in the day before. Kayla looked up, is that snow? Nope that’s a Barn Owl! Found!

This was when we we met Kas Dumroese, a birder on scene who offered to lead us to a nearby park with “fairly reliable” Saw-whet Owls. Um, yes please. Apparently we will follow strangers to random parks if they offer up owls. Seemed legit. Two other birder parties also joined the caravan and off we went.

Our first stop to look for a recent Lesser Black-backed Gull turned up empty, but the stream was full of Barrow’s Goldeneye, a nice yearbird.

We continued, and realized we were driving farther into Idaho, the opposite direction of our return route adding more time to get home, and increasing our chances of meeting the storm. Optimistic, we kept going anyways. Not too much farther we arrived at the park and tromped through the snow to check under conifers.

We found solid clues.

Then we looked under another nearby tree and found a Northern Saw-whet Owl!

With a dead vole gripped underneath! Awesome. And so perfect. She murderously eyed us before returning to sleepy cuteness.

Then someone said, “look, there’s another one!”

Indeed. Peeking out from behind a branch in the same tree was a second saw-whet! So angry. So cute. So perfect.

We couldn’t believe our luck. But also knew we were pushing it on time, so we said our goodbyes and thanks to Kas, his friend Carl and the others, and then hit the road for the long snowy drive home.

We were neck and neck with the storm and it was harrowing at times, but Colleen, having grown up in the mid-west, took it like a champ and got us home safe and sound.

The Bluetail Crazy Train had no regrets.

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey