Oahu Part 4 – James Campbell NWR

The James Campbell National Wildlife Refuge is located in Oahu’s northernmost point of North Shore. Named after a Scots-Irish industrialist and wealthy landowner and once the site of a major sugar mill factory, the former sugar cane settling ponds are now comprised of 1100 acres of critical coastal wetlands, managed by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to preserve habitat for endangered Hawaiian waterbirds.

It’s what Waikiki would look like had it not been drained for development in the turn of the 20th century (the name Waikiki even means “sprouting fresh waters” in Hawaiian).

The refuge has limited public access. It is closed during breeding and fledging season (Mar-Sept)  and only open on off seasons for (free) guided tours on Saturday mornings. Thankfully, this narrow window of opportunity fit our schedule and we made it to the tour. The place was covered with birds.

Guard birds- Pacific Golden-Plover, Zebra Dove

Guided by longtime volunteer Dick May and local birder Kurt Pohlman, we learned more about endangered Hawaiian waterbirds: Hawaiian Duck (koloa maoli), Hawaiian Coot (‘alae ke’oke’o), Hawaiian Gallinule (Moorhen) (‘alae ‘ula), Hawaiian Stilt (ae’o), and Hawaiian Goose (nēnē). All are endangered endemic Hawaiian waterbirds that are “conservation reliant” so this area is extremely important for their future preservation.

The Hawaiian Duck (both males and females) are mottled brown and resemble the mallard. Hybridization with feral mallards is a major problem for the species.

In fact, there is an unknown number of pure birds within the 300 “Hawaiian duck-like birds” on Oahu. Most are believed to be hybridized, and pure birds are suspected declining, while hybridization increases. Population estimates are unreliable due to the birds being located in remote montane streams and hybridized birds so closely resembling pure birds.

Our guides implied the birds we saw on the refuge were more pure than not, so for what it’s worth, here are photos of “Hawaiian Duck-like birds.”

There was no mistaking the Hawaiian Coot as anything other than a coot. It is slightly smaller than the American Coot, and it has a larger bulbous frontal shield above the bill that is usually all white. Oahu populations range between 500-1000 birds.

The refuge is also favorable to Hawaiian Gallinules. The birds we saw here were more secretive than those in the Waimea Valley Ponds, probably due to fewer interactions with people. Once common on all Hawaiian islands, Hawaiian Gallinules are now only found on Oahu and Kauai. We felt lucky to see them again.

Another unmistakable bird seen throughout the refuge was the Hawaiian Stilt or Ae‘o in Hawaiian, meaning “one standing tall.” A subspecies of the Black-necked Stilt, the endangered Ae’o differs by having more black on its face and neck, and longer bill, tarsus, and tail.

These are some of my favorites.

A week prior to our visit a pair of Nēnē’s had been sighted at the refuge, but we weren’t as privileged this day. The endangered Hawaiian Goose or Nēnē (Hawaii’s state bird) is more commonly found on all other islands besides Oahu. However, in 2014 a pair of Nēnē nested at James Campbell NWR, and hatched two goslings. This was the first pair to nest on the island since the 1700s!

No Nēnēs for us, our consolation was a pair of Cackling Geese on the refuge that was pretty exciting for local folks. I was more excited about a different winter visitor, the Bristle-Thighed Curlew!

Yessss. Bristle-thighed goodness. We watched one hunt along the water’s edge looking for tasty crawfish.

It was obvious by the piles of shellfish remains on the trail where one had been feeding. The birds were a bit skittish and if the group got too close, they would quickly fly away scolding, “Chi-u-eet!” Here’s one flying between two Cattle Egrets (also common).

Another easily spooked winter migrant was the Wandering Tattler; so it was a treat to find one perched cooperatively (if only for the moment) on a fence post.

Then someone pointed out two Ruddy Turnstones in the grass at the bottom of the fence.

Birds everywhere. We also saw Sanderlings, Common Waxbill, Common Myna, Black-crowned Night Heron, sometimes all at once. Pretty sweet combos:

Cattle Egret, Bristle-thighed Curlew, Hawaiian Gallinule

Hawaiian Stilt, Black-cowned Night Heron, Pacific Golden-Plover

I was sad when the tour ended, but Dick told us about the hopeful future of the refuge; there are plans in the works to bring a road closer to keep the public more involved. In his words: “If you have a refuge that has public support, then the refuge stays,” he says.

We saw four endemic bird species this day. Or three and a half if the ducks are hybrid. Likely so. Either way that’s a pretty special day. And on the way out, Kurt told us a way to access Pearl Harbor National Wildlife Ponds back in Honolulu where we could keep the party going. Birding after-party!

These are the birds that showed up:

Cattle Egret smoking grasshoppers in the corner

Hawaii Gallinule had too much to drink

The life of the party was the Hawaiian Coot, there were dozens, and the Hawaiian Stilt, I counted at least 30.

So many rockin stilts. Other birds included a Blue-winged Teal, Northern Pintail, both Mallard and “Hawaiian Duck-like birds,” Red-vented Bulbul, Japanese White-eye, Northern Cardinal, and I wish I could have gotten a better photo of the White-faced Ibis but I wasn’t on the V.I.P. list.

We hung out with the stilts until the wee hours of the afternoon. There are so many obstacles for these birds to overcome; introduced predators, rats, dogs, cats, mongoose, bullfrogs, degradation of  wetland habitat, alien plants, fish, disease, environmental contaminants. I’m grateful for people like Dick and Kurt who care and to those working to preserve the beautiful wetland spaces.

It was a good day with these birds on the brink!



Oahu Part 2 – Dole Whip

Our second day on Oahu started with Pancakes and Waffles and a side of parking lot birds- Common Mynas and Japanese White-eye!

I was excited to see this new bird, but unfortunately this cute, charismatic songbird introduced to Hawaii in the late 1920s for bug control turned out to be a problem for native birds. This seemed to be a common theme on my readings about Hawaii birds. “Problem for native birds.”

Because the morning was still overcast and rainy, we decided to check out Wahiawa Botanical Gardens. Most of the botanical gardens on the island are free or very low admission. This one was a neat jungle in the city.

With some neat resident birds, including both types of the Island’s now established Bulbuls (introduced as a result of an unauthorized cage-release in the 50’s and 60s). They are gregarious, noisy, and fun to watch.

Red-vented Bulbul

Red-whiskered Bulbul

And we saw a pretty Spotted Dove.

Then I heard it. The song I’d hoped to hear but didn’t expect to, and certainly not in a city park. “Usually well hidden in dense vegetation,” the White-Rumped Shama! Out in the open! A thrush with a rich song, a long tail, and yep, a white rump.

I couldn’t believe this was a day 2 bird. I could relax a little. And enjoy watching the shama hop to the grass and hunt for food before moving on to our next destination. The Dole Pineapple Plantation. There are few touristy places I will put up with, and this is one of them.

Beyond the selfie-sticks and giant plastic pineapples lives the Dole Whip (whhhhhip). I am a sucker for pineapple flavored soft-serve. While enjoying our non-dairy desserts we watched lizards do battle.

Green Anoles peek their heads out.

And we chased Gold-dust Day Geckos around the landscaped plants.

Did someone say adorable?

Interestingly, Hawaii is one of the few places in the world with no native land reptiles or amphibians. All the herps were introduced intentionally or accidentally. As were most of the bird species we saw on the plantation:

Japanese White-eye

Red-vented Bulbul

Zebra Dove

We also came across an ambitious Black-crowned Night Heron at the Koi feeding pond. Dang.

Those fish were huge and the bank was steep. Set up intentionally, I think, to keep birds like this one from eating the kiddo’s entertainment. So close, yet so far away.

The day was still young, so we headed to Waimea Valley next.

Where I meet a lovely new shorebird.



Oahu Part 1- Kona Brewing Co.

One way to celebrate turning 40 is to run a marathon. That was Tomas’s bright idea of how he wanted to spend his birthday this December. Months ago he signed up for the Honolulu Marathon and trained diligently. I would be going along for the ride, no running this time for me. But birding? All new birds in Oahu?! Twist my arm.

Also, sunshine. Or so we thought, but we flew into Honolulu on a very soggy day.

At least it’s warm rain?

Even still, minutes after exiting the plane I had binoculars and camera out ready. But why can’t I see anything? Everything is blurry! New birds were so close, but I couldn’t see them because the warm air and humidity had fogged up my optics. What if there’s a rare bird there that I won’t ever see again!

Eventually, the fog cleared a little, and these were the first birds to greet us.

Red-crested Cardinal

Black-crowned Night Heron

Common Myna

Airport birds! None of them rare, but exciting in the moment nonetheless. And two lifers right off the plane is a good start. Tomas nudged me out of the airport to pick up the rental car and we drove downtown to get his running packet. The marathon was scheduled in two days so we had time to explore the island first. And once we learned there was a Kona Brewing Co on Oahu, we knew what our next destination would be.

Cheers to birding in new places

And lucky for me Zebra Doves are also patrons of the brewery. Life bird while drinking beer indoors! (new list?) They ran around under the tables looking for scraps and hopped out onto the patio.

At this time I looked outside to the cloudy skies across Koko Marina and noticed something flying far in the distance.

I think I recognize that shape. Frigatebird!

Look closely, as this the best photo I could get of this female Great Frigatebird.

And as it turns out, this was also the only Great Frigatebird of the whole trip. I’ve seen a Magnificent Frigatebird flyover once in Florida, but this was my first Great. (differences between the two here). Lesson learned, to find new birds, find a brewery. The skies darkened further so we grudgingly called it a night and checked in to the Airbnb.

It was tough to sleep (because it was 80 degrees in the room) but also because I was pumped to explore more of Oahu’s birds. Much more to come.