A naturalist in Hawai’i Part II: Birdwatching.

There is something special about seeing a bird species you have never seen before – a so-called ‘lifer’ in birder language. Birdwatching is the fastest growing hobby in North America, and throughout the world birders are spending lots of money buying equipment (binoculars, spotting scopes, cameras etc.) and on traveling. Serious birders (so-called twitchers) will think nothing of hopping on a plane to see very rare birds. No wonder birding has its own jargon language then. Personally, I am a fairly casual (=fair weather) birdwatcher. That is due both to my somewhat limited skill level and the effort I put into it. I may pick out about ⅔– ¾  of the species that a more accomplished birder will record given equivalent effort. Anyway, it was with some excitement that the birdwatcher in me prepared for our recent family holiday on O’ahu, Hawai’i. Since I was there (on my honeymoon) 32 years ago, I knew that a lot of the species I would see would not be lifers as I would have seen them before, but I planned to put a little more effort in it this time. Well, within acceptable bounds as this was not a birdwatching trip, but a family holiday.

Most of the birdwatching we did was in city parks and wherever we happened to be. We did two trips specifically to watch birds, and both did yield lifer species. To see some of the endemic birds that have evolved in Hawai’i you have to put a bit more effort into it. For example, viewing any of the Hawaiian honeycreepers, most of which are highly endangered (Paxton et al. 2016), requires going up on ridge trails or to more remote, high elevation native forest sites. We did none of that, in part because the weather was somewhat unstable, so the ridges often had heavy clouds hanging over them, but also because it probably would have bored half our party to tears. We did one hike specifically for birds, however, and that was to Ka’ena Point, which is the westernmost point on O’ahu. This area is quite dry, and can get quite hot. The main attraction was to see Laysan albatrosses (Phoebastria immutabilis), which breed there. A one hour hike along an abandoned railway track either from the north or

Kaena Point-8873

Approaching Ka’ena Point. The weather was favourable for this otherwise extremely hot walk, as there is simply no shade to be had.

from the south) gets you to the fence that has been erected across the entire point to keep out predatory mammals and protect birds and native plants (VanderWerf et al. 2014). Once you get through the gate. We were rewarded by good views of these magnificent birds, some of which were sitting on eggs or hatchlings only meters from the trail. The trail was lined by rope to ensure that burrows of wedge-tailed shearwaters (Puffinus pacificus) would not be damaged (the birds were long-gone when we were there). We also saw lots of great frigatebirds (Fregata minor) (lifer) soaring high above us, only rarely coming into range for photography attempts. We also spotted one immature red-

Kaena Point-8964 Great frigatebird

Great frigatebird at Ka’ena Point

footed booby (another lifer) among the albatrosses over the nesting grounds. We spoke with a volunteer naturalist monitoring monk seals, and she told us that the colony was doing well, which is good news. But anthropogenic threats still abound, including plastic debris (Fry et al. 1987).

Laysan albatrosses are goose-sized birds. On land, they have a rather comical, stilted gait,

Kaena Point-8922 Laysan albatross walk

Laysan albatross marching through the nesting area after missing the intended landing spot. When I first saw it, it was in a bush, trying to get out.

but in the air they are poetry in motion. Using a minimum of wing flapping, they effortlessly glide in a horizontally slanted sigmoid flight pattern, gaining speed and losing slight elevation with the wind and then gaining it back going against the wind. This dynamic soaring can be used in the boundary layer just above the water, where


Illustration of dynamic soaring from (Sachs, 2005) Image from http://people.eku.edu/ritchisong/554notes3.html

wind speed changes with elevation

Kaena Point-8944 Laysan albatross

The albatrosses spent quite some time gauging the landing area before finally landing.

(Sachs 2005), and it can keep the big birds on the wing almost indefinitely with almost no expenditure of energy. When coming in to the nest, they use the same technique, and it is quite an exhilarating experience to have these magnificent giants pass by you within meters at breakneck speed. They sometimes came so close that you could almost reach out and touch them. The albatrosses were lifers, and the experience will be a life-long memory!

The second specific birding trip we made was to the Ka’elepulu Wetland (aka Enchanted Lake Bird Sanctuary) in Kailua. We were actually intending to go to Makapu’u Lighthouse trail to look for seabirds, but inclement weather (=torrential downpours) kept us away.  Ka’elepulu is a conservation area with a capital C in spite being nestled among subdivisions. You cannot enter the area, but have to view the birds at a chainlink fence along a street. That limits what you can see (we did not bring scopes), but we still saw a number of interesting birds, two of which were lifers. Those were the Hawaiian common gallinule (moorhen) (Gallinula galeata sandvicensis ) and the Hawaiian coot (Fulica alai). Both are native to Hawaii, albeit similar to the mainland species. In addition, we saw hybrid mallard*Hawaiian duck, which I guess is a lifer of sorts. Black-necked stilts (Himantopus mexicanus) and black-crowned night herons (Nycticorax nycticorax) were common, but those I have seen before (although they probably increased my species count on eBird as my previous sightings were not recorded there).

Most of the birds we saw were present pretty much anywhere you went, and most were Asian or African invasives, e.g., common mynah (Acridotheres tristis), zebra dove

Kailua Beach Park-8680 Common myna

A common mynah at Kailua Beach Park. These birds were omnipresent along the coast.

(Geopelia striata), red-crested cardinal (Paroaria coronate) and many more. I have to mention the white-rumped shama (Copsychus malabaricus), the song of which is as enchanting as any birdsong I have ever heard. Rose-ringed parakeets are well

Lyon Arboretum-8778 Red-whiskered bulbul

Red-whiskered bulbul

established, and we saw them on a daily basis on the south side. Other parrots are also around, e.g., we saw a salmon-crested cockatoo. They are of great concern to agriculture, as are other invasive birds, like the two species of bulbul (Pycnonotus cafer and P. jocosus). We did spot an additional native, the  beautiful white tern (Gygis alba),

White Tern-9064 Fort Derussy Beacg Park

Adult white tern.

White Tern chick-9041 Fort Derussy Beach Park

Eggs are laid on bare branches, and chicks remain there until fledged, often left on their own for considerable periods of time while the adults forage.. It is somewhat tense to watched the little fluff-ball moving back and forth along the branch.

which nests in various parks in Honolulu. It is often referred to as the fairy tern, but that name is reserved for a different species of the southern hemisphere. On the north shore we found ruddy turnstones (Arenaria interpres) and in Kailua and at Diamond Head we found Pacific golden plovers (Pluvialis fulva), both of which overwinter on the island, but I can count them both as lifers.

Even if you don’t make a great effort birdwatching, it pays off to bring binoculars at least.  There are some good opportunities to see even endemic birds. The Hawaii Audubon Society has a good website that provides some tips, and there are a number of books that may be useful. I bought Hawaii’s birds published by the Hawaii Audubon Society which was inexpensive and served my purpose. If you have an iPhone there is a specific app for Hawaii’s birds, but several of the North American apps do not include Hawaiian birds, e.g., Sibley’s, which is the one I have. However, you may wish to go sooner rather than later as many of the endemics are rapidly closing in on extinction, with climate change being the latest threat (Benning et al. 2002).


Benning, T.L., LaPointe, D., Atkinson, C.T., and Vitousek, P.M. 2002. Interactions of climate change with biological invasions and land use in the Hawaiian Islands: Modeling the fate of endemic birds using a geographic information system PNAS  99: 14246-14249.

Fry, D.M., Fefer, S.I., and Sileo, L. 1987. Ingestion of plastic debris by Laysan Albatrosses and Wedge-tailed Shearwaters in the Hawaiian Islands. Marine Pollution Bulletin 18: 339-343.

Paxton, E.H., Camp, R.J., Gorresen, .,  P. M., Crampton, L.H., Leonard Jr., D.L., and VanderWerf, E.A. 2016. Collapsing avian community on a Hawaiian island. Science Advances   2016: 2 (9)9, e1600029

Sachs, G. 2005. Minimum shear wind strength required for dynamic soaring of albatrosses. Ibis 147: 1 – 10.

VanderWerf, E. A., L. C. Young, S. E. Crow, E. Opie, H. Yamazaki, C. J. Miller, D. G. Anderson, L. S. Brown, D. G. Smith, and J. Eijzenga. 2014. Increase in wedge-tailed shearwaters and changes in soil nutrients following removal of alien mammalian predators and nitrogen-fixing plants at Kaena Point, Hawaii. Restor. Ecol. 22: 676–684.



About cinnabarreflections

B. Staffan Lindgren is Professor Emeritus at UNBC. Living in Nanaimo, BC. Jack of all trades trying to stay relevant.
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2 Responses to A naturalist in Hawai’i Part II: Birdwatching.

  1. Pingback: A naturalist in Hawaii Part III: Attack by the aliens | Cinnabar Reflections

  2. Pingback: Life in space – An earthling biologist’s perspective. | Cinnabar Reflections

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