Birding the Big Island of Hawaii


The endangered Nene is completely unafraid of quiet people on a trail passing by it. Photo by Mark Gorges.

Published Dec. 9, 2008, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Visiting Hawaii helps bird lover add birds and endangered species to life lists.”

2014 Update: Type “Hawaii” in the search box, then click your Enter key to find the accompanying story that was published in November 2008, and also the story from our 2012 trip that included Kauai.

By Barb Gorges

Zebra doves calling and Japanese white-eyes twittering as they flit through the hibiscus—who would have thought a year ago I’d be waking up on the Big Island?

When our older son, Bryan, accepted a job in Hilo, Hawaii, nearly a year ago, Mark and I knew it would be an opportunity to travel.

With copies of “Hawaii’s Birds” from the Hawaii Audubon Society and “Hawaii The Big Island Revealed” guidebook, plus what Bryan had learned, we were able to add birds to our life lists, including endangered species.

The Hawaiian Islands are a mid-ocean crossroads. Volcanoes built them 70 million years ago. A small amount of flora and fauna was able to make it by water or wind and establish itself.

However, no terrestrial mammals, amphibians or reptiles made it so surviving species evolved without the ability to evade those kinds of predators. Also, adaptive radiation occurred.

For instance, from one species of honeycreeper, several species evolved, each particularly suited for one of the various habitats within the islands.

Far flying bird species still accidentally find Hawaii, but none seem to establish breeding populations now.

wild chickens

The Polynesians brought chickens to Hawaii and many run wild. Photo by Mark Gorges.

About 1,600 years ago the Polynesians found the Hawaiian Islands and colonized them, bringing pigs, chickens, dogs and rats as well food crops like taro. It appears as many as 35 bird species and subspecies became extinct as a result.

Following Captain Cook’s visit in 1778 was a flood of introduced alien species with unfortunate results for the natives. Even today, illegally released parrots may increase and spread, threatening commercial crops.

Still, the Audubon field guide lists 71 species and subspecies that are endemic, meaning they are found nowhere else in the world. Of those, 30 are on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Endangered Species List.

At Hawaii Volcanoes National Park efforts are being made to restore the landscape by fencing out wild pigs and controlling mongoose and feral cat populations. We saw one endangered species there, the Nene, the Hawaiian goose.

Following a trail at the park in a deserted walk-in campground, we looked for a picnic table in the shade. No such thing in a lava field with scrubby vegetation. But we spotted the goose grazing on berries. We stopped and watched as its route brought it closer. Then we walked away.

After lunch the goose was alongside the return path and we had to step around it. No wonder there were so many signs warning against feeding them and caution signs on the road picturing them. They are too trusting for their own good.

These days there’s only one hawk species on Hawaii, the ‘Io. As Mark and I took a break in our labors hiking up out of the Waipi’o Valley, we saw two soaring on the thermals.

This was fitting since the valley has always been considered the Hawaiian kings’ favorite place and the ‘Io is a symbol of royalty in Hawaiian legends.

At Kaloko-Honokohau National Historical Park we plodded along the beach, stepped around a napping, endangered green sea turtle and arrived at a birding hotspot, ‘Aimakapa Fishpond, to find several Hawaiian coots, also endangered. They look like ours except the hard white material of their beaks extends up over their foreheads.


Cardinal in Hawaii

Cardinals were introduced to Hawaii. Photo by Jeffrey Gorges

We saw familiar birds: wild turkeys introduced from North America in 1815 and now at home in the grasslands on the slopes of Mauna Kea, house sparrows introduced via New Zealand (1871), cardinals from eastern North America (1929) and cattle egrets from Florida (1959).

We even saw a black-crowned night-heron, a bird that nests in Cheyenne parks. Apparently this species made it to Hawaii on its own some time ago.

The ‘Apapane, a small red bird which works ohi’a blossoms for insects and nectar is one endemic forest bird that is fairly common. I identified one only because the field guide had a photo of what it looks like when it is perched high overhead.

We needed to start on our world bird lists after finding an Erckel’s francolin (Africa 1957), junglefowl (original Polynesian settlers), zebra doves (Asia), mynas (India) and yellow-billed cardinals and saffron finches (South America).

We weren’t visiting at the right location or time of year for the marine birds. The visiting shorebirds were difficult to i.d., as usual. I’m sure of only one, the Pacific golden plover. It breeds in Alaska, with many wintering in Hawaii and others migrating south another 2,500 miles.

Some say the golden plover was the bird that intrigued the ancient Polynesians who lived on islands south of Hawaii. It made them wonder where the birds went when they left for the summer, if it was to land farther north. It caused them to load up their double-hulled canoes to find out.

How was the golden plover to know so many of us would follow?