Birding the Big Island

Common Myna (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Being mostly quarantined for months, I catch myself thinking about exotic places we’ve traveled, like Australia, Colombia, Cuba and Hawaii.  I’ve written about many of these places but never about Hawaii.  We’ve spent many days on most of Hawaii’s islands, and in the 1980’s I even opened an office on Oahu and spent a week each month there.  Once, during a trade show in Honolulu, Prudy, wistfully eyeing the swaying palm trees outside, accused me of ruining one of our favorite vacation spots.  Of all the islands, the largest, Hawaii or ‘the Big Island’ quickly became our favorite due to its spectrum of attractions, from volcanos to snorkeling.  The last time we visited Hawaii was five years ago, a week-long birthday trip on the Kona Coast, and remarkably enough, the first time I went there as a birder. 

Pacific Golden-Plover (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers

Birding in Hawaii is interesting and challenging.  There are roughly 350 species of birds currently found on the islands, a little more than half the species found in Arizona.  There were 70 known endemics, of which 30 are extinct and 6 others which may be extinct. Of the remaining 48 endemics, 30 are listed as endangered or threatened.  In fact, Hawaii has the dubious distinction of being known as the endangered bird species capital of the entire world.  Twenty-one of the twenty-five bird species in the United States that have gone extinct are from Hawaii, and more than a third of all U.S. birds protected by the Endangered Species Act are in Hawaii. 

Zebra Dove (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

The multiple bird-related problems in Hawaii started with the human-based introduction of non-native plants and animals.  Early Polynesians brought the jungle fowl, pigs, dogs and rats, and Captain Cook brought goats and European pigs.  Later, cats and other rodent species were introduced.  Rats led to importation of the mongoose, which helped control rats, but which also led to a serious threat to ground-nesting birds.  In addition, more than 150 species of exotic birds have been introduced to the islands, and those that survived compete with native birds for limited island resources.  On our visit five years ago, we documented 32 species, a relatively small number of birds for nearly a week’s effort.  Nevertheless, it was fun and exciting birding, and our list includes several birds you won’t find in any other state.

Nene, the state bird (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Hawaii’s state bird is the Nene, or the Hawaiian Goose.  With a population of about 2,500, this endemic is the rarest goose in the world, and efforts are underway to expand the population within the state.  This work is succeeding, and the population is increasing; seeing these birds in the past was difficult at best, but we saw many of them on our most recent trip.  The Nene spends most of its time on the ground, foraging in scrubland, grassland and golf courses.  Another bird that won’t be found elsewhere is the ‘Oma’O, found only on the Big Island.  This bird, also known as the Hawaiian Thrush, is found mostly above 3,000 feet on the slopes of Mauna Loa.  We also found the ‘Apapane, a crimson endemic with black wings and tail, an abundant bird on all the main Hawaiian Islands.  We counted a total of 5 endemics, including the Hawaii Amakihi and the Hawaiian Coot. 

Yellow-billed Cardinal (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Non-endemics that are also foreign to the state-side visitor include tropicbirds, white-eyes, mynas, waxbills, saffron finches, Java sparrows and Yellow-billed Cardinals.  Yellow-billed Cardinals are common on the Big Island, and are eye-catching with a brilliant red head, black wings, white collar and breast and of course, a yellow bill.  Birds are rarely the primary reason to visit Hawaii, but if something else triggers a trip, don’t forget your binoculars.

About Bob

A lifelong naturalist, Bob's avocation is birding, including field observation, study, photography and writing. He spent a career in computers and consulting, but his free time has been spent outdoors backpacking, fishing and enjoying nature firsthand. Bob has traveled extensively, exploring and photographing above and underwater in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, Egypt and throughout the United States, Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, Central and South America. Now retired, as an amateur ornithologist Bob studies, photographs and writes primarily about birds of the Western Hemisphere. Formerly the Feature Writer for Latin America and Caribbean Travel at Suite101.com, he has been Suite101's Feature Writer for Birds and Birding since January, 2010, and has received seven Editor's Choice awards, which are listed below. Bob also writes a monthly birding column for a newspaper in Arizona, and his work appears in the travel magazine, Another Day in Paradise, published in Zihuatanejo, Mexico. His blog, Birding the 'Brooke and Beyond, discusses birding, travel and other topics in Southeast Arizona and beyond. Bob is a member of the National and Tucson Audubon Societies, Western Field Ornithologists, Arizona Field Ornithologists, the American Birding Association and other birding and conservation organizations. Bob and his wife, Prudy, live in the Santa Catalina Mountain foothills near Tucson, Arizona. To date, Bob has received Suite101 Editor's Choice awards for the following articles: • Birding by Cruise Ship in the Caribbean • The Xantus' Hummingbird, Baja California's Only Endemic Hummer • Birding the White Mountains in and Around Greer, Arizona • The Greater Roadrunner, New Mexico's State Bird • Where to Find Steelhead on the Lower Deschutes River in Oregon • Birding La Bajada near San Blas, Mexico • The 2008 Christmas Bird Count at Estero del Yugo in Mazatlan
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