Hawaii by Sue Bryan
Jan 30th – Feb 8th 2023
Over the last few years John and I have enjoyed a tropical island holiday taken in the depths of winter to escape the miserable weather experienced in the U.K. so that we could enjoy some sun and warmth. Being birders it is always nice to see some new birds but John and I have now gone beyond just getting a ‘big list’ and have targeted some special birds or mammals. We scoured our usual favourite tour operators to see what was being offered and once again Birding Ecotours www.birdingecotours.com seemed to have an answer. Hawaii has always sounded exotic and a trip on 3 different tropical islands (O’ahu, Kaua’i, and Hawaii (Big Island) seemed ideal. I was drawn by the unusual bird names (most are un-spellable as well as unpronounceable and sadly the endemics are very endangered) and we were both drawn by the possibility of seeing Bristle-thighed Curlew, a difficult to see wader that is even more difficult to see in its Alaskan breeding grounds. Java Sparrow was also on offer as my 45th Brooke Bond Tropical Birds Tea Card collection. The trip offered a pelagic too, an option I love, as well as the Hawaiian chain of island being made up of volcanoes, another passion of mine. The trip seemed to have it all. However it was rather short and John was keen to add extensions at either end to break the journey. We went via the Grand Canyon for four nights, where we had an amazing helicopter ride in the canyon and stopped off at the end of the trip in Los Angeles for 3 nights and the Angeles National Forest.
Guides: Jacob Roalef, Mandy Talpas
30th Jan Phoenix – Honolulu, O’ahu
31st Jan Honolulu
1st Feb O’ahu
2nd Feb O'ahu – Kaua’i
3rd Feb Koke’e N.P. Kaua’i
4th Feb Kapa’a, Kaua’i – Hawaii (Big Island)
5th Feb Kailua-Kona, Hawaii (Big Island) +Manta Rays
6th Feb Mauna Kea, Hawaii (Big Island)
7th Feb Pelagic – off Hawaii (Big Island)
8th Feb Kailua Kona, Hawaii (Big Island) – Los Angeles
International flights Heathrow to Phoenix to Honolulu to Los Angeles to Heathrow with American Airlines was booked through Trailfinders www.trailfinders.com at a cost of £1796 each. (Beware American Airlines offer no food at all on a 6 hour flight between the U.S.A and Hawaii)
The tour price was £6275 each
As Hawaii is an U.S.A state U.K. nationals need to fill in an ESTA form which can be done online at a cost of: US$21
We obtained some U.S dollars for incidental expenses but in fact used credit cards or Apple Pay throughout. Only a couple of small market stalls required cash.
The climate was extremely variable with hot sunny days (27 degrees) when we were birding the lowlands but we had low cloud and rain up in the mountains and rain forest where it was much cooler on some days.
The Hawaiian chain of island is made up volcanoes, some of which are still active. Lava flows can be seen everywhere. Some of the old flows are vegetated with scrub and grass and rain forests exist higher up the slopes of the volcanoes. (Mauna Loa on Big Island is nearly 15 000 feet high) However goats, sheep and pigs have largely devastated and degraded much of the original forests and sadly the endemic birds which are reliant on these forests are in steep decline, some of which are likely to go extinct in my lifetime. Mongooses, rats, feral dogs and cats are also adding to the problem.
After a peculiar night in a motel close to the airport which was in a run-down area of Pheonix, John and I drove to the airport and boarded our flight to Honolulu. After a six and a half hour flight with American Airlines with no food we landed in Honolulu where there was no-one to greet us. It was a strange set up at the airport as there were many exits and we phoned Jacob who organised a transfer by a shuttle bus to get us to the hotel through all the city traffic. We saw a real mix of birds on the way to the hotel from all over the world; these included: Red-crested Cardinal, Black-crowned Night Heron, Cattle Egret, Red-vented Bulbul to Spotted Dove and Common Mynas.
Jacob greeted us at the hotel and we enjoyed a lovely meal meeting up with the rest of the group after having a garland of flowers placed around our neck by the local guide, Mandy Talpas.
After a delicious breakfast eaten outside on the balcony of our hotel we drove up to a spot overlooking Honolulu and up into the rain clouds on the volcanic rim. Here we watched endemic O’ahu Amakihis as they flitted around in the vegetation. A White-rumped Shama crossed the road and Warbling White-eyes added themselves to our lists. We returned back down to the city and watched White Terns nesting in the trees in the city streets.
It was now quite hot and humid and we strolled around Kapiolani Park and I saw my much-wanted Java Sparrow as this was number 45 of my target Brooke Bond Tropical Birds tea cards. I was so pleased to get closer to my ambition of seeing all the birds from 50 cards that I collected as a child. In the park there was a real eclectic mix of introduced birds from all around the world. Saffron Finches hopped around with Yellow-fronted Canaries, Zebra Doves, Common Mynas, Common Waxbills as well as Pacific Golden Plovers.
I took a few photographs and we hopped back in the bus and stopped at a take-away lunch cafe and grabbed a bite to eat. It was wonderful to sit by the Pacific Ocean and watch Red-tailed Tropicbirds coming into their nesting sites as Sooty Terns flew by far out to sea as we sat and ate our huge Prawn sushi meals in the hot sun. A Wandering Tattler ran down the rocks as another came in and chased it away.
Later we climbed a hiking trail in the heat of the day and watched another endemic bird. A Pair of O’ahu Elepaio were busy building a nest. They were high in the canopy and fascinating to watch but we did not stay long for fear of disturbance. Red-billed Leiothrix and a White-rumped Shama kept us entertained before we returned to the hotel and then enjoyed an interesting meal out in a local restaurant.
What a day it was today! We started our day watching Red-footed Booby and Brown Booby off Makapu’u Island in glorious sun that O’ahu was offering us today. It was hot and humid as we watched Hawaiian Coot and Black-necked Stilts on a suburban pond before adding Caspian Tern on a military basin along with American Wigeon and Eurasian Wigeon.
We stopped at various points along the coast and watched a Wandering Tattler whilst admiring some Red-vented Bulbuls. After another delicious lunch, huge prawns covered in coconut and macadamia nuts, we followed Mandy and made our way across a golf course at Kahuku where we watched several Bristle-thighed Curlews, a much endangered wader. Mandy is a passionate conservationist and explained the importance of the protected area which sadly was being totally ignored by dog walkers and cyclists. Grrr...A Laysan Albatross flew over them and flushed them whilst off-shore Hump-back Whales were leaping out of the Pacific Ocean. With the sun beating down we took the opportunity for a few photographs and enjoyed the moment. It was just glorious to be here. Can life get any better?
Bristle-thighed Curlew (with its bristle thighs!)
After such a wonderful day Mandy drove us back around the coast stopping off at Fumi’s Shrimp Shack where we added Sanderling and Ruddy Turnstone to our lists as well as Red Avadavat at Wailua. On the way back to the hotel we could all see Pearl Harbour as we drove by.
Today our group flew from O’ahu Island northwards to the island of Kaua’i Island in the Hawaiian chain of islands. We started at Kilauea where we saw Nene and Western Meadowlark whilst eating our lunch. We watched Great Frigatebird fly over too. Mandy had a surprise for us after lunch as she drove around a suburban housing estate. We were amazed as we saw Laysan Albatrosses sitting on nests in suburban gardens. One bird had a small chick. A group of volunteers try their best to protect the birds but dogs and cats are a significant problem.
We stopped alongside the golf course in Princeville and had a leisurely walk admiring Eucalyptus trees as we went whilst watching Nene geese as well as a vagrant Snow Goose. It was another beautiful day as we noted Chestnut Munia, Cattle Egret, Black-crowned Night Heron and another Western Meadowlark.
entranced by the nesting Laysan Albatross (J. Geeson)
Mandy drove us along the coastline where we watched Red-footed Booby, Brown Booby, Great Frigatebird and more Laysan Albatrosses whilst Humpback Whales breached offshore.
We stopped at Hanelei Wildlife Refuge where after a search we saw Hawaiian Duck. Whilst walking along the road we had a very small little Hawaiian duckling adopt us. We searched in vain for its parents without success. The poor little thing was exhausted as it tried to shelter by our feet. It was in danger of being run over and so there was no choice but to pick it up. I held the duckling whilst Mandy drove it to the Wildlife Refuge Centre where we took it to a member of staff. It was so young. We do hope it will survive.
Today was spent on trying to see some endemic birds to Kauai Island, Hawaii and to see the amazing Waimea Canyon. We set off early from our luxurious hotel (£450 a night, Hawaii is VERY expensive) and Mandy drove around the coast and up the Waimea Canyon Road climbing all the way up the volcanic island. We stopped to take some photos on the lookout over-looking the canyon. Whilst not as long as the Grand Canyon, Waimea Canyon was vegetated and very pretty. It was a shame that we were enveloped in low cloud spoiling the view. After taking some photos we continued our drive to the top of the road where we listened to the birds calling in the rain forest.
After much effort in the rain we added Kauai Elepaio, Apapane, Aniianiau and Kauai Amakihi to our life lists. It was difficult going as the rain hampered our sightings and photography virtually impossible.
After lunch we travelled back down the road and added Erckel’s
Spurfowl, Northern Mockingbird and African Silverbill to our lists. Hawaii
reminds me of New Zealand where many of the birds are introduced from all over
the world and the endemics are very sadly on the endangered list, some of which
are likely to go extinct within my lifetime.
We stopped at Bobby’s salt pan where we found a rarity for the island in the shape of a Grey-tailed Tattler which delighted John as it was a lifer for him. Our guide Jacob was also delighted as it was a lifer for him too!
Sue at the Sheraton Beach Resort Hotel
As we were having dinner last night a terrible storm blew up and continued throughout the night bringing over 8 inches of rain and unheard of thunder and lightning for the Hawaiian islands. When we awoke we all had an emergency message on our phones across our screens warning us not to travel, so our birding was temporarily suspended for the morning until the rain ceased. I decided to make the most of the hotel’s swimming pool and hot tub which was bliss.
Hawaiian (Green) Turtle
At 11am the rain had stopped and we checked out of the hotel and headed for Poipu Beach where we had a delightful lunch watching a Brown Booby and a Hawaiian Green Turtle resting on the sand. It was soon joined by 5 others. After lunch we walked along the beach and saw 2 rare Monk Seals as well as another Hawaiian Green Turtle.
All too soon it was time to head for the airport where we flew to Hawaii (Big Island). On arrival we headed for a waterside restaurant and had a delicious Scallop and Crab meal before heading to our beds for the night.
We started our day at Kealakehe Water treatment works where the highlight for the locals was a Ruff! Various ducks including Ring-necked Duck and Lesser Scaup were seen whilst listening to Black Francolins. We added Grey Francolin and Yellow-billed Cardinal here as well as Cackling Goose.
We then headed upwards to Mauna Kea where we could see Mauna Loa, the world’s largest active volcano. After failing to find Chukar at 9000ft I was glad to descend as I suffer very badly with altitude sickness and was beginning to get a headache. Luckily Mandy decided not to stay more than a few minutes as the weather was a bit grim up here. She drove back down and we birded at 7000 feet at Palila Forest Discovery Trail. There were several other birders here all searching for the endemic Palila but we were all failing to find any Palilas. Sadly it is now a critically endangered bird and although fencing has been installed to protect the reserve other forested areas where it was once found have been degraded by goats, pigs, sheep, rats, cats, dogs and mongooses. Its fate looks grim.
Sue at The Palila Forest Discovery Trail
We wandered around and added Hawaiian Amakihi and Hawaiian Elepaio. I got several glimpses of Japanese Bush Warbler too which was lurking in the bushes but never keen to show itself despite singing loudly away at me.
Kalij Pheasant (female)
Our route back to the hotel included Kalij Pheasant in the low cloud.
We stopped at a deserted old baseball ground where watched Rosy-faced Lovebirds as well as more Java Sparrows and Saffron Finches. Along one of the streets Mandy stopped the minibus so that we could have good views of Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse that were lurking at the side of the road seemingly picking up grit. African Silverbills were feeding on grass seeds here too.
Motoring on we stopped by a farmstead where we watched an Erckel’s Spurfowl sitting on a post whilst Grey Francolins ran by the side of the minibus before heading back to the hotel.
The evening was AWESOME! After sunset Jacob, Walter and I made our way down to the harbour in the dark where we were measured up for a wetsuit. After putting them on, we boarded a boat and were taken out to the sea. We put on snorkelling masks and jumped into the sea and grabbed onto a bar on a floating mat and put a foam tube under our feet so that we were laying face down in a horizontal position. Blue lights were switched on which illuminated all the plankton and attracted all the fish. The fish then attracted Manta Rays. They were HUGE! The Manta Rays swam towards us and I had an eyeball to eyeball experience as they came within an inch of my face! The Manta Rays would swim underneath us and then ball roll as they came up and under us. It was a stunning experience and one I shall not forget in a hurry. What a wonderful life this is! My thanks must go to Mandy for the suggestion and making this happen and to Jacob for coming with me for support. I have always believed in taking up opportunities when they are offered as life is for living and not just existing.
We had an early start today and drove up to 9000 feet to see Mauna Kea, a volcano now a national park. After seeing Black Francolin along Old Saddle Road we drove back down to 6500 feet to Hakalau Forest National Wildlife Refuge were we had special permission to enter it. We were in very low cloud and it was very wet and so sadly I decided to leave my camera in the van as having a zoom lens, I did not want it getting fogged up as has happened in rain forests before now when it is raining. What a bad decision this turned out to be as an hour or so later the rain and low cloud disappeared and the sun came out. I should have gone back to the van to fetch my camera but did not want to miss out on the important new birds that may well have shown. We watched Oma’o, I’iwi, Akiapola’au, (yes the spellings are fun here!) Hawaii Creeper, Hawaii Amakihi, Apapane and Hawaii Akepa. Later the sun emerged and I took a few photos using my iphone. It was a delightful reserve and we saw the endemic birds well but sadly they are in serious decline and I suspect several will go extinct in my lifetime. On our way back to the minibus we watched a pair of Kalij Pheasants creep across the track
After returning to the minibus Mandy drove a different route back to the hotel to give us the best chance of adding a few more birds to our list. Along the Mana Road we watched an Io (Hawaiian Hawk) and a Short-eared Owl along the Old Saddle Road.
Today was booked as a pelagic day around Big Island, Hawaii and out to the Yellow Pacific Rim Tsunami Warning Buoy 32 miles offshore. Some of the group were a little apprehensive going so far offshore but I was looking forward to it. Most pelagics are rough and can be very cold. However Mandy assured us that it would be hot under the clear-blue tropical sun and Mauna Loa volcano at 15000 feet high would shelter us from the Trade Winds tearing across the Pacific. We took her at her word. It was hot but one’s idea of calm and another person’s idea of calm are two entirely different things, least to say two of our party re-saw their breakfasts!
I struggled with my camera and have hundreds of out-of-focus photos and hundreds of sea and sky pictures if anyone is wanting photos of some? I have a few of microscopic dots too!
We left Honokohau harbour at 7am and almost immediately were watching Humpback Whales to our delight against a background of Mauna Loa.
Soon we had a Band-rumped Petrel flying not far off the boat which was a world tick for me. The Leach’s Petrel went by too quickly for my camera. Later a Laysan Albatross flew by along with a Brown Booby and more Wedge-tailed Shearwaters.
I kept nibbling on the plentiful snacks provided by Mandy and made myself comfortable at the back of the boat and missed the Masked Booby seen by a few at the front of the boat. Grrrr. I admired the flocks of Wedge-tailed Shearwaters and more Humpback Whales. As we started the return journey a huge pod of around 100 Melon-headed Whales appeared around a pair of Humpback Whales that had a very young calf with them. The scene was stunning as we cut the engine and watched all the drama in front of us as several Melon-headed Whales leapt out of the water. Our hosts who run the pelagic had never seen anything like it before. It was certainly a grand finale to our visit here and a very enjoyable day although some of our party were glad to be back on dry land.
Mandy took us to a smart restaurant where we had a lovely evening meal to thank Mandy and Jacob and bid the rest of our group goodbye. The sunset was just wonderful.
stayed in our room at the hotel in Kailua-Kona until midday and joined Jacob
for lunch looking out to sea in the warm sun for our last few hours on Big
Island, Hawaii. We pottered around the tourist shops and I bought a Manta Ray
necklace to remind me of the stunning evening with them. All too soon it was
time to drive to the airport, where we watched Yellow-billed Cardinals and House
Sparrows. We thanked Jacob for his efforts and boarded our flight to Los
Angeles for the next part of our holiday. I must thank John for his company and Mandy for her passion for saving endangered birds and her excellent knowledge of the islands and birds. A more exuberant and enthusiastic guide you could not find. Thank you Mandy.