POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Jun 12, 2011
LAST UPDATED: 9:12 p.m. HST, Jun 20, 2011
Several years ago Rob Pacheco, president and founder of Hawaii island-based Hawaii Forest & Trail, took a van load of mainland doctors, all avid birders, to Hakalau National Wildlife Refuge. They were intent on spotting the akiapolaau, a bright yellow honeycreeper that was designated an endangered species in 1967. Although the group stayed out until dark, they were disappointed they weren't able to see one.
The next day, Pacheco led a California family on their first-ever bird-watching excursion. As he was helping them step off lava rocks onto the fern-covered floor of a rain forest, he heard the song of an akiapolaau behind him. Turning quickly, he spotted the bird in a tree about 10 feet away.
"At the time it was the closest I had ever gotten to an akiapolaau," Pacheco said. "It was so close that when it sang again, I could see its tongue! The grandmother in the group told me, ‘This is amazing! I've never seen a bird through binoculars before!' I thought of the birders from the day before who really wanted to see an akiapolaau but didn't — and here was a lady who probably would've been just as happy to be looking at a house sparrow. That's how birding goes sometimes."
HAWAII FOREST & TRAIL TOURS» Rain Forest and Dry Forest Birding Adventure: Offered 6:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. weekdays except holidays
» Hakalau Forest National Wildlife Refuge Adventure: Offered 6:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. daily
» Meet at: Hawaii Forest & Trail's headquarters, 74-5035 Queen Kaahumanu Highway; Waikoloa Kings' Shops; or the junction of Highway 190 and Saddle Road near Waimea
» Price: $179, including breakfast and lunch; 15 percent kamaaina discount
» Notes: Participants must be at least age 8 and able to hike on rocky, uneven terrain (two to four miles on Hakalau tour; more than four miles on birding adventure). Walking sticks, binoculars, day packs, jackets and rain ponchos provided. Wear long pants and sturdy closed-toed shoes or boots, and bring a light raincoat.
NATIVE GUIDE HAWAII» Hilo Bird-Watching Adventure: Offered 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily
» Pickup location: Determined upon booking
» Price: $300 for one, $150 per person for parties of two or more, including lunch
» Notes: All tours are private and usually include an easy walk of two to four miles, but can be customized. Bring binoculars if you have them. Wear long pants, sturdy shoes or hiking boots, sunscreen, sunglasses, a hat and a jacket. Be aware that weather conditions in upland regions can change suddenly.
Hawaii Forest & Trail offers two tours that take visitors over 19th-century lava flows and into forests as high as 8,000 feet up the flanks of Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa to spot endemic birds, including the omao (thrush), elepaio (flycatcher), pueo (short-eared owl) and iiwi, apapane, palila, amakihi and akepa (honeycreepers).
"To see those species you need to be in habitats that can support them," Pacheco said. "At Hakalau we go to the Pua Akala tract, which is only open to the public once a year. We, however, have permission to go there year-round. Sometimes we'll see refuge staff or researchers there, but usually it's just the birds and us."
Warren Costa, owner and operator of Native Guide Hawaii, begins his bird-watching outing with an exploration of Hilo's shoreline and wetlands, which are home to both endemic and introduced species. He approaches birding in the same way that he does fishing.
"Hawaiians say it's bad luck to announce that you're going fishing; you should just say you're going holoholo (to go out for pleasure)," Costa said. "I say that on my birding tours, especially when I'm out with hard-core birders who come with $5,000 binoculars and a library of books. I tell them, ‘Don't look too hard or you'll scare away the birds.'"
From the coast, Costa takes groups above Hilo, to the 7,000-foot elevation of Mauna Loa. "Many endemic forest birds only eat certain things, and they don't go far from their food source," he said. "That's why we must go to high elevations to see them. Also, there are no mosquitoes above 4,000 feet, which has helped protect the bird populations there. Mosquitoes can carry diseases such as avian malaria, which has virtually decimated the lowland species."
Predators such as humans, cats, rats and mongooses, and loss of habitat due to ranching, farming and developments, have also taken their toll. Nearly half of the 140 bird species that were known in Hawaii in ancient times are extinct, and scientists have identified at least 50 more extinct species from fossil evidence. Of the species that remain, 31 are endangered.
"It's important for us to treasure the native birds that remain," Costa said. "If you think about it, birds populated the islands long before man came. They are the true ancient Hawaiians."
Pacheco concurs, acknowledging that saving the birds is a daunting task. "It will take a lot of time, money and effort to preserve and restore their forest habitats," he said. "When I moved to Hawaii nearly 20 years ago, iiwi could be readily found at Thurston Lava Tube in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Today you only see them around Crater Rim Drive on rare occasions. On Molokai a 1995 survey recorded only one iiwi on the entire island. Less than a dozen iiwi remain on Oahu. It's disheartening to hear the laments of biologists, to read studies about the decreasing numbers and to witness the decline through your own binoculars."
Education is a step in the right direction. "On our birding tours, we talk about the birds' characteristics, their habits and the places they live," Pacheco said. "The tours aren't just for bird watchers; they're for anyone who's interested in Hawaii's amazing array of life."
Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi is a Honolulu-based freelance writer whose travel features for the Star-Advertiser have won multiple Society of American Travel Writers awards.