By Eamon Corbett
To birds, Hawaii is a troubled paradise. The islands used to teem with exotic and endemic species, but since the arrival of humans these native birds have been decimated. At low elevations, the combination of habitat degradation, invasive species, and malaria has eliminated practically all of the native birds. Flipping through a field guide is a sobering experience. On each page, for every avian gem that still lives, there are 2 or more that are gone forever: all five honeyeaters, the Ou, the Koa Finches, the Kona Grosbeak, the Ula-al-Hawane, the Mamos, the Oahu and Molokai Creepers, the Akialoas, Nukupu’us, Kamao, Olomao, and the Po’ouli, which went extinct just nine years ago, in 2004.
Still, some Hawaiian endemics survive, mostly restricted to the higher slopes of the volcanos, some only in isolated and remote tracts of forest. On my family vacation to Maui and the Big Island (the island of Hawaii) this spring, I tried to fit in as many stops in these places as possible, with a particular focus on the honeycreepers. They are a subfamily of birds found nowhere else in the world, descended from finches that found their way to the archipelago. When they reached the islands, they evolved to fill every ecological niche, one of the best examples of the evolutionary phenomenon called adaptive radiation. On the Big Island, we tracked down the highly endangered Palila (estimated global population: 250-1000), a large yellow-and-gray honeycreeper with a finch-like bill adapted to crushing mamane seed pods, and the Akiapola’au (estimated global population: 800), bright yellow with a “swiss-army knife” bill: the lower mandible is stout and used for drilling into koa bark, like a woodpecker, while the upper mandible is long and wickedly curved, ideal for digging grubs out of the koa branches. And on Maui, we headed to Waikamoi Preserve.
Waikamoi Preserve is located on the slopes of Haleakala Volcano, the highest peak on Maui (and, because these are volcanic islands, the source of essentially all of the land on the eastern part of the island). It’s owned by The Nature Conservancy, and is for the most part closed to the public. It is famous as essentially the last stronghold of two extremely endangered honeycreepers, the Akohekohe (A-ko-heh-ko-heh) and Maui Parrotbill, and is also a great spot to see the third Maui endemic, the only slightly less endangered Maui Alauahio (Al-a-wa-hi-o). I really wanted to try to see some of those birds (particularly the Akohekohe, or Crested Honeycreeper, a strong contender for the title “coolest bird ever”). Fortunately, I was able to get in contact with Chuck Probst, a docent for The Nature Conservancy, who very generously agreed to take my dad and me into the preserve. He did warn us, however, that conditions in the preserve could be wet, cold, windy, and miserable (which did scare off my mom and sister, who opted to stay at the beach).
So before dawn on February 22nd, my dad and I left the clear, warm weather of the beachside town of Kihei and started the drive up the volcano. It was steep and there were lots of switchbacks, but compared to some of the driving we had had to do earlier in the trip it was a tame ascent, and we reached the entrance to Haleakala National Park early. Gone was the warm dry air, replaced instead with a steady drizzle and cold wind. There is a reason the preserve is a lush rainforest: it rains a lot!
As we were paying the entrance fee, I spotted a pair of birds by the side of the road just ahead of us. Raising my binoculars, I realized that they were Nene, or Hawaiian Geese! An endangered species, and one that we had failed to find on the Big Island, the Nene is the state bird of Hawaii, and one that I was excited and relieved to have finally found. There turned out to be four in total, foraging on and around the road, unconcerned by our car (which, though good for us, is unfortunate, because traffic accidents are a major cause of Nene fatalities).
We met up with Chuck and two other birders, Monte from Canada and Steve from Alaska, at a parking lot near Hosmer Grove, the stand of non-native conifers that lies just outside the Waikamoi Preserve. The grove was planted in an attempt to stop soil erosion, and despite being non-native does provide habitat for some of the honeycreepers. The campground was closed because of the weather, and Chuck said the forecast seemed rather dire—the worst he had seen in his years leading walks into the preserve. He couldn’t guarantee that there would be any birds with the rain and wind, and also expressed concern that if some of the streams that we had to cross flooded, we could be stuck in the preserve indefinitely. That scared us a bit, but we decided that since we were there already, we would proceed, albeit cautiously and poncho-clad.
As we followed the trail into the preserve, the weather was a far cry from the stereotypical sun and warmth that my mom and sister were experiencing less than 30 miles away on the “dry side” of the island. It was very wet and rather windy and cold. At a number of points, we had to wade through ankle-deep water that was washing across the trail, and despite my raingear I was soaked to the bone. The birds were very quiet as well, but we did see small numbers of the three more common, endemic nectar-eating honeycreepers on the island. They were the Apapane, clad in crimson and black, the green-yellow Amakihi, and the I’iwi, probably the most well-known honeycreeper, vivid scarlet with a sickle-shaped orange bill.
The big targets were the other three honeycreepers on the island, all endemics, and this was basically our only chance to see them. The weather brightened for a little, but as we reached the start of the boardwalk, the best spot for the endemics, it started pouring. Drenched, we slowly made our way along the narrow boardwalk through a spectacular pristine forest, filled with red-flowered Ohia trees, old gnarled and mossy Koa trees, and an understory of ferns.
The variable songs of I’iwis and Apapanes and the rain were the dominant sounds in the forest, but after a while Chuck stopped, and called our attention to a whistle: the call of the Akohekohe! We stood motionless for probably close to twenty minutes, knowing that they often make circuits of the forest and that it could return to the same spot. My clothes, my binoculars, and I were all about as wet as if I had just gone for a swim in the hotel pool. Suddenly, I saw a flash of movement as a bird flew across the boardwalk in front of us: large for a honeycreeper (probably a little bigger than a cardinal), and mostly black, with a cream-colored tuft over the bill, a golden eye-ring, red nape, golden-red streaking on the body, and white tail-tips. I only saw it for an instant before it disappeared, but it was unmistakably an Akohekohe.
Only I had seen it, though, and I wanted a better look, so our vigil continued. Finally we spotted it as it flew back across the boardwalk, and perched not far from where we were standing. Through the fog and rain-covered binocular lenses, we all watched as it moved from tree to tree and flower to flower, a truly striking bird. The experience was made even more incredible by the knowledge that we were in what is essentially the only spot in the world where this bird is seen regularly, and that there are only around 3,800 Akohekohes total. Hopefully that number will rise, and future generations will also be able to watch this remarkable bird and it will not join the grim ranks of the Bishop’s O’o, Po’ouli, and other birds that used to share this forest. (To learn more about conservation on Maui and throughout Hawaii, and to see some awesome honeycreeper photos, check out the Nature Conservancy link above and the Maui Forest Birds Recovery Website).
After the bird disappeared, we continued on to the end of the boardwalk, where my dad spotted a bird creeping up a tree branch in the distance: it was a Maui Alauahio, another endangered endemic, demonstrating why it is also often called the “Maui Creeper.” The Alauahio is a bright insect-eating bird, and it looks and behavior strongly resembles a warbler.
As we climbed back up to the start of the boardwalk, we spotted a couple more Alauahios, and two more Akohekohes, one of which gave great looks right off the trail. We couldn’t track down a parrotbill, but given the weather and the rarity of that bird that was not unexpected. In fact, we were surprised we had seen as much as we did.
After some more wading through streams that were now noticeably deeper than they had been before, we arrived back at our cars. Thrilled at seeing some of the rarest and most beautiful birds in the world, we parted ways with Chuck and the others, and headed back down the volcano towards dry weather and the beach.
About the author: Eamon Corbett is a 17-year-old birder and bird blogger from Pelham, New York, and one of the Student Blog Editors of The Eyrie. He has been birding for almost as long as he could talk, thanks in part to regular family vacations to Florida, where Osprey and Turkey Vultures first caught his eye. Read more of Eamon’s writing on his blog, Flight Log.