Jack's Best Bet for Birding on Hawaii Island
Jack Jeffrey knows birds. He knows plants. He knows when plants will bloom and what birds will flock to those blossoms the way my husband seeks out chocolate. For 30 years, Jack has roamed the valleys, rainforests and mountains of Hawaii Island studying, observing and photographing Hawaii’s endemic forest birds as wildlife biologist, photographer and all-around birder.
The statistics about Hawaii's birds are enough to make everyone a birder. Or, at least, want to see just one of Hawaii's endemic--found here and no where else in the world--birds. According to Jack, out of 140 bird species found in Hawaii in 1790’s, half are extinct today. Of the remaining bird species, almost half are endangered, making a sighting a rare treat, indeed.
Two reasons shed light on Hawaii's moniker of "endangered species capital of the world." One, isolation. Back in the day, new species arrived in Hawaii, on average, every 20,000 to 40,000 years. Likely, their predators didn't follow them. Over time, they evolved into a new species, adapting to their new environment--maybe losing toxins and thorns or growing perfectly-shaped bills to slurp every drop of nectar out of a flower that, too, had adapted in its own unique way. Here's a fact Jack tells that I love: A single colonization of finch-like birds, about 3.5 to 4 million years ago, evolved to become the Hawaiian Honeycreepers, an endemic sub-family of birds with over 50 species. Darwin would have gone completely apoplectic over that.
Two, population. As in, small. An 'amakihi on Hawaii Island evolved uniquely different from its breathren on Oahu and, even, Kauai. This kept the overall numbers of each species low. Hence, when humans arrived with animals like cattle, pigs and sheep and invasive plants--at a much faster rate than one every 20,000 to 40,000 years; more like 10 to 20 every year --native habitat was drastically altered. The addition of predators--cats, rats, dogs--and bird diseases pretty much guaranteed the decimation of bird populations. Now, you know why you're asked to relinguish your fruits and vegetables before exiting the airport. Even with--some would say meager--measures in place, the decline continues. As recently as August 2010, two additional bird species--and 45 plant and one Hawaiian picture wing fly species, all from Kauai--were protected under the Endangered Species Act.
A sighting of any of Hawaii's native birds is rare, something not many people have experienced or checked off their life lists--bird, bucket or otherwise. Makes you want to lace up your hiking boots and grab a pair of binoculars, doesn't it?
Here, Jack shares his favorite birding spots on Hawaii Island, as well as some exquisite images of Hawaii’s beautiful birds. (Amakihi, above.)
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
Within Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Nahuku (Thurston Lava Tube) is a good area for birding in the park, especially in the spring. Here, apapane and several other common native forest birds abound, especially when the ohi’a is in bloom. Best Place: Walk the gravel road adjacent to the trail to the lava tube. Birds such as oma’o, elepaio, apapane and amakihi are found in the lush fern forest along the road.
Kipuka 21 is a rainforest area at the 21 mile marker on the Saddle Road (Highway 200), on the north side of the road. You’ll see a gravel parking area and a gate. Best Place: Walk north to the fence. Although the trail into the kipuka is closed, many birds such as apapane, i’iwi (left), oma’o, elepaio, and amakihi can be seen from the fence overlooking the forest. Watch the blooming ohi’a trees for the best birding.
Pu’u O’o Trail
A few miles further on the Saddle Road is the Pu’u O’o Trail. The trail head and gravel parking area are between the 22 and 23 mile markers on the south side of the road. The gravel trail is easy to walk and well marked, with conspicuous ahu, cairns, along the way. All of the common native forest birds, as well as some endangered birds such as akiapola’au, Hawaii creeper (left) and Hawaiian hawk can be found in the koa kipukas along this trail. Best Place: About 1.3 miles in, the trail crosses a vast barren a’a lava flow. No need to cross this flow, the best birding is in the koa kipuka that you just climbed out of.
Hakalau Forest National Wildlife Refuge
By far the best birding on the Big Island is found at Hakalau Forest National Wildlife Refuge high on the eastern slopes of Mauna Kea. This remote refuge is closed to the public and is only accessible by Special Use Permit or by pre-arranged tour. This beautiful rain forest site is home to 3 species of endangered Hawaiian Honeycreepers--akiapola’au (left), Hawaii akepa and Hawaii creeper--as well as large populations of the other Big Island endemic forest bird species. Nene, Hawaiian hawk and pueo also nest on the refuge. One area of the refuge, the Maulua Tract, is open to the public on weekends and holidays. Permission can be obtained by calling the refuge office (808-443-2300). Although not as many bird species are found in this site, it’s still a beautiful rainforest with many common native birds.
You can learn more about Jack Jeffrey and Hawaii’s native birds at Jack’s website. He is available for private birding tours.