2022 Birding Trip to Hawaii (Oahu, Kauai and the Big Island)

Hawaii has beautiful birds like this endemic subspecies of BNST in Kauai - Photo: Ilya Povalyaev

We flew on Alaska Air from Vancouver to Honolulu via Seattle. We had been studying the recordings of David Kuhn's native Hawaiian forest birds for Kauai and the Big Island and felt prepared. We arrived in Oahu at noon and picked up our camper van that we rented through Airbnb. 

Honolulu by Air - Photo: Ilya Povalyaev

We went straight to Fort Derussy Beach Park near Waikiki to see Manu-o-Kū or White (Fairy) Terns. It was a lifer for me but not for Ilya who had seen them in Oahu before. They are so beautiful with their big black eyes and all white plumage and blue based black bill. We were lucky to see 2 chicks! They were cute fluffballs!. These terns only lay one egg without a nest. They carefully balance a egg on a tree branch. It is quite the feat! The state of Hawaii goes to great lengths now to protect its native birds. I've included a photo of a protected nesting tree.

Adult White Terns in Honolulu - Photos: Melissa Hafting

Cute White Tern chick in Waikiki - Photos: Melissa Hafting

Juvenile White Tern Chick in Waikiki - Photo: Melissa Hafting

White Tern nesting tree in Waikiki - Photo: Melissa Hafting

After this we went to Kahuku Golf Course where we saw 4 Bristle-thighed Curlews. We also saw many Pacific Golden-Plovers. Pacific Golden-Plovers or Kolea are everywhere in Hawaii, including on lawns, driveways and roofs! We also saw 2 Laysan Albatrosses flying over the golf course. We saw many Common Waxbills, Red-crested Cardinals, Red-vented Bulbuls, Spotted and Zebra Doves and other introduced birds like Common Mynas. We were about to leave when we saw a juvenile Glaucous-winged Gull! For us PNW folks it isn't a big deal but in Hawaii, it is very rare. I have seen Bristle-thighed Curlews before on their breeding grounds in Nome, AK but it was a lifer for Ilya. We also got to hear their call and some walked up close for nice photos.

Bristle-thighed Curlews on the north shore of Oahu - Photos: Melissa Hafting

Glaucous-winged Gull in Oahu - Photo: Ilya Povalyaev

After our great first day, we celebrated by having dinner at the world famous Giovanni's Shrimp Truck. We had their delicious Scampi Platter. We then went to La'ie Point. It is a great scoping spot on the North Shore where birders frequently see Masked Boobies. We scoped and saw several Red-footed Boobies, 2 Brown Boobies and at least 100 Wedge-tailed Shearwaters. We spent the night at Sandy Beach Park where the waves and sounds of Sooty Terns calling over our van lulled us to sleep. 

The next morning we were up before 6 am so we could get to the Aiea Loop Trailhead when it opened at 7 am. The landscape was beautiful and the smell of the Eucalyptus trees was so nice and fragrant. There were many White-rumped Shamas, Red-billed Leothrix and Red-whiskered Bulbuls on the trail. The first Oahu endemic we saw was the Oahu Amakihi. It is a Hawaiian Honeycreeper. We ended up seeing 18 of them on the trail. There were also many Warbling White-eyes. The next bird we were searching for was the endangered endemic, Oahu Elepaio. The first one we heard but could not see. About an hour later with much searching I spotted a male that flew in silently. I called Ilya to come over but by the time he did it had disappeared. Luckily, a female and male eventually came back and gave us extended views and a photo. They really have cute calls and wolf-whistles which we enjoyed hearing. We looked for the Mariana Swiftlet but never saw any.

The endangered Oahu Elepaio (males have black throats) - Photo: Melissa Hafting

Oahu Amakihi on the Aiea Loop Trail - Photo: Melissa Hafting

After having lunch, we went to Makapu'u Lookout where we hoped to see our lifer Masked Booby. We ended up going down to a nearby beach and looking towards Manana Island that had thousands of nesting Sooty Terns on it. We also had great views of 8 Masked Boobies!! We saw several Brown and Red-footed Boobies as well. After this, we went to the Japanese Fishing Shrine. This is where the ABA's 1st Inca Tern had been seen until Jan 8, 2022. We were here to look for a rare Red-billed Tropicbird. We never did see the Red-billed Tropicbird but saw many nesting Red-tailed Tropicbirds and also several Brown Noddies.

Red-tailed Tropicbird in Oahu - Photos: Melissa Hafting

The next day we took Hawaiian Airlines to Kauai. We went and checked in at Inn Waimea and visited the Kawai'ele State Warterbird Sanctuary. Here we saw Nene Geese and Hawaiian Duck.  Kauai and Hawaii are the 2 islands where the ducks are mostly all pure birds, On the other islands they hybridize with domestic Mallards. We also saw Hawaiian Coots and saw the endemic subspecies of Black-necked Stilt and Common Gallinule. There were also shorebirds like Ruddy Turnstone, Sanderling and Pacific Golden-Plovers. There were also nesting Black-crowned Night-Herons and 2 rare for Hawaii, Eurasian Wigeon drakes. There were multiple introduced birds present such as the Black Francolin, Rose-ringed Parakeet, Common Myna, Japanese Bush Warbler, African Silverbill, Java Sparrow, Chestnut Munia, Saffron Finches, Northern and Red-crested Cardinals and Cattle Egrets. As we were driving to Wrangler's Steakhouse for dinner, I spotted a Pueo or Hawaiian Short-eared Owl sitting on a fence post. He gave us great looks. There were also lots of Red-Junglefowl. On Kauai they don't hybridize as much with regular chickens like they do on Oahu and the Big Island. The only countable ABA birds are on Kauai. 

Pueo (Hawaiian Short-eared Owl) in Kauai - Photo: Melissa Hafting

Unusual to see Eurasian Wigeons in Hawaii (Kauai) - Photo: Melissa Hafting

Hawaiian subspecies of Black-necked Stilt - Photos: Melissa Hafting

Hawaiian subspecies of Common Gallinule in Kauai  - Photo: Melissa Hafting

Ruddy Turnstone in alternate plumage in Kauai - Photo: Melissa Hafting

Hawaiian Coot in its habitat on Kauai - Photo: Melissa Hafting

Tutu Nene in Kauai - Photo: Melissa Hafting

Hawaiian Coot in Kauai - Photo: Ilya Povalyaev

The next morning we took our 4WD truck into Koke'e State Park to drive Camp 10 Rd to the Mohihi-Waialae Trail. This trail has all the critically endangered endemics like Akikiki, Akeke'e and Puaohi. However, the road was impassable due to heavy rains. A stream supposed to be a trickle was now a raging river that would of swept the truck away. This area is prone to flash floods from the heavy rains. We were super disappointed because we knew without access to that trailhead we could kiss our chance at those 3 toughest critically endangered endemics goodbye. We did the next best thing and drove up the paved road to the Pu'u O Kila lookout and hiked the very steep muddy trail down to the Alkali Swamp Trail. The red iron-rich soil was very sticky and slippery. We saw multiple people covered in the red clay mud after taking unfortunate falls. The views from the Pihea Trail looking out towards the Napali Coast is gorgeous and worth the effort. We saw pig exclusion fencing all along this trail. What a difficult feat it must have been for the workers to bring all this fencing into such steep terrain!

Views from the Pihea Trail in Kauai (White-tailed Tropicbirds were flying below) - Photo: Melissa H.

The forest down on the in the Alkali Swamp when we finally got there was full of bird song. We saw multiple Kauai Elepaios. These endemic monarch flycatchers are super cute and tame. They look slightly different than the ones on Oahu. We even found 2 in their nests!, We also saw endemic Anianiau, Kauai Amakihi, Apapane and White-tailed Tropicbirds flying to their nests above the Waimea Canyon. We were surprised to see a Short-eared Owl flying over the forest canopy. It was strange for someone who sees them at places like Boundary Bay. 

Kauai Elepaio on the Pihea Trail - Photos: Melissa Hafting

Kauai Amakihi on the Pihea Trail - Photo: Melissa Hafting

Apapane on an Ohia Tree on the Pihea Trail (Kauai) - Photo: Melissa Hafting

Going into Alkali Swamp off the Pihea Trail in Kauai - Photo: Melissa Hafting

Red-crested Cardinal in Kauai - Photo: Melissa Hafting

Kauai Elepaio on its nest - Photo: Melissa Hafting

On the way out after our hike we had several Erckel's Francolins, Chinese Hwamei and a lone Black Francolin.  After a much needed sleep we checked out of our hotel and headed for Kilauea Point NWR. We enjoyed seeing the large colonies of Laysan Albatross on their nests, Red-footed Boobies and the elegant Red-tailed and White-tailed Tropicbirds. We also were pleased to spot an uncommon for mainland Hawaii Black-footed Albatross. We saw several Wedge-tailed Shearwaters in their burrows and a few Brown Boobies and many Nene. 

Elegant White-tailed Tropicbirds at Kilauea NWR in Kauai - Photo: Melissa Hafting

Red-tailed Tropicbirds at Kilauea NWR in Kauai - Photos: Melissa Hafting

Great Frigatebirds (juv at top, female below) at Kilauea NWR in Kauai - Photos: Melissa Hafting

Wedge-tailed Shearwater in its burrow at Kilauea NWR in Kauai - Photo: Melissa Hafting

Laysan Albatross at Kilauea NWR in Kauai - Photos: Melissa Hafting

Red-footed Boobies at Kilauea NWR in Kauai - Photos: Melissa Hafting

After some great photography here and spotting Humpback Whales and Green Sea Turtles we headed to Hanalei via Princeville. We stopped at Princeville to look at nesting Laysan Albatrosses. We found 10 Laysans, including a nest with a chick! It was the first time I ever saw a baby and it was so strange seeing the adult with it on someone's lawn! There were other pairs doing courtship displays and making neat sounds and head bobbing and dancing. The way they walk on land is pretty funny too. The homeowners in the neigbourhood are used to these guys and take great pride in having them there and watching out for their safety. Threats to them are feral cats, dogs, rats and mongoose. Seeing the adult cross the street and waddle to its chick is something I won't soon forget.

Laysan Albatross with chick at nest in Princeville Kauai - Photos: Melissa Hafting

It is normal to see adult Laysans walking on residential lawns in Princeville! - Photo: Melissa H.

On the nearby golf course we found a rare for Hawaii lone Snow Goose. At sunset you can take a 100$ USD self guided tour to shoot the Albatrosses in a gorgeous setting on the golf course on the ocean. We didn't do it this time due to the lack of time but hope to do it next visit as people truly get gorgeous photos that way!

Rare Snow Goose we found in Kauai - Photo: Ilya Povalyaev

After this we checked out the endemic Hawaiian waterbirds like Hawaiian Duck, Stilt and Gallinule in the Taro fields at Hanalei. There were also large flocks of Chestnut Munias. 

Hawaiian subspecies of Common Gallinule at Hanalei - Photo: Ilya Povalyaev

We then drove through Hanalei to Ke'e Beach to see Black (Hawaiian) Noddies. It was so special to see this endemic subspecies and lifer in large numbers as they flew to their nest sites. This is the farthest north one can drive on the island.  We had a lovely dinner at Kalypso's restaurant back at Hanalei. We then drove back and checked into our condo rental that was on a beautiful beach in Ka'paa.

Male (top) and Female Hawaiian Duck in breeding in Taro fields in Kauai - Photos: Melissa Hafting

Chestnut Munia in Hanalei, Kauai - Photo: Melissa Hafting

The next day we went to Poipu Beach to Makahuena Point to scope for Newell's Shearwaters. Kauai is the best place for this species but usually a bit later in April. We dipped! It sure is a beautiful spot that holds many great memories for me though with my mom.

Poipu Beach in Kauai - Photo: Melissa Hafting

Pacific Golden-Plover at Poipu Beach - Photo: Melissa Hafting

In the evening we went to Rock Quarry Beach which is stunning and an area near Kilauea Lighthouse to scope for Kermadec Petrels. We didn't find any there either! They usually come back to this spot in early April but we tried anyways. This year they did come back but on April 5th, 2022. We didn't regret going there though we saw many Great Frigatebirds, nesting Red-tailed Tropicbirds, Brown and Red-footed Boobies, Wandering Tattler, Laysan Albatross and Wedge-tailed Shearwaters.

Kermadec Petrel spot in Kauai at Rock Quarry Beach - Photo: Melissa Hafting

The next day we drove back up to Koke'e State Park to get spectacular views of Waimea Canyon. We saw Scaly-breasted Munia and finally got photos of the equally secretive Chinese Hwamei and Japanese Bush Warbler.  All these species are introduced.

Chinese Hwamei near Waimea Canyon in Kauai - Photo: Melissa Hafting

Scaly-breasted Munia in Kauai - Photo: Melissa Hafting

Japanese Bush Warbler in Kauai - Photo: Ilya Povalyaev

We saw all the same endangered Kauai endemics as the first time. It was raining so hard so the river on Camp 10 Rd was still raging. This area is the second wettest place on Earth apparently! This is why it is called the Garden Isle for the lush beauty it holds from all the rain. Roger Foxall told me the forests of Hawaii with their rich birdsong is magical. I couldn't agree more. There are so many unique sounds from the endemic honeycreepers and monarch flycatchers to all the very vocal introduced species. Since we couldn't ford the river we hiked up the Pihea Trail from the other end all the way back up to Alkali Swamp Trail Junction. It was just over 3 miles but much easier coming in the back end as it wasn't so steep and a lot less mud. The trail also went by a beautiful stream that used to hold nesting Puaohi in the good old days. We saw all the usual suspects but no rarities.

Lush Kawaikoi stream at the lower Pihea Trail in Kauai - Photos: Ilya Povalyaev

The endemic Kauai Spooky Face Spider on the lower Pihea Trail - Photo: Ilya Povalyaev

Mike Toochin told me in the past how dangerous the raging rivers can be and some crazy experiences he had while chasing the critically endangered endemics. My friend Alex Wang had warned me that some people have drowned trying to wade across by foot on Camp 10 Rd and a man camping nearby told me he tried to swim across and it was 3 feet deep the last few days (not passable for a car). He said no one even attempted that day. So despite dipping this time around I'm happier to have my life and to come back next year for Puaohi, Akikiki and Akeke'e before sadly these 3 species are gone for good. We need to get Maui's critically endangered endemics when the Waikamoi preserve opens again post COVID. We might as well combine a trip!

Waimea Canyon in Kauai is simply stunning - Photo: Melissa Hafting

Waimea Canyon in Kauai - Photo: Melissa Hafting

I cried when I saw a Pacific Golden-Plover high up in the forest way above sea level because I would of loved to tell my mom about that and how strange it was for someone from Vancouver. I also had some tears when an endangered Hawaiian Monk Seal swam right under me while snorkeling because the last time I was in Kauai snorkeling with my mom we also saw one together in the same fashion. 

Anyways, let me talk more about this epic snorkel/pelagic trip. My friend Thor Manson did the Nihau snorkel trip last time he was in Hawaii and got great pelagic birds including Bulwer's Petrel. I followed his recommendation and booked with Blue Dolphin Charters. Holoholo Charters goes there too which Thor took but their boat isn't as big and doesn't have two levels which gives you a better vantage for pelagic viewing and on top of that they were more expensive. It was 508$ USD for the 2 of us with Dolphin. The captain told us he had not been able to make the crossing in 1.5 months due to poor weather and high swell in the deep Kaulakali channel. This is one of the deepest channels in the world. The weather was beautiful the day we crossed Kaulakali Channel. Ilya spotted 2 Mottled Petrels and then I spotted a Hawaiian Petrel! 

1 of 2 Mottled Petrels off Kauai - Photo: Ilya Povalyaev

Our objective was to head to Lehua Islet - a bird sanctuary near Nihau. We made it there and were so glad we did because we spotted a Blue-gray Noddy at the island!! Blue-gray Noddies are extremely rare to see on the main Hawaiian islands, so it was super special. All 3 of these birds were lifers for me and 2 of them were lifers for Ilya (he had Hawaiian Petrel). There is a huge colony of Black Hawaiian Noddies here too and Blue-grays have been known to show up here rarely and even nest here. Also a gigantic Red-footed Booby colony is on the island. We also saw White-tailed & Red-tailed Tropicbirds in flight, Sooty Tern, Great Frigatebird and many Wedge-tailed Shearwaters. There were also Brown Boobies, Sooty Shearwaters and 1 Black-footed Albatross. At Lehua Islet we were also greeted by a huge Hawaiian Monk Seal that as I said earlier swam right under me. These seals are endangered and are much bigger than our Harbour Seals. We also had Spinner Dolphins with calves and Bottlenose Dolphins with us! We looked over at Nihau Island but were not permitted to land on the island. It is a private island where only native Hawaiians are permitted to live. This is one reason it is called "The Forbidden Island."

Endangered Hawaiian Monk Seal near Nihau - Photo: Ilya Povalyaev

Lehua Islet off Nihau is a birder's dream and where we saw a Blue-gray Noddy - Photo: Melissa H.

During the crossing back we had several Humpback whales including one with a calf. The crew was amazing and provided us with water, fruit juice and snacks-including cheese, crackers, chocolate chip cookies and a full lunch which consisted of a turkey or vegan wrap with chips and fresh pineapple. There was some people who bought alcohol from the full bar but were soon regretting that off the back of the boat. We then drove along the GORGEOUS Napali Coast. You have seen this impressive coastline if you watched the film Jurassic Park. We saw tons of flying fish which was so cool. 

The stunning Napali Coast on Kauai - Photos: Melissa Hafting

After our great day on the water before our flight to Kona we went to look for the introduced Greater Necklaced Laughingthrush. This bird is only found on Kauai in the Hawaiian Islands. We had seen these birds in their native Thailand but they are beautiful so it was cool to see them in the ABA as well. We ended up seeing 3 of them at the Nounou Forest Reserve near 'Opaeka'a Falls. These falls are very pretty and there we saw Rose-ringed Parakeets and White-tailed Tropicbirds flying around the falls. This is also where we saw the most Zebra Doves in one spot in all our lives!

Greater Necklaced Laughingthrush - Photo: Melissa Hafting

 'Opaeka'a Falls in Kauai - Photo: Melissa Hafting

That evening we flew on Hawaiian Air to Kona on the Big Island. We drove to our cabin - a beautiful Airbnb in Keeau which is near Pahoa and not too far from Hilo. After a lovely sleep where we fell asleep to the sounds of Coqui frogs, we headed to Volcanoes National Park. Here we saw Hawaiian Black Noddies with their orange feet as they nested at Holei Sea Arch. These terns are endemic to the Hawaiian Islands. 

Hawaiian Black Noddies at Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island - Photos: Ilya Povalyaev

At the Thurston Lava tube we saw ʻIʻiwi, Hawaiian Amakihi and Omao for the first time. The road called Chain of Craters Rd is a long road that takes you through multiple old lava flow fields and craters until you hit the ocean. I've been here many times before with my parents the last time being 2013. The landscape is surreal. I thought of my mom constantly while here. White-tailed Tropicbirds flew over the sulphurous craters where they somehow nest. 

This Jeep Wrangler 4WD made the world of difference for birding the Big Island - Photo: Melissa H.

Landscapes, Craters and active volcano at Volcanoes National Park - Photo: Melissa Hafting

Inside and outside the Thurston Lava Tube - Photos: Melissa Hafting

We drove the Mauna Loa Strip Road and saw Kalij Pheasant and more Erckel's Francolins than one could count. Nene were also near the park as well. At night we came back and saw the active lava flowing inside the Kilauea crater. It was truly incredible to see nature's power like that. My cell phone video is terrible and does a huge disservice to this amazing spectacle. When we got back to our cabin a male Barn Owl was waiting for us perched on a telephone wire and a gecko slept beside the bed inside. These geckos are cute and don't bother you in the slightest they just eat bugs so are welcome! 

Erckel's Francolin at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park - Photo: Melissa Hafting

The next day we had booked a guided tour of Hakalau Forest NWR. It is a protected bird sanctuary that hosts several of Hawaii's endangered and endemic birds. You are only allowed to enter with a permitted guide. We went with Garry Dean from Hawaii Forest and Trail. They spray your boots with alcohol to prevent Rapid 'O'hia Death (ROD). ROD is a fungus that is killing many of Hawaii's native trees which are the life blood of these endemic endangered Hawaiian Honeycreepers. Garry was awesome, kind and knowledgeable. He is originally from Kelowna, BC which is cool. He also talked about and paid respect to the native Hawaiian culture and what the land here means to them. I highly recommend going in with this company. They also give part of their proceeds to Hakalau Forest Birds Recovery Project. Inside the pristine forest preserve we saw gorgeous male Hawaii Akepas. The males are so brilliant orange and very endangered. We also saw Alawi (Hawaiian Creeper), Hawaiian Elepaio and many ʻIʻiwi and Hawaii Amakihi. Alawi are predated by rats as they nest close to the ground and this has caused their population to decline dramatically. This is why Hakalau is such a vital spot for native endemic forest birds. The Hawaii Akepa is the only cavity-nester in Hawaii and depends on natural cavities to nest and is therefore dependant on old growth trees and is affected by deforestation. We searched hard for Hawaiian Hawk or I'o but came up empty. We saw many Omao (thrushes) Apapane and Nene. The main target at Hakalau is the endangered `Akiapola'au or Aki. However, despite extensive searching we didn't find one which was a huge bummer.

Entrance to Hakalau Forest NWR - Photo: Melissa Hafting

Hawaiian Adult and Imm. Nene at Hakalau - Photos: Melissa Hafting

Endangered Alawai (Hawaiian Creeper) at Hakalau on the Big Island - Photos: Melissa Hafting

Omao at Hakalau NWR on the Big Island of Hawaii - Photo: Melissa Hafting

Endangered male Hawaii Akepa at Hakalau - Photos: Melissa Hafting

 ʻIʻiwi at Hakalau NWR on Hawaii Island - Photo: Ilya Povalyaev

On the road out we had California Quail, Pueo (SEOW), Eurasian Skylark, wild Pigs, wild Sheep and Goats (all bad for the native flora and fauna), Ring-necked Pheasant, Kalij Pheasant and tons of Erckel's Francolins. Erckel's are extremely threatened in their native Ethiopia. Ths is also true for the Java Sparrows you see everywhere in Hawaii, that are critically endangered in their native Indonesia, due to the illegal bird trade. After dipping we decided to go look for Aki on our own the next day. I was feeling a bit down and sad missing my mom. I had some tears not because of missing Aki but wishing my mom was here with me. It was raining hard and cloudy when suddenly I looked out the car window on my side and saw a beautiful rainbow come out. I immediately felt warm and comforted. I knew that was my mom with me telling me she's here with me. 

My mom's rainbow - Photo: Melissa Hafting

We hiked the Pu'u O'o Trail for a pleasant easy 2 miles over lava rock looking for Aki in the various Kipukas but did not find any. We did enjoy pleasant forest birding in the kipukas though, with the Hawaii Elepaios, ʻIʻiwi, Amakihs, Apapanes and Omaos. I really have to say I love hearing the wing flutter of Apapanes and ʻIʻiwi.

Pu'u O'o Trail in Hawaii (easy 2 mile hike to try for Aki) - Photo: Melissa Hafting

Entering a Kipuka on the Pu'u O'o Trail - Photo: Melissa Hafting

Hawaii Elepaio (Hilo Coast) in Kipuka on Pu'u O'o Trail on Hawaii Island - Photo: Melissa Hafting

 ʻIʻiwi in Kipuka on Pu'u O'oTrail in Hawaii Island - Photo: Melissa Hafting

Hawaii Amakihi on the Big Island - Photo: Ilya Povalyaev

Well we heard you could see Aki sometimes in Pu'u Maka'ala Nature Reserve. It is a long arduous ordeal to get their by foot or motorized 4WD vehicle. Since we didn't feel like hiking 15 km in the sun on lava rock we took our rental Jeep Wrangler on a 1 hour and twenty minute 4 WD adventure. You can see from my video that it is literally like driving on the moon. At one point we had to narrowly get around a downed power line. That was damn scary in our little metal box but we made it safely as I got out of the car to direct him around the line.

Entrance to Pu'u Ma'ka'ala NAR - Photo: Melissa Hafting

Entering Pu'u Ma'ka'ala by foot - Photo: Ilya Povalyaev

At the end of the vast lava rock wasteland there was an oasis or Kipuka of trees with 2 Kalij Pheasants who greeted us. The forest is intact here and there is a tall gate to get in that you must climb and hop over. This place is fully accessible and open to the public but it is fenced and gated like this to keep out mammals, cars and ATVs. Hiking is permitted in here but everyone should spray their shoes first before entering to prevent ROD. Sadly we did find some sheep in here I have no clue how they got in.

Once you are in the lush Koa and O'hia forest it is full of bird life. It was truly magical. Within an hour we found 2 Akis calling to one another and foraging up and down the tree like a nuthatch. It was incredible to see this species.  These endangered large honeycreepers have evolved to fill the niche of woodpeckers. They have super long thin decurved upper mandibles and a thick shorter lower mandible. They use their lower mandible to bore intro the bark of Koa trees and use their top mandible to extract the grubs! Yes they are finches! They figure that all the honeycreepers in Hawaii come from the Eurasian Rosefinch.

Female Aki at Pu'u Ma'ka'ala NAR on the Big Island of Hawaii - Photo: Melissa Hafting

You can listen to a recording I got of the female calling below:

Beautiful Kalij Pheasants at Pu'u Ma'ka'ala NAR on the Big Island - Photo: Melissa Hafting

In the evening after that thrilling find we went swimming with Manta Rays at night. Ilya booked us with Hang Loose Boat Tours. They take you out of Kona in the dark in wet suits and they shine bright blue lights on the water. This light attracts plankton to come to the surface. This is the food that giant Mantas eat. The Mantas in Kona are the only mantas in the world that are known to eat at night. These gentle giants began to swim up from the deep towards us. You aren't allowed to touch them but a couple of them brushed my skin . You don't want to touch these rays with your fingers as it can make them sick and destroy their protective skin membranes. As we watched them swim right in front of us we were in complete awe. It was a magic moment - a dream come true!!! I was beside a marine biologist from San Diego who was telling me how one ages, identifies and sexes them. Each giant coastal Manta has a different set of spots on its underbelly. Fascinating stuff. 
Well, I didn't think things could get any better until I heard the sound of dolphins communicating and sure enough a pod of Spinner Dolphins came up right under us. Ilya and I looked at each other like this is crazy awesome! Dolphins don't eat plankton but are curious and wanted to see what these funny humans diving with the rays were up to. It was another moment I wish I could of told my mom about. These 2 hours in the ocean with the giant coastal Manta Rays was the highlight of my trip! YES, MY TRIP HIGHLIGHT WAS NOT A BIRD! Ilya also agreed. Most of the Mantas we swam with had wingspans of 10-14 feet but one had a wingspan of 16 feet! I am so glad they are gentle giants. The marine biologist told me he views them as giant undersea butterflies.

Swimming with Manta Rays in Kona was life changing! 

This is not my video but gives you an idea of how magical it was to swim with these creatures and when the Spinners came in, it was even more special.

Here is a video (not mine), so you can see how playful and curious the Spinners are and what they sound like under water! They are so cute!

The next morning we left our cute Airbnb in Holualoa and set out to look for Hawaii's only Hawk the 'Io . We ended up finding a light morph 'Io (Hawaiian Hawk) in a lush semi-residential forest overlooking Kona. It was only 10 mins from our place. It was calling as we got out of the car. They really reminded me of Broad-winged Hawks. These hawks used to be on other Hawaiian islands but for unexplained reasons only persist on the big island. They are susceptible to deforestation, rat poison, illegal shooting and vehicle collisions.

 Hawaiian Hawk or 'Io near Kona, Big Island - Photos: Melissa Hafting

Now we only had one more endemic left to find the critically endangered Palila. Their habitat has reduced to 12 square miles on the slopes of Mauna Kea. As we searched for hours driving up the 4WD dirt roads we saw Northern Mockingbirds, Skylarks, Erckel's Francolins, Amakihi, Red-billed Leothrix, Pueo and Cardinals but the Palila remained elusive. We saw rat traps, pig exclusion fencing, mongoose traps and even feral dog and cat traps. As a dog and cat lover that was hard to see especially since it is humans who ultimately created the problem. There are feral sheep and goats that are overgrazing the habitat of the Palila which are causing many of the Mamane Trees to die. The Mamane is the main food source of the Palila even though they also enjoy the fruit of Sandalwood trees.

Signs near the Palila Discovery Trail near Mauna Kea - Photo: Melissa Hafting

After looking for 2 full days and on day 2 at 9 hours in, I decided to sit in the Jeep with the windows down for a break.  We had been hiking all around in the baking sun on uneven terrain and after 9 hours of constant searching, I needed a rest.  After 30 mins I heard the beautiful warbling song of a Pine Grosbeak. I thought I had to be dreaming but got out of the car and looked in the direction of the sound behind me. Sure enough there was a stunning male Palila singing from an exposed perch! 

I could not see Ilya so screamed "I GOT IT - COME BACK!!!" He responded "I'M COMING" in a very panicked manner and I could hear him running.  I kept my eyes on the bird and it was still there warbling. Ilya had walked a long ways and it took him a good few minutes to get back to me. I couldn't believe the bird was just sitting beside me here for so long after being MIA for 9+ hours!! I saw Ilya running to me and just before he got to me the bird flew away. I saw the direction it flew and we followed it. We couldn't see it but then it sang again. They really do sound like Pine Grosbeaks and he spotted it in a Mamane tree. They have yellow wings, yellow heads, black bill and mask (males), gray mantle and a white belly. They are the last finch-billed Hawaiian Honeycreeper left in all of the Hawaiian Islands. After hearing from other birders looking for a week and yes even months... I fear this critically endangered honeycreeper only has mere years left. 

Critically endangered Palila near Mauna Kea, Big Island - Photos: Melissa Hafting

Car parked on 4WD road "R-10" as we search for the Palila - Photo: Ilya Povalyaev

After this exhausting but rewarding day we looked up the slopes of Mauna Kea and saw snow at the top. It is so funny to see snow at the top of a volcano in warm Hawaii. I've driven to the top of Mauna Kea to see the snow but we didn't this time. Palila are only found 6000 feet or more above sea level. This is due to habitat degradation, avian malaria, climate change and predation from cats. We were so happy we rented a high clearance 4WD Jeep, as without it we would never have got Aki or the Palila.

You may remember earlier on when we were in Oahu that we tried twice for the Red-billed Tropicbird (where the Inca Tern had been) and dipped. We decided to fly back to Oahu for the day and try for it again. Inter-island flights on Hawaiian Air are super cheap (between 30-50$). They would never be this cheap in Canada so we took advantage. We also got a cheap deal on a car rental as Honolulu airport has tons of competition. Funny enough the flight was full so we couldn't sit together. I was sitting beside a young man. I had a sudden urge of grief as I did a few times on this trip and started to look at photos of my mom on my phone. I find it comforting to look at her photos but it made me cry.  Sometimes I got mad at myself for not being able to be completely happy even when away on vacation in beautiful Hawaii but reminded myself this is totally normal to grieve and feel this way. I was scrolling through old photos of her, the funeral and grave on my phone as well and began to cry. The guy beside me who had to be 25 or less looked at me and said "Did you lose your mom?" I said "yes... cancer" and he said "I lost my wife last month -- car accident. This was supposed to be our honeymoon." He put his hand on mine and we looked at each other. He had a single tear. It was a heartbreakingly sad moment but a comforting one. Who would of thought I would be holding hands with a stranger on a plane. The heavens must of had us sit together for a reason. We never told each other our names but he brought me comfort and in that moment we connected and apparently both needed each other. When we landed he smiled and nodded and got off the plane. I hope he has a bright life ahead of him with much future love and happiness.

After we landed and picked up our car at Alamo we drove to the Japanese Fishing Shrine and sat on the rocks overlooking the beautiful ocean and waited for the bird to fly by. While waiting we had several Red-tailed Tropicbirds fly right by our heads. They are such elegant creatures and many landed in front of us at their nests/burrows in the rocks below. They were great fun...entertaining and noisy company.

Red-tailed Tropicbird in Oahu - Photos: Melissa Hafting

Red-tailed Tropicbird on a nest in Oahu - Photo: Melissa Hafting

I also spotted a pilot whale which was super cool! The Red-billed Tropicbird apparently had a pattern. It typically flew by between 12-2pm we were told. We sat there from 11:30am until 3pm and were getting super worried. Ilya had pretty much given up and had resorted to scoping the waters to see what else was out there. We had many Sooty Terns, Red-footed and Brown Boobies, Brown Noddies, White Terns, Ruddy Turnstones and Wandering Tattler. I was looking all around as Red-tailed Tropicbirds were still flying to and from their burrows but no longer in large numbers of 16-25. It was now 1-3 Red-tailed Tropicbirds coming every 20 mins or so. It was looking grim. 

Sooty Terns flying by us in Oahu - Photos: Melissa Hafting

I started scoping too and just as I did a tropicbird rocketed out from a burrow east of us in the distance. In my scope I saw the black on the outer primaries and a long white tail! It was him! I couldn't believe my eyes! I told Ilya "IT'S HIM!!!" and he was so shocked and scrambled to get his scope on it. It was coming straight for us! and with the wind it rocketed so fast past us, our photos were a complete blur. Birders had come and left all day and we were the only 2 that remained. There was an older woman with bins searching further down, it was flying past her just as she was entering her car. I tried waving and screaming at her but she didn't hear me and got in her car and drove off. I felt bad for her if only she knew how close she was!! After she left, the rare Red-billed Tropicbird turned around and came back slowly this time against the wind. This time we were both able to get gorgeous looks and nice photos of this truly spectacular seabird as it flew past our heads. All tropicbirds are elegant and beautiful and we got to see all the tropicbirds in the world on this trip. However, I have to say the Red-billed is to me, the most striking with the White-tailed a close second.

Red-billed Tropicbird in Oahu - Photos: Melissa Hafting

After this we went to Makapu'u Beach Park to scope towards Manana Island Bird Sanctuary. We saw at least 3000 nesting Sooty Terns, 2 Masked Boobies, Wedge-tailed Shearwaters, Brown Noddy, Brown and Red-footed Boobies. We had fun shooting the cute Zebra Doves here as well. Ilya told me I would regret not shooting the common introduced birds and I never got a photo of a Common Myna so he was right! That evening we went for dinner at a lovely restaurant called "et al." The food and atmosphere was lovely. We talked about our love for our mothers. After this we went to a very private beach and took the Chinese eco-friendly, biodegradable sky lanterns that I bought and wrote our mothers names on each of them. Each lantern was inscribed with the words "In memory of Valerie Hafting and Lyudmila Povalyaev - To those whose flame has been extinguished, let this light represent our love and compassion. We will never forget you." After some tears we headed back to Honolulu airport for our flight back to Kona on the Big Island. Both our parents went to Hawaii before and loved it and both to this island so that's why we chose to do it on Oahu.

Zebra Dove in Oahu - Photo: Melissa Hafting

Hawaii is full of non-native introduced birds from many different parts of the world such as Africa, Asia and India. We saw many of them on our travels but didn't deliberately seek them out even though some would be lifers. I've seen many of these birds in their native Asia, South America and mainland North America. I dunno, but for me personally, I like seeing birds in their true native range even if they are now countable by the ABA. However, there was one introduced bird I really wanted to see and that was the Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse. These African and Middle Eastern birds are not only stunning but carry a unique ability. Because they live in very arid environments and must fly large distances to find water, they can carry water on their feathers that they bring back to their young. Chicks then suck the feathers of the bird just as a calf would suck the teats of a cow. It is quite unique and cool to see. We drove to a cement plant above Waikoloa where the birds congregate to bathe and drink. We saw Rosy-faced Lovebirds, Saffron Finches, Wild Turkey and Scaly-breasted Munias and then these elegant game birds flew in!! They are pale beige with yellow irises, big black eyes, a black ring on their breast (males), black on their primaries, a long tail, scalloped feathered flanks and of course a chestnut-coloured belly. We saw 12 of them and it was really cool to see.  I really hope one day to be lucky enough to see them in their native range.

Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse on the Big Island of Hawaii - Photos: Melissa Hafting

We had observed from eBird that the Camp 10 Rd was now passable to go find Kauai's 3 most endangered and challenging endemics. We had found cheap flights and even hotel availability but we could not find a single 4WD rental car. We called and checked every rental car company on the island. Kauai is a small island and the most beautiful island in Hawaii. Since travel restrictions are now greatly reduced Hawaii is now once again overrun with tourists, so we really weren't surprised but still terribly disappointed. Therefore, we didn't extend our trip as a 2WD would never have made it down that road to successfully ford that stream. We decided to do it next year and combine it with Maui to get their 3 endemics. The area where the Maui Parrotbill and Akohekohe are at Waikamoi preserve is still closed to the public due to Covid or we would of done it this year too.

The place we stayed at in Holualoa was so beautiful with a view of the ocean and Yellow-billed Cardinals about. In the night Coqui frogs (whom I love) sang all night. If you want to listen to what they sound like listen to my recording below:

The next morning before our flight we went to McDonalds. All McDonald's across the world have unique food endemic to the region. In Hawaii the locals love SPAM (since WWII) with rice and eggs for breakfast. We ordered the "Local Deluxe" and had eggs, rice, Portuguese sausage and substituted bacon for the spam. I personally can't stand the stuff! The food was surprisingly tasty and nothing like our McDonald's in mainland North America haha. They used fresh scrambled eggs and used high quality sausage and bacon like in real restaurants. 

We then went to Mauna Kea Beach, it is a beautiful snorkeling beach. I last went there with my mom, dad and sister in 2013. It is one of the most beautiful beaches in the world with white sand. We saw tons of tropical fish and sea turtles. 

We then drove to the north of the island past Hawi to Keokea Beach where we scoped for Newell's Shearwaters but didn't see any. We were a bit too early for this species along with Kermadec Petrel and both are more commonly found on Kauai. When we come back to Kauai next year, we will be sure to book later on in April. You live you learn! 

We then drove to see the famous green sand beach called Papakolea Beach whose habitat has been severely degraded by ATV's. We also went to the famous black sand beach called Punaluu beach. Oh how my mom loved this beach. It brought back a ton of happy memories here from childhood. She loved to feel the black sand between her tows and I vividly remember her laughing with joy at seeing the green sea turtles hauled out on the black sand. I really remembered her in so many beautiful places during this trip, that I got to share with Ilya, making this trip even more special for me.

That night we flew home to Vancouver via Seattle. The Alaska crew were wonderful on board too. It was one of the best vacations we ever had and we agreed the hardest we ever worked as birders to find endemic species in our lives. It really is time to go now if you want to see Hawaii's endemics before it is too late. It was definitely the most technically difficult, arduous and ultimately most rewarding birding of our lives. 

Sunrise at Waimea Canyon in Kauai - Photo: Melissa Hafting

Thank you to all my friends both in the US and Canada who gave me valuable Hawaiian bird info and tips for this trip and to Bridget Spencer for running the RBA in my absence and for doing such a great job!

Aloha and Mahola for reading.



  1. Fantastic post- sounds like a great trip for birds and for reflection. Your photos, as always are amazing! Thank you!

  2. Wow! Sounds like an amazing trip - both for the birds and the chance to get away and reflect a bit. Thanks as always for the amazing photos!

    1. thanks margy means a lot. i definitely needed to get away and just process everything that happened and how traumatic it was to lose my mother. I was glad I had the birds to distract me and give me some uplifting moments.

  3. What a wonderful trip! Thanks for sharing

    1. thanks so much for reading my long-winded report! ;-) hope you had a nice easter with julia!

  4. great report mel. you did so well and thanks for being vulnerable with us. you are really strong. really sorry you lost your mom but glad you got to get away for a much deserved break and beautiful birds. I hope you can get all the remaining honeycreepers next year knowing you I know you will accomplish it. The akipolaau is a very neat bird quite amazing how these birds have evolved the way they have!

    1. thanks mike. i don't feel strong anymore but i'm trying every day is really a struggle for me. i have ok days and many bad days but i'm going to keep getting up and carrying on for my mom as best i can despite how sad i am inside.

  5. I am convinced you should be an author. you have a great writing style. you worked really hard for these birds and I am so happy you got them. I have always wanted to go see the palila and other honeycreepers. your akepa photos are incredible and to see white terns is another goal of mine. how amazing they can keep that egg balancing on the tree! not to mention I want to see laysan albatross like you have up close and personal. better yet I want one on my lawn. I wish I could of met your mother she obviously was a beautiful person like you. please know she would be so proud of you and the woman and talented birder you have become.

    1. thanks for your kind words I really hope you go soon to see the palila because time seems to be running out for them. yes regarding those white terns it is incredible how they don't break the egg! thanks again. I hope a LAAL comes your way :)

  6. Sounds like a great trip with lots of great birds and adventures. Very beautiful pictures of the scenery and birds.

  7. Sounds like an amazing trip with great adventures and bird watching. Beautiful pictures as well!

    1. thank you it was a great adventure. we can't wait to go back!

  8. What an amazing trip! Thank you for sharing your experience and beautiful images with us! My brother lives in Waimea - and often would try to describe the canyon but your photos capture the spectacular beauty!! Lovely Blog post Mel - and I know your Mom was there with you!

    1. dear kate that is amazing your brother lives in waimea. I loved that little town everyone is so friendly and yes that canyon is spectacular. thanks for that I felt my mom there with me too... i miss her so every single day im still so affected don't think it will change and especially I miss her at easter.

  9. Superb work on getting all of the endemics you saw! i hope I can go one day. The way you two honoured you mothers was so beautiful.

    1. thanks shou! I hope you can go one day too. <3 I hope our moms were smiling down that day.


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