Birds of Hakalau

Akepa & Creeper

Akepa & Creeper

Finally, I was able to cross off something that I’ve wanted to do for a long, long time. Over the weekend, our regular group of Manoa Cliff volunteers was able to help with the Hakalau National Wildlife refuge on the Big Island of Hawai’i. Hakalau is one of the finest birdwatching spots in the state and it did not disappoint….

IMG_1388The forest in and around Hakalau harbor some of the rarest birds that are found no where else in the world. Decades of cattle ranching left most of the upper portion of the park denuded; what was once forest, cattle turned to pastureland. The birds native ranges were shrinking to more and more marginal lands.

Fortunately, since at least the mid-80’s, hundreds of thousands of koa trees and other native flora were outplanted to help restore the forest. One translation for Hakalau is “many perches” and year-round, volunteers help with the replanting efforts to ensure the name lives up to its billing for the birds.

These efforts have been successful; now many birds can be fairly easily seen throughout the refuge. Let’s take a look at some of the ones we were able to capture.


Nene (Branta sandvicensis) were everything an poor wildlife photographer like me could ask for: large, inquisitive and also blissfully indifferent to my maladroit attempts at taking decent photos. The nene were not found in the forest. In fact, they spent most of their time poking about the lawn around the cabins! It is around this time of year that the birds return to the area to pair up and raise goslings. I was particularly inspire to see these birds co-habitating with us humans in the area.

IoAnother bird that we saw in more open country was the ‘Io or native Hawaiian Hawk (Buteo solitarius). Like accipteridae throughout the world, ‘io were easily seen cruising thermal updrafts. On this trip, we saw a number of individuals, which was a good sign for the population but a bad sign to all their native avian prey!

But it was the forest that held some truly amazing gems of the avian clade. A couple different lineages of passeridae radiated and evolved to live in these forests, none more spectacularly than the Hawaiian honeycreepers.


juvOne branch of the honeycreepers or Drepanidinae evolved into a primarily nectivorous  diet. I’iwi (Vestiaria coccinea) maybe some of the most common and easily seen of the native honeycreepers up at Hakalau but I don’t take them for granted. With the extinctions of the past few hundred years, i’iwi are the last long-billed native pollinator left in the islands. There are very few places in the world that approach Hawai’i when it comes to bird-pollinated plants (e.g. Hawaiian lobeliads). It is part of what makes Hawaiian forests unique. If we lose the i’iwi, we not only lose that ecological service, but we end an awesome chapter in evolutionary history.

Those are dire-sounding words, which is why it was so great to see them in such abundance at Hakalau. I’iwi were everywhere! They were chasing each other around, driving off Hawaiian ‘amakihi (Hemignathus virens subsp. virens) and resourcefully taking nectar from non-native fuschia plants. It was such a good sign for the future.

I’iwi are found throughout the main islands, at Hakalau, we were lucky to see honeycreepers unique to the big island.


akepa2‘Akepa (Loxops coccineus) are brightly colored insectivores found only in high elevation forests of the big island. These photos show you why I take photos of sedentary plants instead of highly active little birds! If I were a halfway decent photographer these would have been killer photo-ops. Alas, they are neat shots of ‘ohia trees with smidges of native birds. But what these photos don’t fully capture (aside from the birds smartypants) is what spectacular viewing our group had of some rare big island endemics.  In fact, ‘akepa were much easier to track through binoculars than i’iwi. Their forgaging habit of checking the liko of ‘ohia trees was pleasantly slow and methodical. We were lucky that the birds happened to be in some trees down in a gulch. Instead of craning our necks to see birds high in the canopy, these treetops were just about at eye level.

Speaking of luck, Glenn was in the perfect spot to capture this cool moment.

courtesy of Glenn Meltzer

courtesy of Glenn Meltzer

Hawai’i Creeper (Oreomystis mana) are also found only in high elevation forests of the big island. And, again like ‘akepa, they made for easy birdwatching. The name says it all; they’re not called Hawai’i Fast-Moving Herky-Jerks for a reason. Here a juvenile is begging for food from one of its parents. We must have stumbled onto a large multi-species foraging flock. It was a solid 20-30 minutes that we were surrounded by ‘akepa and creepers.

If anyone has any interest in the native birds of Hawai’i, I highly recommend making at least one sojourn up to Hakalau Forest. It is one thing to be in the presence of all these native birds. It is another thing to get a glimpse of what all Hawaiian forest were like in the recent past and hopefully the near future.

*I’d like to make 2 personal notes- Mahalo nui loa to Baron for your ho’okipa. Your warmth and dedication to the cause was inspiring.

-Also, to any i’iwi that might be reading this. If your Hakalau neighborhood is getting too overcrowded, I have some prime real estate for you on the back of Tantalus. I’ll even pay for your airfare and vaccinations. We have a bunch of tasty Clermontia flowers waiting just for you…

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2 Responses to Birds of Hakalau

  1. Chris says:

    You don’t know how lucky you are to have seen and photographed all those birds in one trip, even if they weren’t up to your standards. You guys even had amazing weather! There were some times when it was too wet to even take out the camera, let alone see birds. Looks like you enjoyed yourself out there!

    • Considering just how species poor most O’ahu forest are… just hearing all the bird calls was a treat for us! But the fact that we were able to view the birds under crisp, blue sky was such a blessing. I’d like to think we didn’t take it for granted

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