The Hawaiian Islands are located in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, and are thousands of miles (almost 2,400) offshore from the nearest continental land mass. They are located on a hotspot in the middle of the Pacific Plate, where magma has broken through the plate and caused the islands to form. The Hawaiian Islands began forming millions of years ago, and are still being formed today. In fact, there are underwater volcanoes between some islands that still have tens of thousands of years before they break through the ocean surface.

Hawaii's isolation is the reason as to why such unique animal and plant species evolved on the islands. Millions of years ago, the islands were first settled by a few insect, spider, plant, tree, and bird species, and those small number of species have evolved and split into many new species over millions of years.

Hawaii is home to just one endemic land mammal, the Hawaiian Hoary Bat, and one endemic marine mammal, the Hawaiian Monk Seal. Insects have the greatest group of endemic species, and birds don't do too bad with their number of endemic species.

People first settled the Hawaiian Islands approximately 1,500 years ago. As soon as people settled the islands, the endemic bird species began to slide towards extinction. Many bird species known to have exist on Hawaii are now only known from fossils. More and more species have become extinct over the years, and a huge percentage of them have been lost forever. Today, the slide towards extinction is still continuing, but efforts greater than what has ever been done before are trying to save critically endangered species like the Palila and the Nihoa Millerbird.

If you were to visit the Hawaiian Islands 2000 years ago before any people ever reached them, you would be in a world completely unknown to mankind. The entire islands would be covered with native forests, expect perhaps the areas around active volcanoes and at high elevations. Hundreds of bird species found nowhere else in the world would be present all over the islands. Today, Hawaii is nothing at all like it used to be, and visiting the remaining patches of native forest gives us just a glimpse of what "the real Hawaii" really was.

Native Hawaiian forests are made up of many different native plants, but the two trees that make up most of the forest are 'Ohi'a and Koa trees. These are the trees that most of the endemic bird species rely on for food, nesting, and more. Koa trees have been logged for centuries, and Koa wood is very expensive and considered a very good type of wood. The patches of native forest that remains are all that the remaining bird species have left, so it is so important to keep them intact. Keeping them intact however is not easy job to the hundreds of invasive animals and plants that have been introduced to Hawaii.

Walking through native Hawaiian forests and seeing the endemic species is an experience like no other, as I will describe later in this post. There is nothing like it in the whole world.

What has caused the decline of the native species? Habitat loss has slowed down in the past centuries and was most dramatic in the first thousand years of people on the island and after the europeans arrived, and that gave the declines of species a start. The main reason for the decline of the native species today is the introduced plants and animals that have been introduced to Hawaii. Cats, mosquitoes, mongoose, and rats are the main animal problems, and invasive plant species that spread like crazy are another problem. Mosquitoes are particularly bad because they spread avian diseases that have wiped out multiple species of birds. Due to mosquitoes, native birds are pretty much only found in native forests at high elevations where there are no mosquitoes. The mosquitoes are pushing higher up the mountain slopes however, so efforts are being done to grow the forests up the mountains at a similar pace.


Alright, alright, enough lecturing! :lol: Lets get to part of the report with some pictures...

As I mentioned in my first post, this trip wasn't a birding trip, but I did get birding time. On three days I went to places where you can find the native forest birds, and two of these trips were on guided tours with Hawaii Forest & Trail. Hawaii Forest & Trail offers two birding trips. The first trip was to Hakalau Forest National Wildlife Refuge, which has no public access. Hawaii Forest & trail had only one trip to Hakalau during our visit to Hawaii, so I ended up going on the first day. The plane flew into the airport from Vancouver at midnight, and a few hours later in the morning I was on a van to Hakalau at 6:30 AM. :lol:

As soon as the van got up on the Saddle Road (the main road that goes through the Island), we began birding. On the drive to Hakalau we scored lots of birds including Nene, Chukar, Black Francolin, Wild Turkey, Ring-necked Pheasant, Rock Pigeon, and lots of Sky Larks. My first native forest bird of my life was a brief and bad look at a Hawaii 'Amakihi at our breakfast stop at Mauna Kea State Park, where the Hawai'i 'Amakihi occasionally show up.

We arrived at Hakalau, and got out of the van. Even the area where the van was parked was completely different from anything I had ever seen before. Introduced plants were replaced with native 'Ohi'a and Koa trees. The quiet song of introduced birds was replaced with an incredible chorus of Hawai'i 'Amakihi, 'Apapane, and some distant 'I'iwi. We began walking, and first I simply tried to get ID shots of each species, and then "good enough" shots of each species. This wasn't that easy, however. Even getting ID shots was hard. These birds would stay high up in the canopy of the trees and never stop moving. In my entire life, I have never photographed birds as hard to photograph as the Hawaiian native forest birds.

The Hawai'i 'Amakihi was probably the easiest endemic to photograph in this area of Hakalau:

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'Apapane were a big step harder to photograph, but I still managed some shots:

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Once we got deep enough into Hakalau, the I'iwi became more and more common and I got some shots of them feeding in the native 'Ohi'a trees:

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Once in the forest, the experience was magical. The forest is so beautiful, and on top of that you have some of the most beautiful looking and sounding birds in the world all around you. Hakalau Forest National Wildlife Refuge is my favorite birding spot I have ever been to, and that says a lot because I have been birding in a a whole lot of places around the world.

The 'Apapane is a very skilled singer and has so many different variations to its calls and songs:

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The prettiest endemic in my opinion is the 'I'iwi, and it was great when this bird came down lower than usual, even though it was far away:

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As we walked, among the calls of 'Amakihi, 'Apapane, and I'iwi, there was also the occasional Hawai'i 'Elepaio call and frequently 'Oma'o calls. Though we heard lots of 'Oma'o calls, we didn't go after them to try to trace down the birds because the 'Oma'o has a really loud call and unless it is really loud when you hear it, chances are the bird is really far away. We ended up getting a really brief look at one, and I managed to get some ID shots. The O'ma'o is a thrush species found nowhere else in the world except for the Big Island in the Hawaiian Islands.

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Once we got even deeper into Hakalau, we began to hear many singing Hawai'i Creeper. The Hawai'i Creeper is an endangered endemic. It is very similar to the Hawai'i 'Amakihi, but it has a straight bill instead of a curved one and its feeding behavior is different. They were not in a showy mood, but I did manage some shots including this one:

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On the walk back up towards the van, we also got to see some 'Io, the endemic hawk. Once fairly close the the van, we stopped because our guide heard some 'Akepa calling. We searched for them, but the search was stopped short due to a downpour of rain that struck. I did get some nice 'Apapane photos while looking for the 'Akepa, however:

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That concluded that Hakalau trip. It had been a great day! Our guide, Mark, did a fantastic job showing us the native forest birds.


On December 26, it was time for another birding trip with Hawaii Forest & Trail. This trip was the rainforest and dryforest birding tour. Our first stop was the dryforest at a site called Pu'u La'au. The main target here was the critically endangered Palila. We listened for the bird once we arrived, but because we didn't hear it we had breakfast first. Over breakfast, this Hawai'i 'Elepaio showed up. This subspecies of the Hawai'i 'Elepaio with the white on the head is found only on the Big Island in dryforest habitats on the slopes of Mauna Kea volcano.

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After breakfast, we set out in the dryforest searching and listening for the Palila.

It was long before we heard a Palila calling, and it wasn't long after that we located a male and a female Palila feeding in a Mamane tree. Wow! It was incredible seeing my first critically endangered bird species.

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The Palila is a critically endangered Hawaiian endemic and is now only found on the slopes of Mauna Kea volcano between 6,000 and 9,000 feet. The Palila feeds almost strictly on the seeds of the immature mamane tree. Over time, the mamane seeds have become more and more toxic to fight of birds like the Palila that eat the seeds. The Palila has adapted to the toxins perfectly. If you were to feed the mamane to most other bird species, they would be dead in minutes.

After getting some more good looks at the pair of Palila (plus a couple others in the area), we set off to the rainforest. Here is another Palila photo:

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The rainforest we went to is located at about 6000 feet elevation. It is on the northeastern flank of Mauna Loa Volcano. A trail goes through the rainforest area that is called Pu'u O'o Trail. At this destination, our targets would be all the native forest birds found in the area, but the one forest bird that we would be searching for the most was the 'Akiapola'au (a-kee-a-pola-ow).

The rainforest around Pu'u O'o Trail seemed younger than the forest at Hakalau, but it still had a lot of birds. There were lots of 'Ohi'a trees, but we mainly went to the large patches Koa trees where the 'Akiapola'au feeds. The 'Ohi'a trees grow at a rate of about one millimeter a year and the Koa trees grow at a rate of about one centimeter a year.

It wasn't long before we were beneath Koa trees full of Hawai'i 'Amakihi, 'Apapane, 'I'iwi, and sometimes Hawai'i 'Elepaio, 'Oma'o, and flyover 'Io (Hawaiian Hawk). The Hawai'i 'Elepaio here were not shy about showing themselves, and I took lots of photos:

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Juvenile
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I also managed some 'Apapane shots, including this one:

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Our group now took a short rest in the forest. While stopped, I noticed some I'iwi. Unlike most of the I'iwi we had seen, these birds were feeding lower down and more out in the open. I walked closer, and began taking photos:

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The 'I'iwi is the last surviving member of the curve-billed honeycreeper family which is endemic to Hawaii. It is not listed as endangered state-wide, but it is endangered on O'ahu and Moloka'i and is no longer found on Lana'i. The I'iwi is one of the most beautiful endemics, but like all, is very hard to photograph.

This following photo is one of my favorite photos of the trip. The I'iwi usually feeds and moves around high up in the canopy and never stops moving, making it difficult to see, let alone photograph. In fact, I have never encountered birds in my life as hard to photograph as the Hawaiian honeycreeper family. With this in mind, you can manage my awe when the birds moved lower and lower, closer and closer, and when this I'iwi decided to land and on Koa branch very close to me, and near eye-level. It was amazing!

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We now just had one bird left to find. So far, the endangered 'Akiapola'au had eluded us. We had covered a large area of Koa forest, and had no luck. No 'Akiapola'au had even called. The plan now was to head out of the Koa patch we were in and to try a new patch, so that is what we did. We walked for a while through the Koa patch we were in, heading for the next patch. Before we got close to the other patch, we stopped for a Hawai'i 'Amakihi feeding above us. As we watched the 'Amakihi, we heard a call. It was very close. Nobody knew what it was, though. Then, all of a sudden, a yellow bird landed very close to the 'Amakihi and also close to us. Even without any binoculars, you could see that it was a much brighter shade of yellow. It was a beautiful male 'Akiapola'au! We watched it for a while as it fed above us. The 'Akiapola'au has a very unique bill adaptation. When feeding, the 'Akiapola'au takes its lower bill and uses it as a chisel to dig a little hole into the bark of a Koa tree. The bird then uses its upper bill as hook and reaches into the hole to pull out food.

Here is my best shot of the 'Akiapola'au, as it was doing its call. If you look closely, you can see the tongue in this photo:

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Watching the 'Akiapola'au was definitely one of the best highlights of the trip.

After some more birding, it was time to head back to Kona. The drive back was definitely a happy one! Thank you to Mark for guiding us once again on another fantastic birding trip with Hawaii Forest & Trail!


The last trip to see the native forest birds was not on a tour. The destination for the day was the top of a street called Kaloko Drive. Kaloko Drive winds up the slopes of Hualalai Volcano, and the top of the road is just a 30 minute drive from Kona. The top few miles of the road has lots of 'Ohi'a and some Koa trees, which makes for habitat for two native forest birds, the Hawai'i 'Amakihi and the 'Apapane.

The goal at this location was simply to get some better shots of the Hawai'i 'Amakihi and the 'Apapane. I was actually very impressed with the numbers of these species on the road. I didn't expect to see so many, but the Hawai'i 'Amakihi and the 'Apapane were actually very common.

The 'Apapane were not in a posing mood, so the best shot I got was this one:

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The Hawai'i 'Amakihi were definitely willing to pose. They came down really close multiple times, and I got many photos that I am very happy with:

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That wraps up this part of the trip report. The native forest birds of Hawaii are some of the most amazing birds I have ever seen, and seeing them was absolutely incredible.

Thanks for looking! I hope you enjoyed. :)