Sunday, 6 November 2011

Aloha from Hawaii - A Brit Birder Abroad

The Koko Crater, Oahu
Only a month after starting my new job I found myself in the position of heading to a tradeshow, in order to gain some experience in how the company markets its key products and services. I was to be joining the Marketing Director (Eric) and one of the sales team (Jaime) to the Society of American Foresters annual conference. And where was this taking place? Oh, only Honolulu. On the island of Oahu. In Hawaii. In the middle of the bloody Pacific Ocean.

Naturally, my mind was filled with all the endemic birds that I wouldn't see, due to my being in this tropical paradise for work, rather than leisure. However, it dawned on me that despite my limited time there, I may just be able to see at least a couple of decent birds.

We flew out last Tuesday morning and arrived in Honolulu in the early afternoon. En route from the airport to the hotel in Waikiki I noticed a few birds, in particular several Pacific golden plovers which seemed to occupy any piece of grass or open ground available. Other less inspiring birds seen included several of the many exotic species which festoon the Honolulu landscape.
Having checked into the hotel and done some work related stuff such as assist with the erection of the exhibition booth at the conference centre, I managed to find a little time to explore the local area. An oceanside park was located close to the hotel and I headed there with my trusty bins and vague idea of what avian delights I might be looking for.

Various cage birds at large
I can't recall ever being in a place so littered with birds. They were absolutely everywhere. Well, everywhere that they shouldn't be, that is. There were zebra doves and Java sparrows, common waxbills, red-vented bulbuls, spotted doves and common mynhas all over the place. Spectacular red-headed cardinals and cattle egrets looked very much at home in this tropical environment but were equally untickable.

Pacific golden plover
Then it happened, an actual bonafide Hawaiian bird flew over - a gorgeous white tern. It was soon followed by another and I was able to get good looks at several birds as they came over, heading out to sea. Formerly known by the far more evocative (and personally preferable) name of fairy tern, this was a species I really hoped I'd see, and was fortunate enough to do so on a daily basis during my stay.
I got the chance to scrutinise the numerous, and highly variable, Pacific golden plovers that were feeding on the grassy areas, and managed a few snaps. A handful of ruddy turnstone were feeding along the water's edge and scanning offshore I noticed a distant brown booby (no sniggering at the back...) sat on a buoy. Not a bad start, really.


Red-footed boobies
Found ourselves with some time to spare today and we were keen to explore, so Eric and I decided to hire a car and head into the hills in search of a decent hike.
After a good scout around, stopping off here and there to admire the wonderful scenery (and a stream of red-footed boobies passing close offshore - pic), we opted to check out a trail heading up into the Kuliouou Forest Reserve. We took the Kuliouou Ridge Trail, a 5-mile round trek which took us up to an elevation of around 1000ft, passing through several habitat types.
Kuliouou Forest Reserve
The place was positively jumping with birds. But once again, they were almost all exotic non-native species. At the lower levels we were seeing the now familiar spotted and zebra doves, plus house sparrows, more waxbills and red-whiskered bulbuls. As we gained height Japanese white-eyes became a common sight as they flitted phyllosc-like through the vegetation. A few beautiful white-rumped shama showed well, their plumage every bit as lovely as their song.

Me and a Banyan Tree
As we emerged from a belt of mixed pines and entered an area of true montane tropical vegetation, we hit into a very active feeding flock of birds. Again, white-eyes were prevalent, and I got dazzled by the several incredibly stunning red-billed leiothrix (also known as Pekin robin). Then a small bird really caught my eye. Sat at the top of a small snag, it appeared almost wren-like to the naked eye, but as I got my bins on it my joy was formidable. A stunning apapane - one of the few remaining native bird species to be found on this island. I let out a little profanity of delight. Eric couldn't quite share my excitement, but he was very pleased for me.
Several minutes later, as we approached the summit and the end of the trail, I saw another (or possibly the same one) and watched it at eye-level, feeding in the upper branches of a large tree.
After we'd gorged our senses on the spectacular views (and gained our breath) we headed back down. I soon came across another feeding flock of avian exotica, and was thrilled to pick out a couple of Oahu amakihi among the mix.
The remainder of our descent went without incident, and we soon found ourselves heading back along the coast to Waikiki, stopping to admire the scenery along the way.


Black-crowned night-heron
An early stroll around the park and waterfront near the hotel revealed little more than the previously seen escapees, plus the now expected white terns overhead. I also came across a few black-crowned night-herons (pictured) stalking a fisherman in the park, and a pair of wandering tattler on the breakwater, plus more brown boobies offshore. A lone sanderling was spotted making its way along the tideline and a couple of great frigatebirds drifted over. 
Much of the day was spent at the conference centre, where I was able to chat with local conservation experts and forest management professionals from around North America.


The last day. After a morning at the conference, Eric and I hired a car and headed up to the north of the island for a look around. Passing through large fruit plantations along the way, the scenery was considerably different from the south eastern region we had explored on Wednesday.
Bird life was almost restricted to yet more fence-hoppers, although things got considerably better around the James Campbell National Wildlife Refuge area. Although we couldn't access the site, I was able to see Hawaiian coots plus local distinctive races of moorhen and black-necked stilt. Our brief stop didn't allow enough time to locate any Hawaiian duck or bristle-thighed curlew.
A paddle around at Shark's Cove allowed us to see some fabulous tropical fish at close quarters, and again, we stopped at various points to take in the many amazing vistas.
We flew home late on Friday night, arriving back in Victoria on Saturday. Quite possibly one of the best working weeks I've ever had...! And I added a further 4 birds to my life list. Nice.

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