Bird Watcher's General Store

Still In Hawaii

I’m in Hawaii,

In case Hurricane Matthew blew your newspaper away last week and you didn’t get a chance to read my last column, here’s what is going on. I’m in Hawaii in search of the rare scarlet Hawaiian honeycreeper, locally known as the “Iiwi” (ee-ee-vee)…and also to celebrate my 40th wedding anniversary. (I keep forgetting that part.)

The trip started off kind of ugly. As a surprise for my wife I had reserved a luxury oceanfront condo (the “presidential suite”) for our stay on the island of Kauai. The photos of this particular unit are simply stunning; it’s just too bad we never got to see the place. When we arrived the property owner told us the condo needed some emergency repairs and we couldn’t stay in it. What? No! No! No! That can’t be true. But it was true. Instead of the presidential suite, we ended up in a condo for regular people. Can you imagine? When life gives us lemons, some people make lemonede, but not me. I get sour. I spent the next few hours grumbling and cursing the darkness (even though the sun was out).

By far, the most common bird species on Kauai is the good old domestic chicken. Chickens are walking around everywhere. You see them at the airport, at shopping centers, on the beaches and on the mountaintops. Why so many chickens? For years Kauai’s chickens lived like proper chickens, in coops. Then in the ‘80s and again in the ‘90s hurricanes trashed their coops and set them free, and the birds have been on the lam ever since. And with nearly zero predators to slow their growth, Kauai has become the chicken capital of Hawaii (and the dream vacation destination for Colonial Sanders).

Another abundant bird is the Common Myna. Introduced from Asia, Kauai’s mynas are equivalent to our European Starlings. They can be seen sitting on power lines, picking up scraps in parking lots and gathering in huge, noisy flocks at sunset. Also brought over from Asia are the tiny Zebra Doves. Not much bigger than a muffin (a muffin with a long tail), these petite dove-lets are actually cute, which is something not often said about doves. Then there is every American tourist’s favorite, the Red-crested Cardinal. Native to South America, this cardinal has a red head, but a fluffy gray and white body, looking like one of our cardinals wearing a bathrobe.

So far my favorite birding spot on Kauai has been the spectacular Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge. Right from the refuge parking lot I could see nesting boobies, frigatebirds and several pairs of Hawaii’s state bird, the Nene (nay-nay). But my favorite birds at this refuge were the baby Wedge-tailed Shearwaters. Shearwaters nest in underground burrows and many of these burrows had been dug right next to the walking path that leads to the refuge’s lighthouse. If we looked carefully, we could see the baby birds hiding in the burrows, while the majority of the park’s visitors were clueless about their presence. Speaking of clueless: When I first tried to find the nestlings, I too had a little trouble seeing them in their burrows. But then a ten-year-old girl, “Sarah,” ran over and pointed one out to me. I felt silly that a little girl had to help me find the birds and was hoping my wife didn’t notice, but, of course, she did and is still talking about it. Thanks a lot, Sarah.

After getting our fill of seabirds, we headed to the mountains and Koke’e State Park. This is where the ‘I’iwi was spotted a few days earlier. The drive to the park runs along famed Waimea Canyon. Ten miles long and 3,000 feet deep, Waimea is known as the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific.” I’ve been to both canyons and I think I like Waimea better (mostly because it doesn’t have rattlesnakes). When we arrived at the park I went straight to work looking for the ‘I’iwi. After a short walk down a trail I heard a bird singing from a flowering tree; however, the foliage was so thick I couldn’t see the bird. I stood there for nearly fifteen minutes and still couldn’t find it. (Where was Sarah when I needed her?) Finally, I saw bright flashes of red through the trees and focused my binoculars. Could this be the ‘I’iwi? Could it really be this easy? No, and no it wasn’t. The singing bird turned out to be an ‘Apapane (ah-pa-pa-nee), which is another red Hawaiian honeycreeper, but this bird doesn’t have the crazy hooked beak that the ‘I’iwi have. Nevertheless, ‘Apapane are cool birds and I’m glad I found it on my own…with no help from Sarah this time.

On the way back to our “regular people” condo, we made a quick stop at the famous Wailua Falls (famous for being in the opening credits of TV’s Fantasy Island). The falls were beautiful all right, but the highlight for me was in the canyon below. Swirling above the splashing waters were several elegant White-tailed Tropicbirds. I love tropicbirds and this was the ideal place to see them. Things would have been perfect, except someone in the background kept yelling, “The plane! The plane!” At least, I think I heard that.

They call Kauai “the Garden Island,” and I can see why. Everything is lush and super-green. I would have stayed longer but I got word that two ‘I’iwi were just seen on the Big Island. Time switch islands.

Artwork by Catherine Clark

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