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Sunbird – Itinerary

Hawaii: Rainbow of Birds

Saturday 22 February to Wednesday 4 March 2020
February - March 2021
with Derek Lovitch and Lance Tanino as leaders

Maximum group size: 11 with 2 leaders

2020 Tour Price : £4,910

  • Single Room Supplement : £950
  • Plus flights estimated at : £930

Just one of these islands’ many fascinating endemics, the peculiar Nene or Hawaiian Goose stalks the lava flows on partially webbed feet. Photo: Narca Moore-Craig

It might be the 50th state, but birding in Hawaii feels totally unlike being in the United States. Without vagrancy, no remote islands would have landbirds. Here, on one of the world’s most remote archipelagos, the chance arrival of far-flung waifs – a finch, a solitaire, and a monarch flycatcher – led to mind-blowing adaptive radiation that resulted in the evolution of some very unique species. The ancestral finch, for example, gave rise to the Hawaiian Honeycreepers which have developed a huge range of shapes, sizes, and especially bills – from curlew-like curves for probing cavities to grosbeak-like seed-smashers. Some argue the honeycreepers even put “Darwin’s Finches” to shame.

This evolution, fueled by ‘island biogeography’ where species evolved to fill open niches thanks to the pressures of isolation, has led to some truly unique birds that can be found nowhere else in the world. Unfortunately, the one variable that these species have had a tough time adapting to is Man. Since the first Polynesians arrived in the islands, introduced species, diseases, hunting, and habitat loss have only increased. This tour will celebrate those species that continue to survive despite the myriad of threats. We hope to raise awareness and spur more support for conservation, and to marvel at some of the most unique species in the world. And let’s be brutally honest here – we may simply not have time to wait much longer to see some of these amazing creatures.

On the other hand, by working to reduce threats of introduced predators such as cats, mongoose, rats, these seabirds and waterbirds are not only surviving but, in some areas, thriving too! From the once critically-endangered Nene (Hawaiian Goose), this state’s bird has staged a dramatic comeback. In some areas, native waterbirds such as the endemic Hawaiian Duck (Koloa Maoli) and Hawaiian Coot (‘Alae Ke’oke’o), endemic subspecies of Black-necked (Hawaiian) Stilt (‘Ae’o), Black-crowned Night-Heron (‘Auku’u), and Common (Hawaiian) Gallinule (‘Alae ‘Ula) are numerous. Thanks to fencing and conservation efforts some of the pelagic species, that return only to the Hawaiian Islands to nest, are recovering. While we will not shy away from understanding and discussing the problems for native birds, we will also relish in the hope of promising new efforts and strategies.

Meanwhile, the developed lowlands, full of introduced vegetation from around the world, is teeming with a host of introduced birds from all corners of the globe. Despite the unnatural state of these areas and their new avian denizens, we will enjoy them – from the smallest waxbills and finches to the largest francolins. 

We’ll further our exploration and understanding of an area through its food. From quick and convenient “plate-lunches” to fine dining and the international fusion that makes up modern Hawaiian cuisine.

Day 1: The tour begins at 5 pm in the lobby of our group hotel in Waikiki, near Honululu International Airport. Night in Waikiki.

Day 2: We’ll begin with an early breakfast followed by birding right outside the front door of our hotel, where White Terns (Manu-o-Ku) will be wheeling over Queen Kapiolani Park. Spotted and Zebra doves, Common Mynas, and other long-ago introduced birds will help us usher in the sunrise, before we depart for our first trip into the forest for endemic landbirds.

A moderate-length, fairly-easy hike will take us into the edges of the remaining native forest in the mountains of Oahu in search of the final two extant endemic landbirds, the O’ahu Elepaio and the O’ahu ‘Amakihi. Chestnut Munias, Red-billed Leiothrix, and White-rumped Shamas are among the species to enjoy as we slowly mosey up the trail. 

After lunch, we’ll head to the North Shore. While most famous for its surfing, birders know it better for Bristled-thighed Curlews (Kioea). We’ll continue our birding for overwintering shorebirds and native resident waterbirds, including the endemic Hawaiian Coot (‘Alae Ke’oke’o) and three endemic subspecies: Common (Hawaiian) Gallinule (‘Alae ‘Ula), Black-necked (Hawaiian) Stilt (‘Ae’o), and Black-crowned Night-Heron (‘Auku’u). Night in Waikiki.

Day 3: If we are still looking for the island endemics, O’ahu ‘Elepaio and O’ahu ‘Amakihi, we’ll start the day by heading back into the woods at one location or another. Afterwards, we’ll have a lovely, relaxing day of enjoying Red-tailed Tropicbirds (Koa’e ‘Ula), Great Frigatebirds (‘Iwa), White Terns (the Official Bird of the City & County of Honolulu), Pacific Golden-Plovers (Kolea) and a host of other species from Rose-ringed Parakeets to Red-vented Bulbuls and Java Sparrows. Depending on our timing, we may spend the evening seawatching for the likes of Wedge-tailed Shearwater (‘Ua’u Kani), Brown Noddy (Noio Koha), and Brown and Red-footed boobies (‘A). We’ll keep a close eye on the Rare Bird Alerts for any exciting vagrants, which can come from either side of the vast Pacific! Night in Waikiki.

Day 4: Following a couple of hours in Queen Kapoliani Park looking at a wide variety of species, we’ll take a short flight over to the Garden Isle of Kauai early in the morning. You’ll be amazed at the contrast between the urban Honolulu area and this rural island with its small population and extensive forests. Miraculously free of mongooses, native waterbirds are much more abundant here than any other of the main Hawaiian Islands. Depending on flight times and weather conditions, we may head up the island’s eastern shore for them, including Hawaiian Duck and the state bird, the Nene.

Kilauea Point NWR is the highlight for many birders and non-birders alike. While the first of the Wedge-tailed Shearwaters (‘Ua’u Kani) that nest here may just start arriving, we’ll see nesting Laysan Albatrosses that will be hard at work. Great Frigatebirds (‘Iwa) will be pursuing Red-tailed Tropicbirds (Koa’e ‘Ula) overhead, and Red-footed Boobies (‘A) will be nesting in trees on the cliffs. Expect to get to know Nenes on a very personal level. An evening seawatch could yield more ‘Wedgies,’ Newell’s Shearwater, and perhaps Hawaiian Petrel. Night in Lihue.

Day 5: If weather and road conditions allow, we’ll have an early start to drive up the challenging two-tracks into the rainforest. We’ll get as high and as deep as we can. Once we arrive, we will have the chance for a moderate hike (a few short challenging stretches) where Kauai ‘Elepaio, Kauai ‘Amakihi, ‘I‘iwi, and ‘Apapane are likely,  and where ‘Anianiau and maybe even ‘Akeke’e are possible. Night in Lihue.

Day 6: This morning we will offer a second chance to head into the forest for any accessible missing endemics, as well as taking in the stunning scenery of Koke’e State Park. White-tailed Tropicbirds (Koa’e Kea) will be swirling above and through lush jade valleys in some of the most breathtaking landscapes in all Hawai‘i. A few refuges for waterbirds will be searched for residents and migrants, and perhaps even a few hours of rest and recuperation. Night in Lihue.

Day 7: Kilauea Point NWR is the highlight for many birders and nonbirders alike. While the first of the Wedge-tailed Shearwaters (‘Ua‘u Kani) that nest here may have just started arriving, we’ll see nesting Laysan Albatrosses that will be hard at work. Great Frigatebirds (‘Iwa) will be pursuing Red-tailed Tropicbirds (Koa‘e ‘Ula) overhead, and Red-footed Boobies (‘A) will be nesting in trees on the cliffs. Expect to get to know Nenes on a very personal level.

We’ll look for wintering shorebirds and more waterbirds, and we’ll make sure everyone has seen enough (countable!) Red Junglefowl (Moa). We’ll search for some elusive introductions, such as the Greater Necklaced Laughing-Thrush, and perhaps chase down a vagrant or two.. An evening seawatch could yield more “Wedgies,” Newell’s Shearwater, and perhaps Hawaiian Petrel if time and weather conditions allow. Night in Lihue.

Day 8: We’ll take an early morning flight to the Big Island for our final four days. It’s really amazing how different each Hawaiian island is, and as we find ourselves travelling from one of the oldest of the main islands to the youngest in the archipelago, we’ll see another contrast. In fact, it’s so young that it’s still being built, with near-constant activity from one volcano.

We’ll begin our explorations by birding our way to our final hotel, checking some of the productive locales of the Kona Coast, known for a wide array of migrants and vagrants. We’ll also add to our list of introduced species, starting with Yellow-billed Cardinals at the airport. The Kona area is also home to a variety of species such as Lavender Waxbill, Red-masked Parakeet, African Silverbill, Saffron Finch, Red Avadavat, and Yellow-fronted Canary. Night in Kona.

Day 9: We’ll head to the breathtaking Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. We’ll seek out ‘Omao (Hawaiian Thrush), Hawaii (Volcano) ‘Elepaio, and Nene, and we’ll see White-tailed Tropicbird - the only bird that nests in an active volcano! We’ll scan for cliff-nesting “Hawaiian” Black Noddies and enjoy lava tubes and mind-boggling geology to round out the day. Birding may even at times take a back seat to a tour of one of the most active volcanoes in the world. We’ll break up our long drive to the park with a good stop for waders and waterbirds. On the way back, we’ll spend the late afternoon in Hilo, birding the city’s productive parks that can host a wide range of migrant and vagrant waterfowl. Night in Kona.

Day 10: Perhaps descendants of just one single vagrant species (an Asian rosefinch seems to be the leading theory at the moment), the honeycreepers of Hawaii are one of the most amazing examples of evolutionary radiation, and there’s no better example these days than what we will find in the rainforests of Hakalau NWR, from the ridiculous dual-purpose bill of the ‘Akiapola’au to the massive, decurved bill of the ‘I‘iwi, we’ll see island biogeography at its finest. Hawaii Creeper and ‘Akepa will be our other honeycreeper targets today, along with a host of other endemics: ‘Omao, Hawaii (Volcano) ‘Elepaio, and Hawaiian Hawk (‘Io). Night in Kona.

Day 11: As with all of the main Hawaiian islands, there’s a wet, windward side and a dry - often desert-like - leeward side. The wet side of the mountains produces the precipitation that creates the rainforests that we visited yesterday, while the rain shadows of the tallest mountains (don’t be too shocked to see snow at the summit of Mauna Kea!) yield extensive dry forest habitats. We’ll be in the rain shadow of the mountains today as we seek the remaining dry-forest endemics, the finch-billed Palila and the Hawaii (Kona) ‘Elepaio. 

In the afternoon, we’ll meander our way across the famous, new and improved, Saddle Road that traverses the island between Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa, looking for the endemic subspecies of Short-eared (Hawaiian) Owl (Pueo) and some interesting variety of introduced gamebirds (such as Erckel’s, Grey, and Black francolins) and Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse, then we’ll make our way downhill to Kona. While we are birding along Old Saddle Road, we’ll have incredible views of Kohala Mountains (the only extinct volcano on the island) and a couple famous ranches - Parker Ranch (one of the largest privately-owned cattle ranches in the United States) and Waikii Ranch. A lot of the time will be spent on the slopes of Mauna Kea. Technically originating on the seafloor, the White Mountain is the tallest mountain on the planet (much taller than Mt. Everest and home to Poliahu, the Icy Goddess). Looking across the saddle, we’ll take in the gentle slopes of Mauna Loa (Long Mountain), the largest (in mass) volcano/mountain and second tallest mountain on the planet - only a few hundred feet shorter than Mauna Kea. And we’ll finish up our culinary tour with one last delectable ocean-front meal. Night in Kona.

Day 12: Tour ends this morning with departures from Kona. 

Note: Although there are endemic landbirds on the island of Maui, there is not – at this time – any opportunity for commercial tours to take birders into the forest reserves.  All the endemic waterbirds and landbirds can be seen on other islands, and this tour does not include a visit to all those.


This tour is arranged by our American partner WINGS

Updated: 05 April 2019