Friday 20 September 2019

Hawaii Big Island - Trip Report

Hawaii again I'm afraid. Big Island. I actually cancelled the last trip I had planned for various reasons, and this one very nearly went the same way. In the end I decided to go, and once again it was terrific, albeit with a terrible ratio of time on the ground to time in the air. My Hawaii list continues to grow, and the Big Island is incredibly interesting for non-avian reasons. 

  • A four day trip in mid August, leaving on a Saturday morning via Stockholm (obviously), and arriving at Kona about mid-morning local time on Sunday. I left again late on Monday evening after a whirlwind tour of the island, arriving back in London on Wednesday morning and going straight to work.
  • Flights were mostly American Airlines, with the transatlantic component being British Airways who thankfully were not on strike. They also took me to Sweden and back which turned this into an affordable trip - I think it is something to do with wanting to compete with the home market of budget carriers like Norwegian.
  • Car hire via Thrifty this time, where I went for a "wildcard" which was an extremely cheap option whereby they give you whatever car they happen to have spare. My luck was in and this was a red Camaro convertible which I have to say improved my trip significantly.
  • I stayed in the village of Volcano next which is right next to the Kilauea Crater rim, in a rather odd guesthouse, but as I wasn't there for any length of time it really didn't matter. I met a nice group of German agri-ecology students staying there who were studying trees on the islands, with a ratio of about one day of actual research to a week of time off having a ball. 
  • I visited five key birding sites on the island; Aimakapa Fishpond on the west coast, Kipukapuaulu on the slopes of Mauna Loa, the Pu'u O'o Trail which is part of the Upper Waiakea Forest Reserve, Hilo Pond, and Kahoa Restoration area on the west side of Mauna Kea. The rest of the time was spent admiring incredible views, waterfalls, beaches and snorkelling.
Day 1: Travelling
Day 2: Arrival at Kona, south to Aimakapa Fishpond in Kaloko Honokohau State Park, then Kahalu'u Beach Park for some R&R, followed by a quick stop to view the Captain James Cook Monument in Kealakekua Bay. Further quick stops at Whittington Beach and Punalu'u Black Sands, before a couple of hours birding the Kipukapuaulu Trail. Overnight at Volcano.
Day 3: Early start down Chain of Craters Road stopping off frequently, ending at the cliffs at Holei. Then another circuit of the Kipuku before descending to Hilo and Waiakea Pond. Tourism at Rainbow Falls and then up the Saddle Road to the Pu'u O'o Trail where I spent the afternoon in amazing birding habitat. Late afternoon not finding at Palila at Kahoe, and then back down to the western shore for more R&R at Hapuna Beach, flopping about in the Pacific whilst watching the sun set. Evening flight to Los Angeles.
Day 4: Travelling, lost most of the day to time changes and then another overnight flight from New York to London.

The stars are the places I visited or planned to but didn't

Days 1 and 4 I am not planning to cover as they do not involve Hawaii at all, and descriptions of sleeping on airplanes are very dull. Days 2 and 3 were the main event.

Day 2: The arrival into Kona was superb on Sunday morning. Big Island is the most volcanic of the lot, and the tropical shore on the west side of the island is punctuated by huge lava flows originating from Mauna Loa and flowing all the way down to the sea in vast black rivers. I soon picked up my car and with the first birding stop mere miles away I had binoculars to my eyes in no time at all. I left the car at the marina at Kaloko Honokohau (turn right after the petrol station, signposted Honokohau Harbour, and then take the first right) and took the short path out to the beach, walking along the warm sand to the Finshpond which is perhaps a quarter of a mile north up the beach. There was a Pacific Golden Plover on the path, and several Grey Francolin in the scrub, and on the beach Turnstones and a Red-crested Cardinal foraged. Aimakapa Fishpond had a large number of Hawaiian Stilt, more PGPs, lots of Cattle Egret, two Black-crowned Night Heron and a few Hawaiian Coots, but armed only with a toy lens on this trip I wasn't able to take advantage. Around the pond were lots of tiny Zebra Dove, a Yellow-fronted Canary, but the dominant species of passerine was Common Waxbill. This is basically the story of Hawaii. There was a dead Orangespine Unicornfish on the beach which was rather a shame, but I would see a lot of far better looking ones very soon.

Pacific Golden Plover

Orangespine Unicornfish

My next stop was Kahalu'u Beach, identifed as good and safe spot to go snorkelling. Being a Sunday it was quite busy, but a significant portion of my luggage was my swimming stuff so there was no way I was going to miss out. Parking was easy, and soon I was happily zipping about in clear warm water amongst tropical fish and Green Sea Turtles. The 24 hours of travel and some killer small hours in LAX were swiftly forgotten, this is why I put myself through it. The fish were amazing - Humuhumunuknukuapua'a, Yellow Tang, Orangespines, Four-spot Butterflyfish, Lined Butterflyfish, Hawaiian Spotted Boxfish, Bullethead Parrotfish, Raccoon Butterflyfish, Convict Tang, Hawaiian Sergeant Major, Moorish Idol, Hawaii Whitespotted Puffer, Black Triggerfish.... most of them in large numbers, in other words monumentally fantastic. It is a great shame that my little underwater camera is so crappy.

Sated, for now, I hauled myself out, and without waiting to dry off, jumped back in the car and with the roof down drove off along the coast road. I made a quick stop at a supermarket for some regulation Poké and a few beers for later on, and then made my way down to Kealakekua Bay and the James Cook Monument. Unless you take a boat tour you can't really get to this easily, but it is a white obelisk that marks the spot where Captain Cook was killed by natives in 1779 after a confrontation. I ate my Ahi Poké from across the bay in a contemplative mood. My first proper tick occured at around this point - as I was driving up towards Keokea via Pu'uhonua O Hanaunau, an 'Io flew over the car. This is the Hawaiian Hawk that is only found on Big Island, Buteo solitarius, and it was the only one I managed see whilst I was there and a major prize given there are only a few thousand of them. I watched it for a while as it soared against leaden skies, and just as it flew behind a ridge for the last time the heavens opened and I was forced to dash back to the car and put the roof up. I made it just in time, the rain was of biblical proportions, but a few miles up the road it was completely clear again. 

By now it was mid afternoon so I continued my anticlockwise journey around the island, very much enjoying the quiet roads. There are no major settlements in the south west corner of the island, consequently it is fairly wild and free of people. I made a short stop at Whittington Beach State Park, where a local BBQ was in full swing and birds were nowhere to be seen. Back to tourism mode, as a few miles further on is the very famous Punalu'u Black Sand Beach. This I had to see, and it was indeed very black. Again lots of locals enjoying the sand and the sea, and barring a number of Muscovy Ducks on a small pond just inland there were no birds about. The main birding site of the day was only half an hour up the road however.

A kipuka is a tract of old growth trees that has been cutoff at some point by a flow of lava and thus exists as a pocket of habitat. One of the best known of these is the Kipukapuaulu just outside the village of Volcano, just off the Mauna Loa Road. It is a circular track that is very easy going and it is crawling with birds. I had just enough time to do a leisurely circuit before dusk. The first birds I hit upon were Apapane, probably the most widespread Hawaiian Honeycreeper and distributed across all the islands. I counted probably around 20 in small groups around the parking circle, but once in the forest saw no more. I did jam upon a Hawaii 'Elapaio, a species of Monarch Flycatcher endemic to Big Island, so another pleasing score. The uber-sepcies is present on three of the islands and was split in 2010, and I had previously seen the Kauai species. However one school of thought also subdivides the Hawaii species into three further sub-species - Kona, Mauna Kea and Volcano - I was looking at the latter. Overall the circuit was quite quiet - a handful of Kalij Pheasants and some Red-billed Leiothrix which whilst both imports are very beautiful. At last knockings I tried the Mauna Loa viewpoint but the road was quite bad and went high enough that the final mile was in a cloud I couldn't see anything. I returned to Volcano and found my accommodation, chatted to some German students off to study the trees in the Hakalau Forest Reserve, had some more Poké (which I cooked because it had been in the hot car all day) and drank my beers whilst planning the next day.

Hawaii 'Elepaio

Day 3: I was up early, keen to make the most of what was my last day before the marathon journey back home. I had read that the Kipuka was better slightly later in the morning, which meant I had time to drive the Chain of Craters Road down the leeward side of Mauna Loa down to the sea. As recently as last year this was where you would go to see the lava flow crashing into the sea, but the eruptions of 2018 unfortunately shut all of that down. I had the road entirely to myself, and with the top down it was a magnificent drive as the road gradually descends to the sea. I didn't see another car either on the way down or the way up. I am not a big driver, and nor do I have much interest in cars, but in certain situations I can see the attraction. I stopped at all the various craters, seeing a few Apapane at the Pauhai Crater, but missed out on the Petroglyph site. At the Holei Sea Arch I parked up and walked across the lava to the cliffs to be presented with a fabulous sight - Black Noddy swirling around tremendous waves crashing against the rocks, with the sun rising above the horizon. 

Black Noddy - the birds on Hawaii are another potential split

Kilauea Crater

I stayed here a while it was so stunning, but really I needed to be at the Kipuku so I dragged myself away. What I hadn't forseen, despite the signs, were two Nene on the road back up to Kilaue. Whilst I had seen some of these on Kauai, I felt that the birds on Hawaii were perhaps 'better', and I had seen eBird reports on pairs seen on the slopes of Mauna Kea. The birds were completely unafraid (even of small Panthers) and fed contentedly by the roadside as I admired them and took a few photos. One was ringed, the other not.

Back at the Kipuku later than intended, I found it overrun with Kalij Pheasants. Battling my way through these I found another Hawaii 'Elepaio but for the life of me could not find an 'Oma'o. I met a volunteer on the trail who was able to identify all the birds on call, and whilst we heard several we couldn't actually see one. Bummer. Instead I had to make do with a Hwamei, another introduction.

Mauna Loa Road

Kalij Pheasant
The Bird Trail at Kipukapuaulu

I descended into Hilo for lunch, grabbing a pot of rice from a local diner and eating it at the pond. Here there were more PGP, lots of Nene (albeit looking less kosher than the ones on the volcano), a pair of Canada Geese, a Wandering Tattler, Mallards and Hawaiian Coots, and lots of House Sparrows. All good stuff! A brief stop at a thrift shop to buy another maxed-out Aloha shirt and I felt ready for a bit of genuine tourism at the nearby Rainbow Falls. This was heaving with people, but was still excellent.

From here I found my way to the start of the Saddle Road that crosses the centre of the island, looking for the Pu'u O'o Trailhead. This had been recommended by the volunteer at the Kipuku. Parking was extremely limited, and also rather exposed, but I hoped that there was enough passing traffic to deter any opportunistic thieves. There were of course warning signs all over the place saying to leave nothing etc, so as an afterthought I put my passports in my pocket before I headed down the trail. Initially you pick your way over broken lava before entering the native forest. At the beginning the trees are extremely gnarled and stunted, but as you pass through the lava and into a more open area they begin to get bigger. I could hear native Hawaiian birds everywhere, including the whistles of 'Oma'o. The trail is helpfully marked with cairns along its entire length, so I followed these across the open glade to the denser stands of native trees. As I entered the treeline I knew I was in the right place - there were Honeycreepers all over the place. The most common of these was the Hawaii Amakihi, another endemic species which has equivalents on some of the other islands. 'I'iwi were all over the place as well, chasing each other through the branches and making all sorts of weird and wonderful noises, and I finally set eyes on an 'Oma'o as it sang from just below the top of the canopy. And the best bit? There wasn't another person there. Other birds included more Leiothrix and also Japanse White-eye.
Native forest at 6000ft on Mauna Loa

The Pu'u O'o Trail

Hawaii Amakihi

The weather seemed to be closing in and I wasn't dressed ideally for 6000ft, so I made my way back to the car rapidly and avoided getting drenched. It was then only a short drive further along Saddle Road to the Kahoa Restoration Area, a Mamane Dry Forest where the last remnants of a population of Palila live. In short I couldn't find one, although there were lots of Amakihi again despite the completely different habitat to Pu'u O'o. I was also driving along in a convertible saloon car, rather than the 4x4 that was strictly required. I am not quite sure why as the dirt road was in excellent condition but I guess if it rains it is another story entirely. And with that threat of rain I did not linger, so Palila will need to wait for another trip - hopefully they will not become extinct before I can get back although as there are only a few thousand of them that is a distinct possibility.

The heavens did open as I made my way back down towards Kawaihae, the deep water port that a lot of Hawaii's goods come in via. It was so heavy at times that the wipers could not keep up, but again it seemed to be just on the leeward slope, as if it had washed over the top of the mountain and then come crashing down. Once back down at sea level it was perfectly clear and sunny. I found some food and hurried to Hapnua Beach State Park. I had planned more snorkelling around the edges of the bay but found the waves too much fun in the middle of the beach. I might be 44 but I know how to act like a small child when called for. Gradually the sun sank below the horizon and my day was over. All that remained was to drive back down to Kona, fill up the Camaro and give it back, and then wait for my flight to Los Angeles. The airport is typically Hawaiian, an open-air affair, so I was able to sit about and have a beer before getting on board and going to sleep.

Day 4: Los Angeles, New York, London...and back to work. :-(. An exhilarating trip once again, with some good birds seen and some better birds missed, but no complaints whatsoever. The Hawaiian endemic Honeycreepers are critically endangered and very hit and miss, to see any at all is a real treat and I've now managed to see seven along with plenty of other birds unique to the islands. 

Trip List