Birds Of A Feather
by Betty Fullard-Leo
Rob Pacheco of Hawaii Forest and trail leads a
group of island visitors on a birding expedition
into Pu'u O'o Ranch rainforest.
Hundreds of thousands of years ago, 15 ancestral species
from 11 families of birds came to rest on newly formed
lava islands thrusting from the sea more than 2,000
miles from any land. These first birds thrived in isolation
from enemies and predators, evolving in their own leisurely
fashion to some 78 bird species unique to Hawaii.
Eventually, man arrived, in time bringing such animals
as pigs, dogs, cats, rats, cattle and mongoose, which
changed the delicate ecosystems, wrecking havoc on the
islands native bird populations. Most devastating
of all was the destruction and loss of natural habitat
when lands were converted to agriculture or development.
Today, 26 of Hawaiis known native birds
are extinct (though from fossil remains, it is thought
that as many as 56 birds species have become extinct
in the past), 30 are considered endangered, and one
Because of the way an abundance of unique species evolved
in the islands, Hawaii now has more endangered
speciesbirds and plantsthan other places,
but in recent years it has also become a leader in saving
its rare fauna and flora. On the Big Island, Hakalau
Forest National Wildlife Refuge, located between the
2,500 and 6,600-foot elevations on Mauna Kea, was the
first refuge in the nation established to protect forest
birds. Consisting of nearly 33,000 acres, Hakalau, a
word that appropriately means place of many perches,
was acquired in five land parcels by U.S. Fish and Wildlife
with the help of The Nature Conservancy between 1977
and 1987. Every weekend, 7,240 acres of Hakalaus
Maulua Tract is open for birding, hiking, photography
and other pursuits to those who call ahead to obtain
directions and the combination to the gate, phone 808/933-6915.
Because the Hawaiian Islands have the greatest concentration
of rare birds on the planet, experienced bird watchers
treasure a trek through Hawaiis canopied
koa and ohia-lehua forests and through its isolated
kipukas, little forested islands surrounded by barren
lava flows. These green oasis spring up along the Big
Islands saddle, the remote area between Mauna
Kea and Mauna Loa, as well as on other mountain slopes.
On Kilauea, in Volcanoes National Park, Kipuka Puaulu,
is bisected by a mile-long trail, so even amateurs can
search for the apapane or the elepaio during
a self-guided walk.
Among those birds most likely to be spotted are the
more abundant honeycreepers (Drepanididae). Many honeycreepers
have curved bills such as the brilliant orange-red iiwis
with salmon-colored beaks, or the crimson apapanes,
or the common, smaller, olive-colored amakihis. In early
Hawaii, the red feathers from the apapane
and iiwi were often plucked to be used in
feather capes, kahilis, and helmets. The birds were
captured by an expert called a poe hahai manu, who mixed
an adhesive paste made from the sap of the breadfruit
tree, smeared it on tree limbs, then caught the stuck
birds with fiber nets, nooses or bare hands. If only
a feather or two was taken (from a bird like an oo
or mamo) and the bird was too small to eat, it was released
so the feathers could grow again.
None-the-less, only a species of Kauai oo,
which is smaller and has fewer yellow feathers than
Big Island oo once had, are thought to survive
in small numbers on the edges of the Alakai Swamp.
The mamo, a black honeycreeper which had a few yellow
feathers used in feather craft by has not been seen
since 1907 on Molokai. Mamo feathers can be viewed,
however, at Bishop Museum on Oahu where 450,000
of them from an estimated 80,000 birds are sewn with
olona fiber into a golden feather cloak once worn
by King Kamehameha I.
Endangered birds known to inhabit Hakalau include the
akiapolaau, akepa, io,
omao, and ou. The akiapolaau
(or nuku puu) is a yellowish-olive-green honeycreeper
that prefers to peck wood, searching for insect larva,
rather than sip nectar. The akepa is a nimble
little scarlet or yellow-green honeycreeper. The io,
or Hawaiian hawk, found only on the Big Island, is a
brown diurnal bird of prey that soars on broad wings
in search of mice, rats, spiders and insects. The gray
omao, a solitary bird also found only on
the Big Island, is easiest to identify by its haunting
warble early in the morning.
Birders consider it a feather in their caps if they
spot one especially rare birdthe alala,
or Hawaiian crow. Only four alala are thought
to remain in the wild, again only on the Big Island,
while a mere 27 dozen are being raised at two Peregrine
Fund facilities, one at Keauhou on the Big Island, the
other at the Maui Bird Conservation Center at Olinda.
This greenish-blue, raven-like bird lives above the
3,000-foot level on McCandless Ranch where carefully
conducted tours allow a select few to search the koa
and ohia-lehua tree tops for the elusive
birds. Most birders consider themselves lucky if they
hear the early morning vocalizations of the alala,
let alone see it.
Gratifyingly, at least one endangered bird species
seems to have more than a flicker of hope for survival.
Hawaiis state bird, the nene, is the last
surviving Hawaiian goose endemic to the Islands of at
least eight goose species known to have become extinct.
A bird with beautiful markings on head and neck, the
nene is thought to be a descendant of some ancient Canadian
goose that got off track, settled in Hawaiis
mountains and over the years, lost most of the webbing
on its feet because it no longer needed to swim. In
the late 1700s, 25,000 nene were thought to inhabit
the Big Island, but by the 1950s the population had
dropped to an estimated 30 birds. Captive breeding programs
were at last put in place, until today it is estimated
about 300 nene survive on the Big Island, 200 on Maui,
and possibly 160 on Kauai. The best place to spot
a nene on the Big Island is at Volcanoes National Park
at Kipuka Nene Campground, the summit caldera, Devastation
Trail and at Volcanoes Golf Course at dawn and dusk
when they are out feeding on grasses.
Birding tours are easy to arrange with some notice
through Hawaii Forest & Trail. Naturalist
Rob Pacheco and his guides take small groups into a
kipuka in the Puu Oo Ranch Rainforest. Pacheko
also has a permit to take groups into Hakalau National
Wildlife Refuge twelve times a year. His tours are $130
per person. Hawaii Forest & Trail, Box 2975,
Kailua-Kona, Hawaii 96745, phone 800/464-1993
or 808/322-8881, fax 808/322-8883.
For those yearning to spot a Hawaiian crow, as well
as honeycreepers and other rare forest birds like the
elepaio (an inquisitive little Old World flycatcher),
McCandless Ranch Ecotours can be arranged for a minimum
fee of $400 for one or two people. The tour begins early
in the morning in four-wheel-drive vehicles and includes
a Continental breakfast and a picnic lunch. McCandless
Ranch Ecotours, Box 500, Honaunau, Hawaii 96726, phone
808/328-9313 or fax 808/328-8671.
To See More Photos of Hawaii's Birds
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