Monday, December 26, 2005

My Hawaiian Bird Journal

Our trip in Hawaii included several hikes along the coast or over the high ridges of those jewel-purple mountains. There were many bird sightings. I wasn’t able to get pictures of all the elegant and rare birds we saw because I don’t have a telephoto on my camera (maybe this is next year’s Christmas present?). I did get some photos of the closer, more common or less shy birds.

In honor of Hedwig (and all other bird and nature lovers) here are my bird photos. I also did some research on the Internet so that I can pretend I know what I am talking about. Most of the photos were taken on Kauai, the Garden Island, where more than 80 species of birds are present but some of the photos may be on other islands…I didn’t make sure to mark where pictures were taken.

The state of Hawaii includes 6 major islands as well as other small ones. Therefore, this island ecology creates unique birdlife because of its isolation. According to several books and the Internet, 32 species of alien (introduced) birds, are now known to breed on Kauai where we spent most of our time. Many species have evolved in their own leisurely fashion to some 78 bird species unique to the
islands in Hawaii. Resident species remain permanently in Hawaii; visiting birds regularly come to Hawaii for only part of each year crossing that vast Pacific ocean.

When Polynesians first settled in Hawaii roughly 2,000 years ago (Kirch 1982) they also brought some of their favorite bird and plant species. One bird species brought by the early Polynesians still survives in Hawaii, the red junglefowl (Gallus gallus),
ancestor of the domestic chicken. The Hawaiians called it moa, not related to the flightless bird in New Zealand also called moa. The Hurricane Iniki forced chicken farms to release even more domestic chickens in 1992. The island of Kauai has very few or no introduced mongoose (depending on who you talk to or what you read) and therefore, these newly released chickens seem to have proliferated more successfully on this island. Mongoose were introduced to take care of the growing rat population in the sugar cane fields, but some idiot didn’t know that mongoose are diurnal (day feeders) and rats are nocturnal (night feeders), so birds and bird eggs got a double hit. At least jungle fowl keep the insects down and make sure you don't sleep too late on the mornings of your vacation---but probably to the detriment of the island ecology overall. These chickens are EVERYWHERE!

The first photo above is the view from our hotel balcony showing the jungle fowl cleaning the lawn of bugs and the other photo was taken in a parking lot near a hiking trail. In every instance children absolutely loved the chickens.

Another introduced species is the Brazilian Cardinal (Paroaria coronata). The islands also have smaller numbers of the red cardinal that we know. This fellow visited a rooftop seen from a side of our hotel balcony every morning because someone threw bread to that area!! The second photo is another cardinal in a plumeria tree below our balcony.

Then of course, even more adventurers landed on the islands after that first group of Polynesians. According to Robert L. Pyle of the Bishop museum (Hawaii) “16 species of birds (resident-native) have become extinct since Captain Cook's visit; 35 or more species (subfossils, probably native residents) were extinct before Captain Cook's visit; and about 150 species are alien introductions not established. Adding these to the 272 species here now constitutes about 475 species of birds known to have occurred in Hawaii.”

Affecting more change were more animals being bought by Polynesians and others, animals such as pigs, dogs, cats, rats, cattle and the mongoose (which I mentioned above). This changed the fragile ecosystems, endangering many native bird populations. Most devastating of all was the destruction and loss of natural habitat when lands were converted to agriculture (sugar cane first and now other crops such as coffee and pineapple) or development (they are continuing to “pave paradise to make a parking lot.”) Today, 30 bird species are considered endangered, and one is threatened. Hawaii is noted for having large numbers of rare and endangered plant and animal species.

One of my favorite birds, not a native and hardly endangered, is the Perkutut. My love for this bird comes from memories of its’ sweet gentle song which I heard each day when I lived thereas a young student. I had arrived on Oahu with little money, plans to go to graduate school, and knowledge of no one on the island (another life story someday). Each day this little bird woke me with his lovely song. This is also known as the Zebra dove, the Indonesian common name is “perkutut”, and its scientific name is Geopelia striata. It is among the smallest of the terrestrial doves, probably introduced from Asia. It is shy, and while ranging widely to look for food or escape harassment, it is not migratory and can be found everywhere in the Hawaiian islands. His head an neck are a gentle sky blue.

I can’t tell if this is a Golden plover below or the lesser plover—but I am inclined to think is is the lesser plover, but I am not a bird expert. We saw a number of these on the beach, they were shy and it was hard to get a good picture. The Golden plover migrates all the way from Alaska, maybe the lesser plover does also (?), I don't know.

The next photos were taken at a wildlife refuge. The interesting excavations that you see in the first photo are little bird homes we saw on the side of the hill as we walked out to the lighthouse at the Kilauea National Wildlife refuge on Kauai. If you look click on that photo and look closely at the center top hole, you can see the park service has inserted some support to help with bird home development--or maybe the building inspector was out and required more roof support? (Sorry that should go on my building blog.) These tunnels are the home of Shearwaters (see photo of sign) which nest in burrows in the soft soil of this Kilauea Point overlooking the ocean (sorry no photo of the actual bird). My husband said he can remember hearing these birds moan and groan at night when he was camping in Hawaii years ago. Great frigatebirds, brown boobies, red-tailed and white-tailed tropicbirds, and Laysan albatrosses can be seen from this point as well, but I didn’t get good pictures—just the white dots in the distance. Some of them swooped dramatically overhead catching the air currents against the side of the hill . I also tried for those photos in vain. We also saw Green sea turtles and distant humpback whales in the water.

Next is this ‘evolved Canadian goose’ which was really fun for me to see. They were much rarer when I lived in Hawaii many years ago and I never saw one. The Nene (pronounced "nay-nay") is a land bird and a variety of goose. Because of the rough lava terrain the bird has evolved from a traditional goose by transforming its webbed feet into
a claw-like shape and modifying its wing structure for shorter flights. Hunting and wild animals all but destroyed the species until they were protected by law and a restoration project was established in 1949. This is Hawaii’s state bird and is thought to be a descendant of some ancient Canadian goose that got off track, in the late 1700s. According to some research I did on the Internet, 25,000 Nene were thought to inhabit the Big Island, but by the 1950s the population had dropped to an estimated 30 birds ( I lived there in the late 60s). We talked to the ranger who said there are thousands now, but a web site states that it is estimated about 300 Nene currently survive on the Big Island, 200 on Maui, and possibly 160 on Kauai. This little family in the photo has two new ones to add to the population.

The Hawaiian stilt Himantopus mexicanus knudseni called Ae`o in Hawaiian is a subspecies of the North American stilt. This stilt differs from the North American stilt in size and color by having more black on its face and neck, and a longer bill, tarsus, and tail. It is estimated there is a stable population of 1,200 to 1,600 birds with Maui and Oahu accounting for 60-70% of them. This photo was taken during a private self-directed garden tour that we took. There are several large botanical gardens on Kauai. The tours are not inexpensive, but the money goes to preservation of plant and animals and habitat.

The photo below is of the ‘Alae ‘Ula or Hawaiian Gallinule (Gallinula chloropus sandvicensis). They call this a subspecies of the common moorhen. I found this fun story about this bird in the Hawaiian culture. "It was in the days before fire was known to the people, and the gallinule took pity on them. Flying to the home of the gods (the volcanos), he stole a blazing brand and brought it back to earth. During his flight the gallinule's formerly white forehead was scorched by the volcanos' fires -- thus its name "alae" signifying a burnt forehead. Today all gallinules bear a red frontal shield on their heads." The bird builds its nest in water vegitation laying 6 to 13 eggs. This bird is fairly secretive and I felt lucky to get a picture of this group with their young fowl on edge of this dam in the garden. You will have to click on picture to see the fuzzy young one on the left hand side.

I also saw one of the Hawaiian short-eared owls (Pueo) sitting on a utility line as we sped by in our rental car to the hotel, but it was impossible to get a photo. We also saw the Apapane and the Iiwi which are pretty in color (red or green), but very fast in darting about, so again, no pictures. Maybe I’ll have pictures if there is a next time. Below is a photo of their favorite tree with their red honey filled flowers up in the high misty hills of Hawaii.

Next post on the plants we saw.


  1. wow, wonderful! i quickly read through this essay and will be back later today for a closer look (i am working on a multi-part story about the tsunami right now). i do think you should share this with a larger audience by nominating this essay to the modulator's "Friday Ark" that features photos of animals. to do that, just send him an email with the URL by friday morning. but what are you waiting for? send the URL right now!


  2. I'll have to look up that post, Jude. It is really fascinating fruit.

    Thanks, Hedwig, I thought of you and wished you had been with me to fill me in on all the subtle nuances of birds that I missed.


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