A lot has happened since I posted my previous blog entry. Its easiest for me to presently recount the events in reverse order – beginning with today’s and yesterday’s hikes along the Pihea and Alakai Swamp trails at the top of Ko’kee State Park in Kauai. Maybe this way, I’ll be less likely to shortcut the stories quite as much as I’d otherwise tend to do when backlogged.
Presently, its Tuesday, 22nd October, and I’ve just turned around from the vicinity of the Kilohana Lookout at the end of the Alakai Swamp Trail at the top of Koke’e State Park, Hawaii. I’m dictating into my iPhone while retracing the long hike back to my parked rental – maybe three hours of intermittently challenging patches of muddy ups and downs. Its spectacular country, and I ought to be looking and listening more fully for forest birds – with a slim chance of finding and photographing an Akekee – after blowing two golden opportunities to do so on the Mohihi-Waiale Trail several days ago. But I’m feeling tired, my legs are weak, and I’m not keen to ‘creek walk’ in bare feet to access the most likely Akekee hangouts. I’m over it, and want to back to my motel for a sleep. But since I have no choice but to tackle the challenging steep muddy goat track back to my rental.
One of the things I’ve noticed during my coverage of the Alakai and Mohihi-Waiale trails over the past five days or so, is that there seems to be fewer forest birds around than during my two previous trips – late 2016 and early 2018. Maybe it’s a seasonal thing, and the birds are chasing food supplies elsewhere. The proportions of Apapanes, Kauai Amakihis, Anianiaous and Akekees on the highland trails were probably about the same, in that descending order, just much fewer in numbers. I’ve encountered far fewer I’iwis this time around, though cheeky Kauai Elepaios were plentiful enough, and the introduced Chinese Hwameis seem to have really increased in numbers. Common Mynahs seem to be more numerous than before, all the way up to the start of the Mohihi-Waiale starting point. No doubt the Hawaiian birders have a better grip on any decreases in native bird numbers, and hopefully my experience was not indicative of any trend, but more likely a reflection of my own observation skills, or nomadic movement of the birds when following seasonal food sources; I certainly didn’t have the same impression of reduced numbers last week in upland Maui, or early in the year in the elevated native forests of Big Island.
The highlight of my 2019 Hawaiian birding experience was always going to be the Mohihi-Waiale trek. It’s not an easy mission – even if I’d relied on the help of a guide. It’s a long hard slog just to get to the start of the trail from where the road becomes too challenging for a standard SUV. As in 2016, I backpacked overnight gear, food and water for a multi-day assault. I was blessed with better weather this time, with only periodic light drizzle – a far cry from the challenging downpours that kept me soaked to the skin throughout my previous effort. It took me four hours to reach my campsite, with only one creek to ford – all three bridges that were under construction in 2016 made for that many less shoe-removing incidences. After a quick rest, I had six hours of daylight remaining to re-acquaint myself with the trail. As best I could tell, nobody had made the trek in recent weeks, though I did see some not-so-fresh small boot impressions at about the three-mile mark. In many areas the trail was difficult to follow, obscured by proliferating ferns and ginger. I really enjoyed the hunt for birds that day, and all of the next, from sunrise to sunset, and though I didn’t see as many individual birds as I did three years earlier, I managed to connect with all of my targets, including the three specialties: Akeke (two only – I saw four in 2016), Akikiki (two, as opposed to three in 2016) and best of all, I saw two interacting Puaiohis, which is two more than I saw last time around. I crossed paths with only two Kauai Amakihis, and maybe three Anianiaos, but plenty of Apapanes (say, 30) and Kauai Elepaios (say, 10), and as I mentioned earlier, I heard way more singing Chinese Hwameis (more than a dozen) than I could recall during my 2016 adventure. I didn’t see a single I’iwi – but was admittedly giving the ‘red birds’ that flitted amongst upper story Ohia blossoms only a cursory glance in the pursuit of predominantly yellow and predominantly gray birds. Perhaps some proportion of my Apapanes were in fact Iiwis.
This was the kind of birding I love best – solo stalking through good habitat, excluding mind-noise through concentrated listening and looking. It’s a particular difficulty for me that the contact calls of several of my target species (Amakihi, Anianiau, Akekee, Akikiki) are very similar squeaks – though I got better at distinguishing between them over the course of my time on the mountain. One of the sounds that I’d studied, and found easy to identify when I I once only heard it, was the machine gun ch-ch-ch ch-ch-ch of a begging young Akikiki – which I briefly saw no more than 10 metres away. The super-fast ch-ch’ing of this tiny gray creeper is similar to one of the sounds made by Japanese White-eyes, but interrupted by brief gaps after every third or fourth ‘ch’.
Down in the lowlands, where Avian Malaria and other factors has extinguished the diverse passerine birdlife of the past, the concession is a diverse range of introduced species to enjoy searching for. Some species are in absolute abundance – its hard to look in any direction and not see or hear Common Mynahs, Zebra Doves, or Red-crested Cardinals. But there are some tricky ones too. Three skulking songbirds are the toughest. In order of challenge, all preferring to remain hidden in dense cover, are White-rumped Shama, Chinese Hwamei, and the super-shy Greater Necklaced Laughingthrush. Although I did see a number of Shamas, it took some real effort to get better than a brief glimpse of vociferous yet skulking Hwameis, and three dedicated hours-long hunts for the Laughingthrush before connecting.
With three of my targeted four Hawaiian Islands for the year now under my belt, I can reiterate thoughts I have expressed before – that the American Birding Association did a great service to its membership when they expanded its ‘region’ to include Hawaii. As in 2016 – the year of the Association’s expansion, Hawaii has been the backstop of some of the most memorable portions of my year-long birding odyssey. I enthusiastically recommend that any holdouts to the 2016 endorsement of ABA expansion get over that, and get over here at the earliest opportunity. Hawaii adds a whole new dimension to the American birding experience, while offering even the most seasoned American birders with the chance to add 50+ species to their ABA life list, while having a great time.