Welcome to Birdquest
Monday 11th April - Friday 22nd April 2016
Hidden away in the centre of the vast Pacific Ocean, the tiny chain of islands that form Hawaii are home to a unique but severely threatened avifauna. Radiocarbon-dating points to mass human-era extinction, 800-2000 years ago, and since the arrival of man in the islands the devastated Hawaiian avifauna has been battered by almost every conceivable threat from hunting by early settlers (the Polynesians’ ceremonial cloaks contained the feathers of many thousands of individual birds!), forest clearance (less than 40% of land is now covered by native-dominated vegetation), introduced predators (rats, cats, dogs and mongooses – except for Kauai in the case of the latter), browsing animals (pigs, deer and goats), introduced plants (notably gorse, which prevents the recovery of the native forest), introduced birds and arthropods (ants and wasps), and of course disturbance by the increasing human population. Also, an unlikely and unlucky series of events led to the introduction of avian malaria, a disease that the native birds had no defence against. As a result, not much of the avifauna survived, and the species that did, receded to the higher areas where the mosquitoes could not survive. More than half of the original Hawaiian Honeycreepers (Drepanidae – now finches!) are extinct, the entire family of Oos (Mohoidae) are gone and overall only a fraction of the original endemics survive today. And how one would love to be able to travel in a Tardis and see what used to be there… it must have been an incredible place! Some resistance to the malaria (one of the biggest current threats to many species) has since developed in some of the species, but for others, global warming is making them more and more vulnerable, as milder temperatures allow the mosquitoes to creep further up the mountains. As a result, even some of the commoner species, such as the stunning Iiwi, are increasingly under threat, and may be uplisted from Vulnerable to Endangered in the not too distant future.
With that depressing thought out of the way, one has to re-orientate one’s ambitions based on what is currently achievable. And to that end, our trip this year was pretty successful. The main blemish was the lack of the two toughies on Maui – Maui Parrotbill and Akohekohe. It’s increasingly difficult to get any access to their range, and although we were allowed in for half a day, incessant rain did not help our cause! We also had a last minute blow to overcome on the Big Island. Due to a rapidly spreading fungal disease (known as Rapid Ohia Death) that kills the native Ohia trees, the main birding area on Big Island, Hakalau Forest, was closed just before our visit. This made a few other endemics a lot tougher, and resulted in a fair bit of additional hiking! That said, we did manage to find all of the other ‘gettable’ goodies. Out of the respectable total of just 96 species that we recorded, a shocking 42 species are introductions to the islands! Of the remaining 54, no fewer than 24 are species of conservation concern! Four are classified by Birdlife International as Critically Endangered: Palila (the last of Hawaii’s grosbeak honeycreepers); Akikiki (Kauai Creeper); Akekee (Kauai Akepa) and Puaiohi (Kauai Small Thrush), one of Hawaii’s two remaining solitaires. A further seven are classified as Endangered: Hawaiian Duck; Newell’s Shearwater; Oahu Elepaio; Akiapolaau (with its amazing bill); Hawaii Creeper; Akepa (the only hole-nesting honeycreeper); and Maui Alauahio (or Creeper). On top of that, another 11 are classified as Vulnerable and three as Near Threatened. Clearly, many of the species mentioned above were among the highlights, but our ultimate bird of the trip was the incredible Iiwi, a real symbol of Hawaii’s birds. It wasn’t just the endemics though, and other great birds included superb Bristle-thighed Curlews, wonderful Laysan Albatrosses and the now successful Nene (or Hawaiian Goose). So it wasn’t all bad: there were still plenty of great birds to see, and on top of that, Hawaii’s scenery was also spectacular. The breathtaking volcanic landscapes with glowing erupting vents and perfect cinder cones on Big Island; the awesome caldera of Haleakala, decorated with Silver Swords on Maui; Kauai’s spectacular Waimea Canyon and Alakai Wilderness; and the gorgeous windswept beaches with high rolling surf throughout the islands: Hawaii is blessed with some incredible natural wonders!