Hawaii bird-watching: A land of unusual, and often endangered, species

Bundled against the chill of a dewy morning, we settled on the lower slopes of Mauna Loa volcano, a landscape interrupted on Hawaii’s Big Island. Around us was a forest that had grown up over a centuries-old flow, but for half a mile in either direction were cindery stretches of bare lava from more recent events. In the greens and grays of the woods, little molten explosions brightened the ohi’a trees, whose brilliant red blossoms feed several species of endemic Hawaiian honeycreepers, small nectar-feeding forest birds.

Even before we’d spotted a single bird, we knew that we were in the right place, thanks to the ear of Jack Jeffrey, a former biologist with the State of Hawaii who now guides birding and photography tours. Just a few minutes from the parking lot of the Puu O’o Trail, he began identifying call after call. There were twittery trills, raspy kazoo blasts and what could have been R2-D2 chirps and beeps straight off the “Star Wars” soundtrack.

Jeffrey explained that recent research has traced the ancestry of nearly 60 species of nectar-loving Hawaiian honeycreepers back to a flock of finches from Asia that arrived nearly 6 million years ago (even before all the islands had formed). Of those 60 species, only 18 remain today. The honeycreepers, along with many other native animals and plants, have suffered pressures from development and from introduced predators and diseases. With so many unique species facing extinction, Hawaii is often described as the endangered species capital of the world.

Photographer Kim Hubbard and I spent eight days in Hawaii in December, mixing birding on Oahu and the Big Island with other sightseeing. We found that bird-watching served as a lens on the islands, allowing us to meet locals who were passionate and expert enough to share their insights and help us step off (or in one case very much onto) the beaten path.

Hawaiian stilts make comeback in bog

On the red mud of Waipahu’s Pouhala Marsh, a Hawaiian stilt flapped its wings, trying to lure away a potential predator of its young.

The predator, Jason Misaki’s white pickup truck, stopped several feet away. Misaki hopped out and walked a wide circle, looking into patches of vegetation for the stilt’s fledglings.

Earlier that morning, Mi­saki caught three stilt chicks by hand and placed colored bands on the birds’ long legs as part of a survey of the number of stilts born at the marsh.

This year, the number of fledglings at Pouhala is on track to surpass any year since the state began restoring the marsh nine years ago — a sign of its successful recovery.

The 70-acre marsh is the largest wetland in Pearl Harbor and provides an important habitat for the Hawaiian stilt, along with the Hawaiian coot and moorhen, all endangered Hawaiian water birds. Hawaiian stilts number about 1,500 today. About 100 typically feed at Pouhala Marsh at any given time.

Misaki, the state’s wildlife program manager for Oahu, said preserving Pouhala is an important part of saving the stilt, which differs from the North American stilt by having more black on its head and neck.

Misaki said preserving species native to Hawaii is important because “it’s their habitat. These are symbols of Hawaii, a symbol of the people of Hawaii, the landscape and the animals of Hawaii.”