Tuesday, 19 November 2019

Big Island, Hawaii

Looming up from the sea, Big Island dwarves all the other islands in Hawaii, a great behemoth capable of ingesting all the other islands combined. Being so big the islands is remote and wild, the last bastion for many of Hawaii's endemic wildlife found nowhere else in the world. Geologically speaking its the newest of the Hawaiian islands, formed from volcanoes, some of which are still active. No one knows how the islands formed, why these volcanoes arose from the sea in an area that is geologically stable, they just shouldn't be there, scientifically speaking. But they are and its just part of the mystery of this strange planet.

We would spend four full days on this island, a time we would love in this beautiful paradise. We would visit a few areas of the island, but with limed time we were able to only see a small amount of the whole, the island was so vast. To see a lot of the rare endemic birds you would need a local guide, or some luck and a 4x4 because most of them are found in mainly inaccessible places. Places I didn't go to include Saddle Road and the west side of the island but I think I saw a lot in the time I had here.


Kaumana Lava Tubes, Hilo

The population of Big Island is sparse, centred on Hilo in the East and Kona in the West, with the interior mainly unpopulated. We stayed at Hilo, a small quaint, colonial, sugar plantation town with little trappings of tourism, which made it nice and laid-back when compared to some of the places on O'ahu (the island which holds Honolulu). It is a bit run down, a little bit shabby and like all Hawaii towns sprawls along the roads. Most of the towns in Big Island were like this and were very charming.

Rainbow Falls

The town has some beautiful surroundings, making it a real tropical paradise. There were several waterfalls in the area, and there were some good lava tubes, holes caused by lava flows, strange atmospheric caves that go deep in the ground.
In one bay near the town we encountered a HONU (GREEN TURTLE), swimming around in shallow water, a nice find that would prove to be the last of that species we would see on the holiday.


There were a few waders about, there were some TURNSTONES, the same as the ones found in the UK, and some ULILI (WANDERING TATTLER), a fairly drab species except it has yellow legs which is rare in waders. Waders are rare on the islands because they are not on any migration high ways, being too remote, and there aren't really any habitat, such as mudflats, for them to feed on.


Around the parks, or anywhere there was grass, really, some colour was provided by the SAFFRON FINCH (S. America), an introduced bird found only on Big Island, a bird which turned out to be very common.


The poster child of the conservation movement, one of the few examples captive breeding in zoos has really had any positive effect to conservation is the NENE. When this species became rare in the wild, birds were taken and penned in places like Slimbridge, where they bred and produced chicks which were eventually released back in the wild, which succeeded in bolstering the wild population. However this success occurs only occasionally, and a lot of animals are kept in zoos in the name of conservation, when its really about exploiting them for money.
So why does a section on NENES occur with one about Hilo? You would think this town would be the last place to see such an endangered bird. But one of the delights of birding is finding birds in strange locations. You can really get a sense that this bird has evolved from canada geese when you see a pair in a park in Hilo. One of the most endangered birds in the world inhabiting a duck pond. They were only there for a short time, but after searching fruitlessly in Volcanoe National Park (see next post), it was a strange, but rewarding sight.

Pair of NENE hanging round a pond in the Japanese Gardens in Hilo

This was one endemic I had to see. After seeing so many in captivity its great to finally see some in the wild where they belong. It really makes a difference, to see them truly wild.

From our base in Hilo we would make several visits to Volcano National Park and areas to the north. As I have a lot to write they will appear in another post, so please keep reading.



Sunday, 17 November 2019

North O'ahu, Hawaii

Alan and Megan were able to take us out for another day in O'ahu, and this time we headed off to the more northern area of the island.

Once out of Honolulu the buildings descended into shacks which sprawled out along the main roads and it seemed you were never far from habitation. In the countryside there wasn't much agriculture on the scale found in the UK, the land was less tidy and was very green. But it was all alien, all introduced by man.

Turtle Beach
We went to a beach, where just offshore, I mean about a couple of  metres offshore, a group of GREEN TURTLES was present, grazing the seaweed found on the rocks. One even came briefly ashore to feed. Standing just landward of the water were a group of people with mobile phones taking pictures. Oh well, but it was a great sight. The turtles were just feeding here, they only nest on quiet beaches on the more quiet islands.

Waimea Valley
This is a lovely forested valley, a Hawaiian cultural centre, a sacred place located to the north of the island. It is also a botanical garden, a waterfall, and a decent place for birds.

'ALAE'ULA - notice all the birds are ringed

Standout bird, one that was on my bucket list, was the 'ALAE'ULA, the native MOORHEN, a subspecies found only on Hawaii. That's it, I came all the way across to the other side of the world to see a moorhen. It looked just like a moorhen, and it shared its habits, inhabiting the small ponds in the botanical gardens, skulking around in the undergrowth. Its amazing to think that this bird is found no where else, anywhere in the world, just here on Hawaii. Wow.

There were plenty of other introduced species present amongst all the trees. SHAMA THRUSH (S. E. Asia), COMMON WAXBILL (Africa), NORTHERN CARDINAL (N. America) and CHESTNUT MANNIKIN (Asia) were new birds to my list.

Around the car park and visitors centre were some wild PEACOCKS (India). Now if you know semi-wild peacocks, it how bossy they are, they don't just beg for food, they are very forthright in trying to take it. I use to work at Whipsnade Zoo and the peacocks would always turn up when ever you had your lunch. We used to feed them bits of chicken, which they loved.

The valley had a waterfall which you could swim in, but after some recent rains the water was a torrent and it was vey muddy, so wasn't too inviting.
James Campbell National Wildlife Refuge
This reserve, one of the few wetland habitats left on O'ahu, but was closed when we arrived there. However close by were several pools, manmade, with straight edges, used to grow shrimp. On these pools I was able to catch up with three indigenous birds to Hawaii.

KOLOA (HAWAIIAN DUCK), 'ALAE KE'OKE'O (HAWAIIAN COOT) and AUKU'U (BLACK CROWNED NIGHTHERON) were those species. All these birds have evolved from their American forms that had somehow managed to make their way to Hawaii. Its strange to think that I have seen all their European forms in the UK, they are a strong group of species with various forms found throughout the world. There really is nothing to differentiate these birds with the species they have evolved from, the coots look like coots, the Hawaiian Ducks like female mallards, just millennia of isolation has made them different.
Catching up with endemics is always good, because where else in the world are you going  to see them. The species found today were top of my list for O'ahu, although I'm a bit disappointed not to see the stilts, another wetland endemic, but there is only so much time I can just dedicate to bird watching, this is a more broader minded holiday.






Saturday, 16 November 2019

South East O'ahu, Hawaii

My brother, Alan, and his fiancĂ©, Megan, were able to take us out for a trip today, so we were able to see more of the island of O'ahu away from Honolulu. Today we headed out towards the South East of the island, a rocky outcrop that sticks out of the island like a toe.
This part of the island is very rugged, with stark volcanic cliffs rising up from the sea, with the odd tiny little beach. There weren't any birds on these cliffs as you would expect, but there maybe were in the past before the likes of mongoose were introduced.

Makapuu Point
This was a short walk up to a lighthouse, with a fairly shallow gradient, making a nice walk in the heavy heat. Like a lot of these hills it was an area of scrubby grassland, with the usual introduced birds, the walk rising up from inland. When the path gave views of the sea, there were various white, gannet like birds flying offshore. These were RED FOOTED BOOBYS, birds that breed in the offshore islands. There were various juveniles flying with them, the same birds but brown. From one view point, looking down on the sea we saw a GREEN TURTLE, just floating in the water, at the base of the cliff. Although we would get better views later on, it was great seeing this animal for the first time, one for the bucket list.

The lighthouse
The path wound up passed the lighthouse, which was a bit of a damp squib, I was expecting this elaborate giant red and white building, but in reality it was just a small functional building.


The summit of  the walk looked over some islands, one called rabbit island, which were seabird sanctuaries, but I think it was the wrong time of year, as there weren't really any about. On the way back we saw a WHITE TAILED TROPICBIRD flying over, its long tail streaming behind, a great spot to end the walk.

View from the summit
A fairly sedate introduction to the country away from Honolulu, but this was only a brief taste, as tomorrow we would head out to the north of the island.

Wednesday, 13 November 2019

Honolulu & Diamond Head, Hawaii

Squeezed in between high volcanic peaks and the sea, Honolulu is an ugly high rise sprawl. There isn't much open space as every bit of land is vital there, with no room for gardens or parks, so therefore is of little interest to the birder. Waikiki, a tourist suburb of Honolulu, is home to giant high rise hotels, cities unto themselves, is a bit leafier, but again not of much interest to this blog.


I would have two stays in Honolulu, sandwiching a stay in Big Island. I would stay at two different apartments. The first had some views whilst the second was hemmed in by surrounding buildings, so much so there was little light even during the day.
I would visit Honolulu and Waikiki many times to do many non-birding things, there are some nice museums, a few old colonial buildings, lots of restaurants, and the beaches are world famous.

 ZEBRA DOVES - these were tiny little pigeons, they are very tame
From the apartment we had rented, in suburban Honolulu, my window overlooked a small back yard with a single tree in it. From here I actually saw quite a lot of birds. These birds were of the common variety, a template as such, as these birds were the species I would see over again throughout Hawaii.
ZEBRA DOVE. (Australia)
MYNAH BIRDS (India) were the most common birds on the islands, found everywhere, widely kept as a pet, many seemed to have escaped into the wild. They are dark birds with distinctive white wing bars displayed in flight.

RED VENTED BULBUL - you can just make out the patch of red near its tail

Although Honolulu was fairly urban it wasn't too difficult to get out of the city and see the surrounding countryside.

Diamond Head

Diamond Head

The peaks of Diamond Head are a colossal feature of this area of Hawaii, rising high above Honolulu and Waikiki. Its a massive volcanic crater with a fairly steep climb up its sides to reach a summit giving great views of the metropolis below.

View from Diamond Head, looking towards Waikiki with Honolulu further behind

The car park is located in the crater and from here we would climb up its side. There were loads and loads of ZEBRA DOVES feeding round the car park with smaller numbers of SPOTTED DOVES. The climb up the hill was through rough grassland with scattered scrub, where I saw some JAVAN SPARROWS, BULBULS and CARDINALS. The weather was hot and that probably stopped many birds from being active, as it was fairly quiet.


I got my first glimpse of a MONGOOSE one that nonchalantly fed on something on the footpath inbetween the groups of people walking, it just had no fear of humans at all.
The views from the crater peaks were amazing and were worth the climb themselves. A SWALLOWTAIL butterfly flitted around in the bushes, beautiful but still an introductee to the island.
This was the first day in Honolulu, where we would just explore the nearby features. Later on we would venture out further to see more of the island. Check out further posts for more info.

Sunday, 10 November 2019

Hawaii - a brief ecological history

Mighty volcanoes erupting from the sea created the awe inspiring landscape of the Hawaiian Islands, jagged peaks bathed in lush jungle. On the shoreline white sandy beaches are washed by turquoise seas. The islands seem like a pristine wilderness.
On these rocks birds evolved to form hundreds of different forms based on only one or two species, with different islands or even mountain chains having differing types. These birds evolved in isolation, innocent to what was happening elsewhere in the world. Then man came along. Being isolated the islands had escaped the initial eco-ravages that is so typical of our species. Soon after humans arrived, though, they cut down the lowland forests and introduced pigs, rats and other vermin that fed on eggs and chicks. If the islands hadn't taken enough of a battering along came white ("civilised") man and things got worse. Avian malaria was introduced, which destroyed native bird populations until endemic birds could only survive on altitudes above the height that mosquitoes could survive, in forests that were poor for them.

The GOLDEN PLOVERS are indigenous to the islands

As so very little of the endemic bird life survived, everything you see in Hawaii is introduced. Humanity realising the great mistake they had made in destroying the  endemic birdlife, decided to introduce birds from other areas of the world to fill the void. Of the original birds the last remaining endemics cling onto the slopes in  high mountain forests, some exist only in zoos (the unfortunate Hawaiian Crow), but most have disappeared. Seabirds still cling on in areas, mainly islands, and some waterbirds exist in the few wetlands that are left, but there's not much in accessible areas. All the vegetation in lowland Hawaii is introduced, all the trees, all the butterflies, insects, animals all introduced, if you can envision it its truly mind-blowing.
The strange thing about all these introduced birds is that I have not seen most of them before. They all seem to have originated from either North America or Asia, places I haven't really been to, so all these introduced birds are lifers for me and I treat them the same as any other. Most of the introduced birds are "pretty" birds, birds released because they have nice plumage, so as a result all the introduced birds are very distinctive and easy to tell apart.

The local MOORHENS are a unique subspecies to Hawaii

Secondly, the original, endemic bird species on Hawaii, all evolved from just a few species, but humans have introduced thousands more, which will eventually evolve into their own species in time, so you could say humanity has created entire new ecosystems. Birds from Asia rub shoulders with birds from North America, creating a melting pot of many species. This is actually a well known theory and you may want to look up some more abut this, more than I can write about.
One thing about the birds in Hawaii is that they are so tame. I mean really tame. They don't fly away from you, you could just walk over and pick up one of the many ZEBRA DOVES that just hang about. Birds just accept humans as part of the landscape.
Another thing is that though they are introduced there are lots of birds. Unlike the UK which is so habitat depleted, in Hawaii there are lots of trees, even though they are introduced, which in turn attract birds, even though they are introduced.
I hope this makes things clearer about Hawaii's very complex ecology. To really understand even a fraction would take an entire lifetime, something which I can't really dedicate, but there are others who do.
In later blogs when I write about the birds I see on the islands I will add some brackets labelling where the species has been introduced from, just a way of explaining how exotic everything is.


Thursday, 7 November 2019

Muir Woods - 14/10/2019

When people of European descent first came to the shores of the Pacific Ocean in the 1840s, the area was coated with forests of REDWOODS, the world's tallest trees. Sadly, within a generation the woods had been nearly clear-felled. It seems that the civilisation they were preaching was actually a thinly veiled complete disregard for the world they live in, an attitude for total destruction with barely a tear for its complete and utter loss.
Muir Woods is what's left, a last bastion of primordial woodland in an otherwise depleted landscape. That what's left amounts to just a pathetic 900 acres is disgraceful, but in otherways it is amazing it survived. It did survive because it was too difficult to log being stuck in a valley. Its value was discovered by some really far-sighted conservation heroes known as William and Elizabeth Kent and was named after conservation pioneer John Muir and it became a National Monument.
To walk the paths through the woods is like being in a venerable cathedral, to worship at the altar of nature. This was one of the places I wanted to visit whilst in the San Francisco area, I really wanted to see a redwood, and it made a nice contrast to the urban city.

To actually visit the site we had to take a tourist shuttle, to be driven there. Unfortunately that meant when we got to he woods we only had a fixed time there, an hour and a half, which was adequate to see the main visitor trails, but not to hike the more rougher tracks. As a result we didn't have the time to really explore the area thoroughly, but that's the only gripe I really have.
The landscape on the journey to the park was scrubby rough grassland and alien eucalyptus plantations which only enhanced how holy a place Muir Woods was. This was a really depleted landscape crying out for what has gone.

In the forest there was lots of twinkling and tittering of birds in the canopy, and if I knew the bird song of the area I would have identified a few, but the only bird I actually saw was a PACIFIC WREN. It somehow didn't matter that I didn't see any birds, this was a place I just wanted to visit.
From the shuttle bus I saw more birds, a nice RED TAILED HAWK on some electricity pylons, several STELLER'S JAYS perched on some bushes, several RAVENS and best of all, lots of TURKEY VULTURES, flying over the surrounding hills, a very atmospheric bird, really helping to frame this as a foreign and exciting land.
This was close to the top of my bucket list of the holiday and was worth the visit. Was it busy? yes. Was it difficult getting an appreciation of nature's grandeur because of that? in a way. But this is old growth woodland, as old as time, something that has almost disappeared, something otherworldly, and something genuinely alternative to our civilisation, which is something beyond any economical cost.

Tuesday, 5 November 2019

Downtown San Francisco - Sealions and Parrots

Its the skyscrapers that make it. As you get off the little metro trains and ascend the escalators you finally arrive in downtown San Francisco. Feeling dwarfed by the looming buildings you realise you really are in an amazing city. This is San Francisco, a place with everything you can dream of.
There's even nature here.

Pier 39
The main wildlife feature of the city of San Francisco is Pier 39. From downtown, moving onto the waterfront, there is a jetty which was originally built for boaters, but was soon hijacked by a herd of CALIFORNIAN SEALIONS. As most people don't want to argue with a one ton, bad-tempered sea beast they were welcome to it. So today a herd of SEALIONS bask within view of Alcatraz whilst tourists take photos of them from nearby human inhabited piers. Sealions are charismatic animals, and play up to the tourists, and are greatly entertaining. They are very much a tourist attraction of the city, in a very touristy area, helping to sell t-shirts and mugs with their image printed on them.
Around the bay area there were various birds present, with DOUBLE CRESTED CORMORANTS, roosting, as cormorants do, with outspread wings just out of human reach. CALIFORNIAN GULLS San Francisco's version of our herring gulls were as common as these birds usually are. And offshore BROWN PELICANS were common, constantly flying back and forth.

The urban setting of San Francisco is home to some very familiar species. Both HOUSE SPARROWS and STARLINGS have been introduced from the UK, by homesick settlers, and have now increased to plague numbers. Quite surprising considering how rare they've become back here in Blighty. Like our blackbirds, feeding on crumbs from the many cupcakes chomped by humans at the water side cafes, were BREWER'S BLACKBIRDS.

Perhaps the most exotic resident of downtown San Francisco are the CHERRY-HEADED CONURES. In some urban trees as twilight falls their loud chatter was quite a feature - wow, there are parrots here. Originally from Ecuador, they are so famous there is actually a feature film made about them (although I haven't seen it yet). They are as very much a feature of the city as any historical building, and are worth looking out for.

Ok, so you wouldn't come to San Francisco just to see wildlife. But the fact that the city has so much to offer makes it worth a visit. And just seeing nature somehow survive in this concrete jungle is truly inspiring.