by Catherine Hamilton
Where many people think of a vacation paradise, of white or black sand beaches, volcanoes, or tropical cocktails, a birder approaches the islands of Hawai‘i in a slightly different fashion. A vacationer might enjoy relaxing next to an azure sea, but someone in search of the island chain’s endemic bird species is going to have to work. There will be hiking, maybe climbing, sometimes over brutal sun-baked rocks, sometimes up narrow trails with considerable elevation gains. There will be much straining of one’s neck to watch tiny and bewilderingly similar-sounding greenish-yellow birds as they race through forest canopies, a straining not unlike the “warbler neck” that paralyzes many birders in North America during migration.
And there will be mud. Lots of mud.
There will also be magic, of course. Searching out the endemic honeycreepers of Hawai‘i is a breathtaking endeavor, and the rewards of seeing (and hearing!) your first ‘Akiapola‘au, with its extraordinary bill adaptations, makes you forget for a moment anything else you have ever seen or done in your life previously. The colors on the flaming orange ‘Akepa, or the brilliant scarlet of the more common but no less fascinating ‘I‘iwi are truly gawk-worthy, even to the seasoned tropical traveler. If it can be arranged (preferably at the end of your itinerary), a walk through the Hakalau Forest on the Big Island of Hawai‘i is not to be missed (more information here).
But first, some sobering reality. The islands of Hawai‘i are indubitably the extinction hotspot of North America for bird species, and likely also for the world. For some inexplicable reasons and other more grounded ones, the birds of Hawai‘i aren’t even officially “countable” for U.S. birders who list their sightings. The cold hard extinction numbers? According to the American Bird Conservancy, 95 of the 142 bird species that were once found on the islands, and nowhere else in the world, have disappeared.
That is since the first arrival of humans, though, so perhaps we can let some bygones be bygones. Today’s reality is, sadly, easily as harsh: now there are 44 remaining endemic species on all of the islands. Of these, 33 are listed under the Endangered Species Act, and then of these, 10 species have not been seen in decades and are presumed extinct (more information here).
When I went to Hawai‘i in March 2016, I went in search of a certain hope. I had a three-week itinerary that was organized and facilitated by Zugunruhe Birding Tours, and our goal was to see all of the target endemic species of the four main islands of Kaua‘i, O‘ahu, Maui, and Hawai‘i.
We had the hopes of producing some field sketches and ultimately some drawings whose proceeds could benefit conservation organizations on each of these islands.
My itinerary was an unusual mix: first, an expedition, and then helping with a guided tour for some eager participants. It was incredible. There was the private time spent backpacking up into the Alaka‘i Wilderness with an amazing group from theKaua‘i Forest Bird Recovery Project to look for ‘Akeke‘e and ‘Akikiki nests (and so many other things as well; I wish I had the space here to tell it all!).
There were moments of group awe when we got to see firsthand the efforts of Pacific Rim Conservation in their work with Laysan Albatrosses.
All in all, I saw 24 of our 25 targeted endemic species, plus, of course, so many other birds as well. The one missing heartbreaker? Maui Parrotbill, a species with fewer than 500 individuals left in the entire world, but one with enormous conservation efforts underway through the Maui Forest Birds Recovery Project.
Three weeks in Hawai‘i and not once did I lounge on a beach. In finding birds I desperately wanted to see, and also in meeting the people who are working to keep them from disappearing, I did find some of that elusive hope. My hiking shoes will never be the same color after meeting the Kaua‘i mud, and part of me is still sitting quietly up the forests of the Alaka‘i Wilderness Preserve, looking up into the ‘Ōhi‘a and ‘Olapa trees. There are some amazing success stories in conservation. We may not win all of the battles, but we sure are going to win some of them.
Catherine Hamilton grew up as a daughter of a neurobiologist and a rocket scientist. She has spent practically her entire life observing nature and her environment carefully. She had to leave her career as an art professor in New York due to an allergy to solvent-based paint. Since that time, she lives with nature, specializing in pencil drawings and landscapes, as well as illustrated field guides.